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Maneater of Pilibhit gets a fresh lease on life

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Maneater of Pilibhit gets a fresh lease on life

While shooting down maneaters may be an easy practice of resolving man-animal conflicts, UP forest officials and wildlife conservationists take the tough route to saving the big cats.

Maneater of Pilibhit gets a fresh lease on life

March-April 2017

Archana Misra

While shooting down maneaters may be an easy practice of resolving man-animal conflicts, UP forest officials and wildlife conservationists take the tough route to saving the big cats

Wildlife conservations efforts receive a setback every time an animal is declared a maneater and has to be either put down or ‘rescued’ for a lifetime of captivity in a zoo. When it happens to be the national animal of the country- tiger- there is a cause for greater concern. As per the ‘Status of Tigers in India, 2014’ report, released by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the tiger count had hit an all time low of 1,411 in 2006 which increased to 1,706 in 2011 and 2,226 in 2014.  In UP, the tiger population increased from 109 in 2006 to 118 in 2014 thus indicating that the conservation efforts, including strict anti-poaching measures, had paid off and the big cat was getting a healthy and conducive environment here. However, tigers are increasing but tiger reserves have not increased in the area and hence rising cases of man-animal conflict. Tigers that come into conflict with people are more likely sub-adults (a tiger that has passed through the juvenile period but not yet attained typical adult characteristics) trying to find new territories, and old, injured animals that are evicted from their home territories. One of the forest reserves in UP that witnessed such a conflict recently was Pilibhit. It may be mentioned here that this reserved forest area boasts of 44 adult tigers and nine cubs.

A maneater tiger that was on the prowl since November 29 in the fringe areas of Pilibhit Tiger Reserve was ultimately captured alive by the forest officials with active assistance of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) team, the Lucknow Zoo Vet and the WWF-I members. What made the operation extraordinary was the fact that once a Rapid Response Team was established under WTI’s UP Carnivore Conservation Project, it took only five days to trace and trap the maneater whose last few killings had been on consecutive days, thus causing a great deal of panic and anger in the affected villages. Not only did they manage to tranquilize and immobilize the tiger, but risked their lives by bearing the wrath of the villagers in saving its life. Many officials involved in the operation received injuries when the angry crowd tried to kill the tiger and, in its frustration at not being allowed to do so, attacked the officials instead. Dr Utkarsh Shukla, the Lucknow Zoo veterinarian who had actually darted and immobilized the tiger, received a hairline fracture on his left shoulder when he bent over the animal in an attempt to protect it from the enraged people.

“It is never easy to tranquilize an animal like tiger, but we were aware of our responsibilities. We undertook the entire operation on elephants. The tiger was extremely frightened and could have even attacked us in defense if things had not gone as planned. There was a huge crowd of onlookers. We were also afraid that if we failed in our attempt and the tiger managed to escape, it would kill and injure many more people. It did launch itself at the elephants but they fought back. To say we were not nervous would be a lie but we were prepared and determined. Thankfully we were able to capture the tiger alive,” said DFO, Pilibhit, Kailash Prakash.

“UP is undoubtedly the best state in the country in terms of animal tolerance and genuine conservation methods. The team effort in such ‘rescue’ operations is commendable. The forest department is very responsible towards both the animal and the human populace but also keen on not letting even one wild life go waste. We have not shot down a tiger since 2009 even if it is declared a maneater. You see, there are various reasons for an animal turning maneater but none of its own making so it deserves a second chance at life. Also there are evidences of carnivores turning back to their natural prey even after killing a few human beings,” says Prem Chandra Pandey, project lead, UP human-big cat conflict mitigation project, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). Dr Utkarsh Shukla also said the two maneating tigers (including this one and the one captured and brought here in August 2016 from Chhedipur in South Kheri after killing eight persons and aptly named ‘Chhedilal’) he had in the zoo hospital were both healthy and the latest arrival was nervous yet submissive. “It must be frantically moving around in an effort to seek a territory since December-January. Here at the zoo, it is kept in a restricted area so is relatively relaxed, gets proper meals and understands no one would harm it. Also, being an intelligent creature, it realizes it has no other option but to adjust,” he explains.


