Fear and loathing in tigerland: a retrospective

For the last post in this sequence on man-eating tigers in India, we need to travel back in time, initially to the unlikely venue of Twycross Zoo in the midlands of England.Twycross zoo logo The year was 1976 and the latest addition to the zoo’s collection was a female tiger cub named Tara. Some 4,500 miles or so to the east, one of the pioneers of Indian tiger conservation, Billy Arjan Singh, had received the approval of prime minister Indira Gandhi to undertake a unique experiment in Dudhwa tiger reserve on the borders of Nepal. It had been widely argued by tiger experts that captive-bred tigers could not be introduced into existing tiger territories and Singh was determined to prove them wrong. Following a protracted search for a suitable candidate, Tara was finally selected and Singh set off for England to embark upon a long drawn out immigration procedure to transport the cub to her new home in northern India. Bogged down in the bureaucratic quagmire of Indian officialdom, the task proved to be far from simple. But Singh was persistent, a pugnacious character for whom the inevitable controversy proved no barrier to his efforts to challenge the assumption that such an introduction was impossible. And controversy was to be a constant companion to Tara as she negotiated the long road to freedom. For Singh, the process was a difficult one as he patiently accompanied Tara on regular walks around the territory he had selected for her, with his home ‘Tiger Haven’ at its centre.

There was no exact science involved in this experiment and Singh was concerned about the long-term effects of his training methods, well aware that the role of surrogate mother came with certain responsibilities. How should Tara be disciplined? If left undisciplined then the tigress could ultimately lose her respect and fear of humans, turning her into a potential man-eater whenever prey became difficult to secure. To impose too much discipline, however, carried the threat of inhibiting her hunting instincts with a similar result. There was no manual available in this regard as no experiment of this nature had ever been attempted before. It was this type of uncertainty that influenced the mixed responses to the wisdom of such an approach. While some applauded Singh’s efforts as a revolutionary attempt to safeguard the future of wild tigers at a time in which Project Tiger was in its infancy, others dismissed it as a reckless experiment that could ultimately jeopardise the entire population of Dudhwa’s existing tigers.dudhwa-national-park__381873014

In the event, the timing of the project proved to be unfortunate as a series if events conspired against any smooth rehabilitation effort. Firstly, the political climate in India was, for perhaps the first time since independence, highly uncertain. Indira Gandhi, a key supporter of the initiative, was removed from power at the general election following her unpopular suspension of democracy during the so-called ’emergency’. As all of Singh’s agreements fell under the authority of the previous government, it was difficult for him to get the new administration to intervene in disputes with the local authorities. This reflected a broader problem in which politicians recognised that the issue of a tiger introduction of this kind was unlikely to gain support among a nervous local community and could therefore be viewed as a vote liability. Secondly, Tara’s arrival coincided with political upheaval across the border in Nepal, where deforestation was rampant and, with threats to tigers mounting there, inward migration to india’s better protected forests ensued. Thirdly, the Uttar Pradesh state government, mindful of the need to develop local villages, embarked upon a programme of income generating opportunities for those living in and around its protected area system. This brought the needs of the economy and the environment into stark conflict and hastened the migration of people into the vicinity to take advantage of the benefits on offer.

As more and more people descended on Dudhwa and its periphery, intensified poaching of prey species resulted in a growing paucity of food sources available to the reserve’s resident tigers. Sugar plantations abutted the protected area boundaries and humans increasingly entered the reserve to satisfy their demand for firewood. The result of such practices was inevitable, increasing human-tiger conflict, giving rise to a spate of human fatalities which, over the coming years, deteriorated further into an epidemic of man-eating.

Billy Arjan Singh with Leopard
Before the Tara introduction, Singh had rehabilitated Leopards into Dudhwa

It was within this fragile climate that Billy Arjan Singh sought to rehabilitate his captive-bred tigress into the wild. Add to this the fact that a mature tigress had already established part of her territory in the zone that Singh had identified for Tara, forcing him to intervene in an attempt to deter her continuing occupation, and the whole experiment became increasingly complex. Ultimately, Tara’s introduction to Dudhwa was successfully achieved and she went on to live and breed within the reserve. The controversy continued to rage, however, as this period coincided with an increase in man-eating incidents, for which Tara was identified as a prime suspect.

