- Departments responsible for wildlife rescue operations, caught unprepared when a sub-adult gaur entered Pune city on December 9, need to look at equipment, coordination across agencies and standard operating procedures.
- A large crowd, which arrived due to widespread messages and curiosity, surrounded the rescue teams, hampered the operation and stressed the gaur, which reportedly led to its death.
- While it is still unclear where the gaur came from, the destruction of habitat and corridors is causing an increasing number of gaur to wander into human settlements.
- On December 22 another gaur was spotted in Pune roughly 7 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 and the efforts were successful with it moving away to its natural habitat by the end of the day.
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 don’t 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. Gaur 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, gaur 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 7 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 gaur in the area.
The rescue operation begins
Early on December 9 morning, the gaur, estimated to be three or four years old, was spotted in the residential Mahatma Society in the Kothrud area of Pune. Security guards had been following the gaur since 5.30 a.m. 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 a.m. 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.
This is the first lesson: 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.
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.” Lesson two: involve local people.
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.
“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 three: quick response with reinforcements.
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 didn’t know how the animal would respond to their movements. This is lesson four: Involved departments should know the characteristic behaviour of the animal to decide a strategy and for crowd control.
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: lesson five.
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. 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 responsibly.” That’s lesson six.
The operation was also being broadcast live on ABP Majha, a Marathi (regional language) 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!” Lesson seven is for the media: must have guidelines.
A little before noon, the animal estimated to be over 700 kgs, had reached the busy Paud road, covering a distance of over 3 km. Limaye shared that gaur don’t usually run. The gaur was tired, bleeding from its snout, and probably thirsty and hungry.
“People were chasing him on the bike, screaming and shouting. Things could have been easily controlled if people hadn’t crossed the barricades or chased him around on two-wheelers,” said a troubled Panchamia.
There were also locals trying to rope it on their own, doing “heroic” acts, said an exasperated Panchamia. Lesson eight is a simple one for the people: stop at barricades, don’t chase wild animals, no heroic acts. Stay away from the wild animal.
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.
“The authorities kept asking people to quiet down, but it made no difference,” said Kulkarni.
“What are you going to do if you are 20-30 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: lesson nine.
“Lathis or sirens should have been used, but they told people verbally (to stay away). If the police knew their role, the situation would have been different,” said Khare.
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 couldn’t reach the animal for a while because he couldn’t 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.
It was evident that urban authorities were not prepared to handle a wild animal in the city. Limaye says, “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 trainings. Lesson 10: training and communication of involved authorities.
Khare also shared that while DCF Patil was doing an excellent job of directing the rescue operation, other officials didn’t know who he was. The DCF (and other officials) could have a uniform in times of rescue operation: lesson 11.
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.”
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 won’t come into the city.” So the final lesson: Conserve land and hills as corridors and buffer areas.
Rescue operation of the gaur that was spotted in Pune on December 22. Video by Tushar Sarode.
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 p.m. when the gaur left the area for its natural habitat. “Our stand right from the beginning was that we wouldn’t tranquilise the gaur,” said Deputy Conservator of Forest for Pune region Rahul Patil. During this rescue operation, DCF 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. If people cooperate, it won’t trouble anyone,” said Ajay Ranpise.
Biodiversity expert Sachin Punekar highlighted an important takeaway, “Instead of being in conflict, we have to coexist and cohabit with gaur, there’s no other way.
Read more: Oh My Gaur! Living alongside the Indian bison that’s moving out of forests
Banner image: The gaur passed through densely populated and constructed areas. Photo by Center for Citizen Science.