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Meet Senthil Kumaran, TN photographer capturing man-animal conflict in the country

“I know of a friend who spent Rs 1.25 lakhs to get a glimpse of the majestic tiger while on a forest safari. I’ve also heard stories of farmers poisoning tigers that killed their cattle. While the tiger may be awe inspiring for a few, the very same beast is a threat for the others,” begins Senthil Kumaran, an independent visual storyteller documenting the man-animal conflict.

Senthil’s ‘Boundaries: Human and Tiger Conflict’ series was recently awarded The Hindu Photojournalism award under the Photo Essay category on February 23, 2019 as part of the Chennai Photo Biennale. Senthil has been documenting the man-animal conflict, primarily involving tigers and elephants, for over six years across different states. 

‘Boundaries’

On a warm evening a week after he won the award, Senthil meets us at his home in Madurai. He begins by taking out a thick stack of black and white photographs. 

Perusing through them, Senthil shares that his first tryst with the country’s national animal was a shocker, an anti-climax. “I grew up dreaming of seeing this majestic animal in flesh. I’ve been visiting forests and tiger reserves from 2006. When I finally did see one in 2012, it was far from what I had imagined. The tiger looked beaten and impoverished, its skin clung to its bones, and was barely able to breathe,” he recounts.

Senthil was part of a project in 2012 to relocate a tiger, that was attacking cattle, to a wildlife reserve, when he saw the beast for the first time. “Hundreds of villagers stood around on elevated land, with torches, sticks and canes, demanding for the kill while I stood there with my camera,” he says.

A 10 year-old tranquilized male tiger being shifted to the cage. Just three days earlier the tiger had come into the village near Valparai town in Anamalai Tiger Reserve and killed 2 cattle.

Since then, Senthil has been to several tiger reserves across the country, documenting man-animal conflict in all its aspects: the man eaters of Sundarbans for instance, are different from the tigers that spill out from Tadoba Reserve forests in Maharashtra into the buffer zones of Chandrapur district, he says. 

“Tigers are territorial animals and they tend to expand their territory if there’s shortage of prey or water. I know villages in Tadoba region where there’s severe conflict just because of one tiger. Then, there are places where people coexist with eight tigers prowling about in the buffer region. Sometimes it depends on the locals as well,” he explains.

Tiger caged from human settlement for translocation. It was rescued from the human settlement are in Valparai, Ananmalai Tiger Reserve.

The core zone of a reserve forest is protected and the animal population here is denser than in the buffer area. It is also off-limits for humans.

These are some of the things that ‘Boundaries’ deals with, Senthil says, “We know these lines, of where the core zone ends and where the buffer region begins, but the animals don’t. What happens in such cases? What are the stories in these villages that dot the buffer zones?” he asks.

Problems with relocation

In Tadoba, Senthil tells us that of the 120 odd tigers in the region, nearly 50 live outside the core zone, in buffer regions. “Relocation of people from regions in or surrounding the protected areas has to be done carefully,” Senthil says. “There are also indigenous tribes who have been co-existing with these animals for centuries. When these people are relocated without proper follow-ups, they lose out on their resources as well as livelihood and are not adequately trained in urban skills either,” he says.

Senthil has also observed that when the communities living on the fringes are not tribes, but recent settlers, the conflict with the wildlife is worse. It becomes important then for forest officials to maintain peace. “If people start believing that the government is favouring animals more, they might take the situation in their own hands. I have heard first-hand accounts of villagers poisoning wild animals and doing away with their bodies without a trace,” he adds. 

A male adult tiger crossing the road in Tadoba tiger reserve. A single tiger occupies almost 40 square kms as its territorial boundary. Sometimes villages may fall under this boundary. There are almost 8 villages inside this area.

The picture on ground is grim for both animals, and people living around them. “A few villages in Tadoba region have neither humans nor tigers. Animals have been killed, people are moving out, but telecommunication lines now run through the landscape,” Senthil says.

Sambangi and his son relocating their house from Nawgoan village which is one of the highly conflict zones in Tadoba region.

Taming the tuskers

Unlike the territorial tigers, elephants are nomads. The origin of the man-animal conflict here lies in the fragmentation of the elephant corridor in the Western Ghats. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, more than 50% of the Asian elephants have lost their habitats in the last 60-75 years.

“There’s very little forest region in Valparai. Coorg only has estates and no forests. The elephants get separated and herds cannot communicate amongst each other. They tend to get isolated, and end up staying in the region, raiding crops for food,” explains Senthil.

Senthil claims, on an average, 500 humans and 250 elephants die every year in the country due to conflicts. Yet, we are nowhere close to a solution. “Elephants that turn into crop raiders become habituated. Once they start foraging on wheat, maize, corn and other crop, their capacity to scout for food decreases. They may even teach their young the same, intensifying the problem,” he notes. 

One way this is being dealt with is moving these elephants to rehabilitation camps. “We’ve now reached a point where there are no forests for these mammals and terrain in villages is also dangerous for them. Elephant camps come as the only relief right now. It is an inevitable consequence of what we’ve done to our forests,” he points out. 

If there’s one thing that documenting this conflict has taught Senthil, it is an understanding of the significance of forests as a self-sustaining unit.

“Preventing one animal from dying is not the point,” Senthil argues. “A few years ago, a massive forest fire raged for 15 days in a particular region in the Mudumalai forest. In the end, a foot of ash was the only thing that remained. About six months later, when I visited the region once again, it was lush and green; you could never tell that there had been a fire! But now, the area had no trees, nothing for birds to sit on and drop seed, no insects even because there is no vegetation.”

“How do you think the forest reclaimed the barren land? The plants grew from all the seeds the ants had collected and stored underground. When it comes to a forest, an ant is as important as the tiger, don’t you think?” he smiles.

All photographs courtesy Senthil Kumaran

Source: The News Minute