Understanding the situation

Six persons had been killed and one injured in tiger attacks in the fringe areas around the Barahi and Mala forest ranges of Pilibhit since November 28, 2016. The situation had escalated since February 5, with an attack occurring every day. The last three attacks (two kills and one where the victim was injured) had a similar pattern: humans sleeping outdoors in mosquito nets were attacked and the limbs on one side consumed; the tiger had in each case not gone after livestock that presented an easier, close-to-natural prey. “This tiger – a sub-adult– must have been separated from its mother, maybe driven away by other male tigers and wandered into the fringe areas. Must have first preyed on goats or dead buffalo etc and then killed a human in a chance encounter. Later, it found the man to be the easiest catch. One peculiar thing was it thought whoever was sleeping inside a net was ‘food’. As it was not able to eat the prey properly, it remained hungry and this explains its daily killings,” informed Pandey. “It could not differentiate from where its territory ended and human habitat began. For it, sugarcane fields were part of its territory and great hiding place. This maneater was turning into a stalker but then this is how carnivores prey in their natural habitat too,” added Dr Utkarsh.

Adding to the tension was the fact that on November 23, a tiger ‘Mallu’ had been tranquilized and released back into this region. It had mistakenly entered the Mallapur Khajariya village and was hiding in a hut. It had not harmed anyone. It was taken to the core area and released as per the guidelines of the NTCA and was not the one that was killing villagers. After one of the kills a nearby camera trap recorded a picture of the killer, so the team was sure which tiger to look for and it was not Mallu.

The Sequence of Events

All the officers and wildlife experts who had been shortlisted to assist the forest department were informed about the situation on the evening of February 7and called to the Mustafabad Forest Rest House in Pilibhit to attend a high-level meeting involving the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), the Chief Conservator of Forests - Bareilly, the Conservator of Forests - Bareilly, the Divisional Forest Officer - Pilibhit, and the concerned Range Forest Officers. A control room was established for the operation, teams were formed and landscapes allotted to each team to track down the tiger through active patrolling. The team that would attempt to tranquilize the tiger was also decided – Prem Chandra Pandey, project sociologist and Dr Aaron Wesley, project veterinarian from WTI, Lucknow Zoo veterinarian Dr Utkarsh Shukla, former WTI veterinarian Dr Saurabh Singhai and two other local animal husbandry veterinarians. In addition, with the tiger now having officially been declared a man-eater, Conservator PP Singh was tasked to be the designated shooter in case tranquilization attempts should fail, and a .375 rifle and bullets were issued to him.

It was also decided that awareness meetings would be conducted in the affected villages on February 8 and safety leaflets distributed. The teams got to work immediately, visiting each kill site, meeting relatives of the victims and conducting awareness sessions in conflict-affected villagers. On February 9, the various teams began tracking tigers in their allotted areas. The tracking endeavors received further strength with the assistance provided by local villagers. The team members distributed their contact details to a few key persons in the conflict villages, asking them to share any information about the tiger’s presence so that they could act swiftly.

On February 10, the gram pradhan (village head) of Karnapur called the control room, informing them that his pet dog had been attacked by an animal early in the morning. “The team proceeded to his home and found an open bleeding wound on the dog’s right thigh, exposing the musculature. Dr Wesley provided the necessary emergency treatment but we couldn’t be sure that the bite had indeed been caused by a tiger,” Pandey said. “Reports of tiger sightings kept coming in through the course of the day. The teams reported to several sites as first responders, but our efforts through the day turned out to be fruitless. We had conducted seven awareness meetings with conflict-affected villagers over the last three days and distributed extension aids regarding the do’s and don’ts during human-tiger conflict, but there was no confirmed sighting or human kill. However, an unusually dense fog crept across the landscape at dusk on February 10 and the teams expected to hear some sort of news in the morning,” he added.

