Nearly five decades ago, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, empowered a state’s chief wildlife warden to permit any person to hunt a wild animal if he or she was satisfied that it had become dangerous to human life.
For M K Ranjitsinh, who drafted the landmark Act as a young IAS officer, it was a no-brainer. “How can one protect a maneater or a rogue elephant? But the Act ensures that the decision to declare an animal as dangerous to human life is taken at the top level,” he says.
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Immediately, it came in handy. In 1983, The Washington Post journalist William Claiborne reported that seven tigers branded as maneaters had been killed in the past five years and one trapped and sent to a zoo in Lucknow. During that period, tigers killed 105 people.
Not much has changed. Since 2012, India has eliminated 10 tigers as maneaters and packed off at least another five to zoos.
Maneaters eliminated since 2012
December 2, 2012: Outside Wayanad sanctuary, Kerala
Jan 12, 2013: Adult male, outside protected forest in Gondia, Maharashtra
Jan 21, 2014: Sub-adult male, outside protected area (PA) in Nilgiri North Division, Tamil Nadu
Jan 23, 2014: Sub-adult male, outside PA, in Ooty, TN
Aug 19, 2014: Sub-adult male, outside PA in Chandrapur, Maharashtra
Dec 29, 2014: Outside Bhimgarh Sanctuary, Karnataka
Nov 17, 2015: Adult male outside Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Karnataka
Feb 18, 2015: Adult male outside PA in Gudalur forest division, Karnataka
March 19, 2016: Outside PA in Gudalur, TN
Oct 20, 2016: Adult female outside PA in Ramnagar, Uttarakhand (Source: NTCA)
In a little over four years between April 2013 and May 2017, tigers killed 128 people. The conflict is real. But for some perspective, consider India’s 2,000-plus tigers that must hunt once a week. That makes it at least 1,00,000 kills a year. Though surrounded by a billion-plus people, the share of human kills does not account for even 0.05 per cent of the hunt. And a bulk of these human deaths are due to accidental attacks triggered by self-defence, mistaken identity etc.
Yet, almost every attack is a trigger for jumping the gun. To check unnecessary interventions under public (read political) pressure, the National Tiger Conservation Authority in December 2007 issued an advisory on “declaring big cats as maneaters”. It was fine-tuned into an SOP in 2013.
The thrust in both documents is on 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.
A fine line between patience and promptness often decides how a conflict situation will turn out. The success of conservation depends mostly on local goodwill and a number of field managers consider it unwise to risk an entire population of wildlife to save one animal. “Once people reach the tipping point, the battle is lost,” says a divisional forest officer who does not want to be named.
Only this April, an adult male tiger was clubbed to death inside the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve core area. Apparently, a group of villagers entered the reserve to collect firewood and ran into the tiger, which injured a few in self-defence. The villagers mobilised a crowd and lynched the big cat. While nothing justifies such a barbaric act, points out the official quoted above, it is impossible to hold a mob accountable. “So we must come across as responsive when animals attack people. We need to be seen as helping them.”
Though it makes no difference to conservation whether a problem animal is killed or shifted to a zoo, the protocol is to try and capture it alive. An established maneater is never released back in the wild. However, if an animal is captured under public pressure following an accidental attack, or rescued from an unsafe surrounding, it can be freed in a suitable habitat. In January 2012, a male tiger from Lakhimpur-Kheri started his 200-km journey towards Lucknow and settled down in a mango orchard around the Central Institute of Sub-Tropical Horticulture, in Rehmankhera. After 108 days, the six-year-old tiger was captured in April. It never attacked humans and was released in the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. It adjusted well in its new home, and was last sighted two years ago.
A maneater, if captured, is housed in a zoo. The last Corbett maneater that escaped bullets was captured from the tiger reserve’s Sarpduli range and sent to Nainital zoo. But tranquilising a big cat is a tough ask. In 2010, it took 80 days and several unsuccessful attempts to finally dart a tiger that killed eight people. Prem Chandra Pandey of the Wildlife Trust of India recalls the operation as painstaking. “That was the longest one. We saved at least three tigers by tranquilising them. It is always far easier to shoot it down. A darting gun’s range is 30-35 metres. Even a blade of grass can deflect the dart,” Pandey says over the phone from Dudhwa.
Before it comes down to firing the dart —preferably on the rump — an operation’s success depends on tracking. “It needs great skill and much luck to stay on the trail,” says a ground staff involved in the hunt for T1 in Maharashtra.
Elephants, agree Pandey, are for last-mile mobilisation. “One has to know where to look before calling in the elephants to give you a good view to take a shot,” he says. “It is easier when the animal makes a kill, which gives away the location. Always pray it’s not a human again.”
Maneaters held captive since 2012
SHIVA | Dec 2013: An adult male tiger that killed four persons was darted in Bandipur. It was shifted to Mysore zoo where it survives as Shiva
USTAAD | May 2015: After killing three people in Ranthambhore, a male tiger named Ustaad was shifted to Udaipur zoo where it suffered from acute constipation but has recovered since
CHHEDI | Aug 2016: A male tiger from south Kheri forest division killed four persons before it was darted near Chhedipur village and sent to Lucknow zoo. Named Chhedi, it is apparently doing well
MALLU | Feb 2017: A male tiger was captured after a spate of human kills in the fringe forests of Pilibhit. It was named Mallu and sent to Lucknow zoo, where it survives
FATEH | May 2018: A young male set off from Pilibhit following the course of Sankha river and settled down in an abandoned rubber factory in Fatehgunj West near Bareilly. It was darted, named Fateh and sent to Kanpur zoo