This story ran in Elements, The New Yorker’s science blog in May 2014. I loved reporting it especially because I conducted a lot of the interviews in Kannada, my mother tongue. You can see the original article here.
Last November, a tiger roaming the outskirts of Bandipur National Park, in southern India, mauled and ate a man named Cheluva, who was a member of the Jenu Kuruba tribe. By the following Tuesday, the tiger had killed two others. The Indian media raised the alarm that a “man-eater” was on the prowl. The government ordered that the beast be shot on sight. “Man-eater,” while technically accurate, did not reflect the tiger’s wretched state: old and weak, with porcupine quills embedded deep in its neck, it had most likely been evicted from its territory by a younger, stronger rival. A few days after the attack, a team of veterinarians tranquilized the tiger and carted it away to a zoo.
Four hundred tigers—more than a tenth of the worldwide population—live in India’s parks and in the Western Ghats mountain range, where their habitat spans more than ten thousand square kilometres. Attacks on the thousands of tribal people who live on park land have been escalating. Around the time of the Bandipur attacks, a second tiger killed a forest guard in Nagarhole National Park, thirty kilometres away. On the day that I arrived at Nargahole, in late December, a tiger attacked a fifty-five-year-old member of the Soliga tribe who had been grazing his cattle in the forest.
This crisis, ironically enough, can be traced to the success of conservation programs, and to a booming tiger population in India. “We’ve got tigers coming out of our ears,” K. Ullas Karanth, a zoologist who directs the Wildlife Conservation Society’s India Program, told me. “This is the price of success.”
A century ago, more than a hundred thousand tigers roamed the jungles of Asia, but rampant poaching and hunting devastated the population. The few elephants to be seen were regarded as a dangerous nuisance, deer had been hunted into obscurity, and the only hint that tigers might be nearby were the echoes of gunshots. In 1972, the Wildlife Protection Act created dozens of new national parks, including Bandipur. A year later, Project Tiger, a national task force designed to protect the endangered species, was launched. The law greatly improved upon earlier, slapdash conservation efforts and established harsh penalties for hunting and poaching. But, in several of the parks, shoddy methods for counting tigers, mismanagement of funds, and corruption by park officials actually hastened the tigers’ decline. Only a few areas— including Jim Corbett National Park (the oldest in India), Bandipur, and Nagarhole—succeeded in fostering tigers.
Karanth, rightfully, takes much of the credit for India’s resurgent tiger population. Every year, he and his staff walk five thousand kilometres of forest. He surveys numbers of prey, collects animal droppings, and documents kills. His work has yielded valuable insights into the dynamics of tiger populations. He has also navigated India’s often thorny and nepotistic political landscape by using his impressive pedigree—his father, Shivaram Karanth, was a legendary polymath—to push his conservationist agenda. His many protégés have also become expert players, wheedling and warring with the local, state, and federal governments, along with farmers, religious swamis, tribal leaders, and other N.G.O.s, to protect the tigers’ habitat.
These days, hunting and poaching are rare in India; about thirty tigers are killed a year. The paddy fields have been replaced by lush grass and the agricultural ponds have transmuted into watering holes for the park’s animal denizens. The region now hosts the world’s largest population of tigers and of the Asian elephant, as well as large numbers of Indian bison, wild dogs, leopard, lion-tailed monkeys, spotted deer, and dozens of other animal and bird species. But more predators in the area means more attacks on humans. As a result, the Indian government has stepped up its efforts to relocate people to places outside of the parks—with limited success.
Hundreds of families still live in the tigers’ zone, and bids to move them out have been met with stiff resistance, not only from the tribal people, but also from human-rights groups in the area, who argue that the government should stop placing the needs of tigers over the livelihoods and rights of the tribal people.
In late December, I visited the Shettalli relocation center, where a woman named Sita remembered the deer and the elephants that had wandered close to her former home in the forest. “My son remembers them, he wants to see them,” she said. “Nothing comes here.”
The houses in the relocation center were uniformly small, regardless of the family’s size, and the new inhabitants did not know how to use the government-installed modern kitchens. The families have spent considerable money reinstalling their traditional wood-burning stoves, and the women still walk ten kilometres into the forest every day to gather firewood.The holdouts, like Gauri, a thirty-year-old Jenu Kuruba woman I met in Nagarhole National Park, still live in ramshackle huts and hope that some politician or nonprofit group will help them get funding to build hospitals and schools inside the forest. “I want a house from the government, right here where I was born,” Gauri told me. “My wish is to live here until I die.”
“The animals and us forest people have all lived together, but now the government says it’s just for tigers,” Gauri said. “Our temple is in the forest. Our ancestors’ graveyards are here. We won’t leave this land.”
Photograph by Vivek Sharma/Foto Natura/Minden/Corbis.