Conservationists should be concerned about saving the species, rather than every individual tiger.
The shooting of a man-eating tiger, as it happened recently in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu — barely two weeks after two other tigers preyed on four people in neighbouring Karnataka — invariably polarises public opinion. Locals, whose lives are at risk, want maneaters shot. Animal lovers, on the other hand, demand their “safe capture.” Caught in the middle, officials have to confront increasingly angry mobs, while authorities in Delhi insist on elaborate “operating procedures.” In Bandipur, Karnataka, after dozens of attempts at darting a tiger with a tranquillizing gun had failed, and after the big cat killed its third victim, angry locals burnt the forest office, forcing forest staff to abandon the scene. A posse of armed police had to control the situation, until the 12-year-old infirm male tiger was finally darted.
Science and practical experience clearly show that we cannot care for every individual wild tiger. Animal lovers and conservationists should therefore focus on saving the species as a whole, rather than worry about saving every individual. Conservation interventions must therefore be guided by scientific evidence and social practicality, rather than emotion.
My tiger research and conservation of three decades focusses on the central Western Ghats, which consists of forests in Karnataka and adjacent parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This landscape now harbours the largest tiger population globally. However, the 400 or so big cats in my study area are restricted to reserves comprising less than 10 per cent of the total area. With the overall landscape populated by 15 million people, public support for conservation is critical to tiger survival in the long term.
Studies show that tiger populations in some well-protected reserves, such as Nagarahole and Bandipur, in Karnataka, have dramatically rebounded, with their numbers attaining near saturation densities of 10-15 tigers per 100 sq.km. A substantial part of the credit for this must go to the forest departments of these three States. With the control of hunting and cattle grazing, deer, gaur and wild pigs have attained optimum densities of 20 or more animals per square kilometre, which is crucial for a healthy tiger population.
Every wild tiger requires a prey base of 500 animals to sustain it. When prey becomes abundant, individual tiger territories shrink and breeding increases. A single female may produce 10-15 cubs in her lifetime, an average of one cub a year. Consequently, thriving tiger populations produce annual surpluses, pushing dispersing sub-adults and old tigers to the edges of reserves.
These are the animals that prey on livestock and, more rarely, on humans, becoming “problem tigers.”
On rare occasions, tigers may accidentally attack persons moving in dense cover, mistaking them for prey, or in self-defence, when surprised. Sometimes they may even consume the victim. But if they do not subsequently prey on humans, these tigers also cannot be called “maneaters.” However, attacks occur when uncontrollable mobs surround and harry “problem tigers” when they venture out of reserves. Such tigers are not “maneaters.”
True maneaters are individual animals that persistently stalk and hunt human beings, after losing their instinctive fear. They pose a serious risk to local people and must be swiftly removed. By my reckoning there have been less than half-a-dozen such cases in the last decade in this region, three instances in the last two months. In all these cases, the tigers were injured, aged or infirm. Even so, maneaters do not prey exclusively on humans. They also kill livestock or wild prey opportunistically. There is no evidence at all that tigers get “addicted” to human flesh as common lore has it.
The critical point is that recent cases of conflict in the Western Ghats, central India and the Terai are a consequence of rebounding tiger numbers. In some sense, these rare instances of conflict we are witnessing are the price of conservation successes. In contrast, in the extensive but overhunted forests of the tribal belts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and the North Eastern Hill States, tigers have been either extirpated totally, or occur at low densities. In these regions, where tiger conservation has clearly failed, tiger-human conflict is virtually non-existent. This is not good news for tigers.
Research shows that in my study area, 20 per cent of the tiger population is lost every year due to several causes: fights between rivals, injuries, starvation, poaching and official removals by shooting or capture, following conflict incidents. I estimate that at least 50-75 tigers are being lost this way annually, although only a fraction of these mortalities are detected. However, such loss is not a cause for worry in itself as the birth of new tigers makes up for it.
To kill or not to kill?
Given this inevitable annual loss of 20 per cent in thriving populations, trying to “rescue” a few man-eating tigers is irrelevant to accomplishing the conservation objective of expanding and stabilising wild tiger populations. Tigers involved in conflict incidents are often seriously injured, infirm or old. If captured and removed to a zoo, they suffer a life of perpetual stress from years in captivity. Caring for these doomed tigers misdirects scarce resources that could be used for conserving their wild relatives. Sadly, for old and injured “conflict tigers,” a humane and quick death may be the best option.
Well-meaning animal lovers often do not understand that in high-pressure conflict situations, safe chemical capture of a free-ranging tiger is difficult or even impossible. Darting a stressed out animal playing hide-and-seek is an extremely difficult task. On the other hand, shooting the animal with a gun is often far easier, and saves human lives.
When precious days are spent in clumsy attempts to “rescue” maneaters, growing public anger seriously undermines the long-term support crucial for wild tigers, protected areas and the forest personnel who guard them. Overall, the future of wild tigers as a species is rendered more precarious when local public anxiety and anger are not quickly dealt with by eliminating the problem animal. By caring for individual wild tigers far too deeply, we may be dooming the species.
To save the tiger for posterity, we need to work on expanding protected area coverage, and reducing adverse human impacts. Both these require increased local support for tiger conservation. Yet, this is precisely what is undermined when human-tiger conflict escalates. While a few animal lovers may feel good if a maneater is “rescued” rather than killed, the cause of tiger conservation suffers.
In this overall context, the decision of the Tamil Nadu government to shoot the maneater in the Nilgiris, rather than persist in pointless rescue attempts, was the right thing to do.
This article originally appeared in the Op-Ed section of The Hindu, Jan 30, 2013.