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Can we live harmoniously with wildlife?

Updated Wednesday, 27 June 2018
In light of a man-eating tiger being killed in The Nilgiris District, India, we need to address human-animal and human-human conflict in our forests.

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The gruesome images of the half-eaten corpse were flying through cyberspace even before the regular news channels had the full story. A tiger had killed and eaten a man. My first response was to tell everyone not to circulate these images. Ghastly images and sensational reporting of wildlife conflict is a serious problem in a place like Gudalur, where people and wild animals have always lived alongside each other. Tigers are largely wary of and avoid people and are rarely encountered. When every incident from around the country is sensationalised, people’s ideas of wild animals are formed more by the media rather than their own experiences.

But these images, tragically, were only too real and from Noolpuzha, just across the Kerala border. On February 10, 62-year-old Bhaskaran was killed; only about 10kg of his body remained. The same fate awaited 30-year-old Mahalakshmi on February 14 (2015), in Pattavayal just about five km from the first incident. She was probably killed by the same tiger. It was hard to piece together the details of the incidents. Bhaskaran was apparently walking on a forest path in the evening when the tiger attacked. His remains were found the next morning. But Mahalakshi, the mother of three young children, was in a tea estate. It was in the middle of the day, with lots of other people around. Some locals say her sister was alongside, and even tried to pull her back as the tiger dragged her away. It was a spark for an already volatile area. I was seriously worried about what was going to happen.

Beautiful tiger A beautiful tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) in Sherpur District in central Bangladesh

Within hours the highway had been closed, and hundreds of people had gathered in protest, demanding compensation for the victim’s family and that the tiger declared a man-eater and shot. I thought these were hardly demands that required protest. This was established protocol for when people were killed by wild cats. Things got worse the next day. The protests intensified, the range officer was beaten up and other forest officials were chased into the Mudumalai tiger reserve. The forest department jeeps were smashed up, and three even set ablaze. The surrounding buildings were also vandalised for good measure.

The latest tragic tiger killing in the Nilgiris has clearly made this human-human conflict visible. 

Peace was finally brokered, and all efforts seemed to shift to finding the tiger, which was another drama in itself. The forest department was out in large numbers — officials from both Mudumalai and Gudalur divisions as well as a big contingent from neighbouring Kerala. Then came the Special Task Force (STF), initially formed to catch sandalwood smuggler Veerappan but now focussing more on anti-poaching activities. Then the police arrived — both local and special brought in from neighbouring cities. And numerous NGOs and wildlife activists from everywhere, each certain their support was vital for the operation. Naturally, the politicians had to be there. Local people, the most affected, turned out in large numbers. And finally the media — news trucks, reporters and a small army of cameramen. With all these people involved, almost unsurprisingly, one more person was injured. The tiger was spotted in a tea estate two days after Mahalakshmi was killed and, while it was running or being chased back into the forest, it took a swipe at a young man standing in its way, seriously injuring him. Thankfully it was not fatal, but a large number of people around are a serious impediment when trying to catch a tiger. An important chance had been missed.

The Indian city of Thane from the Yeoor Hills, also known as 'Tiger Hill' The Indian city of Thane from the Yeoor Hills, also known as the 'Tiger Hills'

For this operation, a proactive conservator of forests seemed to take leadership and coordinate the efforts but, in previous operations of this kind, it was a lot more complicated. Around midday on February 18, there were reports of the tiger having being sighted in a nearby tea estate. The mini army soon moved in and, by 3.30 p.m., the tiger was dead. Crowds zoomed in and the police worked hard to keep them out. There was a sense of triumph all around, and the body was tied to a pole, squeezed through the gathering crowds and loaded into the back of a pick-up truck. It was then paraded around for all to see; hundreds of mobile phone cameras clicked away. The post-mortem revealed that the tiger had injuries, probably from a fight with another tiger. Compensation was paid to the victims. That’s supposed to be the end of the story.

But is it really? I think it’s just the beginning of what is going to be a highly complicated conservation problem in the years to come. There are perhaps two parallel issues at play, both of which require careful consideration with no easy solutions in sight.

The human-wildlife conflict

First is the relatively more straightforward ‘human-wildlife conflict’, where animals and people compete for space and resources and, in extreme cases like with the tiger, kill each other. Globally, the nature conservation movement’s strategy has been to create human-free ‘protected areas’ exclusively for wildlife. This has worked well across much of the world, arguably even in India where tiger numbers have increased considerably since the inception of project tiger in 1973. But it comes with its own set of problems. India’s 380+ people per square km (compared to 34 in the U.S., 145 in China, 24 in Brazil) live alongside almost two-thirds of the world’s tigers and Asian elephants. So a western conservation model may not be the solution. Only five per cent of the landmass is ‘protected’ for wildlife, but wild animals live in about 20-30 per cent of India’s area, alongside people. Long cultural and religious traditions have allowed people and animals to share space in ways that are unimaginable in a western context. It’s almost the success of the protected area paradigm — of moving people out and fencing in wildlife — that makes people more intolerant of animals and is the beginning of the end for wildlife living beyond the five per cent of protected areas.

