Month: May 2012

A tiger’s pain

A tiger’s pain

I had seen a tiger in the wild only once. Deep inside the rainforests of Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) in the southern Western Ghats. It was a memorable sighting that I always treasure and proudly tell others about.

Before KMTR, the only memorable tiger sighting I had was at the rescue and rehabilitation center in Vandalur Zoo, Chennai. It was sometime in 1997, and I was there as a part of a study tour during my post-graduate course. The veterinarian at Vandalur said that the tiger had been captured from Valparai, as it was apparently involved in a conflict incident. Never in my dreams in those days had I thought that I would one day be working here in Valparai.

It is the 28th April 2012, and I am at Valparai. Ganesh called in the morning and said that there is a report of a tiger near human habitation and asked me to go and see it. A tiger?! We see leopards here in the Valparai plateau, but tigers are shy of humans and are usually seen only in the surrounding Anamalai Tiger Reserve. Nisarg had seen it there recently, much to our envy. From Ganesh’s description that the tiger was near some houses at Periyar Nagar and unable to move, I figured that it was not going to be a very pleasant sighting.

The story of the tiger went like this. The people of Periyar Nagar had been seeing the tiger near there for about two weeks. The local people said that it had preyed on a calf a couple of days before when I went there to see that tiger. The owner of that calf buried the carcass the next day. The hungry tiger obviously had to go for another one. People said that the next day while it was trying to capture another calf the cow attacked the tiger. The tiger was badly injured and unable to move, and so lay down in a kitchen garden in one of the houses in Periyar Nagar, and it was still lying there.

I went inside the small gate that leads to the kitchen garden. Some ten metres from where I was standing, I saw black stripes in a fading orange pelage. I never thought I would see a tiger that close. I stood there only for two minutes. Unable to bear the sight of the tiger in such a sad state in such a place, I came away immediately. Yet in abrief moment, I saw the tiger slowly raising its head. And I saw its eyes.

Sometimes you can figure out what people think and feel from their eyes, right? I still remember the way the tiger at Vandalur Zoo looked at the person standing outside the cage. It was full of anger.

Tiger from Valparai at Vandalur Zoo in 1997.
Tiger from Valparai at Vandalur Zoo in 1997.

I could not see the eyes of the tiger in the KMTR rainforest: it was just going away from us. But in the tiger lying in the kitchen garden of Periyar Nagar, I could see its eyes. I didn’t not see any anger, but there was something—something intangible that I was unable to fathom.

Unfathomable eyes Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan
Unfathomable eyes. Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan

It was lying there throughout the day waiting for the veterinarian to come here all the way from Mudumalai to tranquilize it. The plan was to treat the wounds so that the Forest Department officials can translocate it away from the human habitation. The action started as soon as he got reached. After an attempt to catch it with nets that failed because of the obstruction and vegetation, it was decided to tranquilise the animal. The veterinarian darted the tiger on its thigh but the tiger leaned back, bit the syringe and pulled it off from its body. The second dart went in and it worked: the tiger went down. In the meantime, it continued to rain heavily. Despite the rain, local people stayed to see the tiger. The local Forest Department officials and policemen did a commendable job in controlling the crowd. By not letting people near the tiger, the veterinarian and other Forest Department staff could carry out their work without any hassle. The veterinarian disclosed that it was a male tiger and estimated that it was around ten years old. It was around 7:45 p.m., when the tiger was caged and taken to the Manamboly Forest Camp, inside the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. The tiger survived overnight and was given medical attention by the veterinarian who stayed with the animal. Still, the next morning we came to know that he had passed away.

When we reached Manamboly at around 11 a.m., the Nadu Forest Department staff had already laid him on the ground. He was massive. His rasping tongue was out, eyes gone inside the socket. He had pus-covered injuries around the sharp claws, and his huge canines were worn out. He was dead, yet he looked so majestic. The veterinarian, Dr. Kalaivanan, the Manamboly Range Officer Mr. Arokiaraj Xavier and several of his staff were ready to start the post-mortem. We were waiting for the local press reporters to arrive. Once they reached, the photographic session started. The tiger was surrounded by several people who were posing for the photograph.

Memorable moment for Anti-poaching watchers especially for Murali (with gloves) and Bhuto (sitting in white shirt): Photo Ganesh Raghunathan
Memorable moment for Anti-poaching watchers especially for Murali (with gloves) and Bhuto (sitting in white shirt). Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan

Just before that photographic session Mr. Bhuto (a famous anti-poaching watcher of Manamboly Range, although sometimes people call him Bhutan as well, and we do not know how he get his name(s)), and Mr. Murali (another anti-poaching watcher) were sitting next to him and touching the tiger. Mr. Bhuto starting counting how many stripes are there in the tigers body, including the tail to tell others triumphantly that he had counted all the stripes. Mr. Murali touched the tiger’s canine and the sharp claws, his eyes wide open in amazement. It was fascinating to watch how they clearly admired the tiger.

