Many lessons to be learnt from recent tiger fiasco

Many lessons to be learnt from recent tiger fiasco

One late afternoon of December last when pregnant Anjana came out of her hut in Madergi village in forested Khanapur taluk in Belagavi district in Karnataka, she would never have imagined that she would be attacked and devoured by a hungry, displaced yet healthy tiger which was lurking nearby.

Subsequently, the tiger too was killed and events proved it was the same tiger which had earlier attacked and killed another woman in Chikkamagaluru district and  was relocated in the forests of Bheemgadh sanctuary in an operation that could only be termed as ill planned in hind sight. Perhaps, even the authorities realised that the entire episode resulting in the death of the innocent woman and the tiger could have been avoided had there been better preparation and coordination amongst various decision makers – The Forest Department, the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the Wildlife Institute of India and the NGOs – as subsequent events revealed.

One thing that has come out quite clearly – and not for the first time – that in tiger capture and relocation operations, it is the so called experts who call the shots and the foresters are forced to follow their dictates. Foresters would do well to assert their professionalism and instincts rather than be persuaded by external politics and expertise. Probably, they themselves lack the self confidence to tackle such situations which can be overcome by capacity building. They are also hamstrung by procedures and it is necessary to have a relook at the existing guidelines and protocols that are bound to be blamed for such failures.

One may not know whether suitability of Bheemgadh forests with reference to   prey base and presence /absence of other tiger population – in order to avoid territorial fight, a very common occurring in all such cases - were assessed before taking above decision. But the presence of 5-6 tigers in the area which is also dotted with number of villages on the fringe, must have been known to the authorities who probably by then were weighed down by the pressure and went ahead nevertheless.

Not surprisingly, the tiger started killing the domestic cattle including a horse and attacked at least one woman before killing unfortunate Anjana. Earlier, it had strayed on the outskirts of the town in search of food and hiding and when it was driven back to the above forests where it had to face competition from the native tigers which would not let the intruder stay in their territory. When driven out by them, this tiger prowled nearby villages where it pounced and killed Anjana and was seen eating the flesh.
The departmental sources say as soon as the problem of the tiger’s first attack and kill in Chikkamagaluru was reported by the state to NTCA, they insisted that the tiger be collared (since it had attacked and killed a woman) and released in forests as it was still young and had not yet proved to be a man eater. They were further instructed to contact the WII in Dehradun regarding procurement of the collar. They were in turn suggested to obtain the same from a local NGO.

Lack of radio collars

When the department desperately contacted the agency concerned, they were told that no collar was available forcing them to look elsewhere (towards another NGO) which apparently offered the collar and their services to the department in collaring and translocation of the tiger. The department decided to shift the tiger to Anshi/Dandeli area as the tiger density is rather low there and the authorities felt that leaving the killer tiger back to Bhadra may not be a good thing as it would alienate locals.  More over, Bhadra has sufficient tiger density. But their plan came unstuck as the locals in Dandeli-Anshi having come to know of it, opposed the tiger’s release in their vicinity.

As the time was running out, the next best course of action, as per the wisdom of the authorities, was to take the still unconscious tiger to the next nearest forest which happened to be Bheemgadh although there too, they had to face tremendous opposition from locals who, led by their MLA, forced the department to start recapture plan . The irony of the situation could not have been worse and the harassed and exasperated forest officials had to restart the whole operation. So, what went wrong?

According to the same sources, the problem was with the collar as apparently, it had stopped functioning due to various factors soon after the release of the tiger due to which its movement could not be located which ultimately led to the mayhem that prevailed in the locality for weeks till it was killed.

The authorities seem to have learnt the lesson and have decided to procure the radio collars and other equipment necessary to meet such situations. They have also sought government permission to have their own trained vets who would be stationed at vulnerable places for tranquilising and other purposes. These are welcome steps towards confidence building exercise.

At the same time, it would also be necessary for the NTCA to revisit its guidelines to deal with such situations which should be based on anticipation and preparation rather than reaction and fire fighting. It is well known to authorities as to where the tiger conflict with man is high and therefore it should be possible to keep such areas on red alert with specific plans in place for any eventuality. The department should equip itself with sufficient dart guns/tranquilising injections and the expert vets who are capable of tackling such situations.

Identification of suitable habitats for relocation is another important step. Ideally, the tigers should be released back in the same forests, albeit away from the villages they were in conflict with if they have not turned man eaters. But there should be flexibility in the approach and concerns and pulse of the people should be kept in mind which alone should guide such operations. The potential areas for re-release should have sufficient prey base and should be free from habitation.

(The writer is former principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka)

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