Back on the menu: why are india’s tigers eating people?

Recent years have witnessed an upsurge in reports of man-eating among india’s wild tiger population. In early 2014, in the rural hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh, at least ten people fell victim to what were thought to be a pair of tigers that had dispersed from the nearby Corbett Tiger Reserve in the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand. Further incidents were reported in the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. During a five week period from late December 2013 to mid January 2014, no fewer than 17 people were estimated to have become victims of such man-eaters. This situation had major repercussions within the affected areas and threatened to undermine the already fragile relationship that existed between wildlife authorities and the local communities residing in proximity to protected reserves. This created not only a significant social cost but also proved to be an economic disaster for many marginalised villagers who could ill-afford to lose out on subsistence and income generating opportunities. The reign of terror had created a situation in which a self-imposed tiger curfew had left schools closed and villagers locked in their homes in fear of their lives. The majority of people inhabiting these wildlife-rich areas work on a daily wage basis and, it was feared that some may starve if the danger to them was not rectified at the earliest possible juncture. Equally, it was feared by wildlife managers that the removal of key staff from the reserves for the purposes of tracking and shooting problem tigers, posed a concomitant risk for security and patrolling activities in the reserves themselves. Reports that such man-eating continues to be on the rise have persisted and it is high time that we pose the question of ‘why are india’s tigers eating people?’

Villagers give tiger a wide berth on forest road
Human communities in Ranthambhore retreat to avoid tiger encounter

There are few events that elicit the same level of fear than the realisation that wild animals may view humans as meat. Acknowledged (albeit by ourselves) to occupy the pinnacle of the food chain, the idea of being consumed as prey is abhorrent to most of us. But that is just what we have become in certain parts of the tiger’s range. When I say we, I do however use the word with caution, as in reality it tends to be the impoverished, marginalised villagers living in proximity to wildlife-rich areas that feature most prominently on the menu. And it is this very proximity that provides us with our first clue as to why this resurgence in man-eating activity may be happening. Many of the human communities that coexist with dangerous wildlife tend to derive at least some of their subsistence needs from the nearby forests. In other words, from tiger habitat. Collecting firewood, gathering honey and grazing their livestock are just a few of the practices widespread in such regions. This inevitably brings people into close contact with tigers and, in the event of a conflict situation, the outcome of this interaction is predictably bad news for the human. This is by no means a new phenomenon, however, as throughout history tigers have claimed their fair share of human meat.

Jim Corbett with the (dead) Champawat tigress
Jim Corbett with the Champawat tigress

Take the example of the Champawat tigress, active from the latter years of the 19th century up until she was finally tracked down and killed by that most famous of hunters, Jim Corbett in 1907. During that period an estimated 436 human victims had been claimed by the tigress. Her fame endures through the writings of Corbett, his fame through the posthumous adoption of his name for india’s oldest national park. Following a cursory postmortem, Corbett confirmed that the tiger had suffered a significant deterioration in the state of her teeth and that this restricted her ability to kill large ungulate prey. Hence, her hunting patterns needed to change and she was forced to switch to easier prey, humans. Body counts this size are of no longer possible due to the significant reduction in the tiger population and the parallel contraction of its habitat. Recent research revealed by the Indian government, however, does illustrate a palpable rise in tiger-related deaths in the country, attributing 72 human fatalities between 2012-2015. This trend is of major concern to wildlife managers and is set to worsen as tigers disperse and colonise sites beyond protected area boundaries. Indeed, recent news from the state of Maharashtra suggests that, contrary to the assumption that tigers have become largely confined within the boundaries of established reserves, a healthy population has now been reported in outlying forest areas. According to research undertaken by the Wildlife Conservation Society, based on data derived from camera trap technology, an estimated 70 adult tigers now reside outside officially designated areas of protection, using fractured corridors to navigate between forest patches. This is good news for tigers but perhaps less so for the surrounding human communities.

