In separate incidents, two people were killed by tigers in Kumram Bheem Asifabad district of Telangana in a span of just 20 days in November last year. While the tiger population has increased, habitats have diminished leading to more man-animal conflicts, reports Swathi Vadlamudi
Pedda Vagu, the sinuous stream which originates in the Kerameri Hills of the Kumram Bheem Asifabad district in north Telangana, was a silent spectator of a ghastly incident over three months ago.
On November 10, a Koya tribal youth, 20-year-old Sidam Vighnesh, and his cousin, 12-year-old Sidam Srikanth, went fishing in Pedda Vagu. They laid their catch to dry on a flat boulder on the banks and went home. The next day, the two of them along with their neighbour P. Naveen (14) decided to divide the catch equally, so that they could use it as bait for bigger fish. Vighnesh went to the nearest semi-grown teak tree to pluck its leaves into which he could apportion the dried fish. Little did he know that a tiger lay in the thickly grown fire flame bush beside the teak.
“We thought Anna (brother) was playing hide and seek when he didn’t return. We approached the tree stealthily, but found him crouching near it,” Naveen recalls.
Vighnesh was gesturing to them frantically, asking them to leave as he had spotted the tiger. He did not notice that the feline was already creeping up on him. As Srikanth and Naveen ran for their lives, they heard Vighnesh scream.
Villagers from Digida, the remote hamlet in the Rebbana forest range where Vighnesh lived, rushed to the spot with drum beats and whistles, but they found neither Vighnesh nor the animal. Tell-tale signs of blood-soaked foliage, pug marks, and drag trail took them deep inside the thick forest, where, near a clearing, they found the body, a small portion ripped and eaten.
The tiger vanished into the woods on hearing the clamour, and then took a detour to head into the Pedda Vagu. “We saw the animal turn around midstream in an attempt to return. It fled after we threw stones,” recalls Kurshinga Diwakar, an eyewitness. This was the first human kill by a tiger in about 20-25 years in these parts.
A second victim
Eighteen days after the incident, on the other side of the Pedda Vagu in Penchikalpet forest range, Pasula Nirmala, 16, from Manneguda hamlet of Kondapalli village panchayat, was taken down by a tiger while picking cotton in a field.
“I was close by. Suddenly I heard her scream. I turned and saw her in the tiger’s jaws. Running behind, if I hadn’t fallen down on my face, I would have been able to save her,” rues her mother Pasula Lachhumamma.
But her nephew Annam Chakravarthi bravely ran behind the tiger and threw a stick at it. “The tiger dropped her and crouched. When I went closer and retrieved the body, the animal started following me, growling and roaring. It left the spot after we threw stones, but lurked in the surroundings for a long time,” says Chakravarthi, 20.
Following the ghastly deaths, the Telangana Forest Department has issued advisories to the villagers to be followed while moving outside their homes; supplied them with masks to be worn at the back of their head, to deflect tiger attacks; laid camera traps; and collected pug marks. A committee has been formed as per the standard operating procedure prescribed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), for technical guidance and monitoring of the situation on a day-to-day basis.
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“We have stopped going for work in the fields after the tiger attacks. We are not sure how effective the masks are,” says Tekam Sunitha from Manneguda. Chintapudi Gundaiah, another villager, says tigers are not new to this territory, but this one is different as the presence of humans does not seem to scare it.
The human kills by a tiger have caused panic and dismay in the villages. But they are not surprising: widespread habitat destruction, cattle grazing and resource extraction, along with an increase in the tiger population, have led to a man-animal conflict in the region and a dwindling prey base for the tigers.
Crossing the border
For a tiger to be declared a man-eater, it should have committed a series of human kills and partaken the flesh, according to the NTCA. In these cases, the proof is inconclusive as the bodies were retrieved soon after.
Besides, there is always the question of the identity of the attacker as there are several tigers in the region. Five adult tigers (two female and three male) were moving around in the Rebbana and Penchikalpet forest ranges, which fall in the corridor region of the Kawal Tiger Reserve, when the incidents occurred.
According to sources, the suspect tiger, identified as A2, was a male which had drifted into the area from the periphery of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. It was among the big cats that had made the premises of the Chandrapur Super Thermal Power Station its home for want of territory in Tadoba, where the tiger population is rapidly expanding. Maharashtra forest officials have reportedly confirmed that this feline was typically unafraid of human presence. It was listed there for capture before it entered Telangana.
