The Rajasthan Forest Department has admitted to having declared Ranthambhore’s Tiger-24 a man-eater — and moving it to an enclosure in Udaipur — under public pressure, without following the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) laid down by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), information obtained by The Indian Express under the Right to Information (RTI) Act shows. (The Indian Express, January 4, 2016)
So, does acting under “public pressure” make the removal of T-24 wrong?
Not necessarily. There is bound to be public pressure to remove every tiger that has killed people. However, while accepting that it was not aware of the SOP issued in January 2013 by the NTCA, the Rajasthan Forest Department also claimed to have followed the advisory issued in December 2007 by the same authority. But the 2013 SOP is only a fine-tuned version of the 2007 advisory — and both list the same basic requirements.
And what are these basic requirements for removing a tiger?
Examining the circumstances and nature of an attack to determine if it was accidental or deliberate, establishing the identities of the big cats involved in deliberate attacks to pinpoint a serial offender, and acting fast to capture or eliminate an animal after it has made two deliberate attacks.
How does one distinguish between an accidental and a deliberate attack?
Accidental attacks are mostly in defence. A tigress with cubs is typically high-strung. As are all big cats during a hard-earned meal. A surprised tiger is rarely a pleased tiger, just ask a grass-cutter who has chanced upon a sleeping beauty. There is also room for mistaken identity: someone bending down or on their haunches may look like a prey animal.
Unless it is a desperate tigress encumbered by cubs, a big cat rarely eats a person it kills accidentally. Anyway, the consumption of a human kill alone is not enough proof that a tiger is a man-eater.
On rare occasions, a tiger may deliberately seek out human prey, often by stalking. Given an opportunity, such a tiger consumes every human kill and drags the corpse away to secure the remains.
While most accidental attacks are meant to be non-lethal — a swipe of the paw, frequently — deliberate attacks are meant to kill, and usually involve precision canine punctures in the neck.
How is the attacker identified?
DNA analyses can be foolproof. But that requires all big cats to be pre-profiled for DNA so that tiger hair, saliva etc. collected from a human kill can be matched to find the culprit.
GPS locations can help if the attacker is radio-collared. Camera-traps set up overlooking a kill may catch the killer returning for a second meal. If nothing else, pugmarks at the spot may offer clues.
Of course, nothing beats spotting the attacker in action, particularly by professionals who can identify known individual tigers.
But what makes a tiger target people?
Nobody really knows. The inability to take down wild prey due to age or injury is the usual justification offered. But healthy tigers in their prime are also known to turn on human beings.
What about T-24?
The unusually bold T-24 killed four people starting July 2010. Its radio-collar signal gave it away in the first case, in which the victim’s body was dragged 500 m and consumed partially.
In March 2012, a bloody trail of pugmarks led to a well-fed, resting T-24, some 700 m from a mostly-eaten human kill that had been dragged 100 m from the spot of the attack.
Seven months on, T-24 ambushed a forester and refused to budge until a noisy crowd made a charge with four Gypsies to recover the corpse.
In May 2015, it brought down a forest guard by the neck.
According to the NTCA’s 2013 SOP, such an “aberrant tiger” must be caught and “sent to the nearest recognised zoo and NOT released in the wild”.
How is that conservation?
Conservation is about saving the species, not about the welfare of an individual animal. Letting T-24 continue in the wild could have led to more attacks, turning locals against the Forest Department and making every Ranthambhore tiger a potential target. Not to mention the growing insecurity of the forest guards who must patrol on foot to secure the reserve.
So, did Rajasthan make the right decision?
Both yes and no. With all boxes — stalking, attacking to kill, dragging, consuming, confirmation of identity as a serial offender — checked, T-24 had to be removed. If anything, the decision came too late.
The 2007 NTCA advisory reads: “It may be difficult to establish after the first case, but after the second case of human kill it can easily be decided if the animal has turned into a man-eater.” In fact, after the third lethal attack, the NTCA expressed serious concern and urged the state to take action in 2012.
But Rajasthan dithered, disregarding NTCA protocol and people’s safety. Then, when another lethal attack affected the morale of the field staff last May and the state had to act, it failed to take the NTCA on board. And an otherwise watertight case became controversial.