Picture Post: Cat overboard – West Bengal, 19.02.08

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It is one of the deadliest creatures on the planet, capable of crunching through limbs with a single bite of its vice-like jaw, but look closely at the face of this majestic – and pregnant – royal Bengal tiger and it appears to be displaying not a deadly gnashing of its glistening teeth, but a triumphant smile.

And smile she might, for this leap for freedom into mangrove swamps near the Bay of Bengal yesterday marked the end of a terrifying ordeal for the big cat that began when she strayed into the village of Deulbari, West Bengal, on Monday morning.

Petrified by the invading tiger, thought to be a maneater, villagers hurled stones and burning sticks at the cat, which promptly retreated to the upper levels of a nearby date palm. And there she stayed, licking her wounds for several hours, frozen like a moggy escaping the attentions of a yapping mutt.

Forest guards were quickly on the scene to hatch a rescue plan, but it takes more than an RSPCA cat-catching kit to snare a Bengal.

It took the men 14 hours to tranquillise the beast and lower her safely from her treetop hideaway. After a quick check-up, the guards took the tigress back deep inside the swamp on a boat packed with captivated workers, one of whom can be seen recording the close carnivorous encounter on his mobile phone.

The tiger's treatment at the hands of the villagers might sound cruel, but they can be forgiven for wanting to keep such animals at bay. Royal Bengal tigers kill, maim and, sometimes, eat as many as 100 people a year in the Sundarbans forest, which lies 150 miles south of Calcutta.

Hundreds more are injured by the animals, whose diet increasingly strays from the more traditional, but slowly depleting stock of wild deer and buffalo. But this kill rate looks set to decline, too; poaching and logging has caused India's tiger population to drop from nearly 3,600 five years ago to just over 1,400.

None of the Sundarbans tigers have come close to toppling the deadliest tiger in history. In 1907, the legendary Champawat Tigress terrorised Nepal and northern India, allegedly killing 436 people before being shot dead by the famous Irish hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett.