A TIGER STARES BACK into the lens of the camera, his eyes heavy with fear and helplessness. This portrait of the caged animal, captured in Valparai, Tamil Nadu, is a departure from the standard visualisation of tigers as threatening. It evokes the battle—one that is raging in India at the moment—between people and tigers.
A 39-year-old visual storyteller from south India, Senthil Kumaran began his work on tigers in 2012, visiting tiger reserves across India, including Anamalai, Sundarbans, Madhumalai, Bandipur, Tadoba, Kalakad and Periyar. In his childhood dreams, he said, he saw tigers as majestic animals. This perception was quashed when he witnessed hundreds of people viciously attacking a tiger that had entered a village. The incident compelled him to work on the hostile relationship between humans and wildlife—and its disturbing fallout. After focussing on tigers for five years, Kumaran moved on to documenting the human-elephant conflict in south India, a project which is ongoing.
In his tiger project, Kumaran depicts the troubled existence of two vulnerable groups attempting to cohabit in a swiftly shrinking landscape: the tiger population, which has increasingly been confined to protected reserves and multiple-use forests, and the local human communities that reside around forest areas. Although his series explores the perspective of both groups, Kumaran considers “humans as the encroacher” in this dynamic. He argues that although tiger reserves have a “core” area where activities such as grazing and growing produce are not allowed, settlements, cultivation and development activities in wildlife corridors have increasingly infringed on these areas.
India is losing large swathes of forest—nearly 1.5 million hectares per year—to urbanisation. Tigers have consequently experienced a loss in natural habitat and a rapid decline in the availability of prey, forcing them to barge into human-occupied territory in search of food and water. According to the environment ministry, 27 people were killed in tiger attacks between mid 2014 and mid 2017. Kumaran claimed that Tadoba in Maharashtra, where tigers have killed over 50 people since 2006, was one of the most fraught areas because the large tiger population—there are 88 within the Tadoba Andhari tiger reserve and another 58 in the surrounding forest—share space with locals living nearby.
Attacks on livestock and humans, as well as the severe damage to cash crops that tigers often cause, provoke locals to hunt or poison the big cats in retaliation. This is despite the existence of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which prohibited the killing of tigers unless they are injured or old and proven to be man-eaters. “They put poison in the carcasses,” Kumaran said, describing an incident from 2016 when a tiger was found killed by a pesticide. Two young tigers in Paoni, near Nagpur, were suspected to have died from poison last November, and there was an eerily similar case in Bandipur, Karnataka, this January.
Despite the grim situation, tiger conservation in India is often heralded as a success story. India launched Project Tiger in 1973. It consisted of a special task force aimed at conserving tigers and fostering their coexistence with humans. In its formative years, the project covered nine tiger reserves, but it has now expanded to 47 reserves across 18 states. The last census figures suggested that the number of tigers in India had increased from 1,706 in 2010 to 2,226 in 2014. However, human settlements in forests pose a pressing dilemma for such conservationists. In March 2017, the National Tiger Conservation Authority ordered tiger reserves to refrain from recognising the rights of forest dwellers in critical tiger habitats. The measure provoked backlash since thousands of Adivasis live in tiger reserves.
Other relocation and compensation schemes exist: for instance, the forest department is meant to provide Rs 10 lakh for each family that is forced to relocate outside a reserve. But there are challenges with executing these. Kumaran explained that tigers often inhabit the area of relocation, or the indigenous population finds it difficult to adjust to urban settings. Sometimes, locals are resistant to moving from their place of origin. Kumaran added that in some instances, the narrative of the indigenous people in tiger reserves gets overlooked. “Due to increased emphasis on biodiversity, Indian policy frameworks favour the interests of animals while the stories of tribes who are suffering due to the conflict are not brought to the limelight,” he said.
Senthil Kumaran is a visual storyteller from south India. His work focusses on social and environmental issues. He was presented an award by the Royal Geographical Society in London and received the Angkor Photo Festival’s Hope Françoise Demulder grant.