On The Tiger Trail

Early on February 11, before 6.00am, the teams received the news from the Range Officer of Mala that another person had been killed, this time in Kalinagar village under the Barahi forest range. The team comprising the WTI experts was on its way when it received the news that the villagers were very agitated. The officials would be risking their lives if they entered the village. “The forest department also suggested that we hang back from the area for a while. So, we left our rescue vehicle a kilometre from the village, hung our cameras around our necks and with pocket diaries and pens in hand, decided to continue towards the kill site, pretending to be journalists,” informed Prem Chandra Pandey.

“We analyzed the situation and informed the forest department that things were under control now that the police had arrived on site. Having collected all the necessary details of the incident, we found that the killing and consumption pattern was the same as in the other recent kills, raising the probability that the same tiger was responsible. The crowd that had gathered pointed us in the direction that the tiger had gone, and we found pugmarks confirming the same,” he added.

While officials from the forest department arrived and tried to recover the victim’s body, the team began tracking the tiger. They proceeded approximately two kilometres on foot, following the pugmarks, and reached a PWD road. As the experts wondered which way to go, a villager came up to them and said that a tiger’s pugmark had just been found at Navadiya village half a kilometre away. “Sure enough, we found a fresh set of pugmarks at the village and asked the department to bring in trained elephants immediately – we had a gut feeling that the tiger was still present in the area,” the expert informed.

Face To Face With Tiger

The forest department staff arrived half an hour later and two untrained elephants (Batalik and Gajraj) an hour after that. The trained elephants were stationed further away and were en route. “We clambered onto one of the elephants and started combing the area. Suddenly, we came upon the tiger in a sugarcane field! Even as we tried to tranquilize it, it attacked and injured the elephant we were on. It had in fact launched itself at the mahout and us, but since it could not get a good enough foothold we had a narrow escape. Both elephants were terrified and ran away from the area, beyond their mahouts’ control,” he added.

By now the full team had reached the area – higher officials of the forest department, Dr Utkarsh Shukla from Lucknow Zoo, Dr Saurabh Singhai, the local veterinarians and the WWF team. It was decided to cordon off the sugarcane field with nets before the trained elephants arrived on the site. A JCB land mover and a crane lift were also called for and a drone surveillance team was kept at the ready. Finally, the operation had taken a highly professional and organized turn.

The trained elephants (Pawankali and Gangakali) arrived two hours later. Dr Shukla and Conservator PP Singh climbed onto one of the trained elephants while Prem Chandra Pandey and Dr Wesley climbed onto the other. Dr Saurabh Singhai and a WWF team member were astride one of the untrained elephants and the two local animal husbandry veterinarians from Pilibhit were seated on the other. The mahouts were told to stand all four elephants side-by-side, while the JCB would go on ahead, clearing the sugarcane to give the team a better chance of clearly seeing the tiger.

A narrow stretch of sugarcane was left at the periphery, just prior to the cordoned nets, and the JCB made a circumferential clearing within the sugarcane field. Suddenly, the tiger made a dash towards the periphery, only managing to entangle itself in the nets. “We approached it with the four elephants. Once it seemed the tiger had given up and it lay still. In the next instance it exerted all its power and broke free, charging once again at the elephants in an attempt to get back into the thick vegetation in the middle of the field. The conservator started firing in the air to scare the tiger. The two trained elephants charged back at the tiger, trumpeting and roaring loudly, and we almost lost our balance. Our hearts skipped a beat when the tiger leaped past us, its mouth just a foot away from our dangling legs,” Prem Chandra recalled. The two trained elephants continued with the task shoulder-to-shoulder. The tiger was sighted again, hiding inside the sugarcane field. Both tranquilizing teams had the narrowest of opportunities to take their aim. Dr Shukla decided to take his chance. He was bang on the target. Had his attempt failed, the tiger would have had to be shot down. “I used a combination drug to immobilize the tiger,” Dr Utkarsh Shukla informed.

