By Kavitha Rao
For nearly three months now, Indian hunters have been futilely pursuing a man-eating tiger, which has reportedly killed 10 people in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, near the famed Corbett National Park, a sanctuary for wildlife. Most victims were poor villagers attacked while taking cattle to graze, or collecting firewood.
Conflict between humans and animals has been steadily rising in India. A leopard ran through the small town of Meerut in February, and there have been increasingly frequent incidents of elephants clashing with humans.
With habitat for wildlife reducing, and some animal populations such as tigers and elephants steadily increasing, conservationists say India needs to figure out a plan to reduce conflict. Which may first begin with using the loaded word, man-eater, more circumspectly. Dr Ravi Chellam, wildlife and conservation biologist, says the word man-eater is overused, and often misused. "I prefer the term animals involved in conflict rather than man eater. Man-eater is a complicated term; there needs to be an investigation first into whether the animal has actually killed people, why and how and also to establish the identity of the individual animal. The benefit of doubt has to be given to the animal. Often, there isn't any such investigation, and people rush to call an animal a man-eater when it is really not."
Chellam also points out that Indians don't always know how to handle human-animal conflict, making the man-eater tag even more dangerous. "Indians behave in the most abysmal way when they see an animal. Take the case of the Meerut leopard. Why were there so many people crowding around? Why were there people trying to hit it with sticks? Animals need to be left alone."
In the short term, India needs to figure out a plan for dealing with tigers that attack humans. Some wildlife lovers have called for the rehabilitation of these tigers, but most conservationists agree capturing and rehabilitating them is difficult, expensive and risky, and confining them in India's abysmal zoos would be worse, which leaves putting them down as the only option. "If tigers kill people persistently, they have to be removed from the population at any cost. Capturing may be a popular option from an animal rights perspective, but in the larger conservation interest removing them is important. Man-eating incidences decrease public goodwill and degrade political will for wildlife conservation," says wildlife activist Sanjay Gubbi, tiger program coordinator for Panthera.
But in the hysteria over "rampaging"animals, lasting solutions are ignored, says Chellam. "Our parks are often right next to human settlements, they have temples in them, there are pilgrims coming in and out, there's loud music playing. The fact is, that given we have over a billion people, it's amazing we don't have more conflict." Chellam says conflict is a long term issue, but is often dealt with in a piecemeal fashion, with no proper land use planning, cumulative impact assessments or wildlife management. "We only wake up to conflict when humans are attacked or killed. For instance, there is no buffer zone between the wildlife and human settlements. Villagers live cheek by jowl with wildlife. You can't keep packing more and more animals which are large and potentially dangerous in limited spaces without some conflict," he adds.
Gubbi says, as habitats reduce, it's time for some hard decisions. "We have to decide that certain areas have to be prioritised for tiger preservation. Economic activities have to be stalled in such areas," he argues.
But whose economic activity is the villain here? Chellam is critical of the attitude, often seen in Indian conservation, that sees local communities as culprits. "The fact is wildlife is also being destroyed by people like you and me, because of our lifestyles. We want faster highways, more water, more power; it's all this that poses an irreversible threat to wildlife, far more so than a village guy taking a few goats into the forest to graze. But our current thinking, framed by city dwellers, sees local people as the primary threat to wildlife. Forest officials say they want to keep out local people, but what about tourists who often consume lots of resources, generate waste and have the potential to damage habitats? "
Chellam has been a long time supporter of the Forest Rights Act, a 2006 law that gives forest dwelling communities the right to forest land, but is still to be properly implemented, and is often misused by forest officials. What's clear from the increased hostility of local forest dwellers is that keeping them out of conservation discussions is leading to alarming consequences. Local villagers are saying, 'I don't want an elephant in my backyard. If you want it, you take it! says Chellam.
"Only the government knows why the government is saving the tiger," said Govind Singh, a farmer who lives near the Corbett National Park, quoted in the fortnightly magazine India Today. Such resentment is on the increase, says Chellam. "If that's the way we are going, we can write the epitaph of wildlife conservation in India."