Why the tiger-human conflict rages in Bandipur and Nagarahole

A complex web of factors has turned two national parks in Karnataka with a robust tiger population into a hotbed of human-animal conflict.

Published : Mar 07, 2024 00:00 IST - 10 MINS READ

A Tiger spotted in Nagarahole National Park.

A Tiger spotted in Nagarahole National Park. | Photo Credit: M. A. SRIRAM

On December 11 last year, Basavaiah, 50, of Adina Kanive village in Gundlupet taluk of Chamarajanagar district, Karnataka, set out early in the morning to collect firewood from the forested bluff that rises steeply behind his hut. He followed a narrow uphill goat trail leading into the scrub jungle. This was the last time his family, consisting of his elderly father, wife, and two children, saw him. Adina Kanive, situated on the edge of Bandipur National Park, has around 50 homes laid out in neat rows and is only a few kilometres from the forest department’s headquarters in the national park.

“I informed the forest department when my son did not return home that day. Sensing that something was wrong, I went along with the search party and we found his body a kilometre inside the forest. His entire body had been devoured, and only bones remained. A huli [tiger] had eaten my son!” said Madaiah, Basavaiah’s father, as he stood in his tiny house. A garlanded photograph of Basavaiah had been placed on a narrow pedestal on one wall, and Madaiah looked at it frequently while he recounted the gory incident that had ended the life of his only son.

LISTEN: The biggest concentration of wild tigers in the world is found in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, a series of contiguous protected areas that sprawl across Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu in the Western Ghats.

Hungry and incensed

At K. Baadaga village in Ponnampet taluk on the fringes of Nagarahole National Park in Kodagu district, a four-hour drive from Adina Kanive village, a tiger ambushed and killed two agricultural labourers, Chethan, a teenager, and Raju, his grandfather in February last year. Both deaths took place on the estate of Nellira Poonacha, a 62-year-old coffee planter. Poonacha led the way into his estate, striding past columns of tall coffee bushes until he reached a deep furrow. This was an elephant-proof trench that marked the boundary of Nagarahole. “The trenches may deter elephants but will not stop a tiger. A tiger was probably hiding behind a tree just beside the trench when Chethan walked past it, and must have leapt on him and dragged him for a few metres,” said Poonacha. A photograph of the body he had on his phone showed that it was missing its entire right leg, hip downwards.

The dismembered remains of Chethan were carried to the labourers’ quarters around 100 m away, where his family members gathered the following day. Undeterred by the crowd, the tiger killed Chethan’s grandfather when he stepped into a clump of bushes to answer nature’s call. “For the tiger to attack Raju, it must have been very hungry and incensed that his meal had been taken away,” suggested Poonacha.

Nellira Poonacha, a coffee planter, at his estate. Two people were mauled to death on Poonacha’s estate in February 2023.

Nellira Poonacha, a coffee planter, at his estate. Two people were mauled to death on Poonacha’s estate in February 2023. | Photo Credit: VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

According to the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s “Status of Tigers” report of 2022, there were at least 3,167 tigers in India. Of these, the biggest concentration of wild tigers in the world is found in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, a series of contiguous protected areas that sprawl across Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu in the Western Ghats.

Of the estimated 435 tigers in Karnataka, the majority can be found in the Bandipur (150 tigers in 872.24 sq km) and Nagarahole (141 tigers in 643.35 sq km) parks. At the launch of Project Tiger in 1973, Bandipur had 12 big cats, and Nagarahole perhaps fewer. Tiger conservation has come a long way since.

Estates that mimic habitat

Tigers, besides being loners, are territorial, which naturally puts a limit to the ecological carrying capacity of the forest as far as these fecund felines are concerned. Apart from a protected natural habitat, the tiger population is also contingent on the density of its prey, which, in Bandipur and Nagarahole, extends to the spotted deer, the gaur, the sambar, and the wild pig apart from other smaller animals.

