Although attacks by tigers and leopards on livestock cause devastating losses to owners around Kanha Tiger Reserve in Central India, villagers now rarely retaliate. A prompt compensation scheme by Reserve authorities may be the secret to saving cattle-killing big cats in the wild.
(The author has adapted this article from its original publication form, which appeared in Frontline)
Sweat running from every pore, Vishal exhaled with relief at the sight of his dead buffalo. For two days he had scoured the scorching Indian jungle for her body, his dhoti cut ragged and his limbs aching from climbing through thorn forest. Vishal needed proof to show how his animal had died, and as he approached the rotting carcass to take a few photos with his mobile phone, his eyes widened in triumph: sunk deep in the sand were the pugmarks of the tiger that had killed his animal. This was the final evidence he needed to claim compensation for his buffalo’s death and, with time, to rebuild from the devastating loss.
Two days later Vishal shared his story as we sat on plastic chairs in the shade of his mud hut in the buffer zone of the Kanha Tiger Reserve in central India, drinking milkless chai. Like many of the villagers I interviewed, he sat stoically – eyes downcast and limbs limp – until I assured him I would not reveal his identity (villagers’ names have accordingly been changed). Then, his anxiety visibly eased, he swirled the steaming black tea in his cup meditatively and described the impacts of the tiger’s attack. The buffalo’s milk had been his only source of income. Her orphaned calf would now nurse on his neighbor’s buffalo, costing him severely. His three-day search for the buffalo had lost him precious time plowing his fields for the upcoming rice season. And with three daughters in need of dowry for their imminent marriages, he would toil for months, even years, before recovering financially. The loss had been a blow, yet leaning back in his plastic chair, clothed in a fresh white sarong and t-shirt, Vishal seemed to take the damage in stride. Help would soon arrive, for within a month’s time the Kanha Forest Department would deliver him a compensation check for INR 10,000, about 80% of his buffalo’s market value. This would ease his struggle, Vishal agreed thoughtfully. Then, gazing into the milkless chai between his callused hands, he sighed, “Aur kya aur kare?” And what more can I do? Vishal had done all that a villager can, short of what the law forbids: defend his life and livelihood by killing a tiger.
Vishal’s mentality is echoed by thousands of other villagers across India who lose livestock to tigers and leopards each year, struggle to regain financial stability, and then move on with their lives. That a few hungry tigers – indeed, only about 2000 remain in India – can cause such prolific damage without being attacked in vendetta is astounding. While farmers in other parts of the world poison, shoot, and dynamite countless carnivores, Indians demonstrate a distinctive tolerance. Yet despite the resilience of most Indian livestock owners who live alongside tigers, stories of villagers killing big cats continue to flash across the headlines. Though these incidences may portray the violent reactions of a minority, they generate a reputation of retribution for livestock owners as a whole.
I assumed I would meet these tiger killers when I moved to Kanha Tiger Reserve to carry out PhD research in 2011. My degree depended on it, for the American grant agency funding my expedition expected me to reduce human-carnivore conflict in an effort to protect tigers. Considering that adult cattle in Kanha are worth about INR 10,000 per head (about $150) – equivalent to five months’ salary for the average village laborer – it seemed logical to expect that villagers would eliminate the carnivores killing such valuable assets. Yet ten months and four hundred dead livestock later, after a thousand hours of sweating in the jungle alongside livestock owners and forest guards, I finally realized that my search for the elusive tiger killers was futile. The secret to saving tigers could not be found in the few men in India who sought vengeance against them. The answer lay in the men who forgave the tigers.
Coexistence and compensation
The secret to such forgiveness lies partially hidden in Kanha’s unique conservation program. At the reserve’s core sprawls a national park twice the size of Mumbai, a mosaicked oasis of jungle and grassland free of human inhabitants but for a few lonely patrol camps in the park’s center and a dozen small villages along its edge. Extending 5 km outwards from the national park in all directions stretches a patchwork of protected forests and rural villages where restrictions on tree cutting and agriculture buffer the park from degradation. This design supports a rich ecosystem with impressive wildlife such as the endangered tiger and swamp deer, which annually attract 175,000 tourists and nearly INR 5 crore in revenue. While the Forest Department channels most of this revenue into park programs such as anti-poaching patrols, wildlife monitoring, and habitat management, the agency also distributes 20% to village communities to boost education, medical support and economic growth. Of the 1 crore given to local villages, INR 17,00,000 – or 17% – is paid as compensation for livestock attacked by tigers and leopards each year.
