Though man-animal conflicts are quite common in Dudhwa, frequent attacks in a particular region of Dumera and adjoining villages that falls under Manjhara Purab Range come as a shock as the range has been a no-conflict zone so far. Experts cite reasons from straying cattle, to greater human interference to incapable big cats eying easy prey and run biggest tiger catching operation successfully, but in the meantime both man and the animal continue to bear the brunt of rising populations...
Neelam Devi, who hails from Dumera village in the buffer zone of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve (DTR) in Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh, still regrets her decision of letting her husband go out alone on work, despite knowing the fact that Dumera is prone to intense wild animal encounters. “Sir, gareebi bahot kharaab cheez hai (poverty is a very bad thing). And it was the lone reason why I asked my husband to go out to work that day in order to arrange some food for the children. That was the biggest mistake I made. I never thought that he would never return,” lamented Neelam Devi, wife of Mahesh Kumar and a mother of four.
Mahesh Kumar (30), an agricultural labourer, was killed in a man-animal conflict on May 21, when a big cat attacked him from behind while he was working in the field. “We heard a loud shriek—by the time we rushed to rescue him, we saw a tiger or a tigress grabbing him from the neck and trying to haul him away into the jungle. We raised an alarm, after which the big cat ran away back into the jungle,” said Rampal Yadav, pradhan (village head) of Dumera.
Six killings in three months
Official records with the forest department claimed six killings in a man-tigress conflict in the year 2022. Mahesh Kumar’s killing in Dumera village was perhaps the first one to be reported in 2022 and the trend never stopped since then. Dumera is one of the many villages that are located in Dudhwa Forest’s buffer zone area that stretches on some 190-kilometer square area, a part of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve (DTR) that includes Kishanpur Sanctuary (KS) and Katraniyaghat Wildlife Sanctuary (KWS) and Dudhwa National Park (DNP). The data with the forest department suggests that around 36 villages, having a population of some 30,000 (as per rough estimate) are located in the buffer zone area. Whereas, there are around 13 villages with a population of around 21,322 (as per the 2011 census) that are located deep in the core area of DTR. “Despite being located near the buffer zone area, we never witnessed any loss of human life in Dumera. Indeed, the incident has left us in shock and villagers in fear,” said the village head of Dumera. Yadav said though the forest department had asked the villagers not to venture out into the fields, it was possible for a farmer to stay indoors all the time. “Of the total population of around 800 persons in Dumera, a majority of farmers are landless. They are far away from the government welfare schemes and have to work in the fields of other farmers in order to earn their livelihood. In such a situation staying indoors is perhaps next to impossible for the farmers not only in Dumera but also in other neighbouring villages,” he added.
In order to tackle the situation, the farmers, armed with sticks and sickles began moving out in groups in order to avoid any man-animal conflict. “Also, we made sure that our cattle graze only around the huts and not in the jungle area and a majority of them ensure that they stay indoors during the night hours,” said Uttan Kumar, another villager from Dumera village. Kamlesh Kumar (31) from Saypur Padhuva village, another village bordering Dudhwa buffer zone, was the next one to be killed in the man-animal conflict. Kamlesh was returning home along with his two brothers-in-law on a bullock cart when he was attacked by a tiger or a tigress on May 24 as the bullock cart was passing by Manjhara Railway Station near the buffer zone area. “It attacked from behind and within no time it dragged him down. I raised an alarm and tried to hush the tiger after which the animal disappeared into the forest. But, by then, Kamlesh jija (brother-in-law) was no more,” said Kamlesh Kumar (the deceased’s namesake). Days after Kamlesh Kumar’s killing in Saypur Padhuva village, another man-animal conflict was reported from neighbouring Khairatiya village where a local priest, Mohan Das (52), was mauled to death by the big cat on June 18. Though man-animal conflicts were quite common in Dudhwa, the frequent attacks in that particular region (in Dumera and other neighbouring villages) that fell under Manjhara Purab Range were even more shocking as the range had remained a no-conflict zone so far. “Man-animal conflicts, though are common in Dudhwa, it was certainly a different situation as this was a new trend seen in this particular range,” said Sanjay Pathak, field director (FD), DTR.
