Man-Eaters or Man-Killers?
April 2009: On March 23, 2009, a tiger fell to a volley of bullets on the fringes of Kaziranga. He had killed one person, a lack of coordination between the Forest Department and the local administration coupled with a frenzied mob led to the indiscriminate firing by police and yet another tragedy. On February 24, 2009, a young tigress that had strayed out of the forests of Pilibhit and had reportedly killed four people was shot down in the forests of Bachuna near Kumarganj in Faizabad district.
On February 24, 2009, a young tigress that had strayed out of the forests of Pilibhit and had reportedly killed four people was shot down in the forests of Bachuna near Kumarganj in Faizabad district. She had been declared a ‘man-eater’ immediately after the second human kill (though there were serious doubts whether she had actually killed the second victim, a fact questioned even by the High Court). Shockingly, the district administration had actually announced an award for her head. In the recent past, at least four tigers have been declared man-eaters in north India. In February 2009, two leopards were killed by the Forest Department in Tehri and in Chamoli after they were declared man-eaters. Another leopard in Chaukhutia area in Almora has also been declared man-eater. According to Prerna Singh Bindra, journalist with Tehelka, since 2001, 59 leopards have been declared man-eaters and around 40 have been killed.
The question to ask is whether we are actually seeing more incidents of man-eating or whether this is the result of more political pressure and media attention?
The tiger, of course, is an endangered species and India’s national animal. Across the country, people are working to enhance tiger protection. So why are we then gunning down errant tigers or leopards rather that searching for ways to reduce the man-animal conflict? What is worrying is that Forest Departments more often than not condemn the wrong tiger. In the Brahmapuri forest in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, Forest Department officials admitted they had mistakenly killed a male tiger instead of a tigress which had been identified as a man-eater and cattle killer. They openly attributed the mistake to excessive pressure from politicians who had threatened to agitate or even kill the tiger themselves.
Human-wildlife conflict (Sanctuary, Vol. XXIX No. 2, February 2009) is a serious issue that needs to be tackled on a priority basis. In most cases, information about the ‘alleged’ man-eaters is sketchy at best. The Faizabad ‘man-eating’ tigress too was thought to be a male, until it was shot. Most victims enter the forest to cut grass or collect firewood and are killed when the carnivore mistakes them for its prey. In February 2009, a woman who entered the Corbett National Park looking for firewood was killed by a tiger. Needless to say, it was promptly declared a man-eater.
It would do the entire country well to remember that we have only a thousand or so tigers left in the wild. Tigers, leopards or any wild animals cannot be declared man-eaters unless they actually consume the body of the human killed.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) would be well advised to focus its attention on such critical issues, rather than spend time clearing project after industrial project, which now seems to have become its over arching priority.
India’s premier field biology research institutes must coordinate their efforts to determine the total number of humans killed and the circumstances therein to reduce tragedies in the future. As Jim Corbett pointed out, every human-killer is not a man-eater in the making.
The problem of man-eating is emotive and should be addressed sensitively. We need both long and short-term solutions, which would involve securing critical tiger habitats, enhancing the natural prey base and finding alternative livelihoods for villagers to reduce their dependence on the forests. Each Protected Area must have a site-specific conservation plan that seeks to mitigate human-animal conflicts. The Wildlife Institute of India states unequivocally that India must start reconnecting landscapes so wild animals can move from one forest patch to another in search of food, rather than venture into human turf.
At another level Forest Departments across India must redouble their training programmes so their staff can effectively capture and tranquilise animals. Locking an animal in a zoo is not an option. Shooting should be considered only as a last resort once a cat is confirmed to be a man-eater after due observation. Cats that are captured near human habitation and then released must be radio collared if the Chief Wildlife Warden believes they could turn into habitual ‘strayers’. This would also help us to better understand the behaviour of errant cats. In the short-term, it is vital that it is scientifically established that the animal has really turned a man-eater before declaring it to be so. When the first human fatality is reported and the killer identified, the reasons must be studied. Was it a chance encounter, outright aggressiveness or was it a tigress merely protective of her cubs? Was she injured and unable to hunt?
Politics should be kept away from scientific field biology and Protected Area management. Condemning every tiger or leopard that walks on the ‘wrong side of the road’ is as sure a way to lose our national animal as well as that co-denizen of deep forests, the leopard. The Prime Minister is the de facto Environment Minister of India. He needs to hear from you because most of the letters he receives are those that ask for animals to be put down.
Write stating the following points to the PMO’s office and the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
1. We need a national database of carnivores declared as man-eaters. This should be up on the Ministry of Environment website even prior to officially declaring the cat a man-eater.
2. Forest Departments that have declared animals as man-eaters must inform the National Tiger Conservation Authority before taking action to put down any cat in critical tiger habitats.
3. Guidelines on declaring and handling man-eaters must be debated and the texts must be ratified by the National Board for Wildlife with help from the Wildlife Institute of India and the best known experts.
4. No animal captured as a man-eater should be placed on display in a zoo or safari park because this merely gives the entire species a bad name. It would be like putting a murderer on display for a curious public.
5. Enhance the budgetary allocation for wildlife conservation across the board so that Forest Departments are able to obtain the best equipment and training to deal with the difficult task they have on hand.
The Prime Minister of India,
South Block, Raisina Hill,
New Delhi – 110 011.
Paryavaran Bhavan, CGO Complex, Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 110 003.