The tale of a maneater that has provoked outrage and revived a debate on man-animal conflict in Karnataka
BANDIPUR ~ “Do you see that line of trees? That is where the tiger killed Basava,” says Mallikarjuna Swamy, pointing at the horizon. Basava was his neighbour, a man working in his fields at the time. Swamy does not dare venture any further in that direction though the maneater has been captured alive three hours earlier. For those who live in Chikkabaragi village of HD Kote taluka on the fringes of Karnataka’s Bandipur Tiger Reserve, straying too far from familiar areas could be a matter of life and death.
Basava, found dead on 3 December, was the maneater’s third victim. A week earlier, on the evening of 27 November, it had attacked Basavaraju, a tribal from nearby Seegavadahaadi, while he was herding his cattle home. On 29 November, Cheluva, a 35-year-old tribal was killed in broad daylight while he and his friends were grazing cattle on the fringes of the Moleyur forest range. The tiger gouged his eyes out.
After the attack on Basava, enraged villagers set on fire a forest department guest house in the village along with a jeep and two motorcycles, forcing officials to launch a massive operation to capture the tiger. They were angry because Basava’s life could have been saved: the department had botched up a chance to catch the tiger three days earlier, the day it killed Cheluva. The animal had returned for the body and department officials had spotted it. The veterinarian with the team took four shots at it with a 1980-model tranquiliser gun. He missed twice. The other two darts hit the tiger but the sedative did not work because the gun was not loaded properly. The tiger slunk away into the forest.
The next day, the search was called off in that part of the forest because a senior official did not expect the predator to come back. But it did—and claimed Basava. His family members, worried that he hadn’t returned home even after 7 pm, gathered other villagers and went looking for him. All they found was one leg and part of what looked like his scalp. According to MP Bhavanish, a neighbour, the tiger must have attacked him in the paddy field—just 200 metres from the edge of Chikkabaragi village—and then dragged his body into the neighbouring forest.
“The first task was to find Basava’s body,” says HC Kantharaju, director, Bandipur Tiger Reserve, “We found the torso without the leg the next morning. We found the severed head later. The tiger had not eaten the flesh, as locals alleged. We removed the body and mounted an operation to capture the tiger.”
Three attacks by a suspected maneater in the same vicinity is a rare occurrence. The villagers compounded the confusion by alleging that it was a tiger that was caught earlier this year and released back into the wild. They say that it had got used to chicken and meat in captivity, which is why it began attacking cattle and humans.
By now, the attacks had taken on political overtones. At the ongoing state legislature session in Belgaum, Karnataka, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah promised to issue ‘shoot-at-sight orders’ against the tiger. That the CM cannot issue such an order vis-à-vis a protected national animal was not a point anyone brought up. “There was a lot of pressure on us to capture the tiger at the earliest,” says a forest officer. “We had already spent three or four nights camping out and trying various methods to trap it. A cage with a dog in it was kept as bait, hoping the tiger would return to the spot of the earlier attacks… but it did not. Then, we tied cattle to trees and waited on treetops. That, too, failed. In the meanwhile, it attacked the third victim. The pressure was so much that everybody—politicians, bureaucrats, conservationists and even journalists—gave us ideas to try.”
One lady member of an erstwhile royal family who runs a resort in Bandipur had seen a documentary on a wildlife TV channel where a human dummy propped against a tree and sprayed with goat blood was used in Africa to entrap a lion. On her insistence, this was given a try too. It did not work.
The department put more vets and field staff onto the job. It also borrowed an advanced rifle from Bangalore’s Bannerghatta Biological Park to transquilise the animal. To locate the tiger, they set up camera traps every 300 metres in a circle. They also brought in camp elephants that are trained to help capture wild animals.
On the night of 4 December, the tiger was spotted by a police party that had arrived to investigate the burning down of the forest guest house but could not resist joining the hunt. In their enthusiasm, the cops opened fire at it. “In all, they fired 29 shots at the tiger,” says the forest officer, “Thankfully, none of the bullets hit it.”
The next morning, the tiger was cornered by three elephants, but its menacing behaviour scared them away. One elephant called Abhimanyu was sorely missed in this operation because it has a reputation for holding its nerve when faced with a tiger. “Abhimanyu is a 45-year-old tusker known for charging at wild elephants and tigers,” says another forest officer, “Normally a tiger’s roar scares away our elephants, but Abhimanyu is the only one that will charge directly at a tiger without fear.” So Abhimanyu was requisitioned from Hassan, Karnataka, a six-hour road journey by truck.
The next morning, they managed to locate the tiger again, and by 1 pm, one of the vets who managed to get within a few yards fired four doses at the animal. He missed thrice, but the fourth dart struck. Cautiously, the field staff crept towards the striped cat. Weak and malnourished, the cat tried moving away but couldn’t get far; the tranquiliser began to take effect. They flung a net around the animal and dragged it into a cage.
The doctors who examined the tiger found quill injuries and deduced that it had tried to kill a porcupine. It was a bad choice of meal; the quills had pierced the tiger’s jaw into its mouth, while one had stuck in its tongue, making it difficult for it to eat or drink. Hungry and thirsty, it had perhaps strayed over to the periphery of the forest in search of easy prey in human habitations.
