Disquiet has given way to clamour in the fields around Pilibhit Tiger Reserve (PTR) in Uttar Pradesh. At the heart of this clamour is an unfolding tragedy, as one or more tigers continue to claim human lives. Fifteen people have lost their lives since last November. Villagers have blocked highways and traded charges with forest managers. But the solutions considered thus far to mitigate the human-animal conflict in Pilibhit have been mostly poorly thought out.
Misconceptions around the human-tiger interface in PTR are widespread. For instance, it has been reported in a section of the media that unlike other tiger habitats, humans live “cheek by jowl” with big cats in Pilibhit, and thus routinely fall victim to them. Another theory is that the area’s tigers, being unaccustomed to humans, have taken to attacking them. Another theory pins the blame on the emergence of a population of man-eating tigers. Some contend that Pilibhit’s tiger population has doubled since its designation as a reserve three years ago, and therefore the big cats are spilling out into farmlands in search of habitat and prey. Until its creation in May 2014, the area today that constitutes PTR was one of north India’s most productive timber-yielding reserve forests.
Logging crews and local residents, grazing their cattle or harvesting minor forest resources frequented the reserve on a daily basis. Given this, Pilibhit’s tigers are likely to be accustomed to human presence. Many generations of the region’s human population have also lived in close proximity to tigers — presumably today’s residents of the region are also well aware of the perils of venturing into the forest after dark, and of other basic precautions they need to take when living in the vicinity of tigers.
Pilibhit is among the narrowest tiger reserves in India, and in many areas, fields along the edge merge with the forests. These fields, especially when seen from the eyes of a wild feline, are grasslands, extensions of natural habitats and corridors. They hold water because they are well-irrigated, and shelter pigs and hog deer and are thus attractive for wild carnivores. These farmlands have replaced expansive tracts of forest and riparian habitats, with land-use change that began in the colonial area. The presence of tigers in these farmlands is thus neither novel nor unexpected. For the most part, they move through such areas, silent and unseen under cover of darkness, avoiding humans, light and noise.
Data also does not support the claim of a rapidly growing tiger population in PTR. Instead, the population has fluctuated greatly since 2010, and is characterised by high turn-over (where the same tigers are not seen from one year to the next) and moderate adult survival. The occurrence of a large tiger population, a dense human population within five kilometres of the forests’ edge, extensive sugarcane cultivation and the forests’ narrow geography do increase the potential for the spatio-temporal overlap of humans and tigers.
It is also untenable that Pilibhit’s tiger population is biologically predisposed to preying on humans, more than any other tiger population. Recent attacks on humans in and around PTR could primarily be attributed to one or two animals that could be young individuals in marginal habitats without territories, older individuals with disabilities, or those with debilitating injuries. Conflict mitigation in PTR needs to shift from a case-by-case response to a cohesive and coordinated approach. There are lessons to be learnt from the Sunderbans in West Bengal where tiger attacks on humans are managed on a regular basis. The state has evolved mechanisms to identify and relocate the conflict-causing tiger(s). It has also established quick response teams to ward off straying tigers and aid in their capture, when necessary.
Following the Sunderbans’ example, PTR’s administration should take steps to build rapid response teams comprising wildlife veterinarians, forest department staff, and local volunteers trained to contain conflict-prone animals and engage irate crowds. The local police too needs to be integrated into these response teams and assist in crowd control. Educators and public health professionals need to engage communities to enhance their preparedness for conflict and reduce casualties.
The proposed solution to fence the tiger reserve is not feasible. Fencing in tigers and their natural prey will lead to new problems. These will limit animal dispersal and may increase conflict in the long-run.