INVESTIGATION

Who’s Killing the Corbett Tigers?

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Four tigers found dead in less than a month, within a triangular patch of about 40 sq km in the heart of one of India’s best reserves. Natural deaths? Infighting? Poaching? With the media rife with speculation, Open cuts through the clutter to find some answers.

To understand the fuss about four dead tigers in Corbett tiger reserve in one month—when 66 deaths were reported across India last year—consider the larger picture. When India’s tiger count is at an all-time low of 1,411, Corbett stands out as a rare success story where the numbers have been steadily on the rise. From 137 in 2001 to 164 in 2007, a thriving stock makes Corbett, at the Himalayan foothills in Uttarakhand, north India’s most densely populated tiger forest.

So four deaths in quick succession in the heart of the reserve have triggered panic: are we losing one of the few remaining strongholds of the national animal?

With so many tigers at Corbett, four natural deaths in one month is very much a possibility. But each of the four carcasses had something or the other unusual about them, making the forest authorities edgy and fuelling speculation of poaching in the media.

When a delayed transfer of the viscera to Bellary’s Indian Veterinary Research Institute spoiled any chance of conclusive analyses, rumblings of foul play just got louder.

THE CASE

Four tigers died one after the other dead-deep inside the Corbett core within 31 days in December and January.

»The first casualty, an eight-year-old male, was reported on 13 December near Mota Sal, a giant tree that serves as a landmark near Dhikala Chaur (grassland).

»The second victim was an 11-year old tigress, found by the Ramganga river close to Sarpduli rest house on 16 December.

»The third carcass was that of a four-year-old male, found on 5 January in Phuli Chaur near Dhikala tourist complex.

»The fourth death was reported on 12 January when beat guards found a six-year-old tiger dead near Gaujra chowki at the edge of the Dhikala range.

Of the four cases, the third appears to be the simplest. The young male was the victim of a territorial fight, possibly over a kill that was found half-consumed nearby. The tiger carcass had sharp canine wounds and the paw pads had traces of fur that came off the other tiger during the tussle. To bury speculation, a large male tiger showed up graciously during the spot funeral, possibly in honour of its vanquished rival.

The second death raised eyebrows as a shoe sole was found in the stomach of the tigress. It is not unusual to find garbage by the riverside, washed down from villages upstream Ramganga, and the old tigress, too hungry and unable to hunt, was probably attracted by the leathery smell of a wet shoe and chewed it up. The undigested sole remained in her tummy and may or may not have hastened her imminent end.

One may dismiss speculation of foul play in these two cases: the young male found on Phuli Chaur was just unlucky, as death from in-fighting is common in the wild; few animals survive long enough to die of old age like the Sarpduli tigress. But the other two deaths—the first and the fourth—do raise uncomfortable questions.

Tigers can live up to 12 years in the wild. There was no injury mark whatsoever on the eight-year-old male found dead near Mota Sal; it is anyway unlikely for such a mature tiger in its prime to have got into a territorial fight with an equal adversary. Typically, mature tigers take on inexperienced youngsters or an old weakling, the results of which would be rather obvious.

Reliable sources say the internal organs of the tiger had “small blister-like eruptions” on them. The tiger defecated while dying, possibly because of muscle relaxation or stress or intestinal trauma—but the sample was not tested. The officials claimed that the robust male died due to “respiratory and cardio-vascular problems”.

The fourth carcass at Gaujra, however, bore tell-tale signs. The tiger had retched before dying and the post-mortem revealed enough indications of poison in its visceral organs. While the official jury is still out, even the top forest bosses present at the spot agree that the tiger was poisoned.

THE MYSTERY

The hushed consensus about poisoning in the fourth case revived doubts over the first casualty, the eight-year-old male whose death many felt was not satisfactorily explained.