It was now safely behind bars. Abhimanyu, the fearless elephant, had to be taken back to Hassan; it had arrived too late. A sharp shooter from Hyderabad known as Nawab Saab, who was flown down specially for the job by a well-wisher of the forest department, also had to return without seeing any action.
The tiger had been caught, but the drama was not over. On hearing of its capture, the villagers of Chikkabaragi demanded proof. After officials hauled the tractor into their sight to present the caged tiger in flesh and blood, they ranged themselves around and demanded that it be shot dead. “It has no right to be captured alive after what it did to our fellow villagers,” said A Narayanappa, a villager, speaking for all, “There is a shoot-at-sight order by the CM, so the officials should shoot it dead.” The bereaved family of Basava was especially vocal, with the dead man’s niece raising a loud cry for justice in the form of a death penalty.
With a mob of about 400 people baying for blood, it took the police two hours to disperse them before the animal could be taken to Mysore Zoo (it had to be tranquilised again as a result of the delay).
A raging debate has begun over how to deal with tigers who menace human life. Noted tiger conservationist K Ullas Karanth has surprised everyone by arguing that the lesson of Chikkabaragi is that tigers venturing beyond their territory ought to be shot dead. He says the location of the attacks suggest that this tiger was pushed out of its range by an aggressive rival. Forced to the edges of the forest, it began preying on livestock for survival and ended up attacking humans as well. “Such deliberate stalking and killing of humans is rare in this region, despite a large tiger population of 150,” says Karanth, “The last proven case of man-eating was in 2006 by a 13-year-old tigress that killed two humans in the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve.”
After the second killing, says Karanth, it was no longer clear if attempts to capture the animal alive were justified. “Dozens of tigers, and possibly a larger number of leopards, reach this stage in life in Karnataka every year and get into conflict situations,” he says. “It may not be a practical long-term option to capture them all and house them in zoos beyond their maximum lifespan in the wild. Also, delays in addressing the threat generate great anger among local people. This may undermine the public support we need for the conservation of tigers.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society, led by Karanth, has a photographic database of tigers that reveals that the Chikkabaragi tiger (BPT-117) was camera-trapped first in March 2004. “From its size and appearance at that time, it was assessed to be about three years old,” he says. BPT-117 was camera-trapped 10 times after that, and the last photographic capture was on 11 May 2013. “This evidence shows that this tiger’s territory was 33 sq km.”
Forest officials also say that it’s a logistical nightmare to trap rogue tigers alive. Says an officer, “Sometimes, the operation takes days and since it is deep within forests or on their fringes, it’s difficult for us to arrange food for the men and elephants involved in the operation. In addition, we are also in danger of being attacked by angry villagers.”
Chikkabaragi village is part of the 880 sq km Bandipur Tiger Reserve area. Leopard attacks, straying elephants and foraging wild boars are dangers no less stark around here. “In fear of wild boars, we can’t walk around after dark,” says Narayanappa, “They are known to attack without provocation and every fortnight at least one villager reports them trying to gore them.”
Sudha Narasappa, a villager, displays a new fence in her backyard. She points to a wooded area in the near distance; three nights ago, she says, elephants came from that direction and helped themselves to her stack of hay. “My husband went out to check on the commotion because the dogs were barking,” she says, “He was taken aback to see three or four elephants in our backyard. We made several requests to the forest department, but they didn’t bother. The elephants went away after we burst crackers. But we fear they will return.”
But there is no terror like that of a maneater. In recent years, the area has been thick with stories of tiger attacks. Ravi Shankar, a Mysore-based photographer, will never forget the morning of 17 January 2013. The previous night, he got information of a tiger attacking cattle in Taraka village, a few kilometres from HD Kote town. The forest department had mobilised its staff to chase it back into the forest. He set out from Mysore with a group of photographers.
Ravi Shankar remembers that encounter with the tiger in detail: “We reached the spot where the tiger was believed to have spent the night in a wooded area. There we saw that officials assisted by villagers were bursting crackers and beating drums. They were all walking towards the tiger. We followed them and took some pictures, but could still not see the tiger. The department staff fanned out in a large semi-circle. We followed them in a jeep. From a safe distance, we were taking pictures when some of us decided to get out of the jeep and walk a dozen yards on foot for a better angle. Suddenly loud crackers burst close to us. A crouching tiger jumped out of a patch of green and came straight at me. I knew it would go for my neck…. I straightened up and held my neck with one arm and the camera in the other. The tiger’s teeth clamped my hand, which was protecting my neck, and wouldn’t let go.”
Ravi Shankar struggled with the beast for 88 seconds, as recorded by the timer of a video taken by another photographer. The tiger lunged for his back, trying to wrestle him sideways for a better grip, and punctured his forearm and upper arm in two places with its teeth. It let him go only after it was shot with a tranquiliser gun by a forest department official.
The photographer spent weeks in hospital, recovering. “I was very lucky that my neck, spine or face was not mauled. It punctured my hand. That was the only injury I had. I lost a lot of blood, but survived,” he says, rolling up his right arm’s sleeves to show the marks.
The area remains dangerous. On 30 November, while a hunt was being mounted for the Chikkabaragi maneater, another tiger is believed to have attacked and killed D Suresh, a forest staffer who had stepped out of his post deep inside Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, 30 km away from Chikkabaragi.
The last of this debate is yet to be heard, it would seem.