Then came the time for the knives and scalpels. First, they rolled the tiger sideways so that the head was up. Two anti-poaching watchers were doing the job, one of whom was Murali. The veterinarian gave instructions on how and where to cut. First the rib cage was cut open and split apart, and the veterinarian examined the internal organs.

There was a surprise in store when the pericardium was opened to examine the heart of the tiger. Pierced into the heart, like little daggers, were two porcupine quills.

Porcupine quilled Tiger heart. Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan
Porcupine quilled Tiger heart. Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan

The veterinarian said the tiger had preyed on a porcupine and accidentally ingested the quills that had found its way inside the body to pierce into its heart. In the tiger’s stomach there was nothing except a half foot long thin quill. He said the tiger might have preyed on this porcupine a month ago.  The lungs had worms. The kidneys were pale and also seemed to be not functioning properly.

I remembered again the look in the eyes of this tiger when I first saw it in Periyar Nagar. It could have been pain. Sheer pain.

The poor old tiger had been suffering from multiple-organ dysfunction. It was the prey that had killed the predator; in fact, they had killed each other. But this was not how the newspapers told the story. The headlines said, ‘Tiger loses fight to cow in Valparai‘ and ‘Tiger attacked by cow dies’. What a disgrace for a tiger! A Tamil newspaper Dinamalar said that this tiger had killed more than ten cattle. With the quills pierced in his heart, how could he hunt? The cattle may have possibly hurt the tiger but definitely were not responsible for killing the tiger. I wish reporters verified the facts before they publish the news. It may be catchy to give such titles but wasn’t that a humiliation for the tiger? Besides the misinformation conveyed by the headline, there is the issue of insensitivity. Do we disgrace people after they die? That tiger must have been a dignified living being when it was alive. I do not think that it deserved such statements after its demise.

Those were the thoughts when I saw the newspapers the next day. But during the post-mortem there were some touching and humane moments. When the veterinarian was instructing the forest watchers about the post-mortem, one of the wildlife experts quipped, “if you learn these techniques it will be useful later. In case if there is another tiger death, you won’t need a Veterinarian”. Murali who was helping in collecting samples said promptly, “We do not want to see another tiger dead in this place. Already, they are dwindling in numbers”.

The post-mortem has been carried out as per the National Tiger Conservation Authority guidelines. The tiger was also required to be burned as per the guidelines. A pile of wood had been stacked, the tiger lifted and placed on the stack. It was overcast and Mr. Xavier was hurrying everyone to finish before the rain. More logs and billets were placed on top. Kerosene was sprinkled. The fire was about to be lit. Then, Bhuto came rushing and removed the logs covering the face of the tiger: there were some rituals to perform he said. He brought salt, a cup of milk, and a pack of turmeric powder. He asked three people to pour milk in the tiger’s mouth. He threw rock salt over the logs and sprinkled turmeric powder. Then he asked Mr. Xavier to light the match. Mr. Xavier said, “We should have got a garland, I forgot to do that, it never struck me”.

I am not a great fan of rituals but I returned home and took bath. Isn’t it a custom to take bath after attending any funeral?

Cremation as per the tradition. Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan
Cremation as per the tradition. Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan
The pigeon’s passengers

The pigeon’s passengers

There is a modesty in their conquest of mountains. From the heights, they commandeer vistas of rugged mountains covered in forest or countryside dotted with great trees. From tall trees on high ridges, they scan the landscape, their heads turning on long and graceful necks. They have scaled peaks, even surpassed them. Yet, they speak only in soft and hushed tones that resonate among stately trees. For the imperial pigeons are a dignified lot, keeping the company of great trees.

Down in the valley, the pigeon’s voice throbs through dense rainforest: a deep hu, hoo-uk, hoo-uk, repeated after long pauses, like the hoots of an owl. In the dawn chorus of birdsong, it sounds like a sedate basso profundo trying to slow the tempo of barbets and calm the errant flutes and violins of babblers and thrushes. The calling pigeon, in a flock with others, is in a low symplocos tree whose branches shine with dark green leaves and purple-blue fruit. They are busy picking and swallowing the ripe fruits, each with fleshy pulp around a single stony seed.