Because livestock play a major role in the local economy, Kanha’s livestock compensation program is essential to maintaining the wellbeing of both people and wildlife. Kanha’s residents sell cow milk and goat meat, pull carts and plow fields with oxen, and trade animals to pay off dowry or debt. Livestock dung fuels cooking fires, insulates home walls and floors, and fertilizes vegetable gardens and rice fields. As a result, people often treat animals as members of the family, hand-feeding and washing young calves and sheltering animals on grass beds inside the main house. More than 85,000 cattle, buffalo, and goats graze in the fields and forest patches of Kanha’s buffer area alongside an estimated 120 tigers and leopards, effectively creating a 24/7 all-you-can-eat buffet for the carnivores. The result is carnage: big cats kill more than one animal every day throughout the park, totaling roughly 400 livestock each year. Three out of every four families in Kanha have lost livestock to tigers or leopards.
“The jungle has risks but gives us life in return,” a villager explained while trekking besides me during one of my livestock surveys, his red gamcha bulging with plump mushrooms he had collected during our walk. Many villagers view their livestock losses as repayment for nature’s bounty and an exchange that sustains the ecosystem. The acceptance of nature’s risks, in addition to the hassle of paperwork and bureaucracy, is strong enough to inhibit some villagers from reporting livestock losses to the Forest Department for financial compensation. But those who do – about 60% of families that lose livestock – receive rewarding returns: the Forest Department awarded compensation for 90% of the 392 livestock losses that I surveyed, and paid the amount within a month of the attack. For a family whose livelihood consists of their livestock, quick compensation may mean the difference between feeding one’s family and killing a tiger.
But Kanha’s conservation program has not always sustained coexistence between people and wildlife. Since the park transitioned to a tiger reserve in 1972, the Forest Department has moved 28 villages from the core, angering residents and inflaming activists in an ethical debate over conservation versus human rights. The livestock compensation program during this period suffered from poor funding and inefficiency, further instigating mistrust from villagers. “Ten years ago compensation came six to twelve months after an attack,” one villager recalled with exasperation, “You couldn’t trust the Forest Department to help you.” In those days, many people protected their livelihoods by poisoning big cats with livestock carcasses laced with fatal pesticides. The deadly combination of rampant retaliation and pervasive poaching thinned tiger populations worldwide through the 1990’s and the 2000’s and eliminated tigers entirely from India’s famous Sariska Tiger Reserve in 2005. The loss of tigers in Sariska, once one of the country’s most renowned ecotourism destinations, instigated a national and international outcry over India’s negligence over its endangered wildlife and prompted the government to strictly enforce bans on poaching and retaliation killing throughout the country.
In an attempt to preserve its threatened wildlife populations and ecotourism industry, the Madhya Pradesh state Forest Department restructured its livestock compensation program to reimburse owners within a month of their loss. Less than a decade later, renewed warmth is apparent between many forest guards and villagers, who now turn to the local guards for help on matters ranging from property disputes to marriage advice. Although poaching continues to threaten tigers and leopards that leave the safety of Kanha’s boundaries, retaliation killing has ceased within the park. Yet while quick compensation is easing livestock losses and saving tigers, the program comes with tradeoffs, requiring villagers to sacrifice time, effort, and even physical safety.
Risk and reward
Three men paced in line before me through the dim bamboo jungle. We crept quietly along the narrow earthen footpath, our swinging arms softly brushing walls of vegetation, our ears straining to detect what our eyes could not. A branch cracked in the jungle ahead and crows cackled in response. “Did you hear that?” my assistant behind me whispered shakily, “The tigress is near.” One man in our line coughed, another cursed, and suddenly the men burst into song, their unified voices reaching ahead through the bamboo and around boulders, alerting the tigress of our presence. My heart raced as we turned two blind corners, my mind struggling to imagine how to fight off 150 kilograms of charging tigress.
When we reached the site where two cows lay dead from an attack early that morning, oozing entrails confirmed that the tigress had fed until moments before our arrival. With several men standing watch around us, the two livestock owners enacted their version of the attack using clues from the jungle: the tigress stalked in this bush – see the pugmarks – then sprang to the throat of this grazing cow – see the hoof scuffs in the dirt – and leapt to the strangle the second – see the hair tufts on the branches. The men’s performance displayed both their fear and familiarity: they had read these gruesome signs before when the tigress last killed and they would read them again when she next struck. With eyes scanning the bushes for a flash of orange, the men urged me to finish my survey so the tigress could return to her meal and satiated, allow them a few days of safe grazing.
