For the past four days, a 300-member team of forest department officials in southern India have been searching for the mother of four abandoned tiger cubs with the help of scores of local villagers and about 40 camera traps.
The two-month-old cubs were found in a field in the Nandyal district of Andhra Pradesh state early on Monday morning, officials said.
A man from the nearby village of Peddagummadapuram heard the cubs crying when he went to the field to work and alerted other residents.
Some of them took selfies before retreating to a safe distance to make sure that the mother returned to the cubs and that they were not attacked by stray dogs.
But after hours of waiting for the tigress to appear, they informed the forest department.
Forest officials say the tigress might have left the cubs in a place safe from predators while she went to hunt in the forest but then lost her track.
The cubs were taken to a veterinary hospital to be looked after.
“The cubs were dehydrated but now they’re doing fine. Our vets are giving them regular care”, Vineet Kumar, District Forest Officer, told The National.
Forest officers have found pug marks in the forest but say they are not yet sure whether they belong to the cubs' mother.
“It will take some time; spotting a tiger in the wild is itself not easy and pinpointing an individual and its location is even more difficult. There are some signs but we are not able to pinpoint the tiger”, Mr Kumar said.
Another concern is whether the mother will accept the cubs now that they have been in contact with humans. Officials say they are taking precautions to ensure that no human imprint is left on the cubs.
“Usually that happens in the cat family. Sometimes they don’t accept their babies after human touch. We are hoping to locate the tigress and, if it responds positively, only then can we give her full access to the cubs”, Mr Kumar said.
The villagers are also on tenterhooks, fearing that the tigress may return and attack them if she does not find the cubs.
“Total resources are implemented, 40-50 locations, water monitors, and cameras are checked remotely for any movement and villagers are also being sensitised. They’re scared if the tigress comes in search of them”, he said.
India is home to more than 70 per cent of the world's wild tigers.
While they are a protected species, tigers are often forced to stray out of sanctuaries and jungles and into populated areas.
Last month, a 75-year-old Indian farmer in neighbouring Karnataka state was killed by a tiger 12 hours after his grandson was also mauled to death by a tiger.