Tiger movement of this kind creates a predicament for wildlife managers and whilst biologically and ecologically it may be desirable, it nevertheless creates certain difficulties that, in turn may lead to unintended consequences. Environment minister Prakash Javedekar has recently emphasised the need to boost the availability of drinking water and food within the existing reserve network in an attempt to prevent dangerous animals from dispersing into human-dominated environments. This is a potentially worrying trend and one that provides us with another clue as to why reports of man-eating may be on the rise. Reserve boundaries are designed to be porous, to act as an enabling mechanism for the distribution of surplus tigers. The outcome of interventions intended to prevent such circulation, alongside unregulated development on the periphery, creates a kind of virtual fence and, as a consequence, the desired porosity becomes compromised. This can increase competition within the species for limited space, especially under a management regime dedicated to the increase of tiger population size. This, in turn, tends to stimulate internecine rivalries, increasing the prevalence of territorial disputes. The resulting combat can be fierce and, as a consequence, increase the incidence of injured tigers forced to leave the safety of the protected reserve. These tigers, as we have seen, pose a considerable threat to local communities, further eroding support for their conservation. It is vital, therefore, within any strategy to manage man-tiger conflict, that an appropriate balance is achieved in the allocation of resources targeting both source and sink sites. Otherwise, there is a fear that the source locations may become akin to pressure cookers with no escape valve to enable the safe release of excess energy.

Now, if we rewind a bit, back to the previous post, it becomes even more difficult to justify the labelling of T24 as a man-eater. He certainly does not fit the profile we are now building and certainly can not be described as an identikit of a habitual man-eater. He was a seemingly healthy specimen that had secured and defended his own territory within the core zone of a protected reserve in which he remained. Moreover, he had successfully sired cubs and managed, with relative ease, to hunt and kill sufficient large-bodied prey to sustain himself. But it is within his former home range of Ranthambhore that we can pick up our next clue as to the rise of man-eating among india’s tigers.

Bengal tigers fighting
Skewed gender structure may intensify internecine conflicts. Photo by Andy Rouse.

Firstly, as tiger numbers increase and dispersal is blocked, stocking densities threaten to exceed established carrying capacity within the source areas. And secondly, in Ranthambhore particularly, it is the gender structure of the expanded population that causes concern. According to biologists, the ideal ratio of female to male tigers is 3:1 reflecting the fact that the range of a tigress is smaller than that of a male whose territory may straddle those of multiple females. Results from the recent tiger estimation, however, suggest that there may in fact be more males than females. In addition, there is a relatively high proportion of sub-adults and cubs resident in the reserve. In a more open, connected landscape matrix, nature would compensate for this skewed gender imbalance by expelling surplus males to establish their territories elsewhere. But, in the absence of functioning corridors they become trapped and, even worse ejected into the human-dominated land on the fringes of the reserves with predictable consequences.

The lack of connecting corridors can lead to increased encounters between tigers and people
The lack of connecting corridors can lead to increased encounters between tigers and people

Finally, in many areas, the poverty of local communities brings them into increasing competition with tigers for food. We tend to think of ungulate species as being the exclusive prey of tigers. In reality, however, herbivores are also pursued by marginalised villagers, providing them with a rich source of protein and sustenance. Simply punishing people for illegal subsistence hunting, without providing opportunities for alternative livelihoods, merely creates a broader constituency of dissent and, in order to earn badly needed money, this makes collusion with poachers a more attractive proposition. The problem, therefore, is not only the management of wildlife but also of people, a task that wildlife management authorities are ill equipped to administer. The Deputy Director of the Corbett reserve explained some of the situations where local villagers put themselves at risk from potential tiger encounters. Many people living in close proximity to reserve boundaries, he claimed, have no access to even the most basic facilities. For many, their homes do not even contain toilets, causing them to go into forest areas to take care of their ablutions. This is avoidable and there are increasing calls for authorities to invest in facilities for marginalised communities as a conflict mitigation technique, rather than coercing them to relocate their homes elsewhere. The message coming from the reserves is that funding is insufficient to effectively manage tigers in both the source and sink areas, so the focus of their actions is becoming increasingly centred on the core areas of the protected areas.

