Activists vs. people who get eaten

October 01, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 03:33 am IST

Elite, urban social media crusaders fought for Tigress T27C1’s release. Then she killed another man

Burning brightLeading the social media campaign was a group that had unleashed a similar viral campaign in support of a man-eater named Ustad in Ranthambore.Nagara Gopal

Burning brightLeading the social media campaign was a group that had unleashed a similar viral campaign in support of a man-eater named Ustad in Ranthambore.Nagara Gopal

Bhivji Harle is a name that won’t be remembered. A poor, 55-year-old farmer and a resident of Vadala Vardhpur village in Maharashtra’s Wardha district, Harle will become another statistic, a collateral in the man-animal conflict, a forgotten footnote in the grand narrative of tiger conservation.

On the evening of September 19, a tigress known as T27C1 attacked and killed Harle on a field in his village. He was the third person she had killed in five months. Harle’s real killer, however, was not the tigress but the astonishing apathy of self-proclaimed wildlife activists and conservationists, forest officers and politicians, who should have known better than to release a conflict tiger into Bor Tiger Reserve, around which are scattered dozens of villages.

T27C1, more commonly known as the ‘Bramhapuri problem tigress’ began life in the Bramhapuri forest division of Chandrapur district — home to the Tadoba Tiger Reserve and the ‘tiger capital’ of Maharashtra. Densely populated, humans and big cats live cheek-by-jowl in Brahmapuri . Despite such proximity, though, conflict has been remarkably low. The division is home to 608 villages, 47 tigers and more than 80 leopards (2016 camera-trapping estimate by Wildlife Conservation Trust), and yet in the past four years, only 13 people have been killed, 205 injured and 2,549 heads of cattle grabbed by wild cats. Moreover, the conflict is restricted to a few pockets.

Animal rights slacktivists

A 2014 study offered some clues to the reason for the comparatively low level of conflict here. A radio-collared tigress named Kala, for instance, was found to move only at night, avoiding humans even if they were just 100 metres away and rarely venturing near villages.

But T27C1 was no Kala. She first attacked cattle in April this year in the southern forests of Bramhapuri. Then, on May 19, when she was just 18 months old, she killed Shrisagari Thakre, a 52-year-old Halda villager. Thakre had gone into the forest to collect tendu leaves, a source of meagre yet critical income. The previous day, T27C1 had injured Mangala Awari from the same village. Five days after Thakre’s death, the cat attacked Devidas Bhoyar. In early June, she injured three people on two consecutive days. The situation was rapidly turning explosive. The residents got restive and attacked the forest department and burnt vehicles. The police had to be called in. As many as 49 villagers were arrested.

Less than a fortnight later, the tiger drew blood again. Madhukar Tekram, a 53-year-old villager from Padmapur. It was the last straw. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Maharashtra, issued a death warrant for T27C1. He maintained, however, that the department’s priority would be to capture the tigress alive, and shooting would be the last resort. Most conservationists supported the decision. If left unaddressed, the villagers would take matters into their own hands, endangering dozens of big cats towards whom they had otherwise shown remarkable tolerance over the years.

Legions of elite, urban ‘tiger lovers’, however, protested. Far removed from the site of conflict, they unleashed a shrill online campaign, led by a group of activists who had earlier unleashed something similar in support of a man-eater named T24, better known as Ustad, in Rajasthan’s Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Ustad had killed four people, but activists and celebrities proclaimed Je Suis Ustad and even filed PILs. The courts shot down the PILs, and the jamboree wound up.

Five days after the order against T27C1, Jerryl Avinash Banait, self-proclaimed ‘wildlife lover and activist’, filed a PIL against it in Bombay High Court and got a quash order. A section of the social media activists celebrated their big win, even as Bramhapuri’s residents, who were spending each day in fear of being attacked, fumed.

Up in arms

Now, the forest department decided to tranquillise and capture the tigress. The team, however, was gheraoed by irate villagers who demanded that the tigress be shot according to the original orders or, that they be allowed to kill her themselves. Sensing the situation spiralling out of control, the team beat a hasty retreat.

Meanwhile, T27C1, still on the prowl, returned to Halda village on July 10 and killed some cattle. The forest department team managed to tranquillise her the following day, and shifted her to Gorewada Rescue Centre.

As soon as the news broke, the usual suspects on social media were up in arms again. “Ustad’s younger sister — doomed for a life in captivity?…why are Tigers being declared maneaters with such haste nowadays? Is it just to pander to the locals who don’t care about illegally encroaching into the Tiger’s territory?” asked one activist.

Under this barrage, the forest department constituted a special committee with a non-official majority, headed by the Additional PCCF, to deliberate if the tigress could be released again. Most conservationists and wildlife scientists are unanimously agreed that problem big cats should not be released again, either in their original habitat or at a new location. A litany of tragedies have invariably followed such releases in the past, with the wild cats either unleashing a fresh cycle of killing or trying to return to their original habitat and encountering humans en route. Recent disastrous examples from Brahmapuri (2011), Chikmagalur (2014) and Sariska (2017) show that forest departments have come under tremendous pressure from social media activists. Thus, when the committee recommended on July 14 that T27C1 be released, despite the Additional PCCF’s opposition, it went completely against the grain of smart conservation.

More lives will be lost

The department tried first to release the tigress in NNTR reserve, but the field director there, Ravikiran Govekar, rightly refused. In an earlier instance too he had said: “We don’t want to accept problem tigers. We are trying to win over locals in 200 villages by…development of villages around tiger reserve. Any negative fallout will water down conservation efforts.”

The villages around Bor too, where T27C1 was sent, protested. But department officials promised that the tigress would be radio-collared and monitored round the clock. T27C1 was released on July 29. The social media champions celebrated. In September, Harle lay dead, his half-eaten body found in a field. The animal’s radio collar had stopped working and the monitoring team had lost track of the tigress. Kishor Rithe, an activist and a committee member, who strongly advocated the release continues to defend the move. He tells me: “The tiger was stalking cattle and it happened to kill a man. So you decide who is to blame.”

“What is the point of all the research the forest department collaborates on if it does not pay heed to it when the conflict situations actually arise? They might as well not do any research and just listen to what the animal lovers say,” says wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya, who studies human-leopard conflict. “Committees should call upon people who have worked on these subjects and not activists. If the department continues succumbing to such pressure, more lives will be lost.” The question to ask is how many of these activists would want such an animal let loose in their own backyards.

Meanwhile, the PCCF has once again ordered T27C1’s capture. As I write this, a forest department team searches for her while terrified villagers wait for the ordeal to end so that they can return to their fields.

The writer is a Jharkhand-based conservationist and an avid collector of antiquarian books on natural history.

Studies have shown that conflict big cats that are captured and released unleash a fresh cycle of killing and conflict

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