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Cover Story

Saving Kodomtola Rani

Nazneen Ahmed
Photos: Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh

February 19, 2011
Perched on the roof top of the wooden boat, Chaprakhali Rani, a team of men and women stood in the dark, chilly night waiting for their other team-mates to arrive with a guest. This was no ordinary guest. At exactly 1.40 am the Bangladesh Forest Department together with other members of the Sundarbans Tiger Project had anesthetised a Royal Bengal tiger in a village in order to release it back into its forest home, rescued from being beaten to death in the village. The incident happened at Harinagar village of Shyamnagar Upazila in Satkhira district.

Suddenly, the team received a phone call from Abu Naser Hossain, Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF) of Forest Department: “Operation successful! Start the boat!”

The tigress recovers in the comfort of the cool spacious cabin. Her right eye is injured – villagers beat her before she could be rescued.

The team that had anesthetised the tigress, carried her swiftly back to the boat while the support team – comprising members from village tiger response teams – was trying to control the curious crowd who was there even at that late hour of the night. The moment they lay the tigress inside the boat's cabin, the boat pushed back from the mud and motored towards the forest. The tigress lay safely inside the cabin, rescued from a certain death inside the village.

The Sundarbans Tiger Project had been conducting its biennial tiger population survey led by ACF Naser. On the night of February 19, the team was camped at Dubeki guard post, a two-hour boat drive into the Sundarbans. At around 10.30 pm, they were preparing to go to bed when ACF Naser received a phone call from Alam Howlader, another member of the Sundarbans Tiger Project team, who was in the villages along the north eastern boundary of the forest. Alam told Naser that there was a tiger in the village and angry villagers had hit Osman Goni, one of the tiger response team members, while he was trying to prevent them from beating the tiger. This was not good news. Uncertainty and dread gripped the team. Unsure of what the angry mob would do to them, they, nevertheless, decided to rush to the spot to try to save the tiger.

The Sundarbans Tiger Project team returning to the boat with the immobilised tigress.

Usually if a tiger enters a village at the edge of the forest, the local community Village Tiger Response Teams (VTRT), scare it back to the forest. There are 29 of these teams stationed along the boundary of the Sundarbans. They have been formed and trained by the Sundarbans Tiger Project which is a joint initiative of the Forest Department, Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh, Zoological Society of London and University of Minnesota. If the tiger has travelled into the middle of the village then it becomes very difficult to drive it through the village and back to the forest without people being injured or the tiger being killed. In this case, if the tiger is to have any chance of survival, then it needs to be immobilised so it can be safely moved from the site back to the forest. However, any immobilisation team first needs to face the villagers; if the mob is too large and dangerous then the team cannot enter the scene for fear of incurring injury - not from the tiger, but from the angry crowd.

The villagers who had initially seen this tiger had informed the VTRT, which followed agreed procedure and alerted the core tiger team via the Tiger Hotline. Osman Goni received the call and promptly relayed the news to Alam and onto ACF Naser.

Aboard the boat, performing a health check on the tigress.

The survey team had formed three plans on their way to Harinagar. The first and second plans were dependent upon the crowd; in the first instance, if the crowd was too dangerous then the team would have no chance but to leave the location for their own safety. If the crowd could be convinced to support the team, then the brave team would embark on the second plan of locating and anaesthetising the tiger. If in the third, worst case scenario the tiger had already been killed by the villagers, the team would try to take away the dead body from the angry villagers as soon as possible for inspection and burial as per Forest Department procedures.

It was around 12.45 am on February 20 when the team approached Harinagar. They phoned ahead and found to their great relief that the tiger was still alive. So the team's thoughts turned with great trepidation towards the crowd. This crowd had already hit one of the team members, so the team did not know what to expect: Would the crowd allow them to enter to save the tiger?

The team makes final preparations for the release of the tigress. The clothes are used to direct her exit from the boat.

They were quite surprised by what they saw. There were not hundreds of angry, aggressive people as was usual happen in such situations. Instead there were about 40 to 50 men, probably because it was late at night and also because the police and BDR had already done a good job of controlling the mob. However, the remaining crowd were still armed with sticks and the mood was tense. Some of these angry men had previously tried to approach the tiger to beat her, injuring her right eye, and in return three of them had suffered minor injuries.