The fear moving forward is that if the growth in tiger numbers continues to be the metric by which India measures its conservation success, that episodes of man-eating will become more commonplace. To avoid this eventuality, wildlife managers need to focus upon a wider area than just the territory contained within existing protected zones. They need to view sources and sinks as connected wholes as well as work closely with local communities to seek ways in which such risks can be reduced. It also needs to be recognised that rural poverty represents an obstacle to effective wildlife protection and that to remedy this, the search for alternative livelihoods needs to be at the core of the conservation agenda. If dispersal corridors continue to be refused legal protection and outlying forests remain inaccessible to tigers, then we can expect increasing media reports of man-eating and the fear that this engenders, living with the expense of protracted hunts to control man-tiger conflict. If the political will to challenge this resurgence in man-eating is unforthcoming, then the future of both the tiger and its human neighbours is set to become even more demanding in the years ahead.

I would like to conclude this post on a somewhat different note, by reflecting on our different responses to the presence of a man-eater at large. Our reactions are shaped by our circumstances and our relative proximity to the dangers inherent in such a situation. They reflect our socio-economic status and, for many of us looking on from a safe distance, an evident hierarchy of concern has evolved with the tiger established as the main focus of our interest. We tend to view the endangerment of the tiger as a product of human intervention and greed and, perhaps, incidents of man-eating may be the price we need to pay in order to ensure their continued existence. Further down our hierarchy lies concern for our fellow humans, those that are forced to pay such a price for our collective profligacy. These are the poverty-stricken, faceless villagers that suffer the terrors and predations of these man-eaters, competing with them for scarce resources. Whilst we commiserate with their predicament, our sympathies nevertheless lie with the tiger and many of us will translate our concern into opportunities to visit their territories in order to view for ourselves the fragile splendour of the last remaining big cats. Indeed, the presence of a man-eater may add a little frisson to our experience yet, cocooned as we are in our own protective bubble, fears of actual harm to ourselves are at best minimal. But, outside of this bubble, the fear is palpable; the risk is very real, with the ensuing conflicts disastrous to both humans and tigers. We need to reconcile ourselves with this reality, that the future of tigers in the wild is inextricably linked to the futures of the impoverished rural communities that share their living space.

Close up of tiger eye.
If we are to ensure the future of tigers in the wild it is essential to challenge rural poverty

We need to communicate this knowledge to those that plan and design our conservation strategies, rather than to tacitly accept that such conflict is the price we have to pay to ensure the persistence of tigers in the wild. The last words must go to Stephen Moss, abstracted from his review of David Quammen’s 2004 book ‘Monster of God’. “To put it bluntly” he says “rich people are entertained by predators, poor people are eaten by them”.

Hero or villain? – the battle for tiger T24 of Ranthambhore

On May 8th 2015, news emerged from India that a 56 year old forest guard employed in one of the country’s premier tiger reserves had been mauled and killed by one of its resident tigers. It later transpired that the alleged attacker was tiger T24 (or Ustad as he is also known) and that, far from being an isolated incident, the guard was in fact the fourth victim attributed to this particular big cat over a five year period. The reserve in question was Ranthambhore, located in the northern state of Rajasthan and the tiger was one of its most most famous and photographed residents. Establishing its territory in zone 1 of the reserve, T24 was one of the most frequently encountered tigers in Ranthambhore and consequently he had become a major draw for tourists. The previous deaths attributed to T24 included two local villagers and a second forest guard, all taken on separate occasions. In two of the reported incidents, parts of the bodies had been consumed whilst in the other events, including the latest, it was speculated that rescuers arrived promptly to retrieve the carcasses before they could be eaten. This, in the opinion of the local authorities in the reserve, was sufficient to label T24 as a man eater. But is he?

Tiger T24 -emerging from the undergrowth
Tiger T24 – One of the most photographed tigers in India

This is a difficult question to tackle. Just because a tiger may kill and consume all, or part, of a human does not automatically make him a man eater. To achieve this dubious distinction requires the recognition of a number of other factors at play. Firstly, it must be established that a tiger has lost its fear of humans and has actively taken to stalking them as a prey species. Secondly, this behaviour should be a regular occurrence as opposed to an isolated, or series of isolated, incidents. In both cases, the evidence against T24 would appear to be inconclusive. Let us consider the testimony provided by two of the ‘rescuers’ that arrived on the scene within half an hour of the attack taking place. T24, they claimed, had to be chased away from the corpse to prevent it from being eaten. Both witnesses retracted an initial assertion that the tiger continued to hold the victim’s body by the neck as the rescue car arrived, following a subsequent admission that they were not present at the time of retrieval. Both men, however, remain convinced of the dangers inherent in the tiger’s continued presence in the reserve. Valmik Thapar, doyen of Ranthambhore and its tigers, falls short of classifying T24 as a man eater but nevertheless supports this assessment, claiming that in all his years of experience this particular tiger is the most dangerous that he has encountered. This view, however, is by no means universal.

