Army help was sought and received. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were deployed for a day to spot the tigers. They are going to be used again. Camera traps, too, have been laid. But cutting-edge technology has failed to track the two man-eating tigers of Kalagarh, a male and a female.
Infrared cameras have been placed at 50 points in a forest zone on both sides of the UP-Uttarakhand border. For all that, the man-eating tigress of Moradabad/Kalagarh, with nine human kills in 16 days, remains unidentified. So is the young male tiger of Corbett Tiger Reserve, with four human kills in Kalagarh.
No living human being has seen the tigress. She's a declared man-eater. The male has been spared that dubious distinction as he has kill six to get there. It's the female which took the war to the enemy camp. She struck at will and escaped with ease. Everywhere around, as far as the eye could see, there are only sugarcane fields in the Bijnore-Moradabad belt, the perfect hiding place for the big cat.
Then, for some reason, after her ninth kill, the young tigress turned tail and loped back to Kalagarh. Monday was the 31st day after her last strike. "Mercifully, there have been no more human kills. That's a huge relief," Rupak De, chief wildlife warden of Uttar Pradesh, told dna. "I believe she's somewhere in the border area."
There are theories on why she went off the human radar. "I believe she has had her revenge. Her cubs, two sub-adults, were caught in leg-traps laid by poachers and killed. The poachers also shot at her. This was in December 2013. She went on a human-killing spree soon after. It was a mother's revenge," says Delhi-based wildlife filmmaker and tiger expert Ajay Suri.
In January, Suri and his crew tracked the tigress for 22 days, at times arriving at her kill spots within hours of the attacks. "We would come upon blood and gore in the sugarcane fields but no sign of the tigress. We even measured a pugmark. But this one is smart, and young. Tigers turn man-eaters only if they get sick, wounded, or have aged. This one explodes that theory. She was definitely on a personal mission," says Suri.
Kalagarh-based conservationist A G Ansari has a different twist. He believes the tigress has taken her revenge and is no more a man-eater, now that she's in familiar turf, where she must have found a mate. "I think she is pregnant, so's she's gone into hiding. She will remain hidden till she delivers. She has found love," he laughs. "I think she will give birth and reform. Her man-eating days are over."
Ansari will give the benefit of doubt to the tigress because he's for conservation, and not extermination. "If the cameras identify her, she will be tranquilised and placed in a zoo. Zoos will be eager to have her because she will add to their gene pool, and in a zoo she will not be a threat to man."
Ansari's views are perhaps shared by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). Last week, NTCA member-secretary Rajesh Gopal called a meeting of wildlife wardens of UP and Uttarakhand along with Corbett officials. They decided to install cameras. A camera-trap is an infrared camera that snaps pictures the moment an animal steps in front of it.
But if another kill is laid at the tigress's door and she's identified, she might be shot dead. "She remains a declared man-eater, and the death warrant stays. We have called in hunters. We're holding back because there's a high density of tigers here. We don't want innocent tigers get shot," De told dna.
In fact, hunters with live-baits were tracking the elusive tigress soon after she was declared man-eater. A couple of them were descendants of long-retired royal families. "These trigger-happy types came with the paraphernalia and entourage, eager to make a kill. But then news reached Maneka Gandhi. Within hours, they were told to pack up," a Delhi-based conservationist told dna.
"Maybe the two of them are a team," says Suri, who differs with Ansari on one point: reforming a man-eating tiger. "Once a man-eater, always a man-eater" is how he puts it, though the male is not a declared man-eater. But while conservationists like Ansari would like the tigers spared, the mood among the general population is to go after the two. "Tag them. Cage them. Kill them" is the refrain.