Disquiet has given way to clamor in the sugarcane and wheat fields that envelop Pilibhit Tiger Reserve (PTR) in western Uttar Pradesh. At the heart of this clamor is an unfolding tragedy, as one or more tigers continue to claim human lives adding to the unfortunate loss of 15 people since last November.
As angry and fearful villagers block highways and trade charges with forest managers, sensationalist reports have proliferated in the media, adding to the din while providing little clear analysis of the situation. Given this fractious situation, solutions considered thus far to mitigate the human-animal conflict in Pilibhit have been mostly poorly thought through and ill advised.
Misperceptions surrounding the human-tiger interface in PTR are widespread. For instance, it is being reported by some that unlike other tiger habitats, humans live ‘cheek by jowl’ with tigers in Pilibhit, and thus routinely fall victim to them. Another theory doing the rounds, which is quite the opposite of the one above, is that the area's tigers, being unaccustomed to humans, have taken to attacking them. A third strand of thought pins the blame for the attacks on the emergence of a deviant and aggressive population of man-eating tigers. Some contend that Pilbihit’s tiger population has doubled since its designation as a reserve three years ago, and the big cats are spilling out into farmlands in search of prey and habitat. There are even accusations that man-eating tigers have been released into the forest. These misperceptions, which are fuelling an escalating conflict scenario, need to be addressed through building a better awareness of tiger behavior as well as a better understanding of the region’s geography.
Until its creation in May 2014, the area today that constitutes Pilibhit Tiger Reserve was one of north India's most productive timber yielding reserve forests. It was frequented by logging crews and many thousands of local residents, grazing their cattle or harvesting minor forest resources, on a daily basis. Given this, the tigers of Pilibhit are likely to be accustomed to human presence in their habitats. Many generations of the region's human populations have also lived in close proximity to tigers - presumably today's residents of the region are also well aware of the perils of venturing into the forest after dark, and of other basic precautions they need to take to stay when living in the vicinity of tigers. Thus it can be argued that tiger attacks in Pilibhit are not because tigers and humans are unaccustomed to one another, but because of the intersection between the region's unique geography and the high dependence of its people on forest resources. These factors increase the likelihood of spatial overlap of humans and tigers, and thus elevate the potential for 'conflict'.
Pilibhit is among the narrowest tiger reserves in India, and in many areas, crop fields along the edge merge almost seamlessly with the forests. These fields, especially when seen from the eyes of a wild feline are essentially grasslands, and they thereby extend wildlife habitats, and often serve as corridors. They hold water because they are well irrigated, and shelter wild prey species such as pigs and hog deer and are thus attractive for wild carnivores. These farmlands have replaced expansive tracts of forest and riparian habitats, with land use change that began in the Colonial area continuing well into the 20th century. The occurrence of tigers in these farmlands is thus neither novel, nor unexpected. For the most part, they move through such areas, silent and unseen under dense cover of darkness, assiduously avoiding humans, light and noise.
Available data also does not support the claim of a rapidly growing tiger population in PTR: instead, the population has fluctuated greatly since 2010, and is characterized by high turn-over (where the same tigers are not seen from one year to the next) and moderate adult survival. If anything, the likelihood of tigers and humans co-occurring at close-quarters in the area may be elevated by the combined occurrence of a sizably large tiger population, a dense human population within five kilometers of the forests' edge, extensive sugarcane cultivation and the forests' narrow geography, which cumulatively elevate the potential for the spatio-temporal overlap of humans and tigers.
It is also untenable that Pilibhit's tiger population is biologically predisposed to preying on humans, more than any other tiger population in the region. Sustained observations of tigers in the farmlands of Amariya village outside Pilibhit testifies that tigers can sometimes occur in close proximity to humans for extended periods, without attacking them. Recent attacks on humans in and around PTR could thus primarily be attributed to one or two individuals that could be young individuals in marginal habitats without territories, older individuals with disabilities, or those with debilitating injuries.
Conflict mitigation in PTR needs to shift from a reactive case-by-case response to a cohesive and coordinated approach. There are lessons to learn from the Sunderbans in West Bengal where tiger attacks on humans are managed on a regular basis. In response to such attacks, the government has evolved effective mechanisms to rapidly identify and relocate the conflict-causing tiger(s). It has also established quick response teams to ward off straying tigers and aid in their capture when necessary. Solar lights and nylon fences have been strategically installed on known tiger-occupied islands near human settlements. Following the Sunderban's example, PTR's administration should take steps to build rapid response teams comprising of wildlife veterinarians, forest department staff, and local volunteers trained to contain conflict-prone animals and engage irate crowds. The local police too needs to be better integrated into these response teams and assist in crowd control. Concurrently, educators and public health professionals need to engage communities to enhance their preparedness for conflict and casualty reduction.
Instead, what is confounding is a proposed solution for PTR that has found widespread support from forest officials and community alike, which is to fence the park. It is believed that this will hold straying felines in. Constructing a fence around PTR’s perimeter is neither logistically feasible nor is it a solution to the current conflict situation. If anything, fencing in tigers and their natural prey will lead to new problems. These include obstructing connectivity, limiting animal dispersal, and elevating conflict with humans who are fenced out. Last but not least, it must be kept in mind that lost livelihood opportunities, and the lack of economic linkages between human communities and wildlife reserves have resulted in widespread alienation and mistrust: if human use of the forests is further restricted and penalized, the straying of wild animals (under the Forest department’s watch) into homesteads and farmlands will be less tolerated.
In the final analysis, co-occurrence may be the only realistic and viable scenario. Over the longer term, a multi-pronged strategy that includes the following may work: (a) evolving mechanisms for a swift, coordinated response to remove ‘problem’ tigers from the system, (b) sustained community awareness programs to reduce the risk of tiger attacks in farmlands, (c) temporary restrictions on human movement in conflict hotspots in forest areas, and (d) responsive land use planning that factors in the region’s unique geography and avoiding actions that could exacerbate conflict.