In these two reserves, the tiger must share its quarry with the leopard and the dhole (wild dog), but despite this, there is munificent prey in the forests to satiate the tiger’s appetite. The tiger population has thus increased, and concomitantly, the territory of each tiger has shrunk. While official data say that an individual tiger’s range extends to 11-12 sq km in these two reserves, experts whom Frontline spoke to stated that this figure could be even lower. On the western boundary of Nagarahole park, the dense coffee estates mimic the tiger’s habitat, meaning that territories of some tigers are spilling outside forest precincts.

Also Read | Mizoram’s Dampa: A tiger reserve without tigers

When tigers reach adulthood, there is a primal struggle for space with older adults, with the loser ending up on the rims of the jungle where cattle provide an easy meal, leading to conflict with herdsmen.

A conservationist, who did not want to be named, explained: “Older tigers are not able to hunt as well as the younger ones and begin to hunt cattle. By this behaviour, they also imprint their cubs, which grow up with a taste for cattle flesh.” A.T. Poovaiah, retired Deputy Conservator of Forests, said: “The tigers that stray outside the forest are aged tigers and subadult males.” The wildlife activist Joseph Hoover said: “I get a call a week about tiger sightings in villages outside Bandipur and Nagarahole parks.”

Madaiah looks at a picture of his bereaved son, Basavaiah, in Adina Kanive village. 

Madaiah looks at a picture of his bereaved son, Basavaiah, in Adina Kanive village.  | Photo Credit: VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

While tigers, as the experts’ comments show, are wandering outside the forests, village residents are entering the forest with their herds or on their own to collect minor forest produce, resulting in encounters. In 2023, for instance, tigers killed eight people on the fringes of the two parks. P. Ramesh Kumar, Field Director of Bandipur National Park, emphasised this point when he said that none of the three deaths in Bandipur occurred outside the reserve. All the experts that Frontline spoke to said none of the tigers in the area could be categorised as “man-eaters” as the human deaths were “accidental”. “No instance has been reported of attacks on people while they were walking. Usually, attacks have taken place when people were squatting or when they were bending down to pick coffee beans,” said Poovaiah, implying that tigers mistake people for their natural prey.

Has the success of tiger conservation led to an increase in human-tiger conflict in the Bandipur and Nagarahole parks? Kumar’s response was ambiguous: “The tiger population is increasing and the conflict is rising… but we cannot draw a straight correlation as 10 years ago, there were 90 tigers in Bandipur and there was conflict even then.” However, a conservationist believes conflict has risen in the past decade. “Human deaths are taking place in areas where they had never seen before.”

Also Read | How rising tiger population has made life dangerous for families in Uttar Pradesh

If the swelling of tiger numbers is an important factor in the uptick in instances of conflict, conservationists also accuse the forest department of excessive interference in the management of the reserves, which affects the natural mortality of herbivores. If the prey base is not restricted, the population of carnivores such as tigers, which are dependent on this prey, goes up. Much of the conservationists’ ire for the forest department was reserved for the way in which it has indiscriminately dug water holes in Bandipur and Nagarahole and for the mishandling of forest fires that has led to the spurt of invasive species such as lantana. One wildlife scientist likened the Bandipur and Nagarahole parks to glorified zoos because of the way in which the forest department interfered in the management of the landscape.

Forest fires are a major problem in the deciduous forests of Bandipur and Nagarahole as they lead to the proliferation of invasive species like lantana.

Forest fires are a major problem in the deciduous forests of Bandipur and Nagarahole as they lead to the proliferation of invasive species like lantana. | Photo Credit: VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

The complexity of tiger-human conflict becomes evident in a conversation with the conservationist P.M. Muthanna, who has followed this issue for the past two decades. “Conflict happens when villagers take livestock into the forest, and they do this because of the systematic loss of gomala, or the village commons. These are landless people; why do they not have land? That is a social problem. Also, instances of man-animal conflict are becoming a law and order problem and the forest department is getting distracted by policing activities such as controlling mobs.”

