Kachariveti 1, Assam: One day in 2011, when sunlight was fading over the man-made ponds-turned-fisheries of Kachariveti 1, bordering the western range of Assam's Orang National Park, Jalal Uddin, a farmer, was setting up fishing poles and attaching lures--mainly frogs. Early next morning, when he re-visited to check for catch, he sensed someone desperately scratching at him. He brushed it aside as an attempt by his friends to distract him for fun.

When he noticed his friends standing a few feet away gesturing to look up, he saw a six- to seven-month-old tiger a foot above. Instantly, he took a dip in the waters of the pond and swam to the opposite bank. Little did he know that the playful tiger--which he says was probably T-36--would end up mauling his 15-year-old nephew 10 years later.

On November 21, 2021, Jalal remembers the same tiger hiding behind a canopy of neem trees--about 100 metres from his home--before jumping over a woman trailing around her cowshed. The woman had just found the skull of a dead dog. The tiger then crossed a rutted track and attacked his 15-year-old nephew, Imran Farhad, who had been hosing the entrance to his home--a concrete building painted green. "The tiger's teeth pierced my nephew's ribs and he had to be rushed to the hospital immediately. The forest department covered his medical expenses," said Jalal, who lost his brother and aunt-in-law to the tigers of the park.

Today, Jalal is a member of his village's Eco-development Committee (EDC)--an agency formed at the village level or for a cluster of villages, in collaboration between the forest department and villages. These committees are meant to mobilise local communities, along with park officials, for the conservation of tigers and other animals, including helping find, or even rehabilitate stray tigers into the park or a zoo. "Everyone in our village knows not to gather and cause a ruckus when they see a tiger. This agitates the tiger and he may attack," says Jalal.

Jalal's 15-year-old nephew shows the tiger-bite marks that remain etched on his body, since 2021.

India is home to over 65% of the global tiger population (4,500) with 2,967 tigers as per the four-yearly tiger census conducted last in 2018. Of a total of 219 tigers in the North East Hills and the Brahmaputra Landscape, Assam records 190 tigers.

There are 135 tigers in Kaziranga National Park, 31 in Manas and 21 in Orang. These three reserves are among the 14 in India with accreditation of the Global Conservation Assured/Tiger Standards (CA/TS) for meeting the criterion for successful tiger conservation. Today, KNP has India's second highest density of tigers, with 13 tigers per 100 sq km in India, after Corbett National Park at 14 per 100 km.

The impressive comeback of the species in Assam--from 70 tigers in 2006 to 190 in 2018--has been marred with an unsettling elephant in the room: increasing human-tiger conflicts and unfair or delayed compensation to local communities living close to the park boundaries, our reporting finds.

Community involvement in protection of tigers

When the skull of a dog head was found on the morning of November 21 last year, it was Jalal who had first relayed the information to forest guard Pranjit Deka. What followed was park officials and villagers constantly tracking for signs of the tiger for a week--livestock kills, spotting tiger tracks, camera traps or responding to the strong musky smell of a tiger. On the wintry evening of November 27, Deka had heard a ferocious growl near the cage set at about 100 metres from the park boundary. "I thought the sound was thunder and there would be heavy rain. But it was the tiger that took the bait of a dog in the cage," said Deka. He had earlier placed the cage at different routes using a goat to lure, but failed. As hard as this was, it took just a week to find the tiger, compared to the gruelling month-long search for T-7 in 2022, on the Sonitpur side of Orang.

As tigers straying into villages became more common, the forest department has involved villagers to help them trace tigers and guide them back either into zoos or the forest.

Jalal points at the edge of the western range of Orang National Park, from where tigers usually stray and attack livestock grazing on farms.

In the first week of January, a wild tiger measuring about 4 feet in height had traversed deep into the villages for a month, killing about 14-15 livestock before it was caged a month later and put into the Assam state zoo in Guwahati. In the eastern part of Orang, irate villagers would gather in large numbers and start pelting stones and lighting crackers to chase the hulking tiger away, which made tracking the tiger difficult for park officials in the day. They would have to work at night to find the tiger.

Where camera traps weren't successful, villagers like Khairul Islam from Missamari passed on observations that were instrumental in catching the tiger. "The tiger would kill livestock at night and hide either in a reserve forest in Borbhogia or plod back to the park. Early in the morning, towards the end of January, the tiger was caged near the reserve forest," says Islam.

Pranjit Deka (right) along with his colleagues was awarded the International Ranger Award 2022.

