It is hard to unravel the myth of the tiger without coming across the word man-eater. The British shot problem cats not just to eliminate the problem, but also to demonstrate power over their subjects, both tigers and people. A particular canon of wildlife literature, led by Kenneth Anderson and Jim Corbett, focused on man-eating tigers, placing them firmly in popular culture.
The idea is shocking: A beast that stalks and eats people on purpose, described almost as a different species from other tigers that tend to walk away when faced with human beings. Due to reasons such as injury or over-familiarisation with people, some tigers do rarely prey on people, and need to be immediately put down. However, the construct of a man-eater is also about power and performance, rather than solutions. As the animal is demonised, simultaneously the hunter is built up, inextricable from a spectacle that culminates in displaying a dead trophy. Words like man-eater, trophies and cattle-lifter are part of the colonial legacy in a country that is still finding its feet on the human-wildlife conflict discourse.
The way man-eaters were dealt with was colonial and outdated
Images of a hunter with a gun, standing with his foot over the dead bodies of tigers and leopards have been in recent circulation, triggering furious debates on the anachronism of the messaging. This month though, the National Tiger Conservation Authority buried the word man-eater forever, directing that problem tigers be henceforth referred to as dangerous tigers. It also directed that only shooters from the government should put down dangerous tigers, suggesting the operations will be more about problem-solving than creating larger-than-life personas of the “brave” hunter.
In a country where hunting wild animals is prohibited, what rankles is not just the pomp around “hunting” problem animals, but a servile forest department trailing behind the hero-hunter.
Earlier guidelines read that an outsider could be brought in to eliminate the “man-eater”. Now, the new Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) specify that “after declaring the animal as dangerous to human life, its elimination should be done by a [forest] departmental personnel having the desired proficiency… or an expert may be co-opted from other competent government departments”. It also specifies that any appropriate bore gun can be used to shoot a tiger, as opposed to the previous guidelines that specified a .375 bore magnum. A .375 bore gun is prohibitively expensive. Perhaps inadvertently, the earlier guidelines privileged a wealthy shooter over others.
The new SOP is a progressive step not just because its shrugs off an unfortunate and elitist colonial legacy, but also because it exhorts building the field skills of the forest department. Wildlife and forest management is couched in terms like “natural resource management” or “working plans”. This sounds quite mechanical, but in reality is anything but that. Tracking tigers requires serious effort and building experience. Poor light and difficult terrain are everyday realities. Recently, an injured tiger was trapped among the rocks near Chandrapur, Maharashtra. It took several hours to even create a path to reach the animal; and this was a tiger that was not moving (it died eventually). In conflict situations, and in habitat that could be anything from mountain to swamp, it is far from easy to establish which is the problem tiger, let alone get a chance to confront it. Speaking to forest officers gives a clear idea that the wrong “man-eater” has often been put down or caged, without proper identification processes. This is often a response to mounting public pressure.
India has about 3,000 tigers, and there are increasing road, rail, dam and project pressures on tiger reserves and their buffer areas. In such a scenario, it is inevitable that the forest department needs to build its own capacity for tracking and tiger identification. Tracking is the life and blood of understanding not just the behaviour of tigers, but also the behaviour of a dangerous tiger.
Now, the same SOP should also be put in place for leopards. They are shot far more often than tigers, and present a more urgent challenge. Currently, dangerous leopards are being searched for and shot in Uttarakhand.
Last year, the hunting of Avni tigress in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal displayed all that was wrong with tiger tracking. More than 150 people, dogs, elephants and paragliders were reportedly involved in tracking the tigress. The media trailed each move; it was more a soap opera rather than a surgical operation. In the end, Avni was shot in the night and tranquilised without a veterinarian being present, against set guidelines. This may have ended a life, but it did not end the problem.
It is unconscionable to allow a tiger that eats people to remain at large.
For thousands of people who came together to ask for Avni’s life, the new SOP should provide direction. It is unconscionable to allow a tiger that eats people to remain at large. But building internal capacity for tracking tigers and identifying reasons for conflict would help treat the malaise, and not just the symptoms.
This appeared in Hindustan Times oped