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The Man-Eating Syndrome

The Man-Eating Syndrome

There are now eleven Tiger Reserves in India. Hopefully, there will soon be more. The killing of tigers and their commercial exploitation is banned, but along with the desire to save the tiger there exists a blind determination to exploit his habitat. The tiger is our national animal and an international status symbol, but we have not been able to muster sufficient political support to prevent the destruction of his homeland.

This has led to the socio-ecological clash we call the "Man-eating problem" The grim portents are everywhere. Man and beast are increasingly pitted against each other. Why can't we see that our lives are enmeshed with the natural systems that we are systematically destroying?

The trucks rolled into my farm just after daybreak. As the occupants alighted and milled around the vehicles, one of them, a government official, strode towards my doorway. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, I knew there was bad news in store. The day before, ten miles west of Tiger Haven, at Visenpuri, a boy had been killed and partially eaten by a tiger. Would I come and shoot the animal?

Visenpuri is an area where a re-settlement scheme was being implemented. From the start, despite generous incentives, the landless labourers from eastern Uttar Pradesh who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the scheme, were just not enthused. Now, the official pleaded, the whole scheme was in jeopardy as the new `landlords' were talking of abandoning their holdings out of fear that the man-eater would devour their families. I had misgivings about the story as I knew these particular settlers were a lazy lot, who preferred not to work if they could find less strenuous ways of earning money. Over the past few months I was witness to the charade, as one by one they sold their bullocks (which had been presented to them by the government), then collected a sack of old bones and skeletons from the marshes and proclaimed in loud voices that a sher had robbed them of their livelihood. To add insult to injury, they would now also claim compensation from the government for the cattle that had been `lifted'.

I reluctantly agreed to accompany the men and was taken to the site of the killing. I saw the pug-marks of a large male tiger, but could not confirm the veracity of their story as the boy's body had already been disposed off by the time I arrived. Accidents in sugarcane fields with disturbed tigers were not unheard of and I did not doubt that the unfortunate boy had, in fact, been killed. I was not at all sure however, that his body had been eaten. Already the misadventure to which I had committed myself had begun to seem iniquitous.

After much discussion, it was decided that baits should be tied for the tiger each day. For over a month they remained untouched. Just as I began to believe that my misgivings were unfounded, I received a message that the suspected man-eater had killed a tethered buffalo the night before. Later in the day I sat on a machan and waited for the tiger's return. From my perch I could see only the head and rib-cage of the buffalo, which was all that had remained of the kill. Hours passed by slowly and a constant drizzle made me both wet and uncomfortable. Then, a little before dusk, a large tiger appeared about 90 metres away accompanied by a smaller, sleeker female. I could see them nuzzling each other. The male advanced cautiously towards the kill; he never heard the shot that killed him as he sank to the ground.

There was no obvious reason for believing that he would have turned into a man-eater as he was healthy and in good condition. To this day I feel the boy's death was nothing more than an accidental encounter. But this was a world ruled by men, not tigers, and the government official felt that a life for a life was perfectly justified. Had I refused to kill the handsome animal, some eager sportsman would have been called in and I know, from experience, that such individuals would rarely have the courage to follow a wounded cat to despatch it. The tigress called pathetically that night and for some days to follow. By the time she was shot, two months later, she had been reduced to skin and bones. As for the resettlement scheme, it succeeded, but only when hardworking peasants from the Punjab slowly acquired the land from the original colonists.

It is fairly safe to presume that the killing of humans by tigers has always been a co-existential hazard. Originally, man was probably a prey species, but, once his social evolution was complete, his death on account of the tiger became an occupational risk faced only when he entered tiger territory. Once man took to living in social groups, the habitat requirements of the two species separated. Additionally, man took to wearing clothes, walking erect, talking loudly and moving in groups. He visited tiger country only during the day and his very strange and unfamiliar actions led the tiger to shun him. At this stage, forest habitats were still virtually unlimited as the growing land demands of the human population had not attained the magnitude evident today and extensive buffer areas still existed between forests and cultivation. Gradually and then at a frightening pace, tiger habitats shrank, buffer zones disappeared and a massive exploitation degraded the forests to an irreparable travesty of their former luxuriance. Humans had returned to live in the forest. The life-style of the tiger was now radically altered and it is with this background that measures aimed at preserving the animal must be viewed.

