For decades, foresters have relied on pugmarks to tell the gender and identity of tigers. But pugs often lie, as they did in Corbett recently.
Six deaths in 10 weeks, terrified villagers and angry mobs, a shrill media and shriller conservationists, harried forest staff and their nervous bosses—even by Corbett’s vintage standards, it was a classic recipe for chaos.
The tug-of-war began three months ago after the first human death on 12 November. Wildlife activists dubbed the first two attacks accidental and blamed the victims for trespassing on the forest. But the kills were partly eaten on both occasions. So when a third victim was consumed on 29 December, it was difficult for the forest authorities to ignore public pressure. The next day, Uttarakhand’s Chief Wildlife Warden, S Chandola, issued shoot-at-sight orders.
The sharpshooters, however, were told to go easy, and trap cages were set up to capture the maneater alive. Barring the second killing, the attacks had taken place within a 6 sq km area adjacent Sunderkhal village where two male and three female tigers roam. By now, rumours were flying thick and fast. Many started blaming a tiger couple for the killings. Otherwise solitary animals, tigers do come together while mating, but it was highly unlikely that they would pair up for two long months and forge a partnership to bring down the unusual prey.
No wonder Ranjan Mishra, field director of Corbett Tiger Reserve, thought the theory deserved some wry humour: “What kind of couple would look for human flesh in the mating season? Is it an aphrodisiac or what?” The tense drama was beginning to border the absurd.
All hell broke loose on 8 January when a male tiger walked into one of the trap cages. UC Tiwari, now warden and an old Corbett hand, had been scanning the sites of the attacks and felt some pugmarks near the kills indicated a tigress at work. It was only a possibility, and not a man to speculate, Tiwari had kept it to himself. But now that a young male tiger faced life imprisonment in Nainital zoo, the warden decided to answer the media.
By the time newspapers confirmed the Sunderkhal maneater as a tigress, on 9 January, the captured male had been tranquillised, and against the pressures of local strongmen, released 40 km inside the reserve in the Dhikala zone. (This was hardly the best option for the male that found itself in another male tiger’s territory. But that is another story.)
The very next day, the maneater struck again near Sunderkhal. By now, the villagers had no patience left for theories. They refused to accept the body and insisted that the tiger be shot when it returned to its kill. Two machans were set up: one overlooking the kill and another a little away on an approach path. The animal showed up in the evening and took a bullet. Surprisingly, the shooters were using .315 rifles—a weapon vastly inferior to the .375 Magnum, the minimum calibre prescribed for shooting a tiger. The injured tiger charged at its adversaries, but broke away when shooters from the other machan fired to cover their men. All that remained was a blood trail and samples for a forensic test.
In the days that followed, the media hammered the forest establishment for leaving an injured maneater tigress at large. Trackers combed the forest in vain. Finally, on 26 January, the maneater made a comeback. On a trip to visit his relatives, 25-year-old Puran stopped his two-wheeler on the highway and stepped a few yards inside the forest to relieve himself. All that was found of him the next day was a piece of leg.
The village turned into a wild mob. Stone pelting and road blockades spurred the gunmen. Within hours, they found a big cat near the spot where Puran’s remains had been found. Desperate, they sprayed bullets from all vantages. It took about 30 rounds to bring down the maneater of Sunderkhal. But when the gunners cautiously retrieved the dead cat, it turned out to be a male!
A tiger’s paw has a pad and four toes. A fifth toe commonly called the dew claw, is placed high on the front limbs only. Front pugs are larger than hind pugs. The pad is three-lobed at the rear end. Pugmark Length or PML is the measurement from the tip of the farthest toe to the base of the pad along the line of walk. Pugmark Breadth or PMB is the measurement between the outer edges of the first and last toe. In a front pug, the forwardmost points of the two middle toes are almost at the same level. In hind paws, the forwardmost points of the two middle toes are distinctly at different levels. In male tigers, the PMB of the front pug is mostly greater than its PML. The pugmark of a male almost fits into a square. In contrast, typically, the pugmark of a female fits into a rectangle. The shape of a male’s toes is more rounded. The shape of a female’s toes is elongated.
(Source: ‘Reading Pugmarks: A guidebook for forest guards’)
News spread fast. On the web, conservationists and activists started wagging fingers. After all, this was not the first time a ‘wrong’ maneater had been shot. In 2007, Tadoba’s maneater of Talodi was supposed to be a tigress but a young male was gunned down. In 2009, a Pilibhit tiger was blamed for a series of attacks on people, but when shot, it turned out to be a female.
A dead tiger on their hands, the Corbett brass rushed to the spot. Among them, Tiwari kept his fingers crossed. It was he who had told the media that going by the pugmarks, the maneater was a tigress.
