India’s Big Cats in Danger

At the end of May of this year, the Indian government announced that 36 tigers had been poached thus far in 2019. Just days later, a heartbreaking report that a tigress and her two cubs were poisoned by angry farmers near the famous Tadoba Tiger reserve, an all too common outcome of human-tiger conflict.

Weeks later a news report cabled in that three tigers and two leopards had been poached in Bhandara district in the northeast of the country. And we must keep in mind that these are only the reported cases, the carcasses that were found before poachers smuggled them through Nepal and into Tibet for the Chinese market, and before villagers cremated the poisoned remains of big cats before authorities were alerted to them.

At the end of June shocking video footage was posted to the Internet of a wild tiger exploding from the roadside forest and chasing down two Indians riding a motorbike in Kerala in southern India. Authorities speculate that this scooter-chasing tiger was “hungry” and went after the motorists in search of a meal. Although there were allegations that the video was faked, the Snopes fact-checking website classified as real.

With their natural forest habitat shrinking (the tiger appears to emerge from a plantation) and their main prey base of deer and pigs almost certainly declining, tigers throughout their range in Asia—including India—are being pushed into marginal habitats and are coming into conflict with humans—to say nothing of poaching for the Chinese market. The outcome is almost always dead tigers, which is what we’re seeing now in India and beyond.

India, however, is probably the most important country to look at because the nation is home to the world’s greatest number of wild tigers, with more than 2,200 still prowling the dwindling forests, mangrove swamps, and Himalayan foothills of the sub-continent.

About 100,000 tigers that are thought to have roamed Asia at the beginning of the 20th century. Only around 3,000 remain today. So in a sense, with its relatively high number of tigers, India is the last great hope for wild tigers, with Nepal running a close second. And yet, despite being the great cat’s best hope, experts are saying that India can’t “handle” more wild tigers.

The macabre side of this is that, as Asia Sentinel has reported since at least 2006, as many as 7,000 to 8,000 tigers are being raised in tiger farms throughout East and Southeast Asia, according to the World Wildlife Fund, most notably in China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, more than double the wild population. They are bred for their bones, testicles, penises and other parts that are used in traditional Asian medicines that have been proven to have no medicinal value.

WWF believes the current scale of captive breeding operations within tiger farms is a significant obstacle to the protection and recovery of wild tiger populations, as it allows for highly negative pressures on the species to persist. Most importantly, according to the WWF, they perpetuate demand for traditional medicines, and they undermine efforts at enforcing the preservation of the animals in the wild.

The situation is perhaps even more grim for the often over-looked smaller cousin of the tiger, the common leopard. A shocking 218 leopards were killed in the first four months of 2019, a figure that represents only the known death toll, with the actual figure including unreported deaths from poaching and revenge attacks no doubt much higher. Numerous videos can be found on YouTube of leopards rampaging through Indian towns and coming into conflict with humans. Leopards have even been found living (and thriving) within Mumbai’s city limits, preying on dogs, goats, and anything they can sink their claws and fangs into.

Back in the early 1900s, the infamous Leopard of Rudraprayag, described so vividly in Jim Corbett’s account of his hunting down of the beast in The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, killed and devoured 125 humans, though Corbett insists the body count was higher, as he knew of several cases that went unreported, and there were undoubtedly others.

The man-eating tiger that Corbett was assigned to hunt down during the same period killed over 400 people, and this grisly episode is beautifully recounted in his book Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Big cats and people, then, have been in conflict for quite some time, though it is almost always humans, through hunting and habitat destruction, who set these bloody conflicts in motion (most man-eating tigers, for example, turned to hunting people because they had been shot and crippled by hunters and were unable to hunt their natural fast-moving prey like deer and pigs). These conflicts continue to rage today and the result is that big cats are dropping like flies.

To be fair, it’s not all bad news on the tiger front. Tigers—and five of them—have for the first time been camera-trapped in Madhya Pradeshi’s Kheoni Wildlife Sanctuary, and leading Indian tiger expert Ullas Karanth sees hope going forward for the great Bengal tiger in India. And while the situation for leopards remains grim, India is still a hotspot for wild cats, with six “colour morphs” of the Asian golden cat recorded in the country’s northeast—the greatest variety of anywhere in Asia.

There are also other bright spots on India’s wildlife radar, with the Hoolock gibbon of the northeast expanding once again into its historical range, and bizarrely beautiful giant purple squirrels captivating the public’s attention. Moreover, the Indian government has launched a public awareness campaign to highlight the perils to wildlife regarding the illegal pet trade, poaching, and the links between wildlife trafficking and terrorism.

But problems persist, with the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary set to lose a considerable chunk of its forest cover due to the construction of a reservoir. India’s pangolins are now being targeting by poachers to feed the Chinese and Vietnamese markets (and the same can be said for neighboring Pakistan), and the little-known crocodilian gharial’s population hovers at a precariously low 200 in the sub-continent. Asian elephants have also got it rough in India, as do sea turtles, and other wild animals.

What would Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, have to say of situation that India’s wildlife finds itself in today? What would Jim Corbett have to say, who had a national park established in his namesake which is soon to be bisected by a highway, further threatening wildlife? I imagine they would be at a loss for words—ironic for two champions and lovers of India’s world-class wildlife. One thing is for sure, if India is to remain the region’s best hope for tigers, leopards, and other wildlife, the time to act is now.

Gregory McCann is the project coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.