Introduction

Sunderbans News

Sunderbans loses Tanti, the 'keeper' of its Tigers

Kolkata: He dared to look the tiger in the eye in the treacherous Sunderbans terrain, often without a gun. He would crouch in the bushes for hours, swim across the Matla or camp outside a village hut to help capture a straying tiger. In an illustrious career that lasted 33 adventurous years, Gopal Tanti is believed to have tranquillized 84 tigers, a dozen elephants and several rhinos.

The ace shooter, who worked as a research assistant with the Sunderban Tiger Reserve (STR), passed away on Tuesday morning after a protracted illness that had severely restricted his mobility. He was 56. He is survived by his wife and daughter.

Tanti is credited with having revolutionised the method of capturing straying animals, especially tigers, and sending them back into the forest. Having joined the STR as a strapping 24-year-old in 1977, Tanti quickly established himself as the leader of the tranquillizing team. The process of capturing straying tigers was yet to be welldeveloped then. Various methods were being tried out and the success rate was fairly low.

Tanti, with his raw courage and love for the tiger, developed his own style, throwing caution to the winds. He learnt his ropes under veteran shooter Shankar Ghosh but didn't care too much for methods. He would walk straight into the tiger's den and shoot a dart from very close range. Initially, it was dubbed too dangerous by both forest guards and his superiors who refused to accompany him during tranquillizing expeditions.

Undeterred, Tanti often went ahead alone. Once, he surprised everyone by tranquilizing a Bengal tiger in the dark, shooting the animal in the dim light of a torch that he carried. He went in with a torch in one hand and a dart gun in the other. Creeping through dense undergrowth, when he came face to face with the burning eyes of the big cat, his nerves did not flinch. Neither did his aim.

On another occasion, he kept floating in a village pond - alongside a drowsy tiger he had tranquillized. Tanti knew the tiger was about to fall unconscious and he did not want it to drown.

His methods were unconventional but they worked. Since the mid-Eighties he was given a free hand. "He had an uncanny ability to sniff out a straying tiger. He would look at the animal and prescribe the exact dosage of the tranquillizer. And then follow it up by deftly shooting the dart. Tanti was not only an expert shooter but a great conservationist. It was he who helped fine-tune the tranquilizing system in Sunderbans," said Pranabesh Sanyal, former director, STR.

Revolution Man

Gopal Tanti, who died aged 56 on Tuesday, is credited with having revolutionised the method of capturing straying tigers and sending them back into the forest

Tanti developed his own tranquillizing style - he would walk straight up to the tiger and shoot a dart from very close range

Once, he floated along side a tranquillized tiger in a village pond to prevent it from drowning. It was his love for the animal that motivated him

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Fearless shooter who loved Tigers

Sunderbans Foresters Struggle To Replace Legendary Gopal Tanti

Kolkata: It was a chilly, winter evening at Heronmoyipur village in Jharkhali, Sunderbans, 24 years ago. Residents were crouching in their homes, their doors shut tight. A Bengal tiger was on the prowl. It had stationed itself in a bamboo bush in the village. Not even forest guards dared to approach the bush.

That was till Gopal Tanti - the ace tranquillizer shooter - arrived at the scene. It was to be his first encounter with a tiger but the young marksman was not jittery. Armed with his gun, he headed straight for the spot though it was already dark. Barring a young assistant who carried a searchlight, Tanti had none with him. The forest guards stood at least 500 metres away from the bush.

Crouching on the ground, Tanti crawled along the muddy undergrowth to within 40 feet of the animal. As the searchlight fell on it, the tiger bared its fangs and roared.

Tanti looked the tiger in the eye, not moving his gaze even for a second. After a tense 15 minutes, he gestured to his assistant to turn the light to a neighbouring bush to divert the big cat's attention. For a few fleeting seconds, darkness engulfed the animal and it was left confused. Tanti took aim, fired a shot and scampered out of the bush. The dart hit the tiger on its left shoulder. It fell unconscious within the next 15 minutes.

"I could hear my heart pounding but I didn't lose my nerve. I knew if I fired with the tiger staring at me, it would charge and kill me. I had to take a chance by firing in the dark, which I did and it worked," Tanti had told TOI in an interview some time back.

The forest department has struggled to replace him ever since a debilitating neurological disorder forced him to part with his gun two years ago. Now, with him gone, it's going to be even more difficult.

Tanquillizing operations have repeatedly gone awry in his absence. Even as the number of tiger strayings spiralled, the less experienced shooters have been messing it up. In 2007, a tigress mauled four villagers half an hour after it had been 'tranquillized'. Last December, a tiger died after being shot, apparently due to an overdose of the drug. The animal had mauled three, including shooter Krishnapada Mondol.

Wildlife experts fear that the art of tranquillization might die if efforts are not made to train youngsters with the skill and the temperament. "They must get those who love the sheer thrill of venturing close to a wild animal. Only those who get a kick out of taking the risk and have the courage to gamble with their lives can do it. Gopal Tanti was so successful for he didn't see the tiger as an enemy. He loved tigers and wanted to get close to them," said Bittu Sehgal, conservationist and tiger expert.

The ace shooter has inspired many to take up the job. Take Krishnapada Mondol for instance. The beat officer volunteered to join a shooters' training inspired by Tanti. "Having worked with Gopal-da for years, I wanted to be in his shoes. I knew it was a risky job but the thrill of encountering a royal Bengal was just too much to resist," said Mondol.

But experts point out that tranquillizing operations were increasingly going out of control, which was a bad sign. "It shows they are either choosing the wrong people or are just failing to organize it properly," says Pranabesh Sanyal, former director of Sunderban Tiger Reserve.

Tanti was considered an expert on prescribing the right tranquillizing dose. "It's partly training and partly instinct. Dosage has to be decided on the basis of the animal's weight, age and appearance. My assessment proved right every time barring one," Tanti had said. In 1986, a tiger shot by him died of katamine overdose. "But that was an exception. Now, they are getting it wrong frequently," said Sanyal.

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Tanti's lesson: Don't kill a straying cat

Kolkata: With Pranabesh Sanyal, former director, STR, Gopal Tanti forged a partnership that effectively curbed the tendency to kill a straying tiger in the Sunderbans. "He helped prove that tigers could be safely captured and sent back. It was a big step and the results are now there for all to see," added Sanyal. Gradually, Tanti moved on to training and supervision. He trained countless shooters till a neurological disorder left him crippled in 2004. "All my tranquillizing expeditions seem like a happy dream. But I can recall each of them and I miss the forest and the tiger," Tanti had told TOI during an interview last year. Principal chief conservator of forests Atanu Raha described him as a daring forester dedicated to the cause of conservation. "We would still seek his advice on tranquillization regularly," he said. Anjan Guha, assistant field director, STR, described him as an authority on Sunderbans. "He was the guru of tranquillization and will be sorely missed," said Guha. In 2009, Tanti received a lifetime achievement award from the state forest department for his contribution in the field of conservation. "Gopal Tanti has left behind a legacy that will be hard to maintain. He lived and breathed with the Bengal tiger. Sunderbans will be poorer without him," said Bittu Sahgal, conservationist and wildlife writer.