An eye for an eye. That’s one way we used to handle it.
“When there was a case of a conflict-causing tiger, the Forest Department used to call private hunters,” says Mr Atul Singh between mouthfuls of hot paratha. Rain batters the tin roof of his home as he plucks a framed, ageing photograph down from the shelf. A group of immaculately dressed men bearing rifles kneel solemnly beside the body of a male tiger. There is a single bullet wound to its neck.
“My grandfather was the first private hunter in this area,” he says, adding, “he killed 24 of them.”
A stone’s throw from where Atul stands, through wheat fields, villages and sugarcane plantations, lies the dense forests of Pilibhit Tiger Reserve.
Times have changed since the early 1900s, when Atul’s grandfather was an expert tiger tracker, held in high esteem for his ability to relieve locals of the terrors of wandering predators.
In decades that followed, the tiger population in India and across the world plummeted. Conservationists and governments took action. Tigers became a protected species. A global audience took interest. Today, although alarm bells are still ringing for the precarious few that remain in Southeast Asia, India and Nepal are celebrating a dramatic increase in their tiger numbers.
And all the while the tiger’s story evolves, as does Asia, the only continent home to this big cat.
Urban sprawl is growing. New roads and railways are mobilising and connecting economies, bringing new villages, towns and industries with them. Even climate change threatens to shrink the land available for both people and tigers. The squeeze on space and resources has pushed tigers into isolated islands of habitat.
The result? 46.7 million people living alongside tigers. That’s millions of people living with the world’s most powerful feline predator as their next-door neighbour.
It's a figure that brings into sharp focus a now urgent question: what needs to be done to make sure humans and tigers coexist now, and far into the future?
Nowhere is this question more evident than in India. In this vast and diverse nation, around 32 million people are already living inside tiger habitats that host over 70% of the world’s remaining wild tigers.
“Growing up I thought the tiger was the most wonderful animal. The more I learned about it, the more curious I became. But I also realised that this animal was slowly disappearing,” explains Atul, who knows this landscape and its tigers intimately thanks to a childhood exploring with his grandfather. “So, the fact that we have now doubled the tiger population in our Pilibhit is a matter of great pride for us,” he adds.
Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, nestled into the foothills of the Himalayas, is a long, narrow forest flanked by densely populated areas. Here the boundaries between human and tiger habitats are blurred. In the land between, forest quickly gives way to sugarcane plantations where tigresses have found a safe haven to give birth to their cubs. Other tigers reportedly follow their prey into the fields. Some tigers strayed further into towns and human settlements. One young tiger even found itself in a family’s kitchen — a distressing situation for both the tiger and community members. While these movements have been recorded overtime, conservationists still have a limited understanding of how tigers navigate in and around farmlands.
This cocktail of circumstances led the area to become a hotspot for human-tiger conflict, sometimes with devastating consequences.
“People suffered many losses,” explains Atul. He pauses and looks to the ground with a furrowed brow. “Because of that, some people decided to kill the tigers themselves.”
From foe to friend
Saddened by the situation Atul decided to take matters into his own hands. Though he couldn’t stop the tigers leaving the forest, he could minimise the risk they posed by using the skills his grandfather taught him as a tiger hunter. Atul began to track tigers that strayed from the reserve, informing local residents and asking them to keep a safe distance. With the help of WWF, he then built a team of 12 tiger trackers from towns and villages surrounding Pilibhit. They now work hand in hand with the Forest Department to locate tigers, monitor their movements, spread awareness in their communities on how to stay safe and, in extreme circumstances, relocate them. The team goes by the name of the Bagh Mitra, or ‘Tiger Friends’. Today there are some 200 Bagh Mitras embedded in communities surrounding Pilibhit Tiger Reserve.
“We are all constantly working with communities to help them live peacefully with the tigers,” says Atul.
Whilst Pilibhit’s main challenge to coexistence is tigers leaving the protected area, in many tiger landscapes the biggest problems arise when people go into tiger territory. Mostly, because they have no other choice.
To see this complicated dynamic in action, you can leave Pilibhit, take an overnight train, a bus, an auto-rickshaw and two boats deep into the Sundarbans mangroves of West Bengal.
