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Man-eaters of Pilibhit: is UP reserve a hotspot for human-tiger conflict?

Akash Bisht | Updated on: 20 August 2017, 18:17 IST
(Shannon Benson/VW Pics/UIG/Getty Images)

The situation at the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve (PTR) in Uttar Pradesh has turned alarming. About 15 people have died due to attacks by tigers this year alone, and such frequent killings in a short period of time have led people to question whether the PTR has emerged as a hotspot for human-animal conflict, particularly with big cats.

The opinion, for now, stands divided, with experts calling them 'stray incidents', blaming the sugarcane fields around the periphery of the reserve for the killings.

However, locals feel the tiger numbers have increased substantially in the last few years, and concrete steps need to be taken to check tiger population in the reserve.

Two different man-eaters?

The forest department is making every effort to prevent PTR tigers from being portrayed as man-eating beasts.

But a recent incident, where Ram Chandra, a 40-year-old man from Pilibhit town, was mauled to death by a tiger when he ventured into the reserve to collect firewood, has sparked yet another round of protests by locals. They want the forest department to deal with the issue at the earliest.

Pressure has also mounted on the forest department because one tiger killed three persons in a span of four days last week in Amaria block. About 100 people belonging to the forest department, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Lucknow Zoo have been spending sleepless nights trying to capture this tiger.

The forest department has ruled out the possibility of the same tiger killing Ram Chandra and the three people in Amaria block, as the two locations are 60 kilometres apart. Moreover, a camera trap photo of the animal was captured early morning on Friday, and it is unlikely for the same tiger to traverse such a long distance in such a short time.

Efforts to capture

This has made the forest department's role tricky, considering it hasn't achieved any success in capturing the Amaria tiger. Mayukh Chatterjee, Officer in Charge, Conflict Mitigation Cell, WTI, who is at Amaria block, said that the forest department and the other teams, have put up baits, trap cages and machaans to catch the animal.

“The efforts put up by forest department are on a war-footing level and widespread searches are being conducted, including use of elephants, to locate the tiger. However, Chandra's death has made things more complicated,” he said.

Chatterjee, who was part of a team that captured a man-eating tiger from PTR in February, went on to add that six buffalo calves were used a baits to lure the animal. Out of the six, two were killed by the tiger but the team still couldn't tranquilize or trap it.

“The tiger seems to be shy of traps and elephants, which suggests that it could be a sub-adult tiger or tigress. The camera trap image of the tiger does not establish whether the animal is a male or female,” claimed Chatterjee.

What makes a 'man-eater'?

Chatterjee opposed calling the tiger a 'man-eater', saying man-eaters don't kill like this; they enter villages and drag people out either in broad daylight or under the cover of darkness.

“The last tiger we caught from Pilibhit was a man-eater, but not this one. He killed these three men when they were working in sugarcane fields while crouching, giving the animal the perception of them being wild animals. So, it would be unfair to call the animal a man-eater,” he said.

Moreover, a tiger usually turns man-eater when it can no longer hunt its natural prey. But that doesn't seem to be the case with this tiger, which has been killing herbivores – bluebulls and blackbuck – in the the same area with great ease. Experts believe that the main reason for this tiger killing humans are the sugarcane fields, which closely resemble its natural habitat.

“A tiger cannot differentiate between sugarcane fields and a forest. For him, its all the same. In fact, predators and even herbivores are known to use these fields as part of their habitat. The presence of prey lures tigers to these fields, which can sometimes turn deadly for humans working in these fields,” said SP Yadav, Assistant Secretary General, Global Tiger Forum.

The lack of adjoining forests and corridors around PTR force tigers and other animals to use these sugarcane fields to either establish territories, or use them as corridors for dispersal. Sub-adult tigers, who are pushed out of forests by dominant males, use these fields to establish territories. Even tigresses and leopardesses use sugarcane fields to give birth, which poses grave threats to humans.

It is for this very reason Yadav suggested that villagers living in periphery of tiger reserves should abstain from growing sugarcane and change their cropping patterns. On the question of Pilibhit emerging as a hotspot for human-wildlife conflict, Yadav cited several reasons for this trend.

“Human encroachment is forcing wild animals to disperse into human-dominated areas. Building infrastructure like roads and canals has added to such conflicts. Even the dependency of locals on forest produce leads to increasing chances of conflict situations,” said Yadav.

Chatterjee, too, said calling PTR a man-eater hotspot would be completely wrong. He said that the Sunderban Tiger Reserve in West Bengal, for example, is a man-eater hotspot, where such incidents happen frequently. “There is no denying that Pilibhit is becoming notorious as far as conflict is concerned, but such incidents are not consistent, as in the case of the Sunderbans. A few years back, three leopards somehow managed to enter Meerut city. Does that make Meerut a hotspot?” he asked.

He, however, agreed with Yadav, and pointed that “miles and miles” of sugarcane fields surround PTR, and there is no connectivity with any adjoining forests, so animals consider these fields as part of their habitat.

“The presence of water bodies, the absence of humans and availability of prey make these fields an ideal tiger habitat. So, if a tiger stumbles upon a human by accident or kills it thinking it is prey, there is no logic to declare it as man-eater,” he said, before preparing for another night of trying to capture the Amaria tiger.

What should be done?

Yadav, who was earlier with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), also spoke about the standard operating procedures to be used when a tiger is confined in a sugarcane field.

“In case of a healthy tiger/encumbered tigress occupying a sugarcane field or similar habitat, attempt should be made first to attract it to the nearby forest area, while avoiding disturbance. If such operations fail, the animal should be captured through immobilization for release in a low-density area of a nearby tiger reserve/protected area after radio collaring,” according to the SOP on the NTCA website.

Following these SOPs, the teams operating in PTR have set up machaans, placed camera and animal traps to ensure it gets caught. There have been no discussions yet on what needs to be done once the animal is captured, but it is evident that the department is under immense pressure.

Even Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was in the area on 6 August, and asked officials to show no laxity in such cases.

The future of this tiger hangs in the balance. It remains to be seen whether it is given the man-eater tag and sent to a zoo, or released in another area. For now, the priority is to capture the animal to calm down irate villagers, who want the tiger dead.

First published: 20 August 2017, 18:17 IST