Life beside the jungle – the reality of coexistence with tigers 

Can there ever be true peace between humans and tigers? Photo credit: Keyur Nandaniya via Unsplash

The mornings stir a thick fog, descending from the mountains onto the jungle. Dawn sunlight pours through the fractures of the canopy — it is a cool morning. The chatter of crickets is gently replaced by the flutter of wings and occasional birdsong. 

He is a nomad, and a hunter. The lands he roams is different from the one his parents ruled, more still from the land of their parents before them. The local grasses have been evicted by shrubs and dense thickets of foreign flowers. The native trees sit peppered about the valley, outnumbered by the bustle of alien ferns. However different, this Bengal tiger makes-do; he lives, hunts, and will one day father cubs in these forests. 

This is Wayanad: a small district in the state of Kerala lying on the south-western coast of India. Wayanad is situated high in Western Ghats, an extensive mountain range older than the Himalayas born when the supercontinent Gondwana broke up more than 100 million years ago. The tallest peaks here reach around 2000m in height, and most of the land is populated by dense jungle. These jungles, rich in their biodiversity, are a hotspot for the Bengal Tiger population in India. 

My arrival to Wayanad was during a turbulent time. I began writing this on the 16th of December, sat in a small office beside a newspaper. The paper was written in Malayalam, a local language I have no understanding of. What I did understand, however, was the bright orange border with the roaring, fanged face of a tiger plastered on the front page. Just the week before, a farmer collecting grass for his cattle in the village of Vakeri had been attacked and eaten by one such tiger. 

That morning a short column was published in the local newspaper reporting the incident. Since then, that column had grown into this flagrantly decorated page, describing the day-by-day outplay of a hunt that aimed to capture the culprit. Atop the page, a mugshot-esque camera trap image of the tiger sat plastered below a red title exclaiming ‘MAN-EATER’ in Malayalam. 

Incidents like this are becoming increasingly common, and in speaking to the locals I have gained an understanding of the anxious relationship between the residents of Wayanad and the native tigers. A relationship that is far from ameliorated by newspapers like this one. 

Life for the residents of Wayanad is underscored by cases like these. The larger towns like Kalpetta, where I stayed, see little of this conflict. They are bustling and lively, tangled in busy roads and lined with hundreds of stores selling everything from industrial aluminium to wedding dresses. The food is spicy, the weather is forgivingly warm, and it rains from time to time. Nevertheless, the jungle never fails to remind you where you are: the equivalent of our pigeons are macaques, and the closest to our squirrels is a mongoose. Mango and jackfruit trees offer their fruits to the townsfolk, and every so often you’ll find a boy opening a coconut they’ve plucked off a palm tree.  

Nevertheless, the jungle never fails to remind you where you are: the equivalent of our pigeons are macaques, and the closest to our squirrels is a mongoose.

Take a bus out of Kalpetta, and after a turbulent 10-minute ride you’ll find yourself driving past plantations bordering dense jungle and occasional clusters of homes with storefronts nestled amidst the greenery. It’s these fringe neighbourhoods that see attacks like in Vakeri. The vibrance and peril of the jungle are blended into the normality of life here. 

The vibrance and peril of the jungle are blended into the normality of life here. 

After discovering the news of the attack, I travelled to a nearby village where I spoke to the Regional Chief Forest Officer to learn about the ongoing tiger conflict. He was as knowledgeable as he was warm and welcoming, but through his hospitality I could sense an air of melancholy about him; there was a fatigue in his eyes as he sat behind the thick layer of paperwork on his desk. As we spoke, I learnt more about the conflict between people and tigers here. 

These tigers keep territories: pockets in their home range that are defended aggressively. Besides these territories they roam free and far, driven by desire and habit — I was told that in the previous years, they had tracked a tiger travelling more than 2000km across India in a month. To a tiger, land is to be explored. Prey is to be hunted, lakes to be swam in. The intruding cackle from the city is an obvious landmark to steer clear of, but fringe towns and villages — with their abundance of crops and livestock, their gentle situation beside the jungle, their greenery and quietude — are not as obvious to avoid. Moreover, this makes protected areas and nature reserves almost obsolete in controlling this conflict. What good is a guarded patch of jungle to a nomadic animal with a nonchalant regard to borders?   

To a tiger, land is to be explored. Prey is to be hunted, lakes to be swam in.

With the arrival of British Imperialists, their range was constricted by a mind driven by finance and commodity. The introduction of invasive species, the replacement of land with monoculture farms, mining and urbanisation. Imperial Britain saw utility in the mountains and forests of the Western Ghats, and in the taming of what was ‘savage’ and ‘uncivilised’ the British stood at the forefront of the ‘domestication’ of this corner of India. As the land continued to be altered, the wildlife was extensively hunted in pursuit of the subjugation of the jungle. Today, more than 50% of Wayanad’s forests are dominated by teak tree and eucalyptus plantations; not only shrinking their habitat but reducing the amount of prey available to the tigers here. As these animals navigate the changing landscape, the expansion of residential areas only exacerbates the situation. 

