A Talk on the Wild Side.
A tigress strolls through Tadoba National Park. Photo Credit: Harshawardhan Dhanwatey, Tiger Research and Conservation Trust
For 25 years, Fred Bagley has served as project officer for the Asia portions of the Service’s Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund and the Great Ape Conservation Fund. In that position, he says, he helped "highly motivated local and international conservationists fulfill their conservation goals." After more than 40 years with the U.S. government (and 37 with the Service), Fred retired; Tuesday was his last day. The best part of his job, he says, was visiting the field projects and seeing on-the-ground conservation taking shape. And before he left, he shared this report from an October field visit he and colleague Cory Brown made to the vicinity of Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in the central India state of Maharashtra. The two were doing a field assessment of a project that is working to mitigate human-big cat conflicts.
The gaur is a species of wild cattle and one of the tiger's principle prey species. Photo Credit: Harshawardhan Dhanwatey, Tiger Research and Conservation Trust
The more than 40 tigers of this reserve are doing well. They are protected and attract a steady stream of Indian and international nature tourists eager to glimpse a tiger or other wildlife such as wild cattle (gaur), spotted deer (chital), green pigeons, owlets, fishing owls, treepies, blue bull (nilgai), bee-eaters, night jars, mugger crocodiles, wild boar and black ibis.
But people living in the 1,100 square kilometer buffer zone outside the reserve are experiencing an increase in conflict with big cats (tigers and leopards). More than 90 people have died in big cat attacks on livestock and people since 2007.
This increase in conflict is probably tied to habitat degradation, insufficient wild prey in the buffer zone, an increasing human population and possibly rising numbers of dispersing big cats.
TRACT leaders, the response teams, Service representatives and village people met to discuss efforts to reduce wildlife conflict. Photo Credit: Harshawardhan Dhanwatey, Tiger Research and Conservation Trust
While the government is taking steps to mitigate this conflict and makes compensation payments to the victims, the project we visited has developed teams of trainers who are teaching people in 72 villages how to decrease their vulnerability to attacks by changing their own behavior and being more aware of and reporting big cat activity. In this way the villagers themselves will be their own first line of defense against big cat conflict and will assist in reducing conflict by providing an early warning to their community about the presence of large carnivores and by promptly informing authorities when their intervention is needed.
The Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT), led by Poonam and Harshawardhan Dhanwatey and the Maharashtra Forest Department, is heading the project. TRACT is a Maharashtra-based non-government organization that received partial support for this ongoing project from the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund in 2013.
The trainers are also teaching villagers to avoid the mob hysteria that often takes over when a big cat enters a village. Many times the mob will unintentionally cut off the cat’s escape route, resulting in injury or death to people, the big cat or both. Among the outputs of the project are training workshops and pocket size manuals for the community response team members with basic techniques they can teach people to help them protect themselves and their livestock.
|One of the big changes Fred has noticed over 25 years is the rise of dedicated, highly trained conservationists in Asia. Photo Credit: Harshawardhan Dhanwatey, Tiger Research and Conservation Trust|
I had the opportunity to participate in four village meetings called to discuss human-big cat conflict and the activities of the village trainers. These meetings were attended by interested villagers, village big cat response team members and Forest Department personnel. I marveled at the interest the people of these communities displayed in big cats and their tolerance for the presence of these animals in the vicinity of their farms and homes.
A very telling moment came when a well-meaning official told the audience that if a certain big cat again visited the village, the people should call him and he would have the cat removed. But the villagers emphatically, loudly responded that they did not want that. I can’t pretend to understand the complex relationship people who live in this landscape have with big cats. But that relationship must include elements of fear, respect, understanding, spiritualism and acceptance of an animal their ancestors lived with since first coming to the area.
It is critically important to conservation that tolerance for these animals be maintained among these communities. That will require helping these people to live more safely in this landscape…just as TRACT and the Forest Department are doing.