Of all the tools available to protect and conserve an endangered tiger; killing it is certainly an unlikely, and astonishing one. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s recent dismissal of an appeal to stop forest rangers from killing a “man-eating” tigress officially known as T1, or affectionately, Avni, in Maharashtra, is demonstrative of a larger and more nuanced issue; where short-term utilitarian pragmatism is prioritised over a much-needed psychological transformation in how we perceive, and relate with our wildlife.
The tiger and conservation
The tiger is our national animal; an emblem of longevity, a legendary creature that has predominated our collective fascination with it for centuries. Now endangered, its population — contrary to whatever recent increases provide optimism for — is alarmingly low in comparison to just a century previously. In a rapidly urbanising India, a tiger’s search for prey and space in ever more fragmented landscapes forces them worryingly close to human settlements. This encroachment, whether of the tiger into human habitation, or the human into tiger habitat, is a matter of constant debate and varying perspective.
Afforded the highest amount of protection under the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), it is only deemed legal to kill a tiger when retaliating in self-defence, or with the requisite permission under the WPA. Usually, the Chief Wildlife Conservator of a state is responsible for declaring a tiger a “man-eater”; giving the necessary evidence — that the tiger in question has preyed on humans several times — to support such a declaration.
When dealing with a “man-eater”, preference is given to tranquillisation, or translocation; but when unsuccessful, the last resort, often coupled with immense political and societal pressures, is to kill the animal. However, and perhaps more importantly, a tiger responsible for killing more than one human within a reserve forest area is not a “man-eater” under the WPA; for the fault lies with the intrusive human trespassing into an area allocated for the tiger. T1 supposedly consumed a substantial percentage of a human corpse, successfully avoided tranquillisation over the past six months, and was blamed for three human deaths within reserve forest areas. A petition was recently launched to save her and her two cubs.
Is the tiger to be blamed for the ‘conflict’?
Humans are unnatural prey for tigers, though in our fractured world, we push tigers to the peripheries of their natural habitats, feeding into the issue of human-wildlife conflict. A “man-eating” tigress is certainly a problem for humans, but tranquillising the tigress and transferring her to another location spells danger for other communities. Likewise, placing her in an enclosure, like a concrete and synthetic zoo, raises other moral issues pertaining to potential divergences in her psychology, physiology and endurance. Killing her is immoral, unnecessary, careless, and lethargic in promoting her conservation.
The presumptive conclusion of placing a human life over and above the life of an equally vital species — albeit an endangered “man-eating” one, critical for the healthy functioning of its surrounding ecosystem, presents a challenging moral dilemma. On the one hand, the utilitarian view that the killing of one “man-eating” tigress will provide a greater benefit to a larger number of people holds considerable weight; both logically and practically. At a fundamental level though, to have arrived at a consensus whereby killing is an option for conservation is mind-boggling.
To be clear, I am not advocating for the placement of a tigress’s life over and above the lives of humans. Rather, I am attempting to understand where, and why, we have failed to recognise the pitfalls of our own imperialistic expansion into forests in the name of progress and advancement. The endangerment of a species prompts one to protest policy, or for a policymaker to demarcate a protected area for those same species we have collectively—sometimes indirectly and ignorantly—imperilled, and whose populations we have severely jeopardised.
Human-animal conflict is a result of our burgeoning growth and mushrooming sprawl. An unfortunate extension, and perhaps expected offshoot of this is the widening chasm between conservationists and local villagers living with a “man-eater”; posing one of biggest challenges in conservation. Conservationists in general have, regrettably, focussed on extrinsic means and pathways for safeguarding the natural world; by making a bad situation marginally better with the tools and technologies we presently have.
But there is no intrinsic change. None, in how we perceive and relate to nature and wildlife, which is essentially the root cause of the divisive human-wildlife fiasco we find ourselves in. The scope for intrinsic change is staggering, yet, psychological blocks to change, coated with a cynicism that dismisses and brands such an approach as excessively panglossian, are equally colossal.
An intrinsic means of conservation is based on harnessing the power of collaboration across a variety of sympathies, and in effectively using creative platforms steeped in indigenous knowledge systems — like storytelling, folklore, art, music and theatre — to re-engage with nature in a methodology that is personally, culturally, and historically relevant to each individual.
Without this intrinsic shift, we might, in the future, still consider killing a tigress as a constructive step towards her conservation. Hypocrisy at its finest!