18 deaths in 11 months from attacks, and six tigers roaming outside the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve. As teams of the forest department and experts comb a 5-sq-km spread looking for the killer cat, Indian Express visits nearby villages, where fear and rumours lurk in the cover of tall sugarcane fields.
Dawn arrives, and slowly, the monsoon mist over the swathes of sugarcane and paddy fields makes itself visible. Hurried footsteps suddenly spoil the calm and at least seven people disappear into the 7-8-ft sugarcane growth. It’s another crucial day for the team as they attempt to corner a tiger that has killed at least three persons between August 7 and August 10 near the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve (PTR). They hope to tranquilise the animal and declare peace, even if temporarily. In the 10 months between October 23, 2016, and August 18 this year, 18 people have been killed in tiger attacks near the reserve on Uttar Pradesh’s border with Nepal — seven of them inside its Mala range and 11 in the villages that fall in a 30-km range from the reserve’s periphery. Forest officials believe at least six tigers are currently roaming outside the reserve.
Forest authorities have traced at least three of the last four deaths to one tiger, a young male that a camera trap placed at Sirsa village, 4 km from the reserve, caught ambling across the frame. That was on August 4. For over 10 days, the cameras found nothing; then on August 16, 17 and 18, the tiger walked into their viewfinders again. It’s a finding that has spurred the administration into action, with a team of 75-80 — including forest officials, gunmen, veterinary doctors, experts from the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Lucknow zoo, and volunteers – trying to localise the tiger. The team, which had spread themselves over an area of 320 sq km, have now zoomed in on a 5-sq-km patch near Jagdishpur village, 20 km from the PTR. The latest killing happened on August 18, of a man who had ventured inside Garha beat of the reserve’s Mala range to collect wood.
But, officials fear, it may be the work of a different tiger from the one in Jagdishpur. “Garha beat is 60 km from Jagdishpur. It is impossible for a tiger to have travelled 60 km in a few hours (both were caught on camera the same day),” says V K Singh, conservator of forests for the Bareilly circle, under which the tiger reserve falls. The deaths only add to the notoriety of Uttar Pradesh as a conflict zone, with tiger attacks also having resulted in 11 human deaths in 2016. That was second only to West Bengal’s Sunderbans, with 14 deaths in 2016, says Mayukh Chatterjee, officer-in-charge of human-wildlife conflict mitigation with the WTI.
It is only 4 pm, but an eerie silence envelops Sarainda Patti village in Amariya tehsil. But for a low whistling sound as the lush sugarcane and paddy fields sway in the wind. This time of the year, farmers and workers should have been busy spraying fertilisers, cutting grass for fodder, and shooing away wild boars and nilgais. But today, there is only fear, that the “aadamkhor baagh (man-eating tiger)” could be lurking amidst the tall sugarcane. Shamsul Rehman Malik, 38, was killed around 11 am on August 8 when in his field, 500 metres from his house in Sarainda Patti and about 22 km from the PTR. Of the three recent killings, Malik’s was the only instance when the tiger ate substantial amount of human flesh. But tigers are tagged maneaters only when they stalk and hunt. At their kuchcha two-room house, Malik’s wife Sabia, 32, sobs incessantly as she observes iddat, the 130-day mourning period. “I don’t know how I will raise my children without him,” she says, as her children Mannat, 7, and Ibad Ur Rehman, 4, sit beside her. Shaqueel Malik, 40, a farmer in Sarainda Patti, says, “The villagers need to go to their fields, but we now enter only in groups of 10-14. If we don’t visit our fields, how will we feed our families?”
In Himkarpur, about 4 km from Sarainda Patti, a group of at least eight men wait for more people to join them before they venture into the fields to cut fodder for their cattle. At least three of them carry a banka, an elongated sickle. Others carry wooden sticks to scare away the tiger. “Dikhega to seedha maar denge (If we spot the tiger, we will kill it),” says one of the men as he slices the air with his banka.
“We can’t even venture out of our homes to go to the toilet. It’s scary. So we defecate in the open grounds and in groups,” says Gautam Kumar from Himkarpur. In neighbouring Behri village, also in Amariya tehsil, a woman is said to have fainted on suspecting the presence of a tiger while she was in a sugarcane field. “We have at least five licensed revolvers in the village, which we will use if need be,” says Shafiq Ahmad from Sarainda Patti.
Since the deaths started, one tiger has been declared a maneater. Held responsible for six attacks between November 28 and February 11, it was declared one after it killed Dhaniram, who was sleeping on a cot near his field. “The tiger dragged Dhaniram out of the mosquito net to kill him. It was a clear hunt,” says Singh, the conservator, adding that the tiger was tranquilised and sent to Lucknow zoo for rehabilitation. That was the first tiger to be tranquilised in the region near the reserve. However, the attacks didn’t stop and five days later, on February 16, one Kalawati was killed when she entered the tiger reserve’s Mala range to gather wood from the forest. “The villagers usually enter the forest area to collect katarua mushrooms. These incidents happen then,” says Singh.
Of the other suspect tigers, officials have definite clues only for one — the tiger held responsible for three of the last four killings and the one authorities are trying to track down. In mid-May, this tiger was among five spotted in a mere 6-sq km area of the Bankati beat of the tiger reserve’s Mala range. But it later escaped, “probably because it failed to establish a territory for itself and was pushed out by other, more powerful tigers”, says Singh.
