This week a very surprised family in a village in north eastern Assam, India, returned home to find a Bengal tiger relaxing on their bed. The area had been subject to heavy monsoon rains, which had caused significant flooding. The tiger was most likely seeking shelter on higher ground and before she knew it, ended up in a family home and slept for an entire day. Whilst it certainly made an entertaining photograph for many people, the issue of tigers and humans living in close proximity is not so funny.
To give a brief low down on the situation, India has the highest wild tiger population in the world with approximately 2,226 animals as of 2019, thanks to effective management programs where tigers live in protected reserves. Despite good management, tigers and humans still inevitably cross paths – sometimes with disastrous consequences.
As the human population explodes, the need for land has driven people further into tiger habitat. People then develop areas of land, creating villages and spaces for farming. As many agricultural practices include the presence of livestock, tigers are naturally drawn to these animals because they are prey. When tigers kill villager’s livestock, this may result in tigers being killed to prevent further livestock deaths, as well as being killed by villagers out of fear for their own safety.
Another pressing issue for tiger habitat is the fragmentation of their habitat due to the building of railways and roads. This leads to smaller territories, as tigers cannot cross highways and causes conservation challenges. Smaller territories mean fewer prey animals and habitat fragmentation results in it being harder for tigers to travel in search of a mate.
Perhaps, the saddest issue of all, is that tigers themselves become easier prey for poachers, who want to sell these magnificent animals into the wildlife trade. Despite national park management using rangers to protect the tigers that reside there, success is not guaranteed. Tigers still get killed and more frequently, many rangers lose their lives to a poacher’s gun or snare.
The battle to protect India’s tigers is not an easy fight. Nevertheless, thankfully the Indian government recognises the importance of the need for serious measures to conserve this species. However, the issue of tiger conservation is so multi-faceted that close encounters between tigers and humans will likely remain.
Luckily for the tiger who sought refuge in the house last week, she was guided back to the forest after officials from the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) closed down the highway for an hour to enable her to cross safely. Hopefully, she won’t be visiting any of her human neighbours again anytime soon!