Big cat's latest victim, a 35-year-old woman, was killed earlier this week as she collected animal fodder near her village
Jason Burke in Delhi guardian.co.uk, Friday 31 December 2010 17.37 GMT
Environmental officials in northern India have issued an order for a tiger that has attacked and killed three women to be shot on sight.
A specialist team has been dispatched to track down the animal in the world-famous Corbett national park, seven hours' drive north of Delhi.
There have been angry protests by local people at the gates of the park, an increasingly popular tourist destination, since the body of the tiger's most recent victim was found.
Devki Devi, 35, was attacked earlier this week when she and 12 other women went out to collect cattle fodder near their village, said Anil Baluni, the vice-chairman of the Uttarakhand forests and environment advisory committee. The others managed to get away.
Such attacks are rare but regular occurrences in India where repeated drives to preserve the country's tiger population have failed to stem poaching and deaths from natural causes linked to pressure on the animals' habitat.
The number of tigers in India is disputed, but is thought to be approximately 1,500, half of what it was 20 years ago. Some 150 live in or around the Corbett national park, which lies on plains at the foot of the Himalayas.
The fact that the tiger, a female, killed two other women in separate incidents last month and appears to have eaten much of the body of its latest victim will have been important in convincing authorities to issue the order to use lethal force, said Samir Sinha, a former deputy director of the park.
"These kinds of decisions are never easy and never taken lightly. It is only when human life is threatened. Shooting will be the last resort. An attempt will first be made to capture the animal or to tranquilise it," Sinha said.
The area around Corbett national park is a hub of poaching activity. Widespread corruption, demotivated staff and ill-equipped police have allowed networks which kill tigers to order to thrive, campaigners say.
Jairam Ramesh, the Indian environment minister, recently expressed concern over the number of tourist lodges constructed around India's 38 tiger reserves. Many are built in flagrant breach of planning restrictions. The government is considering restricting tourism activities by increasing prices at the reserves and limiting the number of visits.
Quarrying and roadbuilding adds to pressure on the tiger as does India's booming population.
Villagers head deep into the tigers' natural habitat in search of firewood or animal fodder. At the same time prey for the tigers is becoming more and more scarce. The government is considering restricting tourism activities by increasing prices at the reserves and limiting the number of visits.
Last month, local villagers poisoned a tiger with pesticide in the Sariska reserve, the closest tiger habitat to Delhi. Two senior forest officials were suspended for dereliction of duty. The tiger was one of several relocated to Sariska after the entire population of the reserve was poached several years ago.