Probably the first detailed account of man-eating activities was the "Man-eaters of Tsavo" written by Col. J.H. Patterson, being the story of two man-eating lions who held up the rail-building activities in East Africa for almost a year in 1898. Brief, and much more recent, accounts have been given by George Adamson and Norman Carr. In India, man-eating adventures were made famous by Corbett who wrote about such events from the 1900s to the early thirties. This was followed by Kenneth Anderson who worked in South India and produced reams of fiction, of dubious utility in a modern assessment of cause and effect. Though it is essential to study past accounts to appreciate the nature of the man-eating problem that we face at present, it must also be appreciated that the context was entirely different. The tiger was then the prime target of trophy hunters, sport killers and commercial outfitters, and the glamour attached to its killing made it into the `most dangerous' animal in the world. On the basis of the old cliche, that truth is stranger than fiction, shikar story-tellers sought to copy the style of detective fiction writers. The gruesome killings, the subtle deductions, the narrow escapes, the quickness of the draw by the ace detective, and the breathless climax when right triumphs over wrong, are all matched by the intrepid shikari. And his unfaltering aim lays low the tiger, the master criminal, as he is about to claim another victim! Could anyone deny poetic licence to the scribe, or kudos to the hunter who rescued a community at the risk of his life by killing `savage' animals?

Jim Corbett often expressed a sympathy for the man-eating tigers and leopards he felt compelled to kill, yet he also killed a number of innocent animals from some inner compulsion. Corbett was a conservationist but he was also a killer, albeit with a conscience. He suggested that tigers or leopards became man-eaters chiefly as a result of old age or after being wounded. Our modern experience establishes that these causes were strictly local problems, aggravated by the scarcity of normal prey species. Even a superficial examination will establish that old age by itself is not a causal factor, as animals do not automatically take to an alien diet without intensive compulsion; and if it were so, we would always have a run of old tigers eking out their final years on a diet of human flesh. Wounds may be a compelling factor, but usually on a long-term basis. For example, I know of a tigress whom I had to shoot as it took to man-eating after her jaw had been broken by a poacher's bullet. The wound, after a considerable elapse of time, had calloused over leaving the tiger little hope of finding normal prey. On the other hand, we also have several case studies to illustrate that wounded tigers have starved, without having taken to human flesh. One gut-shot tiger lived for a month; another, speared repeatedly in the rump after being caught in a trap, died of septicemia and starvation five weeks later, in the midst of human habitation. Neither killed anyone. A sub-adult, with a porcupine quill embedded in his lung, died of starvation in the centre of a populated zone. Two male tigers, each with a broken forepaw, lived near cultivation for two years before they were shot as `potential' man-eaters (sic).

That prey scarcity is the cause of man-eating is actually highlighted by the fact that many of Corbett's man-eaters had been injured by porcupine quills, for porcupines are not a delicacy as is generally supposed. Their flesh is unappetising and stringy and would be consumed only if other, more favoured, foods were unavailable. I have, in fact, witnessed a tiger painstakingly kill a porcupine and then reject its meat.

Under normal circumstances then, man will not be preyed upon. For though he is in the forest, he is not of the forest and it is an accepted fact that tigers and leopards shun unfamiliar `animals'. Moreover, as most wild animals are essentially conservative in their feeding habits, it would require extreme persuasion for them to undertake any dietary change.

