NEW DELHI — A man-eating tiger that stalked the hills of central India for more than two years and repeatedly eluded capture was shot and killed by hunters after one of the most intensive tiger hunts in recent memory, officials said.
The female tiger, given the name T-1 by forest rangers, was blamed for the deaths of at least 13 villagers before she was killed late Friday. The plan had been to tranquilize her. But according to the hunters who tried to capture her, she roared and charged after being hit by a tranquilizer dart at short range.
Villagers in the area erupted in joy when they heard about her death, shooting off firecrackers, passing out sweets and pumping their fists in the air.
Wildlife activists were outraged. “This is a coldblooded murder,” said Jerryl Banait, who had gone to India’s Supreme Court in an attempt to force the authorities to spare the tiger’s life and capture her instead.
A man-eating tiger on the loose may sound like something out of a Kipling story. But it’s a very real — and growing — problem in India today.
The country’s effort to protect tigers, in a way, is a victim of its own success. India’s critically endangered tiger population is soaring. Closer monitoring, new technology and stricter wildlife laws have led to a sharp increase in the tiger count, from 1,411 in 2006 to an estimated 2,500 today.
Many tigers are running out of space, spilling out of their dedicated reserves, roaming along highways and skulking through crowded farmland.
T-1 never lived in a dedicated tiger reserve; 30 percent of India’s tigers don’t. She roamed a forested area of about 60 square miles just on the edge of busy farmland near the town of Pandharkawada. Even if she had lived, according to the authorities, the tiger could never have been reintroduced into the wild.
For months, the noose had been tightening around her. Hundreds of forest rangers fanned out across the jungles of central Maharashtra State, combing the bush for tiger tracks, scat, stray hairs, long scratches on trees — anything that might reveal where she was hiding.
The hunt grew into a sprawling, military-style operation, eventually encompassing a heat-seeking drone, hundreds of people, more than a hundred remote cameras and a team of specially trained Indian elephants with sharpshooters mounted on their backs.
But three things complicated the effort. The tiger was a mother of two young cubs, and the authorities did not want to harm the young tigers. The grass was high and the bushes were overgrown because monsoon rains ended only recently. And this tiger was seen as unusually crafty.
Tiger experts say she had benefited from past attempts to capture her and knew how to slink through the bush undetected, sometimes just a few steps ahead of the teams of rangers and police officers looking for her.
“She has learned from all these botched capture operations,’’ said Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, a famous tiger hunter whom the authorities had called in to help. “We’ve made her very smart. Brilliant, actually.”
The break may have come from a surprise source: a bottle of Obsession cologne.
Obsession (a popular men’s fragrance in the 1990s) contains civetone, a compound originally derived from the scent glands of a civet. In areas where it’s been sprayed, cats take huge sniffs and roll around in it for several minutes.
Last month, the Indian rangers squirted some Obsession on bushes here and there, hoping to draw the tiger out. On Friday afternoon, the rangers sprayed some Obsession and tiger urine in an area where she was believed to be hiding.
A few hours later, villagers saw a female tiger trotting down the road. People began to panic. The authorities dispatched teams to evacuate nearby cotton fields.
Mr. Khan’s son, Asghar, also a hunter, rushed out with a team of rangers, packed into a small open jeep. They spotted a female tiger for a few fleeting seconds moving through the bushes. Tiger stripes are like fingerprints; each pattern is unique. From the stripes they could tell that the tiger was T-1.
One ranger fired a dart that struck its mark, forestry officials said. But tranquilizer darts can take up to 15 minutes to put an animal to sleep. According to the authorities, after she was darted, the tiger moved back, roared loudly and charged the open jeep. Asghar Khan then fired a bullet from a high-powered rifle. The authorities said it was in “self-defense.’’
”We would have lost a few men had we tried to save her,’’ said Mr. Khan’s father, Nawab.
The bullet hit the tiger’s underside, and she died on the spot. Photos show her with a big red hole in her stomach.
Asghar Khan could not be reached for comment. But his father sent a short message from him to a reporter through WhatsApp.
“I am sad we couldn’t save the man-eater,” it read. Efforts to “save her faded due to the hostile terrain and her aggressive behavior.”
Still, many people are questioning whether the tiger really needed to be killed. Sarita Subramaniam, another wildlife activist, who had also gone to court several times to try to save the tiger’s life, said on Saturday that she was “in denial.’’
”She was doing what any mother would do,’’ Ms. Subramaniam said. “She was simply trying to defend her cubs and her territory.’’
Few villagers in this area expressed anything but joy that she was gone.
“Now our lives will be back to normal,” Hidayat Khan said. “We can go to our fields and do our work.”
The tiger’s first known victim was killed in 2016 — an older woman found facedown in a cotton field, huge claw marks dug in her back. The next was a farmer, his left leg torn off.
The killings continued for more than two years, sowing panic. In August, the mauled body of Vaghuji Kanadhari Raut, a cattle herder, was found near a rural highway.
What was especially frightening about that attack was that Mr. Raut had been standing in the middle of a ring of cattle when he was tugged down by the neck. None of his cows were touched. He was believed to have been the 12th victim.
Based on DNA tests taken from tiger saliva collected from the corpses, images from remote camera traps, numerous spottings and tiger tracks, the authorities connected at least 13 killings to the tiger, which was believed to have been around 5 years old.
The authorities have not said what will happen to the tiger’s cubs. On Saturday, villagers spotted one of the cubs climbing a hill, near where T-1 had died.
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