Dramatic tiger capture in India highlights growing human-wildlife conflicts

A tiger named Munna is pictured at Vanvihar National Park after it was translocated from Kanha National Park in India, Bhopal on Oct 23, 2019.
A tiger named Munna is pictured at Vanvihar National Park after it was translocated from Kanha National Park in India, Bhopal on Oct 23, 2019.PHOTO: PTI

BANGALORE - It took five days, six elephants, over 100 forest officials, a few conservationists, a whole tribal village, and a German shepherd dog to capture an elusive tiger in the Bandipur forest in India's southern state of Karnataka in mid-October.

The tiger, about the age of four to six years, had been the talk of the town, evoking both dread and fascination among locals and forest officials. In the past year, it had killed 14 cattle, an 80-year-old villager who took his cattle through a forest shortcut instead of the longer village route, and a man working in his field.

After it had killed the man in the field in early October, the tiger laid down next to its victim, while about 700 people gathered around, shouting. After two hours, it finally darted into the forest, leaving the villagers enraged.

When an infamous hunter offered to "kill" the tiger to "save the villages", the state's forest department stepped in. "To prevent the tiger from getting killed, we decided to capture it," said Mr Sanjai Mohan, principal chief conservator of forests and chief wildlife warden.

Conservationist Joseph Hoover, who was part of the capture team, said they set up camera traps based on the tiger's pug marks. "The tiger is very smart and disappears in front of your eyes. Twice we came almost 15 ft near it and we couldn't see it!" he said.

With camera images, a sniffer dog and spotting experts of the Soliga forest dwelling tribe, the team finally located the tiger on the fifth day. They caught it with a net and tranquillised it. The big cat will now be rehabilitated in a range in central India.

"Most of India's forest department is ill-prepared for such captures - no infra-red cameras, no thermal imagery binoculars, there are ego clashes and lack of coordination," said Mr Hoover, a former member of the Karnataka state wildlife board. "So usually it takes a month to do such captures - it's a miracle we did it in five days."

As dramatic footage of the tiger capture came to light, it highlighted the shrinking habitats of tigers, and the massive spike in animal-human conflicts in the dense Western Ghat protected forest region.

Bandipur is a high tiger density forest situated at the junction of three southern states Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The 872 sq km forest has 140 to 160 tigers, but is also surrounded by 172 villages, according to Mr Hoover.

 
 

The non-profit Wildlife Conservation Society estimated that there are at least nine human-animal conflicts a day here, involving not only tigers but also elephants, leopards and other protected wildlife.

India has most of the world's tigers: 2,967 in the wild, with the highest numbers in Madhya Pradesh (526) and Karnataka (524), according to the government's latest tiger estimation report of 2018. This is a 33 per cent increase since 2014, and is credited to conservation efforts and increasing herbivore population. But the forest area has not proportionally increased.

Tigers are now moving out of the already crowded protected areas, looking for new territory. "A tiger needs a 40 sq km territory, but now they have only about 8 sq km each in Karnataka," said Mr Hoover.

The weaker, younger ones especially move to the buffer areas outside the core forests, which are near human habitations.

The recently captured young tiger, for instance, had travelled 80km out of its birthplace in the Kabini forest to make a village its home. "There are three others in the Bandipur periphery. Almost a quarter of the tigers here are outside the protected area," Mr Hoover said.

While forests are proving too small for tigers, they are also too scattered for other wildlife.

Said Mr Mohan: "Elephants are programmed, in their genes, to move from forest to forest in corridors they have followed for centuries. But now, forests are disconnected from each other because of cities and villages in between. Elephants are forced to go through these - they raid crops on the way, or are killed when they cross a highway."

The forest department is now building physical barriers to prevent the elephants from leaving a forest: deep trenches around the forest, solar-powered electric fences that don't kill but send high voltage pulses, and iron fences made of old railway tracks.

The government also pays compensation for crop and livestock losses and 500,000 rupees (S$9,599) to the families of anyone killed. "This is to prevent people from venting their anger on the poor animals," said Mr Mohan.

 
 

Wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi warned that "conflict has to be brought down to tolerable limits" but cannot be completely eliminated. Reactive measures like capturing wildlife, he believed, must be done only in "emergency, unavoidable situations".

He criticised the recent capture of a 16-year-old tusker in the Mudumalai reserve - the Tamil Nadu side of the Bandipur forest - as "unnecessary". The elephant had injured two men when they went to take selfies with it, "which is certainly not a sane thing to do with a large mammal like an elephant", said Mr Gubbi.

Six other trained elephants led the wild one near the forest officials, who tranquillised and hauled it by ropes into a truck.

Mr Hoover said that captures need to be like rescues: more professional and animal-friendly.

Mr Gubbi, however, stressed that captures were a reactive measure. "Only a combination of approaches, continuous public education and pro-active measures to avoid avoid human-widllife conflict will work," he said.