Many canards have been propagated about the great cats' taste for blood, and the classic example is that of the lion who licked his sleeping master's hand. Soon the rasping tongue drew blood and the lion ate the master! I have kept both leopards and a tiger over a period of eight years, and sometimes their sharp claws inadvertently drew blood as they played with me. Often they did lick my blood, but I was never attacked by them. I reiterate, that only prolonged deprivation would embolden cats to turn into man-eaters. Their temperament enables them to go for long stretches without a meal, and, more often than not, we are given adequate warning of a tiger's impending `crimes'. In any case I have never understood people's instant condemnation of these handsome creatures on account of the unfortunate actions of a few stray individuals.

The Doctrine of Anthropomorphism has been the greatest single factor which has created a divide between the human and the animal; where killing of a man is murder, that of wildlife is sport. Apart from the erroneous presumption that we can learn nothing from animals, we endeavour to further differentiate ourselves from them by giving other names to those natural functions of theirs, which are the same as ours.

For example, they drop a litter, whereas we give birth; we undergo a pregnancy, whereas for tigers it is a gestation, etc. With such conscious discrimination it is much more difficult to establish an emotional bond, which is the only way that we can protect wildlife. We have arrogated to ourselves the role of hunters, whereas the true hunters are the great predators who kill only because they must eat. At sometime during our evolution we must have hunted for food, though this was unlikely to be an imperative since man is an omnivorous animal. Therefore, it must be with some amusement that we view the suggestions of certain `stalwarts' that the fiercely one-sided massacre of tigers, indulged in by our erstwhile ruling princes, was nothing more than a reversion to an inherited instinct for hunting. How can the killing of thousands of birds at the viceregal shoots of Bikaner and Bharatpur, the cutting of trophy heads of innumerable swamp deer at gubernatorial battles at Singhai and the killing by J.A. Hunter, a Briton, of 1,600 African rhinos be termed hunting? Those were progroms. They were the acts of butchers.

Fortunately, times have changed. The youth of today find little pleasure in blood sport (perhaps because there is hardly anything left to kill). But the other problem, that of habitat destruction, could be the undoing of all efforts to save our wildlife. Even as we create isolated pockets of protection, within which carnivore populations will eventually exceed the carrying capacity, we can expect that the spillover into buffer zones will lead to confrontations with man. Sugarcane fields, notorious for harbouring man-eaters, are no doubt grim places for poor crop owners to venture. But consider why do cats turn into man-eaters at all? Why are the farmers' lives placed in such jeopardy in the first place? Driven out of their natural homes by excessive human intrusion, tigresses give birth in cultivated fields for temporary seclusion. Soon their milk begins to dry and as crop protection guns have slaughtered much of their potential prey, the cats are often on the verge of starvation. If a man walks right into a tigress' jaws at this point, what is she expected to do? Both species need a measure of sympathy. Yet only one gets that sympathy.

Buffer zones need to come under special governance to enable us to reduce incidents of conflict. Crops such as sugarcane should ideally be replaced by others that afford tigers less cover. Though this will act as a damper on the increase in tigers surviving to maturity in the protected forests, I feel this is preferable to exposing people to the risk of being predated upon. For with every act of man-eating the tiger loses the sympathy of those from whom he needs it most – the people who live in and around forests.

Additionally, tigers isolated near habitation should be immobilized and translocated to more suitable areas. If the errant animals are females they would be relatively safe from the aggression of resident tigers in the new area. Even if such attempts occasionally do result in the death of the translocated animal, the effort must be made, because the alternative is to allow it to become a potential cattle lifter or man-eater.

Though most attacks on humans by carnivores may well be the result of mistaken identity (women bent double as they wash clothes or pick dropped wood from the forest floor for instance, could easily be taken for deer, wild boar or other regular prey), we cannot ignore the fact that certain specific areas have become consistently notorious for man-eating incidents. Historically, Kalahandi in Orissa and Mandla and Chanda in Madhya Pradesh were always reputed to harbour man-eating tigers.  There is, even today, one place where man-eating is considered to be endemic – the Sunderbans.