Facing The Public Wrath

Even before the team members could get their breaths back, the massive crowd of onlookers, a gathering of more than 5000 who had been watching from a distance, rushed towards the sedated tiger with sticks etc. Now the officials jumped off the elephants and created a human barricading over the tiger in a bid to save it. “The crowd hit us with lathis and fists but we hung on,” laughed Dr Shukla albeit ruefully. “I fractured my shoulder but we understand the agony of the villagers who lost their members. We understand the trauma of the animal too. No one here can be blamed,” he pointed out. The trained elephants had to be used to drive the crowd away. Finally, after an hour of strenuous effort the tiger was placed in a cage. Then another ordeal awaited them. The driver of the vehicle on which the tiger had to be transported lost the keys in all this confusion and another vehicle had to be called. “The crowd then launched an attack on the vehicle and we fell out and got injured in trying to save the immobilized tiger,” said Dr Mudit Gupta, of WWF-I team, who was on the vehicle.

A Wild Life & Many Human Ones Saved

It took more than five hours for the active tranquilizing operation to conclude but at the end of it, a tiger that could have been shot down was instead ‘rescued’ and sent to the Lucknow Zoo and a threat was removed from the lives of the villagers. “Although letting wild remain wild is the conservation motto and a lifetime in captivity is not the ideal outcome, it was, we felt, still a happy ending. The tiger had not been put down, and it would cause no further human deaths. In the end, both animal and human lives matter,” concluded Prem Chandra Pandey.

Is There Another Maneater Around?

Soon after the maneater was captured, a woman was found dead in the reserved forest area on February 16. The villagers claimed she had been killed by a tiger however, DFO Prakash made it very clear that the killing should not be seen as the start of another maneater chapter. “The woman had strayed alone deep into the reserved forest area and could have been attacked by an animal accidentally or under stress. We keep advising the villagers to abide by the rules and not venture out into the forest area. They are also advised never to wander alone. If we fail to respect the wild, we are in fact inviting trouble, for ourselves as well as for others. We have to be careful,” he pointed out. However, he also said they were monitoring the entire area and had put up a proposal for fencing which, once approved, should go a long way in mitigating man-animal conflict in the region. 

How Many Tigers Do We Have?

There are 50 tiger reserves in India which are governed by Project Tiger which is administered by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). India now hosts 70% of the world’s tiger population which has declined by over 90% in the past 50 years. Indian tiger numbers had diminished to 1,411 in 2006 with a complete wipe out in the established tiger reserves such as Sariska in Rajasthan. The current estimate shows that from then onwards the tiger population in the country has been increasing at a rate of 6% per year. The Shivalik Gangetic plain, which consists of the Corbett, India’s first tiger reserve, in Uttarakhand, and Pilibhit and Valmiki tiger reserves in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively, have shown a remarkable increase in tiger numbers from 353 in 2010 to 485 in 2014. This is a very healthy and natural rate for any carnivore population to grow in a healthy ecosystem. This proves that most of the tiger habitats are still in a good condition. The single most important factor that has contributed in the growth is the control on poaching due to strict protection measures.

What Is Man-animal Conflict?

Human–wildlife conflict is defined by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as any interaction between humans and wildlife that results in negative impacts on human social, economic or cultural life, on the conservation of wildlife populations, or on the environment. Human-wildlife conflict occurs when the needs and behavior of wildlife impact negatively on the goals of humans or when the goals of humans negatively impact the needs of wildlife.

Who Is A Man-Eater?

If a tiger deliberately seeks out human prey, often by stalking and, given an opportunity, consumes every human kill and drags the corpse away to secure remains, it is a maneater. Here it will prefer the human over its natural prey. However, accidental attacks do not make a tiger ‘maneater’. While most accidental attacks are meant to be non-lethal and mostly in self-defense— a swipe of the paw — deliberate attacks are meant to kill and usually involve precision canine punctures in the neck. A tigress with cubs is typically high-strung, as are all big cats during a hard-earned meal. A surprised tiger is rarely a pleased tiger. There is also room for mistaken identity: someone bending down or on their haunches may look like a prey animal. Unless it is a desperate tigress encumbered by cubs, a big cat rarely eats a person it kills accidentally. Anyway, the consumption of a human kill alone is not enough proof that a tiger is a maneater. But, it should follow a pattern.

