NEW DELHI —Human encounters with tigers and leopards that left at least 156 people dead and injured in the Dudhwa-Pilibhit area of Uttar Pradesh between 2000 and 2013 were due to people venturing into the forests and not the other way round, says a report.
The Dudhwa-Pilibhit area, which is spread over 5,000 sq km, has four key reserves – Dudhwa National Park, Katerniaghat and Kishanpur wildlife sanctuaries, and Pilibhit Tiger Reserve. The region tops in human-big cat conflict.
While all forested patches of this landscape are surrounded by villages, Pilibhit has the highest rate of human fatalities caused by tigers.
At least six people have been confirmed killed by March 2018 this year and 21 in 2017, by at least five different tigers in Pilibhit. One tiger was declared man-eater, caught and sent to Lucknow Zoo in February 2017.
The report "Living with the Wild: Mitigating Conflict between Humans and Big Cat Species in Uttar Pradesh" gives an alternate view pointing out reasons behind human deaths and rejecting "stories" that project big cats in bad light.
"Interestingly, most attacks on humans by tigers occurred within forests or at their fringes, in particular in sugarcane fields where tigers are now often found to dwell," said the joint report by Uttar Pradesh Forest Department and Wildlife Trust of India.
Most of the attacks had happened in the "day time," the report said, which suggested that the larger proportion of tiger attacks on humans aged between seven and 70 years were accidental encounters.
Of all human-wildlife conflict in the region, 90.1 percent involved leopards and tigers between 2006 and 2012. There were an additional 474 cases of livestock deaths involving leopards and tigers due to low prey base. The other 9.9 percent cases of conflict involved sloth bears, elephants and crocodiles.
Observing ethology or animal behavior, the report stated, "tigers also did not selectively attack a particular age group." However, 50 percent of leopard's targets were children and small cattle like sheep, goat while tigers went for bigger livestock like buffaloes, horses or cows.
"In case of tigers, most of the people had ventured into the forests for timber or for sanitation purposes. There had also been cases where tiger ventured into human settlement and killed, but they are very rare," Dr. Mayukh Chatterjee, Head of WTI's Human-Wildlife Conflict Mitigation Division and the lead author of the report told IANS.
About 87 percent of tiger attacks were in forest and fringe or sugarcane fields while 13 percent were near villages and houses.
According to Chatterjee, far lesser attacks by leopards (only 7.94 percent) occurred inside forests or on their fringes.
"Total 92.1 percent of leopard attacks were mainly concentrated within or near village boundaries, with 47.6 percent of attacks occurring inside houses or near homesteads, 15.87 percent occurring within village peripheries and 28.6 percent taking place in agricultural fields," the report said.
According to the report, between 2000 and 2013, at least 49 people were killed and 24 were injured by tigers. However, leopards killed 14 and injured 49.
Across India, apart from Uttar Pradesh, 32 people were killed by tigers in 2015-16 and 13 in 2016-17.
The report stated that between 2009 and 2013 three 'conflict tigers' were sent to zoos, one was found dead and three others were captured and later released in the wild. In same period, two leopards were sent to zoos, five were captured and released, while five were found dead.
In Pilibhit, where conflicts are much higher than national average, large forest fringes are being converted for agriculture, encroachment being one of the major issue in the region. As per official records, at least 14.84 lakh hectare of forest land was under encroachment as of January 2017, of which Uttar Pradesh accounted for 22,869 hectares.
Dudhwa-Pilibhit landscape also has a good number of tigers living in the fields, now termed "sugarcane tigers," which is not part of pan-India tiger-estimation happening this year.
With mounting pressure on their habitat, tigers often venture outside the forest area, a recent example of which is a tigress that was captured earlier this month and released into the wild after moving around villages for three months in Lakhimpur Kheri district.
The report notes, "Tigers had moved prodigiously from the forests all the way to near state capital Lucknow in three separate incidents, the longest perhaps a distance of 400 km."
India is home to 70 percent of the world's free-ranging tigers, estimated at 2,226 in 2014, of which at least 640 dwell outside tiger reserves.
The report also found seasonal variation in attacks by tigers.
Tiger attacks were found to be higher in winter – October to February – due to a high influx of people collecting fuelwood in forest areas.
The report calls for reducing the conflict and urges control of tigers dispersing out of their source habitats.
The measures suggested include a reduction of free-grazing inside territorial and buffer-forest areas, capacity building in frontline forest staff and the restoration of critical corridors connecting various forest patches in this landscape.