Spotlight is on tiger conservation in India as villagers in multiple Indian states are facing a crisis of attacks from predators

Nadim Siraj

The truth about tiger conservation in India: Urban India usually sympathises with big cats over human-predator conflicts (Photo: Pixabay)

May 20, 2023: While tiger conservation in India is a trend that’s close to the heart of the country’s urban folks, an outbreak of fear has gripped large parts of Bharat, or rural India, in recent times. Multiple districts in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, and Karnataka have become hot spots of this outbreak, which has shot up to unprecedented levels in the last few months.

No, we are not talking about a Covid-19 resurgence or a climate disruption in these epicentres. Had that been the case, the outbreak would have invaded primetime news headlines and noisy TV debates.

This particular outbreak is about a sharp escalation in instances of leopards and tigers attacking and killing defenceless villagers in these four states. And that is precisely why the country’s influential media networks, based out of shiny glass offices in big cities, are covering this outbreak of deaths as mere fillers, and not as a national crisis.

A look at some recent, disturbing episodes in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, and Karnataka gives a clear picture of how alarming the national crisis is.

Tiger attack deaths vs. Tiger conservation in India

On February 13, a 75-year-old man and his grandson were killed in tiger attacks in separate tragedies in the forested Kodagu district of Karnataka. Raju, the elderly peasant, was killed in Palleri village in the morning, while his 18-year-old grandson, Chethan, was slaughtered by a big cat only hours later.

Just five days later, on February 18, reports emerged that multiple leopards killed at least seven villagers and injured more than eight in three regions of Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh – Nageena, Afjalgarh, and Rehad.

From February onwards, at least 75 government schools in various villages across Bijnor district that don’t have boundary walls, were placed on a high alert. The parents of around 3,500 young students who go to those schools were told to be extremely cautious about sending their kids to study.

Teachers, too, expressed fears about going to the schools that were marked as highly potential targets for leopard attacks. Village groups were formed that are going from door to door, cautioning children against wandering off to remote alleys.

Bijnor is famous for its sugarcane fields, but they are also the favourite hangouts of leopards. It is estimated that about 150 leopards have been prowling around Bijnor’s sugarcane fields in recent months.

53 killed in Chandrapur

On March 20, a chilling report surfaced, revealing that 53 people died from tiger and leopard attacks in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra in 2022. That’s a lot of people considering we’re only talking about a single district. Tiger attacks claimed 44 of those lives, while nine others were killed by leopards. The Chandrapur deaths included women and children.

Let’s now move on to Uttarakhand. On April 17, after several weeks of tension following a steady rise in tigers attacking humans, several villages in the northern Indian state were placed under a temporary night curfew to avoid further tragedies. The curfew banned villagers in two districts from venturing out between 7pm and 6am. Schools were shut for two days and vigilant groups were formed to keep an eye on the paths leading up to the villages.

Days later, on the night of April 25, a ghastly incident was reported in Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor district. Rizwan Ahmed, a villager in Udaipur village in the Rehad region, watched in horror as a leopard jumped over a wall, dashed into his house, and attacked his five-year-old girl Arshi, leaving her dead.

Two days later in Bijnor again, on April 27, it emerged that a leopard killed four people, including two kids, in the Nageena region in just one week’s time. Following the burst of deaths, Bijnor’s divisional forest officer urgently recommended the chief wildlife warden in Lucknow to declare the leopard a man-eater and allow permission for its hunt.

Forest officials and experts from the nearby Pilibhit Tiger Reserve are trying to locate the rogue leopard. Numerous cages have been strategically placed at various locations to catch the big cat.

Then more recently, on May 18, Manisha Singh, a resident of Moosepur village in Bijnor, looked on frozenly as a leopard pounced onto the front-yard of her house and dragged away her six-year-old daughter, Yashi. Her mangled body was located hours later in a nearby sugarcane field.

Tension in UP’s Bijnor

Bijnor has been going through hell recently. During the last three months, at least seven villagers in the UP district were killed by leopards. Five of them occurred between April 19 to 26.

Wildlife officials swung into action and used cages with live animal bait to successfully capture 10 leopards, according to a district forest official. The 10 big cats were transported to the nearby Amangarh forest reserve and released there. Bijnor still remains tense, though.

Apart from the terror reign of big cats in UP, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, and Karnataka, Bengal’s Sunderbans are perpetually in the grip of a similar threat. The traditional wild honey hunters of the region in southern Bengal frequently fall prey to predatory Royal Bengal tigers.

Wildlife enthusiasts find booming tiger population numbers welcoming. But on the flip side, it’s a growing concern that India’s wild tiger count has risen above 3,000. Why are tiger numbers and tiger conservation in India concerning? Well, because of the rising risk of big-cat attacks on defenceless rural Indians. India is home to 75% of the tiger population on the planet. According to an October 2023 estimate, there were 3,682 tigers in the country. Their numbers have jumped up over the last 10 years or so.

