On 25 July, a tigress emerged from grasslands on the edge of the Philibit Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh and lunged at a man, injuring his legs. Almost immediately, an armed crowd gathered and bludgeoned the tigress with sticks and spears. She fought back and injured eight men. One of them subsequently died in a hospital. When police and forest department officers arrived, they ordered the crowd to retreat.
The police filed FIRs against 43 people after the tigress died later that night and onlookers circulated videos of the crowd’s brutal assault. Since then, officials and others have revived proposals for fences to be built around the tiger reserve’s perimeter.
This dramatic incident raises three questions. First, why do such events occur at Pilibhit as often as they do? Second, why did this crowd respond as it did, and what are the broader implications of such acts for tiger populations? Third, are constructing fences to confine carnivores within national parks the best solution to mitigate against human-animal conflict in Pilibhit and beyond?
The odds of tigers and humans running into one another at close quarters are probably higher in Pilibhit than just about any other place across the tigers’ range. Deforestation has reduced the Pilibit forests to a very narrow strip. Consequently, tigers occur in moderately high densities (about four per 100 sq. km). As adjacent sugarcane, wheat and rice fields happen to provide dispersal routes, serve as breeding territories, and are themselves stocked with livestock and occasionally deer and board, tigers regularly venture out into the fields. Humans also enter the tiger reserve to gather fodder and fuelwood.
Attacks on such tigers are as much by driven by an irrational fear as by the age-old custom of punishing animals that harm humans or their livestock. The Pilibhit tigress was beaten in a plantation at the forest’s edge. She may have already been injured or in poor health and unable to quickly flee the spot. Frenzied social media messaging and an opportunity to watch and participate in what promised to be a spectacle likely mobilised the mob. What ultimately unfolded was an act of cowardice that ultimately led to injury and death.
In recent years, tigers have repeatedly entered Pilibhit’s farmlands and homesteads and have then been captured by authorities. The key determinant of the outcome of such crises is whether teams of forest department and police officers arrive quickly enough to take control of the situation. As these departments are chronically understaffed, have meagre resources and are often ill-prepared to tackle such crises, it is unreasonable to expect they will always get to the problem animals before angry, armed locals take the law into their own hands.
Recognising the magnitude of the problem, the Global Tiger Forum, the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department and WWF-India recently decided to overhaul conflict-response mechanisms in the Pilibhit region. Their key initiatives will include the establishment of mobile response teams, embedding bagh-rakshaks within communities who might act as first respondents and prevent crowds from building, improved monitoring of farmland wildlife, strengthened inter-agency coordination and awareness campaigns that emphasise human safety.
For several reasons, it’s not a good idea to erect fences around tiger reserves. Studies from Africa and North America indicate they have adverse impacts, including blocking the paths of traditional migratory birds and dispersal pathways of other species, restrict evolutionary potential of migratory populations, decrease foraging opportunities for wild herbivores (that carnivores prey on) and elevate wildlife mortality when animals get caught in the fence or when the fences is vandalised and turned into wire-snares.
In fact, fencing Pilibhit Tiger Reserve off could be ecologically unviable as the fence could disrupt key corridors, impacting the biology and behaviour of tigers and other species that have large area requirements and need to disperse from their natal territories. Moreover, long fences will likely be porous, such as along waterways. Tigers will find a way out and may become trapped in farmlands. This will only exacerbate human-animal conflicts.
Third, fences could keep humans from accessing crucial forest resources that sustain many rural households. This likely will aggravate park-people relationships and potentially make communities more hostile towards wildlife.
Finally, building and maintaining a 12-15-ft high chain-link fences over hundreds of kilometres will be very expensive. Building a comprehensive suite of conflict mitigation responses that will bring stakeholders together and support both people and wildlife will be a better use of such funds.
Pranav Chanchani is the lead of the Tiger Conservation Programme at WWF-India.