The 21-day operation to capture tiger T23

Print edition : November 19, 2021

T23 moving in a tea estate near Gudalur, bordering the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

The Masinagudi forest, part of T23’s range. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Sekhar Kumar Niraj (atop a ‘kumki’ elephant), Chief Wildlife Warden, Tamil Nadu, led the operation. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Tiger, the third sniffer dog after Adhavai and Rana to be involved in the operation. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Three drones aided the tracking operation. On October 15, the sedated tiger was located with the help of a drone. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

The elite force of Tamil Nadu Forest Department, along with field staff from the Gudalur and Nilgiris Forest Divisions, was among the teams involved. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Forest staff testing a net gun at Masinagudi. One net gun was kept ready to fire a net to entangle the tiger. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

As many as 150 camera traps were set up in Masinagudi, Mudumalai and Gudalur to monitor the movement of T23. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

T23 used a variety of habitats in Mudumalai. It also visited the paddy fields in the tribal settlements in Bosepara. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

At Bosepara, tribal people have to walk up to 3 km through the tiger reserve to reach their village. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

The family members of M. Basavan, 82, on October 1, at Masinagudi. His body was found near a bush. T23 had killed him and eaten his hand and intestines. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

T23 is seen at the far end of the tea garden near Gudalur. The tiger did not panic whenever it was chased; it moved away quietly into the bushes. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Tamil Nadu Forest Department personnel and members of the Wildlife Disaster Management Team, Kerala (Wayanad Forest Division) continuing the search on September 27 despite the heavy rain and humid conditions. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Kalan (left), one of tribal trackers who led the operation, and his team members Bomman (in khaki-coloured pants) and MeenKalan (with knife in the foregorund). Also in the picture is P. Arunkumar (right), Deputy Director, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (Buffer Zone). Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy


Forest staff briefing the STF personnel who took charge of the operation on October 2. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Trackers and a forest veterinarian looking at a pug mark in the buffer zone on October 4. It had rained heavily on the previous night. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

A member of a tracking team taking a picture of a pug mark at Singara road. T23’s pug mark measured 15 cm by 15 cm. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

T23 walking out of the bushes above the road at 3 p.m. on September 28. The veterinarian with the dart gun in the jeep did not see it though at one point it was about 10 metresfrom him. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

‘Kumki’ elephants Srinivasan and Udhayan going into the forest for a midnight search on October 14. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Wildlife veterinarians led by N. Kalaivanan (second from right), filling the darts with medicine. They followed this procedure of readying the dart guns every single morning of the operation. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Veterinarians waiting for T23 to come out of the bamboo forest along a river near Singara road at Masanagudi. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Forest staff from the Masanagudi checkpost running behind T23 after seeing it cross the Masanagudi-Theppakadu Road and move towards the Moyar forest on October 15. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

The sedated and secured tiger was treated for its wounds and put in standardised cage and taken to Mysore Zoo for further treatment. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

The ‘kumki’ elephants Udhayan and Srinivasan were integral to the success of the operation. T23 was darted by a veterinarian sitting on the back of Udhayan. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

It took 21 days for a team of forest staff, veterinarians, tribal trackers, elephants, sniffer dogs and drones to track down T23, the wounded dominant tiger of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve which had killed four humans and several livestock.

THE methodical operation to capture Tiger 23, a “problematic” tiger in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) in Tamil Nadu, made headlines in September-October. Wildlife enthusiasts and the public eagerly followed the outcome of each day of the 21-day operation tiger rescue.

T23 was dominant over a vast territory extending from the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve to Kakanallah, an area contiguous with the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and National Park in Karnataka, and occupied a variety of habitats. The 14-year-old tiger turned “problematic” when it was believed to have killed four humans and 20 livestock in the Mudumalai-Gudalur forest range and buffer zones. On October 1, after the tiger killed a tribal person at Masinagudi, Shekhar Kumar Niraj, Chief Wildlife Warden, issued an order to hunt the animal, and the State Forest Department launched a massive operation. The Madras High Court, in response to a public interest litigation petition, passed an order on October 5 that the tiger should be caught alive and not killed. (According to a report published in The Hindu on October 10, Shekhar Kumar Niraj clarified that the word hunt was used as defined in the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and did not mean that the tiger was to be killed. Killing it was to be the last resort.)

The 21-day rescue operation involved forest officials, wildlife veterinarians, elite forest force, special task force (STF), front-line forest staff, the use of drones, camera traps and sniffer dogs, and the deployment of two ‘kumkis’ (trained elephants)—Udayan and Srinivasan—from the Theppakadu Elephant Camp in Mudumalai. On October 15, T23 was finally tracked down in the Masinagudi forest and tranquillised and taken to Mysuru for rehabilitation.

