The first rays of the rising sun gradually illuminated the name “Corbett” on the board outside Bijrani zone. It was time to move into India’s oldest national park and as the Gypsy moved in, our guide informed us about the tiger which had killed two people a couple of days back and had subsequently died during the capture operation the previous day.
Was it about to turn into a man-eater? Our question to our guide did not have an answer. Just like there was no definitive answers to tiger Ustaad’s capture (a successful one) a few years back at Ranthambore after it started killing forest guards.
India’s tigers, though only few in number, are still killing people ever since the Europeans started maintaining account of the tiger encounters. So though it is a powerful and beautiful animal to us, to most others it remains a symbol of ferocity, cruelty and evil that is responsible for misery of many human lives that live on the forest fringes.
Every time we pack our bags to head for the forests in search of the elusive ‘yellow and black stripes’ amidst green foliage, a statutory warning is issued “Be careful, Gypsy vehicles are open!” Can the tiger ever get out of the myths that are more deep rooted than its’ own existence?
Are humans the natural prey of tigers? That they kill humans is a fact. Corbett’s hunting stories present many such examples from the early part of 20th century. He, though, put forward a theory in defence of the man-eaters — they are either injured (wounded paw or legs or broken canines) or were old or weak tigers.
As much as 90 per cent of the man-eaters killed fall into this category. Butwhen we read Professor Ratanlal Brahmachari’s article on tigers, we know about 20-22 cases where healthy tigers regularly made humans its prey. So the obvious question that lingers is —- why do tigers kill humans?
Driven by hunger is what J E Carrington Turner, an IFS officer of British India posted in various parts of India, believed. With habitats shrinking every passing day, usual prey base (various deer, wild boar, buffalo, gaur) diminishing steadily, tigers do move continuously, bringing them in close proximity to human beings. Possibly out of this struggle for existence there emerge some tigers that suddenly start killing humans for food.
There are places in India like Chandrapur, Pilhibit, and the Sunderbans where tigers attack and kill people. But isn’t it more because of the rising conflict of circumstances when human settlements start intruding into forests? Tigers do go near villages to lift cattle is most cases and not human beings, and are poisoned or killed in many instances.
As per one disclosure by the environment ministry, 92 people were killed by tigers between April 2014 and May 2017. However, not all killings can be attributed to “man-eaters”. At Bandipur for instance, a few tigers were labelled “man-eaters” few years back during separate instances after they repeatedly killed and dragged victims. One of them was killed during such an operation while the other was captured. The tiger captured had a wounded paw and was hungry.
Last year at Tadoba, when Matkasur killed a forest guard (but did not eat his body) he was not labelled a man-eater. He is still seen in tourist zones and hasn’t reportedly killed anyone since. Even at the Sunderbans, which account for nearly 25 per cent of these fatalities, people who venture into forests for fishing, crab hunting or honey collecting, are in turn taken away by a tiger at times.
Some people attribute this to excessive salinity of the water that tigers drink, making them irritable but these arguments remain largely inconclusive.
Wildlife biologists like M Moninul Khan (working on tigers and other wild animals of Bangladesh) too believe that there is absence of concrete evidence to prove the theory that tigers are man-eaters by nature and it may be a behavioural characteristic manifested in some tigers at Sunderbans.
On an average, one kill is required for a tiger every week. So imagine the number of humans that would have been killed had they been the natural prey!
In the 100 safaris that we have undertaken over the years there has not been a single instance of tiger charging, though tigers passed by, looked back at us straight into the eyes but never charged!
Youtube videos may show Charger (Bandhavgarh), Fateh (Ranthambore) charging gypsies or a tigress in Kaziranga jumping onto an elephant to attack (it was stressed being separated from her cubs) but these are incidents which are few and far amidst the innumerable safaris where people enjoy tiger sighting from close by, and yes, the gypsies they travel in are always open.
So “man-eater” may not be the right word to describe a tiger after all.