Literally meaning `Beautiful Forest', this strange and inhospitable land is a deltaic mosaic of mangrove swamps dominated by tidal waves from the brackish waters of the Bay of Bengal. The harsh ecological conditions have led the Sunderbans tigers to evolve into an almost separate sub-species of semi-aquatic marsh dwellers. And the innumerable woodcutters, honey collectors and fishermen, operating in the area have begun to be treated as normal prey species by some of these tigers, despite the fact that chital and wild boar are plentiful.

During times of floods, caused by storms or unusually high tides, the tigers find it difficult to hunt larger mammals and they have therefore developed a taste for fish. Often, fishermen who enter the reserve stay overnight and their boats, filled with catch, attract the attention of tigers. In reaching for the fish, tigers have often been confronted by sleepy, frightened men who are thus killed more by chance than design. The starved cats, who cannot after all be expected to differentiate between human and animal meat, are now branded man-eaters.

In the early seventies, a scientist was sent out by the IUCN to study the man-eating problem in the Sunderbans. Unfortunately, his investigations were perforce interrupted by the Bangladesh war and remained incomplete, but in his interim report he identified three types of resident tigers of whom only three per cent habitually pursued humans as prey. Though not a blanket condemnation of all the tigers, this elevated the problem to a status of its own. He even suggested that an intake of saline water may have caused some physiological damage to their internal organs thus inducing the tigers to accept humans as a prey species. This view is of course rejected by the Director of Project Tiger, and even to me it certainly seems unlikely that this kind of deterioration of their natural functions should affect only a small percentage of the tigers.

The Sunderbans Tiger Project should continually strive to solve this vexatious problem. Fortunately, nowhere else in India has the problem of inveterate man-eaters been known. No human casualty has ever been recorded for the Siberian race and it was only the defoliant bombing of the Korean and Vietnam wars which led to the reliance of the Indo-Chinese tiger on readily available human corpses.

Three cases of man-eating took place in the Dudhwa National Park, a forest block of nearly 200 sq. miles with which I have been closely associated. The incidents were caused by the decimation of prey animals by Nepalese cultivators on the border. However, by artificial feeding during a time of stress, a tiger family was successfully weaned away from man-killing, and over four years have now gone by without incident. Not many however, have the patience or inclination to take such painstaking measures to solve man-eating problems. In the 80 sq.km.  Kishanpur Sanctuary in South Kheri Division, continued human intrusion and the resultant forest fires, have so degraded the understorey that there is no cover left. The grasses of low-lying areas have been illegally auctioned for thatching, and five people have been killed while entering these grasses which are the only available cover left for tigers. The remaining forest areas of so-called commercial forestry are even worse off because encroachment is legal. Here cultivation surrounds isolated forest blocks. Crop protection firearms have virtually exterminated wild prey. Livestock graze in the forest. Forest lease holders `legally' clear-fell slow yielding timbers, and they plant quick maturing commercial trees, like eucalyptus, in their place.

It was in such an area that I was invited to investigate a case of a man-eater. When I arrived at the Barauchcha Naal, which was one of the few good habitats left, I was informed by the locals that a tigress had killed buffalo bait and was earmarked for destruction. As I had been told there were five other tigresses in the area, I enquired how they knew that this was the particular tigress who had made the kill. There was no reply though the question was not a popular one and my opinion was not asked for again. I received information that there was only one male tiger in the area who was known as the Sant or holy one, who had never harmed anyone. However, in the pathetic witch-hunt that followed, a tiger and tigress with no man-eating record were shot, including poor Sant.

In a democracy, wildlife cannot live without the will of the people. Unless the people living on the periphery are benefitting from the wildlife areas, and are proud of it, that area cannot exist. Yet in India if a tiger kills the draught animal of one of the peripheral inhabitants, no effective compensation is payable, as the Central Government has unilaterally committed the states for payment, whereas the states say they cannot afford payment. The result is that tigers are poisoned in reprisal.

