Why tigers turn man-eaters: The T-23 story

T-23, which has killed four humans, is one of the few man-eating tigers in the Nilgiris to be captured alive and sent to a zoo in recent years.
Tiger sitting inside cage in Mysuru zoo
Tiger sitting inside cage in Mysuru zoo
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On October 15, the notorious tiger MDT-23 (Mudumalai Division Tiger 23), known largely as T-23, was captured after a 21-day hunt in and around the Masinagudi Forest Area, led by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department officials from the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. It was an exhausting task, considering that the aged wild cat had managed to survive tranquiliser darts and escape multiple close shaves with the Forest Department search team. 

Nearly 60 forest officials, divided into five teams, five doctors, one drone, 25 camera traps (mobile camera), one net gun, one pepper gun, three sniffer dogs and seven tranquiliser guns were put in place to capture the elusive tiger in the thick forest cover between Masinagudi and Theppakadu in Tamil Nadu. 

At around 2.30 am on October 16, T-23 was transported from Masinagudi to the Chamundi Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre at Koorgalli – a Tiger rescue and rehabilitation centre attached to the Mysuru zoo in Karnataka. This facility is 20 kilometres from Mysuru city and is set in a sprawling expanse of land, with controlled plantations that mimic the natural forests where tigers are found. 

T-23 is special for a reason. Suspected of killing four human beings and regularly preying on village livestock on the forest periphery, he is one of the few alleged man-eating tigers to be captured alive and sent to a zoo by the Forest Department in recent years. T-23 was not killed, thanks to specific orders from the Madras High Court. But years before this, three tigers in the Nilgiris who turned man-eaters were killed by the Forest Department. 

The tiger's next few days at the Chamundi Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre are crucial. Not only do the vets there have to ensure T-23 lives, but studying him will help them solve some parts of the puzzle as to whether this tiger in the Nilgiris region turned a man-eater and whether there is a danger of more tigers turning so, as man-animal conflict increases. 
The Forest Department says that they cannot be entirely sure if T-23 was a man-eater as there are three more tigers in the same area, and only one of the recovered human bodies showed signs that a tiger had eaten parts of the body.

Vets weigh in

Speaking to TNM, Dr Madan V Kompal, veterinary surgeon and radiologist in the Mysuru Zoo said that T-23 was in the anaesthesia recovery phase when he was brought to the centre. After the tranquiliser wore off, the tiger walked into a cage attached to a day kraal - huge grassy paddocks closed off with fences. Here the elderly tiger slept, recovered and ate the food he was fed. The tiger is now recovering from injuries and being kept under observation, the doctor says. 

“Right now I cannot offer a prognosis and confirm that T-23 will survive and thrive in captivity. One positive sign is that he is eating well. We fed him two live chickens and chunks of beef and some other meat and he has eaten it all. But we are waiting to see if he will respond positively to medication and recover,” Dr Madan explains. 

Dr Madan says that unlike animals bred in captivity, all the information about a rescued wild animal is an approximation. “You don’t know its age or its weight, whether it was starving or well-fed, whether it had injuries etc during capture. So treatment protocol too is based on approximations,” he says. 

Each tiger has its own personal history. A few of them turn into notorious man-eating animals. Many of them never visit human habitations in their lifetime. “What we know from existing ethology is that these animals usually avoid human settlements. Tigers are elusive. So, if they do start killing human beings or visiting human settlements on the forest fringes, there are reasons for it,” says Dr Sridhar K, veterinary surgeon at Arignar Anna Zoological Park near Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Initially, T-23 was to be shifted to the Arignar Anna Zoo soon after its capture. However, after consultation with the National Tiger Commission, it was transported to Mysuru zoo. 

Dr Sridhar says that tigers are highly territorial creatures, and in the wild they hunt and live within their territory. “Generally, this is 30-35 square kilometre per adult male tiger. During mating season, they allow female tigers to enter their territory but two dominant males will not be found in the same territory,” he explains. 

When a tiger cub is about 2.5 months old it leaves its mother to mark out new territory for itself. This sometimes results in conflicts with other tigers and the ousting of older or weaker tigers from their lairs. “While a tiger generally avoids human territory, in some cases they do visit villages and turn into man-eaters. Generally, these are older and weaker or injured big cats, who are driven out from their territory, and land up at the margins of human habitation looking for easy prey,” Dr Sridhar says. 

“Age or previous injuries weaken their running and hunting functionality, and this forces them to look for easy prey, such as livestock, which is found in human habitations. Sometimes, when they come across a human being, they panic and attack. It can also be accidental,” Dr Sridhar explains. 

Much of T-23’s description fits the above-mentioned attributes. He is an aged tiger – about 12-15 years old – that lived in the wild. Tigers can live up to 15 years in the wild and 20 years in captivity. T-23 has so far killed over 20 livestock (cattle and goats) and four human beings, including an 85-year-old man. The tiger was turning into a menace for residents in Gudalur and Masinagudi. 

“We don’t know the exact reasons for him killing humans, it could be age or his injuries. But T-23 also had several injuries on his nasal region, thorax and chest. While some of them have healed with fresh tissue growing over the wounds, some of them remain infected. This reduced his hunting functionality and could have affected his health,” says Dr Madan who is treating T-23.

Injuries and age

Dr Madan says that apart from the healed slit on T-23’s nasal cavity, the tiger had active and infected wounds. “There was a maggot-infested wound with lots of maggots on his left side. His right arm was swollen and when we checked, there was an active wound. Both the tiger’s left and right chest cavity has multiple wounds. There are also plenty of lacerations. Some of these are not fully healed and could only be 10-15 days old. We gave him antibiotics and antiseptic treatment after cleaning the wounds. We are waiting to see if he responds well to the wound management procedures we are following,” he says. While no reason can be confirmed, Dr Sridhar and Dr Madan say that injuries on the animal, coupled with his age, could have slowed down his functionalities. 


On allegations of T-23 being over-sedated by the Forest Department teams, Dr Madan adds that it is difficult to gauge the required amounts of tranquiliser needed simply because there is no known information about the big cat. "Tranquilising and its effect depend on many factors – the height and physical attributes of the tiger, whether it was starving or if it had just eaten, injuries on its body, the jungle and land terrain etc. We cannot determine any of this. All of this data is an approximation from observing the animal from afar. So, the Forest Department vets take a calculated risk when it comes to sedation,” he explains. 

Dr Madan adds that the Chamundi Rehabilitation Centre has several tigers, some of them man-eaters, who were rescued from other forest regions. “Each tiger here comes with its own history. T-23 is not the first man-eating tiger to be rescued and brought here. Some of them were brought from the Nagarhole Forest range and had been named man-eaters after many man-animal conflicts. They were rescued and brought here. Others were brought as they were frequently entering villages. It takes some time to get acclimatised to life in captivity, but eventually they get used to it,” he says. 

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