Cannibalism in Tigers

Tiger fight club

Print edition : July 05, 2019

Infighting between adult tigers is often fierce and bloody, a scene in the Kanha Tiger Reserve. While a few adult tigers and cubs have been cannibalised partly in the past years, it does not mean there is dearth of prey for tigers in Kanha.

A tiger with a cub it partially cannibalised after it crushed the cub’s skull. Photo: R.B. Pathak

Another partially cannibalised cub. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

The Kanha Tiger Reserve. Stringent protection, dense forest cover and waterbodies ensure excellent natal areas for tigresses. Photo: Suresh Deshmukh

Tigers also die unnoticed, of serious and infectious wounds. Photo: R.B. Pathak

A survivor whose wound is healing because it was treated in time. Photo: Sandip Agrawal

Kanha’s most famous cat, Munna, with the letters CAT “emblazoned” on his forehead, now old, licking a wound caused by infighting. Photo: Sandip Agrawal

The tigress (right) tried hard but could not save her two cubs from the male (left). Photo: Sandip Agrawal

The tiger generally preys upon calves and small-sized Indian gaur, listed as vulnerable. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

The entire core zone at Kanha has now become tranquil and inviolate for tigers. Photo: Suresh Deshmukh

Habitat improvement practices help build an excellent prey base for the tiger. Photo: Suresh Deshmukh

The increasing barasingha population indicates the health of grasslands. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

Cannibalism among tigers is a natural phenomenon linked to factors such as social organisation and territoriality, and unlike what some would like to believe, it is an occasional behaviour and poses no threat to the tiger population.

OUR elephant was inching forward through the dense undergrowth of a sal forest in the Kanha Tiger Reserve in search of a resident tiger that had reportedly killed a subadult male. The mahout prodded the elephant gently with a guider and made it follow the repeated muffled growls of the tiger. We came out into a small clearing and found, to our sudden fright, a full-grown feline sitting close to the badly mutilated body of the subadult it had killed a few hours back. The tiger with flattened ears snarled menacingly at the elephant a few times, baring his long blood-stained canines. This, however, did not impress the pachyderm, one of the most experienced at Kanha, who kept bobbing his head and swinging his trunk leisurely. The tiger, its mouth covered with blood that had dried up, continued to growl while the mahout positioned the elephant so that we could take a closer look at the killed tiger through field glasses.

The subadult had deep canine puncture marks on the visible side of the head and neck. The mutilated body had deep claw marks on the thoracic and abdominal region. The tiger had also taken a few bites off the left lower thigh, exposing the bone. While most of the body of the subadult was intact and uneaten, technically speaking, the tiger had cannibalised it partially. It was a handsome subadult that had separated from his mother around six months back to live independently. Fate, however, impelled him to run into this dominant resident tiger, probably to emphasise the axiom that it is only the fittest and fastest that survive in the wild.

Death and the aftermath

It is heartening that in such a rapidly developing populous country, and despite the absence of a strong green ideology or ecopolitics, tiger conservation enjoys considerable support from the State and Central governments. Though tiger conservation faces a wide range of challenges and leaves no scope for complacency, Project Tiger, now rechristened the National Tiger Conservation Authority, is still regarded as one of the most ambitious and successful conservation projects in the world. The strongest indicator to measure Indian success is that it supports around 70 per cent of the world’s tiger population occurring in 13 tiger-range countries, and a large part of this population is restricted to protected areas in our country.

Now with the governments’ efforts in the sharp focus of national and international communities, each tiger death in the wild unfailingly makes headlines in the media and is discussed passionately. This is more so if the death occurs in a prominent wildlife-protected area. Social media also provide an excellent platform for quick textual and visual communications and interactions between a vast number of individuals and groups. Besides serious discussions, opinions and concerns, these exchanges also result in misplaced aspersions, and outlandish suggestions and conclusions. Predictably, the management of the protected area concerned faces a lot of criticism from all quarters.

Over the years, tiger conservation has reached such a pass that even if a tiger dies a natural death, the public generally does not believe it. While tiger poaching cannot be ruled out even in the best of wildlife-protected areas, nobody acknowledges that tigers, being mortals, may also die naturally on account of sickness, infection or grave injuries sustained in a fight. Park managers often have a hard time explaining the “naturalness” of such deaths, especially on account of infighting and the occasional cannibalistic behaviour of tigers, but there are hardly any takers! However, the upside of such a situation is that such public reactions and debates help improve protected area management, as wildlife managers always find themselves under the scanner of “tigerwallahs”.

High tiger density

The distribution and aggregation of ungulates have a strong bearing on the dispersal and movement of tigers in a protected area. As a case in point, Kanha supports some forest ranges that generally have excellent grassy expanses and congenial habitat conditions, including perennial waterbodies. They attract a number of different ungulate species and make prime habitats for high tiger density areas. With excellent natal areas, it is not considered unusual when even two or three encumbered tigresses settle down closely on the famous Kanha meadow and raise their cubs to adulthood. A good observation in interdependence is that as habitat conditions gradually become inadequate and impact the distribution and aggregation of ungulates, the tiger density also declines.