Not all tiger and leopard attack deaths are reported to the authorities. But going by only the officially confirmed cases, as many as 108 villagers were killed in tiger attacks in the country between 2019 and mid-2021.

Cheetahs of Kuno National Park

Even last year’s much hyped Cheetah reintroduction project has left a bad taste in the mouth. Oban, a Namibian cheetah that was transferred to Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh against its wishes, escaped on April 2 and sparked terror in nearby human settlements. It was spotted at a village in Vijaypur 20km away from the park, before being captured and released back into Kuno’s jungles.

If what’s going on in UP, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, and Bengal’s Sunderbans is collectively not big enough to be a national crisis, then what is? Curfews, declared and undeclared, are being imposed to protect villagers, especially schoolchildren, from big cat attacks. If this is not a national emergency, then what is?

So, here’s the big problem. When big cats kill villagers in India, nobody cares a damn. The press runs news of these attacks as stray incidents. These reports don’t make it to the day’s top headlines.

But when poachers and people in self-defence kill tigers and leopards, it gets wide and critical coverage in the mainstream media. Villagers hunting down predators to protect their children get bracketed along with money-making poachers, and both parties are projected as villains trying to persecute big cats and jeopardise biodiversity.

Big cats vs. rural humans

Our question to city folks who are obsessed with projects such as tiger conservation in India: Why the double standards? Why are unglamorous rural human lives less precious than the hyped lives of predatory big cats? Why is there a perfect sync among all the powerful and policymaking stakeholders when it comes to the treatment of the two scenarios – that of big cats killing humans, and that of humans killing big cats?

Government authorities, policymakers, politicians, corporate powers, elite social clubs, large NGOs, environment and animal experts, technical advisers, influential celebrities, wealthy artists, and mainstream media – they all agree with the double standards. What double standards? – That the lives of spectacular big cats are more important than the lives of shabby-looking rural humans.

Now, why is there such a smooth and seamless agreement among all these parties on this subject? Is it because of a certain crude reality? – That elite, rich, and urban Indians, cocooned in leafy, protected areas, are safe from these big cat attacks? After all, it’s only the ill-fed villagers living on the margins of society, in faraway forests and wetlands, who are at risk of these attacks – not the urban elites.

In fact, is it more than just a case of collective moral bankruptcy? Are there forces apart from domestic urban elitism that are at play here? Is the trend of tiger conservation in India superimposed on the country? To get to the bottom of this, one first needs to understand that despite being an independent country, there are multiple fronts and spaces in which foreign players still pull the strings here and influence the way we think.

Tiger conservation in India: The foreign hand

There are at least 4,000 foreign companies that operate on Indian soil. More than 54,000 church schools ensure the English language continues to remain a powerful tool of communication for the country’s most influential 8% population. There are countless foreign-funded NGOs, think-tanks, embassies, and embassy-style cultural outposts that seek to shape how the cultured elite understand reality. Hollywood films play in our drawing rooms, bringing messages from the West. And our information systems, such as the media, books, research work, and events, are under a deep foreign influence.

So, in this atmosphere of a pronounced foreign cultural influence, it’s only natural to assume that this twisted concept is probably an imported one – a perverse concept that trains our minds to imagine that rural human lives are expendable, but the lives of tigers, leopards, and cheetahs, and other prominent wild animals need to be protected at all costs.

Now, in the context of the Western tendency to treat certain ‘types’ of humans as inferior beings to wild animals, it’s worth recalling a blood-curdling story from America of the 1800s and 1900s. Back then, there was a widely accepted trend in America of White people openly using Black babies as live baits to lure alligators for hunting and recreation purposes.

Here is a detailed account of this incredibly dark past about White America, with illustrations from those days. A special video report from Empire Diaries can be seen below:

A flimsy excuse is often dished out whenever we hear of tigers killing innocent villagers. That excuse is: we humans are sadly paying the price for trespassing into their habitat.

Now, the counter-argument here is that, why don’t governments and policymakers find ways to give rural people living on the margins a better living, so that they won’t need to venture into risky big cat territory for their livelihood? We’re not talking about millions of people here, after all, but only the targeted populations in the most vulnerable villages.

Or at least, why not give the villagers cover by putting in place a robust system that will nab rogue predators and safely send them back into the depths of designated wildlife reserves? Won’t such a government-maintained safety net give hundreds of thousands of sugarcane farmers, for example, a sigh of relief. This particular measure is used only as a knee-jerk reaction after predator attacks in a certain region go through the roof.

Tactical measures need to be proactive, not reactive, as the saying goes.

