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.

 

 

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