Besides the danger of stumbling into a feeding tiger, livestock owners must take other risks in order to claim compensation for their livestock. The odds of finding a livestock carcass in a dense jungle of impenetrable thorns and rugged terrain are poor at best. As I accompanied villagers on these pursuits, my thick boots plodding over the tracks of their flimsy flip-flops, I often found myself wondering in astonishment, how did these men find their animals in this dark jungle? Livestock were rarely killed near the village, and we often stumbled through several kilometers of treacherous terrain, tripping over veiled vines, dodging prickly palms, and wading through winding streams. We climbed a crumbling hillside mined with thistles to reach a pig from Attariya devoured by a leopard amidst scattered dog skulls. We crawled beneath a sprawling shrubland of shoulder-high lantana thorns into a shadowy tiger den to find the bones of a bull from Manjhipur. We descended down a dry ravine to discover a calf from Bamhni, its measly remains ringed in the tracks of a leopardess and her cubs.
For those owners who succeed in finding their animal’s carcass, victory is short-lived unless accompanied by evidence of a wild animal attack. Upon reaching these scenes, our skin scratched by spines and sticky with sweat, the villagers and I searched for signs of the attacker: pugmarks running along the wet sand, claw marks arching up a tree trunk, a pile of feces steaming beside the carcass. This ephemeral evidence was rare enough that we enthusiastically celebrated our discoveries, knowing that the carnivore signs would guarantee compensation for our efforts.
Yet even after this tiresome search and meticulous detective work, the procedure for compensation was far from finished. After finding evidence on the earth, the owner would leave the jungle and walk several more kilometers along dusty roads to the nearest Forest Department camp. This time with a forest guard by his side, the owner would then retrace his steps to officially report the kill and file a compensation claim. Not all livestock owners are lucky enough to complete this process. One third of the carcasses I visited were clean of clues, all traces of the killer rinsed away by rain or scrambled in the loose dirt. Without proof of a wild carnivore attack, the Forest Department could not award compensation.
This is one of the few checks and balances available in the jungle, where individuals can easily benefit to the detriment of the greater good. Rumors from other tiger reserves tell of villagers falsifying claims and guards reaping profits from compensation transactions. Yet the system works in Kanha where it has failed elsewhere because many people in Kanha feel as valued as the tiger. Kanha exemplifies one of the most sustainable models of conservation, where global priorities to save a species translate into on-the-ground efforts to support local people who in turn serve as stewards of the species. And in Kanha, these local efforts now reflect global values: not a single person – forest guard or villager – could recall a tiger or leopard killed as retaliation in the park within the previous five years of my visit.
Fear and tolerance
One of my last days in Kanha revealed the final secret to successful local tolerance. After morning monsoon showers, my assistant and I trailed behind livestock owner Premlal into a glistening, light-dappled jungle near his village to survey the site where his cow had recently been attacked. As we began to sweat in the humid mist, we heard a leopard growl echo through the trees on our left. Following Premlal’s lead, we paused, nervous smiles twitching our lips as we considered whether to move forward through the dense foliage. As if to answer our thoughts, a tiger’s roar soon after descended through the thick vines from the hillside to our right. The hair on my neck bristled with adrenaline. I exchanged a wide-eyed look with Premlal: two cats were two too many. We swiveled on our boots and hurried back to the village, the dappled light casting leopard print patterns on every leaf.
Many Kanha residents have a story like our quick retreat that morning, and their deliberate avoidance of tigers and leopards exposes a fear fierce enough to prevent most contact between people and big cats. The act of living with carnivores evokes a visceral response, an ingrained intuition that the human role in nature is not just predator but also prey. This primal hierarchy of the food web rests on a moral mandate that is long forgotten by many cultures removed from nature but is still innate to many Indian villagers living near the wild – live and let live. For thousands of years this tenet has enabled man and cat to minimize confrontation and curtail conflict through compromise.
Kanha – a model worth emulating
Though many societies throughout the world now prefer to kill rather than compromise with carnivores, the philosophy of live and let live that has prevailed throughout rural India has enabled coexistence between local people and big cats around nature reserves such as Kanha. Throughout the country, local people bear the brunt of living alongside wildlife, challenging their tolerance for carnivores in the struggle for survival. In such situations, prompt financial livestock compensation, as is practiced by the Kanha Forest Department, plays an essential role in sustaining pastoral livelihoods and enabling local people and India’s big cats to live alongside one another as they have for thousands of years.