Most Indian forest-based people know some wildlife deaths are inevitable, much in the same way that urban people know some road deaths are inevitable.

Such extreme cases of human-wildlife conflict — when tigers kill and eat people — are important events in shaping public opinion. Killing the tiger is perhaps the only option, and it should be done swiftly and efficiently. Many prefer to have the tiger tranquillised and moved to zoos, but there is no shortage of tigers in zoos. And given tiger biology, most tigers that turn to hunting people are old or injured, anyway close to death in the wild. Bureaucratic delays often result in more people getting killed and a lot more negative public perception. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has clear guidelines on how to handle these situations — a committee of experts, local NGOs, the forest department and local government representatives has to be constituted and the tiger declared a man-eater before being killed. But the NTCA needs to also urgently invest time and energy in providing training to field staff across the country on how to deal with these situations. While tiger issues are rare, leopard conflicts happen on an almost daily basis across the country.

Though wildlife populations are increasing in many areas, perhaps the biggest cause of the perceived ‘increasing human-wildlife conflict’ is people’s changing attitudes. J.C. Daniels, in his book on leopards, describes an incident in Madhya Pradesh in the 1950s showcasing tolerance taken to an extreme. A tiger killed a young boy and the half-eaten corpse was found a day later. The boy’s father left instructions” “Leave the body; the boy is anyway dead, at least let the tiger eat a full meal.” Such 'tolerance' is rare today.

Bengal Tiger (Panthera t. tigris), male, Ustad aka T-24 A Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) photographed in India

Most Indian forest-based people know some wildlife deaths are inevitable, much in the same way that urban people know some road deaths are inevitable. If we want to hold on to viable populations of ‘charismatic megafauna’, we have to recognise these larger issues and work towards finding a balance. This involves respecting the fact that rural and forest-based people live with and tolerate wildlife. Armchair urban conservationists, whose consumerist lifestyles take the biggest toll on wildlife and nature, should perhaps refrain from protesting every time a tiger/leopard that kills and eats people, has to be put down.

Human-human conflict

The second issue is, perhaps a human-human conflict. This is going completely unnoticed, with no official guidelines to ensure harmony between the people assigned the task of protecting wild animals and the people living alongside them. The historical roots of this conflict are important. Colonial rulers realised that controlling the country’s forests would also control the people who depended on the forests for a livelihood. This was a key driver for the state taking control of India’s forests and making its occupants ‘illegal’. Strangely, independent India did not undo this process, perhaps because the government needed to retain control to prevent the nation from breaking up into smaller pre-British factions. Forest-dwellers across the country have had a raw deal being constantly harassed and victimised by the forest department. The Forest Rights Act, 2006, was an important legislation aimed at rectifying a historic injustice. But it has faced severe opposition from the people in power — both the forest departments and elite conservationists.

The latest tragic tiger killing in the Nilgiris has clearly made this human-human conflict visible. The forest department and wildlife activists claim that the protesters were not local people; that they came in buses from other parts, emptied the local alcohol shop and then went on the rampage. That even the locals who took protested were all encroachers who had taken over forest land and had a vested interest against the forest department. Locals, on the other hand, claim it was all because of the forest department’s arrogance. An insensitive range officer allegedly dismissed the compensation claim saying Mahalakshmi had been killed by a dog and her family were making up stories.

There are a string of unforgotten alleged atrocities by the forest department — a tribal woman raped by a guard, a panchayat member beaten up for talking back, tribals beaten up for collecting honey, bribes extorted from almost every landowner in the region. Land ownership is highly political, with a currently ongoing battle in the Supreme Court. The Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forest Act, 1949, prevents local people from selling their land. Petitions have been made to the district collector, police officers at various levels and senior officers in the forest department. But to no avail; the various wings of the executive apparently all look out for each other.

The sweeping landscape of Jammu and Kashmir, India, close to the site of the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation; the birthplace of yoga The sweeping landscape of Jammu and Kashmir, India

There are, of course, numerous forest encroachers, illegal resorts and unauthorised buildings coming up all across the Nilgiris. These pose a serious threat to the forests that are an irreplaceable lifeline providing water to millions of people in the plains. Hooliganism cannot, of course, be tolerated. A fair amount of the violence was perpetrated by criminals. A large police force has remained in the area and has been busy arresting people identified from various pieces of footage. But these state actions are only going to make the matter worse. There needs to an urgent and genuine effort on the state’s part to address local problems and also mete out effective punishment to all the guilty parties, the locals as well as the officials. If India is serious about conserving its tigers and other wildlife, we must take a long-term view and ensure a sustained and genuine effort by the state to address the issues of forest-based people across the country.

Tarsh Thekaekara is a biodiversity conservationist and researcher working in The Nilgiris District, India. This article was originally published in 2015. 

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