In footsteps of a man-eater: As a tigress kills at will, villages live in fear | more lifestyle | Hindustan Times
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In footsteps of a man-eater: As a tigress kills at will, villages live in fear

The forest department has deployed cameras and camouflaged traps. They even called on a hunter from Hyderabad for help. A look at what it’s like to try and track an elusive killer

more lifestyle Updated: Dec 31, 2017 11:22 IST
Dipanjan Sinha
Shankar Atram, a cowherd, has made himself some armour out of waste metal. ‘I did this last month, after I saw a tiger in the forest,’ he says. ‘They usually go for the neck or back. I have done the best I can to save myself.’
Shankar Atram, a cowherd, has made himself some armour out of waste metal. ‘I did this last month, after I saw a tiger in the forest,’ he says. ‘They usually go for the neck or back. I have done the best I can to save myself.’ (Pratik Chorge / HT Photo)

It’s 4 pm. The mellow winter sun gives way to a crisp breeze on the outskirts of Borati village in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district.

Beyond the cotton fields, a slight man watches over a herd of grazing cows. The mild chill doesn’t explain his attire. His torso is wrapped in a band of rusted metal. A similar band wrapped around his neck has sharp spokes pointing outwards. The armour is fastened and secured with a lock and key.

“I made this gear last month after I saw a tiger in the forest,” says Shankar Atram, 48. He earns a living as a cowherd — Rs 150 per animal per month, he says.

“The only way to survive a tiger is to keep all your senses alert. They usually hide among cattle or up in trees and then attack.”

He’s been on high alert since the death of Sonabai Bhosale, who was mauled by a tigress in June 2016; he’s been terrified since he saw the animal himself last month.

“I have done the best I can to save myself,” he says. “When a tiger attacks from the back, they usually go for the neck. I am ready,” he says.

***

In 13 villages near Pandharkawada town, night now arrives before daylight fades. Fields ripe with cotton are deserted by 5 pm. Early mornings are still and quiet.

These villages had never recorded a tiger attack before June 2016, when 60-year old Bhosale of Borati was mauled and killed. Since then there have been nine tiger deaths, the last on December 9 in Vihirgaon village.

“In 2015, we first tracked the two big cats in the patches of forest here, which adjoin the Tipeshwar wildlife sanctuary. Through our network of tracker cameras in the forest, we have been able to confirm that there are a tiger and a tigress in the area,” says KM Abharna, deputy conservator of forests for Pandharkawada.

The process for confirming that the tigress was involved in the killings is similar. Tracking images show that she was in the area before each kill.

Cotton swabs from the bodies of the last three victim and animal hair collected from the spot were also sent to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad and the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, which have confirmed that it is the tigress that is attacking humans.

It’s a tricky business, convicting an animal of human kills.

“If the wrong animal is targeted, even to be tranquillised and taken away from its habitat, it could lose the ability to live in the wilderness again. Due to its reduced capacity to hunt it may attack humans as easier prey,” Abharna says. “But if the animal that is preying on humans is allowed to roam free, there is a risk to other human lives, an added risk that people living in the area will panic and start to consider all animals man-hunters.”

The forest department has put up signs and red flags on roads that they consider danger zones. (Pratik Chorge/HT Photo)

There are now 70 people from the forest department, including veterinary and range officers, and members of the NGO Wildlife Conservation Trust, are struggling to track the animal down.

They’ve been at it since September. More than 60 camera traps have been planted; a Hyderabad-based hunter who now works with forest departments across the country was called in, with his tranquilliser darts. But no one has seen the big cat.

***

Teams like that of veterinary officer Dr Ravikant Khobragade are using newer methods to try and capture the animal. On December 20, Khobragade had some success with an innovative cage that blends perfectly into the vegetation. The team left two buffaloes inside it as bait and waited in tree machans.

“Before dawn, the animal killed the buffaloes and even entered the cage. We just needed to shut the exit and entry once it had entered a little more. But then we realised that it was the male and let it go,” he says.

In the chase for the killer tiger, the animal has been innovating and adapting too, and the terrain works in its favour. “A standard procedure for capturing tigers is to watch the spot where it had stashed its kill, because it always returns to the spot to eat. But this tigress has not come back in any of the cases. Whenever it senses any disturbance, it goes into a deep gorge in the area or into dense forest, where the bushes are so close together that a person cannot walk through them,” says Abharna.

Mangala Pawar, 28, seen here with her daughter, lost her husband Gajanan to a tigress attack in August. (Pratik Chorge / HT Photo)

Meanwhile, tranquiliser darts have a range of just 15 to 20 metres.

“This is very challenging terrain,” says the Hyderabad-based conservationist and government-authorised shooter Nawab Shafath Ali Khan. “And it’s the worst time of year to try and tranquilise a tiger. The vegetation is very thick and the post-monsoon cotton crop makes visibility very poor. Even shooting one would be difficult in these conditions.”

Khan is also concerned about the potential for further loss of life and man-animal conflict, the longer the tigress roams free. “Having such an animal on the prowl effectively turns about 25,000 villagers into enemies of all tigers in the area,” he says.

As the clock continues to tick, the forest department is now considering applying for permission to have the tigress shot. “We have already given order to dart and the process is going on. I have received files for the case of the tigress. I will have to go through it carefully and will take a call by next week,” says chief wildlife warden, AK Mishra, the man who would give permission to pull the trigger.

***

Already, the long wait is wearing out the villagers. “We always start work in the farms before 7 am and work till at least 6 in the evening during harvest season. But now we are all avoiding going into the fields,” says Karrulal Singh Rathore of Banda village.

Initially, this anger spilled over onto the forest department. When 20-year-old Satish Kove of Sakhi village was mauled to death in September, villagers from Sakhi and Banda got together in an angry mob and blocked the department’s access to the site.

The two sides are now working together to prevent more such attacks. The department has placed red flags along roads considered dangerous, especially at night. Villagers are paying heed to these warnings and taking other elaborate precautions.

A forest official at a camera trap. More than 60 have been added in the region to try and track the tigress but she has adapted too. She never revisits a kill zone, and she hides out in gorges covered in bracken so thick that even the trackers cannot follow. (Pratik Chorge / HT Photo)

“Before the women enter the field to pluck cotton, we burst crackers and play drums to scare away the tiger. Also, we ensure that everyone now works in the fields in groups of four or more,” says Singh.

“Our biggest achievement in this period is that we have been able to get a large section of the villagers to cooperate and follow campaigns avoiding the forest and moving in groups for the time being,” she says.

But the villagers still have doubts about how the forest department is going about things. They don’t understand why the tigress can’t just be shot. The delay is making them jittery.

Sadly, this kind of impasse is only likely to become more common. Incidents of animal attacks and deaths like these are only going to increase in the coming years, says Anish Andheria, president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust.

“Every year the non-protected forest area in the country is getting degraded as the land is being used for grazing and farming. Tigers are also leaving their sanctuaries in search of food and water, and people and predators are coming face to face.”

***

Back at Palaskund village, it’s 8 pm and a group of villagers are huddled around a fire. One spotted a tiger less than a kilometre away from the village on December 18.

“It was nearly the size of a cow, casually passing by,” says Shankar Pawar. “I was so startled that I dropped the logs I was carrying. I was terrified the tiger would notice me but thankfully it didn’t.” In the darkness, there’s a hushed silence. “Should we just wait for the next time,” asks one villager. There is no answer.