Two faces of public good

Lynch mob Despite falling cattle-lifting numbers, a tiger had to pay the price
Photo: Aji Colonia

THE FLARE-UP over cattle-lifting by tigers around Kerala’s Wayanad wildlife sanctuary (Just How Many Is Too Many08 December) led to the killing of a big cat this Sunday. The forest officials were trying to tranquilise the animal. But the presence of a raucous mob with sticks and cameras added to the tiger’s stress levels and it did not go down even after two darts were fired. So the officials shot it.

Legally, a chief wildlife warden can order the killing of a “maneater” if the animal attacks three humans in quick succession. The tiger in question did not ever attack people. Cattle-lifting is compensated for and not a justification for shooting a predator. It is inexplicable why the forest staff allowed an angry crowd to interfere with its operation and did not seek or get police cover.

The state has ordered an inquiry into the killing. But forest officials have already justified the shooting, invoking Section 11(1)A of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, as a self-defence measure to ensure public safety. In such cases, inquiries have a way of blaming mobs without holding the administration accountable for ceding control.

In neighbouring Karnataka, the high court constituted a task force to find solutions to the human-elephant conflict raging in Hassan and Kodagu districts. With less than 5 sq km of forest available in this 200 sq km patch, the elephants here depend entirely on the cropland. They number less than 30, but their presence in a crowded landscape means that, on an average, one person is killed every four months. The fragmented herd also causes extensive crop damage in 79 affected villages while frequently injuring people.

As a result, the growing hostility of residents towards elephants and a frustrated administration has created a permanent state of emergency. People seldom go out after sundown and in the early hours. The local forest staff has been attacked on occasion and a number of elephants have been killed.

The task force found that “the current population of elephants in the Alur region did not exist there 30-40 years ago, but is a dispersing population from some larger population (most probably from the south), and it has moved in relatively recently”. These 26-odd elephants are completely cut off from other herds of the state and by themselves do not constitute a viable population.

It also ruled out building natural corridors as the animals, used to roaming the cropland, were not likely to take such paths back to the forests from where they wandered out. If anything, such corridors would only bring more elephants to these agricultural fields.

To create a suitable habitat, it argued, the government would have to acquire around 200 sq km of private land at a minimum cost of Rs 2,500 crore and resettle tens of thousands of people. Even such expenditure would not ensure a long-term future of this small, isolated herd. So in its recent report, the task force recommended that all these elephants be captured and trained to be used by the forest department.

The task force, however, failed to identify and address the factors that made these elephants disperse from the source populations in the forest towards the south. Without fixing those issues, future dispersal and subsequent conflict cannot be ruled out just by creating physical barriers such as trenches and electric fences.

Insensitive hype over tiger numbers created a counterconstituency of affected people

Nevertheless, the recommendation of removal is a sound, practical solution to a crisis caused by elephants encroaching on cropland and not by people taking over forests. This bold step will help conservation in the long run by sending the right message to the people.

In Wayanad, on the other hand, incidents of cattle-lifting have, in fact, come down this year. But insensitive hype over tiger numbers created a counter-constituency of affected people, which is now being milked by politicians. Then, as if to compensate for its over-enthusiasm, the administration let the mob take it out on a tiger.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent journalist.
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