Study can answer why tigers stray
1 Jan 2009, 0401 hrs IST, S S Bist, TNN
Very few wildlife events generate greater interest among the masses than a tiger straying into a Sunderbans village. The sight of the big cat, cowering in fear, desperately trying to save itself from panic-stricken villagers is indeed a pathetic one. The villagers don't find it funny either, for essentially they neither want to harm the magnificent animal nor lose their limbs or lives in a tiger attack. But straying hasn't stopped. Even more surprisingly, no effort has yet been made to find out why the tigers keep straying into the villages.
We can go by the accepted reasons territorial fights, prey scarcity or old-age blunting of their hunting skills. Of late, the rising water level has also been blamed while pregnant animals are known to stray into villages, where they look for safe places to deliver litters.
The real reason could be something that is far removed from any of these. We have no idea if the Sunderbans tiger has a well-defined territory. If they do, how big is it? Do they really need to indulge in territorial fights? If there is indeed a prey scarcity, how bad is it?
These questions have remained unanswered through the decades despite tigers regularly straying into villages, especially in winter. Only an extensive study can answer them.
The fact remains that Bengal tigers behaves differently from their brethren in other forests. They are smaller, more agile, infinitely more adaptive than their counterparts elsewhere and probably more cunning and ferocious as well. It is obviously a deadly combination which is why their behaviour is unpredictable. Unless, their behaviour pattern is studied, we can't be sure why strayings happen or why they turn man-eaters so frequently. There is no use trying to gauge the Sunderbans tiger based on our knowledge of the big cat in Corbett National Park or Dudhwa.
The Wild Life Institute of India, Dehra Doon, had been preparing for a study. They had even prepared a guideline to help us know the Bengal tiger better and prevent straying. It was to be preceded by a research, which never happened. Not only are we in the dark about tiger behaviour, we are also not equipped to handle strayings. Our marksmen are not properly trained. They don't know about the right dosage of tranquillizers or how to tend a tranquillized tiger. The forest department has no full-time veterinary doctor, which is shocking.
They are invited from neighbouring areas or from the zoos, where they are used to treating captive creatures.
We have not been able to find a replacement for Gopal Tanti the ace shooter who has successfully tranquillized several tigers over the years. Training programmes are bogus. You can't have a few lectures and demonstrations for 30-odd people and then expect them to tranquillize a rampaging Bengal tiger in the wild. Here, too, the Wild Life Institute could have helped. In fact, we had recently identified five-six shooters and requested the institute to train them. It is yet to happen.
Did a tranquillizer overdose kill the Kantamari tiger? It is a possibility. The animal was shot twice, which is dangerous. They should have been careful about the dose of the second shot. But it seems the beat ranger was not guided by any superior official. When it became apparent that the animal was not recovering, expert advice should have been sought. Officials needed to consult the Wild Life Institute. But we, at the forest department, have made a habit of waiting for a disaster to happen rather than trying to prevent it. Unless this changes, the tiger-man conflict will continue.
(As told to Prithvijit Mitra) S S Bist, managing director of the West Bengal Forest Development Corporation, is an authority on wildlife and a former deputy director of Project Tiger