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Tigers and people can live next to each other in India

When people and tigers use the same forest, their ability to cope and co-adapt to the influences of the other is much higher than currently understood. This is one of the conclusions drawn by Leiden BioSocial researcher Shekhar Kolipaka, who researched whether tigers can survive in human-dominated landscapes of India. PhD defence 14 February.

According to Kolipaka, the factors underlying people’s and tigers ability to coexist is two-directional. Meaning that both people and tigers have to show ability to adapt, otherwise coexistence fails. He found out that people can tolerate tigers when they have the mechanisms to overcome their fears for tigers, and have the knowledge to prevent both personal injuries and livelock losses. In the Panna tiger reserve, local people believe that spirit protectors will ensure their safety and that of their livestock while being in the forest. This creates not only psychological relief, but also the ability to overcome the fear of tigers despite of tigers using the same forests.

On the tiger front, he discovered that tigers to a significant degree tried and avoided confrontation with humans. They consciously adapted and only moved near villages during night time when people were not active. Younger animals, on the other hand, showed higher curiosity and interest in human activities. While this is a cause for concern, in human terms, these young tigers behaved like human adolescents and took risks. Kolipaka found out that as they grew older, their behaviour changed and they too avoided risk-taking behaviour.

A priest and his team of intermediaries provide the support for local believers to connect with the spirit world. Copyright: Vijaybhan Singh

Studying people and tigers

Tiger conservationists often see humans and their activities as a big threat to tigers, Kolipaka explains. He feels that tiger conservationists may have underestimated the ability of people and tigers to coexist. Kolipaka started his study in the Panna tiger reserve when tigers were reintroduced there in 2009, and for his PhD research, he reexamined the factors that make tigers vulnerable to humans and humans to tigers. ‘I studied both people and tigers and their ability to cope with eachothers presence and activities.’

In the buffer zone of the Panna reserve, Kolipaka observed people in various contexts and documented how they responded to various encounters with animals. For instance, along with his team he accompanied animal herders into forests in which also tigers live. By interviewing local people and observing their behaviour, he learned their views and beliefs on wildlife, their knowledge and in particular their relationships with wildlife. He also observed tiger behaviour in these same areas by studying the movement patterns of radio-collared tigers and studied their diet . ‘These biosocial observations allowed me to construct a clearer picture of how tigers share an area with people.’

Involve local people in conservation efforts

Finally, Kolipaka’s study stresses the need to involve more local people in conservation efforts. By doing so it’s crucial to embody some of the old knowledge that has always allowed people to cope with wild animals. In areas where people have lost traditional beliefsystems to live alongside wildlife, social settings have to be created that encourage people to come together and dicuss their fears and issues. By consciously guiding these sessions and actively involving local people, people’s ability to find acceptable solutions to wildlife problems can be created. These processes will allow local people to make their own decisions and find acceptable solutions and not depend on external agencies. As a start for conservation effors, understanding local people’s cultures, their practices and their knowledge on wildlife and skills to herd animals in wildlife areas is paramount. ‘With my studies I am now able to confidently propose ways to create settings that will allow people to safely share their forests with tigers’.

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