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First Royal Bengal Tiger photographed in Neora Valley National Park in Darjeeling

DARJEELING : After dropping his customers at Pedong near the Sikkim border, driver Anmol Chhetri was returning to Lava in Darjeeling district of West Bengal. While negotiating a curve at around 7 am on Wednesday, he saw something unusual behind a rock in the mountain slope – a beast with yellow and black stripes. Before realising what it was, Anmol found himself pressing the brakes of his car, taking out his mobile phone, zooming in and clicking pictures of the beast, a Royal Bengal tiger. Anmol’s photograph, one of the first sightings as well as pictorial evidence of the big cat in Neora Valley National Park in Darjeeling district, has sent waves of elation throughout north Bengal. The last time north Bengal was witness to a tiger was that of a corpse of the big cat mowed down by a train in Coochbehar district in June 2007, some 16 km from Jaldapara National Park. According to a Wildlife Institute of India census in 2014, there were only three tigers in north Bengal. That too, the census was based in indirect evidence through tracking of pug marks. Pictorial evidence was never found. 

The first thing Anmol did was to alert the wildlife department, who sent their officials to the spot to verify the picture. On reaching the spot, the officials found pug marks of the big cat, its excreta and a half-eaten cow, which confirmed the existence of the tiger in Neora Valley National Park, sources revealed. Principal Wildlife Conservator of West Bengal, Pradeep Vyas said that the last time a tiger was spotted in Neora Valley was 40 years ago. The pictorial evidence has bolstered demands to make the 88 sq km national park, that extends well up to Sikkim and Bhutan, as a tiger reserve. Though pug marks have been found in Buxa tiger reserve in neighbouring Alipurduar district, none have been sighted, which forest officials say is because most of the big cats dwell near the Bhutan border and well inside the Himalayan kingdom. "Neora Valley's inaccessibility and isolation ensures that it is well off the tourist circuit. This may be the reason why the tiger chose this Himalayan pine forest area as the new home. 

There may be more tigers in the park. Leopards, brown bears and other protected animals have earlier been sighted in Neora Valley National Park," a forest official said. Though some 86 Royal Bengal tigers have been recorded in the latest census in Sundarbans in South 24 Parganas district in south Bengal, the corresponding numbers have been abysmally low in north Bengal despite the presence of large tracts of dense forests in the Dooars region. "Tigers are a very shy animal. And, forests in Dooars including Jaldapara, Gorumara and Hashimara have become a favourite destination of tourists for sightings of wild elephants and bisons. That may be reason for migration of the big cats to isolated forests of southern Bhutan and now Neora Valley," the forest official said. Tigers are known for travelling long distances. The World Wildlife Fund and Global Tiger Forum had recently stated that the latest global census showed that the big cats saw a rise in numbers for the first time in over a century. According to the report, there are 3,890 tigers globally. There were just 3,200 tigers in the wild in 2010. The numbers were 1,00,000 in 1900. 

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