If it were not for the high-octane, ill-tempered controversy surrounding the killing of a mother tigress, the outpouring of concern from all corners for a tiger would have been an encouraging sign for our times. But the ruthless shooting down of tigress Avni in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district earlier this month, in what seems to be a botched-up operation, gives the whole episode an extremely sordid air. Avni, known as T1 in the forester’s parlance, was dubbed to be a man-eater and accused of taking 13 human lives. A celebrity hunter was roped in by the state forest department, and his team, after weeks of tracking the tigress, put her down.
Soon, indefatigable conservationists were excoriating the forest department and the hunter Shafath Ali Khan in the strongest of terms. Some argued that there was no conclusive proof that the tigress had killed 13 humans, let alone of her having eaten the human kills. Maneka Gandhi, Union minister for women and child development and a vociferous animal rights activist, called Avni’s killing by the hunter’s son ‘patently illegal’. The state forest minister and Gandhi exchanged barbs and the hunter threatened to sue the Union minister following her remarks. The autopsy report showed that the bullet entered the tigress’s torso from one side, thus implying that she wasn’t facing the hunter at the time of shooting, while the hunter’s son had claimed that the tigress had charged at his team. The kind of gun used, claims about the tranquilising effort made, the time of the shooting—all of this have put question marks on the intent and manner of the operation.
Following close on the heels of this killing, a tiger was run over by a tractor in Uttar Pradesh. These cases once again lent relevance to the gravely divisive issue of tiger conservation and man-animal conflict. Experts diagnose a barrage of pathologies—the shrinking of forests, indiscriminate development projects, poor capacity-building of forest department staff, fragmentation of forest-to-forest corridors, even the conservation ‘business’—all being a fiefdom of the urban elite, who thus sideline the role of the villagers, who are left to face the consequences on ground zero.
P.K. Sen, the former head of Project Tiger, says that the tiger population has grown and the available forest area is proving inadequate for them. “In addition, the prey base is not enough. The tiger’s yearly meat consumption is in tonnes. If we really want the tigers to remain—they are the protectors of our forests, our environment, our river system—we must give the tiger space and stop encroaching into their habitat, the forests,” says Sen, adding that wide roads passing through tiger reserves do great harm to tigers. As if to emphasise Sen’s last point, a tiger charged at a tourist vehicle at Maharashtra’s Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve on November 12, leading experts to bemoan yet again the increasing traffic on these roads, and their potential to disturb the natural rhythms of wildlife.
Most persons associated with conservation are livid at the forest department’s handling of the Avni case. “By killing a tiger, an endangered animal already, they are further narrowing down the genetic diversity among the species. And why did it come to an outsider being called to neutralise the tiger? Do none of the forest departments have staff well trained and equipped to tranquilise and capture the animal?” asks Faiyaz Khudsar, a wildlife biologist who has the big cat habitat as his area of research. He rues the fact that very little capacity-building of forest department staff has been done.
The kind of gun used, claims of a tranquilising effort, the time of shooting— all have cast doubts about the manner of killing tigress Avni.
Furthermore, Khudsar says that tiger conservation in the country has become synonymous with increasing tiger numbers. For tigers to grow sustainably, he says, the whole tiger ecosystem has to grow. “The Project Tiger also mandated the appointment of a scientist in each tiger reserve, who would help the managers, or the forest officers, in taking informed decisions. It hasn’t happened so far,” he complains, calling the Yavatmal case the “height of the fight” and the final call for a lesson that ought to have been learnt long back.
Deforestation seems to be the major cause for the conflict between man and animal, agrees Sarosh Lodhi, the founder member of CLaW (Conservation, Lenses and Wildlife). “The erosion of corridors which connect forests and are crucial for tiger movement, the construction of highways and rail lines through forests, poaching and poor conviction rate in poaching cases, have all contributed to the failure in tiger conservation,” says Lodhi.
He also contests the idea of tigers becoming man-eaters. Humans do not come in the natural food cycle of the tiger, he says, and the tiger rarely kills a human. “There have been thousands of incidences where the tiger and the human have been on foot and the tiger has walked away. When there is a chance encounter, the tiger might paw in apprehension. The tiger is so powerful that even the pawing might give the impression that the victim has been mauled by the tiger,” he adds.
Some others, however, see the issue as a conflict between two classes of people—one sitting far away in cities, occasionally visiting forest areas and working to conserve tigers and other wildlife, and the other living close to the tigers and paying for the cost for conservation. Elite conservationists, this line of argument goes, see forests and wildlife as commodities meant to be consumed only by their urban brethren and thus to be made out of bounds for village folk, who are but a negligible factor in the scheme of things. “It’s one form of use over another. You might think it’s okay for the urban tourist to come and stay in the fancy resorts but not okay for the villagers to collect firewood from the forest…. If somebody is told that the forest and the tiger do not belong to them, why would they worry about their protection?” asks an indignant Sudha Vasan, an assistant professor of sociology at University of Delhi, who has worked extensively on society and ecology.
Engagement with villages in the neighbourhood of tiger reserves is essential to the conservation of tigers. Villagers often regard wild animals and the forest department as enemies and a barrier to their rightful use of forest resources. Often, in villages that lie cheek-by-jowl with forest reserves, there seems to lurk a deep hatred for the animals, as villagers feel that it’s because of the animals that their access to forests has been restricted. The ground staff of the forest department, mostly under-equipped, are often caught in a pincer move—having to deal with the perils of the wild as well as to placate hostile villagers.
Tiger conservation seems to be a complex, uphill task, involving a multitude of stakeholders, requiring rigorous engagement and massive consensus building. The nation’s oldest and most high-profile conservation effort is still a work-in-progress.