In a matter of weeks since the winter chill descended on the forests of Bandipur and Nagarahole, the carcasses of six tigers were found by officials. Around the same time last year, 10 tigers were found dead in the tiger reserves.
Winters, it may seem, are the deadliest for the big cat, not just in Karnataka, but in most of south India. The reason, say experts and officials, may not so much be the tiger behaviour during this season as much as that of the forest bureaucracy, which scours deeper into forests to meet deadlines before the fiscal year ends in March.
An analysis of 631 tiger deaths — recorded by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) — between 2009 and 2017 shows that nearly 50% of all tiger deaths in reserves in the four southern States happened between December and March. A total of 90 out of 182 deaths were recorded in Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, which cumulatively host more than 841 tigers, according to the 2014 Tiger Census.
The same trend is seen in tiger reserves of east and northeast India while in north and central India, reporting of mortalities peaks in December and in the summer months.
“From fire control lines to clearing weeds, Forest Department personnel and outsourced labour are present in large numbers and go deeper into the forests during winters. It becomes easier to spot carcasses, which tend to decay beyond recognition within a week,” said Manoj Kumar, Conservator of Forests and in-charge of the tiger census in Karnataka.
Officials, however, also pointed out that the last quarter of the fiscal year is also when ‘most of the ground work’ happens in reserves. A senior official who has been involved in the investigation of numerous tiger deaths said that with fund allocation set to lapse in March, it is a race against time to dig borewells, fences and trenches, or lay camera traps.
‘Monsoon is a tough time’
“Trends in tiger mortality have more to do with behaviour of officials, rather than tigers,” says K. Ullas Karanth, who has researched extensively in the forests of the State. “During the monsoons, when rain and overflowing rivers make navigation difficult, and vegetation makes detection difficult, reporting of deaths drops. That doesn’t mean tigers are dying in fewer numbers. If all tiger deaths were reported, mortality (particularly among cubs) would be more than 200, instead of the current figures of less than 100 annually,” he says, and adds: “What is important is the cause of the mortality.”
Take for instance, in Karnataka, of the five tiger carcasses found so far, authorities are focussed on two tigers found alongside a dead elephant, leading to suspicion that the deaths could be from poisoning. The rest were reported to have died of natural causes.
According to NTCA data, which has listed causes of deaths of 370 tigers since 2009, just 17% of deaths were owing to poaching, snares or poisoning, while an overwhelming 57% was owing to disease, old age or in-fighting. Conservationists are sceptical about these numbers.
“These causes are reported by local officers who, by now, have learnt the jargon needed to gloss over investigations. In many cases, the independent observer chosen is someone officials trust to sign these documents,” said a conservationist, who works closely with the government on various projects. “There have been numerous circulars asking officials to make public their investigations. No one abides by them.”
What is of clear concern, however, is the death by electrocution. Of the 14 recorded by NTCA since 2009, at least 10 were in 2017 in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. “In some cases it is poaching, but in others, it is when tigers come in contact with wires illegally drawn by villagers,” says Sarosh Lodhi, who is with CLAW, an informal collective of wildlife enthusiasts that keeps a tab on tiger deaths independently and is trying to propagate solar electric systems within forests.