A Modern Tale of Tigers

A Modern Tale of Tigers

Tigers usually live at peace when they are not hunting. They are quiet, solitary animals when well fed, and most jungle creatures scrupulously avoid them. Wherever the great cat goes, the alarm spreads before it. After a kill is made, all is quiet until the tiger is hungry again and starts to move. A great traveler, it may cover twenty miles or more before feeding again. The tiger rarely attacks unless it is hungry but threatens non—prey with a growl. Its life patterns are not very predictable when the tiger turns man—eater.

The history of man—eating tigers has filled many a volume. Some of the man—killers dined on several hundred victims before they were hunted down and destroyed.

A tiger usually turns man—eater because of old age or a handicapping injury that prevents it from capturing its normal prey. Since its only alternative is to starve to death, the tiger turns on man, who, compared with its natural victims, is slow and puny — an easy catch. Once the tiger tastes human blood, it tends to shun all more elusive quarry.

There are other reasons for a tiger to become a man—eater. When a herd of cattle is attacked, the owner, in attempting to defend his cows, may also be attacked by the tiger. On such an occasion the giant cat would tend not to waste a meal and will dine on his human victim, thereby acquiring a preference for easy prey.

There have also been several reports of a villager's chance stumbling on a female tiger with cubs. The result is almost always the same. The tigress, out of fear that the human will harm her brood, instantly attacks. Such killings, referred to as circumstantial, permit the tigress to discover that human beings constitute a rather effortless meal. She will then stalk and kill other humans for food, which she shares with her cubs. It is not unusual for her to teach her cubs the process of stalking and killing other humans for food. The cubs, having acquired a taste for human flesh, will grow up as confirmed man—eaters, and the females will repeat the process with each succeeding brood.

With unrestrained encroachment of the human population and further loss of habitat to farming, the natural environment of the tiger has decreased. Its ranks have been depleted rapidly, and its natural food supply has been replaced by man and his livestock. Just as the magnificent predator was in grave danger of becoming extinct in the wilds, alarmed conservationists employed stern measures in several localities to preserve the species.

In the Indian Sundarbans, the marshy, mangrove—forested delta of the Ganges extending across Bangladesh into India, conservation methods have been extraordinarily strict and the number of tigers has been estimated. As a result of this effort the tiger population has nearly doubled since 1973. Now about 300 giant cats live in the wilds of this preserve, and they have become particularly aggressive.

Many villagers have protested vehemently. Not without cause, it seems, for these people are prime targets of man—eaters. While the tiger population was declining, they experienced a reprieve and began to encroach on tiger territory. As a result of the conservation program, the increase in tiger numbers again put the natives at risk. Their complaint remained the same: as tigers grew familiar with humans, they began to regard them as prey and were killing as many as fifty villagers annually!

The officials of the Indian Sundarban Tiger Reserve have almost frantically cast about for methods to stop the carnage without having to kill the tigers. One of the managers believed that the salty marsh water that the tigers drank was the reason for their ferocity. Consequently many ditches were dug and filled with freshwater. This theory has now been abandoned and for very good reason: the attacks continued, if anything, with increased vigor.

In another attempt to protect the population the officials gave the villagers fiberglass protectors to shield their necks, where tigers usually strike. A new improved protector was decorated as a mask so that the tiger leaping from behind would be baffled by the two—faced human. According to the villagers, the protectors were too hot to wear in the steamy climate, and such a meager shield would not stop a hungry, full—grown Bengal tiger. Another tiger deterrent was to explode firecrackers around areas inhabited by people. This was immediately unsuccessful, for while they were shooting off firecrackers, a tiger sneaked through the barrage and dragged a guard away.

After many failed schemes, an effective method of discouraging the tiger from dining on humans is being developed. A number of lifelike mannequins, dressed in villagers' clothing to give out a human scent, have been placed in several sites of tiger—human activity. There is nothing dangerous or menacing about them, except that upon biting into the human decoy the tiger is treated to a 230—volt electrical shock. This has been a very effective deterrent, and the annual killings have been cut to less than half of their former numbers. Witnesses say that the tiger, when shocked, leaps back and roars frantically with pain. Then it runs in circles and breaks all records racing into the jungle away from the shocking "human." Thereafter it either flees from people or deliberately avoids the area where it was hurt.

While tiger attacks on humans have not stopped completely, they have certainly been reduced by the electrified dummies. There is of course no way to stop a villager from defending his herd or to keep him from stumbling upon a tigress with cubs. Until the human population of the Sundarbans acknowledges that a mangrove swamp is not suitable for habitation by humans, tiger attacks will continue. This proves two well—known maxims: tigers and man cannot share space, and familiarity breeds contempt.


From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth