December dawned in Wayanad with the news of the tiger, which had kept the region on the boil, being eliminated by the task force. People were rejoicing and television channels reporting that Wayanad would sleep peacefully for the first time in two weeks. The twelve year old tiger had strayed into the plantations of Wayanad two weeks earlier and picked on domestic cattle. There was a huge outcry about the failure of Government to safeguard the life and property of citizens. Political parties were on the road blocking National Highway. People were venting their anger with dead cattle displayed on the roads. The administration sprang into action and declared that the animal will be shot, if needed. A combined team of Karnataka and Kerala forest officials tried to tranquilize the animal and eventually shot it dead. The administration gave an explanation that all efforts were made to take the animal alive, but circumstances warranted the extreme step. There is a raging debate whether ‘death penalty’ for a ‘cattle lifter’ is an excessive punishment. The slain tiger did not harm any human being nor showed any inclination to turn a man-eater.
It is quite possible that the forest officials were forced to take the extreme step, but the circumstances are such that the justification given by them can not be taken at face value. For understanding the source of the needles of suspicion, one has to dig into the economic and political backdrop to the event.
Wayanad is a cash-cow
It is ironical that on the same day as the tiger was shot, the Ministry of Environment was in the press, having released a report citing that close to forty-five thousand hectares of forest has been encroached in Kerala. It is common knowledge that a good percentage of this violation is in the district of Wayanad. Encroachments yield fertile land that delivers rich agricultural produce. Roaming tigers are definitely not welcome here.
Adivasis (Tribes) of Wayanad have long co-habited and shared space with the tigers and other living beings in the forest. None of them have raised objections to the right of tigers to hunt. They have, over centuries, adapted to the environment which consists of tigers and other species. But those who have migrated to the high ranges for economic reasons have a different point of view. Their interests are in creating financially rewarding agricultural plantations. Rampaging elephants and marauding tigers are seen as adversaries. We have read about electric fences on elephant corridors and snares on tiger paths.
Wayanad is bestowed with pristine beauty which is progressively being tapped by resorts and tourist organisations. A wandering tiger may be inconvenient to the mushrooming tourist activity – viewing tiger on a jungle safri is one thing; looming threat of one in the backyard is quite another !
Some of the political parties in Kerala have a substantial vote-base among the groups which have strong commercial interests in the Western Ghats region. This was quite evident in the recent clash between the State forest department and the ‘farmers’ of Nelliyampathy on the issue of forest encroachment. A sharp divide between political parties were clearly visible in the press and public forums.
Rumors were floating around, during the ‘tiger drama’ that there was a move to convert Wayanad into a tiger reserve. Chief Minister had to categorically decline this and assure the people that the Government would not support such a move. There was a misinformation campaign launched by groups which were threatened by the possibility of a reserve coming up. The level of misinformation would be evident if one looks at the report titled “Who is afraid of tigers in Wayanad?” which appeared in Times of India dated 21st November,2012. It was reported that people were enquiring whether they would be required to keep vessels filled with water for tigers to drink, if the reserve came up ! The gullible public seems to have been misled to believe that if the Government declares a reserve, tigers would just take over people’s lives. Perhaps tigers may read the notification and claim their ‘pound of flesh’ by vandalizing property and cattle, on the strength of their newly acquired legal status ! How easy would conservation be, if nature followed human directives.
Precipitation of tension
Threat of a possible tiger reserve, inconvenience caused by the ban on night traffic on Mysore-Wayanad road, initiation of action against encroachments in the Western Ghats and other similar reasons had already heightened the tension in the Wayanad region. It is into this charged atmosphere that the poor tiger made an entry. Already on the defensive on some of these issues, the authorities were under pressure to take action that would not only solve the issue, but also appease the public sentiment. Life of a tiger was a small price to pay.
Tail piece : The situation on the ground was appalling. Television footage showed angry crowd of several hundreds following the task force while they were trying to tranquilise the animal. There was shouting and yelling from the crowd. An agitated tiger and a few hundred angry people form a deadly mixture. Once events were allowed to reach that level, the forest officials probably did not have much choice left.