As I mentioned at the tail end of my last post, this post will focus on what can be done to ease the conflict between humans and tigers in rural India. If you haven’t read my introduction to the human – tiger conflict (htc), I have already touched upon one or two of the measures taken to ease the conflict such as the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act which won’t be covered in this post.
The htc is perhaps one of the biggest threats big cats face, and like any issue in which the interests of two different parties conflict (humans and tigers) the solutions are often clouded by benefits and consequences for both sides. How far are humans, and in particular the rural Indian communities prepared to go to save the tiger from extinction in the wild? What loss, both human and livestock can these communities tolerate before they take the future of the tiger into their own hands? How will the interactions between humans and tigers change as tiger habitats are drastically reduced in size? All of these are questions which need to be answered if we are to find a way for humans and tigers to coexist.
From our position, empathising with the affected communities may not always be the easiest thing to do
It can sometimes be difficult for big cat lovers and conservationists like us to empathise with the people at the forefront of these conflicts. From our positions we can scream and shout about the need to protect tigers as loud as we can because we have a genuine interest and passion about these great cats, but without being on the front line, and despite our best interests its hard to know exactly how people in communities affected by tigers feel. As we sit safely in our houses, in the knowledge that we can venture outside without the risk of an animal attack (here in the UK at least), some rural communities in India are denied that luxury. We often take for granted simple things, such as being able to go to the lavatory without risking our lives in rural pit latrines, or farming animals and not having to worry about livestock being predated on. For some at the front line of the htc, the problems I have described above are just a small example of what they face on daily basis and we need to make sure that the decisions made have the best interests of both tigers and humans in mind for the two to have any chance of a peaceful coexistence.
Perhaps one of the most obvious solutions to solving elements of the htc is to simply capture and relocate the affected tigers? Whilst this would no doubt ease the pressure on the affected community, the relocation of problem tigers could simply transfer the problem to a different area of the country or reserve. Tigers are territorial, and will seek to ensure that no relocated cat can set up home in their territory. When threatened with an invader, tigers will act aggressively, an act which will not stop until either the new relocated individual or the original tiger has driven the other out. In many cases driving the other tiger out can result in death. So what would have come of the original relocation effort? Yes, the original rural community would have been released from its conflict with the problem tiger and free to continue its regular life, but would anything have been solved? The relocated tiger may have fought with an already established individual which may have concluded in its death, and one less tiger in the wild. Alternatively, driven by a lack of sufficient territory could the relocated tiger simply stumble upon another rural community living on the edge of a protected reserve? High quality tiger habits are on the decline, drastically so, and habitats far away from any risk of conflict are even scarcer. Simply transferring the problem from one community to another is hardly an effective conservation tactic so is relocating problem tigers an effective solution to the htc? Most probably not.
Relocating the tiger may simply relocate the conflict
Regardless of the potential ecological drawbacks, is it even effective to try and capture problem tigers. In a free moving tiger population identifying the problem individual is often easier said then done. Instances of misidentification accompanied by a desire to act rashly and quickly solve the problem could lead to the wrong tiger being captured, a counter productive scenario causing needless stress and potential harm to an entirely innocent tiger. Unless the problem tiger is identified when it enters a rural settlement, the chances of a successful capture are slim at best. So if capturing and relocating problem tigers isn’t the solution, would moving the problem individuals into captivity ease the burden on tigers?
On first glance, transferring just the problem tigers into captivity seems a very feasible solution. Studies suggest however that wild tigers have an extremely difficult time adapting to life in captivity. During the transport process, tigers can often damage or lose their canines on the steel cages used to move them, rendering them unable to be released back into the wild again. Indian Zoos, and many around the world are already operating at full capacity when it comes to housing tigers, and with the extremely high costs associated with keeping such large cats, many zoos find themselves unable to afford the upkeep costs. Whilst it would be fantastic if we could simply pluck problem tigers out of their populations, the reality of such an operation is that such a method of conservation is drastically unsustainable.
I touched upon the Sundarban Delta in my introduction to the htc, and it is here where perhaps the most interesting experiments to ease the conflict have taken place. Whilst no scientific studies have confirmed their success, wildlife rangers have claimed that by using electrified human dummies, they have been able to condition the tigers through a method called aversive conditioning. This is where a stimulus (in this case human dummy) is associated with a negative or unwanted behaviour (electrocution/electric shock) so that behaviour is modified. In this instance tigers will initially see humans as prey, and repeated electric shocks over time will lead them to think that all humans will give them that shock. Eventually, and over an extended period of time the tigers behavior will be modified and they will no longer prey upon humans. If the local wildlife rangers are to be believed (and we don’t have a reason not to) then this form of conflict resolution does indeed sound plausible, but may be extremely difficult to roll out across the whole country. Introducing such a scheme in the most severely affected communities would be a good way to test its effectiveness before a larger roll out.
The Indian Government has compensation schemes in place for communities affected by tiger conflict. Both human and livestock losses are compensated by the schemes, however each with extremely different levels of success. Such is the tragedy of losing a human life that rarely is a financial payment enough to prevent local hostility towards tigers, and the sheer scale of livestock loss makes such a scheme extremely costly indeed.
Is simply paying off families who have lost loved ones in return for decreased hostility towards tigers moral solution? Once again our bias in favour of big cats may cloud our judgement on the ethics of such a problem
From the other side of the Atlantic, and from of India’s cities, compensation schemes such as these may seem like a good idea. However I know, and I’m sure many of you reading this do also, that if one of our family members was attacked by a tiger, a mere financial payment would do nothing to ease our hostility towards the cats. Whilst government compensation schemes exist in India, there has been little evidence if their 30 year existence to support their effectiveness. This final idea leads nicely into my final suggestion for a solution to the conflict, one that I’m sure could solve many, and not just ecological conflicts worldwide. Education.
Although it may be difficult to implement on a national level, educating the rural communities about tigers, perhaps remains the best chance of survival for both tigers and communities. Whilst plenty of talking happens, and many studies have been undertaken, tiger populations still in decline and one must question how much of the information we posses is being transferred to the communities that need it most. The reality is, although we would all dearly love for another tiger never to be killed in the wild, without educating affected communities about the htc, the conflict stands little chance of being resolved. A lack of financial resources, and numerous levels of bureaucracy make it difficult for new conservation policies regarding the htc to be implemented, and until local governments are able to break free of these shackles, providing the necessary, best and most up to date education to the most affected communities remains our best chance of at least halting, or slowing the extinction of the tiger in the wild.
**In addition to this post, I would also like to extend my thanks to Josh Gross from the Jaguar and Its Allies for nominating me for the Liebster award. I’ll be sure to post an entry about the award tomorrow!**