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Drum beating on a panther safari

Vandalur, we are told, is actually panther country. There is a natural panther habitat in this suburb, where there are enough bushes away from the concrete jungle to hide.


One of its wild cousins is keeping the zoo closed.

THE VANDALUR Zoo, a favourite haunt of many, a picnicking spot with exotic creatures, is today a silent oasis of life. It has remained closed to visitors for a full fortnight.

The still air of Arignar Anna Zoological Park is broken only by the occasional cries of the animal and the conversation of zoo workers, who are roaming the vast landscape looking for a `panther' that has foxed them completely.

It might sound ironic, but there is nothing subtle about the search for the panther. In fact, it is a virtual panther safari. The forest officials are out in strength and on the prowl with pistols and tranquiliser guns, while their men move around with crude sticks.

Except for the jeeps, battery-operated vans and the tractor carrying workers from one place to the other, the zoo is deserted.

Though it is one of their own wild cousins which is the most sought-after carnivore in the State, the rest of the animals remained cooped up in their enclosures _ because they might be attacked themselves by it.

The search for the panther has come to acquire a touch of the comic, as much as the tragic. The stray animal killed a Sangai deer and a fawn, but rather than use stealth to watch it, the forest officers are going the whole hog to drive it out of the bush with a lot of drum beating.

Vandalur, we are told, is actually panther country. There is a natural panther habitat in this suburb, where there are enough bushes away from the concrete jungle to hide.

So is it a lion or a panther? Some of the women workers are sure that they saw a lion (a case of failed zoo education?). The officials are sure it is a panther.

There is little of the high tech at Vandalur. That backwardness starts with the absence of night vision binoculars anywhere, to the use of crude leg traps, which could kill any animal that comes in contact with it.

There is of course no such thing as a camera trigger mechanism, which is used to look for an elusive animal, and is the forte of international societies.

What about the machchans (thatched watch towers) created inside? But for a couple of these, most are rudimentary structures with hardly enough space for the people posted to stay on top to try and tranquilise the animal.

In the wild, things are different. The area is cordoned off and a few dedicated personnel have to patiently watch for the animal silently, while live bait is kept in a trap.

None of this in the zoo, though. The animal has very smartly avoided human beings, while making a couple of kills, and even sniffing at the vehicle of the foresters when they were yards away. Operation Panther could never get the quarry to come close to any of its traps. This is a species that has learnt the art of survival, from humans who have been having an easy life.

The only thing working for the authorities is the sand bed idea, put up at various places to trace pugmarks. Spreading brown soil to form a bed close to an enclosure, at a point where the zoo officials hope, the animal will cross. Soon after the crossing is made, the pugmarks get imprinted on the sand bed. This would just help the species to be identified. Even with this, the authorities are a confused lot and have wasted a fortnight without a breakthrough.

So will the real panther please stand up, so that its animal lover friends can go to the zoo again?

By P. Oppili

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