For their efforts in rehabilitating strayed tigers from thickly populated residential villages back to the wild or by putting them in zoos, in collaboration with locals, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Commission on Protected Areas awarded the field staff of Orang National Park of Darrang with the International Ranger Award 2022.

"If there is anything to do with conservation and conflict management, it is important to involve communities. If you have to save animal [tiger] from killing, you cannot do without communities," says Firoz Ahmed, a wildlife biologist with Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based NGO, working towards environmental protection and conservation in Orang since the 1990s.

Both T-36 and T-7--the so-called "conflict tigers"--were put into the zoo, which is a promising strategy if the tigers are man-killers or man-eaters, says Raza Kazmi, a wildlife historian and conservationist. For example, a tiger that stalks and eats people on purpose is a man-eater. This is different from the man-killing cases in Orang where the tiger had lugged Imran before digging its teeth into his ribs in 2021, or when the tiger tore off a part of the face of a villager in Sonitpur in 2022 because of fear or because it was provoked.

If tigers don't fall into these two categories, the forest department should ensure the straying tigers return to the wild, similar to how a straying tiger roaming inside Bhopal's Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology (MANIT) campus in October 2022 was released to the wild, adds Kazmi.

Soaring numbers and inevitable conflicts

Map of Orang National Park provided by Abhijit Roy of the Forest Department

A conservation strategy adopted to increase the tiger population is proving effective.

"We follow a habitat management practice where we burn grasslands in winter annually. Apart from this, we have sealed the park by installing electric fences to prevent herding and straying of cattle inside the park premises," says Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Pradipto Baruah of Mangaldoi Wildlife Division, under whose jurisdiction Orang falls. Usually, grasslands tend to convert into woodlands and it is essential to burn them annually to replace them with new shoots of grasses for the prey base to feed on. Managing prey base--mainly hog deer in Orang--ensures a robust tiger population and blocking stray livestock into the park keeps the grass intact for deer.

Even if the prey base is sustained, tigers will inevitably move out. The Bengal tiger T-36 was sick when it was preying on livestock and T-7 was a young injured tiger that had been squeezed out of the park boundary by an older tiger dominating the area. "In an area of 79 sq km [of core reserve forest], 20-24 tigers is a pretty high density which means their home ranges are shrinking. So, they have to move out even if prey is adequate," says Baruah. Sick and injured tigers prefer easy access to prey outside than to stalk and kill prey that may or may not be available.

The All India Tiger Estimation Report (AITE) 2018 pegs the population of India's majestic national animal to 2,967--a doubling from 1,411 in 2006. Orang National Park has 21 tigers spanning 492 sq km, including 79 sq km of core area. DFO Baruah said there are 20-24 tigers in Orang, and these data will be released in the new AITE report.

"As compared to KNP and Manas--with a prey base ranging from hog and swamp deer, wild buffalo, sambar and other protected areas, the prey base of tigers [in Orang] is small and not diverse, mostly a few hog deers in a small area straddling the lower floodplains," says Ahmed of Aaranyak, who had counted around 17-18 tigers in 2014. "It is only natural that the tiger will stray into nearby villages to survive."

Villagers counted 14 cases of livestock loss or harm in 2022, 10 in 2021, and at least three in 2020. Abhijit Roy, a forest department official at Orang National Park, said they had registered 18 instances of cattle-kills by tigers in 2021-22 and none in 2020-21.

Although we may see a rise in damages with the corresponding increase in the number of tigers, it is difficult to ascribe it to the booming tiger population alone, adds Firoz, who says livestock damages inside the park are not even counted on paper. He added that the nature of the conflict can be ascertained only if we collect data on damages for 10-15 years.

It is not just about the soaring numbers of tigers; much needs to be done in terms of securing their habitats beyond protected areas, experts say. Baruah said that Orang National Park, declared a tiger reserve in 2016, will be expanded by adding 278.82 sq km of area connecting Orang to KNP through sandbar islands--acting as a corridor--in Laokhowa-Bura Chapori wildlife sanctuary. Connecting corridors would ensure genetic exchange through dispersal, serving guard against risks of contracting diseases and extinction of tigers.

