Around 6 a.m. on May 11, after an entire night on the machan, Mangal Chaudhury, 46, couldn't hold back nature's call any longer. With his two other compatriots on the tree perch failing to dissuade him, he climbed down. As he squatted behind a bush, Matkasur, one of Tadoba's most aggressive tigers, attacked and killed him instantly. The Maharashtra park's annual machan census was marred, wisdom by hindsight confirming that the methodology placed untrained numerators perilously close to one of 100 tigers or even sloth bears and leopards.
It was the morning after the full moon night of Buddha Poornima, when the annual machan-based census takes place across India’s forests - typically, one forest department guard and two volunteers sitting on perches and checking off the numbers that they notice at the watering holes within their eyeshot.
Will Matkasur be branded maneater, chased down, tranquilised and bundled off to a zoo? Mercifully not. Government guidelines protect a tiger for three killings of humans. But political pressure to advance this threshold is common, prompting the question: who is encroaching on whose territory?
As we stand today, tigers occupy just 7% of their historic range, only 1,000 of the wild tigers worldwide are breeding females, poaching and habitat loss stare these stunningly beautiful cats.
We spoke to Tadoba conservation worker and TEDx alum Hans Dalal on what may have happened, what can be fixed, and what’s already out of our hands.
Our conversation, run on Firstpost Facebook is lightly edited for brevity.
Firstpost: What happened?
Hans Dalal: Yesterday was the census and there are people on the machans making note of which animals come to the watering hole to drink. There were three enumerators and one of them got down to use the loo, the other two on the machan saw the tiger coming towards this guy and warned him but it was too late. The tiger, most likely Matkasur, caught this guy, dragged him in and killed him.
FP: Will the tiger be blamed (or the local)?
Hans: The Forest department has built toilets for villagers and the new generaion uses them; but the older village folk still prefer to go outdoors.
FP: What’s the association with the full moon night?
Hans: The census happens on Buddha Poornima night because a lot of things come together. It's summer and because most of the watering holes have dried up, there are only a few water sources for the animals. The full moon allows for better sighting and forest animals have only limited watering holes to come to. So, it’s easier to count.
FP: The tiger killed this man but did not eat him up…
Hans: In the village, many of these people are thin and scrawny, they are malnourished. When they are squatting, they may even be confused for monkeys. And monkeys are on the tiger’s menu. Most of the time it’s a case of mistaken identity. Humans are not on the tiger’s menu.
FP: Tadoba is spread across 600 sq km. Are tigers getting more aggressive because of shrinking habitat?
Hans:Every forest has a core zone and a buffer zone. Think of it as a half fried egg. The yolk is the tiger’s habitat - the core - where there’s no human presence at all and the white often has direct human interference. A female tiger typically needs 30-40 sq km of territory, males need around 80-100 sq km. There’s only that many tigers a park can handle. What's happening right now is that the carrying capacity is only that much and tigers are flowing out of these reserves and going closer to human habitation. If you look at Tadoba, we have 100-120 tigers living in protected areas but there are 48 tigers living outside protected areas. That’s going to keep increasing - and the conflict too is going to keep increasing. The only way out is to increase the forest cover.
FP: How do you do that in an already landlocked society, where cities are outgrowing their outer flanks.
Hans: Corridors. That’s what the answer is. There are already patches of land that connect forests called corridors which are not protected right now - there’s a lot of human habitation there right now. Humans have to move away from the forest corridors. Very difficult to do but that’s the only solution there is.
FP: How do you prevent Matkasur being led away to the zoo?
Hans: According to National Tiger Conservation Authority of India (NTCA) guidelines, a tiger is given three chances. So if he kills three humans, he is not called a ‘maneater’ but the minute he kills a fourth person, he is called a maneater, tranquilised and sent to a zoo. Sometimes we even get shoot at sight orders and we have to finish him off. So Matkasur won’t be sent to a zoo right now for this is the first time he has killed a human.
FP: Should civilians be stopped from going into all-night machans?
Hans: You can allow civilians as long as the facilties exist on these machans - water, food, portable toilets and wireless handsets to hail a vehicle and so on...
FP: Sitting on a machan, can you tell for certain that you are not double counting a sloth bear or a tiger?
Hans: Sitting on a machan, we can certainly identify animals - say a sloth bear from a sambhar but you can’t differentiate between individuals. For example, in sloth bears we can't even know whether it’s a male or female (because of their fur cover).
FP: Giving the shrinking habitats, even if you do all you can to save the tigers that remain, where is the space to keep them?
Hans: Yes, that's a problem...Basically because of the lack of space, there's a lot of inbreeding and that takes a toll on the immunity system of tigers. Even a scratch can kill them because their immunity is so fragile. Corridors exist, they need to be protected territory so that the gene pool becomes better. Think of the elephant corridors in South India. For generations, elephants have been using these corridors and now there are tea plantations along those corridors. It for the humans to move out, not for the elephants to stop walking there.
Updated Date: May 13, 2017 00:06:53 IST