Roar for Tigers

When Tigers Attack in India

When Tigers Attack in India

Mar 9, 2014

A big cat at the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve in northern India Corbett Tiger Reserve/Ap

A man-eating tiger that has killed 10 people in northern India is on the loose in the foothills of the Himalayas. Forestry officials have called in experts with centuries of experience tracking big cats: the local nobility.Since mid-January, Kumar Sanjay Singh, who is from the royal family of Moradabad, and his nephew, Kumar Samar Jeet Singh, scion of the rajah of Kuchesar, have been leading a hunting party to kill the tiger, who last attacked on Feb. 6 in the small village of Thanda Sahuwala. “They know we are born hunters,” says the elder Mr. Singh, 52, who says that he has shot 10 leopards and panthers that had also attacked people. “Our forefathers used to do it, and now it’s us.” In the state of Uttar Pradesh and neighboring Uttarakhand, at least 10 people died last year in “man-animal conflicts.” Encounters with tigers, panthers and other predators, whose populations are rebounding because of conservation efforts, can be especially terrifying. Recently, a leopard prowled through a movie theater and a hospital in a city about a 90-minute drive from the scene of the tiger hunt. Villagers aren’t venturing into the fields during late evenings. “Nobody is going out. Everyone is frightened,” says Virendra Singh, who lives in Thanda Sahuwala. Forestry officials are searching for a female tiger, which they say likely strayed from the nearby Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve. It could weigh more than 400 pounds and is probably 8 to 10 years old, they say. Indian forestry authorities have deployed drones and set up cameras in a quest to locate the tiger, whose latest victim, a herder from Thanda Sahuwala who took his cattle out to graze at dusk, was killed and partially devoured. Mr. Singh and his nephew have focused their operations around the place the man’s body was found. Big cats, Mr. Singh says, often return to the site of a kill, hoping to consume more of their prey. (Based on a paw print, they know the tiger returned the day after the kill.) A water buffalo calf has been tied to a tree as bait, and a camouflaged hunting blind, known as a machan, is assembled on a platform in a nearby tree. Hunting was a traditional pursuit for India’s noble families, mostly as a form of recreation. Maharajahs and their courts hunted dangerous animals such as wild boars and tigers to establish their valor and strength. In the dining room of the 19th-century fort where Mr. Singh’s nephew lives, there is a stuffed Bengal tiger. It was shot by the nephew’s grandfather in 1960, not far from Thanda Sahuwala. Mr. Singh has been hunting since he was a child. His father taught him how to identify big cats from their paw prints; female tigers’ tracks, for instance, are more elongated than males’. In 1982, Mr. Singh was part of a three-member team that killed a rogue elephant after it attacked and killed nine loggers. “I have never felt so afraid,” said Mr. Singh. But, he adds, it “was the best experience I have ever had in my life.” India’s tiger population was estimated at 40,000 in the early 1900s, according to government statistics, but the big-cat population had fallen to 1,827 by 1972. Tiger hunting was banned that year. In 2010, India had an estimated 1,706 tigers, an increase from 1,411 in 2006. Today, tigers are found in 17 of India’s 28 states. These days, Mr. Singh and his team are called into action only when Indian authorities declare that a repeat killer is on the loose. A single kill is considered an accident. But once a repeat killer “starts, it won’t stop,” says the younger Mr. Singh, and shooting it is the only option. One day last week, the men checked the approaches to the buffalo calf. They saw no tracks. If their target didn’t reappear soon, it had likely moved on to another area. Suddenly a langur, a type of monkey, screamed in the canopy. “That’s a distress call,” the younger Mr. Singh whispered. There was a rustling in the underbrush about 10 yards away. The two men chambered bullets in their rifles and aimed: “It could be the tigress.” But it grew silent again. The animal had slipped away, leaving only paw prints in the wet earth. It was a leopard, not a tiger, they concluded. Some animal-rights activists have campaigned against killing the tiger, saying it should be hit with a tranquilizer dart and caged instead. Forestry officials have since decided that killing the tiger is the only solution. But the permit issued to the hunters says that once the animal is sighted, they will have to call a forestry officer for permission to shoot. “The tiger will not wait for you to take instructions and then say, ‘I’m waiting, come and shoot me,’ ” the elder Mr. Singh said. Still, he sympathizes with the big cat. “It’s not right to blame the animal alone,” he says. “It is we who have ventured into their territory.”


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