Lucknow, Sept. 7: As a stray tiger stalked Sudharani Devi, 43, at Khamariya village on Wednesday afternoon, a pack of six dogs began barking, alerting local people who chased the big cat away.
But many have been less lucky than her in forest-covered Pilibhit, a district hugging the Sivaliks’ foothills near the Nepal border, about 300km from Lucknow.
Unexplained serial tiger attacks since April have left four dead and 21 injured, prompting villagers to poison three tigers and a leopard to death, sending shivers down the spine of conservationists.
The sudden man-animal conflict in the generally tranquil forests comes at a time a debate is raging in the country over whether ordinary people are friends or foes of the big cat, following an interim Supreme Court ban on tourism at tiger reserves. The court is now preparing to rethink the matter following wildlife experts’ claim that tourists’ watchful eyes are the best insurance against poachers having a free run.
Pilibhit, however, is not a tiger reserve although its 11,281 hectares of forest area boast 40 tigers. It comes under the Dudhwa National Park and is made up by five forest ranges: Mala, Mahof, Deoria Kalan, Barahi and Haripur.
Compared with a national park, a tiger reserve puts far more restrictions on local villagers’ entry into the forests. It keeps the core area completely off-limits for villagers although tourists were allowed elephant-back conducted tours before the court’s interim ban.
Conservationists alarmed by the conflicts since April-May are urging the state government to notify the Pilibhit forest division as a tiger reserve. The Mayawati government had made such a proposal in 2010 but, after the Centre recently gave in-principle approval, the Akhilesh Yadav government seems to be having second thoughts.
If it implements the proposal, the state would not only receive financial and technical support but will have its first tiger reserve since the year 2000 when the creation of Uttarakhand left it bereft of any.
But officials said the state government was balking at the relocation of thousands of forest dwellers the move would entail and the restrictions it would bring on the residents of about 100 villages who depend on the forest for their livelihood.
Similar considerations —and apparently the fear of mining curbs — recently prompted Karnataka’s BJP government to spurn a central proposal to convert the Kudremukh National Park into a tiger reserve.
The Centre, though, does provide funds for relocation. Besides, having a tiger reserve could boost backward Pilibhit’s economy if the apex court rethinks its ban on tourism.
The absence of travel infrastructure and lodgings — and its peripheral location within the Dudhwa National Park — has so far kept Pilibhit out of the state’s tourist map despite its abundance of tigers.
Rupak De, chief wildlife warden of Uttar Pradesh, said he was baffled why the tigers of Pilibhit were suddenly attacking people despite the forests having “a strong prey base of chitals, sambars, nilgais, wild pigs and cattle”.
He is now supervising an operation to track stray tigers with cameras and night-vision goggles. De told The Telegraph that pugmarks suggest that four tigers may be on the prowl around human habitations.
The forest department has launched an awareness campaign among the villagers, asking them not to poison the big cats. The Wildlife Trust of India, a voluntary organisation, has sent a team of tranquillising experts on elephant-back to look for stray tigers. A team of doctors is on stand-by in Puranpur to provide emergency treatment to villagers if attacked by tigers.
But the villagers are belligerent. They are already protesting that the tranquillising experts’ elephants are damaging their crops. On Tuesday, local people had clashed with the police and blocked a national highway after a tiger mauled a farmer.
Superintendent of police Arvind B. Singh said the local people were “in a state of intense rage”.