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Keeping people and tigers safe

As conservation of wild species becomes more successful, higher levels of human-wildlife conflict are being reported in many parts of the country. The outcome of such encounters is a distressing number
of human lives lost, and the tragic elimination of the wild creatures involved in the attacks. The ‘man-eating tiger’ incident in Dodabetta in the Nilgiris, which ended in the gunning down of the cat, brings to the fore the dilemma of ensuring a safe distance between wild animals and people. Evidently, there are no easy answers to this question, not just in India but in several other countries that have well-protected wildlife. Two strategies often adopted to prevent conflict rely on modification of human and animal behaviour. Farmers are encouraged to switch to cash crops to avoid attracting elephants, while forest departments provide access to water within protected areas to stop animals from moving out. Wild creatures in turn learn to avoid places rendered inaccessible through trench-digging and building of fences. Yet, these are by no means fail-safe interventions. It is necessary to identify areas for intensive protection, and encourage forest-dwelling communities to move out — of course, with sufficient attention devoted to their rehabilitation at a new location.
Removal of problem animals often becomes unavoidable if there are human casualties and there is a prospect of more people being killed. It would appear ironic, but conservation advice in such circumstances is usually to swiftly eliminate the lone animal, such as the Dodabetta tiger, rather than attempt slow capture and risk negative public attitudes to tigers as a whole. Unfortunately, it is not easy to identify the individual tiger or leopard, and the conflict may continue even after one animal is shot dead. In Chikmagalur district, for instance, 17 leopards had to be shot in 1995 before the problem of attacks on people stopped. Research evidence supports a strategy that relies on ‘spatial separation’ of people and animals as a more rewarding means of conflict reduction. If isolated villages and free ranging cattle are moved out of the small land area that makes up India’s protected forests, the risk of an encounter with fierce creatures can be brought down. The problem today is that successfully managed national parks and sanctuaries are witnessing a rise in tiger and leopard numbers, leading to the dispersal of old and injured animals towards habitations on the periphery and even beyond. Future conservation strategies would have to rely on well-administered wildlife sanctuaries, and equally on a voluntary resettlement programme for forest communities.

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