Here, at the jetty of Bhuvaneswari - a forest-fringe village perched on one of the 104 low-lying islands that form the Sundarbans - a landscape with one of the highest rates of human-tiger conflict in the world. Tigers here can swim up to 6km a day in search of hard-to-find prey. To the east, the jetty acts as a gateway to countless homes, farms, schools and a bustling high street. To the west, over a 150 meter wide body of water, is what locals refer to as ‘no-man’s land’.
Devastating stories of tiger attacks are easy to come by. Manoranjan Tanti lost his son Samir to a tiger attack just last year, whilst he was out fishing in a creek at low tide. Samir’s wife was left with little choice but to go to the city in search of work. Unbuttoning his shirt to reveal her husband’s scars, Jyotsna Singh shares details of how she pulled a tiger off him with her bare hands. Now unable to work and faced with daily hospital bills, the family is in a dire economic situation.
Life is not easy for most of the 4.5 million people living in the Indian Sundarbans. For many, the mangrove forest which is home to around 100 tigers is a crucial source of food and income. “People in this area are always dependent on the forest and rivers. It has a rich biodiversity, it’s not just a breeding ground for tigers,” says 72-year-old Basudev Barik, glancing up from the fishing net he’s repairing.
Growing economic pressures in the wake of COVID-19, and farms flooded with saline water during storms and cyclones are leaving them with few alternatives. On the face of it, life for people of the Sundarbans may appear simpler if there were no tigers. But there is growing awareness that tigers are essential for the protection of the ecosystem on which the people of the Sundarbans depend.
Safe from harm
“If tigers weren’t there, people would destroy the forest by cutting down all its trees to earn a living. The environmental balance would be destroyed and we would face even worse damage from the storms,” says Mahua Pramanik on a muggy afternoon. Mahua is a mouli - a traditional wild honey collector who used to travel into the forest with her family. These days, an alternative livelihood scheme means she no longer needs to risk her life, but can continue with her family’s traditional practice.
Mahua and her husband are one of around 80 families involved in a honey cooperative that uses apiaries placed in secure, netted areas on the edge of the forest. “It’s much safer to do it this way, and the bees still collect pollen from the mangrove trees so the honey retains its high quality” she says.
Not only this, the project is also providing her with a better and more reliable source of income. “We are much better off than before, and I have got my kid admitted to a good school,” she smiles.
The project, initially set up in partnership between WWF, the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve along with Discovery Communications India, was supported by tiger conservation funding. Now that Mahua’s family is directly benefiting from it, she is among those who support efforts to protect tigers in the area. “I want to see more of these types of projects around here,” explains Mahua, “so that other people can also get a good life.”
What Mahua’s story shows is the inextricable connection between socio economic development and conservation, particularly in the context of human-tiger coexistence. The aim is to have projects that are self-sustaining, and grow organically, so that the communities are not reliant on outside funding. This takes extensive training and initial support, but as the collective is showing - it is possible.
“We started as a small project,” says Mahua. Behind her sit rows upon rows of jars full of the branded Bonphool honey. “But these days we are producing 45 tonnes of honey in just three months in the Sundarbans alone and we’ve scaled up to produce honey in three other regions of West Bengal. We’re even selling it online on our website and on Amazon.”
The challenge of human-tiger coexistence in our ever shrinking world is by no means an easy fix, and even here in Pilibhit and the Sundarbans it hasn’t been entirely solved.
In Pilibhit, some local people are of the opinion that a fence around the forest would be the best way to keep people safe. With fencing not a viable option, other important interventions are underway: livelihood projects, alternative cash-crops, eco-tourism, to name a few. Meanwhile in the Indian Sundarbans, pressures continue to rise. Even the honey collective, which saw stocks fly off the shelves in 2021, is struggling with market linkages to sell its huge stock in the wake of COVID-19. What they need now is help to develop a marketing strategy that can help them tap into a new market.
What these two case studies do show is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to human-tiger coexistence. Circumstances are changing. Landscapes are changing. Attitudes are changing. Each intervention has to be catered to a specific local context, and be ready to evolve. But across the board, the solutions are all linked by one theme: they have local communities at their core.
WWF’s Living with Tigers report highlights the urgent need for human-tiger coexistence strategies and policies that give those living with tigers more ownership of, involvement in, and benefits from conservation. Read the full report here to learn more.
WWF-India is on the ground supporting the honey collective to sell its remaining stock, and will continue to support this project into the future.
If you live in India, search ‘Bonphool honey’ to buy this delicious, organic product.