Shrinking prey base forcing tigers to stray
Prithvijit Mitra, TNN 3 September 2009, 04:01am IST
A tiger straying into villages on the fringes of the Sunderbans has now become as frequent as one making a kill deep inside the mangrove forests. Villagers, from Gosaba and Patharpratima to Bally have learnt to live with it. But it's a life anything but normal death could be lurking in a bush or around the next tree.
The figures paint a grim picture. Thirty-two big cats have strayed out of the jungle and into human habitations in the last 10 months. The frequency of tiger forays has gone up after the devastation of Cyclone Aila, raising concerns about depletion of tiger prey. Hundreds of deer and wild boar were suspected to have been swept away in the cyclone. In July, a tiger was found dead after consuming two cobras, which raised doubts about the availability of enough prey in the forest.
But neither the frequent strayings nor the devastating Aila, which ravaged the forest and hundreds of villages in the islands, made the authorities sit up and take note. Weeks after the storm hit, a study was launched to assess the damage to the forest and to find out if there was indeed a prey shortage. Three months later, the study is still on. The Sunderban Biosphere Reserve (SBR) authorities don't rule out the possibility of a food crisis but have no solutions to offer.
"A prey shortage cannot be ruled out. The tigress that was trapped at Pirakhali on Tuesday had been straying repeatedly. We must look into it," said N C Bahuguna, director, SBR. Locals and experts feel enough time has been lost and a study should be done to find out if a food crisis exists in the mangrove jungles. "Tigers have always strayed but not so frequently. Poaching has been curbed in the Sunderbans, so there is apparently no reason why the prey base should dwindle. We have never heard of a tiger dying after eating a cobra. A study is needed to check the prey base. It should be investigated if deer and boar are breeding less," said S R Banerjee, honorary director, Wildlife Protection Society of India, an NGO.
Others like Anil Mistry, principal field officer, WPSI called for the involvement of locals in the survey. "Unless villagers and fishermen are involved, we won't get the correct picture. There is no use having a survey just for the sake of it," said Mistry.