Panna National Park has had a short but checkered history. From a rocky, barren, wasteland in 1981 to the “Tigers of the Emerald Forests” of BBC in 1996, tigerless in 2009 and again teaming with tigers in 2014, the park has seen it all. Inside this larger tale are embedded hundreds of small, forgotten, tales which have created the history we all know and read. These tales are reflections of the times these parks have gone through and have important lessons for the future. Here’s one such tale.
It was the summer of 1986, and very hot. I had spent 3 years as the first Director of Panna National Park by then and Panna had made some name for its recovery from centuries of human ravages. We had very meager resources but still seemed to be in control of the situation as we hardly ever had any major poaching incidence, and the results were evident. Managing a National Park was as new to my staff as it was to me, still a rookie forester, and they plunged into this new job with complete abandon, patrolling the dacoit-ridden National Park day and night. We had started hearing, perhaps imagining, conversations that poaching was virtually impossible in this park when our pride was shattered by a report that a tiger had been seen caught in a gin (spring) trap laid by poachers. I reached the spot, by sunset, near a village named Harsa, praying that the location be outside the Panna National Park, so that our pride in the National park may stay intact. Incidentally, it was but only a few hundred meters outside the Panna National Park boundary. Some relief!
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The news of the tiger stuck in the trap had already gone viral and a big crowd was already gawking, shouting and gesticulating at the poor tiger when I arrived at the scene and the local staff was having a tough time keeping the crowd under control. I inspected the animal - tiger under the jeep headlights. A young tiger had the toes of its right rear foot caught in the trap which was firmly tethered to a nearby tree. As we closed in for a better look, it pounced towards us with an ear-shattering roar and strained madly at the chains tying it to the tree. It had been doing the same the whole day as hundreds of shouting and laughing people jostled for closer looks. It was in excruciating pain as the toes had fractured and his struggles to get out of the trap, and keeping the crowds at bay, were further damaging his foot. As only the toes were caught in the trap, it seemed likely that the foot may come out of the trap if the animal tried really hard, under provocation from the merry making crowds. It would have been a complete mayhem.
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Although the incidence was outside my jurisdiction, if that was any comfort, but, everybody, including me, expected me to deal with the situation, as I was considered an expert in wildlife management. I had no experience in handling such a situation and we had no equipment for capturing or immobilizing wild animals, then. Wildlife management was still totally new to foresters. I had nothing but common sense to go by to find a way of rescuing the tiger as soon as possible. The immediate need of the animal was water. It had not had any water since the previous evening, in that hot summer, while tigers need a lot of it. I threw a tasla (small trough) in front of the animal to give it water. The tiger immediately attacked the tasla and overturned it. We corrected the utensil with a long bamboo and threw a long hose pipe to pour water in it. The tiger snapped up the pipe and started chewing it. While it was trying to destroy the pipe, we poured water from the other end. As water entered its mouth, it forgot chewing and started gulping water, though still confused and growling. After some time, it relaxed a little and we poured water in the tasla, which it drank comfortably. Reassured that we had been able to accomplish at least something and that the animal would not die of thirst, my confidence grew a little. The crowds were enjoying the spectacle despite it being quite late. We posted night watchmen at the site and returned to the Panna National Park to prepare for a rescue operation.
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We needed to immobilize the trapped tiger with a dart gun to extricate it from the vicious hold of the trap, and a cage to transport it to the zoo in Bhopal. We had neither. The immobilsing equipment was available only with Kanha National Park, some 350 km away and the cage had to be fabricated. I requested the authorities at the Kanha National Park to send me the dart gun and the sedatives while we set about fabricating a cage locally. The darting equipment arrived by the evening of the next day but our cage took 24 hours of non-stop fabrication to be complete. We gave the tiger water once again the next evening and started preparing for a rescue operation early morning the next day. The entire town was agog with excitement and everybody was waiting to be a witness to the operation. I wanted to do it very early morning, before the crowds could gather.
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We arrived at the scene about 4.30 am, all geared up for our first tiger rescue operation. Our night scouts were perched on top of nearby trees. They came down and informed us that the animal was totally quiet in the night. I thought it might be famished, or might have caught fever due to infection of the foot. As we cautiously approached the site for a preliminary inspection, we found no tiger there, to our utter surprise. It had just vanished. I thought that my feeling that the hold of the trap on the toes was rather flimsy and the toes might just slip out, if the animal tried hard enough, had come true. But another surprise was waiting for us. The tiger had left its toes behind! We found the digits in the trap, with soft and rotten muscles, like boiled meat, and snapped tendons due to severe twisting and straining. It seems the struggles of the tiger snapped its tendons while the muscles became gangrenous and just rotted. When there was nothing to hold the stuck digits to the body of the animal, it just walked away! While the tiger survived, though perhaps not capable of surviving for long, all our excitement waned into an anticlimax like unsuccessful hunters.
Although I was sure that the tiger had walked away, not many believed it. There were rumours that the pardhis, a traditional hunting community, who had laid the trap, had bagged it either when the watchers were sleeping or with their connivance. It seems too far-fetched to me, though not impossible. We had no cameras back then, to record the identity of the animal but our staff continued to report the presence of a limping tiger in the area until July 1986 when I left the park on transfer to Bandhavgarh National Park. Only the tiger knew the real story of that night.
Panna has shown us that entire tiger populations can be wiped out even under best protection. Panna has also shown that tigers can be brought back from extinction, through creative management. No park has taught us as much natural history as this land that produces diamonds, too.