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Tigers are making their own maps of India

Crowds respond negatively when they see a tiger outside a reserve. Yet encounters should never become conflict

A male tiger at the Pench Tiger Reserve . (Neha Sinha)

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On a Monday this November, a tigress walked out into a marketplace in Almora, Uttarakhand. This is not unusual—people have spotted tigers on highways, in cities, and in the case of flooded Assam or the Sundarbans, also in bedrooms.

What is unusual is what followed. An armed forest department team was pursuing the tigress. The usual aim is to relocate animals through a standard operating procedure, so conflict with people can be avoided. Instead, the 12-year-old tigress was shot dead with a service rifle, reportedly by forest staff.

An inquiry has been instituted into the death: The animal had no history of hurting people. Tigers are exploratory, solitary animals who search for, select and settle into a territory of their own. And though they are tough, their lives are crisscrossed with slivers of burning danger—railway lines, wire snares, speeding cars, open mines, live wire fences and guns. Tigers seem to have thunder in their roars and electricity in their speed but they are yet to learn how to cross roads or become invisible near people.

The tigress in Almora had likely come from Kalagarh in the Corbett tiger reserve. The area girds the foothills of the Himalaya, showing us how the mountains once looked—with tigers all over Kumaon, and vast forests braided with cold streams. Corbett is the Taj Mahal of tiger reserves, with a rich and proud history of conserving tigers, a land that regularly births new tigers.

Yet tigers born are also tigers that need to find their own territories and this takes them into places we think they should not be. Knowing where things “should” be is an interesting exercise in the limits of our comprehension. In a pot, a clump of loamy soil is in its right place. Outside the pot—on your marble floor—it is dirt, to be swept away. Tigers are gleefully photographed poised against the silvery, pebbled Ramganga river in Corbett. But they must not be seen near people.

Tourist jeeps at the Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand.
Tourist jeeps at the Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. (Istockphoto)

In the eastern extremity of India, a similar feline exploration was on. A tiger was seen in the Debrigarh wildlife sanctuary, Odisha, years after the area had been declared empty of them. In itself, this is good news. Reserves are made with the purpose of protecting wildlife, allowing them to live out their lifespans with dignity. For tigers, this means places to patrol their territories with their sure-footed, regal demeanour. But it also means finding mates. There are no other tigers in Debrigarh, so this one may not stay long.

It’s like tigers are making their own maps of India. This is an India that is not always visible to us. The things we see connecting a landscape are roads, hotels, pit stops with lights and sounds. Tigers look for the inverse of this—forest corridors, quiet and green, thorny bushes to lie under, people to avoid, stretches of silence.

There are millions of people living in and near India’s 53 tiger reserves, surrounding wildernesses and corridors (the latest tiger reserve, Ranipur in Uttar Pradesh, was announced in October) and encounters with our 3,500 tigers should never become conflict. Forest department staff (usually the front line between a wild animal and people during encounters) need to be able to manage a strong, potentially agitated animal. Crucially, though, they also must manage mobs. This requires training not just in handling firearms but also in mental fortitude.

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Facing a large cat is terrifying. On a stiflingly hot summer day, while conducting research in the Sariska tiger reserve, I turned the bend of my transect (fixed research path) to see a bush moving. It was a tiger, its orange and black melting into the thorny browns of the summer-bleached vegetation. I froze, and the tiger’s head snapped up. Time slammed to a halt. The tiger was looking at me inquiringly; I was pinned by his amber gaze. At the same time, he moved his ears, which had a white spot behind them. As they moved in rotation—those ears that missed no sound—I distinctly remember the most ridiculous thought bouncing across my mind: The ears are eyes and they are looking at me. He’s looking at me with so many eyes and he’s going to be so angry.

Of course, the ears were not eyes. But at a time of pure, atavistic fear, it’s almost like an extra set of eyes opens in the onlooker. Like the tiger, I was picking up every single signal, movement and perceived micro-aggression. Things looked bigger and deadlier than they were. A step reverberated with the crash of dry leaves; a growl sounded like a drum. That day, though, the tiger decided I wasn’t even worth a second look; he got up, stretched and walked off. But I was terrified, as I ought to be: It was as if ice cubes had been flung down my back, even as my neck and shoulders were beaded in warm sweat.

For forest staff that must relocate or herd animals to safety, training and mock drills must be made top priority—this should be done the way we prepare for natural hazards. Most often, animals will avoid conflict, as the Sariska tiger did, but situations get exacerbated when crowds look for selfies, revenge or entertainment.

Near Corbett in March 2017, a tiger suspected of killing two people was tranquillised. For some inexplicable reason, a JCB was brought by the forest department to pick up the body. Has a JCB ever been used to pick up a wild, unconscious animal? Did the driver have the necessary training to do so? Crushed by the crane, the tiger died during the “rescue”.

In other areas with histories of conflict, tiger deaths are even more gory. In November 2018, villagers crushed a tiger to death with a tractor in the Dudhwa tiger reserve, saying it had injured a man. In May 2020, a tiger that had climbed a tractor near the Pilibhit tiger reserve while escaping people died after being tranquillised. This month, a young tiger was found hanging to death near the Panna tiger reserve, neck asphyxiated and twisted, caught in an illegal wire snare meant to poach animals.

Death by mistake, death by neglect, death by intent: Tigers face them all. There are also times when they get away, with forest staff managing to save them, or with people letting them be.

Very often, though, crowds respond negatively when they see a tiger outside a reserve. And, sometimes, the safety and silence these animals look for cannot be found even in tiger reserves. The only thing that remains constant is the need to understand a tiger’s map, and to manage crowds and conflict.

This much is clear. As we grow in our confidence as a nation, we must also grow in our capacity to handle a tiger standing outside our comprehension.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species.

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