Whilst evidence linking Tara to the killings was flimsy at best, Singh was convinced that the authorities were using her as a convenient scapegoat, as well as to even up some old scores associated with his increasing criticism of the performance of the forest authorities. The situation descended into farce as, in one breath, the forest director claimed that he had successfully eradicated Tara and in the next, continued to blame her for a continuing escalation of man-killing activity. Singh, with his intimate knowledge of Dudhwa, argued that the current scale of conflict could not be attributed to any single event but, instead, reflected a series of problems afflicting the reserve, not least the presence of increasing numbers of people all seeking to satisfy their subsistence needs.

Billy with Tara the tiger
Billy with Tara

Stressing the need for proactive solutions, Singh proposed a number of interventions, most of which were ignored by the forest department in favour of reactive measures. In short, the mantra remained ‘tiger kills man, man kills tiger’. The payment of compensation, albeit in meagre amounts, supported by the lethal removal of problem tigers, represented the agreed management response, even though this had little effect in removing the obstacles to the effective coexistence of humans and tigers.

Singh’s proposed interventions, on the other hand, were prescient and continue to retain credibility today. He argued for the creation of effective buffer zones to better manage the immediate zone of conflict and the fencing in of livestock to prevent their ingress into tiger habitat. This, he proposed, should be backed up by efforts to reduce the dependence of people on forest resources. This could be achieved in a number of ways, firstly by paying farmers to desist from planting sugar cane up to the boundaries of the reserve, thus offsetting the opportunity costs associated with foregone production. Secondly, efforts to protect the reserve from deforestation required investment in bio-fuel cookers for nearby villagers and the identification of alternative food sources to help deter any unsustainable off take of the tiger’s prey species. If the forest was being cleared of both timber and ungulate species, Singh argued, then a continuing increase in conflict was inevitable. And, most importantly, unless this situation was challenged urgently, then any residue of local support for conservation would be completely eroded, provoking a rash of revenge killings which could ultimately result in the total extirpation of tigers from the reserve.

In the event, a committee was established and whilst this largely supported Singh’s reading of the causes behind the escalating conflict, it ignored his suggested responses, perhaps primarily on the grounds of prohibitive cost. Despite the claim that Tara had been shot, she was evidently still very much alive and active at this time and her success in breeding created a new controversy, surrounding her alleged mixed ancestry. As we have discussed previously, the issue of genetic pollution has proved to be an ongoing obstacle to efforts to the achievement of heterogeneity of isolated tiger populations. Even before Tara was fully habituated into the wild, her appearance was considered by some to be suspect, suggesting that she was not a pure-bred Bengal tiger but a hybrid of some kind. As her offspring began to appear, these concerns intensified amidst reports of the sighting of a young tiger with distinct markings reminiscent of the Amur subspecies. To Singh, this was immaterial, and he argued that genetic heterogeneity was more important that any idealistic pursuit of purity. If wild tigers were to survive into the future then it was essential to boost their resilience, their ability to survive changing environmental conditions. He was, nevertheless interested in ascertaining the validity of the claim and in determining whether or not Tara was indeed the mother of the suspected hybrid. If she was, he surmised, then this provided evidence of the success of his experiment, proving his detractors wrong. It also meant that there may be a role moving forward for captive-bred tigers to repopulate vacant habitat. In the event, tests showed that the suspected hybrid was indeed a cub of Tara’s and equally, that its lineage showed evidence of an Amur ancestor.

Over the intervening period, Tara’s culpability in the human deaths of the time has never been proven or disproven but common sense would suggest that it is extremely unlikely that all the man-killings could be attributed to her alone. What is perhaps the most worrying issue, however, is the fact that many of the same arguments are being rehearsed as to the current rise in man-eating episodes. Not much has really changed. Dudhwa today is far from an extraordinary case, with incidences of human-tiger conflict roughly consistent with other reserves in the range. But, across the national estate of tiger reserves, the proactive approach proposed by Billy Arjan Singh is once again gaining traction. Today, perhaps, the emphasis is upon the resettlement of human populations away from the core areas of the reserves but, in reality, the pressures witnessed today are eerily reminiscent of those witnessed in and around Dudhwa during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Obviously, the resettlement process is unlikely to be achieved over the short term, so the need to find ways to mitigate human-tiger conflict is once again high on the management agenda. As argued previously, the future of the wild tiger is inextricably linked to the conditions endured by the human populations that co-inhabit the range and, in order to build a strong constituency of support for conservation, proactive steps need to be taken to reduce the poverty experienced by local villagers.