D. Venkatesh, Field Director, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve , said: “We started the operation on September 24. At that time, the tiger was in the Devan and Mayfield estates near Gudalur. The tiger always moved into the swamp. It was a small area but difficult to enter. We managed to make the tiger move out of the swamp to the tea bushes. We tried to dart it, but it escaped. After seven days it returned to the Masinagudi area. On October 1, it killed one person and a cow. Here the terrain was different from that in the tea estate area. Between October 2 and October 11, we could not locate the animal. We even used live bait. On October 12, the animal was captured in a camera trap at the Kargudi range of Mudumalai; then it moved to Bosepara, which was full of lantana bushes. We located the animal, and our four darting teams went inside but the tiger jumped out and moved into the thick forest. For the next two days, it moved in and around the Kargudi area. On October 14, we got information that the animal was prowling around in the Ombatta area. We moved there in three groups, but the tiger was hiding. Late that evening we received information that the animal was near the elephant camp. We tracked it and made sure it did not move into Masinagudi.”

Dr N. Kalaivanan, a senior wildlife veterinarian who headed the team of veterinarians, said: “T23 is an interesting animal. As per records, it was born in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala. When it was camera-trapped in Wayanad in 2010, it was about three years old. In 2011, it was camera-trapped in Bandipur. From 2012, it created its own territory in the Masinagudi area. T23 was a dominant tiger: it used most of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve’s core area, that is, 60 per cent of the reserve; Masinagudi; the Mudumalai range; Gamehut; Ombatta; Bosepara near Gudalur; Kakanallah; and the Mayfield and Devan tea estates in Gudalur. Its range included scrub jungle in Masinagudi and dry deciduous, moist deciduous and evergreen forests and tea estates. In 2019, the ageing tiger faced attacks by other dominant tigers and suffered grievous injuries. After that, unable to kill wild prey, it avoided the core area of the reserve and moved to Masinagudi forest [in the buffer zone] and was even spotted near a residential area at Bosepara.

“We had placed cameras all along the routes of T23. We were able to locate the animal. In one day, it moved from Bosepara to Masinagudi, which is a distance of approximately 50 kilometres. It avoided footpaths and moved among the bushes, circumventing camera traps. It knew exactly where the cameras were placed. We watched from machans to see if it would come for the live bait. But it did not take the bait. It seemed to know by experience why the bait had been placed. The tiger moved into areas near villages and started to lift cattle. This was an aged animal but not incapacitated. It was not fully weak. We worked out all possible methods in this operation, but we did not get any results. That is why we struggled a lot.”

Darting the tiger

Explaining the method employed in the rescue operation, he said: “Darting a tiger is not an easy task. It is not like tracking an elephant, which is easy. The tiger is an elusive animal. To dart a tiger, we need a clear view of the animal. What happens in the case of man-eaters is that if it is a young animal, it will take refuge in fringe areas. In small areas such as villages we may be able to corner the animal in cultivated land. We then go in a vehicle or on elephant back and dart the tiger.

“In most of the cases, the animal will be aged or incapacitated and unable to walk a long distance. It will hide in bushes in a localised area or in a small patch of forest. In such cases, we can go near and corner the animal or dart it safely from a vehicle or elephant back or from machans. T23 was moving in a larger area through a bigger natural forest, so tracking it and following the pug marks was not easy. It was a big challenge. In this operation, traditional knowledge and modern technology were used. Tribal trackers were the backbone of this operation. They can tell from a pug mark when the animal has moved from a place, in which direction, and even how fast it was walking. They are the main source of tiger information. Based on their information, we were able to track the tiger and succeed in the operation. We tracked T23 for almost 18 days. We spotted it only five times, that too from long range or sometimes among tea bushes, making darting difficult.

“At one point, we spotted the animal at a three-metre range, but we were unable to dart it as we needed at least three to five seconds to see the animal and release the trigger. Also, it was raining and we were unable to see the pug marks. There were leeches everywhere and we were unable to sit anywhere, to eat or take rest.

