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Why Mission to Capture or Kill Man-Eating Tigress Blamed for 14 Deaths Has Become Impossible

Amidst all the chaos, the tigress – one of the estimated 74 tigers that live outside protected areas in the state – has been crisscrossing the dense bushes with her two 10-month-old cubs, periodically preying on nilgai and cattle.

Aniruddha Ghosal | News18.com

Updated:September 21, 2018, 4:03 PM IST
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Why Mission to Capture or Kill Man-Eating Tigress Blamed for 14 Deaths Has Become Impossible
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Infighting between a team of veterinarians, their elephants, a hired gun, and the Maharashtra forest department seems to have doomed the latest effort to stop a tiger officials say has killed 14 people in Yavatmal in Maharashtra.

Everyone has their own story. The two veterinarians who have been brought in from Madhya Pradesh, where they had successfully tranquilized and relocated at least 70 tigers, returned on Wednesday.

Miffed with Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, the hunter hired by the forest department, they claimed that he had repeatedly interfered with their operations. “The situation was a circus,” one official said.

Conversely, Khan had initially claimed that the forest department wasn’t giving him freedom to operate and providing him information about where the tiger had last been spotted.

After the deputy conservator of forest (DCF) KM Abharna was allegedly pressured by the department top brass to ‘apologise’ to the hunter – the department drew flak from activists and a section of the BJP.

Amidst all the chaos, the tigress – one of the estimated 74 tigers that live outside protected areas in the state – has been crisscrossing the dense bushes with her two 10-month-old cubs, periodically preying on nilgai and cattle.

Since 2010, over 330 people have died in the state due to conflict, primarily from tiger and leopard attacks, officials said. But until last year, this was a problem limited to the areas around the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in Chandrapur district. Now man-tiger conflict has spread to other parts of Vidarbha.

A forest department official said, “You simply can’t have two people trying to do two separate things. The Nawab wants to kill the tiger, and the vets wanted to ideally capture her. Killing the tiger for them was only the last resort. The department top brass needs to decide what they want.”

News18 reached out to Nawab Shafath Ali Khan but he refused to comment.

Why vets packed their bags

The two veterinarians – Dr Akhilesh Mishra and Dr Sandeep Agarwal – who came from Madhya Pradesh returned with their two elephants on Wednesday. The elephants were key, officials explained, allowing vets to get closer to the tiger and potentially allowing for scope to corner the tiger.

Officially the department hasn’t criticized their Maharashtra counterparts, but one senior official said, “The past eight days, it has become clear that they want to shoot the tiger dead with the help of the hunter. So why do they need us there? Just so that they can tell the court that they made an effort to tranquilize the animal first?”

The immediate trigger was on Tuesday. The tigress had made a kill, eaten a bit and was resting while her two cubs frolicked in a nearby canal. The two MP vets had tracked her down and were about 150 metres away and were on the verge of tranquilizing her. Khan received information and turned up in his jeep. The loud engine and the sudden disturbance spooked the tigers, who fled and didn’t return.

Khan spent the rest of the night trying to track the tigress and her cubs, using flash lights to pinpoint the location. She didn't return to the kill. The team from Madhya Pradesh left the next day.

AK Misra, the principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), Maharashtra said, “There are some inherent difficulties in this case due to the terrain. It is difficult to track the tigress and there are also difficulties for elephants to move around here. As a result we had given the shooting orders.”

“The Madhya Pradesh team had come for a week and they had to return after that because they also have their considerations. I have no information regarding any problems. The jurisdictions of the two teams were kept separate, so ideally there should be no such problems. Neither the Nawab, nor the two vets have said anything officially to me,” he said, adding that the operation was ongoing.

Unfavourable conditions

The two million years of evolution that has ensured that the tiger is at the top of the food chain, irrespective of its habitat, has also meant that tigers, even at the best of times, are not easy to catch. Tigress with their cubs, even more so.

Right now, the conditions don’t favor her potential captors. Following rains in the state, the tiger’s habitat is covered in dense undergrowth and buses including the near-impenetrable lantana. What this means, officials said, was that even without the prevailing confusion, tracking was difficult.

“The ideal time to try and track the tiger is in the summer, when the pug marks you see are fresh. Water sources are less, so you have a general idea of the tiger’s movement since she and her cubs need to return to a water source,” added an official.

Things could have been different. The tigress is believed to have killed 13 people and while the orders to capture her have been in place for over a year, the orders to kill here were issued only after her last two alleged kills last month.

The local forest department and experts working to track the tigress had asked for elephants and specialized teams to try and catch the tiger alive last summer. “But we never heard back from the forest department top brass. It was only after the last two deaths, when the villagers got very angry that the forest department reacted.”

Why conflict is escalating in Vidarbha

The tiger population in the state is increasing - and its forests are shrinking.

This doesn’t necessarily imply an increase in cases of conflict, but does underscore the need for urgent planning by the forest department to better mitigate potential cases, admitted officials and experts.

Initial assessments for the ongoing census by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) indicates that the state’s tiger population could be as much as 230, of which at least 70 live outside protected areas.

The state has only one large forest patch larger than a 1,000 square kilometre, while the rest of the forests are scattered across the state in the form of 2.35 lakh patches smaller than a square kilometre, as per the Forest Survey of India (FSI) in February 2018.

"More tigers doesn't mean more conflict. In fact, there are districts with more than 120 tigers, but there aren't any cases of conflict there. There are other factors involved, like livelihood patterns, how aware the people are, how many years they've been living alongside tigers and leopards,” said Mishra.

At the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, for instance, there are an estimated 41 leopards living in the 104 sq km park - in close proximity to the densely populated city. "Yet there are no cases of conflict," he added.

With the increased fragmentation of forests, forcing tigers and humans to increasingly share space, Mishra added that co-existence required awareness. "Take for instance, the issue of stray cattle. 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 that easy meals are available close to human habitation. This increases the chances of a tiger chancing upon a human being accidentally. Small steps like walking in groups when venturing out in the forest can go a long way in mitigating conflict," he added.

Vidya Athreya of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said, "These animals have always lived outside the protected area. The need of the hour is for the forest department to come up with concrete strategies like setting up rapid response teams in every division and to plan in advance for it."
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