Two incidents in the first week of December — first on the fringes of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, followed by the other on the edge of the Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka — have brought the focus back on conflict management in tiger conservation. While in Wayanad, the tiger was shot dead, in North Kodagu, an injured tiger stuck in a barbed wire fence was rescued. These provide contrasting scenarios in conservation. In this interview to Sharath S. Srivatsa, tiger scientist and Director for Science-Asia of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) K. Ullas Karanth shares his thoughts on conservation and conflict management in the contiguous forests comprising Bandipur-Nagarahole, Mudu malai and Wayanad, that supports an estimated 150-180 tigers (WCS estimate).
What worked against conservation in Wayanad and in its favour in Nagarahole?
I would not pose it that way. In the next incident, the situation could well get reversed. The key point is, in this case, in Wayanad whipping up of public sentiment based on inflated tiger numbers put out by government, the media frenzy over a few cattle kills which were compensated, and the inability to handle a mob situation led to shooting of a tiger. The information that was available from our scientific data in terms of the “problem” tigers history was ignored, a photo of a tiger already in Mysore Zoo was released to the media as a different problem tiger etc. In the Kodagu case, the village leadership showed restraint and the forest department acted swiftly.
With more effort on tiger conservation, which could result in an increase in the population, do you think such conflicts could occur more often in forest fringes?
Yes, such conflicts on the fringe are in a sense the price we pay for successful tiger population recoveries. You do not have such conflicts in the vast forests of Northeastern hill states, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh etc. because tigers are almost gone or not producing much surplus annually to disperse. With a good prey base, tiger populations produce surpluses regularly. Annual losses in such surplus populations are as high as 20 per cent without reducing densities or numbers. So rational conservation involves such population recoveries as well as dealing with the consequences using the best of science and data — and not just feeling sentimental towards an individual tiger and its fate.
What would be a successful conservation and conflict reduction model in the Bandipur-Nagarahole-Mudumalai-Wayanad block in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve?
Basically that model would include (1) ensuring strict protection of tigers and prey inside the reserves; (2) using best possible science to monitor individual tigers and the population status; (3) when conflicts occur, promptly compensating livestock losses; (4) if human life is threatened removing the problem tigers either through chemical capture or if circumstances warrant it lethal removal; and (5) depending on health, age and other objective factors the captured animals should be retained in captivity, or in rare cases released or in specific cases euthanized painlessly. The central point is to ensure that tiger populations thrive even if individuals are lost and secondly public support is essential to having core tiger habitats that are strictly protected and support thriving tiger populations.