By creating alternative livelihoods in India, tigers and humans may live more peaceful lives
The following was written by Wildlife Trust of India’s Jose Louies, recounting my recent visit to Central India where the hunter has become the hunted. --KA
Like a warrior displaying old wounds, a young man shows us the months-old scars on his body.
“I was injured on my thigh and back, and my left arm had a deep gash that started bleeding profusely within few seconds of the attack,” he explains.
Only he is no war hero.
He is a hunter—by birth and by nature—from a central Indian community settled a few kilometres away from a forest where threatened tigers roam. He is recounting an attack from a wild boar that occurred during a trip into the fringes of the forest.
They took traps, nets, snares and deadly spears, with which someone stabbed the boar to death that day.
“This is crazy,” Kelvin Alie, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s wildlife trade programme, mutters to himself while taking pictures of various hunting equipment that was being shown to us. “I can’t believe this.”
A day later, Kelvin and I are out together in the forest again. Sitting silently in our jeep, we hear alarm calls from prey announcing the presence of a predator in the bushes around us. I can see spotted deer running for cover.
We know a tiger is nearby.
She walks down into the nallah, her stripes playing hide and seek with the sun filtering through the trees. A spotted deer stands frozen a few meters away, partially concealed behind a teak tree avoiding the tigress’ eyes.
“This is the Baghinnalla tigress,” the guide whispers to us.
Her coat glows in the morning sun as she stands on the slope. She looks back into the bush, head up, ears forward. That’s when we see the first cub, and then the second and then the third walk out to join her.
What more can one ask for on a trip to see tigers in the wild?
The tigress is trying to cross the road to the hillock on the other side, but there are about eight safari vehicles on the road. The guides are quick to silence the excited crowd and the drivers of the vehicles ensure that there is safe passage for the feline family.
She crosses the road between vehicles and into the boulders on the hillock she goes. More alarm calls.
“A tigress and three cubs on my first visit,” Alie says, smiling from ear to ear, examining the photographs we just took. “Man...that’s a good one.” We are joined by Dr. Ian Robinson, Vivek Menon, and Dr. Rahul Kaul in the jeep. Even with all the years of experience in the wild between them, today is an unforgettable day for each of us.
I sit in the rear of the jeep browsing through my camera when suddenly I am looking at the previous day’s pictures. One is of a young man holding his spear and looking at me.
The community we visited yesterday is just a few miles away. Some of the hunters would be on the move now, as they also have families to feed. When they hunt, however, there will be no alarm calls from the animals as they move in for the kill.
This community was branded as a ‘criminal community’ during the Colonial period and still carries the stigma of that label. Cast off by mainstream society, community members either hunt wild animals or brew illicit alcohol for a living. (While all the men show us hunting equipment in the courtyard, the women and children are involved in transferring the hooch from bottles into larger jerry cans.) Their alleged involvement in acts of theft adds to their notorious image and they live as outcasts in many ways.
The fifty-something village headman tells us farmers call on them for assistance with nuisance wildlife that stray into the fields from the forest in search of food and water. “We can’t predict what we will eventually trap,” he explains.
“It could be a wild boar, a spotted deer or even a leopard or tiger. Anything can be trapped in the snares that we conceal in animal footpaths. Once the animal is trapped, we close in with the spears.”
He gives me a snare made of sinew from the wild boar and blue bull. He tells me that the snare is many years old, and it could hold a large animal in place while it was speared to death. “Why don’t you join us for a hunting trip?” he asks. “The way you examine and play with the snare shows that you can be a good hunter.” Oh, the irony.
As we walk back to our car, I can read Alie’s mind. “It’s a different world in that village of hunters,” he says.
The traditional hunting communities of India are one of the major threats to the conservation of tigers in the wild.
They are semi-nomadic in nature, move around the landscape and hunt animals in the forests, fringes and farm lands adjoining the protected areas. They hunt in the corridors that connect critical tiger habitats with each other.
A transient tiger is bad news for the villagers as they prey on cattle or hunt its prey in the fields and come into conflict with humans. These hunters are welcomed by many of these villagers as they consider these men to be problem solvers.
The young village boys carefully wrapping the traps and snares and the tiger cubs walking with their mother are the next generation inhabiting this landscape. They both will hunt for their survival and whenever their paths cross only one of them will live to tell the tale.
IFAW-WTI is running campaigns in the central Indian landscape to ensure the survival of the big cats in the wild and guard them from poaching. Our team has initiated a project here with the community to explore alternatives to hunting.
Through various community interventions and methods, the project team plans to reduce the pressure this hunting community puts on the local wildlife. Through social intervention, we hope to make it easier for future generations of tigers and humans to coexist peacefully.
For more information about the IFAW-WTI efforts to protect tigers and people, visit our project page.