With tigers killing two people in the farmland of Pilibhit’s Amaria tehsil this week, the toll in the areas around the Pilibhit tiger reserve in Uttar Pradesh has risen to six in the three months since May 8. This is a new high even for this notorious conflict zone where wild animals killed 11 people in the seven months preceding this period. Data from the Ministry of Environment show tigers and elephants killed 1,587 people in the 1,508 days between April 2013 and May 2017. Of this, the share of elephants was 1,459. Although it is as good a stealth artist as any in the wild, the elephant’s greater requirement for space and resources makes it more prone to conflict. By contrast, even the biggest of our big cats, despite not being quite as ghost-like as its spotted cousin, manages to stay largely invisible. Surrounded by a billion humans, India’s 2,200-plus tigers killed no more than 128 people in over four years. Given the chance, they are good at avoiding people.
But to really appreciate the tiger’s natural disinterest in humans, the all-India figures need to be broken down further. Typically, the bulk of human casualties occur in just a few pockets of acute conflict. Since April 2016, for example, two tiger reserves that are together home to no more than 7% (150-odd) of India’s tiger population, have accounted for 70% (23) of 33 deaths caused by tiger attacks across the country. For the remaining 2,000-odd tigers within and outside India’s other 48 tiger reserves, therefore, this adjusts the liability for human kills down to 10 over 16 months.
So what went wrong in Tadoba (Maharashtra) and Pilibhit, the two reserves that saw the bulk of the recent deadly attacks? Traditionally, tigers have killed more people in the Sunderbans than anywhere else. Areas in and around the Tadoba and Pilibhit tiger reserves are more recent examples of chronic conflict. Corbett in Uttarakhand also sees tiger attacks fairly frequently. Certain factors are common to all these conflict zones. And in places such as Pilibhit, there are additional site-specific triggers.
Most conflict zones have a history of drastic changes in land use. The Sunderbans had to absorb a huge influx of settlers under the British, and again after the Bangladesh war. Dense malarial forests along the Shivalik foothills — the terai — became ‘inhabitable’ for the masses of people who moved in rapidly following Independence. Change of land use in a forest begins with deforestation. In Pilibhit, timber contractors marched in with their axe-wielding armies, and others rummaged through the surviving forests for firewood and fodder. Fisherfolk ventured deep into the channels of the Sunderbans, while honey-collectors roamed its spiky mangrove clusters. Riverbed (boulder) miners set up colonies for migrant labourers who entered the Corbett tiger reserve every day to defecate and to collect firewood. Villagers spent long hours inside Tadoba’s tiger forests harvesting and then slicing bamboo because carrying bamboo ‘products’, unlike whole bamboo, required no permits. So many people spending so much time inside tiger forests greatly increased the chances of accidental encounters with the big cats. In Pilibhit, the conflict was exacerbated by the reckless farming choices made by the local community.
For wildlife, farmland at the immediate edge of a forest creates an illusion of extended habitat. Herbivores raid these fields and predators follow them. Standing crops also provide the cover that is necessary for daily lounging, and even for longterm safekeeping of cubs. In the winter of 2010-11, trying to evade a mighty suitor, a single mother with two cubs fled the Ranthambhore tiger reserve and took refuge in cropland that had only recently been carved out of the Chambal ravines. The forest department deployed a team to track the tigers daily and warn farm hands to keep away until the animals moved to another field. One morning, accompanying an inspection team checking the fields for pugmarks, this correspondent wandered within 10 yards of the tiger family hiding under the mustard and red gram crop that stood some three or four feet tall. The result was a mock charge with persistent roars, and an instant scattering of forest staff as well as farm hands. The tigress held her nerve and broke off in time, but edgier cats often end up attacking in self-defence.
If a mustard field can shelter tigers, imagine the allure of Pilibhit’s sugarcane fields. The cash crop, which covers a third of the district’s 2.35 lakh hectare sown area, is harvested in batches at long intervals, and can harbour even resident wildlife for months on end. If the absence of a functional buffer area — that is, a gradual change in land use around a forest — was not enough, the choice of sugarcane and rice as prime crops has brought tigers and people dangerously close in Pilibhit. With conditions ripe, a tiger population that has risen from 28 to 50-plus since Pilibhit was declared a tiger reserve in 2014, has set off a spiral of tragedies.
Indeed, every success in conservation extracts a price. Unless wildlife corridors — forest connectivity — allow tiger-deficient forests to absorb surplus cats from crowded reserves, humans will have to deal with young tigers wandering out of forests. And as long as the tigers keep confusing standing crops for their extended habitat, they will keep walking close to human habitation. As a solution, the authorities are apparently considering fencing off the reserve. This is impractical, and will reduce the reserve to a zoo. Given that certain thin stretches of the reserve are flanked by human habitations on both sides, strategic and limited physical restrictions may help. But only a safer land use model and practical crop selection can ease the conflict here in the long run.
Local goodwill is essential for the tiger’s future, and undermining human safety only hurts conservation. Every time a tiger is established as a deliberate or habitual maneater, it has to be removed immediately and efficiently. Releasing “reformed maneaters” back into the wild, as India’s forest authorities are known to do, is a recipe for manmade conflict. Finally, even after all prescribed precautions are taken, chance encounters with predators — or even the rare maneater — will always remain a possibility. Not everyone caught in those situations will be lucky. It is to be noted, however, that lightning kills over 2,000 people in India every year.