Two States that have celebrated a formidably successful tiger conservation programme — Tamil Nadu and Karnataka — have, over four weeks, turned into the site of unprecedented conflict between the endangered animal and people.
Eight people have been killed by tigers in four weeks in Karnataka’s Bandipur Tiger Reserve and in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris; and three of the four animals involved in the attacks are assumed to be man-eaters — carnivores that persistently prey on people. Two tigers have since been captured in Karnataka, and the Tamil Nadu Forest Department has begun to track the man-eater (assumed to be a tiger, although some say it could be a leopard) around Doddabetta in the Nilgiris.
In the latest national tiger census of 2011, Karnataka made it to the top spot in tiger abundance with 300 animals, and Tamil Nadu saw a 53 per cent addition (the highest jump in any State) to its tiger population that now stands at 163. The cluster of forests where the latest attacks happened (Mudumalai-Bandipur-Nagarhole protected areas) have some of the highest densities of tigers in the world, with 10 to 15 animals per 100 sq km, according to survey figures with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Bangalore.
While wildlife biologists, who spoke to The Hindu, differed on the ecology of man-eaters, and whether their behaviour was a function of their growing population, they concurred that the forest departments ought to have acted swiftly and scientifically to prevent an escalation of human casualties, which they said would eventually “undermine conservation efforts.”
Ullas Karanth, director WCS-India, said tracking and capturing a man-eater, rather than identifying and eliminating it, can cause a fatal lapse. “Delays in eliminating a man-eater from the site means more human casualties as we saw in Bandipur, and this naturally creates hostility among communities towards the forest department and to conservation efforts in general,” said Dr. Karanth.
Moreover, a wild caught big cat does not adapt to captivity and leads a life of perennial stress and fear, Dr. Karanth said. “A scientific response, not an emotional one, is necessary while addressing a problem animal.”
While the conventional assumption is that large carnivores turn man-eaters when they are incapable of hunting their natural prey — that is when they are old, injured or spurned by territorial fights to forest fringes — Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist who studies human-leopard conflict in Maharashtra, says there has been virtually no conclusive study that explains why wild carnivores attack people unprovoked.
“All we know is that it is extremely aberrant behaviour for a carnivore to overcome its huge fear of humans, and to attack them.” Dr. Athreya believes that man-eaters “should be removed soon” with the help of patrol teams and “a qualified government shooter.”
Pointing to the need to create interconnectivity between tiger habitats, a paper, co-authored by Uma Ramakrishnan of the National Centre for Biological Sciences and published in PlosOne last year says: “Increasing local tiger abundance, while important, will be an inadequate conservation strategy in the absence of population connectivity.” The study shows that tigers travel enormous distances in their lifespan and identified an individual that migrated at least 345 km.