Tigers are not an uncommon sight in India, which is home to about 1,700 of them, but most don’t eat humans. Yet over the last month there have been reports of at least 17 people eaten by the beasts in various parts of the country. In Ooty, a town in the south of India, schools were shut down for more than a week while a group of more than 300 forestry and police officers hunted one tiger that killed three people. Residents of the town were told to stay indoors after dusk. Last week, the tiger was shot dead.
Most attacks on humans by tigers are in self-defence. But a series of attacks on people is a good indication the tiger has acquired a taste for human flesh. Victims have been claimed in four states, including Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka, where two “man-eating” tigers have been captured.
But the tiger terror is not over yet. In Uttar Pradesh, another tigress, believed to be a stray from the Jim Corbett National Park, has claimed seven lives since December. Rupak De, a senior official, told the AFP news agency that the animal “must still be hungry as it has been running without rest and adequate food.”
Anxiety has mounted gradually since Dec. 29, when the first victim, a farmer, was found mauled in a sugarcane field in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Around a week later, 20 miles to the north, a young man told a television crew that he was standing with his sister when a tiger “caught her by the neck and took her away, into the sugarcane.” A string of attacks continued, tracing a 90-mile journey north toward Jim Corbett National Park, across the state border in Uttarakhand, a nature preserve that claims one of the world’s densest tiger populations and is named for a tiger hunter and conservationist.
A 45-year-old worker named Ram Charan got out of a car to relieve himself on a roadside in Jim Corbett National Park. When his companions ran toward his screams, they found him 60 feet into the forest, the flesh torn off his thighs. After he died, angry villagers surrounded a forestry service outpost, trapping personnel inside for some time, Shiv Shankar Singh, the top bureaucrat from the neighboring district of Moradabad, said in a telephone interview.
Trackers have gradually pieced together a portrait: The paw print, roughly five inches wide, suggests a female — a breeding one, since her canines are intact, said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. One paw does not lay flat on the ground, suggesting that the tiger is injured, Ms. Wright said. The nature of the tiger’s attacks on humans seemed to change noticeably after the first three or four attacks, Ms. Wright said, when “she realized how easy it is to kill people and that they’re actually quite tasty.” Others, though, doubt tigers develop a taste for people. The hunters, for instance, believe she probably has a problem with her mouth, perhaps an infected tooth, and has an easier time eating human flesh. While most tigers flee at any sign of people, humans are also much easier prey: slower than deer, weaker than buffalo and with soft skin that is easy to bite through.
Tigers who have become “man-eaters” must be killed, said Ms. Wright, but they are extraordinarily difficult to capture. “They just become like ghosts,” Ms. Wright said. “She can appear anywhere at any time in that district and take out another victim, and no one will ever see her. People might be standing next to her and she will just be a shocking blur.”
Across the state border in Uttar Pradesh, gunmen have been summoned and given license to kill. Sanjay Singh, a registered sharpshooter, was summoned by the forestry service after the seventh fatal attack, and has spent three weeks in the area. He said he believed that the man-eater has moved to an area so densely forested that it is impossible to ride on elephants, as tiger trackers prefer, and so he and a dozen trackers are patrolling on foot, combing the forest from morning until sunset.
“Now there is no alternative except to kill her,” he said. “Otherwise she will keep on killing people. It is a very dicey game, which is very dangerous, and thrilling as well.”
India’s wild tigers are considered endangered because of rampant poaching and shrinking habitat as India undergoes breakneck development to accommodate the staggering growth of its 1.2 billion people.
For generations, few in these villages even thought about tigers. The encroachment of towns, widespread poaching and incompetent wildlife programs had devastated India’s tiger populations, forcing them into ever-smaller enclaves. Corbett National Park, one of India’s premier tiger reserves, is barely 25 miles away, but while the villagers around here are used to living with wildlife — the forests and fields shelter leopards, monkeys, foxes, bears and wild boars — tigers were extremely rare.
The last decade, though, has seen improvements in tiger conservation and growth in the tiger populations. If that is good news in many ways, it has also increased the chances of encounters between tigers and people.
India today has more than half of the 3,200 tigers estimated to be left in the wild. Despite dozens of tiger reserves across the country, however, the numbers have sunk from an estimated 5,000-7,000 in the 1990s, when the big cats’ habitat was twice as large.