Close to the foothills of the Himalaya four tigers ventured out of forests and killed 11 people in the past five months. The killings have challenged the official understanding of man-eaters. Unlike the man-eaters of Kumaon Jim Corbett wrote about, these were not rendered incapable of hunting by either old age or injury. All four tigers were young; two were adolescents.
The 10-year-old tiger – they usually life for 14-15 years in the wild-in Corbett National Park killed Bhagwati Devi of Dhikuli village in the buffer zone of the park on February 6 when she went into the forest to collect firewood. The villagers said the tiger attacked the 50-year-old from behind as she sat collecting wood. Following protests by people, the chief wildlife warden of Uttarakhand issued orders to kill or catch the “man-eater”. The forest department trapped the animal and sent it to a zoo in Nainital on February 10.
Bhagwati Devi’s husband B C Nainwal, however, does not blame the tiger. “It is the policies of the government that made the tiger a victim of public ire,” he said. “The tiger was roaming near Dhikuli for four-five months. The main reason was elephant safaris by resorts here. They are known to throw meat in front of the tiger to increase the sighting of the big cat.”
A forest official admitted the resort operators’ role was suspicious. “They conducted elephant safaris in the area though it is not a tourist zone,” he said. Thirty-six resorts line the state highway in Dhikuli, on the other side of which is the park boundary. The department has now banned elephant safaris in the buffer zone. The forest department says the tiger was observed in the area for more than a year. “We warned the villagers not to go inside the forest but they did not heed the warning,” said Umesh Tiwari, the Bijrani range officer.
It is believed to have been lured out of Deoria forest range in Pilibhit district of Uttar Pradesh in November 2008 while chasing a wild boar, which ran into adjacent sugarcane fields that mimicked the tiger’s natural habitat, grassland. On November 9, it attacked a farm labourer in the sugarcane field in Pareba village when he was cutting sugarcane. The next day it attacked Kishan Pal Gangwal in nearby Dammupura village but the teenager survived. “The first victim was in a hunched position, so probably the tiger mistook it for an animal,” said Pradeep Tyagi, a forest guard in Deoria.
The first incident happened 3 km from the forest and the second one about 5 km. The forest is continuous with sugarcane fields. The tiger was around three years old and was probably trying to set up its territory and found the adjoining sugarcane field a good habitat, said P K Gupta, divisional forest officer, Pilibhit.
The tiger was next spotted in Shahjahanpur, some 60 km from Pilibhit. On December 21, a teenager’s flesh-eaten body was found 150 km away in Barabanki district. This was when the chief wildlife warden of Uttar Pradesh B K Patnaik declared the tiger a man-eater. “The boy had been missing for three days, so it is difficult to say if he was a victim of the tiger,” said an official in the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). The chief wildlife warden countered this, saying a tiger’s pugmarks were found near the body.
The district magistrate announced an award for shooting the tiger, but the decision was soon reverted because it was against the NTCA guidelines. By now a frenzied mob was chasing the tiger. Four elephants, trackers, forest guards, tranquillising experts from the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun and wildlife NGOs from Delhi, were on the hunt. Some NGOs even set dogs on the trail of the big cat. Scared, the dogs hung close to the elephants’ legs.
The tiger wandered around human habitations in Lakhimpur, Sitapur, Barabanki and Lucknow before reaching Rudauli forest range of Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh. It covered about 300 km. On January 10 and 14, it killed two more people in Kumarganj range of Faizabad. Except for the first kill in Pilibhit, the three other victims were killed inside forest. This shows the tiger did not come to the village to make a kill-a characteristic of a man-eater.
On February 24, it was shot between the eyes by Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, a shooter who came from Hyderabad. NTCA guidelines do not permit a non-forest services official to shoot a man-eater unless the forest department is not equipped to do so. To forest officials’ embarrassment it turned out to be a tigress though all the while they inferred from the pugmarks it was male.
A tiger, not more than two years old, killed its first human prey on January 4 outside the Kishanpur sanctuary in Dudhwa National Park close to the border with Nepal. Since then it has killed four more people and injured one. It claimed its last victim on February 19. The chief wildlife warden issued orders to shoot it.
“It did not eat the first two victims but only the third kill. It had lost the fear of humans. The last time we saw it, the tiger refused to move away when he saw a crowd,” said Mudit Gupta, senior project officer of WWF at a camp set up by the forest department near Kishanpur.
