In 2009, a Bengal tiger cub was rescued from India’s Dhaba forest range, left helpless after the disappearance of its mother. Over the next few years, keepers at the Bor Wildlife Sanctuary raised the orphan, named Bhangaram, to adulthood in hopes of one day releasing him back into the wild.
But, as it turns out, not only was the tiger out of the jungle, the jungle seemed to be out of him.
Staff at the wildlife sanctuary recently released a live goat into the now full-grown male tiger’s enclosure as a way of triggering its predatory instincts. However, as opposed attacking the helpless animal, the unusually docile tiger did quite the opposite.
Keepers had hoped the beast would make a quick kill. To their astonishment and horror, the tiger instead decided to make friends with its intended meal. For two days, the tiger did not kill the goat despite being hungry. Instead it played with it; at one point even playfully dumping it in an artificial waterhole. Finally, the goat was shifted out and the tiger was given beef to eat.
Although the thought of a normally ferocious tiger ‘befriending’ his intended meal might seem like an adorable turn for the predator, conservationists say there is nothing cute about the big cat’s unwillingness to kill. In fact, Bhangaram’s temperate behavior may mean he will never be reintroduced to the wild where tiger numbers are in decline.
“I fear the male tiger is not fit for release,” says veteran conservationist MS Chouhan.
Since the early 1970s, the Indian government has established wildlife sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers in hopes preserving Bengal tigers, driven to near extinction from poaching and other conflicts with humans. But, as conservationists have learned, when young cubs are rescued after the loss of their mother, they often lack the hunting skills only she can teach them.
Sadly, even once rescued tigers are returned to the wild, they are more prone to the same violent run-ins with humans that may have befallen their parent. Tiger experts say that animals which have lived in captivity are more likely to prey on cattle, which in turn puts them at risk of being killed by farmers. In other words, the loss of even a single tiger can have ramifications lasting for generations.
Despite these challenges, conservationists have reported that the number of tigers in India has increased by over 15 percent in recent years. All told, however, tiger populations throughout the world have dropped 96.8 percent over the last two decades from poaching and habitat loss