Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Getting out of hand?

Kirtiman Awasthi, Supriya Singh & Maureen Nandini Mitra,

In Junagarh, Gujarat, the Maldharis are extremely tolerant of lions. But the nomadic community, indigenous to the area, are alienated now. They were comfortable with the lions ways: now they are unsettled. On the other hand, tiger attacks on humans are not uncommon in Sunderban villages. But increasing human population is pitting man against beast. East or West, the issue of animal- human conflict is basic to conservation research and practice in India.

July 24, 2007, Amirul Naiya, was attacked by a tiger as he, his brothers and three other fishermen were pulling up their boat into a creek in the dense Sunderbans mangroves. Naiya lay on the deck, bleeding.

Just three days later, Pratul Naskar, got grabbed by the throat and dragged into the Benipheli forest in the Sunderbans’ Kultali area, while hunting for crabs in a creek. His body hasn’t been found.

The attack on Naskar was the fifth tiger strike in the Sunderbans in less than a month. Since April 2007, tigers have killed at least nine fisherfolk; 16 times, they have strayed into villages near forests, say the state forest department records.

“An average 16 tiger killings are reported every year, but the actual number is much more,” informs Sunderban Biosphere Reserve director Pradip Shukla. Villagers and local wildlife experts say the actual tally is closer to 50. Many killings go unrecorded.

Almost all killings take place in forest areas. In the past decade, only one person has been killed by a straying tiger. But numbers aside, it is clear the human-animal conflict here remains unresolved. Humans as prey are an aberration, but about 5 per cent of Sunderbans tigers are man-eaters.

According to Pranabes Sanyal, former field director of Sunderbans Tiger Reserve and a renowned authority on the Royal Bengal Tiger, April and May is the honey-collecting season in the Sunderbans. But this is also littering season for tigresses; protective mothers often pounce on men near their hideouts. “In most cases they kill the man, but don’t eat the body,” says Sanyal. “But after repeated killings, when the tiger realizes humans don’t have as much resistance as other prey like deer or wild boar, they include humans in their prey base. If a tigress turns man-eater, she will teach her cubs to be the same. That’s how you find healthy tigers and tigresses turning man-eaters here.”

Currently, much of the tiger strikes occur in the northern and north-western mangrove jungle. This, Sanyal believes, is because most of this area falls within the 1,255 sq km buffer zone of the tiger reserve, where permit holders are allowed to fish and collect forest produce. Every year, about 40,000 people enter the forest with permits.

In spite of a dense 1,330.12 sq km core mangrove area left inviolate and a sound prey base, Sunderbans tigers also routinely stray into transition zone areas like Kalitala, Kultali and Jharkhali.

First, the Sunderbans tiger can't mark out its territory with its urine, as all cats do, because markings get washed away by the tides. So it roams around pretty much unrestricted. And when it spots a village across a waterway, it mistakes it for forest and crosses over. Once past the trees, it finds cattle and livestock, a perfect reason to repeat visits. Second, a tiger strays due to age, injury or pregnancy, which impairs its ability to hunt.

Sanyal cites a third cause — global warming. Rapidly rising sea levels, a combined effect of climate change and subsidence, have increased the salinity of surface water near the coastal mangrove forests on the southern side of the Sunderbans. Kolkata-based oceanographer Sugata Hazra, who’s studying change in salinity levels in the region, corroborates this fact through circumstantial evidence like a fall in the population of the freshwater-loving Sundari tree and dwindling freshwater sources. The northerly migration is also accentuated by loss of forest cover in core areas in the southern islands due to rising water and erosion.

To prevent straying, foresters have put up 64 km of nylon net fencing along forest-village interfaces. This has helped, says Anjan Guha, Sunderbans Tiger Reserve deputy field director, but it isn’t foolproof. Nets serve mainly as a psychological deterrent for tigers, but they can easily bring them down.

Across the country, towards the west coast, the Asiatic lion is also vulnerable. “The Gir population is insecure for two reasons,” says A J T Johnsingh, a wildlife expert with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. Firstly, “the population has risen from a very low number leading to inbreeding and a genetically homozygous population. Reduced genetic diversity affects reproductive health of the species and increases mortality of the young”.

Secondly, “an epidemic could wipe out the population.”

Gir’s lion population is, beyond the protected area’s (PA’s) carrying capacity. As far back as 1990, a census counted some 221 adults living within the PA, and a further 30-40 lions outside. Since 2002, wildlife scientist Y V Jhala has radio-collared 16-18 lions, to track their movement. “Radio collaring has shown,” he says, “lions have set up ‘meta-populations’ outside Gir for want of space, or food.” Adds Pathak: “These are young males moving out in search of new territories.” Kaushik Banerjee, a Wildlife Institute of India (WII) researcher, terms it a ‘dispersal’ to earlier habitats. Fact is the ground reality of lion conservation has changed beyond recognition, placing it in far greater danger than ever before.

The land-use pattern around the park is completely different today. Farmers grow mango, groundnut and sugarcane. This has resulted in high private land values; grazing lands have been encroached and privatised, while excessive use of groundwater has depleted the water table to dark zone, placing, in all, more pressure on Gir forest.

Commercial agriculture has hit the lion hard, too. On an average, 25-30 lion deaths have been reported, every year, for the past three to four years.

But lions do follow the ungulates outside. So do leopards, bringing in yet another dimension to animal-human conflicts here. Poaching, too, was never a big issue in Gir. But today, people say incidents of claws missing from lion carcasses are common.

These changes foreground the need for lion conservation to grow towards creating separate lion populations. As a response to lion movement beyond the PA, the Gujarat forest department is working on the idea of ‘Greater Gir’.

Now, the Central Zoo Authority and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) have prepared a blueprint, according to which pure-bred first generation Asiatic lions will be selected from different zoos. These will breed in a big natural enclosure at Kuno. Herbivores will be released so that second generation lions can develop hunting skills. "The third generation lions should be fit to be released in the wild outside the enclosure," says Rajesh Gopal, Member Secretary, NTCA.

The root of the problem remains unsolved. Will the Asiatic lion ever go off the IUCN critically endangered species list?

Source: http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Sep22008/environmet2008090187786.asp

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