On December 9, a young Indian bison, wandered into a quiet bungalow society in Pune city, located at the foothills of an offshoot of the Western Ghats. About ten hours later, it was dead.
The unexpected appearance of the large animal in a busy area of the city, an excited crowd and an intense rescue operation all left behind lessons, and questions, about managing occurrences of wildlife in human-dominated areas.
The range of the Indian bison (Bos gaurus) in India, starts in the Western Ghats around the outskirts of Pune city. Also known as gaur, the bovine has been spotted a handful of times in the sparsely populated hill ranges near Pune. However, wildlife experts and the forest department do not know where this particular sub-adult came from. It could have come from the Konkan region, where gaur are numerous, and through Tamhini Ghat, which also has its own gaur population. Gaurs have also been leaving forests and protected areas for food and water, leading to increased human-wildlife conflict in other parts of Maharashtra like Radhanagri Sanctuary (Kolhapur). In this year itself, in Maharashtra, gaurs have been spotted in Yavatmal, Nagpur, Raigad and Buldhana, either after a long gap or for the first time in recorded history.
On December 22 in fact, another gaur was spotted in Pune near the Mumbai-Bangalore highway in Sutarwadi area, roughly seven-km from where the first gaur was seen on December 9. The strategy for this rescue mission was to nudge it back to its habitat. The efforts were successful with it moving away to its natural habitat by the end of the day. Deputy Conservator of Forest, Pune region, Rahul Patil shared that the forest department is planning to carry out a detailed study on gaurs in the area.
The rescue operation begins
Early on December 9 morning, the gaur, estimated to be three-year-old or four-year-old, was spotted in the residential Mahatma Society in the Kothrud area of Pune. Security guards had been following the gaur since 5.30 am. The RESQ Charitable Trust, which leads several wildlife rescue missions in and around the city, learnt of the gaur’s presence and immediately alerted the forest department.
The police, Pune Municipal Corporation staff, and fire department officers also reached the location by 8 am. The plan was to tranquilise the gaur, which was in an open plot.
Maharashtra State Wildlife Board member Anuj Khare shared that one of the area’s tranquiliser guns was in neighbouring Solapur for the operation to capture a man-eating leopard.
The first lesson: Have adequate tranquiliser guns
“There must be adequate tranquiliser guns,” said Khare, adding that a lot of time was spent waiting for the gun to arrive from Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park and Wildlife Research Center in Katraj, about 14-km away.
The “golden hour’ for rescuing the bovid was rapidly slipping away, and a moderate crowd had gathered to ogle at it.
Lesson two: Involve local people
Deputy Conservator of Forest, Rahul Patil, shared that a volunteer base was going to be created for awareness and help in controlling the situation during this golden hour. He said, “We will give the volunteers rescue training and basic equipment too.”
Neha Panchamia, the founder and president of RESQ Charitable Trust, also stressed on the need to make full use of the golden hour to safely capture the wild animal, for which crowd control is crucial. Crowd control is the police department’s task.
Lesson three: Quick response with reinforcements
“Pune is not used to such situations, but when the forest department asks for support from the police for mob control related to wildlife encroachment, it is crucial that they send enough reinforcement at the earliest,” said Panchamia.
Lesson four: Departments should know the animal behaviour to decide a crowd control strategy
During the rescue operation, Gajanan Pathrudkar, the station duty officer of the Kothrud fire station, and his staff were wondering if the gaur could be chased back into the hills. Though they had nets and ropes, they were not sure how to deploy them in this case.
Pathrudkar shared that they did not know how the animal would respond to their movements.
Lesson five: Specialised barricades and equipment must be developed
When the first tranquiliser dart was finally fired, the gaur managed to flick it away. At this point, the gaur panicked and though the lanes were blocked by the fire truck, it managed to escape through a tiny gap. Pathrudkar believes that specialised barricades and equipment must be developed to rescue and capture different animals.
On the run
The gaur ran further into Mahatama Society. By now, the news of the gaur was already being shared widely on WhatsApp. Every person on the route the gaur took, had images and videos on their mobile. Patil was concerned about the rapid spread of rumours which cause panic and also lead to incorrect information reaching the forest department.
Lesson six: People should use social media carefully and responsibility
One such rumour doing the rounds was that the gaur was from the small hill behind Mahatama Society. Arnav Gandhe, wildlife enthusiast and engineering student, refuted the rumour: “It is impossible that such a large mammal could live here.”
Patil’s advice was, “People should use social media carefully and responsibility.”
Lesson seven: Media must have guidelines
The operation was also being broadcast live on ABP Majha, a Marathi news channel.
Khare said firmly, “The media must stop giving live locations.” Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife West Mumbai) Sunil Limaye believes that the media needs to be told what not to do, while Patil cautioned the media about putting their life in danger while collecting footage.