What The Law Says

The Wildlife Protection Act does not allow a tiger to be declared as maneater even if more than one human is killed inside the reserve forest area. Because in such cases, the human is said to be at fault for intruding into areas reserved for the tiger to roam free. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has issued a standard operating procedure to deal with man-eaters and carnivores straying into human habitation.  NTCA procedure says a committee has to be formed with nominees of the state chief wildlife warden and NTCA, a vet, representatives of a local NGO and Panchayat, and the district forest officer. The committee should make all efforts to identify the maneater using camera traps, pug impression pads and DNA analysis of scats and hair, it says.

Factors Responsible For The Situation

Encroachment in the forest lands by local people has resulted in shrinkage of wildlife habitats especially on the fringes which has increased the pressure on the limited natural resources in the forest areas. The wild animals may stray into fringe areas in search of food, water or shelter.  Increased disturbance due to collection of fuel wood, fodder, water etc. from the forests has also increased the incidences of man-animal conflict. Increase  in  area  under  cultivation  around  wildlife  habitats and  changed cropping  pattern  have  also  contributed  to  increased  man-animal  conflict.  People  have  started  growing  commercial  crops  like  sugarcane and banana, which  provide  good  hiding  place  for  the  wild  animals.  

r It is observed that the local people have to go deeper and deeper into the forest with every passing year for firewood and other forest produce because of  degradation  of  forests  on  the fringes. This has increased the number of incidences of man-animal conflict. Most incidences of such conflicts are noticed during summer when water becomes scarce.  The livestock and wild animals have to share the limited water sources on the fringes or inside forest. Human interference with the  natural  drainage  system  in  forest  areas  and  diversion  of  water  towards habitation and plantations has further complicated the issue. That is the reason every year, during sugarcane harvesting season, man-animal conflicts increase. Habitat fragmentation due to construction works like dams, canals railway lines or highways also cause difficulties for the animals and put pressure on the natural resources.

r Though the forest department undertakes awareness campaigns in villages in fringe areas, villagers continue to ignore the dos and don’ts of safety. They venture out alone at night when it is a known fact that predators lurk in the dark. “When a tiger is sighted in a fringe area, the villagers must ensure their safety by staying in groups and avoiding moving out after dark. However, in most cases, it is the wildlife mafia and those with vested interests who goad natives into an agitation. Otherwise villagers know the risks of living in areas infested with tigers,” says a wildlife expert.

The above-mentioned factors are the catalysts. They cause the following effects:

r When the wildlife population grows due to good conservation measures in some reserves, there will be a natural shrink in territory leading to in-fighting among carnivores. This may force some old and weak big cats to move to the forest fringes for smaller prey where they may come into conflict with humans. Then the injured or incapacitated tiger or leopard living on the forest fringes may turn into a maneater.

r Also, sub-adults get separated from their mother when she takes off with a mate and are pushed out by dominant ones. (The cubs stay with their mother for two-three years) They have no territories to depend on. Most of these tigers who fail to mark their territory walk long distances in search of their own space. These are transient tigers. When cornered or taken by surprise, such cats may maul or kill a person in self-defense. “Rahman, the tiger that had marked 60 sq km territory in Dudhwa tiger reserve, was a transient tiger. It was a stray sub-adult that had travelled more than 250 km from South Kheri to end up hardly 25 km from Lucknow in Rahmankhera forest in 2013. It did not attack any human being but was tranquilized and translocated into the wild to prevent future chances of it turning into maneater. Rahman was collared by us,” tells Prem Chandra Pandey.

“It is generally male sub-adult that has greater chances of turning into a maneater in case it has not learnt the preying techniques properly. In that case it fails to get food for itself in its natural territory, or is driven out by stronger males. Comes to a fringe village. Hunts the odd goat or eats a chanced dead animal, then accidentally comes into direct conflict with human being. Once it kills the man, it finds it to be the easiest prey. The tiger here has no idea that it is not supposed to kill the man and thinks this is also one form of food,” explains Eva Sharma, CCF. “What we generally do is we order clearing of the sugarcane fields if we notice tiger movement in a fringe area because cane crop provides an ideal hiding place and, every year, we face increased instances of man-animal conflicts during its harvest time,” she added.

