Splainer

Thursday, October 7 2021


Dive In

 

Prime Minister, you are going to pause. Prime Minister, stop talking! We are going to have questions and answers, not where you merely talk, if you wouldn’t mind now.

That’s a BBC radio show host telling Prime Minister Boris Johnson to shut up—after he delivered a long, rambling and evasive reply on the current fuel and food crisis in Britain. To his credit, Johnson did not walk out or lose his temper, and ended the interview saying, “It’s very kind of you to let me talk! Very kind, very kind.” Consider this a never-in-India story.


Stuff to check out: The latest episode of the splainer podcast ‘Press Decode’ looks at the vast gap between the very wealthy and the rest of humanity—as revealed in the Pandora Papers and Squid Game. Be sure to head over to the IVM website, Spotify or Apple Podcasts to listen to it.

 
Big Story

The controversial hunt for a tiger

The TLDR: Since September 25, a large team of forestry officials have been trying to find a 13-year-old tiger named MDT 23—suspected of killing four people. The hunt order has been challenged by wildlife activists—and the Madras High Court stepped in to order officials to preserve its life.

 

Tell me about this tiger…

The 13-year-old male is one of the 103 tigers in the Mudumalai Forest Reserve in Tamil Nadu. It appears to have left the reserve and is now wandering in its outskirts—where it has killed 20 cows and is suspected of killing four humans. The Field Director of the forest range suspects it was driven out of the reserve due to a territorial dispute: “The male tiger has wounded its neck, and this mainly happens because of territory fights. Sometimes young tigers drive out old ones.”

 

And it has killed humans?

The deaths: It is suspected of killing four people—all of them residents of villages on the edges of the reserve. The first human fatality occurred back on August 31, 2020—when a tribal woman was mauled to death. There have been three other killings attributed to MDT 23 since July 19 this year. The latest was on Friday, October 1—when the tiger allegedly killed a tribal man even as the forest department was hot on its heels.

 

The hunt order: And this is when the Tamil Nadu Chief Wildlife Warden issued a ‘hunt order’ to track down the tiger, saying: “The said tiger MDT 23 has clearly become dangerous to the human lives in the area. People of that area are also demanding capture or killing the tiger.”

 

A case to remember: In 2018, a similar operation raised great hue and cry:

 

  • A similar order was issued to hunt Avni—the tigress suspected of killing 13 people.  
  • There was a similarly intensive operation—but authorised by the Supreme Court which gave permission to kill her if attempts to capture Avni failed. 
  • She was finally shot down in a messy encounter that involved a controversial hunter named Ashgar Ali Khan. The details of how she was killed remain controversial. 
  • The case was reopened this year after activists alleged that a post-mortem showed no human remains in Avni’s stomach. And the Supreme Court has demanded more proof that she was indeed a human-killer.

 

Data to note: Since 2012, 10 man-eating tigers have been killed, while five were tranquilized and relocated.

 

So is this another Avni?

Not exactly—but the worry is that it may turn into a similar tragedy.

 

Where’s the evidence? That’s the question raised by activists who are challenging the hunt order in the Madras High Court. And here’s the gist of their argument:

 

  • The authorities have no real proof that the tiger killed the villagers. The order is based on assumptions and not a proper investigation—and “the burden of proof is imposed on the tiger.”
  • Article 21 of the Constitution of India states that animals have the right to life as well.
  • Even if the tiger did kill the tribals, it indicates a failure on the part of the forestry department—which is bound by the law to manage human-animal conflicts.
  • Their own research shows that there is no such conflict in this case: “The actual conflict is between forest state authorities and forest dwellers”—who are angry at authorities for not registering or investigating these deaths.

 

No intent to kill: Forestry officials emphasize the fact that they have every intention of capturing the tiger. They told the Madras High Court that there are no plans to kill MDT 23. The chief warden says:

 

“We have been acting as per the Wildlife Protection Act and following the definition given on ‘hunting’. As per the Act, ‘hunting’ means not just shooting the animal; it also involves doing everything we can to capture it by placing cages and live baits. We have a multi-pronged approach to capture the animal.”

