Living on the edge

Tiger in Corbett national park. (Source: Soumyajit Nandy, Flickr Commons)
Tiger in Corbett national park. (Source: Soumyajit Nandy, Flickr Commons)

A tiger takes a stroll outside the reserve area, breeds on forest patches and looks out for waterholes, all under the curious eyes of visitors. This footage is from Tadoba, a popular tiger habitat in Chandrapur, Maharashtra that draws a lot of domestic and foreign tourists these days. The number of tigers in Tadoba is increasing. While the presence of tigers in the forest is an indicator of the well-being of the ecosystem, a sharp upsurge in their numbers in Tadoba has nudged the tigers to move out of the reserve area in search for food.

The tiger that crossed the line, a national award-winning documentary film by Krishnendu Bose deals with the increasing developmental pressure that has led to a third of tigers living outside the tiger reserves in the country. These tigers roaming on the fringes of human habitations due to the shrinkage and the fragmentation of their habitats, lack of water availability and low prey density are in trouble. So are the humans they get into conflict with. The film, made over a period of four years, is a treat to watch. It has gripping footage of the wild cat, at times filmed with infrared cameras.

Crossing their path

On May 12, as the Kriti film club was premiering the film at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, the news of Mangal Das Chaudhari, a forest department fire watcher getting mauled to death by a male tiger at the Tadoba tiger reserve while he was on his usual patrol in the reserve early in the morning came out. The newspapers reported this human-animal conflict which took place almost 20 kilometers inside the reserve. The animal did not eat Chaudhari’s body, perhaps because it was not a man-eater and may not have realised that it was a human that it attacked. This year, three people were killed in Maharashtra by tigers in human-animal conflict situations.

The film made by Earthcare Films takes a close look at these complexities from the lens of socially relevant conservation. The filmmaker, by his own admission, is neither a conservationist nor a persistent defender of tigers and their wild homes. He is of the opinion that the problem is much larger and is not one that calls for just relocating the villages from within the reserves and translocating the wild cats inside. In fact, to mitigate human-tiger conflicts, we need to look beyond the reserves, the filmmaker says. This film takes into account the social dimension of this environmental issue and goes beyond the engagement of conservationists with wilderness and tigers only.

Tigers, the largest of all the Asian cats are increasingly straying out of their natural habitats. They usually feast on domestic animals that are easier to hunt. Tigers and other wildlife constantly raid the marginal farms on the periphery of reserves and people have to look to government for crop raid compensation. The film is a commentary on how both the tigers and humans seem to be doomed as the tigers rise in numbers.

The poor cousin

Naseem, a wildlife manager responsible for the tigers outside the Corbett tiger reserve says, “Each guard has to look after as many as two to three beats (areas they are designated to manage) that too without field gear. Our tigers are the neglected ones-- below the poverty line; Corbett tigers are above the poverty line.”

The film’s narrative moves forward with opinions from ecologists, wildlife park managers, bureaucrats, non-profit voices from WWF-India, Greenpeace and villagers. Most of them point to the urgency of guarding the corridors and spaces outside the tiger reserves. This movement or dispersal of tigers outside the reserves is good, the scientists say. This will, in turn, stabilise a healthy carnivore population in other reserves.

Many of these resource-rich habitats are being diverted for purposes like mining and other developmental projects, leading to human-animal conflict. The film depicts the case of Mahan, a coal-based thermal power plant in Madhya Pradesh where the presence of mines has weakened the corridor considerably.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the varied response of the people to their perpetual conflicts with the beast which are also the most touching moments in the film. Like that of the father whose son was killed by a tiger in the mangroves of Sundarbans. The bereaved father defends the tiger and highlights the criticality of protecting the tiger—jongoler raja (the jungle king in Bangla). And he is not the only one to do so. Anurag Danda, a wildlife conservationist from World Wildlife Fund says, “The tigers of Sundarbans may have a dual personality, but they are certainly not man-eaters.” While those living in Sundarbans, Pilibhit and the forest villages of Ramnagar are more resilient and accepting of the situation, the people in the connecting corridors and fringe regions in Tadoba are up in arms against the beast.

The Tadoba tiger reserve is well protected, yet a lot needs to be done to conserve the areas outside the reserve given the burgeoning tiger numbers since 2000. The corridor through which the tiger seeks new homes is in need of socially acceptable management actions from conservationists and the wildlife bureaucracy. The case of Sundarbans as shown in the film where a simple netted fence can prevent the humans from crossing paths with tigers could be a start. This regulates animal movement and is a far better solution than electric fences that often cause animal deaths.

The film points out that as many as 15 new tigers are added to Tadoba every year. In the absence of a plan, they will be forced to negotiate their survival close to human settlements having consequences for both. The film questions the underlying assumptions and concepts of tiger conservation and calls for a different approach--one that not just focuses on saving species but also includes incentives for communities that are at the receiving end of the man-animal conflicts.

The Supreme Court has on May 8, 2017 issued a notice to the Centre and 17 states on a plea seeking strict implementation of standard operating procedures to tackle emergency situations arising out of man-animal conflicts in and around tiger reserves and forests. It’s high time that the tiger planners of India shed their parochial vision and focused on tigers living on the edge of their habitats and in the corridors. And more importantly, the film shows the need to having stable populations of the wild cat and restoring extensive natural landscapes.