A new trend in Manjhara Purab region
Official statistics suggested that up till now Bhira Range and Mailani Range (in Dudhwa Tiger Reserve), Tatarganj area and Sampurnanagar range in Pilibhit district were the areas infamous for the big cat attacks. Officials pleading anonymity said of late stray cattle menace had become the main reason for the increased man-animal conflict in this Manjhara Purab area. “The numbers of stray cattle in the villages have increased. These stray cattle often go inside the forest and lure tiger or tigress out of the jungle and into the human habitation which results in man-animal conflicts,” a senior forest official said. The increased human intervention is another reason cited by the forest department for increased conflicts in the villages in Manjhara Purab region. “Without further delay, we launched ‘Operation Catch’ to capture the man-eater big cat and to bring respite to people at the earliest,” said Pathak, who headed the operation. Operation Catch was launched in the villages of Manjhara Purab range on June 18.
Operation Catch, the biggest operation
Under Operation Catch, that is said to be the biggest operation to be launched in the history of Dudhwa, Pathak said four foresters including tranquillizing experts and wild life experts installed around 300 camera traps, deputed four elephants to assist the combing operation, placed six cages and used four drone cameras in order to track the errant big cat. “Camera traps recorded the presence of two big cats. Going by the head size, body movement we concluded that one of the big cats was a tigress. However, due to blurry footages we could not gather much information about the second one,” said Pathak. But, even before foresters could do much, three more killings were reported from the area. On June 23, the mauled carcass of one Suraj Singh (14) was recovered in Kharatiya village. On June 27, another half-eaten carcass of Nagendra Singh (30) of Beli village was recovered from a cane field. On June 28, Mindo Kaur (28) was mauled to death and her body from Kheratiya village. “Back to back three killings were a little demoralizing. But we preferred to intensify the combing operation and placed the cages strategically, especially at the points where the stray big cats were mostly spotted,” recollected Sundaresh (as he is known by his first name), deputy director, Dudhwa buffer zone.
Moment of success
Officials with the forest department said the moment of success came on June 28, when almost a 10-day-long operation eventually turned out to be a success and the foresters managed to capture one man-eater tiger from Kheratiya village from where three killings were reported. “We placed the cage near the hut of local priest Mohan Das who was killed by the big cat on June 18 in Kheratiya village itself. It was the point where the big cat was spotted the most. It was the same village in which a teenage boy Ram Singh and a woman Mindo Kaur (28) were killed in man-animal conflict on June 22 and June 28 respectively. On June 28, a tiger was captured,” said Sundaresh. However, the forest department continued to hunt for the second big cat, the image of which was captured in the camera trap. On June 29, the department managed to capture another big cat from the same Kheratiya village that turned out to be the tigress. “The kind of fear and pressure we were living in is tough to explain in words. The news of capture brought a big relief to us. We have lost three lives to big cats. Despite the fact that both tiger and tigress have been captured, the villagers are yet to come out of their fear,” said Pargat Singh, village head of Khairatiy village.
Who is the man-eater?
Now the biggest challenge before the forest department was to conclude which one was the man-eater. “The very first thing we noticed was the behavioural differences. The tiger was very calm whereas the tigress was extremely charged. It it was getting very aggressive upon seeing humans around the cage. On examining further, we found that the tiger that was around four years of age was absolutely healthy and fit for catching prey for his survival. But while examining the tigress, we found that the both of the left side canines of the tigress were partially broken and damaged. This helped us to reach the conclusion that it was the tigress that was attacking the humans or their cattle in search for easy prey. Also, going by our experience, it is observed that ill, injured or old tigers or tigress generally seek out relatively an easy prey,” said Sundaresh. He said the fact that the tigress is the man-eater got further corroborated when the pugmarks of the tigress was matched with the ones found at the site of man-animal conflict. “Both the pugmarks matched,” he added. But the forest department’s theory was rubbished by Kaushalendra Singh, a wildlife expert, a hunter turned conservator and a former member of Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board. “I totally disagree with the theory of the forest department. The first thing I want to ask them on what grounds they concluded that this was the same tigress that killed humans. Damaged canines certainly could not be the ground, it shows lack of experience.” Singh said caging wild animal was a ‘crime’ and it would turn the animal into even more ferocious one. “If caged, the animal can’t be the same as it used to be before. Who gave them the right to cage animals for three to four days until they decide its fate? It is inhumane and the wild animal should be released into the jungle immediately after caging,” maintained Singh.
