Man-eating tigers that roam the jungle along the Indian-Nepalese border here have plunged frightened farmers and concerned wildlife conservationists into a bitter controversy over a government campaign to destroy the wild beasts or trap some of them for zoos.
The farmers say the tigers have lost their instinctive fear of man and have acquired a taste for human blood, and as a result are terrifying the countryside in this remote part of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Since 1978, 105 people have been killed by tigers, the most recent on March 22, when the body of a forest worker was found with an arm and a leg missing.
Wildlife conservationists engaged in projects to protect tigers as an endangered species blame the increase in man-eating cases on human encroachment on the tigers' habitat and the killing off of their normal prey, animals, by farmers.
The government, according to the conservationists, has bowed to local political pressure without regard for the future of the fabled jungle cats--who since 1971 have been protected by a ban on shooting by hunters.
At the center of the dispute is Arjan (Billy) Singh, 66, a hunter-turned-conservationist who has led a campaign to have wayward tigers humanely lured back to their protected preserve in Dudwa National Park here, and to create an encroachment-free buffer zone around the tigers' habitat.
The controversy surrounding Singh has been heightened by attempts by some government officials to blame 22 man-eating cases on a zoo-born tigress that the conservationist brought here from Britain as a cub, raised at home and then introduced into the jungle in an experiment designed to increase the world's dwindling tiger population.
Singh, one of India's best-known wildlife experts, proved by comparing markings that his tigress, Tara, was not the man-eater shot by park officials in November 1980 after killing five people, and he has since led the battle against destroying tigers or condemning them to captivity to appease public outcry over man-eating cases.
"The human, under normal circumstances, is not the tiger's prey species. What we have done is to force the tiger to turn on man by denigrating his habitat, and then we say there is no other way to solve this problem except to destroy the tigers," said Singh.
Seven tigers branded as man-eaters have been killed in the past five years, and one was trapped and sent to a zoo in Lucknow last month after being identified as having killed three people and attacked a fourth. Three tigers sent from the wild to the Lucknow zoo have died in captivity, and the one sent there last month is reported to be in deteriorating condition because of the abrupt change in environment.
The survivor of an attack on March 9, Shiv Shanker, 60, a night watchman, said in an interview that he was guarding a wheat field when a tiger grabbed him by the thigh in its mouth and began to drag him away.
"I knew I was going to die, so I hit at the tiger," said Shanker, displaying a scar on his left leg. He said a kerosene lantern tipped over and started a fire. The tiger, after snarling and lashing its tail menacingly for a while, let him go and went away.
Singh and several area farmers agreed that the 60 tigers in the 200-square-mile Dudwa National Park increasingly have strayed outside of the preserve during the past five years and have become more aggressive toward humans. In the previous 16 years, there had been only two or three reported man-eatings.
The park director, Ashok Singh, said in an interview that many local residents have linked the increase in man-eating cases to the upgrading of the Dudwa preserve to a national park in 1977 and have intensified their pressure for action against the tigers.
When asked if the campaign of shooting and trapping was the result of political pressure, the park director replied, "If people become anti-park, it will be difficult to continue our activities."
He supported Arjan Singh's contention that the killing off of the tigers' preferred prey, mainly wild boar, by poachers was responsible for the increase in man-eating cases.
The two also cited an increase in sugar-cane acreage adjacent to the park. Previously it was bordered by grass fields, which were not a suitable habitat for the tigers and which tended to keep them contained in the preserve. But the encroachment by farmers planting cane closer to the park's edge has enlarged the tigers' preferred habitat, and has drawn them closer to areas populated by humans, they said.
Rupinder Singh, a prosperous farmer whose cane fields have gradually been expanded closer to the park's perimeter, acknowledged in an interview that the changing environment had altered the tigers' behavior. But he said the government has a responsibility to protect the local citizenry.
"You see, they are no longer afraid of man. It used to be that they would run away from you. Now, they feel that dogs and humans are easy catching," said the farmer, who has allowed the park officials to install a baited trap in his cane fields to capture tigers.
In a verbal confrontation at the trap recently, Arjan Singh turned to the farmer and asked, "Rup, do you really think this is the answer? Do you think this is going to solve the problem?" Rupinder Singh replied that an electric fence around the park, augmented by lighting of the perimeter, probably would be more effective. But he said the creation of an encroachment-free buffer zone would be an unfair burden on the farmers.
Ashok Singh, the park director, said a buffer zone was not "economically feasible," and that he would continue to try to trap tigers. But, he added, if he cannot prove that a strayed tiger is a man-eater, he will return it to the park with a radio-monitor collar to track the animal.
"If he comes back to populated areas , we'll kill him," said Ashok Singh, who was director of the Lucknow zoo when the three captured tigers died in captivity. "Maybe killing is more humane," he added.
Arjan Singh, meanwhile, is battling attempts to kill or trap suspected man-eaters. He is also seeking to overturn an Indian Board for Wildlife ban on introducing to the wilderness tigers or leopards that have been reared in captivity. The board says the practice poses not only a danger to man, because of the likelihood of attacks, but threatens the "purity" of the Indian species of tigers by "genetic pollution."
Singh, who still monitors the movements of Tara and who last month watched from an observation blind while the tigress and her cubs ate a water buffalo staked out as bait, said he believes the ban on reintroduction and the labeling of Tara as a man-eater were designed to discredit his experiments in augmenting the tiger population.
Worse still, Singh warned, if the government continues to shoot and trap tigers randomly to appease public fear of man-eaters--instead of addressing the root causes of the increased tiger attacks on people--then the famed Indian jungle cats could become extinct. Then, Singh said, it will be man's destructive instinct that will be held accountable, and not the tiger's.