Mumbai: A huge search operation is underway in India to find the country’s most famous tiger.
Seven-year-old Jai won the hearts of millions when he went on an epic trek three years ago to find a mate, and he has legions of fans across the subcontinent. But Jai, who was named after Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s character in 1975 classic Sholay, has not been seen for three months.
Wildlife officials want to trace him in time for International Tiger Day on Friday, but admit they have no idea where he is. The state government in Maharashtra, in western India, is offering a 50,000 rupee (US$745) reward to trace the big cat, and hundreds have joined in searches for Jai.
In the eastern district of Nagpur this week, home to the Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary, where Jai lives, worried locals held a pooja, or ceremony, praying that he would be found safe. Some devotees threw religious offerings onto a fire while others held up posters of the missing beast. Jai has been credited with both boosting tourism and helping to repopulate India’s tiger population.
Rohit Karoo, a conversationalist helping to co-ordinate the hunt, said: ‘He’s successfully fathered more than 20 cubs and has boosted the local economy by attracting wildlife enthusiasts. ‘Losing such a majestic tiger would be a great loss for India.’ He said no stone was being left unturned in the bid to find Jai, with the search extending over several hundred kilometres.
Karoo added: ‘Around 10 non-governmental organisations, locals from nearly four hundred villages and forest officials are patrolling the forests in Maharashtra to locate Jai.’ A firm favourite with tourists and conservationists alike, the seven-year-old, 250kg big cat was last seen at the Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary, where he usually lives, on Apr 18.
Tiger expert M S Reddy, field director of the sanctuary, said: ‘Whether he has moved to forest interiors or is with a new mate, no information is available as of yet.’ And Reddy said: ‘Jai is a huge animal. The sanctuary is only 190 sq km. But his territory spread over 550 sq km. ‘That’s thrice the size of the sanctuary. ‘I’m sure Jai has been pushed out of sanctuary by his seven cubs who are trying to find their own territory.’
Forestry rangers said they first become worried about Jai’s fate after his electronic collar stopped transmitting his location three months ago, while tourist sightings of the cat have dried up. India is home to around 2,200 tigers, representing 70 per cent of the world’s endangered tiger population.
Some reports have speculated that Jai may have been wounded in a fight with another tiger, poached by hunters involved in the illegal trade of endangered wildlife or merely fallen sick. However, Karoo was quick to quash such rumours. ‘I don’t think anything bad has befallen him as he is a dominant male tiger with the capacity to travel large distances,’ he said.
This isn’t the first time Jai has gone missing. In early 2013, however, he went missing in Nagzira, prompting fears about his safety. But just as experts were starting to give up hope of locating him again, he turned up in Umred, 150km away. The tiger had passed through some of the most crowded, developed parts of Vidharbha, crossed two highways, one river and hundreds of villages.