On the night of the locally auspicious Buddha Purnima that fell on 10th of May this year, the annual census of the animals in the Tadoba Tiger Reserve was taken by teams of one forest guard and two volunteers sitting overnight on each of the machans next to the remaining water bodies. They tabulate the number of such visitors to each water source over the night and in the visible range of the respective teams. The census happens on Buddha Purnima night because a lot of things come together. It is summer and because most of the watering holes have dried up, there are only a few water sources left for the animals. The full moon allows for better sighting. So, it is easier to count.
Early next morning on the 11th, a tiger in the core area of Tadoba killed one of the twelve Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra (FDCM) fire watchers that are employed from February to June every year to look out for and to try and control forest fires that are frequent in the scorching heat of the summer. Mangaldas Chaudhary, 46, had stepped out of the forest camp inside the reserve to attend to nature’s call. “Around 6 am, while he was probably squatting or sitting, a male tiger attacked the man on his neck, and killed him on the spot,” reports Kishore Mankar, the Deputy Director of the Tadoba core. As the tiger attacked him, barely 20 meters from where he was staying, the two companions with him ran away to alert the forest department over the wireless. A team of officials reached the spot around 8 am, but he was dead by the time his body could be recovered.
Soon after the incident, the forest department conducted a site inspection and a diary entry was made at the local police station. “This is the first time since the national park was notified that a tiger has attacked a human. Since there are no villages within the reserve forest, there was no question of an attack. However, the animal did not eat the body, which probably tells us that he did not realise that it was a human before attacking,” said Mankar, adding that, “the body was sent for post-mortem by 9 am on Thursday morning.” A compensation of Rs. 8 lakhs was promised to the kin of the deceased and employment in FDCM for his 20 year old son.
The forest camp where he was stationed has provision of toilets, but the elder lot, as is their usual practice, prefer to go out in the open for their daily abulations. In a dimly lit thick forest, squatting down behind a bush to defecate, in the middle of the tiger’s domain … the poor fellow was inviting serious trouble. These are wild creatures that have evolved to become large and superbly efficient killers.
Wildlife Institute of India (WII) scientist Bilal Habib, currently based in Tadoba, is of the view that it is an accident but authorities will now have to work backwards to find out why it has happened. “It has happened due to the lacunae on the human part. They should have seen the area properly, made noise when they moved out. Having gone to the jungle often, people tend to take things for granted. But in the jungle you never know when the animal is near, under a bush or under cover.”
The incident has happened next to the Tadoba lake, which is the territory of a male tiger named Matkasur and the female Maya, who are at present courting. Pugmarks at the site of the incident indicate that the attacker was a male. Officials have put camera traps to check the movements of the five or six tigers in that zone. Pugmarks, till recently used to identify individual tigers, can also help in narrowing down the identity but, the forest officials may, at this stage, prefer to play down the unfortunate incident.
Experience tells me that it actually was Matkasur who had carried out the fatal attack. He is a dominant male and no other male will normally dare to venture into his territory right now when he is courting a female.
Tourists and photographers visiting the park move in open gypsy vehicles and are safe mainly because the local tigers do not see human beings as a food item. Both of these tigers have iconic status in Tadoba and have otherwise been highly visible and tolerant of the teeming paparazzi. The award winning WII scientist Bilal Habib warns that “there has to be extra caution that has to be taken now especially by the tourists. Even though the two tigers are friendly but they are wild animals. We don’t know what is going on in their mind. They have tasted human blood and so at least for one month everyone needs to be very careful when they are around.”
If a tiger eats a human kill then it is more likely to do so whenever an opportunity arises. It may even begin to actively stalk and attack humans. On the other hand, if the tiger moves off from the human kill without eating it, as in this case, then the encounter may have been accidental and the concerned tiger may not remain a continuing threat to humans. For this reason the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India (NTCA) guidelines prefer a wait and watch strategy wherein a tiger is declared a maneater, tranquilised and sent to a zoo, after it has attacked or killed people four times in succession.
However, there are political ramifications. If there are widespread public protests, then shoot at sight orders may have be issued by the administration at any time under public pressure. If the local people adopt a retaliatory approach after a tiger – human conflict incident then most of the local tigers, and not just the offending animal, would be doomed anyway. Wildlife administrators and conservationists have to walk the thin line between wildlife conservation and public safety to successfully preserve and to protect the remaining wildlife habitats in the dense human populated landscape of India.