The plight of the Indian tiger

India Tiger

The following blog is from Jose Louies, Manager, Enforcement Assistance and Law, of IFAW partner Wildlife Trust of India, who describes the many threats to tigers living in such close proximity to humans in India and how villagers have and have not adapted.-VM

“There have been four cattle kills in the past week,” said the villager as he stopped to greet us, recognising my friend as the person who had put up camera traps in the nearby forest.  “The tigress was sighted crossing the road near the village at around 8 pm yesterday; I think she is still there.”

We were in the middle of central India’s tiger territory, my biologist friend and I.

This is a scenario that plays out regularly across India’s tiger lands. A billion-plus people. High poverty rates. A growing demand for infrastructure, and the increased degradation and fragmentation of forest lands as a result.

India’s tigers must now share their territories with villages and farmlands and everyone residing therein, be they people or cattle.  And while the news of cattle kills may not resonate in big cities, cattle are very precious commodities out in the hinterland.

Yet in certain places, like the one I was in, villagers seem to have evolved a remarkably accommodating attitude towards the tigers’ presence near their habitations.

“Look at that pugmark, it’s huge”, my biologist friend shouted over the rain as we saw the telltale signs of a struggle – broken branches of lantana, two long smooth grooves in the semi-solid mud made by the cow’s hooves as she was dragged off, and the solid, deep impressions of the tigress's paws in the mud. Two curious cowherds joined us and I took the opportunity to speak with them.

“Aren’t you afraid of tigers taking your cows,” I asked, “living as you do in such close proximity to them?”

Surprisingly they didn’t seem to mind. “It’s not such a bad idea to get compensation if one in 250 cows gets killed," one of them said. “There are so many old cows in the herd and their chance of getting killed by a tiger is high.

Instead of the sinful act of selling old cows to the slaughterhouse, it is better if the tiger, the incarnation of god, mother of the forest, kills them.”

This was a fine exemplar of that great Indian tradition of jugaad – of a simple makeshift hack that can solve a complex problem, the ability to turn a difficult situation to one’s advantage.

Of course, not all jugaad works to the itinerant tiger's benefit. Some farmers may be blasé about cattle kills but they still zealously guard their crops against herbivores. Every farm bordering the forest has wire fences illegally connected to the main power line at night. Such fences, charged with 200 volts of electricity, can be death traps for central India’s wandering tigers. So are snares laid by poachers outside of protected areas.

This International Tiger Day, tiger lovers on social media are speculating on the disappearance of the iconic tiger Jai from Umred-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary in central India.

Born in Nagzira Tiger Reserve, he maintained his tradition of living off cattle, like the aforementioned tigress, in a life spent wandering between protected areas from one territory to the next, living off cattle while outside these sanctuaries without causing conflict. (The India Express recently reported that villagers spotted the tiger in the neighbourhood corridor of Pauni (Bhandara district) in the Vidarbha region.)

This International Tiger Day, let us think about the several pitfalls that confront tigers like him.

The migrant lifestyle may have its air of romance, but for tigers in India that move between protected areas – as they must, to establish their own territories, to escape natural disasters or find better prey – life is fraught with danger.

Only improved enforcement, solar-powered fences and, crucially, the securing of wildlife corridors – habitat linkages that allow animals to move freely between protected forests – can keep tigers like Jai safe.



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