Tigers on the prowl

Tigers have killed 16 people across the country in the past two months

By Ankur Paliwal
Published: Saturday 15 February 2014

Tigers on the prowl

imageTWENTY-one-year-old Vijay Singh woke up early on December 29 and left for the nearby fields to defecate. When he did not return, his father, Raggu, tried calling him up on his cell phone, but got no response.

Worried, Raggu woke up Vijay’s brother and the two left to search for him. It was still dark and they kept calling Vijay on his mobile. They finally heard it ringing close to a pond in their village, but Vijay was nowhere to be found.

Alongside the phone, they found Vijay’s slippers. As they focused the torchlight on the ground, Raggu’s heart sank. “I saw bloodstains,” he says, recollecting the fateful day.

They followed the blood trail to a sugarcane field. A few paces inside, they saw Vijay’s body lying in a pool of blood. His torso had been reduced to bones. By this time the darkness had given way to the grey of morning in the Mitthanpur Mauja village in Uttar Prades h’s Moradabad district and people had started gathering. It was later confirmed by forest officials that Vijay had been killed by a tigress. A man-eater.

It was for the first time such an incident was reported in Moradabad district and Vijay was just the first prey. The tigress killed three more people in the next 10 days in Moradabad, and one in Bijnor district.

Another tiger killed a woman in Kalagarh village, which lies in the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand, taking the toll to six in 15 days. Most of these deaths happened near sugarcane fields. The tigress, later declared a man-eater, ate the body in only two cases. A carnivore is declared man-eater when it is confirmed to have become habituated to kill humans.

The tiger-human conflict is being seen in other parts of the country as well. Five people were killed by three different tigers in Karnataka. Another three were killed by a tiger in Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu, while two were killed near Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra.

Between December last year and January 22, tigers killed 16 people across the country. But not all of them have been declared man-eaters. “The incidences of tiger-human conflicts are increasing,” says Rajesh Gopal, member, National Tiger Conservation Authority.

The rise in incidences of tigers killing humans can be gauged from the fact that in Karnataka alone five such killings were reported between April 2013 and January 2014. The state reported none between April 2010 and March 2012 and had a single incident between April 2012 and March 2013, according to the state forest department.

Of the three tigers that killed humans in Karnataka, two have been captured and put in a rescue centre. And the man-eater tiger in Tamil Nadu was shot dead on January 22 after a twoweek- long search operation. But the tigers Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra are yet to be captured. In the case of Uttar Pradesh, it is also yet to be ascertained where the tigeress came from. It is believed to have either come from the Corbett Tiger Reserve or Uttar Pradesh’s Amangarh forest, which lies in the buffer of Corbett. Forest officials in the states where the tigers have not been captured continue to patrol the areas on elephants and have set up camera traps and cages to capture them. The officials are also playing recorded mating calls to lure them.

Why the conflict?
Tiger-human conflicts are not new. Sporadic incidents are common and are generally restricted to the edges of protected areas. “Of the five people killed in Karnataka, three were herding their cattle on the fringes of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve,” a state forest official says.

Most encounters are accidental as tigers are afraid of humans and avoid them. “Acts of tigers preying on humans are rare and need to be studied,” says Ullas Karanth, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a nonprofit in Bengaluru.

According to Gopal, such behavioural change in tigers is usually caused by old age or injury that leaves them unable to hunt. It is easier to kill livestock or humans because they have slower reflexes. “One of the two captured tigers in Karnataka was 12 years old and was in pain because a porcupine quill was stuck in its mouth and one of its paws was injured,” says Vinay Luthra, chief wildlife warden of Karnataka. The lifespan of the tiger is between 10 and 15 years in the wild.

imageMost of the wildlife scientists and forest officials Down To Earth spoke to had one thing in common among the explanations they gave for these killings. They said these conflicts are occurring near protected areas that have high tiger density. Both Bandipur Tiger Reserve and Corbett Tiger Reserve have registered an increase in tiger numbers because of good protection measures.

According to the last census, the population of tigers in the Corbett Reserve had risen from 164 in 2006 to 214 in 2010. Similarly, the combined population of tigers in the jungles that spread through Nagarhole and Bandipur in Karnataka, Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu and Wayand in Kerala rose to 382 in 2010 from 267 in 2006.

“Big cat populations produce annual surpluses all of which cannot be absorbed in the captivity. Since tiger is a territorial animal, the fight for space is increasing,” says Karanth. As a result, some of the tigers, especially the old ones, are pushed out of the protected area and they have to search for a new territory. This is increasing the chance of encounters with humans, he adds.

Bandipur Tiger Reserve has around 8-12 tigers per 100 square km of area. The number should be five to six tigers. “Every protected area has a carrying capacity, which has reached saturation in parks around which we are seeing conflicts,” points out Bilal Habib, a tiger specialist and a scientist with the  Wildlife Institute of India.

Gopal argues that the chances of encounters with humans are also increasing because of the loss of forest corridors which facilitate movement of tigers from one protected area to another. “Most corridors have become fragmented due to human activity,” he says.

But Tito Joseph, programme manager with the Wildlife Protection Society, a non-profit in Delhi, says there is more to the problem than just over population of tigers in protected areas. “It would not be right to just accept lack of space and diminishing corridors as the only reasons behind these incidents. There could be other factors inside the parks which are pushing tigers out. This can only be ascertained after scientific studies,” he adds. The reserves of Bandipur and Corbett have had high population for the last few years but such increasing number of conflicts were not reported earlier, says a wildlife activist.