Bina Kak, a former minister in the state government, dismisses the so-called evidence as subjective and, at best, speculative, producing a photograph of a recent encounter between the alleged man eater and a party of three women carrying fuel wood through its territory.

Tiger watching villagers traverse his territory.
Bina Kak’s photo of a close encounter.

Following a cursory glance at the humans, T24 turned and retreated from any potential encounter. Furthermore, the fact that religious pilgrims regularly traverse the tiger’s territory in order to effect access to a temple, provides further ammunition as to T24’s continuing tolerance of humans, as does the constant stream of tourist traffic seeking photographic opportunities. If we subscribe to this particular argument, the evidence would suggest that in each episode it was most likely a chance encounter that created a situation in which T24 killed essentially as a self defence mechanism. The subsequent consumption of human flesh is not sufficient to label him a man eater and, as a consequence, management should seek to prevent the incidence of such encounters moving forward. Reports of the most recent attack may in fact support this scenario, with the forest guard allegedly searching for T24 in dense vegetation, behind a hedgerow.

This argument becomes even more persuasive when we consider the location in which the attacks took place. In each instance, the events occurred within the confines of the tiger reserve, an area set aside for the protection of tigers against the insidious influences of human intrusion. Within these inviolate spaces, tigers are provided the security to act like tigers and, however regrettable the human cost may be, such encounters need to be managed carefully. If the attacks were to take place outside this zone of protection then the resulting decision may point towards more radical action but, in light of the remit granted to India’s protected areas, the burden of evidence must rest with the authorities to categorically prove the tiger in question to be a confirmed man eater before any decision as to its removal can be justified. And here, an established set of procedures exist to formalise such arrangements.

Such arguments provide us with an interesting academic debate but, in the immediate locale, reserve staff and local communities understandably fear the potential for future attacks. Responding to concerns for their personal safety in the aftermath of the latest incident, forest guards threatened to engage in strike activity should the authorities decide that T24 could remain in the reserve. If acted upon, such strike action may have increased the ever present threat from poachers operating in the area. Moreover, reserve managers feared a backlash from local communities residing in proximity to Ranthambhore and viewed this to be a clear and present danger to all the tigers contained in the park, not just T24. Concerns like these are supported by evidence from previous conflict situations of this nature, where a rapidly deteriorating relationship with, and erosion of trust in, forest authorities have culminated in direct action by local communities, involving the indiscriminate killing of wildlife. Here, the conservation ethic favours protection of tigers in the plural, meaning that there may be a justification for the sacrifice of an individual animal in order to ensure greater security for the whole population.

a dead tiger with a crowd of onlookers
Retaliatory killings are common following incidents of man eating

As it transpired, local pressures were building as the forest department was criticised for inactivity and, in a quest to defuse such a potentially incendiary situation, officials decided that it was time to act. There were four main options available. T24 would be allowed to remain in his territory, subject to enhanced vigilance and observation; he would be translocated to another reserve with less pressure from human intrusion; he would be removed and relocated to a captive facility; or his life would be terminated. In the event, within a week of the fatal attack, a decision was taken to track and tranquillise the tiger and transport him over 400km to a zoological facility in Udaipur. This may appear on the surface to have been a sensible course of action, but few people at the time could have anticipated the level of controversy such a decision would cause.

As the column inches dedicated to the T24 situation mounted up, the tiger quickly became a cause célèbre on social media. Facebook campaigns emerged to demand ‘Ustad’s’ return to the wild and to urge tourists to ‘boycott’ Ranthambhore until the situation had been satisfactorily resolved. A concerted campaign on twitter clamoured for T24’s immediate release and, amidst a profusion of associated hashtag demands, the #bringbackustaad campaign was quickly translated into a physical movement.

