About 23 kilometres away from Pathanamthitta town in Kerala lies Thannithode, a gram panchayat with a population of about 13,000 people. Hundreds of people in this panchayat have not come out of their homes for the past four days. No, this is not due to the lockdown on account of the coronavirus pandemic. The families in the region are terrorised by a tiger, which recently mauled a man to death in broad daylight and is still on the run.
It was at noon on Thursday that Bineesh Mathew, a resident of Anchukuzhy ward in Thannithode, was attacked by a tiger while he was working in his rubber plantation.
The residents in the region are petrified and have had sleepless nights ever since the incident.
âI have been living in this place for the past 65 years. Not once have I heard such an incident. Though we encounter instances of wild animals killing livestock and destroying crops, people say that it is the first time a human was attacked. That too he was attacked in broad daylight. It is very shocking for us,â says MK Mathew, a panchayat member of Panchayat Padi ward.
Thannithode is predominantly a plantation region with hundreds of acres of land owned by the Plantation Corporation of Kerala Limited (PCKL). The region shares borders with the adjoining forest areas of the Ranni Forest Division.
Pathanamthitta district collector PB Nooh has declared prohibitory orders (Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code) in the two wardsâ Anchukuzhy and Panchayat Padiâ of the local body. Though forest officials stationed in the region have spotted the animal on surveillance cameras, the tiger is yet to be caught.
The prohibitory order will be in place till the tiger is caught and transported to the wild.
According to people in the region, it is the first time a tiger has been spotted in the area.
âUsually, we used to have trouble with wild boars, elephants and even spotted leopards. But this is the first time we are spotting a tiger. Half-an-hour after Bineeshâs body was discovered, forest officials and a few residents spotted the animal around the same region where the attack happened,â Indira MS, a ward member from Anchukuzhy, tells TNM.
On the same day that Bineesh was killed, she says, another family spotted the tiger in front of their house at night.
âThe man in that house had come out at night to go to the toilet and he saw the animal sniffing clothes that were hung outside. He went back into the house. Keeping an eye on the animal through the window, the family called forest officials and panchayat members. But something fell and hearing the noise, the tiger went elsewhere,â she says, describing the incident.
Forest officials intensify search
Though the tiger was spotted on the same day the man was attacked, it had escaped. The following day, officials set-up cages and surveillance cameras in the area.
âWe spotted the tiger in the drone camera that was used on Friday. The animal is yet to be trapped. On Sunday, there were reports that a cow was killed by some animal in Chittar, which is the other side of the forest area where the man was attacked. We are not sure what the new attack was,â says KS Manoj, Range Forest Officer of the flying squad in Ranni.
Officials said that âkumkiâ elephants (captive elephants used to trap wild animals) have also been brought from Wayanad district to Thannithode, to help the operation.
A team of officials under the aegis of forest veterinary officersâ to shoot tranquilizersâ are also camping in the spot.
Forest Minister K Raju, while visiting the place, announced that the government will give a solatium of Rs 10 lakh to the family of the deceased.
âLife at a standstill, againâ
With the restrictions on the COVID-19 lockdown easing, it had been only a few days since people in the region had begun returning to work.
âLife here has come to a standstill. After the lockdown, people have only just started to go for work because of the relaxation. But once again, people here are confined to their homes. Most of them are not financially sound people. Everyone has to go out and work for a living, by raising livestock, doing plantation work or through wages from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA). Unless the tiger is caught, it will not be possible for people to go to work,â points out Indira.
Indira shares the plight of many who have toilets outside their homes and are finding it difficult to go out during the night because of the tiger scare.
Meanwhile, residents have complained that the Plantation Corporation, a public sector company of the state government, which owns hundreds of acres of plantations, is not maintaining them well.
âWe cannot clearly distinguish whether this is a plantation or a forest. The place is in such a condition. Seeing the condition, Minister of Forest K Raju, who visited the place after the attack happened, has directed the Plantation Corporation officials to clean the place,â adds Indira.