Man eating Tigers is something we have all read about however incidents of man eating keep getting reported about in the press from time to time. In Nagarhole we have also had a few man eating cases during the past few years. I therefore think that it would be a worthwhile exercise to trace the history of man-eating among tigers with a view to get a proper understanding of this phenomenon.
During prehistoric time when man was extremely vulnerable and unable to defend himself against predators, tigers viewed humans as natural prey and hunted them as they would hunt natural prey today. Humans at that time probably constituted a good portion of a tigers food as in all probability they were considered easy prey not having developed sufficiently efficient defense mechanisms against predation.
In the course of time, man discovered the use of tools, agriculture and controlled fire which in turn led to a more settled and community based lifestyle. These resulted in a co-operative style of living and with the advantages of co-operative hunting, humans were able to defend themselves. While these developments led to the tiger gaining a respect for humans, they continued to regard them as natural prey. Marco Polo records that they were feared as man-eaters in China.
The next major change in the relationship between humans and tigers occurred with the advent of gunpowder and firearms. With this advantage, humans now became the aggressors and actively began to harass and hunt tigers. It was at this stage that tigers began to avoid humans and stopped viewing them as natural prey. They however continued to kill livestock when they got the opportunity. This more or less became the norm over the last two to three centuries.
This change was extremely gradual and certainly not uniform over the tigers range with a result that more or less all three stages of the relationship were relevant during the same period depending upon the remoteness and development of the human settlement.
It was also at this time that the human population started registering a rapid growth and humans started encroaching more and more into the tigers home thus coming into conflict.
During the 19 Th and 20 Th century there were many reports of man-eating by tigers from Russia, South China, Singapore and parts of India. In certain cases, they rendered entire areas almost un-inhabitable and even caused weekly markets to close in Manchuria.
Man-eating was not a major problem in Indochina, Malaysia, Indonesia and South India. There does not seem to be a satisfactory ecological explanation for this.
In India, the problem was reported from Bengal, the then Central Provinces and the Himalayan foothills. The books of Jim Corbett give a vivid picture of man-eating in the Himalayan foothills. The reasons he gives for this rash of man-eating is that the stress of circumstances led them to it and he goes on to state that nine times out of ten it was due to wounds that hampered them from killing normal prey and the tenth was old age that resulted in them being unable to hunt. He also goes on to say that the changeover to man-eating was accidental. The first victim was rarely eaten and was always killed when he was in a bending posture usually while cutting grass. Thus not easily identifiable as a human with a characteristic upright posture. He cites the availability of natural prey being a key factor in the frequency of kills. This leads us to believe that they did not survive on a purely human diet and that most importantly there was a drastic reduction in the availability of natural prey.
In the recent past, there was an eruption of man-eating in the Dudhwa National Park. It started in 1978, lasted for about ten years, and resulted in the death of nearly two hundred humans. The reason for this were many and varied, the major being that a rash of tree felling across the border in Nepal had resulted in the migration of tigers from there resulting in an unnatural and sudden increase in tiger population of Dudhwa. The intrusion of woodcutters and cart men into the park to collect firewood blown down in a storm at precisely this time led to greater interface between humans and tigers. The scarcity of natural prey also played a significant role. With the migration of tigers , older and weaker animals were pushed to the edges of the park. Farmers along the park boundary had taken to sugarcane cultivation on a large scale, tigers found sugarcane fields nice places to lie up, and this further bought the two into conflict.
Man eating is prevalent even now in the Sundarbans of Bengal and Bangladesh. In the Sundarbans a significant portion of the tiger population indulges in man-eating and it cannot be considered aberrant behavior. The situation in the Sundarbans is more akin to the natural relationship between humans and tigers that prevailed during prehistoric times. Because of the inhospitable terrain human development in the area is not in an advanced stage and neither gunpowder nor firearms are available. Also because of the inhospitable terrain, the density of herbivores is low. Thus in the Sundarbans the tiger continues to view man as prey very much like he did during prehistoric times.
The situation in Nagarhole is slightly different and poses a new challenge to tiger conservation. Nagarhole has one of the highest densities of prey animals in the whole of Asia. This along with careful protection from poachers has made it one of the best tiger habitats in the world. It has one of the highest densities of tigers. With the increase in tiger densities, the older and weaker animals are being pushed to the edge of the park where interface with humans is high. There is also a lot of human habitation within the park. It was also evident that the tigers in question were supplementing their natural diet with humans when they got the opportunity. The only way to solve the problem is in the removal of trouble individual tigers and the resettlement of those people residing within the park. The question that arises is are we prepared to take the requisite steps to rehabilitate people outside and park and reduce interface as it is quite evident from experience that humans and tigers cannot share the same space.