“On the evening of October 14, we heard that the tiger was walking on the road in the Theppakadu-Masinagudi road inside the tiger reserve. T23 was probably scared of other dominant tigers and felt safe walking on the road. We followed the tiger the whole night because there were thousands of people in Masinagudi attending a temple festival. T23 was heading towards a fringe area. In order to prevent further human kill, we made sure the tiger did not come to Masinagudi. We were in the vehicle the whole night with guns. Next morning [October 15], the animal moved into the reserve forest again. The tiger charged towards the ‘kumkis’. We were seated on elephant back. Dr Rajesh Kumar had just three seconds to dart the tiger. After receiving the dart, the tiger ran into the forest and hid among thick bushes. We used traditional tracking knowledge and modern technology to track it. The drone operator helped us in locating the sedated tiger.”

Bomman, a tribal tracker who belongs to the Betta Kurumba tribe, said: “Tracking T23 was difficult because there was another tiger of the same size. We had to look for a particular pug mark, which was 15 cm by 15 cm. Sometimes other animals had walked over the pug mark. There was no trace when the tiger had walked on grass or road. In such cases, we lost track. It was not easy to spot a pug mark on a rainy day. We found a pug mark, just the impression of a toe, and with that we were able to track the tiger hiding in the bushes. Once we tracked the tiger, we informed the officials to come to the spot. It was a difficult operation but in the end we are all happy that we were able to capture the tiger alive.”

First recorded attack

T23’s first recorded attack on humans was in 2020. On August 31, 2020, there were reports in Masinagudi that a carnivore had killed a woman named Gowri. Her body was found, after one hour of searching, near a lantana bush close to the reserve near the Masinagudi checkpost. The Forest Department immediately placed camera traps there and in many other places in the vicinity. The dead woman’s husband said it was a male tiger that had killed her. After analysing the footage from the camera traps, the Mudumalai team realised that it was T23. Since that sighting, there was no sign of the tiger in the area. A few months later news of a carnivore lifting cattle came from Sreemadurai, Bosepara and Mudukuli tribal villages. The people of these villages and political leaders petitioned the authorities to capture the animal but no action was taken.

On July 17, 2021, a tiger mauled to death Kunjukrishnan of Nijnakolli village near Bosepara, and the same evening a tiger killed a cow. People staged a road roko at Sreemadurai and at the Thorapalli forest checkpost on the Gudalur-Mysuru National Highway for four hours. The Gudalur Forest Division placed camera traps in the area to identify the tiger. On the basis of the camera footage, the forest officials were able to establish that it was T23 that was killing cattle in the area and that it could have killed Kunjukrishnan. They placed bait cages to trap the tiger, but the animal moved away into the core forest area, lifting a few cattle on its way past Sreemadurai, Bosepara and Mayfield Estate.

On September 24 at 11 a.m., T23 attacked Chandran at Devan Estate. He was rushed to Gudalur Government Hospital. He was given first aid and sent to Ooty Medical College and Hospital, where he died later. People staged a road roko in Gudalur demanding that the Forest Department capture the tiger or shoot it. On September 26 the tiger killed two cows at Mayfield Estate. Meanwhile, the Gudalur Forest Division involved veterinarians and trackers to locate T23. Trap cages were placed near a kill and camera traps were placed on the estate.

On the morning of September 27, Tamil Nadu Forest Department personnel and members of the Wildlife Disaster Management Team, Kerala (Wayanad Forest Division), went to Mayfield Estate. On the way, they passed a dead cow; it had been tied to a tea bush, and the tiger had killed it. Members of the Kerala and Gudalur forest teams waited near a swamp on the estate where they believed the tiger was hiding. They burst firecrackers hoping that the noise would bring the tiger out into the open. The tiger left the swamp and moved up to the tea estate. Veterinarians rushed up the hill to dart the tiger, but it went further up into the estate. On the basis of inputs from the team that was tracking the tiger’s movement with drones, veterinarians followed it, but it went into thick bushes on top of the hill. The operation could not continue as it started to rain heavily. It resumed around 5 p.m. When the tiger emerged from the bushes, the veterinarians moved forward to dart it, but it went into the bushes again. T23 did not panic whenever it was chased; it just walked away slowly. As the light started fading, the search operation was stopped for the day at 6 p.m.

The next morning, the tiger was still in the swamp on Mayfield Estate. Forest trackers and members of the Kerala team tried to push the tiger out to a particular place where four veterinarians were waiting in four different spots to dart it. From 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., they tried their best to get the tiger to leave the swamp, but T23 proved too smart for them. It moved out of the swamp but not in the direction where the veterinarians were waiting but upwards into the tea estate.

At 3 p.m. it walked out of the bushes majestically to the road. A veterinarian was in a jeep parked on the road. The tiger moved towards the jeep, but he did not see it. People who were watching the action from the opposite side called out to him as the tiger was hardly 10 metres from the jeep. T23 moved behind the jeep, jumped into the tea bushes, came out in the open at 3:05 p.m., glanced at the veterinarian and moved out of range of his dart gun. The trackers were unable to locate the tiger, and the operation was stopped for the day at 6 p.m.

