The remote, barely accessible village of Kheratiya, just outside the buffer zone of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve (DTR) in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpuri Kheri district, has turned into a fortress. Every night, as darkness falls, its residents emerge and guard its boundaries, sickles and sticks in hand. There is a system in place; at least one member from every family in the village is awake; There are even mahouts on elephants outside the village dotted with mud huts. The tension is palpable, for in and around Kheratiya alone, three people have been killed — ostensibly by tigers — over the past two months.
The deaths have led to the capture of two big cats, the relocation of one of them, and amid uncertainty about the killings (six in all across the reserve in the two months), raised doubts about the identification and relocation process that the administration followed .
DEATHS AND PANIC
On May 21, 30-year-old Mahesh Kumar, an agricultural laborer from Dumera village, was working in the sugarcane fields that are ubiquitous in the area. “We heard a loud shriek, and by the time we reached, we saw a tiger pulling him towards the forest by his neck. We raised an alarm after which the cat ran away but Mahesh was dead,” said Rampal Yadav, head of Dumera village that borders the buffer zone area of Dudhwa forest.
Three days later, Kamlesh Kuma, 31, from the neighbor Saypur Padhuva village was returning home on a bullock cart with his brother-in-law, who shares his name, when they were attacked from behind. “A tiger pounced on him and pulled him down. I tried to shoo the animal and the tiger ran away into the jungle,” the brother-in-law said.
Then, on June 17, Mohan Das, 52, a local priest, was dragged into the forest from Kheratiya; his severed head and hand were found a day later. On June 23, 13-year-old Suraj Singh and on June 28, Mindo Kaur, both residents of Kheratiya, were killed. The sixth victim was Nagendra Singh, 30, of Beli village.
Pargat Singh, head of the Kheratiya village, said he has never experienced such a sense of fear before.
“People have stopped coming out of their homes in the evening hours and children are not allowed to leave their homes,” he said. Rampal Yadav, headman of Dumera, said that while forest officials have asked residents not to venture out into the sugarcane fields, that has been a difficult instruction to follow, with livelihood and subsistence closely interlinked with sugarcane. “800 people from my village work in the fields,” Yadav said.
According to the state forest department, all six deaths in May and June were reported from villages next to the Manjhara Purab range, from where there is no previous history of human-animal conflict, even though the broader Dudhwa area had such cases. In 2021-2022, seven people were killed, one less than the eight in 2020-21, and the same as in 2019-20. In 2014, Dudhwa had only 64 tigers. In 2018, that number rose to 107, ostensibly leading to a rise in conflict cases amid a shrinking habitat for big cats in the 1,284.3 sq km reserve. This year’s count is expected to come up with an even higher number.
SUGARCANE AND CATTLE
Officials say that the human deaths are shining a light on the problem of raising cattle close to tiger habitat. For instance, a cow and a calf owned by Kheratiya resident Rakesh, were killed by a tiger on June 19. “It is possible that the tigers are coming out of the jungle looking for cattle, and ending up attacking people,” said a forest department official, asking not to be named. In at least three cases, he added, the men were attacked when they were working in the fields. “From behind they (humans working in fields) appear like just another animal to a tiger. So, they are easy prey,” the official said.
Around 30,000 people live in 36 villages in and around the Dudhwa forest, and have traditionally been cattle-rearers. It’s the profession that gave the place its name — Dudhwa is a derivative of doodh (milk) and loosely means “home of milkmen”. Over time, some of those that had their own land turned to the cash crop of sugarcane while the landless continue to work in the milk business. Of the 36 villages, 13 with a population of 21,322, as per the 2011 Census, are inside the core of the tiger reserve.
Owning cattle leads to another inevitable problem, not unfamiliar to Uttar Pradesh. Villagers abandon cattle that don’t give milk and many therefore enter the forest’s core to graze. Dudhwa’s field director (FD) Sanjay Pathak did not rule out stray cattle as a reason for the rising human-tiger conflict. “Man-animal conflicts are common in Dudhwa but this is certainly a different situation. Cattle can be a reason,” he said.
AN Singh, a Pilibhit-based tiger expert, said that tigers in the Terai region, from Rajaji in Uttarakhand to Pilibhit and Dudwa in Uttar Pradesh, have previously killed people in sugarcane fields where they come looking for stray cattle. “This has got them the sobriquet of ‘sugarcane tigers’,” he said.
Anish Andheria, president of Wildlife Conservation Trust, said, “The area has a lot of sugarcane fields which provide perfect cover for tigers outside the protected areas. As a result, there is a high interface between people and tigers.”
Locals accept that cattle could be attracting tigers to their villages. Uttam Kumar of Dumera village said that tigers and leopards have attacked their cattle which enter the forest to graze. “We suspected the tigers come looking for our cattle. So, we decided to keep them locked next to our hut,” he said.
