Wildlife conservation in India has a long history. Dating back to the colonial period, it was rather restrictive to only targeted species in defined geographical areas. The foundation of the present day “wildlife conservation” era in post-independent India was laid down only after the formation of the Wildlife Board at the national level and enactment of the Wildlife Act in 1972. Over the years, the Act has been amended various times and the National Wildlife Advisory Board has undergone several changes.
Talking about the years gone by, Thiruvananthapuram Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in India — said to have been established in the year 1857 by Maharaja of Travancore. The zoo houses about 82 species of animals that include lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri langur, Indian rhinoceros, Asiatic lion, royal Bengal tiger, white tiger, leopard, Asian elephants, giraffes, hippos, zebras, and Cape buffalos.
When George was brought to the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo on December 6, 2015, it looked unlikely that he would survive. He was heavily infected with lung worms. Due to a possible fight with another tiger, his palm was severely injured. The tip of the tiger’s nose had been bitten off and he had a serious injury on the neck. There were several lacerations across his body.
At a time when George’s survival could only have been possible by a miracle, senior veterinary surgeon Dr. Jacob Alexander came to the rescue.
Speaking with Platocast, Dr. Jacob said: “When George was brought to the zoo, his condition was unimaginable. The wounds on his body were infested with maggots. The colour of his body had turned to a light yellow from the usual orange. Normally, when a tiger becomes so weak, stronger tigers overthrow it to occupy its territory. George was too badly injured to hunt, so he had begun straying into human settlements in Wayanad and killing cattle.”
A trap was then set for the tiger and he was caught. He was brought to the zoo after about a ten-hour long journey.
“When he arrived, he could hardly breathe. He was like an asthmatic patient and since his respiratory system was affected, I could not operate on his paw; anesthesia would have been very dangerous for him,” Dr. Jacob said.
The treatment was slow, and therefore so was the healing process. He had lung worm infestation and with regular treatment, George gradually began to respond.
“We could finally perform the leg surgery, and it was successful. The operation was very tricky but he was completely cured. He is now the biggest tiger in the zoo,” Dr. Jacob said.
“George came to Thiruvananthapuram Zoo at the age of 15. While tigers normally live up to the age of 17, George is now a healthy, happy tiger of 21. His willpower and determination to fight his illness and emerge stronger is unimaginable. The good old tiger has no teeth left now,” the doctor smiled.
The most interesting part of George’s story is that sitting in the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo, he is now a hero in faraway France. In a story penned by Claire Le Michel, a French writer and dancer, George’s battle to bounce back to life and the people’s effort to help him have come to life. George’s fight to sustain himself and the efforts to save him are among the topics that middle school students of Jean de La Fontaine School in Thénezay are studying, to understand the importance of wildlife and tiger conservation.
Michel, who runs a theatre company in France, had visited the zoo just before the Covid-19 outbreak, and that is when George had caught her attention. She later returned to France and wrote ‘The Story of George’.
Marie Courtecuisse, head teacher of a local school, soon noticed the story, and along with Marielle Palancher, the English teacher introduced it to children aged 12 to 13 years. ‘The Story of George’ soon became an adored text.
To Dr. Jacob’s pleasant surprise, he received a bunch of heartwarming ‘thank you’ notes from students who were moved by his effort to save George.
“George was named after the hero of the Malayalam movie Premam,” Dr. Jacob said. “We already had a white tiger in the zoo, named Malar after the heroine of the film. So I decided we should have ‘George’ as well,” said Dr. Jacob.
“I personally do not like the idea of zoos. Wild animals belong in the forests, not in cages. I believe animals should be kept in zoos only when they are not in a condition to fend for themselves,” he added.
Dr. Jacob’s love for animals and a strong determination to protect them served as an example for the French students learning about wildlife conservation.
“Like humans, different tigers have different character traits. I have seen a side of them which is affectionate and caring, instead of dangerous and frightening,” Dr. Jacob said.
Dr. Jacob Alexander is well known for performing a rare surgery on a Moray eel, a female marine fish at the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo, and saving its life. This was the first time that a fish was operated on in the Indian zoos.