Man-killers, not maneaters
Posted online: Feb 16, 2009 at 0048 hrs
India’s vast, abundant wildlife has long since faded away, lost some of its charm. Today’s tigers breed primarily in national parks or their adjacent protected forests, sometimes dispersing outwards as the carrying capacity of their original home fills up. This is the hope on which our long-term tiger conservation effort rests. We want the big cats to explore new areas, restock empty jungles and enrich stagnant gene pools. But open a map of India’s forest cover and you’ll notice how tenuous corridors connecting forests have become. Tigers don’t have such a map; they occasionally venture into cultivated areas and the ensuing man-animal conflict is sometimes fatal. In the Terai region of UP this problem is worsened by sugarcane plantations which, for all practical purposes, seem like a shaded grassland habitat to the big cats.
So what is to be done about these stray tigers? On the one hand we base our long-term strategies on natural dispersal. Simultaneously we condemn every tiger that takes a wrong turn to the rifle or steel cage, on the argument that it has become a “maneater”.
Throughout history man-tiger encounters have occasionally been fatal for people. If all these man-killers had gone on to become habitual maneaters, we would have ten such animals for every one that actually existed. The truth is that only a fraction of tigers that kill a man once continue doing so later. It is time to challenge the tendency to label every man-killer a certain maneater-in-waiting; there is a difference between a tiger that kills man out of anger, surprise or habitat pressures, and one that deliberately seeks human prey as a survival strategy. The former doesn’t necessarily become the latter. Which brings us to the big challenge of making such a distinction in practice.
As in the case the recent case in Corbett, let’s assume a human fatality is reported for the first time and a suspect animal is identified. We want to know the chances of successful relocation. First: was the killing a result of outright aggressiveness, injury, lack of prey or an accident? Was it a tigress trying to protect her cubs? Or was she trying to feed her cubs? Was the body consumed or left largely untouched? Was the victim deliberately stalked and killed, or was it a chance encounter that ended tragically? Was a story reconstructed by tracking pug-marks?
Such seemingly small details are in fact the crucial clues. In most cases the animal’s fate is sealed because of our inability to piece them together. With only 1800 tigers in over three million square kilometres, each animal deserves some personal attention. A big cat that is known to be particularly aggressive is usually destroyed once it kills a man because it is likely to kill again. The same goes for a tigress that kills to feed her cubs, on grounds that similar pressures are likely to elicit a similar response in future. Opinions on the fate of the cubs differ. For example the Talla Des maneater, a tigress in Kumaon, was active over eight years during which she must have mothered several litters that fed on human flesh. Yet not one of them was recorded as a maneater in subsequent years. Corbett himself held the view that the cubs do not necessarily become maneaters because they were weaned on human flesh.
A tiger that has been constantly persecuted for a long time might kill and eat a man out of hunger. One wouldn’t expect it to continue killing people once conditions improved, and historical evidence seems to supports this. In spite of this, such animals are likely to be destroyed. The same applies to an injured tiger that cannot hunt fleet-footed game. In all cases where the killing seems accidental or one-off, we should refrain from destroying the animal or wasting such a precious resource in the zoo. It would be better instead to coax it towards the ‘real’ jungles or relocate it via other means.
All tigers certainly don’t think alike. An individual’s personality is perhaps the most important consideration in dealing with newly recorded man-killers. Such information can sometimes be got from field researchers, forest guards and villagers in regions bordering national parks or heavily degraded buffer zones: they might know individual tigers well and should be involved in the decision process.
So what decision is possible, if the decision-maker doesn’t want to harm the animal if possible and also doesn’t want the blame if it goes on to kill more people? Resources for a thorough investigation are needed. Additionally, radio collars can be attached on all tigers that have been ‘acquitted’ after man-killing allegations. This will allow us to monitor their movements, test our theories and develop a knowledge base for the future.
The problem is not going to go away. In itself it’s even a good thing. We’re trying to create a landscape of interconnected forests because the sustainable way to fix the weaker ones is to connect them with the healthier ones and hope for natural wildlife migration. Even a few more years of apathy can take us past the point of no return. The forests will get wider apart and polling booths will spring up in between.
The writer is a London-based pharma consultant and wildlife expert.