When Karnataka’s wildlife authorities issued shoot-at-sight orders last week against a man-eater, they were going by the book. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, has a provision for the killing/disposal of man-eaters in the sanctuary itself. Once the tiger was identified on the basis of pugmarks (although camera trapping is the most authentic method) and tranquillized on December 5, the villagers of Chikkabargi village, bordering the Bandipur tiger reserve, demanded that the animal be shot in their presence. Their motive, of course, was entirely different: they wanted to avenge the death of one of their own; the legislation was not on their minds at all.
The 5,520 square kilometres of the Nilgiri biosphere reserve, comprising the contiguous national parks of Bandipur, Nagarhole, Mudumalai and Wayanad, cuts a swathe across the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Bandipur-Nagarhole zone is home to 180 tigers, with nearly 300 villages dotting the fringe areas. Through much of this stretch, blessed with abundant wildlife, runs the highway. Tourist accommodation and encroachment by villagers are major infringements that animal rights activists have to contend with.
M.K. Ranjitsinh, former forest secretary who had helped draft the Wildlife Protection Act, said relocating the man-eater in a zoo was not the answer. “We don’t need tigers in captivity. While an animal that is a threat to mankind is no ambassador for the species and doesn’t create any empathy for the tiger, when an animal roaming freely in the wild is caught or killed, it is a loss to Nature,” he says.
The debate is fuelled by the hype surrounding the tiger. Like foreign tourists who visit the Taj Mahal and assume they have seen India, there are wildlife enthusiasts who focus on the tiger to the exclusion of several other endangered species, pachyderms and lions being prime examples.
In the last five years, across the country, more than 60 elephants have been run over by trains. On November 14, seven elephants, including two calves, were run over by a train in north Bengal. Train tracks criss-cross elephant corridors in the Northeast as well, leading to heavy jumbo casualties. Three elephants were run over by a goods train in March this year in Deepor Beel in Assam. The irony is stark, given that an elephant calf is the mascot of the Indian Railways.
Railway tracks also pose a threat to the Asiatic lion in its famed habitat at Sasan Gir in Gujarat. The lions have coexisted peacefully with the Maldhari tribe who live inside the forest, but the area of conflict is with the trains. Besides running over lions, including a cub last year, the diesel locomotive is a major pollutant. An average of 40 lions have been dying in Gir every year. In July this year, eight cows were mowed down by a train while being chased by a pride of lions, 30 kms east of Amreli in the state.
The most horrific tales, though, stem from human action. Kaziranga National Park in Assam has National Highway 37 running through it. Every monsoon, when the distraught animals climb up to the highway for refuge from floodwaters, many of them are run over. Poachers kill rhinos and gouge out the horn. Kaziranga alone has lost 28 rhinos this year.
In Nagaland last month, officials “arrested” an elephant for having crossed over from Assam and remanded it in custody near Jalukie town. Whether it’s such bizarre acts of temporary curtailment of an animal’s freedom, or carting those born in the wild to zoos (as in the case of the Karnataka man-eater), humans continue to redefine the contours of coexistence.