Death of a tiger

After poachers, it is sustained official insensitivity, and the human-animal conflict that threatens the endangered species of the great Indian tiger
Akash Bisht Ramnagar/Dhikala

Every night, the Kiari village on the fringes of Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand attracts several intruders from the wild who pillage the fields of farmers, dependent on the little produce that the land yields. The increasing loss of crop over the years has forced farmers near the park to wage a war against herds of wild boars and elephants. Wild boars, the most frequent among these uninvited guests, are considered 'enemy number one' as they destroy an entire crop with amazing speed. This phenomenon has pushed farmers to lay traps (wire snares) near their fields. Ironically, the tragedy is that in this battle for survival, these ugly confrontations sometimes claim innocent victims - precious tigers and leopards.

On March 16, one such wire snare killed a tiger near the Phata range. This was the fifth tiger death in the past four months that even had Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sit up and take notice at the recently held National Board for Wildlife meeting.

Corbett has the densest population of tigers in the world and some tigers are bound to die owing to natural causes like ageing, diseases and animal-animal conflict. Out of the five tiger deaths, one was poisoned, while the rest, except for the Phata tiger, died of natural causes. The Wildlife Protection Society of India informed Hardnews that 16 tigers have died in the park since 2008; two were seizures wherein tiger skin and bones were recovered. Corbett reserve has around '150-200 villages' in the vicinity, and tigers, known to be wanderers, often walk into human settlements forcing a deadly human-animal conflict.

"We don't have any safety from the wild boars and we have conveyed this to the forest department, but our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The compensation paid for the crops destroyed is abysmally low and doesn't cover more than 10 per cent of the total cost. So the villagers are left with no option but to resort to such extreme measures," says Vidya Sagar Kiari village.

Often, domesticated animals stray deep into the reserve looking for greener pastures; they sometimes fall prey to tigers. Infuriated villagers consequently resort to revenge killings wherein they poison the carcass of the big cat's kill, which can lead to painful death of the tiger.

Citing this confrontation, the Corbett Foundation (CF) in collaboration with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), introduced an interim relief scheme wherein villagers are paid Rs 3,000 or less for every cattle killed by a tiger or leopard. This scheme has genuinely helped in reducing tiger mortality due to poisoning. "The people of the hills have a strong emotional bonding with their cattle and their death is deeply mourned by family members. They get so aggrieved that they poison the kill to avenge its death," says Dr Harendra Singh Bargali, deputy director, CF.

Bargali said that as soon as villagers inform them of a killing by a big cat, a team is dispatched to investigate. Once the kill is confirmed, the villagers are paid the amount promptly. This cools them down. "The forest department also provides compensation to villagers but it takes  six months to a year to get the paltry sum. That's where we come in and try to calm the villagers by providing some financial assistance," says Bargali.

"A buffalo costs nearly Rs 20,000 and we are paid only Rs 3,000 by CF and Rs 4,000 by government agencies if it is killed by a wild animal. We don't even recover half of its cost and face huge losses in case of cattle death. If the government provides a decent compensation package why would anyone try to poison the tiger?" asks Anand Singh of Tera village.

Villages near the park have low-charged, solar-powered fences to prevent animals from entering human settlements or fields. These fences do not cover the entire length and breadth of the village. Traditional fences used by villagers are no match to intruding wild boars, hence traps become the final resort. The Phata tiger, killed with a wire snare, reportedly was not killed on the location it was found where there is hardly any human presence. It had been brought from somewhere else and dumped there, to escape action by the park authorities.

"There is no will to save the tiger. Everyone knows what the problems are but no one tries to fix them. There is a solution to everything but they are not being implemented. The reserve is earning huge amounts of money from tourism and the least it could do is to earmark a small amount for the compensation of any cattle killed by these animals," says KC Singh Baba, Congress MP from Nanital constituency and a wildlife enthusiast.
  
Experts have relentlessly asserted that mushrooming resorts in the area and weddings and dance parties being organised at Dhikuli are having a terribly negative impact on the 'animal corridor' frequented by tigers and elephants (read Hardnews Cover Story, March 2010). "During these weddings people get crackers from Delhi; their loud intensity noise makes monkeys fall down from the trees. Driving fast, drivers mow down animals under their vehicles. We have asked for speed breakers near Dhikuli, but the demand is stuck in our great tradition of bureaucratic red-tapism. Basically, these officials believe that wildlife has to finally end, and they can only prolong its end," says Bargali.

Corbett is one of the better protected reserves of the country and the director of the reserve, RK Mishra, gives credit to its dedicated staff. He believes that the government will have to provide support to corridors that have a thriving population of the big cat. He also expresses his inability to protect the corridors as they fall in 'revenue land' and there isn't much that he or his staff can do to protect the species there. Meanwhile, experts suggest that if the government is serious about saving the tiger then it should buy off the entire revenue land in the corridors and ensure free passage of the animals. "Corridors are being destroyed by construction and mining, the authorities have to act fast to stop this before it's too late and tigers are forced to be confined to small spaces," reckons KC Singh.

Though none of the tigers killed in the last five months involved poachers but wildlife experts don't rule out this possibility in the days to come. Monsoon months are considered favourable by poachers as the park is closed and it becomes difficult for the forest staff to monitor the tigers in flooded areas. To overcome this, KC Singh argues that the park should be open for tourism during these months since this would help in patrolling the area and monitoring wildlife. However, forest officials and NGOs dismiss this proposal; they consider it an impossible task. The Corbett staff says that the park is monitored very closely during monsoons and it is 'nearly' impossible to poach a tiger.
 
Locals and sources in the forest department at Corbett told Hardnews that several poachers have tried hard but failed to persuade villagers or forest guards to assist them. Locals have refused to become partners in crime, despite the hefty sums promised. Some villagers have alerted the forest department of poachers' presence in the area. "Once a Gujjar family was approached by a poacher; he promptly informed the forest department and the poacher was nabbed," said a forest official.
 
Bargali calls it the simplicity and honesty of the hill people who have lived with these animals in perfect harmony for centuries. "Forests belong to both animals and humans and if they are wiped out our survival will also be at stake. We worship these animals and they need to roam around this forest till eternity," opined a villager.

Mishra complained of the hypocrisy of the people who demand that the tiger be declared a man-eater and killed as soon as it attacks a human being. He said, "If you walk on the road there are chances that you might die of an accident. Similarly, if you live near forests then you are bound to face wild animals and sometimes these face-offs may turn ugly; but that doesn't mean that you kill the tiger." He added that tigers can only be saved if the forest ecosystem, including the prey base and the original habitat are fiercely protected.

If the tiger's future in the precious zone of the Corbett has to be saved and preserved, the government will have to urgently tackle the issues that stalk the people and the big cat in and around these forests. Policies should be made sensitively and rigorously implemented to sustain the harmonious coexistence of humans and the beast. "Until and unless the government makes people a part of tiger conservation, they would continue to die in a battle they have almost lost," says Bargali.   

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2010