India wages manhunt for tiger believed to have killed 13 people
PANDHARKAWADA, India — The first victim was an older woman, discovered facedown in a cotton field with huge claw marks dug into her back. The next was an older male farmer, his left leg torn off.
The killings have gone on for more than two years, sowing panic in the hills around Pandharkawada, a town in central India. In mid-August, the mauled body of Vaghuji Kanadhari Raut, a threadbare cattle herder, was found near a rural highway. He was victim No. 12.
DNA tests, camera traps, numerous spottings and pugmarks — tiger footprints — have pinned at least 13 human killings on a single, 5-year-old female tiger that seems to have developed a taste for human flesh and has evaded capture several times.
At night, young men in the nearby villages carry torches and bamboo sticks and go on patrol. They have roughed up forest guards, furious that authorities can’t stop the killings.
Experts say it’s extremely unusual for a single tiger to have attacked this many people. India’s critically endangered tiger population is soaring, a success for conservation policies, but the animals are being crowded out in a competition with humans for territory.
Forest rangers are now gearing up for a complex military-style operation to deploy sharpshooters with tranquilizer guns on the backs of half a dozen elephants to surround the tiger, capture her and send her to a zoo.
But the elephants have yet to arrive, held up by intense bureaucratic infighting among India’s myriad overlapping government agencies that cover wildlife but, between all of them, still don’t seem to have enough resources.
As the death count rises — three villagers were killed in August — several politicians are demanding that the rangers simply shoot the tiger. But that might not be legal. A wildlife activist seeking to block any such order has taken the matter all the way to India’s Supreme Court, which may hear the case soon.
In the meantime, rangers have been posted on rickety wooden stands built into jungle trees, ordered to keep their eyes peeled for the tiger. But they don’t even have binoculars.
“I don’t want to kill this beautiful animal,” said K.M. Abharna, a top forestry official in the Pandharkawada area, which lies near the borders of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh states. “But there’s a hell of a lot of political pressure and a hell of a lot of public pressure.”
A crafty man-eating tiger on the loose sounds like something out of a Rudyard Kipling tale. But it’s a real and growing problem in today’s India.
The country’s effort to protect tigers, in a way, is a victim of its own success. Closer monitoring, new technology and stricter wildlife policies have led to a sharp increase in the tiger count, from 1,411 in 2006 to an estimated 2,500 today — more than half of the world’s approximately 4,000 tigers. This growth is causing increased conflict.
India’s human population and its economy have been rapidly growing as well, steadily filling in rural areas with farms, roads and mushrooming towns like Pandharkawada. Many tigers are now running out of space.
They are spilling out of their dedicated reserves, roaming along smooth new asphalt highways and skulking through crowded farmland on a search for territory, mates and prey — such as antelope, wild pigs, stray cattle and sometimes people.