Living With Tigers: An Uneasy Co-Existence
December 10, 2011: It was late afternoon in northern India. Soon it would be twilight. As we moved through the teak plantation with its tangled undergrowth, leaves crunched under our boots in the silence of the gloomy forest.
We were following the trail of a tiger that had killed and dragged away a bullock.
When we finally found the dead animal, it was lying in heavy foliage, its neck broken and parts of its rump chewed away. Tigers habitually rip open their kill from the rump and pull out the entrails, leaving them aside before starting to eat the rest of the carcass.
The big cat was probably nearby. Close to the kill, we found saucer-sized pug marks in soft sand.
The bullock belonged to Ms Madhvi Devi, a woman in her 30s who lives in a village in the forest. Ms Devi, who was among our search party of four, stood next to the dead animal as a photograph was taken of her holding a small blackboard with details of the kill marked down in chalk.
A few minutes later, she was given 1,500 rupees (S$37) in compensation.
The picture was for the records of the interim relief scheme of The Corbett Foundation (TCF) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
The scheme pays villagers when their livestock is killed by tigers and leopards outside the legal boundaries of Corbett National Park, north India's most significant tiger habitat.
The park and surrounding forest are classified as a tiger reserve. There are an estimated 200 tigers within the sprawling 822 sq km reserve.
The relief scheme was started by TCF in 1995. The aim is to soften the blow of losing a milk-producing or draught animal and make it less likely that villagers will kill the predator in revenge or at the bidding of a poacher. In 1998, the WWF began funding it.
The amount given varies according to the animal. The market price of the livestock is usually higher, but this cash is paid out immediately.
Ms Devi should get money from the state government as well, but the system is slow. The divisional forest officer of the area, Mr Ravindra Juyal, says the bureaucracy is still processing compensation claims dating back to 2009.
On-the-spot payment under the scheme makes up somewhat for the inadequacies of the official system. As Ms Devi said to me: 'I am uneducated, I don't know how to fill out forms, and anyway, I won't get the money for years, so why bother? You are the only people who compensate us.'
TCF was founded in 1994 by Mr Dilip Khatau, a former textile and shipping tycoon who is now a Singapore resident. He grew up in Africa and returned to his native India to give something back to the jungles he used to roam as a young man during his holidays.
The foundation works among forest communities living on the edges of Corbett National Park, providing health care for locals, wildlife conservation awareness programmes for local schoolchildren, as well as running the interim relief scheme.
Money is paid only if it can be confirmed that the livestock has been killed by a tiger or a leopard, hence the importance of investigating each death.
The scheme covers a vast area in which there are 334 villages. The number of kills per year has been edging up.
Compensation paid under the interim relief scheme in 2009 totalled a relatively paltry $45,327. The number of kills that year was 1,124 – up from 972 in 2008, and 737 in 2007.
The scheme may be keeping the tigers in these forests alive. Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh, one of India's foremost wildlife field biologists, has likened the tigers in these peripheral forests to 'patients in intensive care'.
'The interim relief scheme is the oxygen that in this case indirectly helps keep them alive,' he said.
Tigers do not know legal boundaries as they roam the national park. Outside the park, there are reserve forests, but these are mixed-use forests also inhabited by people: tribal cattle herders as well as farmers with livestock and crop fields.
Over the years, tiny hamlets strung around the edge of the forest have grown into towns. Roads have been widened and traffic has multiplied. Tourist resorts eat into the edges of the jungle. It all adds up to a steady erosion of tiger habitat.
As a result, cattle have become targets for hungry tigers. Occasionally, tigers have turned into man-eaters, or in accidental encounters, mauled local people in the forest cutting wood.
There is no question that the tiger is on the losing end in such conflicts.
'Problem' tigers are shot or trapped and removed – if they are lucky, to deep inside the national park, and if unlucky, to a zoo.
'Conflict between humans and wildlife has become increasingly frequent and hostile in recent years,' noted a WWF report on the interim relief scheme, released in September.
'Human-tiger conflict poses a significant threat to tiger conservation.'
These forests are the trenches of tiger conservation, where the giant cat is vulnerable to poachers who can kill it for next to nothing, with a wire snare, for the Chinese market.
They are also vulnerable to revenge killing. In September, in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh, a tiger which was killing livestock was trapped and beaten to death by angry locals.
This is where the WWF/TCF scheme comes in. There is a simple index of the success of paying local communities compensation. The WWF report notes that there have been no cases of tiger poisoning in the area since the mid-1990s.
The support of local communities is critical if tiger conservation is to have any chance of success. The money may be small in dollar terms, but it means a lot to locals living hardscrabble lives in a tiger habitat.
Source: by Nirmal Ghosh, Dhikuli, (India).
Nirmal Ghosh has written three books on Indian wildlife and natural history, and has been involved in tiger and Asian elephant conservation for over 20 years. He is a TCF trustee.