Equally, as we will consider in future posts, the theme of buffer zones is far from resolved, resulting in the intervention of the Supreme Court back in 2012 to legally require state governments to ensure that such areas are declared and managed appropriately. While this is a welcome, albeit overdue, development, other impediments remain to ensure that conflicts remain entrenched in areas of tiger habitation. Perhaps one of the most important of these unresolved policy failures surrounds the continuing reluctance of decision makers to provide legal protection for sink regions and their dispersal corridors. More and more tigers confined to a declining habitat base is, on its own, a recipe for disaster. But, add to this a growing stream of landless, marginalised humans inhabiting the same areas and the effects may ultimately prove catastrophic to both humans and wildlife. For too long, we have, somewhat complacently, relied on the resilience of tigers to withstand such pressures but, as recent events prove, this is not necessarily sufficient to stave off their extirpation from some of india’s high profile reserves. Remember Sariska, Panna and, most recently Buxa? Perhaps the small contribution that Tara’s introduction provided in reinvigorating the genetic diversity of Dudhwa’s tigers will prove to be beneficial in this regard, although the reality remains that we need to respond more quickly to threats as and when they appear. Equally, we need to anticipate the emergence of such dangers and to proactively influence their amelioration through the identification and integration of proactive conservation policies.

Newspaper headline from March 1982. "Man eating Tiger blamed for killings
Newspaper headline from March 1982

Against all the odds, and thanks to committed individuals like Billy Arjan Singh, Dudhwa’s tigers have survived, but for how long? Perhaps now it now high time to revisit some of his prescriptions, not least in supporting the communities living in and around areas that harbour growing tiger populations. Whatever the pros and cons surrounding the Tara controversy may be, they are largely irrelevant to the ongoing debate, although they have provided us with a useful vehicle with which to discuss the ongoing inertia of forest authorities in responding to emerging challenges. It is evident that tigers need the support and tolerance of their human neighbours if they are to continue to thrive and that this needs to be at the forefront of deliberations by the conservation movement. After all, as the American historian Roderick Nash pointed out, environmental conservation is essentially a ‘full stomach phenomenon’ and, in order to subscribe to efforts to save the tiger, poverty amongst local communities must be eradicated.



Delta Blues: man-eating tigers of the Sunderbans

Within my last post ‘Back on the menu’ I resisted the temptation to include the Sunderbans in the discussions surrounding an increase in man eating activity among india’s tigers. There are two reasons for this omission. Firstly, man eating events in the Sunderbans have never really subsided and, secondly, there is an influential body of opinion to suggest that some of its resident tigers may be habitual man eaters. There is, however, an equally persuasive argument that this is a myth and that the majority of such incidents are largely serendipitous, due to accidental encounters. How has such a depiction evolved and what is being done to mitigate the risks of man-tiger conflict in this unique environment? Initially, it is instructive to consider the environment here and what makes it so unique.

Map of the Sunderbans
The Sunderbans: a unique mangrove habitat

Many of the realities of life here in the Sunderbans are counterintuitive, contributing to its mystique, giving rise to supernatural tales of shape shifting between tigers and people, reflected in the customs of a deeply religious and superstitious people. Here, tree roots grow upwards towards the sky, land disappears and reappears elsewhere, causing maps to be withdrawn in the space of years rather than decades.Tigers are strong swimmers and can launch themselves from the water on to boats from which they are known to carry away human prey. The big cats, rarely seen, have had to adapt to life in habitats that morph into uninhabitable subterranean environments, wiping out evidence of their occupancy on a regular basis, forcing tigers to constantly reinvent and redraw their territories.

Located above the Bay of Bengal, straddling both India and Bangladesh, the Sunderbans represents the largest mangrove complex in the world. For many years, this region was believed to contain the world’ largest single concentration of wild tigers in a contiguous landscape, numbering anywhere between 400-500 individuals. Recent estimates, however, tell a different story, with the number revised down to just 182 (106 in Bangladesh and 76 in India). On the Indian side, the tiger reserve covers an area in excess of 1,330 square kilometres along the Ganges delta. The reserve is markedly different in character from that of other tiger habitats in India. It is also a particularly inaccessible and inhospitable landscape, its many islands constantly remoulded by tidal activity, its banks ravaged by the effects of severe cyclones travelling north through the Bay of Bengal. Here, the resulting tidal waves may rise as high as 76 metres (250 feet) and there are anywhere between 4-8 cyclonic depressions every year. It is also the tiger reserve at most immediate risk from climate change. The author Amitav Ghosh describes a series of river channels criss-crossing the land like a ‘fine net mesh’ sculpting a landscape in which the boundaries between earth and water are blurred, ‘always mutating, always unpredictable’. This caprice creates significant problems for the Sunderbans’ tigers.

