Most misguided efforts for tiger redistributions failed: K Ullas Karanath
Veteran wildlife biologist and a renowned expert on tigers, K Ullas Karanth, speaks to Sharan Poovanna on the concerns surrounding the human-animal conflict in Karnataka. Edited excerpts:
Has there been an increase in human-tiger conflict in Karnataka? If yes, what are the reasons behind it?
There has been an increase in the last two decades, but it is still relatively low and mostly restricted to the fringes of the landscape bordering the cluster of major reserves, i.e., Nagarahol National Park (Karnataka), Wayanad (Kerala), Bandipur (Karnataka), Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu) and Biligiri Ranganatha Swamy Temple (Karnataka). This entire area of about 3,000 sq km was relatively better protected from the 1970’s onwards and has attained a high number of tigers since then. Given the natural productivity of the species, one female can produce 10-15 cubs in her lifetime. This leads to an annual surplus of tigers in this region that are wandering off into human-dominated areas. Most of them are either older ones that have been evicted naturally from their home ranges while in some cases, it involves younger animals of two to four years of age which are in search of home ranges to settle down.
Are authorities dealing with the problem in the most effective way possible?
Not in my opinion, and this is not unique to Karnataka. It starts with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and most states handle these incidents with little professional skill or understanding of tiger ecology. The same mistakes and loss of human lives are repeated when the situation is not handled well. When an animal is habituated preying on humans, it must be killed immediately using the quickest possible method. It must be done only by experts and should not take days to “rescue” it as more lives continue to be lost during this period and public animosity towards parks and wildlife increases. This obsession over “saving every individual cat” is an attitude problem and not scientific or useful when it comes to dealing with human-animal conflict.
The forest department has said that there been no encroachment of forest land and there is no shortage of food for tigers in the jungles. Do you agree with this assessment?
In protected areas like Bandipur, I agree that there is no shortage of food. It is the very nature of their space use patterns. However in reserves like Nagarahol and BRT, an increasing number of humans in settlements within the parks are a major problem. While tigers which are killing people outside the forests can be isolated and shot at quickly, what will you do if these outbreaks happen inside the protected areas? Despite persistent demand from hundreds of forest-dwellers in Nagarahol who have petitioned to be relocated for more than a decade, no one has bothered to take any step. After some good work in the earlier years, this critical conservation step necessary to prevent conflicts has been stalled.
However, we must note that the encroachment of potential tiger habitat by humans continues in reserved and deemed forests. This is encouraged by the endless extension of Forest Rights Act procedures, which has caused significant damage. No one, including “conservationists” talk about this out of political correctness.
How can authorities contain this problem and what are the challenges they face to ensure the safety of both humans and tigers?
Outside the reserves in human-dominated landscapes, human safety must be prioritized. Money and time should not be wasted on ‘tiger rescue’, releasing captive bred tigers, needless translocations, etc. All these interventions only add to the problem.
Also, if the tigers involved are old and infirm, even if they are captured, they must be humanely euthanized immediately and not kept in captivity artificially for decades under stressful conditions. “Authorities” have become too insular towards science and expertise, and this needs a cultural change.
How have these incidents impacted tiger conservation efforts?
The public is becoming increasingly interested in wildlife conservation and as a result, local hunting has taken a dip compared to the 1970s in Karnataka. However, due to the conflict cases, the public is resistant towards the creation of new protected areas. This has come as a huge setback for tiger conservation because more habitats need to be conserved if we are to increase the tiger population beyond the 3,000 we have in India now.
Have the conservation efforts led to a higher density of tigers that has further created a new challenge?
I would not call them “conservation efforts”. They are artificial and excessive, misguided manipulations of vegetation and water, which have increased prey densities to unnaturally high levels. As a result, the number of tigers has also reached unnaturally high levels. These civil works and vegetation manipulations with huge budgetary outlays are drastically altering the natural state of the habitat and animal density levels. If the park budgets are drastically trimmed, the habitat will revert to a more natural state and prey and tiger densities will also settle down to those levels. We are turning our tiger habitats into “Disney-lands” and the ignorant tourists think that this is a great idea!
Can there be more coordination between states to redistribute these animals? What are the challenges to this proposal or approach?
It is utterly foolish to think of “redistributing tigers”. They are not chess pieces or cattle to be redistributed in this manner. The distribution will happen naturally once the prey base recovers, and the dispersing animals find new habitats. Most misguided efforts for tiger redistributions across India have failed and can have tragic consequences both for locals as well as the tigers. The problem is, in the absence of any scientific inputs on tiger management, only such failed ideas are going around again and again.
We have barely increased the tiger habitat in the last 50 years while the animal’s population has only increased from about 2,000 to 3,000. Look at the progress in other sectors India has made during the same period. It is a sad commentary indeed on the last two decades of failures in wildlife conservations.