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Updated: January 30, 2014 00:49 IST

When caring less may actually help

K. Ullas Karanth
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PRECARIOUS FUTURE: When conflict between man and tiger escalates, crucial local support for tiger conservation gets undermined. Picture shows the Bandipur “maneater” which was eventually trapped. Photo: M.A. Sriram
The Hindu PRECARIOUS FUTURE: When conflict between man and tiger escalates, crucial local support for tiger conservation gets undermined. Picture shows the Bandipur “maneater” which was eventually trapped. Photo: M.A. Sriram

Conservationists should be concerned about saving the species, rather than every individual tiger

The shooting of a man-eating tiger, as it happened recently in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu — barely two weeks after two other tigers preyed on four people in neighbouring Karnataka — invariably polarises public opinion. Locals, whose lives are at risk, want maneaters shot. Animal lovers, on the other hand, demand their “safe capture.” Caught in the middle, officials have to confront increasingly angry mobs, while authorities in Delhi insist on elaborate “operating procedures.” In Bandipur, Karnataka, after dozens of attempts at darting a tiger with a tranquillizing gun had failed, and after the big cat killed its third victim, angry locals burnt the forest office, forcing forest staff to abandon the scene. A posse of armed police had to control the situation, until the 12-year-old infirm male tiger was finally darted.

Science and practical experience clearly show that we cannot care for every individual wild tiger. Animal lovers and conservationists should therefore focus on saving the species as a whole, rather than worry about saving every individual. Conservation interventions must therefore be guided by scientific evidence and social practicality, rather than emotion.

Understanding tigers

My tiger research and conservation of three decades focusses on the central Western Ghats, which consists of forests in Karnataka and adjacent parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This landscape now harbours the largest tiger population globally. However, the 400 or so big cats in my study area are restricted to reserves comprising less than 10 per cent of the total area. With the overall landscape populated by 15 million people, public support for conservation is critical to tiger survival in the long term.

Studies show that tiger populations in some well-protected reserves, such as Nagarahole and Bandipur, in Karnataka, have dramatically rebounded, with their numbers attaining near saturation densities of 10-15 tigers per 100 sq.km. A substantial part of the credit for this must go to the forest departments of these three States. With the control of hunting and cattle grazing, deer, gaur and wild pigs have attained optimum densities of 20 or more animals per square kilometre, which is crucial for a healthy tiger population.

Every wild tiger requires a prey base of 500 animals to sustain it. When prey becomes abundant, individual tiger territories shrink and breeding increases. A single female may produce 10-15 cubs in her lifetime, an average of one cub a year. Consequently, thriving tiger populations produce annual surpluses, pushing dispersing sub-adults and old tigers to the edges of reserves.

These are the animals that prey on livestock and, more rarely, on humans, becoming “problem tigers.”

Tiger-human conflict

On rare occasions, tigers may accidentally attack persons moving in dense cover, mistaking them for prey, or in self-defence, when surprised. Sometimes they may even consume the victim. But if they do not subsequently prey on humans, these tigers also cannot be called “maneaters.” However, attacks occur when uncontrollable mobs surround and harry “problem tigers” when they venture out of reserves. Such tigers are not “maneaters.”

True maneaters are individual animals that persistently stalk and hunt human beings, after losing their instinctive fear. They pose a serious risk to local people and must be swiftly removed. By my reckoning there have been less than half-a-dozen such cases in the last decade in this region, three instances in the last two months. In all these cases, the tigers were injured, aged or infirm. Even so, maneaters do not prey exclusively on humans. They also kill livestock or wild prey opportunistically. There is no evidence at all that tigers get “addicted” to human flesh as common lore has it.

The critical point is that recent cases of conflict in the Western Ghats, central India and the Terai are a consequence of rebounding tiger numbers. In some sense, these rare instances of conflict we are witnessing are the price of conservation successes. In contrast, in the extensive but overhunted forests of the tribal belts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and the North Eastern Hill States, tigers have been either extirpated totally, or occur at low densities. In these regions, where tiger conservation has clearly failed, tiger-human conflict is virtually non-existent. This is not good news for tigers.

Research shows that in my study area, 20 per cent of the tiger population is lost every year due to several causes: fights between rivals, injuries, starvation, poaching and official removals by shooting or capture, following conflict incidents. I estimate that at least 50-75 tigers are being lost this way annually, although only a fraction of these mortalities are detected. However, such loss is not a cause for worry in itself as the birth of new tigers makes up for it.

