Twenty four-year-old Jayant Mandal ambled along his sugarcane farm in Pilibhit’s Mandaria village, whistling and fiddling with his phone. It was late afternoon, the April sun shone over the picturesque village and all seemed in order—men at work, ducks walking along in a profile, hens in their pens, buffaloes anchored to pegs. The village is nestled along a forest, and Jayant’s farm sits at its edge. His mud-caked, red-slippered feet strode the uneven, raised edge of the farm with practised ease. Then, a hint of a flash at the corner of his eye, a fleeting sense of danger. Jayant hadn’t looked up from his phone yet. Why, the serenity of an approaching dusk would stifle any premonitory glimmer. But as Jayant looked up, he saw a full-grown tiger walking towards him. “Itna bada munh tha uska,” he stretches his arms almost three feet to describe the feline’s face, “And he was smacking his mouth with his tongue.”
Jayant, thankfully, had his wits about him, turned around and frantically ran backwards. In his pell-mell flight, he banged into a eucalyptus tree, the collision leaving a deep mark on his right cheek. He ran far enough to climb a mango tree, and shouted for help. Jayant escaped death that Friday, April 19. On April 23, he got married. He says he couldn’t sleep for two nights after the encounter with the big cat. “That face was what I saw when I closed my eyes.” However, the high-scoring, sixer-drenched IPL matches—that new opiate—have been lulling him to sleep after two frightful nights.
Other villagers suspect it’s the same tiger that mauled a 60-year-old man to death in Mandaria on April 11. Hemant Khairati was also working on his farm when the tiger attacked him, later dragging his body into the forest. The tiger had taken its kill away before others in neighbouring farms could react. “We had to bring the body back, but had no clue where it would be. Then we spotted crows hovering over a spot. We went in with fire torches and making a din to retrieve the body,” says Subhash Haldar, 45. He then shows on his phone gory photos of the torn, crumpled body with bloodied clothes. Some say the attack did not happen in the village and Khairati had ventured inside the forest to collect grass. Khairati has left behind his wife, three daughters and a son. One daughter and the son are yet to be married. The forest department gave the family Rs 5 lakh from the state natural disaster fund.
The tiger attack took place a few days before the polls. BJP candidate Varun Gandhi visited the victim’s family.
The incident happened near the Mala Forest Range of Pilibhit Tiger Reserve (PTR). Notified in 2014 as a tiger reserve, it is spread over 750 sq km and is home to at least 55 tigers, says range officer Dilip Srivastava. The number of big cats could be as many as 70, he adds. When the PTR started, the number was 24. The big cat that attacked Khairati was a tigress which has recently given birth to a litter of three cubs. “The tigress is ferociously protective of her cubs and gets aggressive. They usually give birth on the edge of the forest because deep inside it, newborn cubs are threatened by male tigers,” says Srivastava. Sub-adult tigers also roam around in the periphery of the forest, he says, as they are not yet strong enough to win and maintain a territory of their own.
Cases of man-animal conflict is not a new phenomenon in Pilibhit, which is represented in the Lok Sabha by noted animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi. Pilibhit went to polls on April 23 and the tiger attack, days before the election, prompted BJP’s candidate and Maneka’s son Varun Gandhi to visit the house of the victim. The attack in Mandaria was the first tiger attack in the district in 2019. In 2018, tigers killed three people in the district; in 2017, the number stood at 21. A big chunk of the deaths in 2017 were attributed to a tiger that had turned man-eater and which was later captured and sent to a zoo. Varun’s high-profile visit has left the villagers humbled. “Varun Gandhiji came twice. He lifted the body with his own hands and put it in the vehicle,” says Haldar. But it has done little to assuage the fears of villagers.
The farms around Mandaria are killing fields of man-eaters, say farmers.
These days, with fear stalking their ranks, villagers wrap up their day before nightfall and stay indoors. Buffaloes, hens, ducks, all are locked up inside. Three days ago, a street dog in the village went missing, they whisper fearfully. The men have all but stopped working in the fields. The children have stopped playing outside. “I am telling you, it’s a man-eater. Even when we are in a group, we are scared. The tiger keeps waiting in the grass and the moment someone strays from the group, it attacks,” says Prasanjit Mandal (17). Night brings its own terrors—so scared are those who live alone that they prefer to sleep over at others’ houses.
As usual, a barrage of reasons lies behind the persisting man-animal conflict. PTR field director Raja Mohan says that the reserve is in the shape of a horseshoe and linear in its character, with many well-populated villages situated close to it. “We tell villagers to grow other crops instead of sugarcane but they don’t heed our advice. The tiger thinks of sugarcane farms as part of the jungle. They mate and give birth to litters in those farms,” says Mohan. In addition, the number of tigers has also gone up and pressure from turf wars also pushes some animals to the edge, he adds. The fittest and strongest males take hold of prime jungle territory, with rich vegetation and good prey base.
To reduce unpleasant human-tiger encounters, forest authorities have surveyed 283 villages and categorised them as ‘most sensitive’, ‘sensitive’ and ‘general’ vis-a-vis man-animal conflict. The youth in most sensitive villages are trained to spot pug marks and inform forest authorities, says the field director. Quick response teams are stationed near those villages and are rushed to the spot if villagers find signs of a tiger. Furthermore, water holes in the forests are filled regularly, and efforts are made to maintain the grasslands so that the prey base remains intact. The tiger has few reasons to venture out of the forest if it gets enough to eat there. Mandaria’s nervous residents could then go to bed without imagining every shadow to harbour yellow-striped killers.
By Salik Ahmad in Pilibhit