There have been at least 434 cases of tigers attacking cattle and humans in Karnataka in 2020-21, registering a 37% increase in such encounters from around 316 in 2019-20, according to data from the state forest department.
This includes at least nine deaths of humans in two years, around 10-12 cases of injuries while a majority of them are of cattle being attacked or killed, according to the department.
The increasing encounters come even as around 150 forest department and other personnel continued combing operations for a human-eating tiger in the coffee-growing region of Kodagu, about 225 km from Bengaluru.
“Territorial fights are the problem as youngsters will push the older ones out, who then move towards human settlements and cattle,” Subhash Malkhade, Additional Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), said. He added that there were no problems of encroachments, poaching or shortage of food within the forests in the state.
This particular tiger, who remains at large in Kodagu for nearly eight months now, was suspected to have killed at least three persons, critically injured another person and has so far preyed on around 25 cattle in the district, prompting angry reactions from people living in the region, who have blocked highways and other roads in protest.
However, activists, environmentalists and conservationists have raised concerns over the efforts, which according to them, have so far proved ineffective for reasons including use of inexperienced personnel, the department of being insular from science and expertise, inability to control large crowds, estate owners and even one BJP legislator among others who have been itching to shoot or kill the tiger.
On February 21, the forest department had captured a tigress lurking in the locality and the one on the prowl currently is believed to be a male.
“The same mistakes and tragic loss of human lives occur repeatedly when things are mishandled. When an animal becomes habituated to preying on humans it must be killed immediately using the quickest possible method and by real experts not by blundering around for days trying to “rescue” it,” K Ullas Karanth, veteran wildlife biologist and one of India’s well known experts on the subject, said.
He added that the delays in capture of big cats fuel public animosity as the obsession with “saving every individual cat” was an attitude problem, which was neither scientific nor useful to contain the conflict.
The incident in Kodagu also highlights the problem of a large number of wildlife forced out of reserves for various other reasons.
In a 2018 report from the Centre titled, ‘Status of Tigers, copredators & prey in India’, it was shown that only around 1,923 big-cats live within the reserves while around 35% of them were outside the protected forests.
With an estimated 524 tigers on last official count, Karnataka is home to the second largest population of these big cats spread over forest ranges like Bandipur, Nagarhole, Biligiri Ranganatha Swamy Temple (BRT) and Bhadra among other reserves.
But a growing number of wild animals like tigers, leopards and elephants straying into areas of human settlements, agricultural lands and plantations in search of food outside the forest have been another major reason.
Forest department data shows that there have been 17,561 human-animal conflicts in Karnataka in 2020-21 as against 16,314 in 2019-20.
Incidents of leopards killing and dragging away dogs, livestock and calves have also been reported from across the state, including Bengaluru, where an increase in commercial activity around ecologically sensitive and fragile areas have led to more big cats wandering out of the forest in search of food.
The death—natural or unnatural—of wildlife often garners an outpour of anger and grief on social media largely from people living in cities who are also the most frequent visitors to the tens of hundreds of jungle resorts and safaris that have mushroomed over the last decade or so to accommodate the growing demand.
Karnataka is possibly the only state to continue safaris even during the monsoon, leaving very little room for the forest to remain without the noise of jeeps filled with tourists and nature enthusiasts, snaking through them all year long.
Over 3.46 lakh people visited national parks and sanctuaries in Karnataka in 2020-21 (until November) due to Covid-19 induced travel restrictions. This number on an average hovers over the 15-lakh mark in normal years.
Other developmental projects like railways, roads, construction of resorts, homestays and other works also tend to displace wild animals.
“There is no effort to reclaim wildlife corridors that can help animals pushed out of one territory to move into another forest area,” Joseph Hoover, a wildlife activist said.
He added that there should be an effort by authorities to hire and use the services of only those people with critical wildlife skills in such areas and not those who “buy” postings on recommendations by elected representatives and others.
The government, experts said, are more interested in showing an inflated and often misleading increase in forest cover than reclaiming corridors and allowing commercial activities to flourish, leading to eroding buffer zones around these jungles.
Though such conflicts are limited to specific landscapes, Karanth said, that better reproductive rates on account of effective strategies to contain poaching and other reasons has led to higher densities of tigers given that each female can produce 10-15 cubs in its lifetime.
“This is producing some annual surplus of tigers in this region, which are dispersing into human dominated landscapes. Most such animals are either old that have been evicted naturally from their home ranges and in some cases younger animals of 2-4 years of age that are in search of home ranges to settle down,” Karanth said.
Shrinking spaces forces a higher density of tigers in these areas, which activists claim, has left tigers with less than 10 square km of territory as against earlier requirements of over 25 sq km, forcing more conflicts within them and pushing them closer to human civilisation.
Experts also reason that while there may be no encroachments from outside, human settlements from within these parks are a problem for the future as governments stall on requests by forest dwellers to be relocated.
“It increases the animosity of people towards tigers, negatively impacts opinion of policy makers towards tigers, increases the risk of assault to frontline staff of the forest department, and causes many other indirect problems. Until conflict is brought down to tolerable limits, wildlife conservation becomes a serious pinch point,” Sanjay Gubbi, a wildlife scientist said.