The debate over the fate of a tigress in Yavatmal, blamed for a series of human killings since June 2016, continues even as the Supreme Court has refused to intervene in the hunt by the Maharashtra Forest Department to capture or kill the animal.
While villagers lived in fear, a group of activists and NGOs has been opposing attempts to eliminate the man-eater and blamed some of the victims for trespassing on reserve forests. Earlier this year, Bombay High Court stayed the Forest Department’s shoot-on-sight order, and the latter failed to capture the animal alive. This month, the High Court upheld the shoot-on-sight order, after which the Supreme Court rejected the activists’ appeal.
In all such situations, the rule of thumb is simple. Public outcry over a spate of human killings should neither provoke forest officials to hastily declare a tiger a man-eater nor come in the way of promptly removing an identified man-eater.
Declaring a man-eater
Typically, a tiger makes one large kill every week. For India’s 2,000-plus tigers, that adds up to more than 100,000 kills in a year. If tigers considered humans food, a good number of these 100,000 kills would have been humans in a densely populated country like India. Yet, records show not more than 100 people are killed or injured by tigers in a year in the country.
Many of these attacks on people are accidental. A tigress with cubs, a tiger protecting its kill, or a tiger startled by the appearance of people are prone to charge in self-defence. There are instances when tigers took people on their haunches as prey animals and pounced on them.
Examining the circumstances of an attack is crucial for determining if it was accidental or deliberate. The next step is to identify an animal involved in multiple deliberate attacks. This can be done through DNA analysis of saliva or hair found on the kill, camera-trapping or direct sighting. The last step is to declare an identified serial offender a man-eater.
Once declared, a man-eater has to be removed as soon as possible. The 2013 Standard Operating Procedure of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) says an “aberrant tiger” (read man-eater) must be caught and “sent to the nearest recognised zoo and NOT released in the wild”.
Conditions and circumstances may make trapping and tranquillisation difficult. A big cat may learn to act wary and avoid bait-cages. Seasonal abundance of forest undergrowth may not allow clear vision or approach required for darting within a range of 15-25 metres. If live capture is not possible, the only option is to gun down the animal.
While animal rights activists feel strongly against culling, it does not make a difference to conservation whether a tiger is packed off to a zoo or killed. In both cases, it is one tiger less in the wild.
Saving one, risking all
Conservation is about saving the species and not defending individual animals at the cost of the species. Letting a man-eater continue in the wild results in more attacks, turning locals against the Forest Department and making every tiger in the vicinity a potential target of reprisal.
Consider the Yavatmal situation. Barring a few incidents when forest vehicles were attacked and staff heckled, the local communities retained calm. It is anybody’s guess how much longer their patience will hold if they keep losing people while everyone else keeps debating which animal is responsible for their loss and how best to deal with it.
As the reach of mass media spreads, callous handling of conflict can shape the public perception of the tiger across the land and affect every community that lives in and around tiger forests. In a world defined by humans, the survival of every other species depends on human goodwill. Every “aberrant” tiger gives the species a bad name and must be removed as soon as possible.
Missing the wood
The reason Bombay High Court had initially stayed the shoot-on-sight order was that the tigress was rearing two cubs. Taking out the mother would have jeopardised their future. Even when orphaned cubs survive, history shows, their lack of schooling turns them into unskilled, problem animals.
There are no easy answers to many questions in conservation. It certainly does not guarantee happy endings. When conservation succeeds in pockets of protected forests, surplus animals disperse beyond the safety zones looking to occupy new territories. This dispersing lot often runs into conflict because there are few safe passages and fewer habitable patches available in a crowded country. It is certainly not their fault.
But it is not the fault of the people living around tiger forests either. The poor local farming communities have neither the money nor the muscle of the lobbies that divert entire forests for mines and dams, or cut across habitats to build roads and railways. Indeed, if the tiger, and all wildlife for that matter, still survives against those onslaughts, it is largely thanks to the local communities and their support.
The bottom line
It may be heartbreaking but losing a handful of tigers that have become, for no fault of their own, a threat to local communities will not risk the future of the species. In fact, it will help the tiger retain local goodwill.
Likewise, fighting poor communities and the disempowered forest departments on sporadic shoot-on-sight orders will not secure the big cat’s future. That time and energy may be better spent saving the tiger against the powers of mindless development. But that will take some doing.