Living with big cats 

Before we arrived in India, we had a certain eurocentric picture of human-wildlife conflict and its challenging mitigation. Human-large carnivore conflict and possible coexistence is a booming topic across Europe, as humans continuously encroach into the natural environment and massively modify it. European habitats become increasingly fragmented, forcing large carnivores to cross human-dominated landscapes to find food and new territories. Nevertheless, their populations have been expanding in recent decades across large parts of their former distributions. Unfortunately, where humans and large carnivores share space, a diversity of conflicts can emerge. And across Europe, there is a low tolerance for the presence of these species.

So what can we expect as we reach India? Human population explosion, shrinking forest cover, relentless urbanisation, cultivation of land, poaching, increasing road density and many more human activities threaten wildlife habitats even more than in Europe. However, the first thing we noticed is that there is more tolerance towards wildlife in India. Although the topic can be explosive and occurs across the country, we had some fascinating revelations during our time spent with locals in the state of Uttar Pradesh, regarded as the second most affected state by human-tiger conflicts in India. 

The big question is, what needs to be done to make sure humans and big cats coexist peacefully now and in the future? Nowhere is this question more evident than in India, where around 32 million people are already living as next-door-neighbors to tigers in a country that hosts over 70% of the world’s remaining wild tigers.

Big cats in history

Lions and tigers used to be favourable pets for kings and nobles. They symbolised power and strength and are still referred to as ‘the kings of the jungle’. Big cats have captivated the imagination and fascination of many men, but at the same time have been wiped out as a supposed threat to humans, domestic animals and crops. Just as cats themselves are hunters, so are humans. But shooting them for trophies or fun from the safety of the back of an elephant or car, humans killed them without need, threat or a fair contest.

Tiger hunting was a popular sport by the maharajas of India and European colonists and hunters of the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tiger skins and heads decorated the floors and walls of many wealthy households in Europe. In the year 1900 more than 100,000 tigers roamed the planet, but by 2010 the figure had fallen to a record low of 3,200 globally, 1,411 within India. Thus, it was realised that the tiger had been overhunted and in danger of extinction, which prompted India and 12 other countries with tiger populations to sign an agreement to double their numbers by 2022. And so, laws have been passed in many countries where the tiger was still found naturally, banning their hunting. 

How big is the tiger and leopard population presently?

The tiger is India’s national animal, and the country provides home to more than 70% of the world’s tiger population. To protect these endangered animals, in 2006, the Indian ‘Wildlife Protection Act’ of 1972 was amended to establish the National Tiger Conservation Authority. Since then, a nation-wide survey is conducted every four years and is based on information collected by wildlife officials. According to the 2019 census, there were 2,967 tigers registered, compared to 2,226 four years before. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, called the figures a “historic achievement” and said India was one of the biggest and safest habitats for tigers around the world.

During this last survey, the leopard population was also estimated within the forested habitats in tiger occupied states. Leopards are a widely distributed species and in comparison to other large carnivores have been able to survive better in an increasingly human-dominated landscape, largely due to their adaptable behaviour. According to this census, the leopard population within forested habitats in India’s tiger range landscapes was estimated at 12,172 to 13,535 individuals. 

A few interesting tiger facts:
  • The tiger is the largest cat species in the world.
  • The worldwide tiger population has declined by over 95% in the past 150 years, putting these elegant creatures at risk of extinction.
  • The tiger is India’s national animal.
  • India is home to more than 70% of the world’s tiger population, belonging to the Bengal tiger subspecies. 
  • There are a total of 54 Tiger reserves in India.
  • India is home to 15 species of wild cats, accounting for 40% of all cat species found globally. Unfortunately, nine of these fifteen cats are endangered, vulnerable, or threatened.
  • Based on the 2018 survey, tigers were observed to be increasing at a rate of 6% per year in India when consistently sampled areas were compared from 2006 to 2018.

Coexistence in Uttar Pradesh

Uttar Pradesh is the first Indian state we travel through on this journey. With a population of 230 million people, it is also the most populated state of India. To put that into context, the total population of all 10 countries we visited before sums up to only 212 million people. Therefore, as one can imagine, the state is highly cultivated, leaving little space for nature.

The only large natural and protected areas can be found along the Nepalese border, forming a green corridor between the two countries. It is here that we meet Javed Anver, ecologist at the Wildlife Institute of India and a local born and raised close to the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary. Throughout the five days spent together, the locals tell us countless stories of tiger and leopard encounters and show us several videos. We are also warned to stay away from sugarcane fields at dawn, it being a favoured hunting spot of tigers.

“It is not uncommon for a tiger to cross the river and enter a village. Just recently, two children were taken by a tiger,” a local explains as the big cat topic comes up. “Once a villager was guarding his field and resting in his wooden treehouse, when a tiger walked underneath and decided to take a nap just below him. The villager had to wait there for hours until the tiger was well rested and left,” Javed tells us. Everyone has stories like these of tiger and leopard encounters. We are quickly fascinated and thrilled that the big cats are so present here. However, our emotions soon become more complex, as we hear of the weekly casualties villagers are facing. Devastating stories of deadly tiger or leopard attacks are easy to come by here. 

Javed shows us around in Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, a paradise for wildlife.

