A massive search operation is underway in India for the country’s most famous tiger, with millions of adoring fans worried sick about the big cat known as Jai who went missing three months ago.
Named after Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s character in the hit 1975 film “Sholay”, the tiger shot to nationwide fame three years ago after embarking on an epic hike through villages, rivers and perilously dangerous highways in successful pursuit of a mate.
A firm favourite with tourists and conservationists alike, the seven-year-old, 250-kilogram big cat was last seen at the Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary, where he usually lives, on April 18.
Wildlife officials in the western Indian state of Maharashtra launched a massive search operation, hoping to find the beloved animal by Friday — International Tiger Day — but admit they are clueless as to his fate.
“Whether he has moved to forest interiors or is with a new mate, no information is available as of yet,” M.S Reddy, a tiger expert helping the search, told AFP.
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.
The state government has offered a reward of 50,000 rupees ($745) for information on Jai’s location, a small fortune for the hundreds of local villagers engaged in the hunt.
Indian newspapers are carrying daily reports on the latest speculation about where Jai may be or what fate might have befallen him with some claiming reported, but unconfirmed, sightings.
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. A small boy was seen stroking a tiger soft toy in local online news clips of the event.
Jai has been credited with both boosting tourism and helping to repopulate India’s tiger population.
“He’s successfully fathered more than 20 cubs and has boosted the local economy by attracting wildlife enthusiasts,” said Rohit Karoo, a conservationist helping co-ordinate the hunt.
“Losing such a majestic tiger would be a great loss for India.”
Karoo said no stone was being left unturned in the bid to track Jai down in a search extending over several hundred kilometres.
“Around 10 non-governmental organisations, locals from nearly four hundred villages and forest officials are patrolling the forests in Maharashtra to locate Jai,” he told AFP on Thursday.
India is home to around 2,200 tigers, representing 70 percent 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.