Mangrove trees in sand
The geography of the Sunderbans is constantly changing.

Much if its territory is tenuous and impermanent, washing away periodically before emerging elsewhere and, where it remains, subject to a constant dousing of water with a high saline content. This tidal flow washes away urine and scat that has been deposited by tigers to demarcate their territorial claims. Consequently, in the absence of such markers, the tigers here have to work particularly hard to secure and protect their territories, with any incursions defended with aggression. It is here that local villagers, and other humans active in the area (an estimated 4 million people) are most at risk and aware of the dangers that lurk within the dense mangrove vegetation.

Locals in boat
Over four million people are known to use the Sunderbans to meet their subsistence needs

Tigers are rarely seen here, at least until it’s too late, yet signs of the big cat’s presence are visibly evident in the mud and silt, mapping its omnipresence and recent movements in a graphic warning to would be interlopers. Yet life for many of the area’s human inhabitants is far from easy and, in order to secure their livelihoods they are forced to intrude on the world of the tiger, with often serious consequences. Setting out to collect wood and gather honey, their crouched bodies are sometimes mistaken for prey and taken swiftly by the striped predator. Yet these communities remain surprisingly tolerant of tigers, respecting and fearing them in equal measure. Their anger, when a person is mauled and killed, is often directed not at the tiger but at the authorities who are failing to protect them. A feeling that tigers are valued more than people is a common refrain heard across India, particularly in areas that attract a large influx of tourists. These communities, although incognisant of the language of science, nevertheless understand the role the tigers play in protecting the forest. They may not understand technical terms like trophic cascade but express in their own words the dangers associated with the tiger’s function as a guardian of the forest. For the forest is their lifeblood, without it they would not be able survive. They understand, therefore, that the future of the forest, and themselves, is inextricably linked with the persistence of the tiger. An uncomfortable, yet very real truth, for the mangroves provide a buffer against the constant bombardment of tidal and cyclone activity, dampening the power of such surges. They protect not only the immediate locales but play a vital role also in safeguarding the millions of people that populate the nearby mega cities of Kolkata and Dhaka.

To survive in such an environment, both tigers and people must adapt. The Sunderbans tigers have thus become strong swimmers and have learned to climb trees to protect themselves against tidal surges which can increase water levels by as much as 4.6 metres (15 feet).

Tiger in mangrove swamp
Tigers in the Sunderbans are strong swimmers and have been known to lift human victims from boats

They must learn to survive on drinking water that has a high saline content, although it is believed that this can make tigers particularly fractious, prompting the authorities to institute a network of fresh waterholes in an attempt to curb this aggression. Additionally, in areas where prey is difficult to locate, these fresh water supplies can also attract sources of meat. Indeed, in such an unforgiving landscape, wildlife managers are intervening further through the piloting of breeding centres for larger-bodied ungulate species to boost the prey base. Otherwise, it is feared, humans will continue to be mistaken for prey, exacerbating the already deeply-rooted man-tiger conflicts that plague the region. Other innovations have been developed in an attempt to reduce the incidence of human deaths attributed to tigers. When tigers attack, their preferred method is to take their victims from behind, causing death by a powerful bite to the back of the neck. In order to confuse tigers, locals have long been supplied with face masks to be worn on the backs of their heads.

locals with masks on the back of their heads
Face masks issued to local villagers to deter tiger attacks

Electrified scarecrows have also been utilised, carrying a charge sufficient to cause discomfort and create a fear of humans that appears to have bypassed the Sunderbans tigers. Some claim that these mangrove tigers have not learned to fear humans to the same extent that those elsewhere in India have. It has been argued that this may stem from the inaccessibility of the landscape, meaning that the various poaching crises have largely failed to impact on the Sunderbans and that the humans encountered here are largely defenceless and poorly armed individuals. In short, these particular humans become easy prey in times of shortage of alternative sources of meat. Add to this the regular supply of human corpses washing into the delta as a consequence of devastating cyclones. Tigers will undoubtedly scavenge these carcasses and may become familiar with human meat as a consequence. Moreover, this familiarity for human meat may be passed on through the tiger generations, hence the habitual man eating label attached to them.