On September 29, the search teams got information that the tiger had moved to Devan Estate. They waited with the police on the roadside. Drones were flying everywhere. Power saws and firecrackers were used to make noise and the trackers yelled to make the tiger move out of the bamboo forest into the open area, all in vain. The next day, the operation continued at the Devan and Mayfield estates although the camera traps had not captured sightings of T23. The trackers searched the areas the whole day without success.

On October 1, the search teams had an early start. There was information from residents that the tiger had moved into Bosepara. At 8 a.m. they got information from a good friend of this writer in Masinagudi that T23 was back in Masinagudi, which is the eastern side of its territory. Sadly, there was also news of a missing person. All the forest teams moved to the Masinagudi forest checkpost. A camera trap at Masinagudi had captured T23, confirming its presence near the place where it had killed a woman last year. By noon all the forest vehicles involved in the search travelled on the Singara road to an abandoned quarry where T23 had been spotted. Hundreds of local residents and tribal people were also in the area searching for the missing person. At 1:20 p.m. the public found the body of the missing tribal person, M. Basavan, 82. The tiger had killed him when he was alone, dragged him into a bush and eaten his hand and intestines. Meanwhile, the local police came to the spot and requested the public to move out. The people of Masinagudi and political leaders of the area staged a road roko at the junction of the Singara, Ooty (Udhagamandalam), Moyar and Gudalur roads.

The tiger crossed the Masinagudi-Theppakadu road at a spot where two cows were grazing; it moved between the cows and went into the forest towards Moyar. The forest teams moved towards the Moyar road. Meanwhile, the road roko was continuing. At 7:30 p.m., the order came from Shekhar Kumar Niraj to hunt down the tiger, following which the protesters dispersed. By 4:30 p.m., police personnel of the STF had taken charge of the operation and asked all members of the public to move out of the operation site to ensure that they did not come within the range of the dart guns.

On October 2, the search operations resumed at 6 a.m. Forest trackers left the Masinagudi checkpost, which was the base camp for the operation. Members of a rapid response team from Ooty, wearing body armour, joined the operation as did the sniffer dog Adhavai. The operation was started at the Masinagudi-Theppakadu road, which had been closed to traffic. D. Venkatesh; Bhosale Sachin Thukkaram, Deputy Director, MTR (Core Zone); P. Arunkumar, Deputy Director, MTR (Buffer Zone); and veterinarians explained the situation to the STF personnel and gave them photographs of the animal from different angles.

At 8 a.m. the STF team went into the forest. At 9:30 a.m., trackers and veterinarians went into the forest following news of a sighting near Masinagudi. At 4 p.m. Basavan’s funeral procession started from Masinagudi to the burial ground close to the checkpost, the path used by T23. Suddenly, a few people allegedly instigated the public to stage a road roko with the body of Basavan. Police and Forest Department staff pacified the crowd, and the funeral procession went on its way. In the evening, an elite force of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department joined the operation, and the number of camera traps was also increased.

The next day, the hunt resumed at 6 a.m. To help those inside the forest, a walkie-talkie team was formed; the members of the team were given repeaters to avoid loss of communication. The field staff had seamless wireless connectivity between the Mudumalai and Gudalur forest divisions courtesy of N. Mohanraj, a wildlife expert in the Nilgiris district. He also ensured that the drones, with their batteries fully charged, were in the right place at the right time. He told Frontline that the entire rescue team was equipped with wireless communication in the form of 26 walkie-talkies, two repeater stations and three drones. “We provided a small charger with inverter in the jeep. With the jeep’s battery, we charged the batteries of the walkie-talkies and drones. The walkie-talkies faced the problem of interoperability because of different frequencies as the repeaters were in Glenmorgan [a village near Ooty] and Gudalur. So, we used e-packs (a portable repeater that can cover up to 6 km) which could connect all the wireless networks and telephones of the field teams. We used three e-packs for this operation as we were covering about 40 sq km. In the final operation on October 15, we used six walkie-talkies. We did not use mobile phones in this operation.”

T23, meanwhile, had killed a cow near Moyar village, and the forest teams moved to the place and placed camera traps there. At 10:30 a.m. a net gun was tested and the ‘kumki’ elephants joined the operation at Masinagudi. In the afternoon, State Forest Minister K. Ramachandran visited Basavan’s house at Masinagudi, and later briefed the media about this operation. A sniffer dog, Rana, from Bandipur, joined the search effort. At 4 p.m. came news of T23 being sighted at Singara road, behind a resort. The tracking teams tried their best to capture the tiger, but the light was fading and the day’s operation was stopped.

