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Kalli Doubleday: Human-Tiger Conflict in India

Kalli F Doubleday is PhD student based at The University of Texas at Austin. She studies human environment interactions, focusing on human-tiger conflict in Rajasthan & Maharashtra, India. Kalli is particularly interested in the importance of local community conservation and forest restoration efforts in the fight to keep tigers from extinction. Here she shares experiences from her first season of fieldwork.

Name: Kalli Doubleday

Species: Tiger (Panthera tigris)

Location: Rajasthan & Maharashtra, India

Twitter: @kallidoubleday

Bio: I am a second year PhD student in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas – Austin. My focus is on human-carnivore conflict, specifically, how these struggles are rooted in place and territoriality.

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We’re very excited to hear some of your fieldwork stories, but can you first tell us how you first got into conservation?

I have always been passionate about big cats and wildlife in general. Until I was eight my family lived on a small farm with sheep, genies, donkeys, horses all accompanied by the nightly coyote visitors and frequent diamond back rattlers hiding under the house. When I was seven I asked Santa for a peacock and a llama. I was “not mature enough” for a peacock, but Raja the llama (named after the tigress in Aladdin) became my big, spitting, and kicking pal. I love wild places and have been a traveller my entire life. Thankfully I found the discipline of geography as a sophomore undergraduate at Texas Christian University. I went on to get a MA in geography at CSULB.

How did this lead to you becoming involved with the iconic tiger and human-carnivore conflict?

When I visited Thailand in 2012 I was confronted with what “wild” has become in the minds of many. Elephants painting, tigers being walked, snakes being kissed – it was around every corner from the Mountains to the beaches. How a country with one of the last strong holds of wild tigers could be pushing confined “tiger tourism” (from the multiple Tiger Kingdoms to the Tiger Temple) instead of the hopes of spotting a wild tiger was bewildering. On returning, my mind never strayed far from the reality of what “nature” and the ultimate “wild” experience has boiled down to: a selfie sleeping on top of a tiger.

I had been accepted into the University of Texas PhD program, in the Department of Geography and the Environment, and decided I would spend the next several months before I started becoming knowledgeable about everything tigers face in captivity and the wild. Building on previous knowledge I read hundreds of academic articles and books from 1978 to present. I meticulously kept track of issues I thought I would be suited to study as a geographer related to tiger conservation. Through council from a big cat expert and a dissertation committee member, Dr. Clayton Nielsen, it became clear there was a lack of attention on the social and spatial issues related to human-tiger conflict.

ABOVE: A tigress pauses as she watches a herd of chital deer (Axis axis) moving through the forest on the other side of the road, Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve.
"Watching a tiger walk into the bamboo is magical, they truly fade away. The tail dissolves, followed by their silent feet and low hanging jaws, with no discernible stripes visible within seconds. "

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So tell us about the aims of your research and how you plan to go about studying Human-Tiger Conflict?

I use semi-structured interviews and participatory mapping techniques to better understand how human-tiger conflict influences the way villagers relate to space, and what impact this has on the possibility of ‘space sharing’. I am also looking at whether or not there are potential ways to ameliorate conflict derived from geographical concepts of territory, space and place?

In the summer of 2014, I travelled to Rajasthan and Maharashtra, India for my first season of field work. I was fortunate to work for part of this time with a team from Sanctuary Asia, a wildlife magazine, throughout the buffer zone around Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. Our work was published as the cover story of the October 2014 issue.

Tell us more about your study species, how threatened are Tigers in modern India?

The Bengal tiger exhibits wide-ranging behaviour throughout India’s fragmented forests, part of a mosaic of rural settlements and farmland, which often brings tigers into conflict with humans. India is home to more than half of the world’s remaining wild tigers, (approximately 1700), but constitutes only 11% of the globally available tiger habitat. The species has experienced dramatic population declines and is now confined to 7% of its historical range; global extinction of wild tigers is predicted within the next 20 years.

ABOVE: Forest guards walking through the buffer zone of Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve during their daily morning patrols.
"I was going to study tigers. I had no background, I had no funding, and I had no connections. So I made them. I emailed 208 people before someone gave me a tip, a recommendation."
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So what is ‘Human-Tiger Conflict’ and how much of an issue is it?

