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National animal under siege
| October 05, 2018
Wildlife Week Special – More and more tigers are being seen outside protected areas, leading to unfortunate clashes with humans. Even as activists push for a mercy for Avni, chances are the trigger will be pulled when she is sighted. How can we save our national animal from the pressures of human population?
Representation image © Kalyan Varma
T1, F03, K1, Sundari… the fate of these majestic big cats lies in the hands of an ever-growing human population. Even as India celebrates wildlife week during October, the life of T1 hangs in balance. Mother of two cubs, this ‘problem tigress’ in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal forests has been labelled man-eater and orders given for its removal from the region. A last chance to tranquilise her has just ended, and shoot to kill order will soon be issued.
Ironically, one of the elephants pressed into the failed search operations escaped from the camp and attacked two people, killing one. The strain from the exercise covering the rocky, rugged terrain is believed to have affected the elephant.
The tigress T1 has so far killed 16 people since 2016. Most of the killings have been in the periphery or inside the forests of Pandharkawada, bordering which are many villages. The political and public pressures have been mounting, with crowds burning forest department vehicles and now planning a big rally.
Initially the Bombay High Court reserved the plea to shoot Avni on the premises that she was raising her cubs, but a subsequent case filed in the Supreme Court saw the apex court pass the buck to the forest department as the right authority to decide.
The tigress continues to elude as she moves with her two cubs across the difficult terrain.
In defence of T1, alias Avni, what wildlife experts point out is the fact that she and her cubs are still killing and feeding on cattle and normal prey. This shows that they are not habituated ‘man-eaters’. The tigress has not been actively ‘stalking’ humans. NGOs taking up the case for Avni have argued that most deaths have happened when people have entered the forests and that the tigress is no habitual man-eater.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority
clearly says that humans killed in chance encounters is not sufficient to classify a carnivore as a man-eater. In prey-stressed areas, the animal may consume the parts of the kill. Even that cannot be used to term it man-eater unless it deliberately seeks humans, avoiding its natural prey.
However, with the deaths mounting, the forest department authorities find their hands tied. Avni will have to be sacrificed. What happens to her cubs is not clear.
Over to Satkosia in Odisha. Tigress Sundari is on the run with another team after her to tranquilise her. She too has evaded the trackers for months now. The cry to capture her got loud after allegations that she killed a villager. Public clamour to take her back to Bandhavgarh from where she was translocated however has been resisted. Meanwhile, a WII analysis based on evidence suggested that Sundari may be innocent and not involved in the death at all. She has been GPS tracked and seen to be moving mostly inside the forest. Efforts are on to drive her into the core area.
Then there is the case of F03 who has moved out of the Orang National Park in Assam a year back and been causing panic among the bordering villages where she has been sighted. She has not killed any human, but was responsible for the death of over 40 cattle head. The villagers want her out. The Orang National Park has amongst the highest tiger densities in the country with 24 tigers in a 78 sq. km expanse. This one too has managed to give the slip in 12 attempts to capture her.
What is common in all three cases as also elsewhere is that the forests are witnessing increasing human pressures, with cattle grazing and encroachment the order of the day. Cattle competing with herbivores for vegetation induces biotic pressure which in turn leads to scanty food for the carnivores.
Unless forests are protected and enough food and water is available, such incidents of carnivores stepping out will only increase as the pressures on the ecosystem rise.
Amidst these similar scenarios there is a slightly different one as portrayed by the pathetic case of K4, the tigress of Telangana’s Chennur forest. She too has managed to cleverly evade many attempts to lure and capture her. Six teams have been after her.
In her case, the attempt is to help her and deliver the tigress from the grip of the snare eating into her belly. The snare used by poachers to trap small herbivores for meat ended up around the young tigress a year ago. She has been walking with the snare since. A worse fate has played out in the life of tigers at Nagarhole tiger reserve in recent times. Poached and skinned, four have succumbed to snares in the last two years.
Between poaching and habitat loss, the numbers of tigers have dropped since early last century. From around 40,000 to a mere thousand a few decades ago, Panthera tigris has faced many challenges. The last tiger census in 2014 showed 2226 tigers in 50 tiger reserves spread across 89,000 sq kms. With less than 20 breeding male and female cats, tigers in 41 tiger reserves could go extinct according to a recent survey by Wildlife Institute of India, which has called for more connectivity between tiger habitats allowing for more movement and exchange of gene pool.
Unfortunately, much of the wildlife corridor in the country today has been encroached upon by people as well as development projects.
Eventually, whether a carnivore is shot or moved to a zoo hardly makes a difference for a wild animal with a wide-ranging habitat. But what the present situation highlights is that neither is a solution. Each time a tiger is sighted, the panic button will be hit, even if it is not attacking humans. How can this be avoided?
Protected areas in the country are a little lesser than 5% of the total geographical extent. If indeed we care to protect our remaining wildlife, there has to be a concerted effort to ensure the habitats in these forests are neither fragmented nor degraded. Dispersing population of tigers move out in search of new territory as also old tigers pushed out by the young ones. As forests shrink, this becomes critical.
But in general, wild animals keep moving in search of food and water, not recognising park boundaries drawn by humans. A simple measure like restricting cattle grazing in forests and adequate protection for livestock could avert both loss of human life as well as loss of cattle, while ensuring a good prey base inside.
Else, chances are that more carnivores will frequent human habitations in search of cattle and get used to human presence. In response to the panic and chance encounters bound to lead to casualties, more T1s will have to be shot, leaving more cubs destitute or in the zoos. That is no way to conserve our national animal.
Written by Jayalakshmi K
(The views expressed here are the writer's.)