The tiger that was poisoned at Gaujra was found at the edge of the Ramganga reservoir. Poison dehydrates animals and they try to reach the nearest water body. But the first tiger found dead at Mota Sal, though not too far from the other bank of the reservoir, was not exactly close to it. However, animals when poisoned also try to avoid the sun and heat. Since the carcass was found under a clump of trees, only yards away from the Dhikala grassland, it is possible that the tiger drank at the reservoir and crossed the open grassland (about 2 km) and lay down to die in the cool, shaded forest.

As crows fly, the distance between the spots where the first and fourth carcasses were found is less than 5 km. Though the Ramganga reservoir lies in between, lack of rain last monsoon has shrunk the stretch of water, and it would not have been impossible for even a poisoned tiger to swim across.

Could there be other tigers poisoned to death in this area that went unnoticed? Tiger carcasses rot quickly and are often scavenged upon by hyenas and jackals, so it may not be possible to discover each and every carcass.

The Corbett management admits as much. But be it one, two or more, tigers are evidently being poisoned in Corbett.

Of course, tiger killings are not unprecedented in Corbett. In 1998, a tigress and three cubs died after feeding on a poisoned cattle carcass near Jamun village in the Kalagarh division. Only last year, a decomposed carcass was found in Dhela range in March. In 2008, a tiger was found dead in Jhirna range and was disposed of in a hurry. In 2007, a tiger was camera-trapped with a deep snare-wound on its neck and was subsequently found dead. In 2006, a tiger was shot dead barely 7 km from the Corbett boundary by poachers in the Terai West division.

But all these incidents happened in the peripheral forests of Corbett. This time round, the killing zone is at the core of the reserve. How are poachers getting there? Why are they risking going so far in when they can easily target tigers at the periphery?

What is the motive, since poisoned tigers wander away and make it impossible to retrieve the carcass for skin, bones etc.? If these are revenge killings, who can possibly have anything against tigers in the Corbett core, far away from human habitation? Or is the Corbett management or someone higher up the real target?

FINDING ANSWERS

The forest staff obviously has the best access to these tigers. Those who man the two canteens—one with Kumaun Vikas Mandal and another run privately—also stay at Dhikala. Then, there are the tourist guides and drivers who enter the Corbett tiger reserve’s core zone on a daily basis.

Following a hunt, a tiger consumes part of the kill and hides the rest to come back later for a second meal. Those looking to poison the kill, therefore, must know the forest well and have free access to get there before the tiger returns to it. Canteen workers do not know the forest so well. Accompanied by tourists and bound by timetables, guides lack the necessary access. And there are no opposing lobbies in the Corbett forest management to trigger sabotage by the staff.

The rumour mill at Ramnagar, though, is circulating two conspiracy theories, woven around two “aggrieved insiders”. Buddi Kala, who ran the private canteen at Dhikala since pre-Project Tiger days, was ousted this year through an open tender that awarded the contract to small-time BJP functionaries from Ramnagar. Jaswant Singh Pradhan, who has been in Corbett since 1993 as a guide and then as a trainer, wanted to replace honorary warden Brijendra Singh, a conservationist close to the Gandhi family, but failed.

Kala, now the head of Dogudda village council near Kotdwar, does not even care to discuss “the angle”, but the staff at Dhikala vouch for him as “a family member”. He would never harm the forest, they say, since “the sympathy of the department” was with him during his fight to retain the canteen contract.

Pradhan, too, seems too busy with his flourishing hotel business. “As a local person who understands Corbett, I felt I qualified for the warden’s post. But it was up to the government. Everyone knows I have always helped the (forest) department,” he says. A family friend adds that Pradhan’s sons are also doing well for themselves as guides at Corbett.

Brijendra Singh himself finds the sabotage theory rather imaginative. “I wouldn’t be the honorary warden if the BJP government did not want me to. I have never compromised Corbett’s interests. Some local elements may resent some of my tough stands, but I doubt if any of them would target the tigers,” he says.