21 killings in three years
According to the death statistics with the forest department, the financial year 2022-23 witnessed as many as 6 killings that took place following tiger or tigress attack. Similarly, the financial year 20-21 witnessed 8 killings and the financial year 2021-22 recorded 7 killings. The foresters said the family member of the deceased gets Rs 5lakh ex-gratia. As per the records with the forest department, in the financial year 2017-18, the department had distributed Rs 52,67,648 against the man-animal conflict. In the year 2018-19, it had distributed Rs 82,25,037, in 2019-20 Rs 18,98,400 were distributed as ex-gratia amount, in 2020-21 Rs 25,17,304 were given to the affected families, in the year 2021-22 Rs 14,75,700 (and Rs 22,62,000 pending) has been distributed, whereas in the financial year 2022-23 (as on date) Rs 7,98.000 have been sanctioned but yet to be disbursed.
Operation relocation, a failure
Some senior officers with the forest department also said in the year 2018 the department had chalked out a plan to relocate the villages but that was meant only for those villages that were in the core area. “In the year 2018, a five-year-old tigress was killed by an angry mob of Chaltua village in the core zone of Kishanpur sanctuary of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve (DTR). It was then, the then Chief conservator of forest (CCF) and field director DTR, Ramesh Kumar Pandey, proposed the "Relocation of human population to safer places away from core zone citing it as the only solution to put check man-animal conflicts in the wild areas. However, since the relocation is a voluntary process, not many came forward for the relocation and the scheme was put on the back-burner,” the forester said. The department had also studied Satpura (Madhya Pradesh) Relocation Model under which the rehabilitation of villages, the family members having landholdings were given same value landholdings at a suitable reserve forest land outside core zone after changing land use while other adult members of the family were provided monetary compensation. But nothing was done since then. Officials with the forest department said since it was a voluntary scheme, the villages refused to accept the relocation amount that was around Rs15 lakh. Officials said the villagers demanded land in exchange of land along with the money. It was the bone of contention between the forest department and the villagers. Also, the scheme was only meant for the villages in the core area, there was no such provision for the villages established in the buffer zone.
Population of tiger on the rise
Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, a protected area in UP, is spread across Lakhimpur Kheri and Baharaich district of UP. In 1980s, the three wildlife sanctuaries including Kishanpur Sanctuary (KS) and Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary (KWS) and Dudhwa National Park were brought under its purview, covering an area of 1,284.3 sq km in totality. As per the last census (done in every four years) that was carried out in 2018, the population of tiger and tigress was recorded as 107 in DTR and 173 in UP. In the year 2014, the population of the tiger igress was recorded as 64 in DTR and 117 in UP and in 2010 the population was around 118 in UP. The current year tiger census result is awaited however the foresters claim that the population is expected to rise and so do the possibilities of man-animal conflicts. Some suggestions for a viable solution to the man-animal conflict were given by some experts. “The UP forest department should first do a comprehensive study of the DTR and then flag the areas where man-conflict has been reported the most. It should then look forward to fence these areas, as is done in the tiger reserves in other states, in order to check man-animal conflicts. Sariska tiger reserve in Rajasthan and Sundarbans in Kolkata are an example where fences have been introduced to check any conflict,” said KK Mishra, a wildlife activist. In the backdrop of the ongoing debate on the ways to minimize man-animal conflicts and the tall claims of the forest department about catching the man-eater tigress and saving human lives, the tigress was sent to the Wajid Ali Shah Zoological Garden alias Lucknow Zoo where she would be caged for the rest of her life whereas the tiger was was eventually released in Katraniyaghat Wildlife Sanctuary after being caged for almost a week