Tiger, tiger burning too bright? Wayanad tales and the debate on culling of the great cats

"After a point, people will take matters into their own hands. Now, they are manhandling forest officials. Tomorrow, they may kill wild animals..." Is it time to cull India's national animal?

Published: 25th January 2023 09:14 PM  |   Last Updated: 25th January 2023 11:02 PM   |  A+A-

For Harrison Ford, being Indiana Jones and confronting looming perils with just a bullwhip in hand might have been a breeze. But movies are movies. How about the prospect of confronting a fully grown tiger on the loose in real life with only a helmet and stick? Or with a stick alone? Welcome to the life of forest officials in Kerala's Wayanad from where many tales of man-tiger conflict have originated.
Take the case of what followed after Sasi Kumar -- then range officer in the South Wayanad forest division -- received a distress call in September 2020. He, along with a team of 25 officials, was told about a tiger that had entered Anapara in Pulpally town. The big cat had killed a cow there. The agitated people were out on the streets.

Once Sasi and his team reached the spot, they spotted the tiger near a cowshed. Out of the 25, only two or three forest officials had the necessary shields and protectors. For the others, sticks were their only armour. Some had worn helmets for safety. A boy from the neighbourhood handed a helmet to Sasi.

T Sasi Kumar

The team soon chased the tiger out of its hideout and into the nearby forest by bursting crackers. Although the tiger had charged at them twice, it was a successful operation. 

Or so they thought... 

While returning, Sasi was in the last row with a forest watcher. All of a sudden, the tiger sprung out of nowhere and onto Sasi's shoulders. He was knocked down.

At that moment, my mind went blank. In a minute, half of my head with only the helmet for protection was in the tiger's mouth," Sasi remembers. 

Luckily, the watcher who was with Sasi had his wits about him. He found some stones and pelted them at the tiger. Stung, the beast shifted its attention to the watcher and began attacking him. The watcher thankfully was one of the lucky few with the protector on and the animal could do little while attacking him there. So, it grabbed him by the shoe.

By this time, Sasi had regained his composure. He attacked the tiger with his stick and forced it to retreat back into the forest with just the shoe. 

The watcher's foot was badly injured and he had to be carried back on foot for 400 meters to the nearest hospital. 

Once there, Sasi removed his helmet. Blood was oozing out of his head. Three of the big cat's teeth had plunged into his helmet and one of them had slipped past and wounded him. The forest officials later found out that the attacker was a male tiger, around 12 years old, and came from Naganahalli in Karnataka. 

Hole formed in the helmet after the tiger attack. (Photo | EPS)

A bigger ordeal was in store for Sasi four months later. In January 2021, his team got another distress call. This time from Kolavalli in Pulpalli near the Karnataka border. A male tiger had strayed into the area and killed dogs and finally, a cow. The locals were an agitated lot.  

The tiger had been spotted near a house. Officials including Sasi headed there. A misunderstanding led to Sasi and six members of his search team ending up right in front of the tiger. This time, Sasi, who was leading the team, clearly saw the animal roar as it came charging. It leapt onto his chest. As he collapsed, he felt the searing pain of the tiger sinking its tooth into his left elbow. To make matters worse, his helmet had fallen off his head. 

Sasi wonders to this day why the tiger spared his neck. Had the scattered members not regrouped and chased the great cat away, he believes he wouldn't have been around to tell the tale.

Sasi retired from the forest service in May 2021 and is leading a peaceful life in Dhottappankulam in Sultan Batheri town in Wayanad these days. His story captures the plight of people living in the high-ranges. 

"In my opinion, it is time to control the population of tigers," Sasi insists. "After a point, people will take matters into their own hands. Now, they are manhandling forest officials. Tomorrow, they may kill the wild animals that pose a threat to their lives and livelihoods. Then everything may get out of hand."

These views reflect why Forest Minister AK Saseendran told The New Indian Express the government is considering a suggestion to cull the tigers in Wayanad. He was responding to the story the newspaper broke on January 16 on the population of tigers exploding in the forests of Wayanad.

His statement saw everyone from environmentalists to farmers' organisations jump into the fray and trade punches. 

On the other side were those like the former member secretary of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) Rajesh Gopal who came out strongly against the minister's statement. While expressing his anguish, Gopal warned that moving tigers from one forest to another should only be implemented after a detailed study.

The debate is exacerbated by the ground realities in Kerala. 

The state government claims it conserves 10,336 sq. km of forest, which forms about 29.1% of the state's total geographical area. However, the latest studies by the forest department reveal that a large portion of forest in Wayanad - spread over the south and north divisions and the wildlife sanctuary - has been lost. 

On top of this, an invasive species called Senna Spectabilis has spread rampantly and destroyed grazing land. This has had a big impact on the herbivores there. They are either moving out of the areas where Senna Spectabilis has spread or their population has come down. 

Many top forest officials unofficially admit that the population of wild animals has increased in the state's forests and that culling could be considered. 

One surprise supporter of Minister Saseendran, as The New Indian Express reported, was the renowned environmentalist Madhav Gadgil, earlier Chairman of the Western Ghats Expert Panel. He not only backed culling but even suggested that there should be licensed hunting outside wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. The Padma Bhushan awardee also demanded the scrapping of laws including the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, which he termed outdated.

'Conventional' environmentalists are now up in arms against Gadgil. What must have riled them even more were his comments that environmentalists who oppose culling were anti-people.

ALSO READ | '20 states, 44,000 staff, 381,400 sq km': India's tiger census is world's largest biodiversity study

Well-known environmental activist and legal cell director of "One  Earth One Life', Tony Thomas, though welcomed Gadgil's stand. 

"Unless the government and its machinery take the people of the high-ranges into confidence, the issue of man-wild animal conflict can't be solved," Tony told TNIE. "Each farmer here knows that the forest has to be protected for groundwater and other essentials. They know that the forest is needed to survive. But to gain their faith, the state should first make their life and livelihood peaceful."

Thomas also said that culling is needed to check overpopulation. "Before that, the forest department has to prepare statistical data about the population of animals, and the availability of forest area for them to survive."

Chief Scientist of Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) Dr Sajeev Velayudhan has pointed out that Kerala is now witnessing a second-generation issue of conservation. He too believes that Kerala has to relook at conservation projects. Dr Velayudhan also supported the idea of culling.

The state government is also considering approaching the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change seeking an amendment to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. They are of the view that the states which have a good track record in forest and wildlife conservation should be given flexibility in dealing with new issues such as overpopulation of animals. Kerala has also decided to approach the Supreme Court seeking permission for birth control measures to help keep the wild elephant and monkey populations in check.

The forest department will also move a few tigers from the forests in Wayanad to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve and Neyyar wildlife sanctuary. However, this has raised many eyebrows as introducing highly territorial animals like tigers into other forests may induce fights within themselves. These injured tigers could be forced to stray into populated areas, many experts warn. 

A step in the right direction has been taken with the forest department starting a scientific study on the carrying capacity of forests in the Wayanad, Palakkad, Idukki and Kottayam districts. If science can come to the aid of preserving the balance of Kerala's fragile forests, everyone will heave a sigh of relief. Till then, such debates will rage on.


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