Let’s discuss an example from southern Bengal in the context of tiger conservation in India. We hear of numerous debates about the human-predator conflict on the forested islands of the Sundarbans. But those debates never focus on finding an easy solution of giving state-backed protection or cover to honey collectors. Such a solution would serve multiple purposes. It would help save precious human lives, allow the selfish urban elites to enjoy the wild honey, and also ensure that the predators stay away from preying on humans.

WWF on India’s tigers

The homepage of the WWF’s (World Wide Fund for Nature) website runs an atrocious report about the honey hunters of the Sundarbans. The report’s heading says: Harvesting honey and protecting tigers. Ideally, the heading should be: Harvesting honey and protecting humans. Clearly, the Switzerland-based international NGO has made it clear who is more valuable for them in the Sundarbans – it’s the tigers, not the humans.

A heading on the homepage of the WWF’s global website indicates that protecting only tigers in India is of paramount importance

The WWF – which staunchly backs tiger conservation in India – has an outpost or ‘embassy’ in the country, which is dedicated towards ending wildlife trafficking and protecting various species. Fair enough, they are honestly going about their mission of seeking to safeguard endangered wild animals in India. The WWF’s India wing has a website that spells out its mission. It is to prioritise the protection of the following species: Bengal tiger, Asian elephant, Indian or greater one-horned rhino, Ganges river dolphin, Snow leopard, Red panda, among others.

On the basis of the WWF’s global and India websites and their content about projects such as tiger conservation in India, there are geopolitical questions as well as humanitarian questions that need answering.

First, the geopolitical questions: Who gives the WWF authority to decide on how India should handle its biodiversity? What are the origins of their deep involvement in India’s wildlife ecosystem? Do we really need an NGO from Switzerland to tell us how to handle our jungles and our wild animals? Can’t we Indians ourselves tackle our own biodiversity? Do they have a hidden agenda in promoting tiger conservation in India?

Second, the humanitarian questions: How does the WWF conclude that tiger conservation in India – as published on their global website’s homepage – is more important than protecting defenceless villagers in the Sunderbans? Why should we, as Homo Sapiens, not prioritise other Homo Sapiens in the human-predator conflict scenario? Most importantly, isn’t this approach of prioritising various wild species for protection – as listed on the WWF’s India website – not an insult towards the helpless villagers living in fear right now in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, and Bengal’s Sunderbans? Who will list these people as a priority who need urgent protection? When will Indians and the foreign players collectively stop insulting them?

Tiger conservation in India: The projects

One might argue that it’s unfair to squarely blame only the foreign forces for this mis-prioritisation of lifeforms. After all, India has its own legacy of tiger protection drives. We have the National Tiger Conservation Authority, established in 2005 on the recommendation of the country’s Tiger Task Force. Dozens of tiger reserves were set up under its supervision.

We have Project Tiger, a dedicated mission for tiger conservation in India, set up in 1973 focusing on boosting the breeding of the animal in Bengal. We also have the Wildlife Institute of India, an autonomous body set up by the government in 1982 to carry out biodiversity-related research. And then, of course, more recently, we saw the roll-out of the Cheetah reintroduction programme.

Having said that, there’s ample circumstantial evidence – not direct proof, though – of a high degree of foreign influence on India’s policymakers and the media about their perception of predatory animals and defenceless humans in conflict scenarios.

Tiger conservation in India: Flashback to 1990s

If you turn back the clock to the 1990s, when India experienced the cable TV invasion, we witnessed multiple Western wildlife and biodiversity-related TV channels wowing audiences across the country – especially in the big cities and townships. It started off with Discovery Channel. Then the offerings moved on to NatGeo Wild, Animal Planet, BBC Earth, and a few others. Discovery Channel and Animal Planet are owned by US-headquartered Warner Bros. Discovery. NatGeo Wild is owned jointly by National Geographic Society and Walt Disney Company, both American giants.

Add to all that the easy availability and popularity in Indian schools, colleges, homes, libraries, and bookstores of monthly editions of National Geographic magazine, and it becomes self-evident precisely how influential foreign – especially Western – networks are in shaping our understanding of wild animals.

Also, back in 2010, Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio famously paired up with India’s environment ministry with the aim of using his image to help ‘save’ India’s tiger population.

Due to a lack of direct evidence, it’s always open to debate as to whether external forces indeed gaslight urban Indians, leading comfortable lifestyles in concrete jungles, into concluding that big cats are more precious than some uncool human beings, called villagers. But if you closely study the Anglo-American West’s perpetual obsession with India’s wildlife and their perennially condescending approach towards non-English-speaking rural India, it’s quite possible, if not probable, that this dystopian perception is certainly a Western import.

Are we Indians culturally and mentally too colonised to shake this perception off? Or are we, as a civilisation, part of the problem?

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