 

To be fair: Descriptions of the operation so far only refer to the deployment of nine tranquiliser guns—and equipment designed for capture like net guns, pepper guns, drones and sniffer dogs. While the tiger has remained elusive—and one other person has been killed in the duration—there is no sign of escalation… so far.

 

A less-amenable court: Unlike in the case of Avni, the Madras High Court has not given permission to kill MDT 23. Instead the interim order clearly states: “The tiger, identified as MDT 23 which is perceived to be dangerous to humans, is to be captured alive and no steps are to be taken to put the animal to sleep.” The bench also cautioned that he may not be a human-killer. And the final aim should be “treating the animal and respecting its right to remain wild and free to roam in the forest."

 

A contrarian view: Some ecologists say it is more humane to kill the tiger than relocate it. Moving to another part of the reserve could lead to potentially fatal territorial conflicts with other tigers. And keeping a wild animal in a zoo would just be cruel. And the real solution is to enforce long-term policies that protect and expand tiger territory.

 

Why does this keep happening?

One ironic reason is that efforts to protect tigers have worked quite well. According to a 2018 census, there were 2,967 tigers in India—more than double the number in 2006 (though doubts have been raised about this bit of good news). And 65% of them live in forest reserves—which now total 50, up from nine in 1973. But tigers need a lot of territory to feed freely and without conflict—either with humans or other tigers. 

 

The real problem: Is that the number of reserves disguises repeated encroachments into forests—cutting into actual territory. Take, for instance, Telangana where national highways and railway lines are cutting through tiger corridors. At least 50 new roads and three railway tracks have been recently sanctioned. All of which means that tigers start roaming into human territory. At least three people were killed near reserves in the state. The situation is no different in Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh—where there were 17 attacks on humans in 2020.

 

Also this: Activists are right in saying that forestry officials have done very little to address the needs of tribals and villagers. And exploding population levels have in turn fueled rising demand for agricultural and grazing land. 


The bottomline: Essentially, we have a lot more humans and tigers, and they are competing for the same territory. And our big development policies do little to address either of their needs.

 

Reading list

The Hindu has a detailed report on the hunt for MDT 23—while Times of India offers a timeline. News9 offers arguments for and against killing the tiger. News18 has a good explainer on what happened to Avni. For a more nerdy read on human-tiger conflict, we recommend reading this paper by Sandeep Chouksey and Somesh Singh—who take an in-depth look at what’s happening in Bandhavgarh. Nature offers a very good deep dive into why many experts are not convinced of the rosy numbers on our tiger population.

 
Headlines that matter

A key medical study for the aging

Researchers have discovered why all creatures—humans and mice—lose hair when we get old. According to the old theory, our stem cells—which replenish tissues and organs—eventually die. The new theory: They escape! They literally run away from the hair follicles and vanish—likely consumed by our immune system. New York Times has the story. Watch the gif of the great escape below:

 

This is a 2,700-year-old toilet 

Archaeologists in Jerusalem have uncovered a very old private toilet—from a time when such a thing was an immense luxury. It is made of carved limestone and “was designed for comfortable sitting, with a deep septic tank dug underneath.” Umm, we’re going to disagree with the ‘comfortable’ bit. (Associated Press)

 

One thing to see

A climate change activist crashed the Louis Vuitton show—and walked down the runway with a sign that read ‘overconsumption = extinction’. None of the celebs in the front row flinched, and security carried her away. Irony alert: “The show itself had a punk flavor, with sleeves ripped off suit jackets, leaving arms bare, and accessories including studded boots and chainmail headpieces.”

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In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • Anup Shah’s award-winning photo of a gorilla walking through a cloud of butterflies.

 

Reading Habit

  • A list of good literary reads
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