While it is far from certain how many people perish as a result of tiger-related conflicts, it is estimated that there are around 60 attacks per year and that half of these result in death. More sensationalist accounts put this figure far higher, but many accept that many such incidents can be difficult to prove as authentic man eating episodes. For example, there is a fear that some humans may lose their lives in other ways, victims of other people, and that their bodies may be left out in the open so that any evidence of criminal activity disappears. Others argue that some of the people may have died from natural causes and that the presence of the bodies in the mangroves may be due to to the pursuit of compensation claims. So, while it may be difficult to calculate with any accuracy the actual number of human deaths caused by tigers, it is nonetheless likely that the figure is greater than that witnessed elsewhere in the tigers’s range. And, regardless of the true extent, it is essential that such potentially deadly encounters are managed carefully to avoid the further escalation of conflict. While people may be culturally tolerant, this tolerance only stretches so far, and the authorities are in constant fear of any backlash towards themselves and the tigers that they seek to manage and protect.

Another consequence of large human populations in such close proximity to protected tiger habitat is the presence of other animals that function in human societies. In the Sunderbans there is a growing problem associated with stray and feral dogs, many of which carry canine distemper, a virus that can be communicated to other species, including tigers. Control of such dogs is difficult and, although vaccinations are available, they are also expensive and difficult to justify in the context of tight budgetary restrictions. Recently, however, researchers have paid increasing attention to the potential of dogs in helping to reduce incidents of man-tiger conflict. Throughout history, dogs have played an important role as an alarm system to warn us of the presence of intruders and to protect us from the dangers their presence may pose. Piloted by conservation biologist, Adam Barlow and his colleagues, an innovative programme has been devised in the Sunderbans to firstly vaccinate dogs and then to train them as an early warning system to signal the close proximity of tigers, allowing people to anticipate conflict situations and to avoid potentially deadly encounters. While the success of such endeavours are difficult to evaluate at this early stage, the need to pursue such ‘win-win’ scenarios is vital to strengthening the armoury of local communities whose main defence against man eating tigers currently relies heavily on the intervention of deities. Religion and superstition continue to retain significance in the lives of many of the communities inhabiting this region and this plays a major role in maintaining their traditional tolerance for dangerous wildlife. Should these customs become eroded in favour of rationalism then many of the control mechanisms that promote coexistence with wildlife will be undermined, leaving the forest and its inhabitants increasingly at the mercy of economic driven management instruments.

In the Sunderbans, those forced to venture into the mangroves to secure their livelihoods pray for the protection of their local deities.

Colourful statue of the deity
The deity Banbibi – the lady of the forest

Banbibi, the lady of the forest, is called upon by both Hindu and Muslim communities entering the Sunderbans, to beseech her for protection against tiger attacks. Folk lore recognises in her arch enemy, Dakshin Rai, the lord of the south, the ability to rule over beasts and demons, sometimes appearing in the guise of a tiger to take certain interlopers who may be impure in terms of their goodness. It is difficult to reconcile this type of devotion with modern techniques designed to challenge man eating among tigers but, within such superstitions, are the roots of tolerance and respect for wildlife witnessed in the region. It is essential, therefore, that any management strategy designed to reduce the incidence of man-tiger conflict recognises the customary significance of such traditions and blends globally innovative solutions with these more local faith systems that underpin societal structures. This, however, is difficult to achieve within a political system increasingly dedicated to modernisation and the lure of a globalised economy, where traditional customs are equated with backwardness. This attitude represents a clear and present danger to tigers, undermining the coexistence of people and animals, eroding the traditional cultural respect and tolerance that has governed such relationships across the generations. To lose this may prove to be the death knell for these tigers of the Sunderbans and, over time, the mangroves themselves.

I would like to leave the final words of this post to Rathin Banerjee, a former assistant director of the Sunderbans tiger reserve. He explained to the author Sy Montgomery in her 1995 book, Spell of the tiger, that the man eater was the most powerful force protecting the forest. “The tiger” he said “is silently doing the work of ecodiscipline. In that way the tiger is a god – the tiger is looking after the forest, and the forest is looking after it”.