Shouting hurray for an Indian tiger and a victory of ideals
There is no animal that evokes fear paranoia among humans as much as a man-eating big cat. Elephants kill ten times as many people in India. Hippos are Africa’s largest wild taker of human lives. Yet tigers and lions, leopards and jaguars, pumas and snow leopards continue to fascinate and terrify mankind. Big cats are by nature shy and keep away from humans as a rule if you discount the tourist-friendly cats of Kruger or Ranthambhore.
If, however, they find themselves in a human-dominated landscape, the wild feline lashes out and the hapless that come in its way suffers terribly. Of late, both leopards and tigers have been caught in such situations in the country where man-killing and man-eating (actually an analysis of gender in such cases will show that woman-killing and woman-eating may actually be more than man given the preponderance of women to use the fringe of the forest) are on the rise.
In different parts of the country different situations force different species to behave differently. In Kashmir, for example, the snow leopard in the high hills and the leopard in the valley come after livestock and poultry and when caught with their hands in the till lash out. In Assam, tigers and leopards come out of highly disturbed forests that are riven by encroachment or disperse out of safe havens like Kaziranga into a completely human dominated landscape and find themselves in tea gardens, people’s homes and strangely enough, even wells. In and around Pune, the leopards seem to have made sugarcane fields their home, feeding off stray dogs and attacking those who attack it.
Further inland, in Vidarbha, tigers in one district of Chandrapur are creating havoc, dispersing out of the well-protected Tadoba into an agricultural mosaic where it is caught in a ‘situation’ sooner than later. In all cases, the problem is largely when the cat is cornered, when the royal feline becomes the proverbial ‘cat in the box’. No sooner do you open the lid of the situation that the cat springs out and the resultant toll is normally that of human life. In such situations, the Forest Department uses the clause of ‘threat to human life’ in the Wildlife Protection Act and through a written command of the Chief Wildlife Warden terms the animal a man eater and authorises it’s killing or capture.
This makes sense, I am sure to most people who read of it in newspapers. The animal has killed and should be killed. In the USA they call it “three strikes and you are out”, a baseball phraseology adapted to wildlife management. They use it for wolves, normally and the victims there are sheep. The wolf kills three sheep and they are ‘out’. In America ‘out’ does mean killed. In India, sheep be damned, the holy cow be set aside, it is only when people and that too more than a few die that the “threat to life” clause is talked about. And there too, relying on an Asokan ethic, we would rather capture than kill. What happens thereafter is a long operation, heavy on time, resources (both man and money) and risk to catch a ‘man eater’ only to pack it off to the nearest zoo.
There used to be times when they were exhibited in the zoo with the tag ‘man eater’ to the thrill of visiting public. That is no longer the case and the animal is not humiliated today but both in conservation and welfare terms, this is a pathetic solution. If the cat is in a cage, it contributes zilch to conservation of its species in the wild. If the cat is in a cage, it is also a tormented soul, no longer king of the forest but once again a ‘cat in a box’, only this time one with iron bars that keep the beast within.
In such times, it was a refreshing decision by the Assam Forest Department last March to give a lease of life to an adult male tiger that had come out of the forests in upper Assam, entered a tea garden and attacked three people, killing two instantaneously. The tiger was tracked and trapped by our (IFAW-WTI) vets with the help of the Forest Department. They took a decision that the tiger should be given a chance to survive in the wild and transported him ten hours to Manas National Park, an area which we have been working to bring back to its former glory for the past many years.
On hind sight, it was an inspired choice. Too far away for the ‘cat instincts’ to take over and home back to its natal habitat (which by all accounts was fragmented and no longer able to hold him). A place with a very low tiger density to begin with and therefore a place for this male to establish its territory. An area adjoining Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park as well as the two newly declared entities of Greater Manas, giving it an approximate contiguous forest cover of over 2500 sq km to roam.
This was the best chance that a big cat could be given. Not something that can be done all over the country, but in this place, in this case, the cat was out of the box! Following protocol the animal was radio-collared. But normally tracking such signals in the terrain that Manas offers would be sporadic. This was no exception and while for one month signals were got, for the next six months there were no signals. What had happened? Had the cat gone off to the hills of Bhutan in the summer?
Had it died (although a mortality signal should have emanated then)? Had the collar become malfunctional? All these were possibilities and the only thing that could confirm it is if the team on ground found a dead tiger, a dropped off collar, a live tiger or got a signal again. For half a year, the team swung between despair and hope. Finally, what normally cannot be hoped for happened.
Two months and two instances of recapture. In November, a signal was received and before the team could exult, in December, the tiger with the collar still on was captured in a camera trap set up to census wild cats in the park! Another box had come to the cat’s aid. This time a trip wire triggered box camera that clicked the proof of survival of the tiger for more than eight months in its release habitat. Even more wonderfully, there had been no cases of serious conflict of the tiger and people living around the park.
There are fewer and fewer instances when one can shout ‘hurray’ in the world of wildlife conservation and animal welfare. I mention both because this is one such rare instance when both ideals were served well. Kudos to the Assam Forest Department for taking a bold decision. Kudos to the IFAW-WTI vets and biologists on the ground who did the hard work. And most of all, kudos to the young male who made most of the opportunity given to him and escaped the fate of being yet another ‘cat in the box’. --Vivek Menon