Wildlife & Biodiversity

The hunt in Mudumalai: Missteps during 2021 tiger capture hold lessons

The successful live capture of MDT23 was a daunting task marred by missteps and challenges. By recounting the operation, I hope to inspire development of a new standard operating procedure for wildlife management

By Shekhar Niraj
Published: Saturday 18 June 2022
The tiger MDT23 was captured near Masinagudi in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve after a 21-day operation by officials from Tamil Nadu and Kerala (Photographs courtesy: Tamil Nadu forest department)

The search for the ailing MDT23, believed to be more than 12 years old, was initiated in August 2020 when it killed a woman in Singara, a tribal village in Gudalur block, Nilgiris district. Since then, the forest department kept a check on its movements through camera traps and direct sightings.

The mail tiger roamed 25 kilometres along the border shared by the Mudumalai Tiger reserve and Gudalur forest region. Images showed it was injured, likely due to territorial fights with other tigers. It also appeared to have lost its hunting ability due to advancing age.

Since MDT23 was not able to make a territory for itself, it had moved towards the forest fringe areas. From March to September 2021, the tiger killed as many as 22 cattle reared by forest dwelling communities in Mayfield and Devon estates in Gudalur forest areas and occasionally attacked people entering the peripheral forests for grazing cattle or collecting firewood.

In July, it was said to have killed a man from Mudukuzhi tribal village, and then another person from Devon two months later. Based on the reports that the animal had become dangerous to human life, on September 24, I issued a ‘hunting order’ for MDT23 under Section 11 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (WPA).

WPA defines “hunting” as capturing, immobilising or trapping the animal and specifies that wounding or killing should only occur if the animal cannot be contained, in compliance with the guidelines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and other principles. My order, issued as per WPA provision, was thus to capture MDT23 alive in a cage or under anaesthesia. But it was misinterpreted by activists and the media as a “shoot and kill” order.

As the miscommunication spread, petitions were filed with different bodies, including NTCA. On October 4, the Madras High Court admitted four cases against the order, to which the forest department filed a counter affidavit. The court’s scrutiny added to the pressure.

Coordination is key

On the field, the capture of MDT23 was difficult. Search efforts began in Devon and Mayfield estates, where the tiger was last spotted. While tracking the elusive MDT23, officers faced rough terrains, poor visibility due to thick bushes of weeds, unfavourable weather and risks to their lives. Though MDT23 was sighted on a few occasions during the initial six days of the operation near Mayfield and Devan estates, it could not be tranquilised. Soon, we heard it had moved from Gudalur towards Masinagudi forest, also on the fringe area of the tiger reserve.

By the end of the month, nearly 100 personnel had become involved in the search, including staff and anti-poaching watchers from the parts of the Gudalur area. The multiplicity of teams was bound to result in confusion.

First, no single team was in charge; everyone was directing each other. Neither had a proper control room been set up for coordination, nor was there any dynamic, day-to-day planning and documentation. On the ground, there was no serious attempt to use scientific principles and standardised norms to collect DNA samples; information was assessed on hearsay and personal judgement.

Even field kits, such as tape, markers, rope, torch, range finders or GPS devices, were not carried, let alone resources such as sniffer dogs, tranquilising guns, drones, camera traps or body armour. Teams on search trips made a lot of noise, scaring away animals. Moreover, there was no officer working with local communities or briefing the media.

An incident on October 1 brought more scrutiny on the operation. That afternoon, a cattle-grazer in Masinagudi was killed by a tiger identified as MDT23. It resulted in agitations among the local communities and politicians, with demand mounting for shooting the tiger. Given the socio-political situation, it was feared that people might poison the tiger.

A few individuals claiming themselves as sharp shooters and hunters of large carnivores had also arrived, citing recommendations of senior forest and police officials from several states. They criticised the operation after denied entry into the national park. Such was the pressure that I had to reissue my hunting order.

Trained kumki elephants and sniffer dogs were used to comb suspected areas for the tiger's presence in the forests, which were identified through camera traps and drone sorties

Stick to protocol

To ensure that the orders were not stretched to actually shoot the tiger, as was the case in separate operations to capture big cats in 2014-16, there was a need to reorganise the operation following scientific methodologies. After establishing the forest department's command, I deployed additional camera traps, high-resolution drones with thermal cameras, sniffer dog squads and three kumki elephants (trained Asian elephants) to guide us. Five-six veterinarians were on standby and a protocol was set: at 8 am each day images from camera traps were analysed and suspected areas were combed by teams and drones until 6 pm.

These measures brought us close to the tiger on two occasions. The first time, on October 4, it was near a water stream in the Singara forest, 7 km from Masinagudi. Eight days later, we received reports of a cow killed in Moyar, 10 km from Masinagudi, allegedly by MDT23. Though cameras were placed there for monitoring, no images of MDT23 were recorded on subsequent days. We scaled down the deployment of sniffer dogs as their barks were alerting the tiger.

On the evening of October 14, MDT23 was spotted as close as 5 km from Masinagudi. The team was to monitor its movements through the night. But in a bout of impatience, officers attempted to tranquilise it. This was against the order and NTCA guidelines; it risked losing track of the animal in the dark and opened officers to an attack.

On October 15, some 21 days after the operation began, MDT23 was tranquilised 3 km from the Masinagudi checkpost with the help of drones. News of the capture spread like wildfire. On the scene, even while veterinarians were examining and preparing to treat the tiger, several officers were roaming about and mediapersons and the public were trying to get a closer look.

This led to commotion and added to our detainee’s distress. I had to intervene to ensure that the capture could be documented properly and the medical samples were collected.

Eventually, MDT23 was moved to the Chamundi Wild Animals Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre in Kurgally, Mysuru, Karnataka, for treatment. As of February this year, much of its health has been restored and its aggressive behaviour is in check.

The capture of MDT23 will be remembered in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve's history. However, external pressures and scrutiny coupled with mistakes committed on the ground added to its complexities. This incident must serve as a reminder that a proper chain of command, inter- and intra-team coordination, set field protocols and due diligence are important in future such missions, both for the safety of the people involved as well as the wildlife.

Shekhar Kumar Niraj is Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Secretary of Biodiversity Board, Tamil Nadu. At the time of MDT23's capture, he was the state’s chief wildlife warden

This was first published in Down To Earth’s print edition (dated 16-30 June, 2022)

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