70 men, five elephants, one tiger, and a month-long chase across the Indian countryside
Tracking down a story can often feel like pursuing a series of dead ends, but this is the tale of years of work, on and off, that eventually led me to India (twice) and found a home on the cover ofThe Economist’sChristmas double issue.
I did not set out to write about tigers. In October 2014, I discovered a neat technical paper that was due to be presented at an obscure computing conference called SenSys, in Memphis, Tennessee. It described a small, low-power radar device that could scan for humans and animals moving in the wild. The system was being tried out on the edge of a reserve in rural India, testing whether it worked for tracking tigers’ movements. Innovations like this, out of academic labs around the world, were bread and butter forNew Scientist, my employer at the time, so I wrote a short piece. On the phone, the researchers told me why their system was being trialled at Panna National Park: a few years before, one of the most important tigers in India had walked out.
The story was something of a journalistic wild goose chase, so I took a week of holiday to go to meet Mr Murthy
For the next three years, this tiger’s escape became an obsession. Details were sparse. Indian newspapers had touched on the tale, but never told it in full. I suspected there was more to say about the tiger, who was named T3, his walkabout across India, and his keepers’ pursuit. I e-mailed and telephoned Indian conservation workers in irregular bouts, rarely getting any more information. Finally, over a year later, I tracked down the personal e-mail address I needed, that of R.Sreenivasa Murthy, who had been Panna’s field director at the time of T3’s escape. On December 11th 2015, I e-mailed to ask him for an interview. One hour later, he wrote back: “Namaste. Why Not? I am interested that you must cover entire Panna Story. For that you have to come to India. Pl plan accordingly for a mutually agreeable date.”
So I did. The story was, at this point, something of a journalistic wild goose chase, so I took a week of holiday to go to meet Mr Murthy (who I call Seenu), and learn the contours of the story. We met at his house in Bhopal, capital of Madhya Prasdesh, on the last Saturday in February 2016. Before arriving, I had only ever read of Bhopal in the pages of a “100 Greatest Disasters” book which I had pored over as a child. It made the list for its 1984 chemical disaster, the world’s worst, which killed up to 16,000 people. As I bumped towards town from the airport, perched on an auto rickshaw, the grit, grime and lack of adherence to my personal view of traffic norms unsettled me.
We soon left Bhopal behind, as Seenu and I motored north towards Panna. In the eight hours of our first day’s drive, we rarely saw a stretch of road that was not lined with people going about their daily lives just inches from the careening traffic. We embarked upon an epic retracing of steps over several days, sleeping in forestry department huts, and rattling around the backroads of Madhya Pradesh by day. We saw where T3 had taken refuge in a field of sugarcane (and Panna’s lead tusker elephant, Rambahadur, had crashed in to drive him back out). We saw the rivers he had crossed and the farmland through which he had padded. Finally, we saw the peaceful patch of forest in which, on Christmas day in 2009, the tiger had been tranquilised. Forestry workers treated Seenu like a hero wherever he went, such is his fame for his exploits as head of Panna. We ate together for a week, piles of Indian flatbread and bowls of dal, endlessly replenished.
The trip proved to me that this was a story worth telling, but I did not get all the material I needed in that week. The story needed to trace the tiger’s journey precisely across the Indian countryside, and I had only the outline. I returned in October 2017, this time reporting forThe Economist. Working without Seenu (but with other help), I retraced T3’s journey out of Panna: I tracked down people who had seen him and villagers who had been part of efforts to drive him back into the park, using a wall of fire two kilometres long.
It is now more than three years since I picked up the first tendrils of T3’s story. I’ve spent months pulling on threads and weaving the story together. Telling it feels like removing a huge neural splinter from my mind. I hope you get a sense of this in the final piece, and enjoy retracing T3’s extraordinary journey as much as I did.
Hal Hodson is technology correspondent atThe Economist. His story “老虎的故事”appeared in the Christmas issue ofThe Economiston December 23rd 2017.