Ranthambore: Tigers crawling out of the woods!

Tiger overpopulation in the Ranthambore reserve is leading to aggression, against both fellow tigers and humans

Akash Bisht Ranthambore (Rajasthan)

 

It’s 5 pm and forest guard Harlal Saini has just returned from a long walk through a dense patch of forest that comprises his beat in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve (RTR) in Rajasthan. Every day, he makes two such trips to the forest to ensure that there is no imminent danger to the habitat or its wild inhabitants. This has been his routine for the past 20 years. He lives in a small tent on a dry patch of forest deep inside the reserve. Next to the tent, a fire burns slowly in a small mud chulhah. Exhausted by the strenuous routine, Saini decides to drink some tea before getting back to work. He puts a kettle on the chulhah and adds milk powder, sugar and tea leaves when the water begins to simmer. After boiling the drink for several minutes, he pours it into small china cups. Sipping it, he remarks that he will have to spend the night alone as his partner, a fellow forest guard, is on leave.  

Only 48, Saini has many years left until retirement but he looks much older; his skin is wrinkled and most of his hair has turned grey. “The daily hardship of the work makes us look much older,” he smiles. He has his share of hair-raising stories — and not all of them are tall ones. Thoroughly familiar with the forest, he has seen many tigers from very close quarters. But the one encounter he will never forget is when he was attacked by a tiger. 

The fear of death stalks several forest guards who patrol the deep interiors of the reserve. Even the brave ones like Saini fear for their lives. They feel that Ranthambore’s tigers have become strangely aggressive in the past few years 

“It was July 8, 2009, when some new forest guards and a forest officer had joined work and they all wanted to see a tiger. I knew that a tiger was camping in the area and took them to the spot where he usually rested. Soon after we reached, while I was looking around, he suddenly pounced on me. When I looked back for help, everyone had run away,” he says.

Saini blames himself for the attack. Had he not disturbed the tiger, the incident would not have happened, he says. “If he wanted to kill me, he would have done that, but he just wanted to warn me.” He then proudly displays the scars on his hand, left by the massive canines of the tiger.

While Saini survived to tell the story, forester Gheesu Singh wasn’t so lucky. On October 25, 2012, Gheesu was walking between two groups of labourers inside the reserve when a tiger attacked him. He had gone to the forest to inspect the progress on the road that was being repaired at Rajbagh naka area of the Kundal Forest region. Forest officials said that most of the labourers and forest guards ran away as soon as they heard Gheesu scream, “Pakad liya (he has caught me).”

A search party followed the drag marks on the ground and reached the spot to find the body lying on the ground with the tiger beside it. “We burst fire crackers but the tiger wouldn’t budge. It was as if he was guarding a kill,” said Dharmendra Khandal of Tiger Watch, a non-profit anti-poaching organisation.

Since that day, the fear of death stalks several forest guards who patrol the deep interiors of the reserve. Even the brave ones like Saini fear for their lives. They feel that Ranthambore’s tigers have become strangely aggressive in the past few years. Forest Ranger Daulet Singh, though unperturbed by several near-death brushes with tigers, has also become sceptical of venturing alone into the forest. 

Gheesu’s death was also a personal setback for Daulet as he had been looked after by the former for two months while recuperating from a tiger attack. On August 20, 2010, Daulet was attacked by a tiger when he had gone to tranquilise the animal, which had strayed from the reserve and entered human habitation.

Daulet fired the tranquiliser twice but missed the tiger, which was hiding in the millet crop. When he tried to take up a different position, the tiger pounced on him. The right side of his face was badly mauled. Sitting at the forest office headquarters in Sawai Madhopur, Daulet remembers, “I just saw the tiger jumping towards me and then he bit me on the face. I heard the bones of my skull break like dry twigs. Blood was oozing out of my skull that had been torn apart and my left eye was hanging out. I shoved the eye in and asked them to take me to the nearest hospital. I could feel the blood gushing down my throat. I thought I was going to die.”

He was taken to the nearest government hospital. There was no electricity, so he was operated on with the help of mobile phones that had torches. “Such was the inexperience of the doctors present that they stitched his upper eyelid next to his cheek. They just wanted to patch up everything,” says Khandal.

Daulet was then told that the optic nerve of his left eye had been completely damaged and he would never regain sight. However, after innumerable operations and plastic surgeries, other doctors have been able to somewhat restore his look. “The left side of my face has been numb since the incident. Several metallic plates have been placed beneath the skin to make the face look real. I have no sensation on the left of my face. I also have a fake eye which I take out every night before going to bed,” he says.

