Well over two thirds of big cats are in direct conflict with humans. Poaching, habitat loss and prey depletion are causing big cats all over the world to come into ever increasing contact with humans as they fight for survival, and no single conflict has been more documented that the battle currently ranging in India’s rural communities between Humans and tigers. The Bengal Tiger, (Panthera tigris tigris) remains the national animal of both India and Bangladesh, however with population numbers tumbling, and the species now confined to less than a tenth of it’s historical range, tigers are predicted to be extinct in the wild within the next 30 years, leaving both governments with an embarrassing rethink.
Currently across India, tigers are distributed primarily in the form of small, isolated metapopulations (group of populations separated by space but consist of the same species) within larger areas such as nature reserves and forests. Dr Ullas Karanth, a scientist at the National Tiger Conservation Authority described the protected reserves as source populations, from where tigers could disperse outwards from, surviving in the surrounding areas before their eventual death. Karanth concluded that whilst human tiger conflict is an ecological ticking time bomb, the areas in which these conflicts take place in fact remain relatively small, in the unprotected outer extremities of these protected nature reserves and forests.
There can be a multitude of reasons as to why humans and tigers can, and have come into conflict, all of which would vary from case study to case study however there are thought to be two primary causes of such interaction. The killing of livestock, man eating behavior and the accidental killing of humans have all been attributed to fueling the human tiger conflict (htc). Tigers are well known for their readiness to kill domestic livestock and often this predation takes place in the aforementioned extremities of protected reserves. Tigers have been reported to kill up to 12% of domestic herds annually, and as human populations continue to grow, and rural settlements continue to increase in size, this forefront of the htc is becoming an ever increasing pressure point between forest rangers and the rural communities.
The accidental and deliberate killing of humans remains the most brutal and stark reason humans and tigers come into conflict. Whether tigers kills humans in acts of self defence, such as when a tiger enters a settlement in the search for livestock and subsequently gets surrounded and attacked, or they have exhibited more worrying man eating behaviour the consequence of both scenarios is inevitably the same, the tiger is usually killed.
The tigers of the Sundarban Delta and surrounding parks are perhaps some of the most noted man eaters amongst all the big cats. With a Bengal tiger population of approximately 100, the Sundarbans is home to one of the largest remaining tiger metapopulations in the wild and is a fine example of settlements being located on the outer extremities of nature reserves and protected forests. Recent neglect and devastation due to cyclones has destroyed much of the tiger habitat on the Bangladeshi side of the delta, causing tigers to move into the more habitable Indian side.
The Sundarban Delta remains the only place on the planet where such human/big cat conflict results in such frequent attacks with dozens attacked each year, and roughly only half result in survivors. Whilst not scientifically proven, the ecological pressures which lead to man eating behaviour are thought to be relatively localised with a few of the more plausible hypothesized theories relating to the man eating tigers of the Sundarbans outlined below.
- Due to their secluded habitat, tigers in the Sundarbans were excluded from the large hunting sprees in the early to mid 20th Century. Whereas tigers in the hunted areas learnt to fear humans for risk of death, the tigers of the Sundarban delta have less reason to fear settlements and humans and are therefore less risk averse when hunting prey, counting humans among them.
- The frequent cyclones which hit India and Bangladesh cause bodies off the deceased to be swept out into the delta. Over time, tigers have found these corpses easy prey and have developed a taste for human flesh.
- The tidal nature of the delta makes it difficult for tigers to effectively mark their territories due to incoming and outgoing tides. As such, with no effective method to mark their territory the tigers are unusually aggressive to any animals (humans included) which enter their territory.
I once remember reading the phrase once a man eater, always a man eater. If a young mother introduces her cubs to human flesh at a young age, then these cubs will grow accustomed to the taste over time, and may eventually go into fully fledged man eaters. To avoid further generations of man eating tigers fuelling human tiger conflicts in the Sundarbans, surely educating the local communities about the potential dangers of multiple generations of man eating tigers remains one of the only ways to mitigate what is an ever increasing threat?
Whilst India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 makes it illegal for anyone but government and wildlife officials to kill or capture animals involved in conflict, such policy is rarely enforced in India’s rural communities. With the inevitable levels of bureaucracy such an act involves, it remains extremely difficult for officials to react urgent situations when life affecting decisions need to be made. Whilst the Wildlife Protection Act is an step in the right direction, such is the urgency when an animal is killed, or human attacked that often the tiger is still attacked by villagers and left dead.
There is a general consensus within India’s rural population that the poisoning and killing of problem tigers is a perfectly acceptable method of control. Unfortunately such is the distribution of tiger populations, its not uncommon for the “wrong” tiger to be targeted by humans in revenge attacks. In some cases, many innocent individual tigers may be either harmed, trapped or at worst killed before the problem tiger has been dealt with. Again, surely this highlights the need for further education within rural Indian communities?
The majority of tigers naturally try to avoid human conflict and interaction and the needless targeting of innocent animals only serves to cause more damage to tiger populations whilst aggrevation towards these magnificent animals only increases. With increased education and equipment, rural communities may find it easier to target their problem tigers, perhaps by the use of tools such as camera traps to target and track the movements of such conflict inducing tigers.
In my next post, I will discuss some of the possible solutions in much greater detail, however for now, I hope I have begun to increase your awareness of this ever growing problem affecting rural Indian communities and the increasing threat of extinction Bengal tigers face as they continue to lose their fight for survival.