Vidya Athreya, a biologist with WCS, agrees with Joseph. “Tigers have been moving around human-dominated landscapes for years. Purposeful killings have been very rare,” she says. Athreya adds that tigers fear humans, so for tigers to overcome this fear and attack humans to prey on them is a behavioural aberration which needs to be studied.

She cites a 2010 study on the conflict between Siberian tigers and humans in Russia. The study analysed 202 cases of conflicts from 2000 to 2009 and found that 77 per cent of the attacks on humans were by wounded tigers, 80 per cent of whom were injured by humans. And, of the total attacks, 47 per cent were directly provoked by humans. Predation attempts by tigers happened only in 11 per cent cases. Athreya points out that no such study has been conducted in India to look into the cause of conflicts. Every area could have specific reasons, she adds.

A 2005 joint paper by Karanth and Gopal states ecological and social factors leading to man-eating are not scientifically proven, but appear to exist. For instance, provocation by a mob disturbs tigers, as has happened in many cases in the past, including the recent incidents in Moradabad.

The tigress in Moradabad was spoted resting in a sugarcane field after it had killed Vijay. “As soon as the villagers got to know, they surrounded the field and started pelting stones at the animal. They even fired a few gunshots and hurled bamboo sticks,” says B C Brahma, district forest officer, Moradabad. “This might have disturbed the tigress,” he adds. The tigress later injured one Ramkumar when he tried to enter the field with a bamboo stick.

The man-eater then ran away from the field and went on to kill three others, each time during the day. The tigress could not eat anyone as in each case the mob surrounded the tigress and drove it away, says Brahma. “It is difficult to say if all the killings of humans were accidental or intentional because the tigress is believed to be young,” says Brahma.

When asked the probable reason behind the killings in the Nilgiris, Lakshmi Narayan, chief wildlife warden of Tamil Nadu, insisted: “There is no point in conjecturing about the reasons unless we find out how and why the tiger reached the Nilgiris.” It is an undulating terrain dotted with tea plantations and human habitation. “I do not remember any human killed by tigers in Nilgiris in the past five years,” he says.

What can be done
India does not have a robust scientific or policy mechanism to minimise tigerhuman conflicts. A Standard Operating Procedure was released by the National Tiger Conservation Authority last year to deal with emergency arising due to straying of tigers to human settlements.

The procedures ask for imposition of section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to treat the event like any other serious conflict situation and maintain law and order. “This is essential to avoid agitation by people who might surround the spot where the animal is and hamper capture operations,” says Gopal.

According to the procedures, attempts should be made to first trap the tiger in a cage. If this fails, officials can resort to chemical immobilisation of the tiger, but it should be done by an expert team with a veterinarian on board. “As soon as we learn that a tiger has killed a human, we set up camera traps to track the movement of the tiger and then capture it. If the tiger is old and injured, we keep it in a rescue centre after the treatment. Young tigers are released in the wild,” said Luthra.

imageThe guidelines prohibit killing the tiger unless it has been declared a maneater. Only the chief wildlife warden of a state can permit hunting of man-eaters.

There is also a debate on whether man-eaters should be kept alive. Soon after the tigress in Moradabad was declared a man-eater, Maneka Gandhi, a politician and animal rights activist, intervened and asked the state forest department not to kill it. Rupak De, chief wildlife warden of Uttar Pradesh, said, “The priority now is to tranquilise the tiger.”

But Karanth questions the necessity of keeping man-eaters alive. “One should not be sentimental. The animal should be euthanised quickly because trapping or chemical immobilisation is difficult and time consuming,” he says. The tiger may continue to attack humans, which might turn the residents of the area hostile. “This may jeopardise the conservation of the species as there can never be any conservation without people’s support,” says Karanth.

Besides, if the tranquilised tiger is old, it is unlikely to adapt to life in captivity and may remain severely stressed in comparison to young tigers, who are able to adapt.

imageHowever, the Standard Operating Procedures are post-conflict measures, believes Joseph. The need of the hour is to minimise the conflict and some scientists are studying that.

Habib is working on a project to map the conflict areas which he calls “pinch points”. “It is important to study the quality of the corridor the tiger used to move from one place to another and the characteristics of the area where it ended up in conflict with humans,” he says.

Giving the example of the tigress, Habib says that if she came from the Corbett reserve, she travelled around 90 km, most probably along the Ramganga river before reaching Moradabad. “We need to study the corridor to know why the animal was not seen anywhere on the way till it ended up in Moradabad. This can help us prepare a conflict mitigation strategy,” he explains. “If we identify that a particular corridor is taking tigers to human settlements, we may restrict tigers from using the corridor.”

According to Brahma, the tigress attacked Vijay in south Moradabad, where the sugarcane fields are scattered.

“If it came from Corbett, it must have travelled through the dense sugarcane fields in north and central Moradabad, that is why it was not seen,” Brahma says. “Sugarcane fields could have provided a conducive environment to hide,” adds Habib. The tigress is believed to have gone back to where she came from because all the people killed after Vijay were on the way up north, close to Corbett.

Sanjay Gubbi, scientist with Panthera, a non-profit in Karnataka, says while it is difficult to contain the conflict, it can be minimised through better preparedness and response. He advocates educating people to be more vigilant and avoid entering tiger habitats especially the ones that have reported killing of humans.

While the reasons behind the attacks are being debated, experts believe these are just warning signs and extensive area-specific scientific studies are needed to tackle the conflict.

PS: The number of people killed by tigers was 16 at the time the story went to press on January 22. One more person has been killed in Bijnor district since then, making the total death toll 17.


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