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Are all Tigers Man-eaters?

On 23 September 2014, a young man accidentally fell into the tiger enclosure tiger in the Delhi Zoo and was killed by a tiger. The unfortunate incident created much hue and cry and received a lot of media attention. Once again, concerns arose about human insecurity vis-à-vis tigers in general and the fear that perhaps all tigers are man-eaters. However, the fact is that, by nature, tigers are not man-eaters and cases of man-eating by tigers are few and far between. Furthermore, there is always some reason for a tiger taking to man-eating.

First of all, it is necessary to clarify that in the above-mentioned recent incident at the Delhi Zoo while the tiger did attack and kill the man, it did not eat any part of the human body and its subsequent behaviour has been quite normal. Hence, the animal cannot be called a ”man-eater”. It follows that man-eating means habitual killing and consumption of humans. In other words, a man-eater is one that has developed a habit of preying on human beings.

Here, it is important to note that tigers are very secretive animals that prefer to remain under cover in the day-time and become active during nights, but usually avoid contact with human beings and are as wary of them as human beings are of tigers. Thus, the general experience is that if one encounters a tiger in a forest, the animal will slink away more often than not. No wonder, Jim Corbett, famous naturalist and hunter of many man-eaters, wrote that “a tiger is a large hearted gentleman with boundless courage”.

Further, humans are not the usual diet of tigers and other large animals of the cat family, like lions and leopards. Their usual and preferred diet consists of wild animals, mainly the different species of deer, antelope, wild boar, etc. These predators also prey, when opportunity and need arises, on domestic livestock, such as cows, buffaloes, goats, horses, dogs, etc. For getting its prey, a tiger has to do a lot of roaming about in the forest and, once the prey is located, undertake a very painstaking exercise of stalking, followed by a final assault that requires utmost speed, swiftness and power. However, most of the prey animals have excellent powers of sight, smell and hearing, which enable them to detect the presence of the predator and to escape in time. Hence, the success rate for a tiger in getting its prey is around 20% only, which goes to show that tremendous effort and skill are involved in making a successful kill.

It is when a tiger becomes handicapped and incapable of catching its natural prey, due to old age or some serious injury, that the danger of man-killing arises. The first encounter is usually accidental on account of a person surprising or provoking the animal in some way and becoming its victim, after which the animal partakes of the human body and realizes the ease of it all. Once a tiger loses fear of humans and finds it easy to overpower them for satisfying its hunger, it becomes a habitual man-eater.  If such an animal happens to be a tigress, her cubs also develop a taste for human flesh and grow up to become man-eaters. In fact, a tigress with cubs is a dangerous animal in any situation, as it is highly protective of its offspring and attacks at the slightest provocation. So, it is always advisable to stay well out of the way of such an animal.

In India, the most notorious place for man-eating tigers has been the Sunderbans region, which extends into Bangladesh. Several complex factors are responsible for this situation, which has a long history. Despite various preventive measures adopted in recent decades, cases of man killing by tigers continue to occur here. Earlier, the Kumaon area of the present state of Uttarakhand also became known for man-eating tigers and panthers. Jim Corbett earned fame hunting such animals in this tract. The lucid account of his exploits given in his books, such as ‘The Man-eaters of Kumaon’ and ‘The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag’, are worth reading.

Written by:

Samar Singh

Former General Secretary WWF, Retired Secretary of Government of India. He is the recipient of the International Award "Order of the Golden Ark" for his exceptional work done in the field of nature conservation. He has also authored several books on environment.

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