Reading pugmarks has been the most traditional method of tracking tigers. Nearly eight decades ago, A Somerville noted that a male tiger’s toes were square while a female’s were more rounded and slender. In 1934, JW Nicholson of the Imperial Forest Service used pugmarks to count tigers in Palamau. In the 1960s, Saroj Raj Choudhury developed it into a field technique at Simlipal.
Subsequently, many noted tiger experts, including biologist C McDougal and former Chief of Project Tiger HS Panwar, observed that ‘the whole hind pugmark of a male tiger fits into a square frame whereas that of the female fits into a rectangular frame’. They also noted that ‘a female’s toes were slender and elongated compared to a male’s toes which were oval and more circular’ (see above graphic: Tale of Two Paws).
These thumb rules have been the most widely used (and misused) field method to ascertain a tiger’s gender. As late as in 2003, a paper co-authored by Dr Y Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India confirmed that pugmarks ‘can be used to acquire sex-ratio data of tiger populations’.
An old-school forester, Tiwari trusted his eyes. Now he was cursing his luck that the gunners had probably got the wrong tiger. Then something struck him.
In 2004, a tiger created panic near Mohan in Corbett. It had attacked people and stalked villages. It had even injured a patrol elephant. Tiwari had had a tough time tracking the tiger and was relieved when it died.
While villagers celebrated, Tiwari recalled, he had spotted something unusual about the dead tiger. Its hind pads were shaped like a female’s. I remember the story. But in 2004, I was more interested in the tiger than its paws. So was Tiwari.
Two months ago, when the Corbett maneater was still on the prowl, Tiwari came across puzzling pugmarks again. He was following a fresh tiger trail on his jeep. Everybody in the team expected a female walking ahead, but when they caught up with the cat, it turned out to be a male. In a moment of intrigue, Tiwari recalled the Mohan tiger, and drove on.
But this time, in Sunderkhal, he went for the dead tiger’s hind paws. Déjà vu.
The next day, Chief Wildlife Warden Chandola explained to the press that the dead male’s hind pads had the characteristics of a female, adding that the bullet of the failed shooting was found lodged in its flesh. Whether the dead male tiger was indeed the maneater will be clear in the coming weeks if the attacks stop. But conservationists, eminent experts among them, have already dismissed the claim of “a male with female pugs”.
To confirm this, I sent a photograph of the Sunderkhal male’s rear pad to Brigadier Ranjit Talwar, an author of many field guidebooks for WWF-India. He wrote back saying he was ‘fairly sure’ it was ‘a hind left pad of a female’.
This cleared the gender confusion. But how rare are such exceptions? Five years after the Mohan incident, I was in Corbett to investigate the deaths of four tigers in the winter of 2009-10 (‘Who’s Killing Corbett’s Tigers’, Open, 13 February 2010). The first casualty occurred near Mota Sal at Dhikala. That dead tiger too had hind pads with female characteristics. I thought at the time it was a freak occurrence, and focused on the bigger story at hand.
Corbett field staff have stopped taking media calls following an order from Chandola. So I called up the boss himself. He resolved another mystery that dates back to 2009. Chandola recalled how he had gone by the female characteristics of its hind pads and reported a dead tiger (killed and partially eaten by another tiger) as a female in March 2009 at Dhela in Corbett. During post-mortem, the penis was found inverted inside the flesh and the animal turned out to be a male.
Do these five instances make a case? Dr Rajesh Gopal, member-secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), thinks they do. “Pugmark reading is not a reliable field tool for individual or gender identification. That is why we have moved on to better technologies. Yes, pugmarks can indicate tiger presence and possibly direction of movements. Demand anything more and we get into the realm of uncertainties.”
But is there a fool-proof way to identify maneaters and deal with them? Dr Gopal recommends camera traps: “Used intensively and at innovative angles, cameras can tell the gender of a tiger. But to be certain that we are eliminating a maneater and not a wrong animal, there is no other option but to target it at a human kill. We must also use the right weapon so that the animal does not escape hurt. We need professionalism in handling such situations.”
Chandola agrees that the right weapon should be used, but defends his field staff’s decision to go ahead with what was available in an emergency. “The first time they tried to shoot the tiger, the operation was carried out at night with the help of searchlights. They had to go ahead with whatever weapon they had. Also, it is not easy to shoot accurately under such conditions,” he explains.
The larger issue, however, is the triggers for such conflict. Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh has already written to Uttarakhand Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhariyal Nishank for speedy rehabilitation of Sunderkhal village to ease pressure on a key forest corridor. Sources in NTCA have claimed that a new tourism policy would soon deal with the walled resorts that block movement of wildlife.
Corbett field staff refuse to comment on village relocation and tourism pressure. Field Director Mishra says there are policy issues involved that are beyond his span of influence.
But will the killing spree stop for now? Can Sunderkhal sleep peacefully before it decides on relocation? Tiwari answers the questions with a deadpan “wait-and-watch”. But the warden has learnt a new field lesson: never again will he take tigers at pug value.