Effective protection for tigers within some wildlife reserves has caused their populations to rise and local habitat range to expand beyond these protected areas. This has led to escalating conflicts with humans, many of which have resulted in fatalities. Better management of the ‘buffer zones’ around reserves is the need of the hour, writes Poonam Dhanwatey, Indian wildlife conservationist known for her work mitigating human-tiger conflict and co-founder of the not-for-profit organisation Tiger Research and Conservation Trust.
Each visit to Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve evokes a smile at the realisation of how popular the reserve is. The once verdant forests of Central India, only parts of which are protected, contain sizeable breeding populations of tigers. Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve is one of six tiger reserves in Maharashtra state. It is surrounded by a sea of humanity, with a few strings of green corridors acting as a lifeline connecting it to other smaller reserves in the area.
The odyssey of this forested land has been fascinating, transforming from a locally known park open for picnickers in the early 2000s to the most prominent place for wild tiger sightings in the world. This is an outcome of a decade-long effort of strong protection measures, favourable policies and outstanding management practices by the managers of the reserve, supported by the NGOs working here.
But there are some serious issues beyond the boundaries of this haven.
On its journey to become home to a large population of tigers, the Tadoba landscape has also become infamous for the frequent attacks on people by tigers and leopards. Over a period of 12 years, there have been more than 300 attacks in the forested landscape of Chandrapur district by these large cats, with more than half resulting in fatalities.
Tadoba, with its peripheral forests, is a unique landscape. The term ‘beyond the carrying capacity’ is applied here often. Estimates indicate that there are more than 50 tigers within the 625 square km reserve and a higher number living in its human-dominated peripheral forests. This is a big leap from the estimated 18–20 resident tigers within the reserve and a handful in the areas beyond in 2003.
Improved habitats within the reserve have led to increased prey numbers. This, and the reduced mortality due to protection, has resulted in a higher level of tiger breeding in the reserve. Hence, there has been unavoidable dispersal of the sub-adult cubs from the reserve into the human-dominated buffer areas of the reserve, and further towards the partly degraded forests of the so-called ‘forested corridors’. Sightings of the tigers – majestic and conspicuous, unlike the leopard – increased in the buffers and the corridors. Breeding females with young families of three to four cubs were also seen in forest pockets.
The Central Indian landscape of villages teeming with people and their livestock every few kilometres has had a history of tiger presence and the occasional attack on people. But in recent years, due to the unavoidable dispersal of tigers from Tadoba reserve and their breeding, a growing number of tigers have appeared in human-dominated forested corridors. This situation of forced cohabitation of people and large carnivores resulted in an alarming increase in the attacks by tigers on humans.
Where should the dispersing tigers go? Can people and large carnivores co-exist? Are these tigers to blame for the conflict?
Over time, human-tiger conflict has taken on a new dimension as the Tadoba landscape has seen increasing attacks by these large carnivores on people. From a couple of attacks a year over several decades, it spiked to 18 in 2006 and 27 in 2007. This resulted in a few problem individuals being labelled as man-eaters and shot. In recent years, with activists demanding only capture and involvement of the judiciary, they have been caged. This conflict has caused a dip in the tolerance of local communities and a rise in the threats to tigers by retaliation.
The questions emerging from this situation may soon be valid for most of the unfenced wildlife reserves around the world that are being protected.
Where should the dispersing tigers go? Why should these tigers, walking beyond the boundaries of reserves due to shortage of space within, be any less precious than the tigers that are vehemently protected in the reserves? Don’t they deserve a place in our management plans?
In essence, can people and large carnivores co-exist? Are these tigers to blame for the conflict?
Our decade-long study of conflict cases indicates that tigers co-exist with people to some extent, as they seem to avoid us as much as possible, especially when they are in areas dominated by us.
The case of Tass, a tigress rescued from a drain and released into unprotected forests with a radio collar, proves this point. Her positions showed how she hid from humans, as she lay behind a hay stack through the day near a bustling village market, waiting to move as darkness fell. In another case, an adult tiger was cornered in Astha village by the locals. He sat for 11 hours on a hay stack in the middle of the human dwellings, waiting to be allowed safe passage by a crazy mob of more than 2,000 people and desperate reserve managers. These and many more such cases confirm the human-wary behaviour of the tiger.
The study also revealed that the majority of the 300 attacks around Tadoba reserve occurred in fringe forests when people ventured into the bush for various reasons. This is contrary to the assumptions that tigers enter villages to attack people.
Based on research and analysis, the government has introduced various mitigation measures through policies and projects. These vary from awareness raising and building capacity within the community, to providing households in some conflict-affected areas with cooking gas and toilets to substitute the collection of firewood and minimise contact with tigers.
The conservation approach has been piecemeal. It has addressed only the outcome of the conflict situation, just a few of the reasons for the attacks and financially compensated the families for their losses.
It is time to join the dots and to view this at a landscape level, as the reasons for this situation resulting in the loss of people and tigers are multifaceted. They include the dispersal of tigers – a consequence of conservation success, the co-existence and sharing of natural resources by people and large carnivores, unemployment within local communities, their dependence on forest produce, the fragmentation and degradation of forested corridors, and the depletion of natural resources in the name of development and our ever-growing needs.
The outcome of the success of the reserves has been limited to within their boundaries, with conflict raging beyond. Are protection and fragmentation two sides of the same coin, with both leading to conflict unless the dispersal is addressed?
The management of the buffer areas surrounding the reserve and the degraded forested corridors is the need of the hour.
It is time to understand the future of these dispersing tigers stepping out of the reserve, which is an outcome of our very own measured actions of protection.
Management of these peripheral areas to ensure security for both people and tigers may be the biggest challenge. These multiple use areas are an amalgamation of forests, villages, marginal fields, farmlands, lakes, resorts, private lands and roads, with the rights of local people to graze and farm an integral factor in land management. Natural resources in these areas are used by people, livestock, wild herbivores and large carnivores alike; all barely managing to avoid each other by timing their visits and movements.
It is time to understand the future of these dispersing tigers stepping out of the reserve, which is an outcome of our very own measured actions of protection. Does part of the solution lie in moving these individuals to less populated reserves, or in increasing the area reserved for wild animals? Can failed marginal farms near forest fringes be converted into private community forests to increase the green cover and involve the local communities in the fold of eco-tourism?
It is time to realistically assess the tiger’s contribution to the conflict, and to find a holistic approach before the tolerance of the communities dips to tilt the balance beyond repair. Our approach certainly needs to go beyond shooting a few individuals labelled as man eaters!