The Forest Department, a commercial organisation, has charge of wildlife because of administrative convenience, but the department resists expansion of wildlife areas as the Indian Wildlife Act of 1972 lays down that such areas will not be exposed to commercial exploitation. Small islands of conservation are therefore constantly under seige from human invaders. The result is that most tiger areas are too small to possess a viable genetic diversity. In spite of a temporary increase in numbers, tigers will, in future, surely suffer from the effects of inbreeding. The great predators are essentially territorial animals, and though a good deal of tolerance is possible among conspecifics when there is plenty of prey available, there are limits beyond which a population cannot increase in a given spatial area. Thereafter, numbers become self-adjusting, either by superfluous animals moving into buffer areas if available, through intraspecific competition, or by restriction of the breeding rate in tigresses owing to the stresses of overcrowding. It can be seen then, that small populations will inevitably run the risk of deterioration. The IUCN, which is a scientific body dealing with natural species, recommends a contiguous population of 300 tigers to maintain a viable gene pool. This would require a minimum habitat area of between 2,000 to 3,000 sq. miles, and is available nowhere in India. (Though the Sunderbans and Manas would qualify as international reserves if suitable areas could be added to these Projects.)

In an underdeveloped country, where the majority of people live under subsistence levels, the conservation of wildlife is often initiated by international influences and must therefore be a political and controlled by a Directing Authority.

A drastic rationalisation of the wildlife concept is now necessary with a greater acceptance of its international affiliations, and must come about in the next decade otherwise it will be too late. We must accept the principle of complete environmental protection with the tiger at the apex of the biotic pyramid as a symbol. Wildlife habitats should be inviolate and free of all commercial intrusion by humans. The only means now is the establishment of extensive, and where possible, International Biosphere Reserves in which the human population exists in a symbiotic relationship with wildlife. The peripheral human inhabitant must not be allowed to exploit wildlife habitats for purposes of gathering temporary building material or harvesting of fuel and firewood, but provided with pre-fabricated hutments, solar or biogas cookers and the option of acquiring stall-fed cattle. Controlled, wildlife-oriented tourism and game ranching should be encouraged, based on the employment of local labour. It is only if the voting public wishes wildlife to live, that the politician will allow it to do so. Financial assistance will readily be available from the United Nations and other foreign agencies for they wish us to save the tiger and would be more than willing to provide funds to preserve its habitat.

Finally, as an example of an International Biosphere Reserve, I would suggest that the forests of Bahraich, Kheri and Pilibhit, together with the Wildlife Reserves of Sukla Phanta and Karnali of Nepal and the intermediate areas of human population in India and Nepal, be combined to create such a model Reserve. Wildlife can only be saved now by a crusade, and crusades must have an emotional appeal. A bureaucratic approach weighed purely on the merits of short-term financial gains, will surely lead to a gradual erosion of this concept. It is also essential that motivated persons should increasingly associate themselves with the conservation of wildlife. Opposition to the lackadaisical protection being afforded to forests, must be loud and strong. Today, politicians can buy votes with trees, but when the damage is complete, no one will be able to buy trees with votes.

It must be accepted, that the man-eating problem is, in fact, man-created and should therefore be man-solved. And the solution I might add is certainly not to exterminate tigers, as some imbecilic individuals have recently suggested. Our solutions lie in maintaining the sanctity of our forests.

Author: By Arjan Singh, October/December 1982.


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Bittu Sahgal

August 9, 2014, 09:27 PM
 Billy Arjan Singh is no more but his purpose lives on in the minds and hearts of millions of tiger defenders.
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August 9, 2014, 06:50 PM
 Very interesting article sir. All people - including those who reside on the fringes of tiger-inhabited forests - should understand what you said in the last paragraph.