When we talk about protected areas like national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in India, the only thing comes to our mind is the wild animals
Introduction - Man Eating Tigers of India
Often, in in awe of its propensity to avoid human beings and in awe of its beauty, we are less mindful of the fact that the Tiger is a stealthy and powerful beast, built perfectly for the kill. Today we are able to observe the pinnacle of India’s natural heritage on a wildlife safari in India, but there is much that we may take for granted with these big cats.
Walking amongst nature trails in the Tiger Reserves of India, we come across several footprints of the Tiger both fresh as well as old. For local communities, this is a daily occurrence yet many have never even caught a glimpse of the Tiger inspite of a healthy population of Tigers treading the very lands upon which they subsist.
For all we know, the Tiger has heard people coming and is hiding in the bushes only a few meters away. But why is it hiding when it can quite easily take on an entire group of men, armed at best with bamboo staffs, in order to obtain an easy meal, should it be on the hunt?
To answer this we must explore the primal relationship between man and animal which goes back several thousand years, when, man was yet establishing his place in the animal kingdom – his social structure was primitive and his existence dependent on surviving against stronger enemies. In times when unadulterated physical strength was a mark of dominance, man was well below in the pecking order and predators such as the Tiger were firmly at the top of the food chain.
As man’s brain evolved, his cognitive skills improved, and he sought about ending a life lived in fear, eventually discovering how to build tools for self-defense and for hunting, thus setting off a path which allowed him to propagate rampantly and thrive every corner of the planet.
The last 10000 years of conquest has seen humans become the most successful species, clearing forests and decimating animal populations with the use of weapons and tools. The role of the Tiger has gone on to become that of the hunted, instead the hunter. After all these years of conflict, the instinct of being weary of man has firmly passed down generations amongst animals, including Tigers, who actively avoid any confrontation.
On the flipside of the Tigers’ discretion in its avoidance of man, there have been several instances of Man-eating Tigers. And as many of the locals who have experienced the chilling presence of a “man-eater” around their village will tell you, it is a terrorising experience.
Rightly so, in the interest of the local communities who bear the brunt of the growing Tiger population in India, and in the interest of the long term peaceful co-existence of man and animal, these situations are acted upon swiftly by the authorities and the “man-eater” is either put down or captured and placed in a zoo.
With India’s Tiger population close to 3000 individuals today, along with a burgeoning human population and governmental agendas on quick development, one can only see an increase in human-animal conflict.
What is a Man Eating Tiger?
In India’s rural wilderness, ill, injured or old Tigers seek out relatively easy prey in the form of domestic animals such as cows or goats. In protected areas, villagers are duly compensated for these acts committed by the Tiger. Local communities are usually tolerant and have always held much forbearance and respect towards this mystical creature. Attacks on humans are rare and on average, around India, 35-40 people are killed by Tigers annually either during accidental encounters or in rare cases by ““man-eater’s”.
According the Union Environment Ministry of India, 224 people were killed by Tigers between the years 2014-2019.
At times, Tigers which are incapable of hunting their natural prey, resort to killing and thus consuming humans. Not to be confused with the instances in which Tigers attack humans during their forays into the buffer areas to collect forest produce – these are mostly acts of self-defense or cases of mistaken identity where man is mistaken for prey, and human flesh isn’t consumed.
There have been several attempts to mitigate such attacks through the years, however, these incident seem to unlikely to reduce. Various forest departments are especially alert when it is reported that human flesh has been consumed in these incidents. Constant vigil is maintained in the surrounding areas so that no opportunity is provided to a Tiger to make another such attack. Evidence is also collected to try and work out the circumstances of the incident and attempts are made to identify the Tiger which might be responsible for such an attack. Evidence could be in the form of pug-marks, photographs from nearby camera traps and even hair samples if any is left behind by the Tiger. Furthermore, forest guards keep any eye out for an injured or aged Tiger in surrounding areas and activities of any ‘’suspects’’ are monitored closely.
The Tiger, an expert hunter, may well be able to make another attack; however, if over the next few weeks it is observed that no such incident has occurred, then it is unlikely that the Tiger is a ““man-eater””.
It is hard to think of the graceful Royal Bengal Tiger, possessing intelligence and strength in equal measure, as a creature that has lost its fear of man and is out to stalk unsuspecting humans. When a Tiger turns into a ““man-eater””, not one person in the village can sleep soundly until this shadow that lurks among them has been eradicated. Life comes to a complete standstill.
