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Kaziranga, Assam, June 09 : Delayed reports from the field and video replays of the attack by the tigress on the mahout Satya Pegu, tell a different story, where human lives were saved purely due to “quick thinking” by the female working elephant, Joymala.
For those who came in late, a large adult tigress, suspected to be the mother of the two cubs rescued from Tamuli Pathar village(adjoining Kaziranga) on May 16, severely mauled the mahout of an Assam forest department elephant, which was carrying rangers trying to dart her on the morning of May 19.
The 25-year-old mahout, Satya Pegu, who was badly lacerated, lost three fingers on his left hand, is in a hospital in Dibrugarh. Doctors are worried about the onset of gangrene and may have to amputate his left palm. The Wildlife Trust of India and its partner, the International Fund for Animal Welfare have offered to cover his medical expenses.
Reconstruction of events and a video taken by the divisional forest officer, R.K.Das, graphically show how Joymala pinned down the tigress with her foot as it was trying to get up and attack the officers who had fallen on the ground.
The reconstructed story goes a bit like this: the forest department received a message early on May 19th about a large tiger which had killed two cows near Tamuli Pathar village, which is close to the boundary of the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) in the north-eastern Assam state.
By 10 am a joint team of the Assam forest department including the director of the park, Mr N. K. Vasu, the local administration, police and the army, and the Wildlife Trust of India(WTI)-managed Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) was combing the area with five elephants trying to locate the animal.
“From the pugmarks, it looked like a very large female, which led us to suspect that this may be the mother of the two cubs that we had rescued and released on Monday,” Dr Bhaskar Choudhary, CWRC veterinarian, who was involved in darting the two sub-adult tigers on Sunday, said. The tigers were released late on Monday evening in the eastern part of the Agoratuli range near the Matiaranga guard hut.
“After looking around everywhere, we first spotted the tigress in a bamboo grove near the village. As it sensed our presence it moved into the backyard of a hut and then quickly walked into a nearby paddy field,” Dr Chaudhary said.
Range officer, Dharanidhar Bodo, Dr Chaudhary along with a guard were riding the elephant, Joymala, driven by Pegu. Bodo was carrying the darting gun. As the elephant moved towards the tigress, it did a mock charge. The guard fired two blanks to discourage her and she ran away into the next field, where the paddy was thick and hid there.
The team cautiously moved towards it and could get to almost 20 feet where she was growling away. Bodo could see her clearly and took a shot at it with the dart gun. The dart missed her and this enraged her so much that she charged and took a “flying” leap on to the elephant’s head. “I have not seen something as dramatic as this,” Vivek Menon, executive director WTI, who recently saw the footage, said. “I could never imagine that a tiger could so effortlessly leap from the ground on to an adult elephant’s head, which is at least 12 feet above the ground,” he said.
The footage showed that Pegu saw the tigress leaping and threw the metal ankush at it to defend himself. “The tigress saw the ankush coming, dodged it in mid-leap and took a swipe at Pegu without actually landing on the elephant, which had stepped back,” Menon said.
“It all happened in a few seconds and before we knew what both Bodo and the guard had fallen down,” Dr Choudhary narrated. What now happened was even more amazing. As the tigress landed on the ground Joymala quickly pinned her down with her left fore foot and tried to control it with its trunk. The tigress struggled under this weight for at least half a minute roaring, as other people in the vicinity shouted and fired shots in the air. In this commotion another attempt was made to dart it, but even this shot was off the mark. The tigress finally struggled loose and ran away.
“If it had not been for Joymala, both Bodo and the guard would have been badly injured or dead,” he said. Meanwhile, Joymala, which was trying to aggressively chase the tigress, was calmed by the CWRC veterinarian, who was holding on to the profusely bleeding mahout. “His fingers were hanging by few shreds of tissue and I tried to tourniquet the wounds,” he said.
The two sub-adult tigers had strayed out of the heavily wooded Agoratuli range of the KNP into the neighbouring Tamuli Pathar village close to the national highway. It was speculated that the mother could be nearby, but she could not be spotted.
KNP has one of the highest density of tigers among the protected areas in India , but are difficult to see due to the thick vegetation in this grassland dominated park.
The Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) is a joint venture of the Assam forest department and the Wildlife Trust of India, and is supported by its partner the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). This rescue and rehabilitation facility for animals of the region is a first of its kind facility in India has handled over 300 animals in the last two years including mega-herbivores like elephants, rhinos and wild buffaloes. These were the first tigers brought to the facility in two years of its existence.
File photo of the team that darted the tigers. Second from left is D.D.Boro who darted both tigers but missed the suspected mother, who later mauled the mahout.