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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mass hysteria claims a tiger’s life

Uncomfortable questions arise over the brutal killing of a starving tiger in Wayanad in Kerala recently. Wildlife authorities and the State Government too are responsible and must take the blame for it A tiger was shot dead near Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala. Those who pulled the trigger on our national animal — egged on by a mob — had the ‘license to kill’, invoking Section 11(1)A of the Wildlife Protection Act for “self-defence”. But was it really so, given that the tiger had almost collapsed with the two tranquilliser shots, before the trigger was pulled? And how did the situation come to this stage? Individual tigers may need to be killed when circumstances warrant it. In extreme circumstances, when a tiger turns man-eater, the law provides that the tiger may be eliminated by the order of the Chief Wildlife Warden. This was clearly not the case here. The tiger had killed cattle, for which there is provision for compensation. Moreover, this year, as compared to earlier years, the number of cattle kills were substantially lower at around 60, from 130 odd in the last year. So why was he pursued, mobbed and lynched? The situation that led to this tragic climax can be pinned down to myth, media and mismanagement. For the past two months, Wayanad has been in the grip of mass hysteria, due to the myth that there are ‘too many tigers’, allegedly 80, in the sanctuary — a fallacy perpetuated and hyped with much pride. Given that Wayanad is barely 350 sq km, this was highly unlikely, raising questions about the ad hoc camera trapping and interpretation of results done by the state. Importantly, the rumour strangely discounted the fact that Wayanad is part of the Nagarahole-Bandipur-Mudumalai tiger complex, and that there would be a floating population of tigers, criss-crossing man made State and reserve boundaries. This was later proven from the photographic database available with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India. Their tiger monitoring programme spanning over two decades, has pictures of over 600 individual tigers. Using their stripe-pattern identification software, it was confirmed that the tiger killed was first camera- trapped in Nagarahole in February 2005. It was also established that this was the same ‘cattle-lifting’ tiger that had been captured, and then released, earlier in November 2012. He was old, over 10, and clearly not in robust health. Why then was the decision taken to release such a tiger, knowing that there was every risk of it turning cattle-lifter — and thereby a potential conflict hazard? Given the high density of the Nagarahole-Bandipur complex of about 10-12 tigers per 100 sq km, their high reproduction potential, coupled with high disturbance and human habitation, particularly near Wayanad, conflict is to be expected. Wildlife managers need to be geared up to be able to handle such situations. One can understand the rage and plight of those who lost their cattle, and the helplessness of officials caught in a frenzied mob, but it’s difficult to fathom the unpreparedness of the forest staff and the administration to handle the mob, given that conflict — even fatal conflict with elephants — is pretty much a way of life in Wayanad. And who will question the media, which treated every cow killed as ‘breaking news’, or the politicians who jumped in the fray promising “elimination of the tiger”, drumming up hysteria and building hostile public opinion, which, in this case, led to attacks on forest staff, conservationists and highway blockades. What also added fuel to the fire was the panic that had spread over. Wayanad is being proposed as a tiger reserve. But the Chief Minister rushed in to placate the people there that that would not happen. In the first place, there is no such proposal. And why should it be met with such animosity anyway? Wayanad is already a ‘protected area’, and giving it the status of a tiger reserve would not have meant any further restriction, either on people, or on any development concern that the State might have. Nor does a tiger reserve mean forced eviction of people — another myth that is being perpetuated by certain lobbies. Yes, there is provision for an attractive rehabilitation package for voluntary relocation from core/critical tiger habitats, and increasingly, people facing hardship living in remote forests, are opting for it, to seek better opportunities and join the mainstream of society. The tribals living within Wayanad have been canvassing for relocation for years. Forty nine families were successfully relocated last year, but there are about 700 families waiting to go. They face immense difficulties — no access to basic facilities, crops, even lives, destroyed by elephants. They have petitioned the Union Minister for Environment and Forests to allocate funds for their relocation. If anything, making Wayanad a tiger reserve would have meant easier funds allocation for voluntary relocation, more focussed wildlife management, support for conflict mitigation, etc. The killing of the tiger is a costly tragedy not just for the tiger, and for conservation, but for the hitherto peaceful people of Wayanad who seek no harm for animals and only better lives for themselves. (The author is a member, National Board of Wildlife)

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