To kill or not to kill?

Given this inevitable annual loss of 20 per cent in thriving populations, trying to “rescue” a few man-eating tigers is irrelevant to accomplishing the conservation objective of expanding and stabilising wild tiger populations. Tigers involved in conflict incidents are often seriously injured, infirm or old. If captured and removed to a zoo, they suffer a life of perpetual stress from years in captivity. Caring for these doomed tigers misdirects scarce resources that could be used for conserving their wild relatives. Sadly, for old and injured “conflict tigers,” a humane and quick death may be the best option.

Well-meaning animal lovers often do not understand that in high-pressure conflict situations, safe chemical capture of a free-ranging tiger is difficult or even impossible. Darting a stressed out animal playing hide-and-seek is an extremely difficult task. On the other hand, shooting the animal with a gun is often far easier, and saves human lives.

When precious days are spent in clumsy attempts to “rescue” maneaters, growing public anger seriously undermines the long-term support crucial for wild tigers, protected areas and the forest personnel who guard them. Overall, the future of wild tigers as a species is rendered more precarious when local public anxiety and anger are not quickly dealt with by eliminating the problem animal. By caring for individual wild tigers far too deeply, we may be dooming the species.

To save the tiger for posterity, we need to work on expanding protected area coverage, and reducing adverse human impacts. Both these require increased local support for tiger conservation. Yet, this is precisely what is undermined when human-tiger conflict escalates. While a few animal lovers may feel good if a maneater is “rescued” rather than killed, the cause of tiger conservation suffers.

In this overall context, the decision of the Tamil Nadu government to shoot the maneater in the Nilgiris, rather than persist in pointless rescue attempts, was the right thing to do.

(K. Ullas Karanth is director for Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society).

More In: Comment | Opinion

Every word in this article is true. we have seen same things in
Bandhavgarh.

from:  Satyendra Kumar Tiwari
Posted on: Jan 31, 2014 at 17:42 IST

I agree with Ullas Karanth that local communities must see that problem animals are being effectively removed, and that these conflict situations must not be allowed to escalate. Better still that India continues to work on reducing conflict by providing inducements to move communities to better circumstances away from tiger populations.

However, the question remains - in situations of tiger-human conflict, how do authorities know they have shot the right animal? Unless 'caught in the act' is it not possible that mistakes are made and the true offender goes on to repeat?

We have a footprint identification technique (FIT) that could be used to match a tiger to the 'scene of the crime'. It has proven efficacy in identifying not only individuals, but also sex.

from:  Zoe Jewell
Posted on: Jan 31, 2014 at 16:42 IST

The author has very clearly commented about the decision taken by the TN
government. I whole heartedly welcome his views. He has also pointed out that it is time to expand the PA coverage and also to reduce adverse human impacts.

from:  BA Daniel
Posted on: Jan 31, 2014 at 16:05 IST

It is wrong to blame the tiger for being a man-eater. From the
"maneater"'s perspective we pose as much a problem to it as it is
posing to people. The issue here is not whose life is more valuable.
The issue is that with the higher intelligence and capability what is
our level of responsibility towards vulnerable lives? Do we not owe a
duty to protect them when we have taken over their habitats? What this
shows is there is no willingness to pursue alternatives. Killing is
not an option and if we dont accept it, we will lose the specie. We
have been way too cavalier and in less than 100 years we have been
responsible for bringing this majestic animal to the brink of
extinction. If people do not understand this, there is not much one
can do. I am appalled by the amount of hatred shown by people here
towards "animal-lovers".

from:  vinaya
Posted on: Jan 31, 2014 at 00:47 IST

An eye-opener for many. A very well researched article from an expert of
the field. Stuff like this should be shared and bridged to a wider
audience.

from:  Adhiraj
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 19:02 IST

I could not help but laugh at Mr. Abhijit's comment. So, a villager's
life is less valuable than a tiger's. Is a city doctor's life more or
less valuable than a tiger's?
Leaving silly comparisons aside, I whole-heartedly agree with the author that we must work on expanding the protected area. Keep in mind that we are one species but we have been responsible for the extinction of tens of thousands of species. Up until recently, most people probably did not realise this effect but now we do.
I value human life as much as the other person but as human population
grows, should we simply cut down the last tree to build a mall or kill
the last tiger because we would not set space aside for it?

from:  Rahul Garg
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 17:41 IST

