11 July 2017

Tigerland: Why Pilibhit's impoverished villagers are deliberately venturing into tiger territory

Shantanu Guha Ray

In what appears to be a bizarre suicide pact, impoverished villagers are walking dangerously close to tigers in Uttar Pradesh’s dense Pilibhit forest, hoping to be killed by the hulking, 500-pound wild cats.

And then, get their half eaten bodies picked by family members and kept in sugarcane fields — so they can demand compensation from the government.

In India, deaths caused by wild animals outside forests are compensated with a Rs 10 lakh purse, (but) not inside tiger habitats.

“This is a dangerous trend — totally shocking, but a grim reality, ” says Kailash Prakash, DFO of the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, which is spread across 602 kms, close to the Nepal border, and has a little over 50 tigers, including eight tigresses with cubs. The 50 plus figure is an increase of 10 more tigers from the last census conducted in Pilibhit reserve in 2016, suggesting an increase in the tiger population.

As many as three deaths in a fortnight, stretching between 16 June 2017 and 1 July 2017, have been ascribed to this cause by the forest department officials in Pilibhit, after families of those killed by tigers said the deaths took place in sugarcane fields bordering the forests. They (the families) even argued that the tigers were “man-eaters” and comfortable wandering deep into human territory.

Pilibhit is now home to over 50 tigers. Image from Kailash Prakash's personal collection

Forest department officials didn't take the villagers at face value, and did not sanction the compensation for the last three deaths.

At a community gathering on Wednesday, 5 July 2017, in Meetha village near the reserve, angry villagers accosted wildlife officials. Typical of man-eaters, the tigers, after killing four villagers, were now eating their victims rump-first (as they would after killing deer). “These are panic attacks, warnings that you should not enter the forest,” shot back DP Srivastav, forest officer, Mala Range, where as many as seven deaths were reported since 16 February 2017.

The villagers, who looked visibly annoyed, shouted: “The tiger came to our backyards, in the sugarcane fields where we work.” Srivastav instantly showed a video recorded by a wildlife official showing villagers lifting the body of one of the victims from the forest and keeping it close to the sugarcane fields. Srivastav also showed photographs of villagers trying to falsely create pug marks of tigers by using cloth-covered fists.

To cite an example, conservator of forests VK Singh, who was present at the community gathering, told villagers that he had inspected the site and found claims of the villagers totally false. “It is evident you are lying because you have your eyes on the cash. The clothes of Nunkini Devi, the latest victim, were found inside the forest. And we have evidence of tractor treads leading into and out of a forest, to the sugarcane field where her body was relocated. The tractor travelled a little over 1.5 km,” Singh told the villagers who all fell silent.

The first round of battle was won, then arguments started — as if in an open court — on why mostly elders were going to the forest. In a near pandemonium situation, the crowd showed its dissent when told the move to send the elderly was deliberate and planned meticulously to seek compensation, and that wildlife officials had gathered enough evidence.

Srivastav said an independent research conducted by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and investigations done by Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), a central government agency, showed elderly villagers confirming on tape their willingness to go into the forest and get killed by the wild cats so that their family members get compensation. Sensing it was easy cash, a local leader — Srivastava informed the villagers — was even exhorting the villagers to hike the compensation to Rs 50 lakhs.

The investigations done by Kalim Athar of the WCCB concluded poor villagers were submitting to be killed by the wild cats because of the compensation package. The interests of the villagers increased following rumours that the compensation package would be hiked to Rs 50 lakh per death and Rs 10 lakh for injuries causing total disability. The WCCB probe examined tiger attacks, analysed individual cases after locating the body and conducted scores of interviews with the locals. The WCCB has now decided to refer the matter to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

“The NTCA will act now but what the villagers are doing is dangerous, they are forcing the tigers to become man eaters,” Athar, currently in Lucknow, said in a telephonic interview.