“In mid-July, this tiger was spotted near the Pilibhit collectorate… That’s when the hunt for the tiger first began,” says Singh, adding that at least 50 camera traps were set up across the district. Forest officials say the tiger probably moved along the Devha river sometime in July and reached Kargaina village in Pilibhit’s Amariya tehsil where, on August 7, it made its first killing. Mohammad Tasleem, 32, a farm labourer from Dang village, was alone in the fields when he was killed.
But the tiger left the body alone, a sign that it hadn’t turned maneater. Tasleem’s family later found his body in the fields. “He was covered in blood, there were deep wounds on his neck,” says Tasleem’s widow Reshma, 29, who now has to look after her four daughters aged between 7 years and 17 months.
The forest department has formed seven teams of seven persons each, including a forest ranger, a deputy ranger, a forest guard, a local who knows the topography, to track the tiger. Besides, there are three special teams that include veterinary doctors, tranquilising gun operators, and quadcopter operators.
At daylight, a few wildlife experts crowd around Mayukh Chatterjee of the WTI who is operating a quadcopter near Jagdishpur village. As Chatterjee shifts the lever on the control, the quadcopter flies over the dense sugarcane fields and disappears into the horizon. “It’s essentially a drone and captures images on the ground that we can see here. The quadcopter has a flying range of up to 5 km,” he says.
Soon, the screen zooms into a blurry patch in the sugarcane fields, around 3 km from where the quadcopter operator stands. “It’s a nilgai… the tiger has killed it,” says Chatterjee, peering into the screen. It is the first sign of the tiger in five days since August 10, when it made its appearance in the same area, attacking and killing 50-year-old farmer Kunwar Sen who was spraying fertiliser in his sugarcane field, 2 km from his house in Behri village.
Today, another team has also spotted pug marks in a field 2 km from Devha river, along which the tiger probably walked from its Bankati beat on its way to Pilibhit in July. The previous day, the team had spotted pug marks in Nagariya colony in Amariya tehsil, with Chatterjee dictating his findings: “Male. Not too large… About 1.3 metres long, so quite young… about 2.5-3 years old.” “It’s a shy tiger. It won’t show up easily. A maneater drags people out of their shelters. This one is probably seeing people sitting on their haunches in the fields and mistaking them for animals, and therefore hunting them,” he says. “The second and third kill also don’t suggest it is a maneater, but if it is not stopped now, it will eventually become one.”
After the August 10 death, there have been instances of villagers, impatient with the authorities, roughing up the forest staff. Two platoons of the Provincial Armed Constabulary have now been roped in to travel to affected villages with the teams. “We are trying to localise the tiger within a 5-sq-km area by providing it with enough prey. Once it establishes its territory, it’ll be easier for us to trace it,” says Singh. On August 16, two buffalo calves that were tied within the 5-sq-km patch as bait were killed by the tiger. Elated, forest officials deployed four elephants to comb the landscape for the tiger. However, after hours of combing the fields, during which the elephants trampled upon the crops of villagers, they could trace nothing.
“The elephants have driven the tiger away. The forest officials should have localised the tiger before launching the elephants,” says an expert working with the mission. Besides battling charges of “sloppy response” and the “lack of a clear plan”, the forest department has had to to deal with misinformation on killings spread through social media, and hoax calls on tiger sightings. Kailash Prakash, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of PTR, shows a photograph he received on WhatsApp of a woman lying dead in the fields. “The picture was circulated as the tiger’s fourth kill,” Prakash says, adding that it turned out to be fake, as did another of a man lying amidst moaning women. Prakash says the winter clothing of the people in the picture made it easier for the officials to dismiss it as hoax.
Since the third killing, the department has appointed five volunteers to visit villages to verify if there is any truth to the posts. “I reach my office in the morning with a certain plan, but everything changes during the day since our teams lose time and energy travelling to the villages where people say they have spotted the tiger… They call and say they are ready to bet their money on it, but after patrolling, we find nothing,” says Singh, while flipping through pages of an ‘Afwaah (rumour) Register’, in which the team meticulously notes down all instances of hoax calls and messages, along with action taken by the forest department.
Politics around the tiger has also been building up fast. “Since March (after the BJP came to power in UP) there have been nine deaths due to tiger attacks inside and outside the reserve. The forest department is sleepwalking through the issue, it seems,” says former Samajwadi Party (SP) MLA from Barkhera seat Hemraj Verma, who observed a week’s fast in Pilibhit town against the recent killings. Villagers from Dang and Sarainda Patti, to which the victims of the August 7 and 8 tiger attacks belonged, were among who protested with Verma. “But we made sure we returned to the village by 4 pm as we couldn’t risk staying out till late. If this is the sense of dread, is it wrong to ask the government for protection from tigers?” asks Shafiq Ahmad, a resident of Sarainda Patti.
Sitting in his office, near where Verma was protesting, BJP MLA from Pilibhit Sanjay Singh Gangwar says, “The SP is trying to take political mileage from the incidents. The PTR was notified in 2014, when the SP was in power. Why wasn’t work on solar fencing done then?” Gangwar also alleges that illegal timber trade was rampant during SP rule and that rendered several patches in the tiger reserve treeless, forcing tigers to enter villages. In Behri, where the tiger had made its third kill, on August 10, villagers say they aren’t protesting yet. “We support Gangwarji. He has assured us that he would provide us all possible help, then why should we protest?” says victim Kunwar Sen’s son Girish Chandra, 23.