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”.

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