MUMBAI • A massive search is under way in India for the country's most famous tiger, with millions of adoring fans worried sick about the big cat known as Jai, which went missing three months ago.
Named after Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan's character in the hit 1975 film Sholay, the tiger shot to nationwide fame three years ago after embarking on an epic hike through villages, rivers and perilously dangerous highways in successful pursuit of a mate.
A firm favourite with tourists and conservationists alike, the seven-year-old, 250kg cat was last seen in the Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary, where it usually roams, on April 18.
Wildlife officials in the western state of Maharashtra launched a massive search and had hoped to find the beloved animal by International Tiger Day - yesterday - but admit that they are clueless as to its fate.
"Whether he has moved to forest interiors or is with a new mate, no information is available as of yet," said Mr M.S. Reddy, a tiger expert who is helping the search.
Forestry rangers said they first became worried about the tiger's fate after its electronic collar stopped transmitting its location three months ago, while tourist sightings of Jai have dried up.
LOSS WOULD BE GREAT
He's successfully fathered more than 20 cubs and has boosted the local economy by attracting wildlife enthusiasts. Losing such a majestic tiger would be a great loss for India.
MR ROHIT KAROO, a conservationist helping to coordinate the search.
The state government has offered a reward of 50,000 rupees (S$1,007) for information on Jai's location, a small fortune for the hundreds of local villagers engaged in the hunt.
Indian newspapers are carrying daily reports on the latest speculation about where the tiger may be or what fate might have befallen it, with some claiming reported but unconfirmed sightings.
In the eastern district of Nagpur, where the Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary is located, worried locals this week held a pooja, or ceremony, praying that the tiger would be found safe.
Some devotees threw religious offerings onto a fire while others held up posters of the missing beast. A small boy was seen stroking a tiger soft toy in local online news clips of the event.
Jai has been credited with boosting tourism and helping to repopulate India's tiger population.
"He's successfully fathered more than 20 cubs and has boosted the local economy by attracting wildlife enthusiasts," said Mr Rohit Karoo, a conservationist helping to coordinate the search.
"Losing such a majestic tiger would be a great loss for India."
Mr Karoo said no stone was being left unturned in the bid to track Jai down in a search extending over several hundred kilometres.
"Around 10 non-governmental organisations, locals from nearly 400 villages and forest officials are patrolling the forests in Maharashtra to locate Jai," he said.
India is home to about 2,200 tigers, representing 70 per cent of the world's endangered tiger population.
Some reports have speculated that Jai may have been wounded in a fight with another tiger, poached by hunters involved in the illegal trade of endangered wildlife or merely fallen sick.
However, Mr Karoo was quick to quash such rumours.
"I don't think anything bad has befallen him as he is a dominant male tiger with the capacity to travel large distances," he said.