Why T4 is considered the queen of Panna Tiger Reserve

A tigress raised by a few men turned out to be a tenacious lady who lived an extraordinary, rich life in a habitat quite unlike her original home — from the moist, cool Sal forests of Kanha to the harsher, drier Kardhai and Sagwan forests of Panna.

Suhas Kumar
| Updated: January 29th, 2021

On June 4, 2005 in the famous Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, a radio-collared tigress was killed in a fierce fight with a resident male. The tigress had three small cubs, one male and two females. The Park Management mounted a massive search, located and rescued them – the cubs were tiny balls of fur just 25 days old.

A few days after, the then Field director of Kanha, Khageshwar Nayak, came to the Chief Wildlife Warden’s (CWLW’s) office with a proposal that I immediately liked and assured him of my total support. Then I was Chief Conservator of forests at the wildlife Headquarters at Bhopal. The proposal was albeit unconventional and quite futuristic – Khageshwar wanted to rear those cubs in wild conditions within a large enclosure inside a grassland of the reserve with an objective to prepare them for a life in the jungle and release them with radio-collars once they were found fit to fend for themselves. This was an innovative and bold idea which any run of the mill CWLW would have conveniently avoided but our extremely dynamic and open-minded Chief Wildlife Warden Dr. P.B. Gangopadhyay agreed to proceed with such an experiment.

Incidentally, this was not a maiden concept conceived by Khageshwar – in the year 2000. Sekhar Jangle, a range officer at Van Vihar National park, had come to me to discuss his idea. He had come fully prepared with all the data collected over two years (April 1998 to June 2000) after observing the behaviour of zoo-bred tigers when they were occasionally released into a large fenced forest patch that also harboured Chital and sambar. Jangle explained to me that the young zoo-bred tigers ambushed the prey and killed sambar and chital without any problem. They had also learned to open the carcass and eat the prey. I was extremely impressed with his meticulous research and promised to send his idea, which envisaged using zoo-bred tigers to restock tiger deficient habitats in the state, to the scientists of Wildlife Institute of India for their opinion.

T4 with P112 preparing to raise a second litter. Photo FD Panna

Based on Sekhar Jangle’s observations I prepared a concept note and convinced my boss to send it to the Director, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to obtain the opinion of the scientists there. The concept paper had emphasized that the rearing of cubs would have to be under rigorously controlled conditions to prevent such tigers getting imprinted by their keepers (an imprinted animal becomes a pet animal and becomes too attached to its keeper).  A month later we received the comments from Director, WII – he had opined that releasing zoo-bred tigers in the wild was not a good idea, which might not succeed. This letter stopped any further discussion on this topic as the then CWLW was not willing to experiment. Unfortunately, I couldn’t convince him to pursue Sekhar’s idea. Therefore, when after a lapse of about four years, I saw Khageshwar Nayak’s proposal, I was extremely delighted.

Now, as per the plan the three cubs that were first kept in a makeshift cage in the Kanha Range were brought to Mukki at the age of around four months. Mukki range had a larger cage to permit free movements of these cubs. Later they were transferred to an eleven-hectare fenced enclosure erected in the Ghorella grassland. This enclosure was surrounded by a thirty-five-hectare outer enclosure designed to keep a small population of chital that were going to be the staple food for the growing cubs once they learnt to kill domestic live baits. Very little human contact was permitted throughout to avoid imprinting the cubs. When they grew up live goats were given to them. Within a few months the tigers learned the skill to ambush and kill goats and soon they became adept at killing Chital.

Meticulous monitoring of these tigers from the four watch towers along the perimeter of the fence as well as from elephant back to assess their health was executed by the staff of Mukki range and the Reserve’s vet under the supervision of the then Range officer Rajnish Singh. As time elapsed the male cub became extremely aggressive and restless and on the advice of a senior officer, who was then the APCCF wildlife, the male tiger was shifted to Van Vihar, Bhopal. Both the females continued to live within the enclosure at Ghorella.

T4 in her enclosure at Ghorella. Photo Rajneesh

In 2009, while I was on study leave to carry out research on the impacts of ongoing tourism business on various parameters of Wildlife conservation and management, I visited Kanha to collect data and there I came to learn that a plan was afoot to shift the two sisters to Van Vihar zoo. I was utterly disappointed and angry. In my opinion, both females were ready to live a life of freedom within Kanha national park as females have least fear of getting into fights with males until they are with cubs.

