Another tiger crisis
The odd killing of elephants by tigers at Corbett is not just aberrant behaviour, it is about survival
Tigers tend to get maligned every time they display aberrant behaviour and become the subject of alarmist headlines that make them a feared monstrosity rather than the endangered species that they could become. Yet the fact of the matter is we need to study the conditions and reasons for their uncharacteristic behaviour and mutations and factor them in future wildlife conservation policies. The latest Government study, done with the Corbett National Park authorities, which has found that park tigers have killed and eaten elephants, at first sounds incredible and unbelievable. Considering the different physical dimensions of both creatures and the fact that elephants move in herds, a tiger’s kill potential indeed seems microscopic. But it is not impossible, considering the tiger is remarkably agile, adaptive, has penetrative canines and claws and is extremely intelligent, isolating stray members of any pack animal before the hunt. Elephant calves can become its prime target, even borne out by the study which says that carcasses of the young were the maximum among the 60 per cent deaths because of tiger attacks. Besides, the big cat attacks the trunk, the major food conduit of the elephant which usually dies on its own subsequently, unable to eat and nourish itself back to health. Also, as the Sundarbans tiger has shown, the big cat can alter hunting behaviour according to its location. For example, African leopards have taken down the largest antelopes as elands, greater kudus and wildebeests, though they are more than five times heavier than their own size. Lions, too, there have taken down elephant calves. Which is why the study is worrying wildlife experts as tigers usually don’t eat elephants and this could be the beginning of a new intra-wild species conflict.
Not that the alerts haven’t been there. Instances of tigers charging at elephants have been fairly videographed in Corbett. We also seem to have not learnt our lessons despite isolated cases settling down into a patterned behaviour. In 2017, six elephants died in Kerala’s Wayanad wildlife sanctuary in tiger attacks, triggered as they were by bitter turf wars over scarce water in a drought year. Tigers are already bearing the brunt of over-population, reduced roaming territories and prey base, broken habitats and migration corridors as well as human encroachment. All this is challenging their primal instincts and forcing them into evolving survival tactics given the context they find themselves in. So cattle-lifting and man-eating are not just about an old territorial tiger anymore but regulars who are getting accustomed to easy prey options. Even Corbett in-charge Sanjiv Chaturvedi admitted that tigers “need comparatively less amount of efforts and energy in killing an elephant as against that needed in hunt of sambhar and cheetal. It is large quantum of food for them too.” He said the national park has a unique ecosystem with more elephants than tigers, 1,100 against 225, unlike other national parks like Ranthambore, Kanha and Bandhavgarh. Does this mean that Corbett tigers are working out their own kill choices depending on easy availability of a stray calf or a sick pachyderm? That they are feeding on elephants, which were killed in herd infighting, also proves that they are changing the rules of hunt and game. Does it mean they are prioritising easy availability as evidenced in tiger attacks on elephants in Kaziranga too? If this is an emergent crisis, then we need to develop strategies to save both species. Buried in the report is also the fact that most tiger deaths are because of infighting over mating and territorial rights. Has the tiger then been literally pushed into a corner?