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  • Writer's pictureChris Rodgers

3 hunters, 50 officials pursue tiger under shadow of pandemic in Kerala

Updated: May 16, 2020

Ramesh Babu - Hindustan Times, Thiruvananthapuram

For almost a week now, three hunters, 50 forest and district officials and some of the residents of Thannithode, a village in central Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, are on the trail of a big cat which strayed into a human habitation and killed a rubber tapper last week.

The cat is smart.

The hunters tried to bait the tiger with a live goat, but while they were waiting for it, the tiger attacked and killed a cow elsewhere in the village.

It’s since been seen at many places around the village, attacked more cows, even goats and dogs; forest department officials have been using night vision cameras and drones, but while the tiger has been spotted several times, it has eluded all efforts to capture it.

Meanwhile, the 13,000-odd villagers of Thannithode are reeling under the impact of a double lockdown. The village is surrounded by sparse forests. The closest deep forest is at least 25 km away. And the closest tiger reserve,Periyar, is 105km away. To be sure, it isn’t strange to find a tiger outside the reserve, although it is unusual for the apex predator to come close to a human habitation. That’s more like how leopards behave.

It all began with the attack on rubber tapper Bineesh Mathew (38) on May 6 who was attacked in a rubber plantation in Thannithode when he went to tap trees. When his colleagues heard his cries , they rushed to where he was, just in time to see a tiger dragging him away. They pelted stones and yelled, and the tiger dropped him and escaped into the forest. Mathew suffered deep gashes on his throat and chest and died on the spot. Later, Pathanamthitta district collector PB Nooh issued prohibitory orders in the village, ensuring people didn’t move around.

“It is a big tiger. It could either be old or injured. The attack happened around 12 noon,” said T Mathew, another tapper, who witnessed the attack.

“We have faced threats of elephants, wild boars and other animals. But this is the first time we are facing a tiger. We really dread to allow our children outside our house,” said MS Indira, a panchyat member .

Wildlife experts said tiger attacks are very rare in Kerala which houses two tiger reserves and five wildlife sanctuaries.The state has190 tigers, according to the last tiger census in 2019.

“We are trying our best to tranquillise it and shift it to deep forests. Many top forest and veterinary department officials are camping in the area and we will try our best to capture the tiger alive. If this fails, we will shoot it,” said state forest minister K Raju, who announced a relief of ₹10 lakh to the family members of the victim.

Conservationists have asked the government to try and relocate the animal.

“Though shooting order was given by the chief wildlife warden, it will be our last option. We had set up four different cages but the animal has eluded them all. Some of the best vets and tranquilliser experts like Dr Arun Zachariah are on the job,” the minister said.

Conservationists have asked the government to try and relocate the animal. “Shooting a tiger needs special permission from the National Conservation Authority. One has to be 100% certain that the animal is a man-eater. The killing of a human being could have been accidental. It is easy to kill a big cat, but before arriving at a decision we should be sure about it. The best way forward would be to capture the tiger and relocate it,” Dr PS Esa, wildlife expert and activist, said.

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