Three-fourths of the biological felids family, tigers being the largest member, are reported to be in conflict with people. Human-felid conflict is considered to be most severe in the tropics due to human population growth and increased demand for land and natural resources. This issue is heightened when dealing with the endangered tiger. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and national governments have pledged to double tiger numbers in the next decade. If these campaigns are successful, HTC will certainly escalate. As human populations grow and wildlife habitats shrink, and if conservation pledges are successful and tiger populations grow, it means that India will need to better understand HTC, the underlying emotions and perspectives it creates, in order to address it at the local level.

How much is known about Bengal Tiger behaviour? And why does this bring them into conflict with local people?

Around the age of two, subadult tigers are forced out of their mother’s territories to find their own. Recently exiled tigers will either fight to oust a resident tiger, in turn causing that tiger to seek new territory, or travel outside established tiger territories and into human landscapes. The territorially of these solitary animals, their personal geographies, are at the root of human-tiger conflict.

Agents of mobility, tigers continually enter into and out of networks that contribute to humans’ sense of place. Isolated by human-dominated landscapes, tigers looking for territory or a mate are frequently found “out of place” by villagers in buffer zones around protected areas (PAs) and village boundaries. Recent research shows that habitat corridors within tiger ranges decreased by 12.6% from 2006 to 2010. As PAs and corridors contract, more and more tigers become placeless as they belong to neither landscape and become unwelcomed trespassers in both.

LEFT:  Kalli with villagers living outside Sariska Tiger Reserve, after conducing focus groups. RIGHT: Forest Guard setting up camera traps to monitor tiger movements in the Buffer Zone around Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve.
"Speaking to families who have lost family members, in one case only a day before, is certainly the most difficult part of my job."
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Can you tell us more about the region you’ve been studying in India?

The study sites are within a mixed-use landscape not solely managed for biodiversity and situated among a growing rural population within the wider landscape of eastern Maharashtra, India. The study area is focused on the buffer zones around Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve, and the mixed-use landscape in between. The vast majority of research based knowledge on tigers is gained through studies inside park boundaries, thus this study is focused on the landscapes outside the protection of “tiger reserves.”

What did a normal day’s fieldwork entail while you were in the field in India?

During my first field season I was fortunate enough to stay with forest guards in the buffer zone around Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. We would rise early in the morning and go out with them on their daily patrols. Most important to my work, were days when the guards are responsible for collecting important information about conflict events. For instance, when a leopard or tiger kills someone’s livestock the forest guards set up camera traps to monitor which animal is responsible, to establish and keep information on each animal’s activities. It is also their responsibility to speak to family members experiencing livestock loss, or the more catastrophic loss of human life. Speaking to families who have lost family members, in one case only a day before, is certainly the most difficult part of my job, and I would say at the top of forest guards’ as well.

Mid-day when the temperature was almost unbearable we all settled down at a forest guard outpost, or checkpoint, and had egg curry. It was so good, but so spicy it hurt! The majority of my day outside observing and participating in daily activities every forest guard undertakes, is talking to villagers about their experience with tigers. I was able to do this thanks to my good friends and wildlife photographers Anu Marwah and Varun Thakkar (on assignment from Sanctuary Asia), helping with translation.

TOP:  Village in the Buffer Zone with bamboo fencing to protect livestock from predators.  MIDDLE LEFT:  A women collecting water and doing laundry at a water well, Village Tadoba Andhari Buffer Zone. MIDDLE RIGHT: Forest Guard tracking tiger with a livestock kill through buffer zone, with only a large stick for his, and our, protection. BOTTOM: Village women waiting to speak to Forest Guards.
"Around the age of two, subadult tigers are forced out of their mother’s territories to find their own."
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Working in the field must be exhillerating, tell us about your favourite experiences.

The eastern parts of Maharashtra are a mix of thick forest giving way to even denser bamboo. Studying tigers in this landscape is thrilling. Walking down a dirt road, following the tracks of a tigress and two cubs you are keenly aware they could be within a few feet from you and never give away their location.

Watching a tiger walk into the bamboo is magical, they truly fade away. The tail dissolves, followed by their silent feet and low hanging jaws, with no discernible stripes visible within seconds. Outside the research, the friendships and chia tea, it is these moments, speechlessly watching one of 3,200 wild tigers glide through a forest that makes every 120 degree day more than worth it.

