It was a sultry summer afternoon in 1997 in Gir, Gujarat, the only place in the world where the Asiatic lion survives, and I was not sweating. Travelling in a Gypsy, the dry, hot forest wind in my face, I was with a deputy conservator of forests and a tracker trailing a lion that, according to locals, had injured itself. It was a three-year-old that had got into a territorial fight with another lion.
The only way to treat the big cat was to tranquilise it.
Then an honorary animal welfare officer of the Animal Welfare Board of India, I was attending a course in handling wild animals. The tip-off gave my tutor, an ace marksman, a chance to give me some on-the-job training.
For more than three hours, the tracker followed every mark the lion had left while searching for a safe spot. We failed.
Having decided to call off the search, we were returning when we received a message that a lioness was to be tranquilised for research purposes at Shakar Baug Zoo in Junagadh. The zoo, about 50 km away from Gir, is also a research centre and has a one-of-its-kind gene bank of the Asiatic lion.
At Sakar Baug, we were met by Dr Sabapara, who has been involved in lion conservation for years.
For more than an hour, he explained a complex formula used to decide the measure of Ketamine and Xylezene, sedatives required to tranquillise the four-year-old lioness.
As the lioness was in an enclosure, we decided to use a blowpipe instead of tranquilising gun. I blew the dart, filled with the sedatives, and missed by a whisker. The second time, I managed to hit the thigh. Soon, the lioness was on the floor, breathing but still. We opened the cage, gently dragged her out. As the veterinarian took blood, hair and saliva samples, the only thought I had was what if it woke up while its head lay in my lap?
“Look at that paw. One blow would be enough to kill you,” said Sabapara. I ignored the comment and concentrated on the big cat.
On Tuesday, when I learnt about the incident at Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Sabapara’s words came back to me.