Rana was on a single-minded mission. His task: to find a tiger, an alleged “man-eater” before it killed again. Sniffing out wild cats is his speciality. The 27-month-old German Shepherd belongs to the Special Tiger Protection Force at Bandipur in Karnataka and is specially trained to detect wild animals in dense forests for the Forest Department.

Rana and his handler combed the forests five kilometres outside the Thevarsolai border of the Mudumalai Tiger Sanctuary in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. It was March 19 and a warm day. A team of 150, including officials from the Forest Department, the Reserved Police Force and the Special Task Force were searching for an injured tiger that had killed an estate worker on March 11 and eaten his abdomen and intestines.

The region was tense. Locals were afraid and students were going to school escorted by policemen, for fear of the man-eater of Gudalur in the Nilgiris.

“Rana ran for several kilometres and then stopped near a stream,” said SH Prakash, a member of Karnataka’s Special Tiger Protection Force and the canine’s handler. “He hesitated to go beyond that place. At the same time he growled fearfully. I realised that Rana had seen the tiger.”

Prakash narrated how Forest Department officials surrounded a bush behind which the tiger lay. The team was on the verge of panic – a hungry tiger could do anything. A medical team, he said, climbed onto trees nearby to shoot tranquilisers at the animal.

“We heard the tiger growl then,” recounted Prakash. “We realised that we were very close to the tiger. Before the medical team could warn the men in front, the tiger pounced. We were stunned. Immediately there was a hail of bullets from behind us. Some hit the tiger and some hit the STF personnel. The tiger fell and two of the STF were wounded. There was no opportunity to tranquilise the tiger at all.”

Unwarranted killing of tigers?

Wildlife activists are livid about what they call the unwarranted killings of the endangered big cat, especially in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris area. They are demanding proof that the tiger slain in mid-March was indeed the man-eater. Some question whether there was a man-eater at all.

“It is terrible that a labourer was killed by a tiger,” said Jayshree Vencatesan of Care Earth, a non-profit dealing in conservation and ecology. “But are authorities certain that the tiger which was killed is the same man-eater? Are they sure there is even a man-eater in the first place?”

Detailed guidelines have been put in place by the National Tiger Conservation Authority on the procedure to be followed before declaring a tiger as a man-eater. The law allows no tiger to be killed, except if it becomes a man-eater due to old age or injury.

As per the guidelines of the NTCA, a committee first needs to be formed as soon as there are reports of a man-eater in the area. This committee should include a nominee of the Chief Wildlife Warden, a nominee of the NTCA, a veterinarian, a local NGO representative and other Panchayat representatives. Every effort must be made to ensure that the correct tiger is identified and track its movements, using camera traps and pug impressions. The guidelines suggest the use of DNA profiling employing hair and skin left behind at the kill site to ensure without a doubt that the tiger is indeed the man-eater.

“A differentiation should be made between ‘human kill’ due to chance encounters and ‘habituated man-eaters’,” says the rule book. An old or injured tiger going after tame cattle, which are easy prey, would attack a human which got in the way. Such a tiger need not necessarily be a man-eater and the rules put the onus on the Forest Department to examine closely and verify the evidence available.

Once it is confirmed that a particular tiger has indeed turned into a man-eater, efforts must be made to immobilise the big cat and use trap cages to hold it alive. The captured animal must then be sent to a zoo nearby and not released again into the wild. Elimination of the protected animal should be the last option, according to the NTCA rules.

But Tamil Nadu has a dubious record in this context – in 2014, there were 229 tigers in the state. In two years, nearly 10% of them have been killed, a statistic which is causing alarm among the conservationist community.

Not a man-eater

As per the rules prescribed by the NTCA, a committee was indeed formed as soon as news reports came of the alleged man-eater. NGOs Worldwide Fund for Nature and Osai were part of this committee, along with government representatives.

