A sense of unease in Idukki plantations with a ‘spike’ in attacks on cattle

Increasing attacks on cattle reported from plantation areas of Munnar have given rise to suspicion that there could be more tigers straying into human habitations in search of prey

Updated - October 28, 2022 05:12 pm IST

Published - October 28, 2022 12:39 am IST - IDUKKI 

Kerala Forest Department officers setting a trap to capture a tiger in Munnar

Kerala Forest Department officers setting a trap to capture a tiger in Munnar | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Over the past couple of months, incidents of cattle going missing or found dead inside plantations began to be noticed by workers of the Neyamakkad estate in Munnar.

They sensed the presence of a tiger in the area coinciding with the death of some five cows in a farm in the first week of October. In a coordinated operation steered by the Forest department and the local people, which lasted over three days, a 10-year-old male tiger was trapped from the location. The beast was soon released into Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady, only to be found drowned a few days later. 

Also read: Free-roaming big cats maul farmers’ livelihood in Wayanad

Increasing risk

The leopard that was killed by villagers of Mankulam near Adimali on Saturday

The leopard that was killed by villagers of Mankulam near Adimali on Saturday | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Early last month, a tribesman identified as Gopalan, a resident of the Chikkanamkudy tribal colony at Mankulam, killed a leopard in self-defence.

According to G. Suresh, whose family has lived in the Neyamakkad estate for three generations, there has been an unusual rise in tiger/leopard attacks in the area in the past one year.

“In the recent tiger attack, five of our cattle were killed. The compensation we received from the Forest department came to about half their market price. We have lost our main source of livelihood and are now afraid of venturing out in the evening hours,” he says.

Although the tiger on the prowl at Neyamakkad was trapped on October 5, more attacks have been reported in the plantation areas of Munnar, giving rise to the suspicion that there could be more tigers straying into human habitations in search of prey.

Poor health of predators

The tiger that was on the prowl in Neyamakkad

The tiger that was on the prowl in Neyamakkad | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

However, the Neyamakkad tiger that was trapped and later released was found dead a few days later inside the Periyar Tiger Researve. The veterinary doctors of the Forest department, who conducted post-mortem examination of the tiger and the leopard, concluded that both animals were suffering from poor health and had ventured out into inhabited areas for easy prey.

Assistant forest veterinary surgeon Nisha Raichel says that in Idukki district, disability to hunt is the main reason for tigers and leopards to enter populated areas.

“In the Mankulam and Munnar incidents, the leopard and tiger had suffered a disability while hunting. The lungs of the leopard, were not functioning and a couple of teeth had fallen. The tiger suffered from blindness and the autopsy revealed that the lungs of the big cat were not fully functional and it was physically weak,” says Dr. Raichel. 

“In some cases, tigers and Leopards venture out following a fight over territory. But the recent cases were different,” she says.

Munnar landscape

Mankulam Divisional Forest Officer G. Jayachandran says the Thattekkad bird sanctuary, Malayattoor division, Mankulam division, Munnar division, and Marayur division forests are known as Munnar landscape with a large tiger and leopard population.

“At Mankulam, the animal territories are pretty close to human habitations and there are no boundaries, which makes it a natural choice for the animals fighting poor health to stray into human habitations for prey,“ he says. 

Munnar Divisional Forest Officer Raju Francis ascribes the rise in tiger and leopard attacks in the region to an increase in people reporting the same in recent years. “Development activities also result in the habitat loss of wild animals, forcing them out into human settlements,“ he says.

Data and measures

As per a recent RTI reply by the Forest department, 63 people were killed and 536 seriously injured in wild animal attacks in Idukki in the past 10 years. The figures pertaining to tiger and leopard attacks are not available. But an RTI response secured by Idukki District Congress Committee general secretary Bijo Mani says that over ₹9 crore has been spent to prevent man-animal conflict in the district.

“The initiatives were not successful, and most of the money had been spent without proper study,” says Mr. Mani. 

“The Forest department mainly uses solar fencing, power fencing, crash guard rope fencing, trench, SMS alert, and rapid response teams to prevent man-animal conflict. But most of these initiatives are inadequate to prevent wild-animal attacks,” he says.

Recurring attacks

Munnar tigress released into interior forest of Periyar Tiger Reserve

Munnar tigress released into interior forest of Periyar Tiger Reserve | Photo Credit: SPECIAL AARANGEMENT

According to an RTI information, a total of 35 people were killed in human-animal conflicts in the Munnar Wildlife Division in the past 10 years, but there are no projects in these areas to address the issue. But at Anakkulam under the Mankulam Forest Division, where no life was lost in elephant attack in the past 10 years, the department had spent ₹1.4 crore on fencing projects. The crash guard rope fencing was set up in 2019 at ₹53 lakh.

Fr. Sebastian Kochupurakal, general convener of the High Range Samrakshana Samiti, says the department planned to enhance the forest cover in Idukki district to about 70 to 80%. “Allowing more incidents of tiger and leopard attacks is a means to force people out of their holdings,” he says.

Captured tigers and leopards are released back into forest areas bordering human habitations, he says. He says that the rise in wild animal attacks has led to a migration of people from Idukki to the neighbouring Kottayam and Ernakulam districts.

No effective way

However, Mr. Francis says there is no effective way to prevent the big cats from straying into habitations. “When it happens, we monitor the animal’s movements and if we get its picture, an expert team will calculate its age and health condition. If the animal poses a threat to the human population, a trap is set and the trapped animal is released deep into the jungle,” he says.

Mr. Francis says there have been cases of healthy tigers too occasionally straying into areas bordering the forest for a kill. But these tigers return to the forest. “In such cases, the department compensates the owner of the livestock,” he says.

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