Before the era of the Wildlife Protection Act of India 1972, various professional hunters won favour of the public when they were called to “save” villagers from the rising terror of a man-eater when it gripped their lives Today it is State responsibility through its Forest Guards to protect the local communities as well as the Tiger. It remains ironic that in various instances in the years gone by, the rise of man-eating Tigers was caused by hunters themselves in their acts of ‘’bravado’ in which their bullets could not kill the Tiger, but injure them sufficiently, rendering them incapable of hunting prey in the wild any longer.
There have been various man-eating Tigers whose tales have been chronicled in modern Indian history, with more than a few accounts written by pre-eminent hunters cum authors such as Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson during Colonial Rule of the British in India.
The Man Eater of Champawat
Having shot his first Leopard at age 10, and his first Tiger at age 12, Jim Corbett was an expert marksman and tracker and his blooming career as a hunter was earmarked from an early age.
Jim Corbett was born in Nainital, India, in 1875 of Irish ancestry. In an era when the common Indian man wasn’t permitted to use guns, villagers were compelled to be at the mercy of the British in order to rid themselves of ‘’man-eating’’ Tigers back when India was covered in wonderful forests teeming with tens of thousands of Royal Bengal Tigers amongst other wondrous animals. The formidable Tiger was a roadblock to development and their conflict with people was an issue that needed dealing with so that areas of human habitation and commerce could be established. Often, Tigers were hunted for sport and of course, as was a predilection of the British back then, to establish their dominance over another species.
In his adventures as a hunter, both for trophies as well as to eradicate ‘’”man-eater”s’’, Jim Corbett had killed 50 Tigers and over a dozen leopards in his lifetime.
His first ever hunt of a man-eating Tiger was the Man – Eater of Champawat in 1907.
With a bounty on every Tigers’ head during the British Era, British hunters were much sought after to kill Tigers as professionals. However, an encounter in 1900 between a hunter and the Man-eater of Champawat(not yet a “man-eater” then), who had been shot in the mouth but survived, set off a bloody trail of terror which cost hundreds of local citizens their lives and livelihood.
From 1900 to 1907, this Tigress terrorised various villages starting off in the Himalayan region of Rupal in Western Nepal, to the valley of Kumaon, in present day Uttarakhand in Northern India. It is said that this tigress had killed around 200 Nepalese and well over 200 Indian men, woman and children until it was successfully shot and killed by Jim Corbett in 1907. This figure of human deaths remains in the Guinness Book of World Records to this day.
So intense was the damage caused and the fear invoked, that the Gorkha regiment in Nepal was called in to eliminate this Tiger, to no avail. People were being snatched away from their homes and caught from trees trying to escape the clutches of the hunter who was unafraid to hunt in the day – rare form from the usually crepuscular or nocturnal Royal Bengal Tiger.
Driven away by a beat that included an entire regiment aided by villagers, she managed to escape cross the river Sarda and enter India into the foothills of the Himalayas where she continued her killing spree. Corbett, who had built a strong reputation as a hunter, was approached for the task of ending the exploits of this stealthy killer.
It didn’t take long for to Corbett get onto the heels of the “man-eater”. A young girl of 16 was recently snatched away by the Tiger in broad daylight. Corbett followed the bloody trail to the outskirts of the village of Champawat, prompting him to comment that “the Tiger ceased to behave like a Tiger at all”.
Corbett recalls in his book Man-Eaters of Kumaon, that, “the tracks of the tigress were clearly visible. On one side were great splashes of blood where the girl’s head hung down, and on the other side, the trail of her feet.” He followed the trail for four hours and was nearly ambushed by the tigress herself and managed to escape by shooting off his rifle.
The he decided to utilise the villagers and organise a large beat, 300 strong, to corner and lure the tigress out into coming out in the open. The next afternoon, the beat of villagers banged their drums loudly and screamed at the top of their voices in order to flush the Tiger out from the area they believed it was resting in. Corbett found himself face to face with the Tiger, and with his rifle took 2 shots at the Tiger : one to its chest and the other to its shoulder. Out of bullets, Corbett scrambled for another rifle from the accompanying village tehsildar and managed to ring out the killer blow to the oncoming tigress – thus ending the unfortunate saga. Post mortem of the tigress’ body revealed that the upper and lower canine of the right side of her mouth were broken – impairing her from hunting her natural prey of wild boar and deer, and thus condemning her to a lifetime of seeking human flesh in order to survive. The revered Corbett christened her the Man – Eater of Champawat.