There are forest ranges with a few good grasslands, waterbodies and good populations of ungulate species, and also carry medium tiger densities. However, parts of two forest ranges are hilly, undulating and until some time back had a few large forest villages and support lower densities of tigers almost throughout the range. Currently, with around 100 tigers of different age and sex classes, the tiger density ranges from a low of 1.50 to a high of 20 per 100 sq. km across the reserve. Consequently, high tiger density areas also register high probabilities of interaction among individuals, giving rise to many situations in day-to-day life, including intra-specific conflicts.

An adult tiger is a highly territorial, solitary animal and a stalker, which has to hunt alone, either by ambushing or closing in on the prey unobtrusively. Tigers, however, also show flashes of sociability with tigresses and the cubs sired by them. Like human society where people are bound together through persistent interactions, status, roles and networking, the tiger population also survives under a complex social organisation. The tiger’s movements and interactions fit, more or less, into a range territory concept/notion. Each adult resident tiger commands a large area as his home range, and within it lies his territory that he defends aggressively against intruding tigers through scent-marking of spurted urine, vocalisation, scraping the ground, raking the trees, and so on. The territories of adult male tigers are generally non-overlapping, but each territory of an adult tiger overlaps with that of three or four adult tigresses. These territorial resident tigers are usually not less than four or five years old and are past the transient phase after separating from their mothers when they were around two years of age.

land tenure system

Against this backdrop of social organisation, there exists a land tenure system whereby older and weaker tigers are gradually spaced out by younger and more powerful ones so that they may establish their own territories and mate with tigresses. Besides, the abundance of tigers also results in their perpetual wandering and overlapping with dominant males and adds greatly to the vulnerability of cubs. This social organisation and land tenure system automatically give rise to five broad conditions in a tiger population. First, a transient tiger, behaviourally explorative and relatively less skilled, gets into fights with either another transient tiger or a powerful resident tiger and gets killed.

Second, two resident tigers may fight for territoriality or over a female, and the weaker may get killed on the spot or is injured seriously and dies of his wounds.

Third, a resident tiger may kill one or all the cubs, usually not more than three, not sired by him so as to mate with the mother tigress and produce his own progeny. Infanticide is a well-known behaviour in a tiger population. Generally, however, a tiger does not kill his own cubs and is sometimes known to share a kill with the tigress and cubs.

Fourth, a tigress may sometimes be killed either protecting her cubs from a dominant male or for being unreceptive to the male’s overtures.

Lastly, a tiger may also kill all the small cubs of a tigress to bring her into heat for mating. In most cases, such tigresses are known to mate with these tigers and produce cubs. It is generally observed that no tigress with cubs will mate with a tiger. In this way, evolutionary intricacies and genetics have a strong bearing on the phenomenon of cannibalism. This phenomenon is defined as the consumption of all or part of another individual of the same species or its product, such as eggs or larvae, as food. Experts say that cannibalism is especially common in aquatic ecosystems, and around 90 per cent of life forms engage in cannibalistic activity at some point in their life cycle. Besides, cannibalism is not restricted to carnivores; it also occurs in herbivores and in detritivores that feed on dead plant material. Cannibalism plays a role in the balance of nature and it does not occur only as a result of extreme food shortage or of unnatural conditions, but may also occur under natural conditions in a number of species. Therefore, cannibalism occurs across nature—the chimpanzee, the hippopotamus, the polar bear, the rabbit, the praying mantis, the scorpion, the sand tiger shark and the hen are known to display cannibalistic behaviour.

As the tiger population has been monitored closely for several years at Kanha through camera trapping, elephant tracking, conventional photography, the M-STrIPES software, and the study of indirect evidence, most tigers and their relationships within the social organisation are generally known to the Kanha management. At times, even the management may predict the death of a certain tiger under one of the above conditions. Besides, Kanha has such a strong and reliable system of patrolling camps located all over the tiger reserve, especially in the national park, complemented with intensive patrols throughout the year, that almost no tiger death goes undetected.

While a few adult tigers and cubs have been cannibalised partly in the past several years, it does not mean there is any dearth of prey for tigers at Kanha. It is an equally outlandish idea that some tigers have turned absolute cannibals, bent upon wiping out most of the tiger population!

Whether or not fully understood across animal species, cannibalism is a purely natural phenomenon that occurs for various reasons and under different situations. As far as the cannibalistic behaviour of tigers at Kanha is concerned, my empirical knowledge of tigers and their ways suggests that it is actually aggression-induced cannibalism, tigers being highly territorial and extremely intolerant of their conspecifics.

Although a rather anthropomorphic expression for the sake of understanding, the tiger’s aggression sometimes culminates in the partial devouring of the killed conspecific, and the cannibalistic behaviour brings the ultimate sensation of killing a rival and defending his territory. Besides, high tiger densities in some areas of Kanha, systematic tiger monitoring, and prompt reporting of tiger deaths throughout the year under a prescribed protocol also make tiger cannibalism more noticeable than otherwise.

Needless to add, each tiger death has to be examined under a strict protocol issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. This includes close site inspection for signs of a crime, post-mortem by a trained wildlife veterinarian, bio-sampling of different organs for further toxicological and forensic investigations at the State Forensic Laboratory, Sagar, and the School of Wildlife Forensic and Health, Nanaji Deshmukh Veterinary Science University, Jabalpur. Almost the entire procedure is videographed in the presence of two independent witnesses from civil society.

Rakesh Shukla is a Research Officer at the Kanha Tiger Reserve.

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