A ferocious beast that sometimes kills its own kind and doesn’t show any emotions — are usual beliefs associated with a tiger. But at Tadoba we heard and witnessed the remarkable struggle of a tiger mother, Maya, desperately trying to save its young from bigger male tigers.
Same behavioural pattern is observed at other forests like Ranthambore, and Sunderbans where a tigress lures away the intruding male to protect the young. There are male tigers which kill others’ cubs to force the mother to mate again, or fight with other males to establish territory. But is this trait enough to make it ‘cruel’?
What can we say when we hear about Zaalim (T25, and a misnomer for sure) taking care of the cubs after their mother died at Ranthambore? Isn’t this emotional bonding putting it at par with us, humans?
In the same forest, we have witnessed Aurangazeb (T57) being tolerant of the cubs of his partner Noor (T39) — the cubs belonged to Ustaad (T24) who was moved away after being labelled “man-eater”.
At Bandhavgarh, a tiger behaved as babysitter for his siblings (who belonged to a separate litter from his mother) when his mother left for hunting. (The Babysitter of Bandhavgarh, Kim Sullivan 2012).
We understand there are emotions or feelings that are prevalent in tiger ‘society’ but are probably invisible to the human eye. Bandhavgarh guides or old-timers will tell you about Charger calling for his mate Sita after she disappeared one day; or at Pench you would hear about the story of Collarwali and Raiyakassa being together for more than four years now building the foundation of future generation of tigers.
Whether you want it to call it “love” or any other term is entirely your discretion, but the tiger ‘society’ probably is more than just being synonymous with ferocity or cruelty.
Every time a tiger stalks its prey and sets a target, it is successful. Well, not really. Within the forests, the tiger has to hunt in complete cover and silently move as close as possible to its prey — there is a short burst of speed before the tiger catches its prey and kills finally by strangulation.
How many times is such an event successful for a particular individual tiger? Wildlife biologist George Scaller researched to find that out of 20 attempts, only one such attempt is successful — a mere five per cent of the hunts is successful.
Tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar estimated the same to be 10 per cent. So, most hunts end in failure unlike the usual notion of “sure success”. We discussed about what hunger can do a tiger —well it drove four tigers to form a coalition (sisters from the same litter) and kill together.
The story of Telia sisters from Tadoba belies the usual theory that tigers kill and eat individually. May be they still do most of the times but then Valmik Thapar did record an incident of nine tigers on a nilgai kill (led by the famed Padmini tigress ) at Ranthambore and not all were related to each other.
Should these be treated as mere exceptions or should we generalise and conclude that like human beings tigers also think and act as per the circumstances or situation?
Water is a basic need for almost every living being on earth but tigers unlike other big cats have developed an unusual affinity towards it. Probably because of the humid climate (temperatures soar well above 40 degrees sometimes) and habitat in Indian subcontinent, tigers are observed to spend substantial time cooling off in the water bodies, backs submerged in water. They do not like water in their eyes and prefer scanning the surroundings while resting in water.
Lakes or water bodies in Central Indian forests or those in Ranthambore or South India present many such sightings to tourists and observers.
At Rathambore tigers have even adapted themselves to chase and hunt prey in the lake waters evident through stories of tigers like Chengis who specialised in hunting in the lakes.
Tigers are expert swimmers too, as seen in Ramganga river in Corbett or the vast Sunderbans in the east. Sunderbans tigers are now known to overcome the continuous challenges of high and low tides in their epic struggle for survival in these swamp forests every day. So water isn’t only there for drinking after all.
Having just celebrated another Global Tiger Day (eighth since its inception in 2010), tiger lovers and conservationists will surely pledge to continue their support to conserve one of the finest fauna (read tiger) in India and beyond (there are 12 other tiger range countries).
It becomes equally important for science to replace some of the myths and notions surrounding tigers with hard facts. Only then will the human mind in general be freed of the “cruel” image of tigers and false “beliefs” associated it. Only then will the tiger find its place in the human heart and conservation will become a reality.