There is no denying the fact that the renowned author Dr Ullas Karanth
knows the behavior of Tigers better than anyone else does and is
responsible for changing the face of Tiger conservation by coming up
with modern scientific methods. But his views on 'To kill or not to
kill' can be argued (I'm speaking on my own behalf) problem Tigers
even man-eaters have been dealt with using other methods instead of
culling them. Problem Tigers in the past have been captured and
relocated to other PA's and they have never resorted to killing human
beings again, Tomy Winata an Indonesian business man does not have any
Science background however his love for the Tigers have given a whole
new life for Tigers termed as man-eaters. Tomy has successfully
established a new Sanctuary which also has a corridor attached to a PA
and has released problem Tigers there. There are villages around this
Sanctuary but the once so called problem Tigers have not gone back to
resorting killing humans beings.

from:  Siddhartha Kumar Gogoi
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 17:24 IST

Great article by a great man. Thank you for showing us all the larger
perspective and the balance that is so very necessary in such delicate
matters of our fellow beings.

Wished that the forest staff that was responsible for the cull of the
Ooty tiger had the understanding of the higher purpose that they were
engaged in. Just take a look at the video on u-tube of the jubilation
of the forest staff and special force once the unfortunate tiger was
shot dead by them. They were celebrating and were in jubilation as if
they have hunted down Veerappan. It sounded like a hunt instead of
sober work of protecting the tiger species and humans. Pls search for
Kappachi village in u-tube and you will see horrific scenes. Goes
against everything the learned Dr. has penned for all of us.

from:  Pal
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 15:40 IST

Maintaining the sanctity of the Nilgiri biosphere condusive of growth
and development. It is stated that 7.36lakh hectares of forests have
been cleared to heed human encroachment into a domain which is bound to
incite conflict. Awarness about the invaluables and venerating them
within the ambit of the wildlife protection act should be encouraged.

from:  jeevan jyoti choudhury
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 15:32 IST

very well researched and written article.

from:  Lokesh
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 14:06 IST

@abhijit: Really, this is exactly the kind of misanthropic attitude that gets fanatic
"animal-lovers" bad press (deservedly) and undermines the cause of conservation.

You obviously think that you are a more worthy person than the rural people. Since
your own life and the life of your own family are not under threat from a tiger that
is probably hundreds of miles away, you speak in this fashion.

For me, a human life comes first. If one has to decide whether a tiger or a human
has to live, then I'll always choose the human first. We need to conserve our
wildlife but it cannot be acceptable that human lives are endangered deliberately
or due to negligence in the process. Accidents obviously cannot be avoided. In that
sense, the columnist has struck the right balance in his article. Ideology and
fanaticism have no place in our daily life as they bring nothing but strife and
misery.

from:  Vivek
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 13:14 IST

Thank you for this sensible article. I hope this brings some commonsense
to the so called "animal lovers".

from:  Jay
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 13:05 IST

Very well written by a man who knows what he speaks. Hope all the
pretenders read this and come to terms with reality.

from:  R Padmanabhan
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 09:41 IST

A great and sensible article written by a scientist who has done pioneering work in the field of
tiger conservation. Sadly, many of the people that need to get this message most likely will
not read it. Nevertheless, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and the ATF staff need to
congratulated on bringing a swift closure to this man-eater and the ordeal the local people
were going through. As suggested by Dr. Karanth, we need to work on increasing the
protected area coverage and reducing adverse human impacts on these fragile Eco-
systems.

from:  Srini Natarajan
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 08:02 IST

When there are few thousand tigers left in the world . YES life of
every single tiger counts.Yes, the people are angry because their
loved ones are being killed but the tigers are angry too , their homes
are being invaded .
Mr. Author because you think about a broader picture , I'm bringing
this up : there are billions of homo sapiens in this world loss of a
few hundred wont matter. "Tigers involved in conflict incidents are
often seriously injured, infirm or old" ---- yes sir your right , but
the homo sapiens which the tigers kill are usually from rural
background and don't contribute much to the country's GDP.

from:  abhijit
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 07:29 IST

Very well stated. Scholarly. A second factor is that small scale hunting of prey, such as wild
boar and deer through traps and snares is a common practice, especially in plantations that
abut forests. Such practices reduces the prey base in fringe areas and paves way for human
animal conflicts as older tigers and subadults struggle to find prey in the buffer areas.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Jan 30, 2014 at 05:54 IST
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