Much thanks has to be given to Jim Corbett, who, through his elevated social status and by way of his celebrated works that beautifully personified each Tiger that he wrote about, awoke the general public to the plight of the man-eater as a “disease”, a feature that is not innate in a Tiger but rather a condition that is most likely caused by imbalance created by humans themselves. He spent the last 2 decades of his life ditching his gun and rallying for protection of the Tiger with the help of his camera – documenting with film instead the wonders that only his eyes had seen.
The Man – Eaters of the Sundarbans
On India’s eastern coast lies the largest mangrove delta in the world, which drains into the Bay of Bengal. Here, the long journey of the Brahmaputra and Ganges river finally reaches its final chapter, and the union of fresh water with the saline water of the ocean creates a unique ecosystem which has harboured and protected life for millions of years in the cyclone prone areas of the Bay of Bengal.
Over a million humans reside around the Sundarbans. Alongside in the murky reaches of this old mangrove forest, live close to 400 Royal Bengal Tigers. Not one person would dare venture into the darkness of the Sundarbans all alone, such is the fear of the predator that lives within.
Here, people of all faiths share their fear of the Tiger and are unified by their belief in the deity “Bonbibi” who casts a protective eye on all whose lives are dependent on the delta. Expert honey collectors and fishermen forage here in large numbers, risking their lives each day in order to earn their daily bread. The bounty within the Sunderbans is large and in India, where economic inequality is rampant, risk to reward ratio is often disregarded.
Fishermen follow the channels and venture into the darkness of the creeks where they alight onto the mucky almost quicksand-like shore. Their search for crabs exposes them to 20-foot long Estuarine Crocodiles in the water and the ominous presence of the Tiger on land.
We know of the Tiger as gentleman who, at all costs, avoids conflict with man. In the Sundarbans, the Tiger rarely seems to fear man and being a silent, opportunistic hunter, seeks human flesh as part of its diet. That being said, inspite of the reputation of the Sundarbans Tigers as being “man-eaters”, numbers here though exceeding the median number of human deaths caused by Tigers, human casualties are yet relatively low when one considers the circumstances of the animal and the sheer number of opportunities they have to hunt humans.
Why are the Sundarbans Tigers man – eaters?
There are various hypotheses and it is difficult to pinpoint a true cause. All of them seem to follow logic and it is most likely a combination of factors that influences this divergent evolutionary trait or anomaly in the behaviour of the Royal Bengal Tigers of the Sundarbans.
- Prey Density is scarce in the Sundarbans : Though biodiversity is large, the volume of large prey animals such as the Spotted Deer, Sambar and Wild Boar is low. Difficulty in hunting in such terrain could also be one of the key factors as to the indiscretion of Tigers here in killing humans for food.
- Scavenging on human flesh: The Eastern Coast of India is a cyclone riddled-area and in the years gone by, several human lives have been consumed by these storms. It is possible that scavenging of human bodies that wash ashore here could be a factor in the development of a taste for human flesh, a taste passed on by Tigers to subsequent generations.
- Accidentally Hunting Humans: Quite often, human deaths are cases of mistaken identity in which people who crouch over or are partially submerged in water are mistaken for another animal. Lack of prey availability coupled with difficult hunting conditions might compel a Sundarbans Tiger to consume what it has brought down. In other areas in India where prey is abundant, a Tigers might actually attack a human, they usually do not consume the flesh of the person.
There are various hypotheses which suggest that the Tigers’ consumption of saline water is a factor in its overly aggressive nature, as is the fact that their urine trails are frequently washed off due to the ebbs and flow of the tide which cover the mangroves. It is difficult to draw conclusions from such.
While the Sundarbans remains a fascinating prospect for those who are enamoured by its various unique residents and the sheer beauty of the area. It is rather re-assuring to know that the boundaries are well guarded by the Tigers who prowl within. They are the protectors of the mangroves, which in turn protect the people of the coast from the destructive powers of cyclones and the unforgiving tide that comes along with it.
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