The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers

By Raghu Chundawat

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Out of all the tigers that we studied, one really became a part of our lives; she was a tigress whom we named ‘Baavan’ (fifty-two). She was named so because her eyebrow markings resembled the numerals ‘5’ and ‘2’ (page 78).
I realized this quite late. In fact, it was during a massive search operation to locate her when her first collar had failed, that I came to know about her unique markings. Those were early days of the study in 1996, when my research student, Neel Gogate, was monitoring the radio-collared tigers. Prior to this radio-collar failure, we had lost one of our other radio-collared tigers due to suspected poisoning, so everyone was being extra careful. There was a lot of criticism in the media and naysayers were asking why we had collared a mother with three cubs. There was also a lot of tension in the air, because ours was only the second telemetry study on tigers in two decades. Our main fear was that tiger mortality would put an end to this study—as had happened to Dr Karanth’s tiger study in the 1990s.

Baavan was the second tigress we had radio-collared. We monitored her for nine months until one day we failed to receive signals from her collar. This loss of radio-signals triggered panic at the forest headquarters in Bhopal. I tried my best to calm everyone but no explanation was good enough. I ended up leaving all my teaching assignments at the WII in Dehradun to spend several weeks in Panna searching for this female.

I was convinced that the loss of signal was more likely due to a failure in the functioning of the radio-collar than anything else. We had no evidence to indicate mortality and moreover we were regularly observing tracks within her area. Fortunately, we had a very capable and cooperative field director, P.K. Chawdhry, who was also convinced by the evidence that she was alive. I enjoyed my stay in Panna but it was frustrating because the pressure from the state capital had stopped all research activity, giving way to a mad search operation.

I was convinced that the loss of signal was more likely due to a failure in the functioning of the radio-collar than anything else. We had no evidence to indicate mortality and moreover we were regularly observing tracks within her area. Fortunately, we had a very capable and cooperative field director, P.K. Chawdhry, who was also convinced by the evidence that she was alive. I enjoyed my stay in Panna but it was frustrating because the pressure from the state capital had stopped all research activity, giving way to a mad search operation.

Thus, all the drama ended and I was able to relax a bit. I hoped that this incident might build the Forest Department’s confidence in the research team and lessen the problems when seeking fresh permissions for radio-collaring. After the incident, I gathered all the photographs I had of the tigress and looked more carefully at the markings on her eyebrow. Indeed, they actually looked like a ‘5’ and ‘2’. From that day onwards, we called the lady with unique markings ‘Baavan’. We replaced her collar twice after this. Her last collar continued to transmit signals up to 2005, even though our fieldwork had ended by then.

Our association with her lasted for over nine years and much of our knowledge of tiger ecology came from observing her and her family. Through her cubs and their cubs, she contributed over twenty tigers to Panna National Park. She and her family became an integral part of our life and the years I spent watching them are some of the most treasured moments of my life. I was not a dispassionate scientist anymore. During this time we spent hours, day after day, watching her and her family, unable to think of doing anything else. Our experience and understanding of tiger life in the dry forests is nothing but the story of Baavan and her neighbours as seen through the magnifying glass of rigorous science.

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