Hunger Drives Even the Wildest Animals Astray, Then What Was Tigress Avni's Fault?

The body of the man-eating tigress Avni is wheeled into the post-mortem room at the Gorewada Rescue Centre in Nagpur.

The body of the man-eating tigress Avni is wheeled into the post-mortem room at the Gorewada Rescue Centre in Nagpur.

The need is to seriously look at the systemic problems in the management of such episodes. Is the department succumbing to political or public pressure? When a person is killed, the animal inevitably is labelled the aggressor, irrespective of whether the person had infringed into forest areas, and perhaps also startled the animal.

Dr Mayukh Chatterjee Dr Rahul Kaul

What was it about Avni’s killing that captured the public imagination? This was not the first time a tiger was killed, and it won’t be the last. Perhaps it was because Avni was a good mother, who raised her cubs well, in spite of the adversities – until she was felled. Or perhaps it was the manner in which the saga unfolded, with an external sharpshooter being summoned, raising questions about the forest setup’s capability of resolving such issues?

But while the outrage has made this a high-profile case, it also has taken away the attention from the question of why such a situation arose in the first place.

Simply, the conservation of tigers doesn’t hinge on either the preservation or elimination of an individual tiger. Tigers, like any other species, thrive when they have a good habitat, ample prey and cover. Scaled up efforts and conservation, stringent anti-poaching measures will result in the proliferation of tigers. This, in turn, will lead to the perpetual dispersal of individuals from source populations, barring the one-off adult female who ventures out of protected spaces to protect her cubs from male tigers looking to move in.

Corridors, not elimination is the solution for conflict

It is for this reason that eliminating tigers, especially those that aren’t confirmed ‘problem tigers’ is not the ultimate solution to mitigate conflict. It is globally acknowledged, that tigers instinctively avoid people. Perhaps, it’s the millennia of co-occurrence that has taught tigers that humans can only mean trouble, or just a feline’s natural inclination for privacy.

But what this means is that when tigers do move, past humans, they are virtually invisible, creeping through vegetated patches, forest corridors, sugarcane fields, or riverine vegetation. Take for instance, a tigress who moved 300 kilometers from Amariya near Pilibhit Tiger Reserve in 2014 towards the banks of Ganga near Kanpur, for four months, there were no attacks and she remained virtually unseen (barring the forest department and WTI teams tailing it).

This innate elusiveness makes the case for tiger corridors even stronger. Patches of inviolate forests connecting two good habitats with enough prey will allow dispersing tigers to move without people even catching a glimpse.

Such corridors do exist all across the tiger distribution range in the country. But many are dysfunctional, with no recorded tiger movement and none conferred the level of protection or management that protected areas enjoy.

The biggest challenge remains the high dependence of people on these tracts, for everything from fuel to grazing. Unless such corridors are freed of human pressures and protected, the management of conflict will remain difficult. It becomes impossible to discern between a problem tiger that kills humans for food and another that kills to protect her cubs.

These corridors, with limited protection, are also a haven for poachers. For instance, who would notice the unannounced disappearance of Avni’s cubs if they are not tailed closely or captured?

Systemic problems in managing conflict

But even if a clear line between human-inhabited areas and protected corridors is established, the odd tiger will still foray out of the forests. Hunger can drive even the wildest animals to take risks: some may be physically impaired

The need is to seriously look at the systemic problems in the management of such episodes. Is the department succumbing to political or public pressure? When a person is killed, the animal inevitably is labelled the aggressor, irrespective of whether the person had infringed into forest areas, and perhaps also startled the animal. The public, often, gets agitated and local politicians force the department’s hand.

While protocols exist, there seems, in most cases, a reluctance to follow them often resulting in the needless capture or elimination of wild animals. This also stems from the department’s lack of public outreach that alienates locals with forests and its animals being viewed as “government property”, rather than a natural capital of which the forest department is merely the custodian.

Unless these barriers break, the outlook for conservation looks bleak.

What do forest departments need to do?

It is imperative that the long-term goals be visualised and implemented, instead of the knee-jerk reactions to ensure conflicts are mitigated well.

Acknowledge and Notify: The first step is to notify the corridors as protected or eco-sensitive zones, alongside increasing the capacity of the forest staff to manage these and enforcing against resource extraction like timber-felling or poaching.

Community Links: A perennial challenge for the department is that it is not perceived as ‘for the people’ due to lack of continuous positive dialogue with local communities. The existing alienation is further deepened when communities face restrictions against access to the forest. Dialogue is a key strategy, alongside participatory conservation models that helps garner cooperation from local people during conflict situations. There are several instances that show that breaking the barrier through active dialogue has resulted in the increased acceptance of conservation initiatives.

Cross-Coordination: Pre-emptive dialogue building by forest departments with other agencies, ranging from the police to civil administration, is key. When human lives are at stake, different governmental divisions need to act together, swiftly and well. Collaboration with civil society agencies, for instance, conservation NGOs that have decades of experience in managing conflict or with government agencies that specialize in tasks that lie outside the ambit of the forest department’s domain is also crucial.

Gearing-Up: The forest department needs to invest in the tools and the expertise to handle these situations. There are two problems. Firstly, the forest staff isn’t generally intensively trained in skills regarding dialogue-building, tracking animals, animal behaviour, biology, capturing techniques etc. Secondly, there is the issue of equipment availability and maintenance. Scores of forest divisions across the country are laden with trap-cages, tranquilising guns and more recently, drones. But invariably poor management implies that in the nick of time, they fail to serve their purpose. On the other hand, territorial forest divisions, where conflict is higher, have hardly any equipment.

Media Transformation: A major recent issue is the aggravation of public perception of conflicts through sensationalized, negative reports that portray the animal the villain. The sensitisation of media personnel at local levels, alongside dialogue with the forest department aimed at highlighting success stories of co-existence of animals and humans, can crucially change this narrative.

Landscape Resource Management: Misinformed landscape planning is another driver of conflict. For instance, the country-wide practice, more pronounced in arid areas, of creating water holes or salt licks for wildlife can lead to an over-abundance of limiting resource – in this case, water and mineral salts. These limiting resources regulate fertility levels and thus wild population densities. In most territorial forests, cattle grazing rights are conferred to local communities without stipulated thresholds. Inevitably, many tigers frequent these forests, becoming specialized cattle-lifters and don’t move into source habitats. A third instance is that of afforestation or habitat restoration initiatives, where many have moved away from monocultures of economically lucrative species like sal or teak to mixed indigenous plantations. But further scientific rigour is required. For instance, in landscapes like the Terai Bhabar belt, the creation of forests need to consider that relatively higher diversity of wildlife survives in grassland patches rather than wooded areas.

These steps aren’t just limited to forest departments where conflict with tigers exists but can be applied in cases of conflict with other species. In fact, such initiatives shouldn’t just be restricted to protected parks or reserves – but more importantly for those who strive to protect the precious corridors.

Because like dispersing tigers, these corridors could also elusively disappear. But unlike tigers, once lost, they cannot be re-introduced or reconstituted.

(Dr Mayukh Chatterjee heads the Wildlife Trust of India’s (WTI) Human-Wildlife Conflict Mitigation Division. Dr Rahul Kaul is the chief of conservation at WTI. The opinions and recommendations put forward in this article are the individual points of views of the authors.)

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