Tiger attacks leave villagers on edge in India's Ranthambore reserve

Big cats are flourishing at the national park - but this coup for conservation is coming at a cost for their human neighbours

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Fifty-year-old Indian farmer Ram Kalyan Saini was travelling home from work one April evening in Rajasthan when he and his two pillion passengers were knocked off his motorcycle.

The farmer briefly blacked out. When he came to, he was lying in a pool of blood in excruciating pain and could hear his passengers mumbling in terror.

“Look at that yellow-black thing”, Mr Saini recalls them saying. It was a tiger lurking nearby with her cubs.

The wildcat had torn off Mr Saini’s left arm and clawed his face. The other two men suffered minor injuries.

“I was shocked. It must have thought that I was dead and was waiting to devour me,” he said.

One of the men called for help from a mobile phone and the three waited for 15 minutes until forestry staff arrived.

“I can only say that I am fortunate. It is only because of God that I am alive,” he said.

It was the second time Mr Saini had been attacked by a tiger. The first attack, three years earlier, occurred nearby, about three kilometres away from the boundary wall of the Ranthambore National Park — one of India’s biggest tiger reserves.

Mr Saini is one of scores of people to be attacked by tigers near the park.

The forest department said in a 2020 report that 12 people were attacked by tigers in Sawai Modhapur District from 2018 to 2020, while at least seven people have been killed in attacks since 2018.

It also found that young tigers aged two or three were more aggressive as they were unable to establish territory.

The 932-square-kilometre area of deciduous forests and open grass meadows in western Rajasthan has more than 80 tigers — the most in its 42-year history.

“The animals are increasingly straying into villages now. The fear of tigers is palpable,” Mr Saini said.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to survive two attacks.

Tiger attacks leave villagers on edge in India's Ranthambore reserve

Tiger attacks leave villagers on edge in India's Ranthambore reserve

Jamuna Devi, 45, from Kundera village, had gone into a field to relieve herself — a common practice in rural India where toilets are scarce — early on a winter morning in February 2019.

A tiger attacked her, dragged her six metres away and mauled her to death, possible believing she was cattle.

“Her body was torn into several pieces. It was headless. I couldn’t even recognise her,” Rajesh Kumar Yogi, her son, told The National.

The 30-year-old shopkeeper said in the past decade “more and more tigers are attacking humans”.

“It is mainly because of the excess tiger population that the animals are straying into villages and they have no fear of humans any more,” Mr Yogi said.

Wildlife experts agree.

The park has a capacity to host 50 tigers — a limit it exceeded almost a decade ago, leading to tiger-human conflicts as well as territorial fights among the cats.

Ullas Karanth, a conservation zoologist based in Bengaluru, said protected tiger populations combined with an abundant prey base naturally produce surplus tigers periodically.

“And there are either old, infirm animals or sub-adults which are being pushed out by stronger resident tigers on account of territorial behaviour,” Mr Karanth told The National.

The number of tigers and their cubs in Ranthambore increased dramatically from 66 to 81 between 2019 and 2021, according to government data.

Conservation success

Ranthambore's rising population is a part of the remarkable success of India's programme to conserve tigers — the tiger is the national animal and a protected species in the country.

Since it launched Project Tiger in 1973, India has created 52 dedicated reserves and increased the population in the wild from fewer than 2,000 to nearly 3,000 — two thirds of the world's total — and aims to increase that to 4,000 by 2030.

But the conservation effort has backfired in places where the tiger population has grown too large for the area available.

Tigers are solitary creatures, with an adult requiring up to 150 square kilometres of territory to roam.

The competition for space and prey has forced many tigers to venture out of the park into human habitations to hunt livestock and — at times — humans.

More than 100 people were killed in tiger attacks in India between 2019 and 2021, according to official figures.

Authorities in western Maharashtra on Thursday captured a “man-eater” tiger that was thought to have killed 13 people in last 10 months, and officials shot dead a tiger last week that had killed nine people in Bihar state.

'Why are people dying?'

Despite the rising number of attacks, forest officials say numbers are lower than in states such as Madhya Pradesh, where 17 incidents of tigers attacking humans were reported in 2020 alone.

“There are not many cases … these are few accidents. We are trying to move the tigers to other reserves and also sensitise locals,” Seduram Yadav, Chief Conservator of Forests in Ranthambore, told The National.

But Laddoo Lal Singh, 72, who lost his 21-year-old son in a tiger attack 12 years ago, rejects the official claim.

“Nothing has changed all these years. I don’t think the government is making real efforts to curb such incidents, otherwise, why are people dying?” he said.

Mr Singh accused the government of prioritising tigers over humans because they are a big tourist attraction and generate billions of rupees each year.

Nearly half a million tourists visit the park every year. According to an official report, the government earned more than 200 million rupees ($2.4m) from park fees in 2019 while the park generated 2.20 billion rupees for the local economy in 2018.

Dr Rajesh Gopal, Secretary General of the inter-governmental Global Tiger Forum, told The National: “We have to actively pick up the young ones who are about to leave natal areas and translocate them to protected areas.”

Updated: October 14, 2022, 6:00 PM