On the other hand, this kind of close coexistence blows our mind. “Let’s go for a night safari,” says Javed one day “let’s see what we can find”. But as driving into the Wildlife Sanctuary with a personal vehicle is forbidden, our only hope is to drive around the protected area, through villages, along sugarcane and other agricultural fields. Some villages are not further than 100 m from the sanctuary, and we think to ourselves “what can we possibly see so close to human settlements, aside from some deer and wild boar?” But quickly, we realise our naiveness.

And suddenly, there is a leopard in front of us on the road. It quickly jumps into the wheat field and continues staring at us, its eyes reflecting the lights of our torches. A few seconds of staring contest pass by, before the leopard decides to flee deeper into the wheat. Heading exactly towards a village. The next night, as we drive home from dinner, we spot a rusty-spotted cat – the world’s smallest cat species – at the roadside. Both for Javed being a small cat enthusiast, and for us big cat newbies, it is amazing to experience how commonly cats occur here.

Inside a Tiger Reserve

We also visit Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, one of the narrowest of India’s 54 tiger reserves. Although the human population density is among the highest of all tiger conservation landscapes globally, the tiger population of Pilibhit Tiger Reserve doubled over the last decade and stands at 65 as of 2018. As a recognition, Pilibhit Tiger Reserve even received the TX2 award for doubling the tiger population until 2022.

In Pilibhit, we meet Kasim, a university student and passionate wildlife photographer. Kasim’s father is a forest officer at Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, and a stone’s throw from where Kasim lives, lies the dense jungle of Pilibhit. We head into the reserve together, where Kasim spent most of his childhood and which he knows better than the palm of his hand. He has a certain eye for details, and after hours adding up to months spent inside the jungle, Kasim has seen and photographed many jungle inhabitants.

With Kasim (on the left) and Javed (on the right), we are in perfect hands for jungle observations. 

To increase the prey availability for tigers, quantity and quality of forests and grassland have been improved within the reserve and its buffer zone. Another key success in Pilibhit has been investment to improve patrolling and monitoring. Better equipment reduces the threat of poaching and ensures that this area is a safe haven for tigers and other wildlife moving through it. And we have the chance to benefit from this conservation success with our own eyes when we see countless spotted deer (one of the favourite prey species of the tiger), hog deer, wild boar and even spot a tiger slowly moving through the grassland.

The king of the jungle.

Tolerance and the lack thereof

Because of extensive cultivation of sugarcane, agricultural areas surrounding Pilibhit and other tiger reserves in Uttar Pradesh act as an extension of natural habitats. This means tigers, leopards and other species often move beyond forest boundaries and on one hand, close encounters between people and tigers often tragically result in human fatalities and, on the other hand, in retaliatory killing of tigers.

One example was in July 2019, when a 6-year-old tigress was beaten to death inside Pilibhit Tiger Reserve by villagers. The animal succumbed to several fractures and injuries and reportedly, the angry villagers even assaulted the forest officials and did not allow them to treat the injured tigress. Government officials are trying their best to mitigate the conflict situation. They respond fast to any observation of leopard or tiger, and if an attack happens, they immediately try to capture and remove an individual. Those “maneaters” are usually translocated to remote parts of the reserve or placed in zoos. As we visited Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, such an incident took place, and a leopard, which allegedly attacked a human, was captured by the protected area management. Only after thorough investigations and DNA sampling did the experts decide about the future of the animal.

It is interesting for us to learn about the approaches taken in India. In many parts of Europe, the tolerance level of the public towards large carnivores is very low. In the Alps, where the wolf was exterminated and returned only recently, locals seem to have forgotten how to coexist with wildlife. The predation of even a single sheep sheep makes many farmers outraged, who then insist on killing all wolves in the area. Conflicts with large carnivores infiltrated politics, and there is a very strong lobby by hunting and farmer associations to establish “wolf-free zones” and enable the legal extirpation of wolves. Such attitudes explain why over the course of time, apex predators went extinct in many parts of Europe. 

An ultimate conservation challenge

With tigers and leopards venturing out into human settlements more often, it is clear that appropriate mitigation measures are needed to sustain carnivores. These magnificent animals should receive adequate protection and large enough habitats to roam, which is already a challenge in the highly populated and agricultural Uttar Pradesh. However, the concerns of local communities must also be listened to. Compensation should always be provided for livestock predation and crop damage, and avoiding human fatalities should be of highest importance. 

Large carnivores, especially tigers, have a great significance in South Asia. The majority of Indians are Hindus who traditionally believe that every creature in nature has a supernatural role. “Without such a social belief system, it would not be possible to protect life-threatening carnivores freely roaming just a few hundred metres away from human settlements,” shares Babu Ram Lamichhane, Nepalese expert in human-wildlife coexistence. And this is our feeling as well. Despite frequent attacks by carnivores on humans and livestock, most people support conservation efforts. It feels like most people in India understand that big cats themselves, just like other large predators, are beneficial to humans because of the part that they play in the ecological balance of an area. They know that if that delicate balance is shaken up, the consequences will be severe. 

Unfortunately, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to human-carnivore coexistence. But what is certain however, is that the burden of tiger conservation should not lie on the poorest. Coexistence can be possible by managing not only human-carnivore interactions, but also the human-human interactions, reaching those first who are most affected.