Following the Hunt
Following the Hunt: Tracking Livestock Kills to Reduce Villager's Losses in India
We are sharing photo essays and guest blogs from those of you who are able to spend part of your summer in service to others. This featured entry is from Jennie Miller who is trying to balance the conservation of tigers and leopards with the livelihoods of local Indian herders. Jennie is a doctoral candidate in the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and a Research Affiliate of the Wildlife Institute of India.
If you spent the season doing research with global development implications, field testing innovations and appliances, visiting national parks, nature preserves, or animal conservation centers, mentoring youth in STEM subjects, or even simply attending conferences and workshops--drop us an email and we’ll showcase your summer.
And now, Jennie’s guest blog and photo essay:
It was 3:00 AM on a cool November morning when Suresh Singh opened the door of his mud-brick house to find a tiger sitting on his doorstep, devouring his 6-month old calf. “I heard noises and went outside,” Mr. Singh explained, “but when I saw the tiger, I was so scared that I ran back inside.” Spooked but still hungry, the tiger slinked across the village to kill an adult buffalo tied to a banyan tree. “The tiger continued eating until I scared him off with my axe,” the owner, Grani Das, recalled bitterly.
Two days later, I visited the attack sites with the owners and Forest Department Deputy Ranger, Mr. Garg, who took notes to include in the Livestock Compensation Report that will reimburse the villagers for their losses. Clashes between big cats and people are not uncommon in Kanha Tiger Reserve, a protected area in central India that supports one of the largest tiger populations in the world. In 2010 alone, tigers and leopards attacked 331 livestock, costing the Kanha Forest Department $26,700 (1.4 lakh INR) in compensation payments. But for a joint family that earns a mere $55 (3,000 INR) monthly income, the loss of a cow worth $180 (10,000 INR) means the far greater sacrifice of milk, field labor, financial investment, social status and personal security.
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For the past year, I've been visiting livestock attack sites in Kanha Tiger Reserve as part of my doctoral research to investigate the question, “Where and why do big cats kill?” My goal is to characterize the landscape features where tigers and leopards attack livestock in order to predict where future attacks may occur. By better understanding the cats’ hunting behavior, livestock herders can avoid grazing areas where their animals are at a greater risk. For example, our results indicate that tigers tend to attack cattle in patchy thickets of thorny lantana bushes interspersed by open livestock paths, whereas leopards more commonly attack goats at night in people’s homes. With this knowledge in hand, people can adapt grazing routes or strengthen livestock enclosures to reduce losses from tigers and leopards.
Renowned as ‘India’s premium tiger reserve’, Kanha is a biodiverse beauty of a park whose mammalian fauna boasts of rarities such as the Bengal tiger, hard ground swamp deer and Indian wild dog. In this lush landscape, wild prey are abundant and tigers and leopards likely kill domestic animals simply for the ease of the hunt, or for a meal on-the-go when dispersing through agricultural corridors to nearby forests. During our nine months of wandering through the jungle, my three Indian assistants and I have nearly treaded on python, bumped into bison and crossed paths with countless tigers and leopards. We’ve watched the regal sal trees transform from brown to red, shed and regrow fresh green leaves, and felt the heartbeat of the forest during the cool winter, sizzling summer and humid monsoon. And through all, we’ve followed in the wake of the cats, recording their kills and observing how they chose their trail.
As the rains slow and we wind down our research, I am struck by the remarkable tolerance of the people that coexist with the predators in Kanha. My team has visited over 380 livestock carcasses this year and yet, despite the damage, only one tigress has been poisoned in retaliation. It appears that the Forest Department’s livestock compensation program is successfully reducing animosity among the villagers; or perhaps it’s the jungle’s bountiful offerings that outweigh its menacing threats. Nonetheless, the loss of even one tigress out of a dwindling worldwide population of 3,500 wild individuals is enough to bring me back to the jungle next year to continue the search for a way to reduce conflict between people and the last of our big cats.