In a hair-raising incident, witnessed by scores and captured live on many cameras, a 200-kg white tiger mauled and killed a youth after he fell into the animal's moat in the Delhi Zoo, eyewitnesses and officials said Tuesday.
The incident, which took place between 12.30 p.m. and 1 p.m., created a sensation and word soon spread through the city, with photos and video of the tiger - one of the zoo's star attractions - dragging the youth going viral.
Eyewitnesses and zoo officials said the young man, identified as Maksood, 20, a resident of Anand Parbat in Delhi, had "crossed the stand-off barrier" of the white tiger's enclosure and then fell or jumped into the moat which separated the enclosure from the visitors' gallery.
The majestic six-foot, seven-year-old tiger, named Vijay, which was some distance away, saw the man in the concrete moat, that was covered with dry leaves, and bounded up to him.
Footage showed the tiger glowering face-to-face at the man, as it initially appeared to be surprised on seeing the sudden human intrusion into its habitat.
"As soon as the youth fell into the moat, the tiger approached him and silently watched him for nearly 15 minutes," Bittoo, an eyewitness, who recorded the entire incident on his mobile, told media persons.
He said what possibly provoked the tiger to attack the man was when onlookers and a guard tried to divert its attention by pelting stones at it.
"Everyone was pelting stones and making noises to divert the tiger's attention," Bittoo added. "It was then that the tiger pounced on the youth with his paw and dragged him inside his enclosure by his neck," Bittoo told IANS.
The tiger then dropped the limp body at the far end of the enclosure.
Another eyewitness Himanshu said: "The man was cowering in fear and appeared to be pleading with folded hands to the tiger to spare him."
Some eyewitnesses said it was not clear whether the man was drunk or he was clicking photos of the tiger when he accidently fell from the cemented fencing. Delhi Police official said post mortem report will reveal whether the man was drunk and fell accidently or jumped knowingly.
The victim's father Mehfooz later told police that his son had long "history of mental illness."
"He had a long history of mental illness but was fine now and was working in a factory. He used to take cannabis," Mehfooz said, adding that Maksood was his youngest son.
A statement by Amitabh Agnihotri, the zoo director, said: "An unfortunate incident occurred in the National Zoological Park around 1 p.m. when a male visitor named Maksood, son of Mehfooz, resident of Gali no 11, Anand Parvat, aged 20 years crossed the stand off barrier of the white tiger's enclosure....and jumped into the enclosure.
"Praveen, guard posted at the enclosure, sounded the alarm and collected his supervisor and other staff of the zoo by sending wireless SOS message. Praveen along with other staff of the zoo tried to divert the attention of the tiger from the visitor but to no avail. The tiger mauled the visitor who died on the spot."
National Zoological Park curator R.A. Khan told IANS that the tiger was later locked up. "The tiger will be kept under observation and medically examined," Khan said.The space where the white tiger stays comprises of a moat, a natural space for the animal to roam around and a concrete enclosure. There are in all ten tigers in Delhi Zoo, six of them white and four Royal Bengal.
"All the enclosures of the National Zoological Park are absolutely safe. No visitor can reach the moat wall of the enclosure without the stand off barrier," the zoo statement said.
The National Zoological Park, located in the centre of the capital and one of the oldest in the country, is spread over 176 acres is home to about 1,556 different birds and animals. Delhi Zoo sees footfalls of 5,000 to 6,000 on weekdays and 12,000 to 13,000 on weekends.
Suparna Ganguly, founder trustee of Bangalore-based Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, an NGO for animal rehabilitation, said the tiger was not at fault.
"We get to see a lot of hooliganism among zoo visitors. People misbehave, disturb and harass the animals who have already been deprived of their natural habitat."
But many thought that since there was a considerable gap between the man falling into the tiger enclosure and the animal attacking him, zoo authorities could have reacted with greater alacrity and could have been better equipped to handle this emergency.
This was not the first such instance in Delhi Zoo. Six years ago a drunk man had fallen into the enclosure of a lion but the lioness had spared him.
Earlier too many such cases have been reported from Indian zoos, including one in July 2012 when a 32-year-old man was mauled and seriously injured by a tiger after he sneaked into its enclosure at the Jharkhand zoo.