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Efforts by the Telangana foresters to capture the animal, in coordination with their Maharashtra counterparts, have intensified since. Expert teams trained in the use of tranquilliser guns have been brought, and baits have been tied. The suspect, meanwhile, has been moving across the Pranahita river between the two States, keeping the foresters on their toes. Officials tracking the tiger say that the animal makes multiple kills in a short span, and does not return twice to the same kill, thereby thwarting attempts to capture it.
Areas outside the Tadoba and Tipeshwar tiger sanctuaries, which are located in the Chandrapur and Yavatmal districts of Maharashtra, respectively, have a sizeable tiger population. These tigers often cross the border in search of territory and enter the Kawal Tiger Reserve landscape in Telangana.
As per the All India Tiger Estimation, 2018 (Tiger Census) figures, the number of adult big cats in Maharashtra increased from 106 in 2006 to 312 in 2018 through successful conservation efforts. Of these, 93 were enumerated from regions outside the protected areas, such as the Chandrapur and Brahmapuri forest divisions.
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The Kawal landscape, including the core, buffer and the corridor areas, recorded two adult tigers in the Census. According to the Forest Department, the number of adult tigers in the core and corridor areas has now grown to at least 10, owing to increased protection.
An extended habitat
The Kawal Tiger Reserve was notified in 2012. It covers an area of 2,015.35 sq km under the present Nirmal, Mancherial, Adilabad and Asifabad districts. Of this, 892.23 sq km is classified as the core area, and the remaining as buffer. Given its connectivity with Tadoba in the north and the Indravati Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh in the east, Kawal was hoped to be an extended habitat for the spillover tigers from both States.
To facilitate migration of the big cat, the Telangana Forest Department has, in its Tiger Conservation Plan submitted to the NTCA, declared a tiger corridor in the Kagaznagar and Asifabad forest divisions.
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The foresters counted 26 tigers entering the Kawal landscape so far, based on the data obtained from camera traps and pug marks. But several big cats which came either left or disappeared, till the arrival of Phalguna, the matriarch that gave birth to two litters of four cubs each in the Kadamba forest range in the Kagaznagar division.
Two of the four cubs of Phalguna seen in July in this camera trap image from Kagaznagar forest in Kumram Bheem Asifabad district. Photo: Special Arrangement
With many tigers disappearing, the corridor area earned the disrepute of being inhospitable to the striped cats. Very few could stay/survive due to serious man-animal conflict. Of Phalguna’s first litter, only one tigress is seen roaming in Chennur division, with a wire snare around its hip as a remnant of a failed poaching operation. None of its siblings can be seen as adult members anywhere in the core, buffer or corridor areas. From Phalguna’s second litter, two female tigers are presently seen moving in the forest ranges of the Asifabad-Kagaznagar divisions, while a male is reported to have crossed over to Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district in search of domain. Phalguna herself has not been seen for the past two years.
While foresters routinely explain away disappearance of every tiger as a migration to Maharashtra, doubts linger about the truth in these claims. Official records mention three tiger deaths in the region since 2016, of which the last two were discovered within a short gap in January 2019. Both the instances came to light only when tiger body parts were confiscated from poachers.
An uproar ensued and a public interest litigation was filed in the Telangana High Court by wildlife conservationist Diya Sur Banerjee, who sought judicial intervention for unified control of the Kawal Tiger Reserve. “I had done a survey for the High Court, which exposed roads and electric wires going through the core area. Deliberate electrocution caused the tiger deaths. Like any other tiger reserve, Kawal too should have one demarcated core and one buffer which helps in unified protection and management,” Banerjee said, while speaking on her petition.
Responding to the petition, the High Court issued a slew of directions, which included controlling poaching, aerial bunched electric cabling in the core area, and unified command.
This led to a major reshuffle in the Telangana Forest Department. Anti-poaching measures were intensified, and wire snares and other poaching devices were confiscated from the farmers who used them against marauding wild boars. Subsequently, the number of tigers entering and surviving in Telangana has increased.
The next issue is heavy fragmentation of the habitat in the corridor region. As a consequence, tigers are unable to cross over to the core area.
Agricultural encroachments into the reserve forest are aplenty, especially in Kagaznagar division, often with political sanction. According to the Forest Department, encroachments in the Kagaznagar division amounted to nearly 17% of the forest land in the division. The Forest Department claims that the majority of them happened around the time of promulgation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, owing to ignorance about the cut-off date, and misconceptions about the future regularisation.