But "tiger corridors in Assam are not protected under any wildlife law--be it the Assam Forest Act or Wildlife Protection Act. There are no provisions for eco-sensitive zones or notifying the concerned authorities if the corridor is damaged, which in turn leaves for less hope for ensuring migration of tigers from one forest to another," says Kamal Azad, a former wildlife biologist with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

Unfair compensation to victims of 'conflict tigers'

In November 2021, when park officials and villagers were searching for T-36, Sharifa Khatun woke up to the hapless cries of her goat and sheep in the dead of the night. She rushed outside to notice flickers of movement of the tiger escaping the makeshift shed made of stilts, and found her livestock dead. Immediately, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) paid her Rs 5,000 in cash as interim relief, followed by Rs 8,000 a month later. The money from the forest department came only in September 2022; she was paid Rs 18,000, which she says is less when compared to the market price of the livestock she lost.

"One sheep is sold for Rs 5,000-Rs 6,000 in the market and a male goat can go to a high of Rs 12,000-Rs 20,000. I received Rs 18,000 for five sheep and the money for the goat is still on the way," Khatun says. She should have been paid Rs 25,000-Rs 30,000 by the forest department for her sheep alone, and at least Rs 12,000 for her goat, if the market rate is considered.

We reached out to state government officials but had not heard back from them by the date of publishing. We will update the story when they respond. DFO Baruah said that often villagers are unaware of the compensation procedure and hence the process gets delayed. On the government end, compensation is decided on the basis of the case and after verifying the loss, he said.

Noor Nesa, a villager whose goat was killed by T-36 in 2021, says she has not received compensation for it. She did not follow up after filing the initial application, and is not aware of the current status of her compensation.

Jalal said that none of them was paid for their livestock damages because of tigers from 1950 to early 2021. The compensation process is tedious in Assam, and victims see money only if they follow up regularly on their claims.

In cases of livestock damage, the affected person needs to submit certain documents, apart from the application, such as photographs of the damage, photocopy of the claimant's bank passbook and a certificate from the village head. This is followed by a joint verification (for which there is no time-frame) by the Circle Officer along with a range official to ensure the validity of the claim. The next step is sending over the documents to the DFO who then forwards it to the Principal Chief Wildlife Warden for release of the funds.

The disbursal of the money usually takes six months or more, as per the villagers, who are offered interim relief by NGOs such as WWF-India in the meantime. The amounts are usually between Rs 2,500-Rs 3,000 to provide short-term help to the villagers.

Lower compensation and delays in compensation could lead to retaliatory killings of animals. "Retaliatory killing incidents--which are exceptional cases--emerge when there is a conflict between the forest department and the locals. If villagers don't get compensation, they can take extreme measures," says Anirudhha Dhamorikar, a tiger researcher who has primarily worked in central India and is now based in Mumbai.

Better compensation policy measures--timely and adequate payment--will prevent villagers' anger towards animals killing livestock, says Dhamorikar. "In Maharashtra, compensation payment measures up to the market price which is Rs 20,000-Rs 30,000 for cattle kills. Madhya Pradesh has incorporated compensation due to wildlife kills in its state laws--the Madhya Pradesh Public Service Guarantee Act 2010. The codifying of the Act sees that compensation is issued within a month of filing the application."

In states like Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, there is less red tape for compensation, says Dhamorikar. "The application stamped by the forest guard goes to the Range Officer, after which the loss bearer has to wait for the money to be transferred into his account."

Shifting focus on tigers leaves other animals behind

The success of tiger conservation has been touted not only in Orang but also in the rest of the country--but sometimes at the cost of other animals. Take the example of elephants, of which Assam has the second highest number in the country at 5,719.

"More often than not, areas with tigers tend to get more focus because of the mounting media pressure due to tiger attacks and political will of local leaders. This forces the forest department to take notice. When it comes to elephants, the forest department doesn't treat them as anything out of the ordinary," says Kazmi, the wildlife historian. For example, in 2020-21, Assam received about Rs 2.5 crore under Project Tiger, which is over 70 times the amount under Project Elephant (about Rs 35 lakh).

NTCA officials said they were not allowed to speak with the media unless permitted by the head, S.P. Jadhav. IndiaSpend tried to reach Jadhav but his phone was switched off for days, and his communication teams said he is on a field visit and therefore unavailable to give comment. We will update the story when we receive a response.

The entry to Orang National Park in Darrang district of Assam.

The result is evident in the number of elephant deaths in Assam: 15 deaths in just 16 days of October 2022. According to a report in Deccan Herald, electricity, poisoning and train hits continue to be major causes of over 200 elephant deaths since 2017, as per data available with NGOs and state departments.

Not only Assam, forest departments across eastern, central and south India, including Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh do not treat elephant conservation with the same intent and alacrity as tigers, says Kazmi. This is despite the importance of managing human-elephant conflict as damage by elephants can impact not just livestock but also property, and elephants are spread over larger areas.

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