“The tiger was not declared a man-eater by the committee,” said K Kalidas, founder of Coimbatore-based Osai and a member of the Animal Welfare Board. “The tiger did in fact eat the human prey. As per the law, if a tiger eats only one human prey, it cannot be declared a man-eater. But at the same time we cannot wait for another kill in order to confirm it as a man-eater because people’s lives are at stake.”

Environmental activists like Sadiq Ali argue the situation was poorly handled. “A man-eater has to be removed immediately from the area, not killed,” said Ali. “Our internationally acclaimed ‘Save the Tiger’ campaign runs into crores of rupees. Then our officials go ahead and do just the opposite by killing the tiger. This sends all sorts of wrong signals.”

A tiger is a nocturnal animal, prowling the forests at night. The animal hides and sleeps during the day, making detection more difficult. The government teams in charge of tracking the big cat, though, say they have no equipment for working at night.

“Gadgets like night vision binoculars and thermal imaging cameras are not available to Forest Department officials,” said Sadiq Ali. “Tranquilising dart guns used by the forces are effective only at very short distances. These can be used for elephants but are ineffective for animals like tigers.”

Kalidas says the science behind preparing to engage and catch a wild animal is almost nil. “When they go in without proper planning their lives are also at stake,” said Kalidas. “The STF is along for the ride for the safety of the medical staff who have to tranquilise the tiger, but when things get out of hand, the tiger gets killed.”

Politics over the tiger

In February 2015, a similar situation prevailed near Gudalur, where a man-eater was said to be on the prowl. The big cat had killed three cows, as trackers tried to locate it. Agitated locals torched vehicles belonging to the Forest Department, as fear spread. Eventually the tiger was shot thanks to pressure from the locals, without the prescribed rules being followed.

Such incidents are on the rise in Gudalur, an important tiger corridor situated at the centre of three sanctuaries – Karnataka’s Bandipur reserve, Kerala’s Wayanad Silent Valley sanctuary and Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai reserve. Encroachment into forest land too is rampant, say officials within the Forest Department.

“The people in this area see the Forest Department as their enemy,” said SN Thejasvi, district forest officer of Nilgiris South Division. “Our job is to take care of the animals as well as the safety of these people who live here. If they heed our advice our job will make it easy to care for the animals and also keep the people safe.”

Politics over land has hemmed in efforts to practice proper conservation techniques, according to both the Forest Department officials as well as activists. The Gudalur forest area has over 80,000 acres of rainforest called janmam lands. In 1969, the Gudalur Janmam Abolition Act was enacted, paving the way for government takeover of the land while relocating those living in such areas. This legislation has become a political hot potato ever since, with cases by estate owners and encroachers stuck in courts for decades, not allowing the Forest Department access into what is technically reserved land.

“People who live here are angry with the Forest Department and the state government,” said Kalidas. “This area lies on the border of three states, so the political scenario is different. Due to pressure from several quarters, the Forest Department, without proper planning, tends to go in for quick-fix solutions.”

Forest Department officials say they are helpless in the face of pressure. “The people who live here are different from the people elsewhere in Tamil Nadu,” said Thejasvi. “Even small problems are made big. Because of the leaning to the left, everything becomes a protest. We are forced to do something immediately due to such pressures.”

Residents of the area say they do not trust Forest Department officials and therefore resort to poisoning carcasses in order to kill tigers. A resident of Gudalur, S Selvaraj says that poisoning of tigers is rampant in the area. “The Forest Department lets big landowners go free but forces people holding smaller parcels of land to vacate,” said Selvaraj, a small farmer. “This has left a bitter taste amongst us. Moreover, the compensation for cattle killed by tigers is long delayed. So we ourselves try and use poison to kill the wayward animal.”

As per the Wildlife Protect Act of 1972, poisoning of wild animals is a non-bailable offence. It is unclear as to how many people have been punished for such acts in Tamil Nadu.

The unresolved issue of human-animal conflict is expected to be a poll issue in the Nilgiris area. Conservationists are hoping for a saner and more rational debate on the problem, as well as political will from the new government to tackle the conflict in a sustainable way.