r Apart from anthropogenic pressures, there could be several other factors that could trigger unnatural behavior in a tiger and possibly turn it into a maneater. The death of the offspring of a tigress is a major issue. But such tigers turn to their natural prey later. “The maneating tigress from Moradabad is an example. Her cubs were killed and she started attacking human beings in revenge. She killed and ate nine persons in December 2014 in Jim Corbett tiger reserve’s landscape venturing as far as Bijnor. After having made her last human kill on February 9, 2015 the tigress reportedly went back to the Corbett and never returned to the region. Since then, there has neither been any maneating incident from the area nor any sightings of her pugmarks,” informs Prem Chandra Pandey. However, in rare cases, the necessity to feed the young ones, particularly owing to a large litter or a declining prey base, may also force a tigress into attacking humans.

r Stress is a major factor that may cause behavioral changes in tigers and can also turn them into maneaters. Stress could be caused due to a number of reasons and physical injury may be one of them.  Human interference into the habitat of tiger also causes stress in the animal and can bring about unnaturally aggressive traits in the beast.

r A big cat may stray into human habitat after its natural prey. When wild pigs, nilgai, rabbits etc start invading human habitat—fields—for food, the predators may come after them and kill a human being in chance encounter.

An Unusual Incident

A sub-adult tigress travelled all the way from Lakhimpur’s Kishunpura Sanctuary to Kanpur in November 2014. Here it stayed in the jungles near the Ganga for two years and then went back in 2016. It did not kill any human being nor came into conflict with the man during this period.

Mitigation Measures

Man  animal  conflicts result  in  very  bad  effect  on  society  as  well  as  on  wild  animals. The family of the victim is left weeping and helpless.  Sometimes, the only earning member of the family is killed in the incident. The farmers sustain big losses due to crop damages by wild  animals  season  after  season  which  may force  them  to  commit  suicide. We cannot completely stop but reduce and control such conflicts by following some precautions and adopting certain measures.

r Creating awareness among the public located close to fringe areas of forests. There is no need to panic or raise an alarm if there is a tiger in the vicinity. After all the reserved area is its home. The thing to keep in mind is to follow the guidelines of the forest department and not come in unnecessary conflict with the big cat. Normally these animals are shy and maintain their distance from the humans. But, the humans must not cause stress in them. ‘Live and let live’ should be the mantra. Undue pressure should not be put on the forest department to relocate it if the tiger is not showing aggression towards animals. Too much tracking attempts also raise the hackles of the big cats and they may get stressed into launching attacks. Instead, people should  be  made  more  and  more  aware  through meetings and  pamphlets  etc  that  they  should  avoid  going  deep  into  the  forest areas. If they have to go in any case they should go in groups and they should keep talking to each other to detract the wild animals.  School  children  in vulnerable  villages  should  be  educated  about the  importance of  wildlife and human co-existence.

r LPG should be provided to those villagers who frequently go to the forest areas especially wildlife habitats to fetch fuel wood for their chullahs so that they may stop penetrating into forest and stop inviting man-animal conflicts.

r Agriculture fields situated near wildlife habitat/forest areas can be protected by stone fencing or solar fencing.

r It is not the animal but the human population living on the fringe reserve areas that need to be relocated. A special legislation should be enacted to take over the land on the fringes and declare it a reserve forest after providing alternative locations to the villagers. This can be done in a phased manner and is the best way to mitigate the conflict.

r Crops like sugarcane, banana, bajra, tuhar should not be allowed to be grown near forest areas. These crops attract wildlife for food as well as good hiding place.

r Poaching of wild animals should be stopped so that the equilibrium between the numbers of prey animals and predators in the forest ecosystem is maintained.

r To  stop  soil  erosion  and  to increase water availability in  the  forests, soil  and  moisture  conservation measures (SMC)  like  vegetative checks  dams,  loose  boulder  check-dams, cement plugs, nullahs bunding, water tanks, should be taken in the forest so that water regime of the forest is increased in a natural way which will increase the productivity of the forests as well as water availability in the habitat. Then sufficient food and water will be available and the number of animals straying out of forest will be controlled.

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