Events preceding the killing of a male tiger, aged around 12 years, on a coffee plantation in a village outside the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary on December 2 would show how difficult the task of tiger conservation would be in the absence of enlightened public support.
This sanctuary, spreading over 344.4 sq. km in Kerala’s hill district of Wayanad, lies adjoining the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve and Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. To its southeast is the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. It is a tiger country.
A four-month ‘capture-recapture’ camera trapping programme, undertaken by the Kerala Forest Department and World Wildlife Fund in the first half of 2012, had indicated that there could be as many as 67 adult tigers and 11 cubs in the Wayanad sanctuary, (although some of them may be having their roaming territories extending into the adjoining Nagarahole and Bandipur Tiger Reserves). This finding had set off media reports projecting Wayanad sanctuary as a fit candidate for being declared as a tiger reserve.
Wayanad had been the hotbed of human-animal conflict in the recent decades. Within the sanctuary itself there are 107 tribal settlements and on the boundaries are villages inhabited by settler cultivators. Wild elephants and boars destroying cultivation and leopards and tigers lifting cattle occur quite frequently in these settlements.
There were 63 cattle kills in the settlements within and outside the sanctuary in 2010-11, 115 in 2011-12 and 71 till November in 2012-13. The Forest Department had been promptly compensating the villagers concerned whenever there are cattle kills and the Wayanad people had been taking this problem more or less in their stride. However, with rumours rife about Wayanad soon becoming a tiger reserve, unrest had been building up among the villagers following a political propaganda about possible restrictions on their activities once the sanctuary attained the status of a tiger reserve. This took the form of open agitations when, in the first week of November, the tiger that was later killed, started lifting cattle in Panavally village close to the sanctuary.
Major political parties in the district began vying with one another in taking up the “people's cause,” organising road blocks and public meetings crying for action to “protect the people from tiger.” The wildlife officials finally trapped the animal in a cage on November 14. The Forest Department’s office was picketed, an official was beaten up and, later, as the tiger in its cage was being taken to another part of the sanctuary for being released, an unruly mob detained the officials on the way for nearly two hours.
The release of the tiger deep in the forests was followed the next day by a 12-hour hartal in the town of Sultan Bathery and villages of Noolpuzha, Pulpally and Mullenkolly close to the sanctuary. Between November 15 and December 1 (which is the day before it was shot dead), the tiger attacked 10 cows in the villages closest to the place it was released after capture, killing four of them without getting an opportunity to eat any of the cows. It also attacked eight goats, eating two of them.
As these attacks occurred one after the other, organisations and groups stepped up their cry for the killing of the tiger, blocking national highway 766, which passes through the district, each day a new attack on cattle occurred. On November 20, besides blocking the national highway, the protesters detained top Forest officials who were camping at the Forest Inspection Bungalow in Sultan Bathery demanding that the tiger be shot.
The scale of the operation to capture the tiger changed drastically from November 20, with more than 200 people, including forest officials, personnel of a ‘rapid action force,’ another ‘rapid response team,’ a ‘special tiger protection force’ from Karnataka, an elephant squad, veterinary doctors, daily wage forest trackers and even members of the local public joining the hunt for the tiger. The tiger was tracked and sighted repeatedly, but it managed to keep out of range of tranquiliser shots.
Forest Minister K.B. Ganesh Kumar, who visited Sultan Bathery on November 29, was greeted with protest marches by parties. The next day, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, too, stayed in Wayanad meeting officials and people’s representatives. Both assured the agitated people that effective steps to capture the tiger were taken and Wayanad sanctuary would not be declared a tiger reserve. Local leaders wanted a clear assurance from the Ministers that the tiger would be killed.
Around 1.15 a.m. on December 2, the tiger attacked a cow at Kaithavally, a village just a km away from the sanctuary boundary, alerting villagers. Twenty minutes later, with the tracking team behind it, the tiger attempted to lift a goat from its shed in a house nearby. A church nearby tolled its bell, warning the villagers.
The patrolling team was reinforced early in the morning. The tiger trail showed that the animal had not left a coffee plantation it had entered after attacking the goat. An official who participated in the operation said it was sighted by the patrolling team around 8 a.m. and an attempt to tranquilise made at 8.20 a.m. The shot hit the tiger, but it continued to move and at one point “tried to charge towards the tracking team.” A big crowd had gathered to witness the action. Another tranquiliser shot was fired at the tiger around 9.50 a.m.
On receiving the second shot, the tiger turned towards the tracking team and stood on its hind legs, and one official in the team took aim and pulled the trigger of his rifle. The bullet hit the animal in the head region. The mob following the tracking team began celebrations.
An officer of the rank of Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests is inquiring into the circumstances that led to the killing. A team of experts from the National Tiger Conservation Authority is making a separate inquiry.