Living with big cats

regal: A tiger at crossroads in Kanha Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. photos by author

In the dead of the night, the tiger has passed by, less than 300 metres from the room where we’ve been sleeping. We haven’t felt or heard a thing. We come to know of this only when we go out for a walk to the river in the morning and see the pugmarks on the dirt track. Nourished by the dew, the prints from the great cat are edged sharply in the softness of the sand; the lines crisp and undeniably new.

The tiger is an old master at this. After a million years of practice, it is now perfect at the art of floating like a ghost in the darkness.

We are in the buffer forests of Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh, walking to the Banjar river; a towering canopy of sal trees to the right, fields and mud houses to our left. Headlands of farms lay a grid stretching into the distance. On a map, this path that we are on marks the line demarcating farmland from the notified forest, but in the real world, it separates precious little.

In a habitat where man is the ultimate encroacher, this line is as good as invisible to animals — just another trail in the dust. If anything, tigers, with the pads on their feet soft and sensitive, like walking on these tracks carved by humans very much.

Mahendra, who works at the lodge, and has come to show us the way, looks at the tracks and says lightly, “Today, sir, the tiger is in a mood to walk. It’s gone two hours ahead and won’t stop to meet us.”

Which is reassurance in the fog of this early winter morning. Though, in general, tigers are peaceful creatures, you don’t want to put a theory to test and plan on meeting a wild tiger on foot!

Conflict and coexistence

Yet, as we walk listening to Mahendra’s stories about daily life in the village, we realise that it’s exactly the possibility of such meetings that is part of the everyday here. Just as clogged traffic defines our city lives, out here it’s the forest that permeates everything. The existence of people in the villages that surround India’s tiger reserves is intertwined with that of tigers’ — and, of course, with other megafauna like leopards, bears and elephants — with both humans and animal continuously adapting, each drawing lines for the other not to cross. But the boundaries are blurred, and with predators like the tiger so expertly secretive, human and animal life infallibly intersect.

Earnest avoidance, then, becomes the golden and ancient rule; and the forest department spares no effort in emphasising that through awareness programmes. Young children talk loudly when they venture into the dark. Women don’t squat when cutting grass for fodder: once on their haunches, predators are likely to mistake them for prey. When the precious mahua flowers in spring, families sleep under the tree in the open, but with a fire and a watch to lookout for bears who come to claim their rightful share. Shepherds sleep not on the ground, but upon the branches of trees. Children playing outside are called out by their mothers to come home as dusk falls.

Simple and instinctive caution like this makes a difference; as does small tokens of progress, like a lone solar lamp burning on a village street at night — the loudest, and brightest, possible way of telling a lurking big cat to stay away.

Livestock, in spite of their low productivity, is a lifeline here. The villagers sell milk and goat’s meat, use buffaloes for ploughing, barter oxen for dowry or debt pay-offs, while the dung fuels fires, fertilises soil, and plasters homes. Cattle are invariably picked by tigers and the loss — the price of each can be equal to a few months’ wages — can be debilitating. Yet, even with more than 400 livestock taken each year, the desire to retaliate and kill is still kept in check. 

“A tiger will eat meat, sir. It was made to eat meat, not grass. We understand that. And this is its home too.” Fatalistic words from Mahendra, but timeless and truthful. Stories of senseless violence come from our forests, but in Kanha, a peace holds, tenuous though it may be, between the 85,000 cattle and goats that graze in the buffer area and an estimated 130 tigers and leopards that roam in the core of the park.

The Forest Department’s compensation of Rs 10,000 for cattle kills in the buffer forest is, of course, a great keeper of that peace. In Kanha, the system works mostly well on the ground, with forest guards quickly following up to confirm the claim, sometimes even tracking the kill close to where the tiger may still be feeding. Once the claim is verified, the money reaches the needy quickly enough; the trust that the department has built up over the years is a key link in this chain. 

The compensation flows smoothly, in no small part, due to tourism. For all the criticism that purists level at tiger tourism and the manner in which it’s conducted today, each reserve garners Rs 10 crore annually just from entry fees — almost half as much money as the state and central governments provide together.

Most of this revenue goes into anti-poaching patrols, wildlife monitoring and habitat management, while 20% goes to village communities to boost education, medical support, awareness programmes, cooking stoves and other welfare. Close to Rs 40 lakh is just paid as compensation for livestock kills. The price of the ticket that an average tourist pays is, therefore, directly, and inarguably, going towards conflict mitigation.

Signs of the jungle

But every now and then, a young child or an old woman in the endless quest for firewood will fail to read the forest and stumble into a tragic and cruel encounter. The rarest is the confirmed man-eater which, driven by circumstance or injury, actively stalks and hunts humans, unleashing a reign of unfathomable terror, of howling media attention and a wearing thin of patience tempers and logic. In such cases, it’s the great cat that mostly pays the ultimate price in the end.

One must live the life here to feel the difference. What you can and cannot do is decided by sunrise and sunset, by the depth of the night’s dark, by what you can read from the signs of the jungle at that moment. It’s not living in fear — that wouldn’t be sustainable. It’s living with an acknowledgement that there are powers greater than man, that while the forest has treasures to give and sustain, it can also take it away with gut-wrenching cruelty.

Our walk has been long and beautiful; we’ve heard stories, learning so much about life here. We begin to head back. As we leave, we see a woman at the water’s edge, up ahead. She’s been doing her washing the entire time we’ve been there. She’ll still be here when we’re gone, alone and busy at the riverbank, in a forest where a tiger has walked a few hours before. And it’ll be the same tomorrow as well.

That’s life out here, and its acceptance. In the end, the best tiger habitat remains the human mind, and we leave hoping that it may always be so.

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