Since nobody seems to have any motive to kill tigers in Corbett’s core, the investigation narrows down to the final and usual suspect: local Gujjars. While much of Corbett is free of any human settlement, 20-25 Gujjar families camp in five different areas of the Kalagarh range along the boundary of the core zone. One of these settlements is at Gaujra, where the fourth tiger was found dead. The forest officials grilled the head of this extended Gujjar family (complete with his four wives and 22 sons), and made him dig up a cow kill he had recently buried to “discourage the tiger”.

The cow carcass “did not appear poisoned” and Gujjars got the benefit-of-doubt given their lack of motive. Explains Heera Singh Karmiyal, range officer, Dhikala: “These Gujjars are here for many years. Sometimes, their buffaloes enter the core area and we fine them. But that has been the only point of friction. There is no history of these Gujjars targeting tigers because tigers rarely take their buffaloes.”

Due to their size and close-knit herds, buffaloes are not quite the favourite with tigers in a forest with an abundant prey base. Cows, on the other hand, are the easiest to hunt. But Gujjars, Karmiyal points out, do not rear cows and have no reason to count the kills as a loss.

But if Gujjars do not keep cows, how come cows are being killed deep inside the forest? A site visit to Gaujra revealed dozens of cows grazing alongside a few horses that Gujjars keep for transporting milk. The forest staff promptly explained the lot as feral cows—animals abandoned by villagers. Gujjars also maintained that they had nothing to do with the cows.

Reliable sources at Dhikala, however, confirmed that the presence of cows at Gaujra is a recent phenomenon, and the first few animals were spotted possibly just a year ago. But what has triggered this sudden influx of cows?

Soon after coming to power, the BJP government in Uttarakhand replaced the Uttar Pradesh Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1955, with the stringent Cow Protection Act, 2007. Apparently, aimed at checking illegal smuggling of cows across India’s eastern borders, the new law banned cow slaughter and imposed tough regulations on the transport and sale of cows. It became almost impossible to sell off non-milch cows even in Uttar Pradesh’s grey markets.

Though the 2007 Act also prohibits abandoning cows, cattle owners soon started setting their unproductive cows free. Villages around Rathuadhab found it convenient to send their cows to Gujjars inside forests. Local sources claim that Gujjars occasionally charge small amounts per cow to allow the animal in. But that is not the real incentive. When some of these cows breed inside the forest, their foster-owner Gujjars sell calves back to the villagers at price discounts ranging from 30 to 50 per cent of the market rate.

Last week, at least seven calves were spotted at Gaujra. No doubt, it has become a source of easy money for Gujjars in the area. This new found stake in abandoned cows could be the missing motive for poisoning tigers.

SECURING CORBETT

With the onset of summer every year, a number of Gujjars from up north move in with buffaloes to join their brethren inside the reserve and make the best use of the Ramganga reservoir. This summer is going to be particularly tough due to scanty rainfall last monsoon. The Corbett management is anticipating a strong influx. With these Gujjars, fresh herds of abandoned cows will also move in towards the Corbett core, lure more tigers and, in turn, trigger retribution.

This potential crisis can be averted if the park management implements a longstanding plan for relocating Gujjar families outside Corbett. A forested site near Haridwar has been procured, but the law requires the state government to notify an equal area under the Forest Protection Act. Since much of Uttarakhand is already designated as ‘protected forests’, the state wants an exemption on this. Many believe it will be wise to accord the state a waiver to fast-track the rehabilitation process. The Centre offers up to Rs 10 lakh per relocated family, and the forest department has Rs 2 crore idling from funds earlier sanctioned by the Uttarakhand government to implement its Gujjar Relocation Plan.

In the long term, however, removal of abandoned cows or rehabilitation of Gujjars will not be enough to secure the future of the tiger in Corbett. There are other equally or even more critical factors—like increasing man-animal conflict and mindless tourism pressure—that are threatening this reserve. But to be able to focus on stakeholders along the reserve boundary, the authorities must secure the heart of Corbett first. With just a couple of months to a dry summer, time is not on their side.

(The author is an independent journalist.)