He said during his investigations, many elderly people confessed to him that they were keen on the cash from the government and hence, willingly walking into the forests. Unemployment is high in Pilibhit, a town known for producing world class flutes and villagers routinely go to forests to collect firewood and katurua, a black-coloured vegetable that grows like mushrooms at the base of Saal trees and tastes like mutton, costing a little over Rs 300 per kilo. For the last three weeks, wildlife officials have put a total ban on sale of katurua in the local market.

“Leave aside those who are going to collect firewood and katurua, the rest are being pushed by their family members, it is very clear. Once a villager dies, all that matters is cash,” said Athar. This week, villagers blocked the highway between Pilibhit and Tanakpur, demanding cash for a person who they claimed was attacked by a tiger, leaving him with bruises and lacerations. They were removed only after intervention by local cops.

“We checked the person, he had some minor scratches. Now, it is near impossible to say with certainty whether the tigers are at fault. We cannot declare a tiger man-eater without investigating its killing habits. But what I find strange is that the villagers are not pushing us for declaring the tigers man-eaters but (are) only keen on the cash,” says Srivastav. “A tiger attacks because it sees a human being as an intruder in the forest, and ends up doing most of the damage. Most of the attacks and killings in Pilibhit are chance encounters, sparked when the villagers surprised a resting tiger.”

There is another crisis.

Unlike other tiger habitats, villagers live cheek-by-jowl with wild animals in Pilibhit forest that was declared a tiger reserve in 2008 and added to India’s 40 Project Tiger locations to become the 41st reserve. Hence, it's easy to get killed in the forest, and, it's doubly easy for villagers to bring the half eaten body and feign the death occurred near their homes.

Some of the villagers admit the trend to push elders into the forest was growing in Pilibhit. “The entire family is involved, they think the cash will help them build homes in the Pilibhit city, start a business, even acquire agriculture land. If this continues, Pilibhit will become a dangerous place. Tigers will turn man-eaters and prowl close to the villages,” says Raghubir Singh, 57, a farmer.

He found support from his neighbour, Net Ram, who said villagers were willing participants in the whole affair because they realise they were not earning enough from agriculture and their children were without jobs. “Instant cash always helps, even if it comes at the expense of someone,” says Ram.

“And some of them even admitted to the wildlife officials when they came to survey,” adds Ram.

But increased heat on the villages from both police and wildlife officials, has made the locals wary. Last week, three journalists and two wildlife officials bore the brunt of villagers' fury after it was conclusively proved by the wildlife officials that the villagers were faking pug marks near their homes to raise false alarms.

Now, some of the villagers say it would be wrong to put a motive to such deaths. Gobind Lal, neighbour of Nunkini Devi, says he has not heard if anyone willingly went to the forest but he is genuinely worried the killings are on the rise. “Tigers travel great distance, so we do not know if one tiger is responsible for all the killings. Even if the death has happened inside the forest, it's a death caused by an animal. They are angry and afraid, so their tempers are running high,” says Lal.

Elephants and wildlife guards comb the forest area

There are other troubles. Worried they could be attacked by the big cats, students rarely go to schools in Bankati and Methi villages, always accompanied by their parents. Crops have also suffered. With villagers unable to protect their fields at night, nilgai and wild boars have caused considerable damage.

Kailash Prakash says tigers' conflict with humans are arising precisely because people are repeatedly frequenting the fragile forests in which the wild cats live. “Tiger are unaccustomed to human encroachments. And this is happening in Pilibhit. There is a section of people who want deaths to continue, without realising they are setting a dangerous precedent,” says Prakash.

Sitting at his office in Pilibhit city, Prakash said there are also efforts to educate villagers against sending people to the forests. Plans are on to fence the forest with steel rod nets. “The fencing should be over in four months' time, depending on availability of funds. And then, the tigers will have quieter hunting grounds.”

Now, two elephants and armed wildlife guards have been combing the forest since the last death, working in expanding concentric circles, hoping to find the tiger responsible for the death of Nunkini Devi, the latest victim. Close by, anxious villagers watch the operation.

It is Pilibhit’s latest wait and watch game, thrilling but extremely dangerous.

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