On October 4, a third sniffer dog, Tiger, joined the operation. From early in the morning, veterinarians and trackers looked for T23’s pug marks near Singara road. Veterinarians and Shekhar Kumar Niraj were on the back of elephants. Anti-poaching watchers sat atop trees on the roadside. Meanwhile, a few teams had gone into the forest. The next morning, the focus of the operation was again on Singara road. Animals as live bait were tied at several places and from a resort on Singara road searches were conducted using thermal drones. Veterinarians then decided to erect machans on treetops and wait for the tiger to come to the live bait. On October 6 they left by 5 a.m. armed with dart guns to watch from machans. They returned in the evening without sighting the tiger. Singara road remained the focus of the search for the next four days, but for six day, none of the camera traps had caught the tiger passing by. Traps had been placed at Masinagudi, Singara road, Moyar, Bosepara, the Mayfield and Devan estates and at Ombatta inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve .

On October 11 night, T23 was sighted in a camera trap at Bosepara, which meant that the tiger had covered almost 25 km from its previous sighting. Early the next morning, another camera trap in Bosepara recorded a sighting of T23. All the villages in the vicinity were alerted through a public address system about the tiger. At 1:30 p.m., trackers spotted it inside Bosepara. The veterinarians converged on the spot in the leech-infested forest in heavy rain but had to call off the operation and return to the base camp by 7 p.m. On October 13, the focus shifted from Bosepara to Odakolli, a Paniya tribal village that borders the reserve. Although the tiger was present in the area, the veterinarians were unable to dart the animal because of the cover of thick bushes and the bamboo forest. The teams returned to base at 5 p.m. in fading light. The following day, at 8 p.m., a vehicle driver saw a tiger on the roadside near Theppakadu; people in another vehicle that had broken down near Mudumalai also saw the tiger and informed the forest staff. All the forest teams were placed near Masinagudi to prevent the tiger from entering the town where crowds had gathered for the temple festival. The ‘kumki’ elephants tracked the tiger all night long, and all the teams worked throughout the night and into the early hours of the morning to make sure that T23 did not enter Masinagudi.

At 6 a.m. on October 15, forest officials made a public announcement asking the people of Masinagudi, Moyar, Singara and Mavanallah to remain indoors and to keep their cattle tied up at home. At 9 a.m., when the rangers, foresters, field staff and veterinarians were having their breakfast after their all-nighter, T23 emerged from the bushes and crossed the road towards Moyar in full view of everyone near the Masinagudi checkpost. Immediately, all the teams ran in the direction of the tiger. However, within minutes, T23 attacked a buffalo. Many people witnessed this. For the next three hours, there was no news of the tiger. At 1 p.m., news came that trackers with the help of drones had located T23, that it had been darted and that they were now searching for the sedated tiger. Exactly at 6 p.m. T23, which had reigned over the forests of Masinagudi, Mudumalai and parts of Bandipur, came out of the forest in a cage and was taken to Mysuru for treatment.

The Kerala Forest Department provided a standardised cage to transport the tiger. It was earlier planned to shift the tiger to Aringar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai. But after consultation with the National Tiger Conservation Authority, it was sent to the Chamundi Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre at Koorgalli near Mysore Zoo for treatment. Shekhar Kumar Niraj said: “We successfully darted the animal and secured it. We gave first-aid and other treatment. I spoke to the National Tiger Conservation Agency and the National Zoo Authority and the Chief Wildlife Warden of Karnataka to admit T23 in Mysore Zoo instead of Vandalur Zoo to cut down on journey time and to avoid stress to the animal.

Forest Minister Ramachandran said on October 15 that the Tamil Nadu Forest Department had killed “man-eater tigers” in 2014 (at Kundachappai near Udhagamandalam), 2015 (Biderkad) and 2016 (Devarshola). “This is the first time we captured it alive. We decided to send it to the Mysuru wild animals rescue centre for treatment. After the tiger recovers fully, our Chief Minister will decide where to relocate it.” Supriya Sahu, Principal Secretary, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Forests, Government of Tamil Nadu, said on October 15: “The T23 operation was a complex one. The challenge before the Forest Department was to capture the tiger alive. I am very happy the Forest Department was successful in doing it. More than 100 people were engaged 24/7 in capturing the tiger. Darting operation had been done several times in the past, but it was done successfully today.”<z_sym_square_bullet>