IIn early 2020, as world leaders called for social distancing to control the spread of COVID-19, 4-year-old Sharmili isolated himself in a former abandoned rubber factory in the town of Bareilly, Uttar. Pradesh. Spread over 1,200 hectares, the dilapidated factory was covered in dense vegetation, and the nearest human settlement was less than a kilometer away.
Within the labyrinth of trees, bushes and vines, Sharmili found her refuge with sufficient food, water and, most importantly, untouched territory. The factory was also home to species of wild animals like blackbucks, wild boars, Nilgai, wild pigs, etc.
If you are wondering why Sharmili was content to be alone, now is the time to reveal that this is a tigress who came from Kishanpur shrine in Lakhimpur Kheri district last year while crossing expanses of fields. of sugar cane and mustard.
This was neither the first time that a feline entered the factory located on disputed land nor the last, unless a decision was made on the status of the factory, and the rescue operations. are the only way to avoid human-animal conflicts.
After several attempts, Sharmili was rescued on June 19, 2021 and released in Dudhwa National Park. However, it was unlike any other rescue operation, as the tigress carefully hid in plain sight and was also not noticed by the camera trap.
However, Dr Mayukh Chatterjee, Division Manager, Human-Wildlife Conflict Mitigation at the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), said: “Capturing a wild cat is not the tricky part, it’s is tracking. “
Mayukh had rescued a tiger from the plant in 2018 and said, “Identifying the tiger spot in a large area like the plant is a challenge in itself. It has a complex topography without anyone knowing where the canals, roots, shrubs begin or end. Although I know every inch of the area now, it was still difficult to save Sharmili. She disappeared like a ghost despite the many cameras. In 2018, I remember telling officials “phir milenge (we will meet again)” because this place was and still is a godsend for wild animals. Humans underestimate tigers who can hear their prey’s calls for up to 100 kilometers, so Sharmili’s entry was not surprising.
Camera and pug tags are important ways to find tigers. However, the surface of the plant was very different because there was no soil.
Also, when they found out that the tigress could stand upright in a tank, the problem was identifying which of the many tanks?
The rescue operation was carried out by experts from the Wildlife Trust of India and officials from the forestry department of Bareilly and Pilibhit.
On World Tiger Day, The Better India talks to Sushant Soma, field worker (biologist) from the Terai Tiger Project, who traveled to Bareilly and led the Sharmili rescue operation during 20 days.
Sushant joined WTI in 2018 and since then has participated in several rescue operations.
Speaking about his experience with this rescue last year, he said: “I had just recovered from the coronavirus but didn’t want to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Even though I had been informed in advance of the state of the factory, my first impression on the ground was totally different. I reached the area on May 17, 2021, scanned old camera traps for movement patterns and deployed my new camera trap, ”says Sushant.
Sharmili’s patterns of movement and behavior were completely different.
He placed 24 pads of dirt in various places to capture the pug marks and covered the area with netting to protect the tigress and the villagers from each other.
“We recorded his pug marks from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., then from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Several days have passed by observing its movement, its timing, its preys, its resting places. The thrill and anticipation of finding new leads and clues on a daily basis kept us going. For example, in several videos, her back was wet, which meant that she lived in a compact area with water.
The team eventually established a pattern based on where they started and ended their day. It was near a cluster of rusty old tankers amid dense brushwood vegetation. The prey area and the monkey calls confirmed the same.
“After locating its location, we set up a net on one side to block its path, ensuring there was only one way to enter the tank. We deployed more cameras there and the next day the camera captured its passage. However, the most interesting confirmation came from the alarm cries of a troop of rhesus macaques, whose ability to recognize predators is impeccable, ”says Sushant.
The next task was to identify which tank housed Sharmili among the five to six tanks in the factory. The team examined each tank and their circular inlets one and a half feet wide at a height of 5 to 6 feet. The openings of all the tanks were covered with cobwebs except one, which also had trails of tiger hair.
Sushant informed Dr Mayukh, who was providing technical expertise from Delhi.
“My biggest learning in the 2018 operation was to think like a tigress. They are the most vulnerable at rest and always choose a safe place. So our team looked for signs where the nocturnal animal’s movement ended in the morning and arrived at a specific location. Based on the cobwebs and hair around the edges, I told them it was safe to set the camera trap around. On the morning of June 17, Sharmili was filmed walking towards this tank in front of the camera. The team did not disturb its movements and carried out the rescue operation the next day, ”explains Dr Mayukh.
The next morning, the team reached the location at 4.30am and checked the camera which showed Sharmili entering the reservoir without exiting. In total silence, the team set up nets and a cage to block the entrance. However, she did not get out of the tank so their effort was wasted. A day later, Dr Daksh Gangwar, a former member of the WTI team, now a veterinarian with the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, calmed her down and abducted her with an earth moving machine. She was released to safety in Dudhwa Tiger Reserve the same day.
Change the operating mode
Over the past two years, WTI has moved from traditional operating protocols to focusing on resolving human-animal conflicts without rescue operations.
“Almost 50-60% of our conflict resolution cases over the past five years have been resolved without capturing wildlife. We do this by changing people’s perceptions through awareness. Humans enter their personal spaces which lead to accidental encounters. Simple things like getting out of the way, not defecating openly at night, not chopping down forests, can go a long way, ”says Dr Mayukh.
Echoing her post, Sushant adds that we have to coexist with animals. He says, “In my rescue experience, I have observed that tigers adapt quickly to their environment, as in the case of Sharmili. The struggle for resources like land and forests must end without always capturing or moving animals. “
Images are from the Wildlife Trust of India
Edited by Yoshita Rao