After the 1990s, the Indian government turned to the protection of wildlife and ecosystems. With the passing of new legislation establishing strict delineated reserves and conserved territories, tiger populations began recovering from their rampant poaching in the previous century. Now, around 90 healthy tigers populate the hills of Wayanad — and this is only expected to increase. It is with this population growth, coupled with the change in the landscape and land use in Kerala, that towns like Vakeri become victim to unprecedented occurrences of human-wildlife conflict. 

Far more often than humans, livestock are the preferred prey for a tiger. As such, it is not uncommon that cattle, goats or sheep are found half-eaten or that they disappear altogether. This issue is troubling for farmers whose livelihoods depend on their livestock and is a major dimension of the conflict between people and tigers. While the government has schemes to compensate for the loss of livestock which are an important relief to victims, they do little to prevent these issues in the first place. Further, the most recent tiger attack on livestock has troubled more than just local economies— the annual midnight mass on Christmas Eve has had to be cut short this year for the first time. 

In this context, it is inevitable that tigers would tread into human territory, and in turn, it is inevitable that there will be incidents like the one earlier this month. With the rise of these instances of conflict, the locals grow more upset, and this upset translates to anger. 

The chief told me that it is up to the Forest Office here to capture the tiger, and I then understood what that sadness I sensed in him was. The sadness was mourning — a mourning for what he feared was to come for the tiger. He explained to me the pressure that was on the Forestry Department to kill the so-called ‘Man-Eater’. 

Blame is a tricky game to play in a situation like this. Immediately after the tragedy, fingers were pointed at the forest office, at the government, and ultimately at the tiger itself. Much of this blame was accentuated by the portrayals of the situation in the media, as with newspapers like the one that brought me to the Chiefs office. However, through talking to the locals, I understood that the tension was a symptom of the general difficulty they have been having living beside the jungle.  

The residents of Wayanad call for a strict delineation between the community and the forest, and politicians reassure them that this is being planned for. From speaking to the chief, various officers, and conservationists here I have learnt that this is an impossibility. There is no way to successfully prevent the jungle from creeping into the lives of the residents, so what can be done? 

There are plenty of minds working to push back against the conflict with tigers. One must be careful to not use the word ‘solve’ here, as it is important to understand that this issue is not one that can be wrapped up and tucked away in one fell swoop. These instances of conflict are omnipresent in rural areas and will only continue to be. What can be developed is a system that manages and responds to these issues as they arise.  

There have been ongoing talks of building a network of camera traps and monitoring systems in populated areas, in order to pre-emptively detect and warn communities of nearby tigers. While it could be effective, this is a huge undertaking and undoubtably ambitious. Moreover, it would only serve to reduce the risk that will always remain for the communities in places like Wayanad. It is for this reason that focus is drawn to the single most powerful and effective tool that conservationists and officers have: perception. 

Altering the perception of the residents toward the jungle is the foundation of the work being done in Wayanad. Authorities working at the forefront of protecting the Western Ghats across all disciplines have expressed to me how the contemporary generation has lost its intimacy with the natural world here. The forest has become a stranger, an ‘other’ that people must be protected from.  

Changing the eyes with which the locals see the forest by encouraging a direct and personal relationship with earth will recapture an understanding of humanities place in the complex web of life. Reminding us that we are symbiotic with the trees and the animals of the forest could shift the entire framing of ‘conflict’. This way, when tragic incidents like the tiger attack occur, the repercussions are not as aggressively negative as they were in Vikuri. These instances are undeniably painful for residents, but the hope is to foster an understanding of the reality of the presence of the jungle. With this shift in perception, locals will accept the measures they should take to lesser these risks, while steering away from an attitude of retribution so that the tigers themselves can be protected too. 

Groups of people such as those in the Hume Centre of Biodiversity and Wildlife Conservation are doing exactly this. In my time in Wayanad, I have had the privilege of witnessing how the Hume Centre has been organising seminars, planning camps, and teaching children about the nature in Wayanad first-hand. Cultivating this nature-centric perception, is pivotal to laying the foundation of a future marked by coexistence and understanding.  

Cultivating this nature-centric perception, is pivotal to laying the foundation of a future marked by coexistence and understanding.  

Reconnection to nature is at the heart of so many issues that pervade the socio-scape of modern life, not just here in India. Some semblance of peace is found in rekindling the awareness of our place in the earth. While our issues at home may not be as drastic as the tiger attacks that happen in Wayanad, the time I spent here instilled in me a new perspective. One of importance for people to cultivate an intimate relationship with nature in the face of an ever-changing world.