Massive die-off

Col C.P. Muthanna, former president of the Coorg Wildlife Society, provided an insight into the intricacy of the conflict: “We began to sight tigers only a few years ago, and what happened is this: more than a decade ago, there was large-scale ginger cultivation and farmers used a lot of pesticides and fertilizers that subsequently entered crabs and frogs, which were then eaten by jackals leading to a massive jackal die-off. Once these canines disappeared, their prey, such as piglets, proliferated. The increase in the population of wild pigs formed a great prey base for tigers, which tended to remain longer here in coffee plantations and became very bold.”

Apart from capturing “problem” tigers, the swift disbursal of compensation—for human injuries and deaths and to village herdsmen who lose their livestock—is an important mitigating factor. The forest department provides Rs.30,000 for cattle head and Rs.10,000 per sheep/goat that are lost to wild animals. There are non-State actors as well who are making valiant attempts to mitigate human-wildlife conflict in the region. Sunita Dhairyam, a wildlife artist who has been living in Bandipur since 1995, has actively engaged with the conflict since 2007 through the aegis of the Mariamma Charitable Trust.

Also Read | ‘Not amrit kaal for tiger science in India’: K. Ullas Karanth

Dhairyam explained the system that she has put in place: “We have four evaluators and me, and we work in more than 500 villages along the border of Bandipur, parts of Nagarahole, and the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. Every time a livestock kill occurs, the villager calls one of us. An evaluator swings into action and verifies whether it was an ‘original kill’ and identifies which predator was involved. After this, we immediately compensate the owner with up to Rs.5,000 per cattle head and Rs.1,500 per sheep/goat. We also leave the carcass where it was found so the predator can continue feeding. I started this because I wanted to help both villagers and wildlife. This process reduces people’s hostility towards wild animals. For instance, there are no more cases of poisoning [of carcasses] or of snaring.”

Krithi Karanth of the Centre for Wildlife Studies began an initiative called Wild Seve in 2015 in Nagarahole after studying human-animal conflict across India and understanding how compensation mechanisms worked. She explained how Wild Seve works: “If someone suffers an injury or death or even if there is property damage, they call us and we help them document what has happened and fill out forms. We do not dispense money but we liaise, fill the gaps, and ensure claims are filed and not rejected. We have processed almost 25,000 claims in Bandipur and Nagarahole over the past nine years,” said Karanth.

A waterhole inside Bandipur National Park. Conservationists accuse the KFD of indiscriminate digging of water holes inside the tiger reserve.

A waterhole inside Bandipur National Park. Conservationists accuse the KFD of indiscriminate digging of water holes inside the tiger reserve. | Photo Credit: VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

But is there a long-term solution in sight? Kumar said that one way out could be to “capture ‘problem’ tigers and translocate them to low-density tiger areas such as the Malai Mahadeshwara Wildlife Sanctuary, the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Kali Tiger Reserve but only after we increase the prey population”. He added: “We have succeeded in protecting Bandipur but we must now concentrate on the eco-sensitive/buffer zones, create awareness about tigers, and pay compensation on time.”

Hoover was critical of the “fragmentation of corridors” between Bandipur and Nagarahole and other smaller protected areas. According to him, the untrammelled “increase in resorts, homestays, and private ranches needs to be curtailed.” One way in which the conflict could be mitigated, the conservationist P.M. Muthanna said, was to be alert when tigers start attacking cattle as that was a prelude to bolder behaviour. “When cattle attacks take place, there is sufficient time to analyse this behaviour and to intervene,” he said.

In a recent public lecture, the environmental historian Mahesh Rangarajan narrated an interesting anecdote: “Once, the penultimate Viceroy of India Lord Archibald Wavell and the hunter-writer Jim Corbett were up on a machan waiting for a tiger. Wavell turned to Corbett and asked, ‘Do you think the tiger will survive once we [the British] leave?’ Corbett responded that the tiger would not last for 10 years in independent India as all of them would be shot.”

Contrary to this bleak prognosis, tigers did survive, but things remained grim until the 1970s when stringent environmental legislation ensured that the big cat’s population bounced back and even thrived in places such as Bandipur and Nagarahole. There is a serious concern, though, that if instances of conflict with this apex species are not controlled, it will obstruct the notification of new tiger reserves, and that will be a setback for wildlife conservation.

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