ACF Naser, supported by Dr Adam Barlow and Mijanur Rahman who are also experienced members of the Sundarbans Tiger Project, got down from the boat. They lit up their own faces with torches so that villagers could see them while they explained their plan to the crowd. This was a nervous moment. Some members of the crowd started shouting and for a moment the fate of the situation hung in the balance. However, the villagers finally agreed to support the team by allowing them to enter their village to find the tiger. By this time Naser had already taken permission from the Forest Department authorities to anaesthetise the tiger, and fortunately the nearby Kodomtola Forest Department Station office had full immobilisation equipment at hand.

Now that the crowd was on its side, the team's attention turned back to the tiger. They had to find a wild tiger in a village in the dark. This tiger was most likely angry and scared after being hit by the villagers and could lash out at any moment. The team members were risking their own lives, but their love for the animal gave them the courage they needed. It was pitch-dark, and mist was hanging in the air. The tiger team slowly tiptoed through the village. They were split into two groups: a six-member immobilisation team and a ten-member strong team in place to protect the immobilisation team from both the crowd and the tiger should the worst happen. The team strained their eyes and ears for any sight or sound of the big cat. Suddenly flashing his light to one side, Alam spotted the reflection of large, feline eyes staring at his direction. The Bengal tiger, a female, was 40 metres away crouching under a gourd patch. The immobilisation team had to get within 20 metres to use the dart gun to deliver the anaesthetic, so they crept slowly toward the tigress, their hearts racing.

Fast Facts (Source: National Geographic)

* Type: Mammal
* Diet: Carnivore
* Average life span in the wild: 8 to 10 years
* Size: Head and body, 5 to 6 ft (1.5 to 1.8 m); tail, 2 to 3 ft (0.6 to 0.9 m)
* Weight: 240 to 500 lbs (109 to 227 kg)
* Protection status: Endangered
* Did you know?
A tiger's roar can be heard as far as 2 miles (3 km) away.

Royal Bengal Tigers in Bangladesh:

* Bengal tigers used to roam all over Bangladesh years ago. But now their habitat
is limited within the Sundarbans.

* The last tiger outside the Sundarbans was shot in the Bhawal-Madhupur in the forties.

* Recent census of tigers (2004) estimated the existence of 440 tigers including 298 female, 121 males and 21 cubs in the Sundarban.

* Officials say about 20 Bangladeshis are killed by tigers every year.

* Four people are killed every three days in tiger attacks in the Sundarbans.

* Six tigers were killed between 1999-2010 by the villagers in the Sundarbans.

(Source: Sundarbans Forest Division)

* Tigers (Panthera tigris) are the largest member of the cat family

* There were eight tiger subspecies at one time, but three became extinct during the 20th century.

* Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), sometimes called the Indian Tiger, is one of the five remaining tiger sub-species: the Siberians, the Indo-Chinese, the Sumatran, the South Chinese and the Royal Bengal Tiger.

* Royal Bengal Tigers are the most common tiger and number about half of all wild tigers. Point to be noted here is that all the five subspecies of tiger are on the verge of extinction.

* A hungry tiger can eat as much as 60 pounds (27 kilograms) of meat in one night.

* Females give birth to litters of two to six cubs, which they raise with little or no help from the male.

Finally, once they were within range, a mere 20 metres away, the tiger was darted. The rule is to dart large carnivores either on their front or hind legs because these are the most muscular points of their bodies. But the tigress was not sitting sideways, so the team had to show patience until she shifted her position. Finally, her right front leg was aimed and darted. Feeling the sudden prick she stood up and walked off, a normal reaction. It takes two to six minutes for the anaesthesia to work, so the team now had to undertake the risky exercise of searching for her for a second time. Again they didn't know what state they would find her in - there was no way of knowing if the tigress had shaken the syringe off her body and thus whether the medicine had fully worked or not. As they turned a corner, they saw the tigress lying on the ground. The medicine had worked.