Poster with caption - A tigers real home is the jungle. Free Ustad"
The Save Ustad campaign drew considerable support on social media

Candlelit vigils and sit-down demonstrations appeared across India, soon spreading to other major cities across the world. What would happen to T24’s cubs? the protestors asked. In all likelihood the cubs would be killed by the rival male that moved in to claim T24’s vacant territory in order to bring their mother quickly back into oestrus so that mating could take place. Time was therefore deemed to be of the essence and a campaigner from Pune wasted little time in filing a petition at the Rajasthan High Court to demand the tiger’s reinstatement to Ranthambhore. But as so often in India, the wheels of justice turn at an unerringly slow pace and, in an attempt to accelerate the process, the petitioner approached the Supreme Court in an attempt to fast track the hearing. The ultimate outcome of this action was the court’s support for the status quo, although the Ranthambhore authorities were required to submit a full report to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) setting out the reasons for T24’s removal from the reserve. The NTCA provides a clear protocol to states for dealing with the issue of man eating tigers and, in this case, the decision was taken without their advice being sought or their approval given.

In a subsequent report, the NTCA concluded that T24 should not have been classified as a man eater and that the decision to remove him to a captive facility was therefore unwarranted. The judgement was predicated on the grounds that evidence pointed to the fact that humans had ventured too close to the tiger within its territory and, recognising the time lapse between the various attacks, attributed T24’s behaviour as resulting from chance encounters as opposed to any premeditated action on the part of the tiger. Moreover, the NTCA censured the Rajasthan state government for failing to comply with the requirements of section 11 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act and gaining the requisite permissions before unilaterally deciding upon removing the animal from the reserve. Although at the time of writing, T24 remains in captivity in Udaipur and the flow of social media pressure has slowed to a trickle, the NTCA has called for T24’s release back into the wild. Only time will tell where and when this repatriation will take place but it is clear that this unfortunate episode has raised some important issues affecting the future of tiger conservation in India. As with so many stories of this kind, the facts are relatively unimportant as it is the themes that matter and the impact of these moving forward.

In relation to the T24 debate, a number of key issues demand our attention. In the broader scheme of things, the actual decision to relocate the tiger is less important than the process followed in determining its fate. You must have consistency and transparency, hence the existence of clear standard operating procedures that need to be complied with. Perhaps the lack of compliance in this example is indicative of a growing tension and power struggle between the centre (in this case the NTCA) and the state apparatus. Moreover, at the reserve level, management considered it essential to reach a speedy decision to counter increasing dissatisfaction evident within its surrounding communities. The resolution they arrived at entailed trading off the rights of the individual (in this case T24) for the good of the collective (the entire tiger population), an approach consistent with the conservation ethic yet antithetical to the views of animal rights advocates. What emerged was a noticeable difference in the way the situation was understood by urban interests and the rural communities that suffer the predations of such conflict. Those living and working in the immediate vicinity of tiger reserves have to deal with the fear and danger every day, meaning that support can soon be eroded if such incidents are not dealt with swiftly and effectively. On the other hand, social campaigns of the type that emerged in the aftermath of the latest attack appear to be more emotive and indeed ephemeral. As soon as the next controversy appears, like the well publicised slaughter of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe at the hand of an American trophy hunter, so concern is transferred to that particular cause. The task of the decision makers can therefore be seen as as a difficult one, needing to seek an appropriate balance in arriving at a pragmatic decision to defuse such conflict before they become irretrievable. Resisting calls for lethal control in the case of T24, in favour of his removal into captivity was viewed by the authorities as the best way to achieve this.

Tiger T24 in captivity
Tiger T24 captive in Udaipur.

The emotional outpouring witnessed on social media and beyond reflects the growing interest in, and concern for, endangered wildlife. It also signals the emergence of a new form of engagement that constitutes a potentially powerful political lobby in the fight for tigers. Wildlife authorities need to learn a lesson here and seek ways in which to broaden the focus of such concerns and increase the longevity of resulting campaigns. Critics of the current social media campaign decry its limited cynosure and its apparent unwillingness to challenge more potent threats to the tiger’s continuing persistence in the wild. Ideally, this concern needs to be translated into, and sustained through, concerted action against rampant, unregulated development in and around reserves and to demand the levels of political will required to tackle the menace of poaching. If this can be achieved, then whatever the final outcome of the T24 controversy may be, it will mean that Ustad’s fifteen minutes of fame will not have been in vain.