A young male tiger set off on an exploratory walkabout in northwestern India about two years ago. Approaching adulthood, he needed to find his own turf—increasingly difficult in his natal Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, where some 34 other Bengal tigers live.
The wildlife officers in charge of the 318-square-mile reserve knew the big cat was on the move and tracked his prints and the claw marks he left on trees until he left Ratapani, in December 2017.
They don’t know what clues to new lands he followed as he traversed the landscape beyond the sanctuary’s forests, but ultimately his epic 186-mile journey (one of the longest recorded tiger treks) brought him to the neighboring Gujarat state, where tigers went extinct nearly 30 years ago.
Along the way, he likely stuck to forest patches, where he could hunt wild pigs and nilgai, the largest Asian antelope, says Prakriti Srivastava, an Indian Forest Service officer and country director with the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society-India, in Karnataka.
In Gujarat, the striped predator entered a more human-dominated landscape, but still he managed to avoid detection, probably by resting in dense cover during the day and moving only at night. (Read the true story of Machli, the world's most famous tiger.)
Then early in February, a schoolteacher spotted the tiger crossing a road, snapped a photo with his mobile phone, and shared the image. Instantly, the news went viral in this part of India, and the state’s forest department launched an intensive cat hunt.
Staff placed video camera traps in the area and engaged trackers to look for the tiger. They noted his pugmarks in the mud and claw marks on trees near where the teacher took the photo.
The last time anyone saw a tiger in Gujarat was in 1992—tigers there having been heavily hunted and poached for their skins and body parts, which may have been sold in China. So state wildlife officials were in a celebratory mood, pleased that Gujarat—famed for its Gir National Park, the last enclave of Asiatic lions and leopards—had become the only state in India with “the lion, tiger, and leopard,” as Akshay Saxena, the principal chief conservator of forest wildlife for Gujarat, told a reporter with The Times of India.
News of the tiger’s arrival stirred hopes that he would continue his westward trek and eventually reach Gir’s safe haven about 300 miles away. How he would react once he encountered some of the nearly 600 Gir forest lions and leopards was uncertain.
“It all depends on the prey,” says Tara Pirie, a zoologist and big cat expert at the University of Reading, in the U.K., who has studied tigers in Sumatra. “If there are sufficient prey, then they should manage to coexist,” even if sharing a relatively small area.
Gir Forest National Park encompasses 550 square miles of deciduous forests of teak, acacia, and banyan trees, some scrub jungle, and large patches of grassland. “It is suitable habitat for tigers and has Sambar deer, nilgai, wild boar,” Pirie says, as well as other animals that tigers and Asiatic lions hunt. Leopards, she notes, generally take small-to-medium-size prey, such as Axis deer. (Read more about Asia's lions, which live in one last place on Earth.)
Lions and tigers used to coexist across many parts of India, as well as in western and Central Asia—usually in different habitats—until the end of the 1800s. By then, hunting and poaching had driven most populations to extinction. The animals also suffered from the loss of prey and habitat as farming, timber harvests, new roads, and settlements—and a growing human population—shrank their forest homes.
'This Is Our Tiger'
After further studying the video of the tiger, B S Annigiri, the chief conservator of forests in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, told the Times of India that the tiger was actually well known to the staff at Ratapani.
U. Prakasam, Madhya Pradesh’s principal chief conservator of forests, urged his counterparts in Gujarat to protect the cat and keep tabs on his movements. Discussions even began about how to protect the tiger’s trail between the two states in hopes that a female might follow and a new population emerge. (Related: "India's Tigers May Be Rebounding, in Rare Success for Endangered Species.")
But all the rejoicing and speculation came to an abrupt end when, only two weeks after the teacher took the picture, the tiger’s carcass was found in Mahisagar forest, about six miles from where the forest department captured his image on a camera trap. His body lay on a slight incline, and some thought he’d fallen victim to a poacher.
The initial exam indicated that this was unlikely, since “no physical injury was noticed on the tiger,” S K Srivastava, the chief conservator of forests in the Vadodara area of Gujarat, told The India Tribune. “Also, all 18 claws, four canine teeth, genital organ and skin were found to be intact.”
A tiger is carried by Burmese villagers in 1922 after it was killed following an attack on their village. Tiger numbers have dropped from about 100,000 in 1900 to fewer than 4,000 today.
It seemed more likely that the tiger had been poisoned. After all, the cat had attempted to attack a herd of cows a day after the camera trap recorded him, but people chased him away with shouts and cries, according to The Times of India.
To determine if the tiger had indeed been poisoned, veterinarians collected samples from his carcass for analysis. But the lab results and a necropsy revealed a different cause: The tiger had simply died from starvation—his effort to catch a cow may have been his last attempt at a meal.
Following the protocol of India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority, the carcass was burned, ensuring that the remains would not be sold.
While news of the tiger’s sad and unexpected end disappointed tiger watchers in India and elsewhere, wildlife officials still take heart—and hope—from his heroic journey. (See tigers at these Indian national parks.)
Other tigers may also disperse from Ratapani if they find the territory too crowded, and there’s good forest cover for them to do so to the south and northeast, where they’re more likely to find suitable prey, as well as a home in Panna Tiger Reserve, Prakriti Srivastava says.
This tiger may have found enough to eat early in his travels, but his trek took him from the safety of the forest into largely human-dominated areas. For the few weeks he lived in Gujarat, he worried people who tended cows and inspired those who hoped once again to see tigers, lions, and leopards sharing a forest. It was not to be—at least, not this time.