Wildlife & Biodiversity

Growing tiger attacks in Uttarakhand: Shrinking natural habitat may be reason, say experts

Two humans were killed by tigers in April in Pauri; latest tiger census shows tiger population growing, sighted out of protected areas

By Varsha Singh
Published: Wednesday 26 April 2023
A tiger captured on camera near Dalla village, Pauri in Uttarakhand on April 16, Photo: divisional forest officer (DFO), Garhwal
A tiger captured on camera near Dalla village, Pauri in Uttarakhand on April 16, Photo: divisional forest officer (DFO), Garhwal A tiger captured on camera near Dalla village, Pauri in Uttarakhand on April 16, Photo: divisional forest officer (DFO), Garhwal

An earlier version of the article mistakenly attributed 498 human deaths during 2000-2022 to hyenas instead of leopards. The error is regretted. 

Residents of 24 villages in Uttarakhand’s Pauri Garhwal district are living in high alert after two elderly men were reported dead by tiger attacks in the last fortnight. Tiger attacks are unknown in the region, raising concerns about the big cats looking for new homes outside protected areas

A 72-year-old man was attacked by a tigress in Dalla village in Rikhanikhal on April 13, 2023. Then on April 16, a 75-year-old man was killed by a tiger in Simli village of Dhumakot. The two villages are at a distance of around nine kilometres. Rikhanikhal is 20 km and Dhumakot 30 km away from Kalagarh Tiger Reserve of Corbett National Park. 

Khushendra Singh, Dalla village chief, said a tiger and tigress were roaming near their houses. “We only go out in groups after the sun rises at 9 am  and return to our homes around 3-4 pm. On the evening of April 21, the tiger had also attacked an animal,” he said. 

Read more: Sundarbans has been slipping in rank despite an increased tiger count; here’s why

Singh said tiger sightings were rare in the area and tiger conflicts were almost never reported. “Leopard attacks are more common in this region. The tigers must be weak and came towards human settlements to survive,” he said. 

More than 20 camera traps have been installed across the region to live monitor the area. “A tigress and a male tiger are active in the area. We have permission to cage and tranquillise them and have installed cages at three places,” said Swapnil Anirudh, divisional forest officer (DFO), Garhwal Forest Division.

Tigers were spotted in the camera installed near Dalla village several times, but not near Simli, the DFO said. “The bodies of the victims have been sent to a lab in Hyderabad for examination to confirm if they were killed by the same tiger or different ones,” Anirudh said. 

Where did tigers come from?

Both big cats sighted in Pauri have not matched with any animal in Corbett Tiger Reserve database. The population estimates of the apex predator were last updated in September 2021. 

There’s a possibility the tigers sighted now were too young during the last counting, said Anirudh. “Tigers take 30 months to turn into adults. The database doesn’t have pictures of all tigers in the database. We are trying to confirm if the pair is a tigress and her cub,” he said.

The DFO insisted this was the first time a tiger killed a human in the mountains. “To my knowledge, this is the first human death in a tiger attack in the hilly part of Uttarakhand,” he said. However, there have been many attacks on humans on the plains.

Qamar Qureshi, president of the tiger cell at Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, said terror of tigers has been mentioned in literature during by the famous hunter Jim Corbett. “Such conf;icts were mentioned in the chapter The Champawat Man-Eaters in Corbett’s book Man Eaters of Kumaon,” he said. 

Read more: 50 years of Project Tiger: Half a century on, conservation has to move on beyond band-aid mode, says Mahesh Rangarajan

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the Champawat tigress terrorised the Himalayan regions of Nepal and Kumaon. She is recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as the tigress that killed more than 400 people. The hunter later killed the big cat.

Declaration as man-eater 

Villagers are demanding the tigers be declared man-eaters, so killing them would be lawful.

“Wildlife can be declared a threat to human life in such a situation, according to the law. The big cats can be captured and tranquillised while examining all the facts. This procedure is being followed in Pauri,” said Sameer Sinha, chief wildlife warden, Uttarakhand.