On June 18, forced into action by the deaths, the Dudhwa forest department launched Operation Catch to trace the tigers responsible for the killings. Dudhwa’s deputy director Sundaresh (who uses one name) said that around 300 camera traps were installed in the buffer zone, six cages were placed at spots where killings had taken place, four teams on elephants were for patrolling, and experts from the Wildlife Institute and Wildlife Trust of India were called in to tranquillise the tigers. “We also used four drone cameras,” Pathak said.
Based on the pictures recorded on camera traps, the department zeroed on a tiger and tigress on June 20. “Going by the head size, body movement and stripes, we concluded that one of the big cats responsible for the deaths was a tigress,” Pathak said. For the next eight days, the forest department watched and waited.
At 2am on June 28, a tiger entered the cage installed at the spot where Mohan Das, the Kheratiya village priest was killed on June 18. “We placed the cage near Das’s hut as a tiger was spotted roaming around in that area. The bait, a goat, attracted the tiger and he got caught,” Sundaresh said.
A day later, a tigress was also caught in a cage, around a 100 meters away from where the tiger was caught, and the forest department claimed success. “The news of the capture brought us big relief,” Pargat Singh said.
But catching the tigers was only a job half done. Pressure from the locals had resulted in their capture, but the forest department had to confirm if these two cats were indeed behind the deaths.
“The very first thing we noticed were the behavioral differences. The tiger was very calm whereas the tigress was getting very aggressive seeing humans around the cage. The tiger was about four years old, and absolutely fit to catch prey on his own. The left canines of the tigress were partially broken and damaged. This made us conclude that the tigress was attacking the humans or their cattle in search for easy prey,” Sundaresh said. He added the pug marks of the tigress matched with the pug marks found near the six places where the killings took place.
However, experts have pointed out that the department did not opt for the more scientific method of DNA matching, a practice that has been used by the Uttarakhand forest department in the past, and that no independent third party verification of the methodology used for identification was carried out either.
Kaushalendra Singh, former member of Uttarakahand State Wildlife Board said that damaged canines and old age alone cannot be grounds to declare the tigress a man-eater. “Canines can get damaged because of many reasons, not just old age. Pugmark identification is an outdated system when more advanced and scientific methods are available. Why was DNA analysis not done?” Singh asked.
On to this, Sundaresh Responding said that DNA analysis is a long process whereas the pug mark and face mark verification is a “faster and easier process with zero (chance of) error”.
That doesn’t always seem to be the case. For instance, the DNA analysis of a tiger caught in Haldwani on June 6, who was blamed for deaths of six people there since December 2021, came within 10 days. The result proved the tiger, now in Nainital Zoo, was responsible for the deaths as DNA tests showed his saliva was found on the body of the victims.
Kheratiya is one of the 23 villages adjoining the Dudhwa buffer zone spread across 190 square kilometers of the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve (DTR) that encompasses the Kishanpur Sanctuary (KS), Katraniyaghat Wildlife Sanctuary (KWS) and Dudhwa National Park (DNP). The other 13 villages are in the core area or zone of the reserve.
The increase in tiger population is expected to cause an increase in the human-animal conflict as well, with the forest department thus far unable to relocate the 13 villages in the core zone, which according to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has to be an inviolate area (no interference) for tigers. In 2018, the then conservator of forests, Ramesh Kumar Pandey, proposed the relocation of all villages after a five-year-old tigress was killed by angry villagers for allegedly killing a girl. “The villagers have refused to accept ₹15 lakh compensation to relocate,” said a senior forest official aware of the developments. “They want land for land, as well as money and this is not provided for in NTCA guidelines,” he added.
KK Mishra, a Lucknow-based wildlife activist, said the UP forest department must first conduct a comprehensive study of the DTR and flag areas where conflict has been reported most. “It should then look to fence these areas as the tiger reserves in other states such as Sariska in Rajasthan and Sunderbans in West Bengal have done.”
The tigress blamed for the killings has been permanently removed from the wild and sent to the Wajid Ali Shah Zoological Garden, also known as the Lucknow Zoo, while the tiger was on Monday released in the Katraniyaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, 50km away from where he was caught .
Back in Kheratiya, Mahesh’s wife and three children will get compensation of ₹5 lakh from the forest department. Over the past four years, compensation of ₹1.4 crore has been disbursed to those families who lost people to tiger kills. “I regret the day when I asked him (Mahesh) to go for work so that our children can eat. Poverty is a terrible thing. He was the only earning member of our family. Is ₹5 lakh enough to sustain us for the rest of our lives?” asked Neelam Devi, his wife.
(Inputs by Deo Kant Pandey)