- A Royal Bengal tiger that was spotted in a patch of highly fragmented forest in Lalgarh, West Bengal was found dead with multiple injury marks, in little over a month since the first sighting.
- The matter is being treated as a case of poaching.
- Experts say tiger dispersal over long distances is a routine activity and is essential to maintain genetic viability.
A royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) that had “strayed” into a highly fragmented forest in the Indian state of West Bengal and had reportedly mauled members of a tribal hunting-party was found dead with multiple injury marks, in little over than a month since its sighting.
For over two months, the sal forest (Shorea robusta) of Lalgarh, a tribal belt in the eastern extension of the Chottanagpur plateau, was abuzz with the presence of the national animal. The site was a former hotbed of extremism.
Dubbed as the ‘Lalgarh tiger’ in media reports, the adult male aged between 10 and 12 years, was allegedly killed by a hunting group with spears and arrows during an ongoing ‘shikar’ (hunting) season in April, according to the state forest department. Initial analysis has revealed skull fractures.
The presence of the adult male in Lalgarh forest in south Bengal was confirmed in March this year when photos recorded by camera traps showed the animal prowling around in a 50 square km swathe of forest interspersed with human settlements. Pugmarks were first spotted in January by locals.
Binay Krishna Barman, forest minister of West Bengal, promised strict action against the perpetrators. “We issued orders to capture the tiger and relocate it as it had strayed into fragmented forest patches that harbour a considerable number of human settlements. To ensure it did no harm to the locals, we had attempted to secure it,” Barman told Mongabay-India.
Roaming through the forests spanning three districts (Jhargram, West Midnapore and Bankura), the animal had eluded capture by the forest department despite deployment of tranquilising teams, drones and live traps. On one occasion, the tiger had a narrow escape after it tore through a net and fled.
Foresters said the big cat never killed a human in the forest although it did injure locals while defending itself from being attacked. The Royal Bengal Tiger is protected under the Indian law.
According to Ravi Kant Sinha, principal chief conservator of forests, West Bengal, the incident is being treated as a case of poaching. The quantum of punishment includes a penalty of at least Rs. 10,000 and jail-term not less than three years.
“The tiger was at risk because it was present in a landscape where it was not seen before. We will continue with our sensitisation programme among the tribals,” Sinha told Mongabay-India.
DNA tests may be run to ascertain the source of dispersal of the tiger that was initially speculated to have moved a distance of over 200 kilometres from the neighbouring Simlipal Tiger Reserve.
According to wildlife conservationist Suvrajyoti Chatterjee, who studies hunting practices in Bengal, as many as 15,000 tribals (mainly Santhals) had gathered to join in for the hunting ritual on the day the tiger was killed.
“On an average 5,000 tribals participate in these practices. There are more than 60 such dates and most of them do not coincide with lunar calendar as is widely believed. These events are simply for entertainment,” Chatterjee told Mongabay-India.
Apart from the tiger, other protected species such as the Bengal monitor lizard, jungle cat, Indian hare, wild boars, orioles, parrots and other animals and birds became victims of the mass slaughter in the Lalgarh forest.
Similar mass-slaughters go on in at least eight Bengal districts, Chatterjee informed.
“They kill anything that moves. As for the presence of the tiger, it had moved into a landscape that is one of least studied regions in the country, given its links to extremism. So conservation practices are yet to be defined and the landscape yet to be studied in terms of biodiversity and prey density for larger carnivores,” said Chatterjee, who is a member of NGOs HEAL, SPOAR and PUBLIC that are working to prevent these killings.
World Animal Protection, an animal protection body, has strongly urged the government for a proper investigation into the death of this tiger at the “hands of hunters and strict implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act with regards to any ritual practices that kill large numbers of wild animals.”
“We call upon the state government to involve experts from outside in case they lack the requisite ability to humanely tackle conflict situations involving tigers and other species of endangered wildlife in Bengal,” Gajender K. Sharma, India country director, World Animal Protection, said in a statement.
‘Lalgarh tiger’ had a right to live
Wildlife biologist Milind Pariwakam slammed the portrayal of the tiger as a “stray.” Noting tiger movements or dispersals are routine activities and have always been going on, Pariwakam said such dispersing individuals are good for the population as a whole as they bring much needed genetic viability to the population and can re-colonise areas from which tigers went locally extinct.
“With an increase in focus on monitoring of tiger populations, ease of availability of camera traps, databases of stripe patterns, more and more incidents of tiger dispersal are becoming evident. Such dispersal is natural and has always been happening; just that there were no records earlier or there wasn’t wider publicity due to the erstwhile lack of social media/internet,” Pariwakam of Wildlife Conservation Trust told Mongbay-India.
Capturing such tigers will affect the natural re-colonisation process, he emphasised.
“Further, trying to capture a dispersing individual merely because it has been seen in an area is a violation of the law. The Wildlife (Protection) Act under Section 11, allows the capture of an individual only if it ‘has become dangerous to human life’. The Lalgarh tiger was in no way ‘dangerous to human beings’ and thus, its attempted capture was itself a violation of the protection given to wildlife under the law,” Pariwakam highlighted.
Tigers are known to move across large distances and genetic data has confirmed that this dispersal could stretch across reserves that are 690 kilometres apart.
The Indian subcontinent harbours nearly 60 percent of the global wild tiger population. Researchers say that understanding elements of the landscape that facilitate connectivity and dispersal is crucial to successfully manage tiger populations at a landscape level.
“Today, most wild tigers live in small, isolated protected areas within human dominated landscapes in the Indian subcontinent. These protected areas are too small to even hold demographically viable populations. Future survival of tigers depends on increasing local population size, as well as maintaining connectivity between populations,” said WCT researcher, Aditya Joshi.
Banner image: A camera trap image of the Royal Bengal tiger in Lalgarh, Bengal. Photo by Special Arrangement.