If caught, the tiger will be released in another safe habitat, said Sinha. “We are trying to understand the reasons behind the attacks and whether they were accidental. Both the incidents took place in the residential area adjacent to the forest area,” he said. 

Rising human-animal conflict 

Conflict between tigers and humans is on the rise in the state. State forest department data showed that in 2000-2022, 59 people lost their lives in tiger attacks. The maximum number of deaths (11) occurred in 2022. In the same period, 128 people were injured by tiger attacks. 

A total of 172 tiger deaths were reported in the state through November 30, 2022 from 2001. There were six cases of poaching, 17 cases of accident, two cases of death due to burning and four tigers were declared as a threat to human life all in 2012.

There were 32 cases of death due to mutual conflict and 81 natural deaths. Two tiger deaths occurred by road accidents, one due to snakebite, one due to netting and 26 deaths were undiagnosed.

Human deaths due to attacks by other animals have also been reported. During 2000-2022, there were 498 human deaths from leopard attacks and 204 human deaths from elephant attacks. 

Leopard attacks are also common in the state. A survey by the non-profit Titli Trust and the Wildlife Conservation Society of India in 2014-15 found mid-Himalayan districts of Pauri, Tehri and Almora were most vulnerable to leopard attacks.

Locals also call leopards (Panthera pardus) as guldar or bagh, which also translates to tiger (Panthera tigris). 

Read more: Uttar Pradesh plans its 4th tiger reserve in Bundelkhand

Growing tigers, growing danger

Tiger population has increased by 200 in the country in the last four years. On the completion of 50 years of the Project Tiger, a census report by the Centre was released April 9, 2023. The number of big cats increased to 3,167 in 2022 from 2,967 in 2018

In 2018, there were 646 tigers in Shivalik hills and Gangetic plains, which increased to 804 in 2022.

The tiger population in Uttarakhand was between 393 and 491, according to a census in 2018, said Qureshi. State-wise tiger census figures in the country’s northern states, including Uttarakhand, will be released by July 2023. 

Qureshi cautioned against increasing tiger attacks along with increasing numbers of the apex predator. Tigers were sighted for the first time in Himachal Pradesh this year. Traces of tiger presence were found in Haryana’s Kalesar National Park. 

Tigers are moving towards the mountains looking for newer homes, he warned. 

WII’s report Status of Tiger-2022 stated the animals are making their home in new areas in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra as well. Tiger numbers have increased outside the protected area in Uttarakhand, so work has to be done to prevent conflict.

Qureshi said, “Similar situations are also coming to the fore in other states with increasing numbers of tigers. There is not enough room for the tigers. We lack good quality forests”.

The number of their prey like deer, chital, sambar in the forests is also not sufficient.

“A tiger decides its territory based on the presence of prey. The tigress looks for safe habitats to hunt and care for her cubs. The female big cat lives in an area of ​​10 to 50-60 square kilometres, while a male’s range extends up to 40-150 sq km — the twerritory of one to three tigresses. We call the area of ​​the tigress the resource area,” he said.

The total area of ​​Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand, with the highest tiger density in the country, is 1,288.31 sq km. In this, 821.99 sq km is the core / critical tiger habitat, while 466.32 sq km is central natural habitat. A buffer zone surrounds the area. Rajaji Tiger Reserve is about 820 sq km in area. 

Read more: India’s leopard count jumps 63% in just 4 years

Quereshi said Corbett was at its capacity limit for tigers.

“There’s a need for a clear policy for tigers and we need to improve the quality of habitats for the big cats. Measures like creating new parks and sanctuaries, managing water and banning grazing in forests are needed. Populations of prey like chital and sambhar also need to be increased,” he said. 

He also clarified that Corbett’s high density of tigers has remained stable. New young tigers usually take possession of available land and drive out the old tigers. Else the young tigers leave Corbett in search of a new home.

A few years ago, the presence of tigers was also noted in high-altitude areas, including Mussoorie. Tigers do not like the complex climbing conditions of the mountain — they prefer valley areas like Corbett, Rajaji and Shivalik, according to Qureshi.

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