Two judges in Uttarakhand’s high court just made a momentous decision. They ruled that big cats in that state should not be declared man-eaters or killed after they attack a human. Instead, they said that such animals should be trapped and relocated.
This is certainly a significant ruling. The state of Uttarakhand lies in the North-central portion of India, and is home to the famed Jim Corbett National Park. Both tigers (Panthera tigris) and leopards (Panthera pardus) are present in Uttarakhand, as are 10.08 million people (as of 2012; courtesy of Google). This article from the Hindustan Times also claims that there have been several recent cases of state officials killing supposed “man-eaters,” which prompted the ruling.
Prior to the Uttarakhand high court’s decision, it seem that the process for declaring a big cat a “man-eater” was fairly arbitrary; the name was bestowed by the state’s top wildlife official on cats that entered human settlements or attacked people. But now Uttarakhand will have to set up a special committee to determine how dangerous an individual animal is. The state will also no longer be allowed to work with private hunters to eliminate “problem” cats, and they will have to enact additional policies to prevent human encroachment into designated wildlife areas. Lastly, the high court declared that there will need to be stricter penalties for poaching in Uttarakhand.
I admit, I am uncertain of what to make of this ruling. I hate to see people harmed by big cats, and I believe that there need to be systems in place to minimize the threats such animals pose. But I do not know much about the situations that prompted this decision. What I do know is that tigers are in a bad way, with Panthera (2015d) claiming that less than 4,000 of them remain in the wild. Such figures mean that unnecessary human-induced mortalities should be kept to a minimum.
As the original article states, the increase in conservation conflicts in Uttarakhand will also not be solved by killing big cats who enter villages or harm humans. Such negative encounters are the result of larger forces, including habitat loss and prey depletion, that need to be addressed. On the other hand, relocating big cats is a tricky business that seldom resolves the original problem.
Regardless, this is the first time I am aware of a high court ruling so strongly in favor of large carnivores. Hopefully this signals a shift in the way people view such creatures.
My thoughts are with the people and wildlife of Uttarakhand. I hope they can protect big cats while also minimizing the risks to the state’s human inhabitants.