Your project comes with amazing wildlife, but also a very difficult and important human element. Can you tell us a bit more about the challenges this presents?

Studying something as emotional as human-carnivore conflict is difficult for many reasons. Sitting in someone’s home as their faces are sullen and trying to ask them questions about their sister who was killed the day before by a tigress is painful. How to ask questions without being disrespectful? What questions are acceptable? How long can you stay? This is navigating the human side of conflict, but seeing the animal side of conflict is just as difficult. Seeing tigers missing a paw, angry behind bars in a zoo; or, leopards in small cages hissing for years at a time for their transgressions has often brought me to my knees. Conflict has long lasting impacts of both parties entangled in human-carnivore conflict, witnessing this in the flesh is a heavy burden.

TOP: Indian Gaur, the world’s larges bovine, cross a road through the Buffer Zone as a truck waits patiently for them to pass, a common occurrence. BOTTOM LEFT: A tigress’ pug-mark in the sand with forest guards in the foreground, Tadoba Andhari Buffer Zone. BOTTOM RIGHT: Tigress hidden a bamboo thicket, Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve.
"Dedicated men and women are working round the clock to get compensation paid out quickly to avoid retaliation."
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Are you optimistic that with your research, and others, human-tiger conflict can eventually be reduced or mitigated? 

There are several researchers working on new and important aspects of human-tiger conflict. Most of them are pointing to the fact people are willing to co-exist if compensation is paid quickly and adequately to cover the cost of lost livestock, and in the most extreme cases for loss of human life. Through my own conversations with forest officials this is widely know. Dedicated men and women are working round the clock to get compensation paid out quickly to avoid retaliation.

This is by far on one of the most important aspects of continued reduction in conflict. I hope through more in-depth research we can go beyond this responsive technique and create pro-active ways to help in this critical struggle.

ABOVE: A Forest Guard looks over his shoulder towards a tigress cooling off in Tadoba Lake, not amused by our presence.
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Working on a project with wild tigers is a dream for most young conservationists. Can you offer any advice for those just starting out?

1) Make it Happen: I was going to study tigers. I had no background, I had no funding, and I had no connections. So I made them. I emailed 208 people before someone gave me a tip, a recommendation. After months of study and a well prepared prospectus Dr. Neilsen was impressed with my enthusiasm, determination and knowledge. I kept emailing until I found someone with connections to the area I wanted to study who sent me contact info for Anu Marwah. After reading my prospectus she not only gave me contact information on the ground, but invited me to join her on her own assignment to help each other out. Never, never stop knocking on doors!

2) Empty Bottle: Having an empty bottle with you can act as an easy “trash container” while out in the field. It is shocking to see civilians and even Forest Department employees throw trash on the ground, but it is ubiquitous. Even if it is only a small amount having an empty bottle means you can contain any trash you make (from antibacterial wipes, power bars, etc) until you reach a trash can

3) Detergent: I severally under packed the amount of detergent I would need for clothes washing. Washing clothes happens simultaneously with bathing. Relying on water and rigorous ringing will not be good enough to wash out a day’s worth of dirt and sweat – not even close!

4) Water: Brining a SteriPEN relieves you of any fear of not having access to water, a very valuable tool in the field.

5) Preparation: Preparation and talking through as many scenarios of each situation with team members or advisors is important. I might be ok with being eaten by a tiger, but that would do nothing but bring an animal harm. Being responsible researchers is key to conservation success. Basic strategies, such as staying in groups, establishing a minimum distance between group members, carrying sticks and or mace, and always following the guidance and advice of those who spend the most time on the ground are key strategies to keep both you and animals safe.

With all of this in mind, do you think that they’ll still be a place for wild tigers in 50 or 100 years time?

Small, isolated pockets of tigers will continue to live in some of India’s protected areas for the next 50-100 years. However, the last ten years have shown tiger reserves are not immune, and three have publicly been declared tiger-less due to poaching to feed the Traditional Chinese Medicine market for tiger parts. If tigers are to survive outside the best reserves, tolerance will have to increase and the demand for their parts has to be wiped out. WildAid is doing amazing work with multiple species facing extinction, in large part, due to Chinese demand. With dedicated people like those at WildAid and lifelong tiger advocates across tiger range states there is hope, but it is a war in the meantime.

Thanks Kalli!

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