Though I was on leave, I sent a note to the Chief Wildlife Warden, and besides giving suggestion for the need for improving the grasslands that were in various stages of degradation and encroachment by woody plants, I strongly pleaded for the release of the two tigresses into the wild at Kanha or in some other safe habitat. The advantage of releasing the two females within Kanha was that there would have been no need to obtain permission from NTCA as no transportation of tigers beyond the boundary of the reserve would take place. The only permission required was from the Director Wildlife Preservation, MoEF, GoI, to immobilize the tigresses for radio-collaring. I suggested that the collaring exercise should be done immediately pending decision on their eventual release or incarceration, as during the fire-season their presence in an enclosure with tall grasses might be extremely risky. In the event of an exigency, they would have to be set free. In that eventuality the radio-telemetry may be the only tool to monitor their movement.

Unfortunately, no decision for their release was taken then but within a year, under dire circumstances, the next CWLW had to make up his mind to shift one of the tigresses to Panna tiger reserve. And finally, on 26 March 2011 one of the two females, raised in the Ghorella enclosure of Kanha Tiger Reserve, was radio-collared and transported to her new home Panna Tiger Reserve – there she was released in the wee-hours of 27 March and christened – T4 and she became one of the ‘Founder tigers’ in a challenging project that required the re-establishment of a healthy tiger population in Panna Tiger Reserve(PTR) .PTR had just begun a highly ambitious and challenging task of rehabilitating tigers in a landscape from where all the tigers had vanished due to poaching coupled with biological and ecological causes. When T4 arrived there, a small founder population was already in place – two females, one from Bandhavgarh (T1) and another from Kanha (T2), and one male(T3) from Pench.

Till the arrival of T4, these two females had already littered. By some the arrival of T4 at Panna was seen as a misadventure. She was already middle-aged (about 6 years old) and she was a tigress reared by humans within an eleven-hectare enclosure, therefore, nobody knew what to expect from this lady. Just after her release, she did not travel very far and settled in an area near the release site: her peregrinations were confined to a few hundred yards only.

This confined pattern of her movement continued for almost a month. A concerned Srineevas Murthy, the legendary field director of Panna Tiger Reserve, for whom his work was not just a duty but passion, had already thought of solutions that he had tried on T3 earlier to make him find the other two ladies -T1 and T2. His aim was to make T3 meet T4.

In June 2009, when T3 – the male tiger brought from Pench tiger reserve – had escaped from the park, he was tracked down and brought back into the park after almost a month’s long haul. After releasing him in the Park again, Murthy’s worry was to keep him inside the park and for that he had to make it possible for T3 to find the females. Discussions with scientists and experienced forest officers yielded suggestions for the right kind of managerial intervention to rein in T3 within the park after its second release. Female tiger’s urine was collected from Van Vihar Zoo over a period of 15 days and used as scent signals to lure T3. The urine was sprinkled in the jungle from the area were females were residing, to the area that was part of territory of the male tiger (T3). This worked and T3 found the females eventually and mated with both.

The same technique was deployed in the case of T4 – her scat was collected from Ghorella enclosure and the urine-soaked straw was collected from the transportation truck. Both these attractants were sprinkled in the forest and it worked again. T3 found T4 and they lived together for three or four days. Then after a few weeks there was another meeting in which mating took place. The Experiment succeeded beyond anybody’s imagination and Dr. Nayak’s dream project culminated in an extraordinary success story. On 15.12.2011, Panna reported the world the first ever breeding success in the wild of an orphaned tigress that was raised by humans. T4 had become the mother of two cubs just after about nine months of her release in PTR.

T4’s first litter about a year old at Panna. Photo FD Panna Tiger Reserve

A tigress that lived in captivity for almost six years finally found freedom and spent a rich and fruitful three and half years of her remaining life – giving birth thrice (one of her litters did not succeed, the cubs were probably predated or perished within three weeks of birth). Yet, she successfully raised five cubs to adulthood in the hot and dusty forests of Panna. On 19 September 2014, she was found dead by the monitoring party, who were searching the area after receiving a mortality signal from her radio collar the previous evening at 6.45 pm. The Field Director and the field staff of Panna arranged a funeral for T4 with tearful eyes.

T4 cremated at Panna. Photo FD Panna Tiger Reserve

T4 lived for nine years and four months; her post-mortem revealed several blue nodules in her large intestine but the wildlife veterinarians could not pinpoint the cause of her untimely death.

A tigress raised by a few men turned out to be a tenacious lady who lived an extraordinary and rich life in a faraway habitat that was quite unlike her original home, as from the moist and cool Sal forests of Kanha she had come to live in the harsher and drier Kardhai and Sagwan forests of Panna.

We will always remember her contribution to the resurrection of the tiger population in Panna with deep admiration. In my view she was the true Queen of Panna.

Photos: Featured image Subharanjan Sen