The Maharashtra government’s total ban on slaughter of all cattle, including bulls and bullocks, has had the unintended consequence of driving conflict between tigers and human population in the state, often with fatal consequences.
The shooting of the man-eater Pandharkawda tigress T1, nicknamed Avni – now being probed by a three-member team of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) – is just the most recent fallout of such conflict in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region.
The far-eastern region of the state is home to five tiger reserves and a few other key sanctuaries. From March, this year, the state saw a sudden spurt in tiger attacks outside protected forests.
According to the wildlife wing of the Maharashtra forest department, there have been over 300 deaths due to man-animal conflict in the state, primarily tiger and leopard attacks with at least 1,200 persons getting seriously injured. In the past three years, the cases have been overwhelmingly from the Vidarbha region, said officials.
Announced in March 2015, the total ban on slaughter of all cattle, along with the complete ban on transport of cattle out of the state, had received the assent from former President Pranab Mukherjee in January 2017.
The consequence: the numbers of stray cattle in the state spiralled and in Vidharbha – a sudden bounty for large carnivores like tigers.
Plan gone astray
The problem of stray cattle is not new, nor is it restricted to Maharashtra. As per data from the 19th livestock census in 2012, stray cattle numbered 58.87 lakh – a mere fraction (2.76%) of the country’s total cattle population of 190.90 million at the time.
But even then, it was far higher than other south Asian countries. The 20th livestock census has begun and officials admitted that they were expecting a sharp increase in numbers.
But the Maharashtra government’s ban fundamentally altered the economics of the livestock business. While earlier unproductive cattle would be sent to slaughterhouses – where they would be utilized for meat and leather, it became impossible to do so.
The simple economics of taking care of a cow – no longer giving milk or male cattle not required from draught or breeding purposes – left farmers with only one solution: abandon the cows.
This has resulted in a sharp drop in prices: the prices of milch cows fell from Rs 65,000 to Rs 50,000 per animal and prices of male calves, bulls and old cows fell from Rs 18,000–Rs 19,000 to Rs 15,000-Rs 16,000 by July 2016.
AK Mishra, the principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), Maharashtra, had earlier told News18.com, “There are about 1 lakh stray cattle in the state with 30,000 in the Vidarbha region alone. What this means for a tiger is an easy meal close to human habitation.” He had added that efforts to reign in stray cattle had remained largely unsuccessful.
The government has attempted various steps to try and reign in stray cattle numbers, ranging from trying to create stalls to feed cattle to creating a commission that oversees cow sheds in the state to a proposed cow protection scheme with an allocation of Rs 34 crore to try and create more shelters for abandoned cattle. None of these plans have taken off.
A disturbed ecology
Earlier in October, a tigress was found rearing five cubs on the outskirts of Chandrapur town in Maharashtra – the first time such a case was recorded outside protected forests in India, five kilometres away from the Tadoba and Tiger Andhari reserve.
While the forest department immediately took steps to try and prevent either cases of conflict or the tigers being disturbed by an influx of tourists, the rare occurrence raised important questions of ecology.
In ecology, environmental conditions or liming conditions are those that limit the growth, abundance or distribution of animals. These could include availability of prey, water or cover for a predator like tigers to remain undetected.
Simply put: if prey is not abundant or if other limiting factors are scarce, a tiger’s litter is likely to be much smaller, experts point out.
In the case of Vidarbha, with abundant prey in the form of stray cattle that grazes intermittently across the landscape, the ecological balance that forced tigers to move large distances for prey has changed rapidly over the last year.
A scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India, who didn’t wish to be named said, “Small changes can have a massive impact on an ecology. We have seen this across the world and Maharashtra is no different. Cattle is everywhere, wherever you go. So where a tiger would earlier have to move large distances and stay away from human habitation to hunt its prey – sambhar deer or other wild species, it now has a buffet outside protected areas.”
The Brahmapuri case study
By June this year, the region had seen at least 12 deaths in the past 12 months. Much of the Forest Department’s focus was on Brahmapuri, with officials trying to translocate tigers in the area – something which drew flak from experts who felt that this would simply result in shifting the conflict elsewhere.
But this wasn’t always the case. The Brahmapuri tiger corridors remains among the most disturbed in the area: large scale thinning and degradation of forests, local communities largely dependent on wood for fuel, extraction of bamboo and man-made forest fire had resulted in conditions that made it very difficult for large carnivores like tigers to survive.
In spite of this, a 2013 study by the Wildlife Trust of India found the presence of 27 tigers in the entire Tadoba-Nagzira corridor. Of these, three tigers dispersed or moved between the Brahmapuri and TATR buffer.
But a recent study, through camera traps by the Wildlife Institute of India found that the tiger population in the area had shot up. A source in WII said, “We found over 70 tigers in Brahmapuri and of these, over 40 were resident tigers. They lived and bred in the area, in spite of the fact that the forests haven’t improved – only gotten worse.”
What has changed, the source explained, was the numbers of stray cattle. “They have no reason to move. Earlier, they’d move because they were looking for prey. But this is now a resident population that has all its needs fulfilled in the area itself.”