Panchamia too had advice for the media: “Please let the rescue operation finish and then everybody will give you whatever you want – pictures, statements, everything. But when the rescue operation is going on, back off!”
A little before noon, the animal, estimated to be over 700-kg, had reached the busy Paud road, covering a distance of over 3-km. Limaye shared that gaur do not usually run. The gaur was tired, bleeding from its snout, and probably thirsty and hungry.
Lesson eight: People must stay away from the wild animal
“People were chasing him on the bike, screaming and shouting,” said a troubled Panchamia. “Things could have been easily controlled if people had not crossed the barricades or chased him around on two-wheelers.”
There were also locals trying to rope it on their own, doing “heroic” acts, said an exasperated Panchamia.
Ultimately, following the day’s attempts to rescue it, the gaur got trapped in a narrow compound of a society off Paud Road. By then, the rescue teams had closed in with their ropes and nets. The chaotic crowd was also pressing in with hundreds of cameras, people had climbed onto the compound wall.
Lesson nine: Maximum police staff is required during wildlife rescues
“The authorities kept asking people to quiet down, but it made no difference,” said Kulkarni.
“What are you going to do if you are 20 people to 30 people against a mob of 600, that has gone out of control?” exclaimed Panchamia. Police inspector (Kothrud) Balasaheb Bade tried hard to keep people away, but this was the biggest learning from the incident for him: maximum police staff is required during wildlife rescues.
“Lathis or sirens should have been used, but they told people verbally (to stay away),” said Khare. “If the police knew their role, the situation would have been different.”
In the cramped compound, the gaur was finally shot with the tranquiliser. When an animal is sedated, it needs space and quiet to go down, otherwise, it fights the sedation. When the gaur collapsed finally, the RESQ vet could not reach the animal for a while because he could not get past the crowd. Remember lesson eight? Stay away!
The heavy gaur was then trussed up in the rope and net, a bloodied rag was thrown over its eyes, and it was dragged into a truck by over 15 people amidst calls by the crowds to warrior kings and gods. As the limp body of the gaur was stuffed into the truck, cheers and whistles broke out in the crowd.
They had no idea that the young gaur could suffer from capture myopathy. In simple words, it was so exhausted and stressed that its heart failed a few hours after it was captured.
Lesson 10: Training and communication of involved authorities
It was evident that urban authorities were not prepared to handle a wild animal in the city. Limaye said, “Now, drills between the forest department and the police have to be done.” Khare added that the allied departments have to be taught the standard operating procedure for human-gaur conflict, which has been ready since 2015, and coordination between involved departments is required.
The security agency of Mahatama Society was also willing to participate in training.
Lesson 11: Officials could have a uniform in times of rescue operation
Khare also shared that while Deputy Conservator of Forests Patil was doing an excellent job of directing the rescue operation, other officials did not know who he was. The Deputy Conservator of Forests (and other officials) could have a uniform in times of rescue operation.
Lesson 12: Section 144 must be put in place immediately
Additionally, said Limaye, Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (prohibits the assembly of four or more people in an area) must be put in place immediately: lesson 12. Panchamia was doubtful that Section 144 can be implemented so fast as there are protocols, but hopes that it becomes the norm as it is most needed. Khare and Patil both were also of the opinion that Section 144 would help control the situation.
At the end of the day, Panchamia believes that everyone is going to learn from this. She said, “Nobody is happy about what happened.”
The final lesson: Conserve land and hills as corridors and buffer areas
And finally, Patil connects the death of the gaur with the problem of land-use change.
“This is about development versus conservation,” said Patil. He added that the land and hills which now have infrastructure were animal corridors in the past. Travel routes for animals have closed, and they are increasingly venturing into urban spaces, explained Patil.
Khare adds, “Green cover will act as a buffer area between two corridors, and wild animals like the gaur will not come into the city.”
Some of these lessons came in use when another gaur strayed into the city shortly after, on December 22. With around 200 personnel involved, the operation that day ended around 7.30 pm when the gaur left the area for its natural habitat.
“Our stand right from the beginning was that we would not tranquilise the gaur,” said Deputy Conservator of Forest for Pune region Rahul Patil. During this rescue operation, Patil urged people not to provoke the gaur.
The forest department and RESQ Charitable Trust patrolled the area through the night to ensure safety.
Local residents of Sutarwadi area, where this gaur was spotted, said they often see gaur in the area. “The gaur has never disturbed our rice crop,” said Ajay Ranpise. “If people cooperate, it will not trouble anyone.”
Biodiversity expert Sachin Punekar highlighted an important takeaway, “Instead of being in conflict, we have to coexist and cohabit with gaur, there is no other way.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.
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