A few days back, I was walking the fascinating old forests of Boubinsky Prales in southern Czech Republic. A few patches of virgin wilderness, primarily beech forests with more than 200-year-old spruce and fir trees dotting the higher slopes, still survive in the Sumava mountains as the second oldest natural reserve in the country.
The pleasant hike through Boubin was in the shadows of ancient, giant trees and along a chirpy stream that would soon become the Vltava river and flow through Prague. It was a splendid and yet sad experience. The birds were vocal all around but there was no anticipation of a chance encounter with any carnivore. Sumava’s last wolf was shot in 1874, and the last bear, in 1856. There are appropriate monuments at the hunting spots. Apparently, the lynx still survives. So do a few species of shrew. I was not fortunate enough to spot any.
While discussing my plans for Boubin in Prague and Vimperk, a few unsuspecting Czechs were visibly excited to find out that I came from the land of the famous Bengal tiger. “How do Indians cope with maneaters” was the common question. The curiosity did not diminish in Poland and Hungary when I happened to exchange travel notes with fellow tourists or locals. The more informed were precise in their interrogation: “Isn’t the Sunderbans tiger, the meanest of tigers, the most ferocious maneater on earth?”
It was easy to be impatient but I recalled a similar exchange I had with a wildlife lover from Bengal a few years ago. He lives in Kolkata and knows the infamous tigers first hand. And yet, he believed that all the big cats of Sunderbans were “born maneaters”. It took me a long time to convince him that he was wrong. Frankly, I was not keen to go through that routine again but there was no option.
Let us assume, I told the curious Europeans, that all Sunderbans tigers consider humans as food. A tiger makes roughly 50 kills – one every week -- a year to survive. Annually, this work out to be 15,000 kills for 300-odd tigers in Sunderbans. If humans are part of the normal prey base for these tigers, and since unarmed humans are the easiest to hunt, one would expect a sizeable number of these 15,000 kills to be humans. However, less than 100 people die in tiger attacks across Sunderbans every year. The figures do not add up.
Between 1984 and 2006, tigers killed 490 people in Bangladesh – roughly 21 victims a year. In the same period, data shows that of all the Sunderbans tigers that killed people, about 50 per cent killed only one person each, implying these were accidental attacks. Still alarmists keep asserting that the love for human flesh is embedded in the Sunderban tiger’s genes.
Tigers, or other carnivores, do not consider us food. Our great, great forefathers were very much on their menu just like the primates still are in the wild. But as we and our weapons evolved, carnivores have learnt to fear us as able adversaries. They generally follow a no-risk policy and maintain a respectable distance from groups of people, like they do from, say, an elephant herd or a pack of wild dogs.
At this point, I would be cut short by confused posers. “So do you mean tigers are safe?” I hastened to explain I do not. There are records of tigers, otherwise wary of elephants or wild dogs, opportunistically killing lonely calves or defending kills against a smaller pack. So, nothing prevents an otherwise respectful carnivore from making an occasional human kill if the victim seems suitably defenceless.
On the other hand, while tigers, particularly those in the Sunderbans mangroves, do kill humans opportunistically, only a miniscule proportion of tiger prey -- India’s 1500-odd tigers make 75,000 kills a year – is human. But carnivores also defend themselves aggressively if they feel threatened. They are nature’s most efficient killers. Even a defensive slap from a tiger can kill instantly. It would hardly be any consolation that the tiger was unlikely to eat its victim in such cases.
As much as I thought I had made an excellent case, what eventually convinced the interrogators was a photograph taken by a friend a few years back in Ranthambhore. It shows a tiger walking within a few metres of a group of labourers, mostly women, who were being herded away by a forest guard to let the big cat pass by. The tiger looks unconcerned and the labourers are all smiles.
My interrogators were stumped. The disbelief was unmistakable. So I hastened to add that the frame did not tell us that tigers are friendly animals. No wild tiger ever made that claim. But since they roam free, they are bound to occasionally run into people in a crowded country like India. Even if there are enough inviolate sanctuaries for the wild to breed in peace, carnivores have to share space with people around those forests where they should not be considered strays or the people encroachers.
The photograph, I concluded, proved that mutual understanding and respect can make co-existence possible. For those who still did not look convinced, I saved the meanest for the last. The absence of that very Indian understanding and respect, I pointed out, had wiped out the bear and the wolf from Bavaria and much of the western world. This despite -- and I could not resist feeling doubly patriotic about it -- those bears and wolves not being half as efficient killing machines as our big cats.