NEW DELHI — When park rangers in India discovered three orphaned tiger cubs, they knew they had a challenge on their hands.
Suspicious of humans and rejecting bottles, the rangers needed to get creative if they wanted to nurse the protected cubs back to health.
India’s tiger population is on the rebound after hitting a low in 2006 of 1,411. India is home to nearly 65% of the world’s tigers which number about 3,890, according to the latest figures from the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum.
Park rangers at the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh came up with the idea of fitting a stuffed toy tiger with synthetic nipples and milk bottles for the cubs to feed from.
“When the calf of a buffalo dies, villagers will use a dummy calf to get milk from the buffalo. It’s the smell of the calf which stimulates the lactation in the mother,” Mridul Pathak, a field director at Bandhavgarh reserve where the cubs were taken for rehabilitation, told CNN.
The cubs were discovered 150 miles away in Sanjay-Dubri Tiger Reserve on January 19, three days after the body of their mother was found buried in a riverbank.
She was killed after walking across a rudimentary electrical fence set up by farmers.
An autopsy confirmed that the tigress had milk in her teats, which meant she’d had cubs recently.
Close to death
Sanjay-Dubri Tiger Reserve, like all of India’s 50 tiger conservation areas, keeps a tab on all their tigers.
The tigress was identified as “T1” and, according to their records, she had given birth to three cubs in December.
The cubs were close to death when they were brought to Bandhavgarh.
“They were starving and not even able to walk properly. Had we not reacted immediately, they would have died,” said Pathak.
“The rehabilitation of wild animals is a step-by-step process. Unlike human beings, we cannot use a needle and rehydrate the body because as soon as you use a needle on a wild animal, they get scared and most of them die so rehabilitation has to be done orally,” explained Pathak.
The cubs have been feeding from the stuffed animal since.
Pathak’s plan is to release them into the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, which has a population of 85 tigers.
The National Tiger Conservation Survey estimates India’s current tiger population to be at 2,500, up from 2,226 tigers recorded in its last survey in 2014. A century ago, around 45,000 wild tigers roamed the country.
According to Pathak, the key lies in striking a balance between India’s growing human population and reviving its tiger population.
“The farmers that set up the electrical wiring that killed the tigress are agriculture farmers. They want to protect their crops from herbivores such as deer. They laid down bamboo sticks and spread a naked wire and connected it to an 1100-kv line but this is illegal,” he said.
Pathak, who’s been working to protect tigers for more than 15 years, remains positive about the future of India’s national animal.
“The Indian government has come with the idea of creating a buffer zone around every national park and creating corridors between reserves so that the tigers can move, integrate and mix with other populations and their genes and continue to grow in numbers on their own.”