These large birds, neatly plumaged in formal greys and pastel browns, are Mountain Imperial Pigeons—a species found in the rainforests of the Western Ghats and the Himalaya in India.

Mountain Imperial Pigeon (Ducula badia) in a rainforest in north-east India. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)
Mountain Imperial Pigeon (Ducula badia) in a rainforest in north-east India. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)

In more open forests and on grand banyan and other fig trees along the roads through the countryside, one can see their cousins, the Green Imperial Pigeons shaded in more verdant sheen.

Green Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea) on a fruiting fig tree. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)
Green Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea) on a fruiting fig tree. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)

As a group, the imperial pigeons have a penchant for fruit that necessitates roaming wide areas in search of food. Weeks may pass in a patch of forest with no sign of pigeons, but when the wild fruits ripen, the nomadic flocks descend from distant sites and the forest resonates with their calls again.

The transporter

Like other birds such as hornbills and barbets in these forests, imperial pigeons eat fruits ranging from small berries to large drupes, including wild nutmegs and laurels and elaeocarps (rudraksh). Yet, the pigeon’s bill is small and delicate in comparison with the hornbill’s horny casque or the barbet’s stout beak, which seem more suited to handling large fruits with big stony seeds. The imperial pigeon’s solution to this problem is a cleverly articulated lower beak and extensible gape and gullet that can stretch to swallow the entire fruit and seed.

Lured by the package of pulpy richness in fruit, the pigeon then becomes a transporter of seed. Many seeds are dropped in the vicinity of the mother tree itself, scattered around with seeds from rotting fruit fallen on the earth below. The concentrated stockpile of seeds below elaeocarp and nutmeg trees are attacked by rodents and beetles, leaving little hope for survival and germination. But when the pigeon takes wing, some seeds go with the pigeon as passengers on a vital journey, travelling metres to miles into the surrounding landscape. Voided eventually by the pigeon, the dispersed seeds have an altogether greater prospect of escape from gnawing rat and boring beetle and—when directly or fortuitously dropped onto a suitable spot—of germination. By carrying and literally dropping off their passengers where some establish as seedlings and grow into trees, the pigeons become both current consumers and future producers of fruit.

Still, it is the quiet achievement of the trees that seems more impressive. Rooted to a spot, the trees have enticed the pigeons to move their seeds for them. Deep in the forest, one discovers a seedling where no trees of that kind stand nearby, bringing a rare pleasure like an unexpected meeting with an old friend. The pigeons are plied with fruit and played by the trees. The modest conquest of the mountains by the pigeons is trumped by the subtler conquest of the pigeons by the immobile trees.

Peril of extinction

In speaking of the pigeon’s passengers, one recalls with misgiving the fate of Passenger Pigeons. The Passenger Pigeon was once found in astounding abundance across North America in flocks numbering tens of millions—flocks so huge that their migratory flights would darken the skies for days on end. Yet, even this species was exterminated by unmitigated slaughter under the guns of hunters and by the collection—during their enormous nesting congregations—of chicks (squabs) by the truck-load. Within a few decades, the great flocks and society of Passenger Pigeons were decimated in vast landscapes transformed by axe and plough, plunder and profiteering. By 1914, the species—at the time perhaps one of the most abundant land bird species in the world—had been reduced to a single captive female. The last known Passenger Pigeon, Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914, closing the page on another wonderful species, in another sorry chapter of human history on Earth.

Our pigeons are more fortunate, but in many areas they, too, are dying a slow death. Some fall to the bullets of hunters who take strange pride in their dubious sport or skill. Some roam large areas of once-continuous rainforest, which now have only scattered fragments. The mountain imperial pigeons are still seen winging across in powerful flight from one remnant to another, over monoculture plantations and stagnant reservoirs. Their forays are getting longer, and their journeys often end fruitless. Our countryside, too, is becoming bereft of their green cousins, as grand banyans and other fruit trees vanish along our widening roads, and diverse forests of native trees are replaced by miserable Australian acacias and eucalyptus, if they are replaced at all. As their homes are whittled away, the hornbills, barbets, and other pigeons vanish silently. With them vanish subtle splendours and prospects of regeneration. On the roads, the vehicles speed along on their wheels of progress, carrying passengers of a different kind, barely aware of the majesty and opportunity for renewal left behind.

From the valley, the imperial pigeons take wing and—in a minute—fly high and swift over the mountain to distant rainforest. There, sometime in the future, new seedlings will perhaps still emerge in a silent testimony. A testimony that one can forever fly high and strong if one only consumes what one also regenerates in perpetuity.

This article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 6 May 2012, and in the In School edition on 9 May 2012.