The deaths of five women in recent attacks by tigers in Navegaon National Park in Vidarbha’s Gondia district is another wake-up call. Over the past seven years, Vidarbha has emerged as the world’s biggest man-tiger, man-leopard conflict zone, with nearly 100 human deaths and 80 major injuries. Of revenge killings of big cats by humans there is no record — both killers and wildlife administrators have reasons to hush it up.
The first major man-animal conflagration in Vidarbha dates to 2007, the year in which this paper began to track the phenomenon closely. At least 21 humans were killed by tigers and leopards that year, and a male tiger that had killed four persons and injured several others within a month was shot dead at Talodhi, probably the first such ‘retaliation’ in the post-conservation era.
In 2008, 2011 and 2012, similar incidents forced four shoot orders, three of which were for leopards in Chandrapur district. Last year, 12 persons were killed in tiger and leopard attacks in Vidarbha.
Conflict occurs in human-dominated ‘sink’ landscapes to which tigers disperse after breeding in protected ‘source’ areas. The management of this conflict demands extremely competent handling, not just by wildlife administrators but by other stakeholders too, including pro-people NGOs. There are often no bridges between forest officials and the people — a disconnect which is starkly evident when, mauled by maneaters, people vent their anger against the department.
Accepting the animals’ right to the forest is still a far cry, the common refrain being ‘Please take your animal away’. People are becoming impatient not just with the carnivore that occasionally kills but also with the herbivore that routinely feasts on their fields. Revenge killings of animals are routine, as is hunting for cheap meat which the entire village shares and no one talks about. Gadchiroli, which has the most forest cover in the state has virtually no wildlife.
Leaving the forest administration to gram sabhas as envisaged by the Forest Rights Act will continue to sound romantic until people share the responsibility towards wildlife. It is time the principle of positive discrimination is applied to wildlife too. Till that happens, effective monitoring and conservation of wildlife, and minimising the need for people to intrude into the forest for livelihood can be effective interventions.
Vivek is a senior editor based in Nagpur