“The tiger was getting used to feeding on cattle carcasses thrown outside villages in the critical tiger habitat. Only once in the past two months it tried killing a wild animal in a wheat field. But the marks of struggle – badly damaged crop – show it was very young not trained in killing a wild prey,” said Anil Kumar Singh, coordinator, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), a non-profit.
Here also sugarcane fields served as a good habitat for the tiger, where it got enough prey too. “The tiger was weaned early from its mother. When the sugarcane crop was cut, it took to killing humans,” said Anjan Talukdar, a veterinary doctor with the trust who tranquillised the tiger on March 1. The tiger was sent to the Lucknow zoo.
The Uttar Pradesh forest department is still on its toes. A tiger is roaming around Basti in eastern Uttar Pradesh. It probably wandered out of Valmiki sanctuary in Bihar and entered Ghazipur across the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh border.
“It doesn’t seem to be a man-eater. One person it killed was in self-defence. It is a 10-year-old tiger who is probably dislodged from its territory. It may reach Sohelwa Wildlife Sanctuary in Balrampur district,”
said Patnaik. These incidents have provoked a debate among wildlife managers and experts on whether the tigers were man-eaters and what compelled them to kill human beings. “Most of these tigers killed their first human prey in an accidental meeting. None of them considered humans their sole prey and in that sense they could be called problem tigers, but the term man-eater is for a tiger that learns to kill and subsist on humans in an efficient manner. The tiger then almost exclusively subsists on humans and actively seeks them out as prey,” said Y V Jhala, scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India. “None of these tigers fit into this category.”
In the three cases, the first victim was in a hunched position. “If surprised or cornered, a tiger can mistake human beings as a prey species and kill them. This is not man-eating,” Jhala added.
In two of the cases, tigers entered sugarcane fields. According to NTCA guidelines, tigers killing humans in sugarcane fields can be declared man-eaters only when they start living in the fields and attack people regularly. “All big cats venture into fields. This happened in the 1980s too, but then there was no 24×7 television,” said Vidya Athreya, a research associate with the Pune-based Kaati Trust that works on leopard rescue.
The Corbett tiger was captured in a hurry after what seemed like an accidental attack and the Faizabad tiger was chased around, pushed to make attacks, said Jay Mazoomdaar, journalist and filmmaker who broke the news about the absence of tigers in Sariska in 2005.
Hunter-turned-conservationist Billy Arjan Singh said tigers now have to live close to humans because there is no prey left in Dudhwa and forest mafia have destroyed the forest. More herbivores are now found in the buffer area of Corbett than in the core, added Iqbal Hussain, former sarpanch of Dhikuli.
It is not always out of compulsion that tigers move out of the forest. Experts say young tigers are expected to go out. “Usually they come back to the forest but sometimes they go too far and lose track,” said conservation biologist Raghunandan Singh Chundawat. Search for territory is a major reason for tigers moving out of forests. “Most tiger reserves are too small to contain a viable population of tiger for a long period. The prime habitats are occupied by dominant tigers. Sub-adult and old tigers are forced to use marginal habitats or disperse to other forests,” said Jhala.
However, today there are no connecting forests between tiger populations and when tigers disperse, they have to move through human habitats searching for a forest patch to settle in. Not finding any forest, they are forced to kill livestock and humans, said Jhala. “Till the 1960s, there were grasslands between the forest and agricultural fields in Pilibhit. Now the fields have extended up to the forest,” said P K Gupta.
The authorities in Corbett said they were forced by public ire to shoot the tiger or send it to a zoo. Chundawat questions the logic of sending tigers to zoos when there are very few tigers in the wild. “They need to trap the animal and take it back to a suitable habitat. When this can be done in Sariska, why can’t it be done in terai?”
Tiwari of Corbett said it is not easy to rehabilitate every tiger in the wild, especially a male who is not readily accepted by tigers in their territories. But there are forests like Rajaji National Park, which can accommodate tigers.
Wildlife experts also point out it is crucial to take quick action in case of a wandering tiger because if it adapts to eating humans, rehabilitating it in the wild becomes difficult. The authorities are then forced to take extreme steps like shooting. “We need a special team to deal with such situations.
The forest department should start monitoring tigers as soon as villagers report their straying. They do not have to wait for a kill to happen and then people to get angry and the politicians to pressure on them to act,” said Chundawat.
Athreya suggests tracking through GPS collars, though it is expensive-one collar costs Rs 2-3 lakh-and will require capturing tigers. The long-term solution to avoid such conflicts, point out wildlife experts, is better training of forest officials in pugmark identification and arms handling, and better habitat management, like ensuring a gradual, not abrupt, decrease of forest cover.