Tigers, on the whole, are very good-tempered and don't attack people

It may surprise people to know that one of the world's great white hunters turned tiger conservation specialist, Jim Corbett, after which a tiger reserve has been named, said that, "Tigers, except when wounded or when man-eaters, are on the whole very good-tempered. Occasionally a tiger will object to too close an approach to its cubs or to a kill that it is guarding. The objection invariably takes the form of growling, and if this does not prove effective it is followed by short rushes accompanied by terrifying roars. If these warnings are disregarded, the blame for any injury inflicted rests with the intruder."

Tigers, on the whole, are very good-tempered and don't attack people
Image in the public domain.

The healthy tiger is a reluctant attacker of people. It wants to avoid people. They have the ability to kill people quite easily but the surprise to many is that they rarely do so. Radio collared tigers had been found about 10 m from a trail were hundreds of people walk. They have been seen next to a river in which tourist boats pass within a few metres of the shore. Or they can lie in dense vegetation a few metres from a well-used village bathing spot. Those are three examples from the excellent book Wild Cats of the World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist.

The fact is that there are many places on the Indian subcontinent where tigers don't attack and kill people. The tiger man-eating problem is confined to certain places and the best known of these is the Sundarbans of Bangladesh. Conservation of the tiger is made complicated by these tiger attacks on farmers and fishermen.

Between 1975 and 1989, 521 people were killed by tigers in the Indian part of the Sundarbans.

It won't surprise people to know that about 8,000 people annually received permits to collect wood, honey and fish in the Indian part of the Sundarbans which is a tiger reserve. Of these, 8,000 fishermen account for about 70%. And it will also be unsurprising to learn that 82% of the casualties from tiger attacks concern fishermen.

There have been studies to try and work out why tigers so often attack people within the Sundarbans and there are many reasons. They concluded that a lack of fresh water is a factor together with a shortage of natural prey and of course the large number of people foraging in the reserve. They all combine to endanger the people. One survey around 2000 estimated that 100-150 people per year are killed by tigers in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh.

There have been some creative ideas to prevent these attacks. They created artificial ponds to collect rainwater to provide the wildlife upon which the tiger preys with fresh drinking water. The authorities created electrified human dummies to look like wood cutters, fishermen and honey gatherers. The dummies were dressed in old urine-soaked clothes. They delivered a sharp electric shock when touched. Some tigers attacked the dummies and therefore I presume through negative reinforcement training they avoided people.

But interestingly the most significant reduction in human deaths arose out of a technique that was very simple namely that tigers normally attack people from behind and therefore they gave people a mask of the human face worn on the back of their heads.  When tigers see this mask, they are more reluctant to attack in line with what I said above about a tiger's reluctance to attack people unless provoked in some way.

In an unusual experiment, some 2,500 masks were issued to 8,000 workers entering the tiger reserve. And apparently the results were dramatic. In 1987 no one wearing a mask was killed by a tiger. In contrast, 29 people without masks were killed. Although some of those wearing masks were killed by tigers it was found that they were attacked after they had removed their mask on the back of the head.

There is no single reason why a tiger becomes a man eater. If a tiger does attack a person to protect their offspring or because they been disturbed it does not necessarily mean they will go on to become a man eater. I've read that if a tiger tastes human blood they want to attack more people but I am unsure about that theory.

Jim Corbett, who should know better than most, said that "a man-eating tiger is a tiger that has been compelled, through stress or circumstances beyond its control, to adopt a diet that is alien to it. The stress of circumstances is, in nine cases out of 10, wounds and in the 10th, old age."

Corbett also believed that the switch from animal/human flesh was in most cases accidental. And Mel and Fiona Sunquist say that his theories have lasted the test of time. Jim Corbett's knowledge about tiger attacks have hardly been improved since.

In 1979, there was an outbreak of attacks by tigers in the Chitwan National Park after no historical records of attacks. The tigers involved were well known. Their history was well documented. The Chitwan man eating tigers help to illustrate the different ways in which a tiger can convert from preying on animals to preying on humans.

A classic example involved a young male tiger wounded in a fight. He was born in the park and left his mother's natal range when he was about two years old but got into a serious fight with another male which wounded him badly. He was unable to move on the park warden discovered him some days later.

He was tranquilized by the warden and patched up and then released. The tiger recovered but had a permanent limp. He survived by killing cattle on the edge of the national reserve. His injured leg prevented him from catching wild prey and he had to live off cattle. This led to the inevitable when he bumped into a young schoolteacher who was coming down to the river for a bath. A man walking behind the schoolteacher, heard a scream and saw her struggling with the tiger. The tiger kill the schoolteacher and fled.

The warden who had treated the tiger had also put a radio collar on him and they were therefore able to locate and tranquilize him and move him to a zoo. If he'd been left alone, he might well have gone on to kill more people. But the key point there is that he was an injured tiger unable to attack and kill the usual large prey animal. He was forced by circumstance to pick on the far more vulnerable creature: human animal.


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