It was then that the team back on the boat received a phone call from ACF Naser and prepared the cabin for the royal guest. The first phase of the operation was successful. The tigress had been saved from sure death in the village. The next challenge lay in translocating the tigress; selecting the right spot, getting her to that location safely, and then releasing her without risking the lives of the team.

The team poured over the tigress, monitoring her health: taking temperature, heart rate, and covering her eyes because anesthetised animals keep their eyes open and if they are not covered, straight light can damage their retina. As per procedure, they pulled her tongue out to one side so that it didn't block her air passage. She measured 240 cm from nose to tail and weighed approximately 80 kg. Judging by the condition of her teeth the team understood that she was around 12 years old. She had moderate cuts on her right cheek and over her right eye from the injury she had received from the villagers.

At about 5 am in the morning she started showing signs of recovering – twitching whiskers, ears and moving legs. Some members of the team hadn't seen an anesthetised tiger before and seeing these movements they shot out of the cabin fearing that the tigress would jump on them. They didn't realise that this was normal behaviour and that she wasn't yet ready to come to her feet. Gradually she started moving different parts of her body. All this time the team encouraged her to get up – making light noise with a stick and cheering at her “Come on Rani, get up! Good girl wake up!” The team had named her Kodomtola Rani, Kodomtola after the nearest guard post, and Rani because she was a female. Slowly, Kodomtola Rani started raising her head and took in the surroundings, the wooden cabin of the boat and strange creatures outside making all that noise. The cool, wooden cabin was the perfect place for her recovery. In contrast to a more restrictive mode of transport such as a cage, the boat provided a cool and spacious location for her recovery. With space to stretch and move around, she was very relaxed and even spent time grooming herself. Once recovered, she began to thoroughly explore her temporary home. She sniffed at a packet of puffed rice (which concerned Naser because that was his lunch), dug her teeth into a mattress, chewed a handle of Naser's suitcase (which would serve as a memory) and jumped up on the beds, enjoying their softness. Apparently she seemed to like the room; however, finding no toilets for her, she preferred to release the pressure on one of our mattresses.

Clearing a path in the jungle so the team can monitor the tigress's release into the forest.

Now was the right time to offer her some food and water. The team gave her the four chickens they had on the boat and a bowl of water, which she welcomed all too eagerly. The blue bowl appealed to her too and she played with it for a while, treating it like a ball while her human well-wishers enjoyed her playfulness by peeping through a narrow slit in the cabin door. Then with a contented stomach, she decided to take a nap.

Meanwhile activities were going on to prepare for her release. The team spent a long time looking for a good spot for her release which proved to be difficult because it was spring tide in the Sundarbans, meaning many parts of the forest are well under water at high tide. However, they finally found a perfect spot and a few members leapt down onto the muddy bank to clear a path for her into the forest so that they could monitor her safe departure. Next they had to ensure she left the boat in the direction of the forest, so she had to be shown the way. They did this by drawing curtains along the two sides of the boat from the cabin door and by stationing the accompanying three sampans around the main boat. It was 10.25pm and everything was finally ready. It was now time to wake the tigress up from her nap.

The tigress’s pugmark in Kodomtala village.

The team held their breath from behind the curtains. Kodomtola Rani stepped out of the boat and stood on the small deck, breathing the fresh whiff of the forest. She tried to look through the dark, unsure whether to leave the comforts of the boat and venture into the wild or not. Her age-old attachment with the wild finally won. The team shone their torches to show her the way onto the bank, and stood silently, watching her from the roof top.

The moon was out in full. A myriad of stars had lit the sky above while fire flies twinkled in the dark mangrove below. A cold breeze was blowing and silence reigned. Kodomtola Rani jumped from the boat on the muddy bank and disappeared into the vast green expanse beyond.

The team cheered for their brave efforts had been successful. All of their months and years of hard, dedicated efforts and training had led to this moment - their first success in saving a stray tiger's life and returning her to her natural home. Tigers have been killed in villages in Bangladesh for hundreds of years, but finally it is changing for the better. This mixed team of government, village, and NGO staff, from both Bangladesh and abroad, worked together to solve this tough problem. Next time things will be different, but at least we now have a team with a good chance of saving more tigers for our country.

The author is programme officer, communication and education of the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh.

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