It took him close to two years to heal completely. Soon after he was declared fit, he reported back in office. “People who saw me after the incident do not believe that I survived the attack. They are also amazed at the way my face has been restored,” he adds.

Daulet is distressed over the trend of attacks on humans and believes that this aggressive behaviour is attributable to the disturbed sex ratio in the reserve. “Three tigresses for every male is a healthy sex ratio, but the present ratio in Ranthambore is one tigress for every tiger and this has led to increasing conflicts between the males. This could be the primary reason for tigers attacking humans and chasing tourist jeeps,” he says.

In the last couple of years, several stray incidents of tiger attacks have been reported from the reserve that was earlier known for its tourist-friendly tigers. A few people have succumbed to these attacks in the recent past, creating a sense of panic among forest department officials.

‘I just saw the tiger jumping towards me and then he bit me on the face. I heard the bones of my skull break like dry twigs. Blood was oozing out of my skull that had been torn apart and my left eye was hanging out’

Field Director YK Sahu corroborates Daulet’s theory. Earlier, he says, sightings of males were rare. Now, their population has increased substantially and they are frequently seen. This implies that tigers are jostling for space, which could lead to repeated skirmishes.   

“Aggressive behaviour amongst tigers could be influenced by the number of them in a particular area. If too many tigers are competing for a piece of territory, then the intensity of aggression increases manifold because they are competing for resources as well as mating prospects. Also, the males occupying a particular territory are challenged by younger males, resulting in either death or serious injury. Such aggression may also lead to conflict between tigresses,” says Khandal.

On December 23, 2012, the reserve officials found a rotten, half-eaten carcass of an ageing tigress. Pugmarks of another tigress were also found, suggesting that the tigress could have succumbed to infighting. Hardnews had earlier reported how Ranthambore is facing a problem of plenty and too many tigers now share the restricted space. There are 15-20 cubs on the verge of attaining adulthood, which could result in direct conflict with other tigers and also humans. One of the orphan cubs that was adopted by a tiger had been straying out of the reserve, putting her at risk from villagers and poachers.     

With 1,300 sq km, the reserve comprises the Rathambore National Park, the Sawai Man Singh Sanctuary and the Keladevi Sanctuary. With 600 sq km, Keladevi constitues half the area of the reserve but the absence of an inviolate area has led to tigers avoiding the sanctuary. There are close to 80 villages in Keladevi along with 100 temples and this massive anthropogenic pressure has taken a toll on the forest cover. “There is hardly any forest in Keladevi and it would take concrete efforts and intensive planning to ensure that it turns into ideal tiger habitat in the next few years,” says Khandal.

Sahu confirms that the forest in Keladevi is highly degraded and the possibility of tigers inhabiting the area bleak. Also, the process of relocating villages from the Critical Tiger Habitat is moving at a snail’s pace. “We must focus on forest corridors and they need to be developed. If these corridors are well managed then tigers can easily disperse to the adjoining forests of Kuno, Bundi, Kota and Keladevi,” says Sahu.

‘Aggressive behaviour among tigers could be influenced by the number of them in a particular area. If too many tigers are competing for a piece of territory, then the intensity of aggression increases manifold’

However, Khandal believes that Kuno should be declared a tiger reserve. It would be in the best interests of the Ranthambore reserve, he says. He says a tiger from the reserve has been camping in Kuno for the past year, which suggests the area is a good habitat for tigers. However, the tiger might return anytime as there are no tigresses in the sanctuary. “A small population of tigers can flourish there if there is consensus amongst the top officials of MP and Rajasthan. Some tigers from the Ranthambore reserve can be shifted there to maintain a balance,” he adds.

But the influential tourism lobby in the reserve would certainly oppose such a decision as it would not want to part with any of its tigers. “For them, more sightings mean more tourists, so they would certainly resist any such move,” says a forest official. The tourism lobby had earlier opposed the idea of relocating tigers from the Ranthambore reserve to the Sariska Tiger Reserve after the latter lost all its tigers to poachers.

Experts suggest that certain tigers could also be shifted to Sariska to sustain a healthy population across the state. Such a high concentration of tigers in the reserve could also trigger inbreeding and that would be detrimental for future generations.

For the Ranthambore reserve, the need of the hour is to implement these measures so that a healthy balance of population can be maintained. Otherwise, tigers will continue to compete for limited resources and that would, in turn, fuel aggression. If the state government doesn’t act swiftly, both tigers and forest guards will continue to perish in these idyllic natural surroundings.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2013