An Uttarakhand High Court judgement on December 19 prohibited the killing of man-eaters – that is, big cats that actively make prey of humans. It also severely curtailed the official declaration of such animals as man-eaters. This judgement comes in the wake of a worrying but discernible rise in levels of human-big cat conflict in the state and in an environment where the primary response of the Uttarakhand forest department has been to kill the so-called man-eater. The ethics and efficacy of hunting the endangered big cats (tigers and leopards in the Himalayan case) do, indeed, need to be carefully considered. Yet, this particular ruling is only going to further complicate the already vexed problem of human-animal conflict in Uttarakhand.

Many theories exist to explain why Uttarakhand suffers so much from leopard attacks on humans (attacks by tigers are much lower). An explanation derived from climate change in the Himalayas has been gaining traction of late. Given the enormity of the problem, it is of the essence that the government devise ways to contain it.

Hunting down big cats considered dangerous to human lives has, as the writings of Jim Corbett vividly describe, for long been a commonplace method of dealing with them. This is problematic for several reasons, ranging from their endangered status and flimsy evidence of their danger to the death of the wrong leopard or tiger – a bekasoor bagh and not the adamkhor.

Having said that, a blanket ban is not the answer.

Mountains versus plains

As I have noted in my book, Paper Tiger, a hierarchy of man-eaters is in tacit play in Uttarakhand. In this system, it is the high-profile big cats – which attack and kill in large urban spaces like Dehradun – that are immediately declared man-eaters and killed or, more rarely, captured. In the more remote areas of the state, especially in mountain villages, it is well-nigh impossible to get a leopard or tiger declared a man-eater despite successive kills.

The High Court judgement says that instead of hunting leopards, they should be tranquilised and captured. While this sounds like the much more humane and reasonable option, it is really not feasible and, once again, especially not so in the mountains. In the first place, none of the equipment – tranquiliser guns, cages, nets – exist thus far in the more remote mountainous districts. Neither does the expertise or skill that would allow for the measurement of the correct dosage for the tranquilisation, darting, caging, and so on. And, most critically, even if these material and technical methods were to be found, the high Himalayas makes it extremely difficult to trap and tranquilise the lithe, clever leopards that are creating the greatest havoc. Reading the judgement, it feels as if the judges are imagining the wide-open, flat, empty spaces of a Kenyan safari and not the forested, heavily populated, precipitous Himalayas.

In practice, it is much easier to tranquilise a leopard or tiger in the plains than it is in, for instance, a village in Chamoli district. The High Court judgement will inadvertently end up deepening the long-standing plains-mountains division by, once again, allowing for the maidani adamkhor to be dealt with whilst leaving the pahari adamkhor to wantonly terrorise the Himalayas.

Fuelling anti-conservationism

The judgement will, additionally, exacerbate an anti-conservationist tendency in Uttarakhand, one that is in large parts derived directly from the draconian nature of the Wildlife Preservation Act of 1972. The Paharis of Uttarakhand are convinced, and with good reason, that the Indian state cares more for the life of a big cat than it does for the life of a human. The ban on the hunting of man-eaters that are seen to be killing humans with impunity will only worsen this sense of being placed firmly below big cats in all measurements of value and worth.

The Uttarakhand High Court has noted that there is “no process” through which a big cat is declared a man-eater. To hold this up as an objection shows a suspicion not just of bureaucratic discretion and localised decision-making, but also an absence of recognition of the power of precedence on which, in fact, the everyday state functions.

The declaration of a man-eater is made by the chief wildlife warden stationed in Dehradun through the invocation of Clause 11 (1) (a) of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The official does so only once they are convinced that the big cat in question is, in fact, a man-eater. This game of convincing is not an easy one as most officials are loathe to sign off on a death warrant for these highly protected species. The presence of some rather vociferous wildlife conservation organisations as well as the media makes this declaration a delicate task. Once again, my decade-long research in Uttarakhand shows clearly that it is the high-profile big cats – those that appear in privileged spaces like urban centres or close to the residences of bureaucrats in district headquarters – that are quick to win declarations of man-eaters and the issuance of hunting permits.

Long delays in winning hunting permits has been a huge problem in the more remote parts of the state. In lieu of banning the declaration of man-eaters and their hunting altogether, my recommendation would have been to devolve authority on the declaration of a big cat as a man-eater to the district level. Instead, the court has said a special committee comprising top bureaucrats of the state would have to be set up for making such a decision. Such an order exhibits a profound distrust of the state bureaucracy and can only result in much longer periods of time spent living under the reigns of terror of man-eaters in the mountains. It will also lead to an official papering over the actual population of man-eaters in the state, thus obscuring the empirical reality of human-big cat conflict in Uttarakhand.

Finally, the judgement bans the exhibition of the corpse or carcass of the dead/hunted big cat as well as photographs of such a nature. These colonial, hyper-masculine photographs are certainly cringe-making. Yet, in banning such photographs and displays, the court is missing out on their crucial contemporary utility: the easing of fear among the resident population and the production of a certainty on the end of the predator. The vanishing of these objects of reassurance and proof will not only lead to a prolonged period of unease, but the uncertainty might also lead to the murder of more bekasoor bagh.

Ban and damn

The total ban on the official hunting of big cats will have the effect of taking the entire operation underground. In my experience in Uttarakhand, when a man-eater is on the loose and has not been declared as one soon enough, then the desperate residents take on increasingly brutal (and illegal) methods of killing just about any leopard they spy in their vicinity. These could be burning them alive, hacking them to pieces, poisoning, trapping and hunting them on the sly, and other gruesome methods. It is worth remembering that Uttarakhand has a large population of leopards at approximately 703, most of them entirely harmless. So, not only will the man-eater be ultimately killed and probably in a more painful manner than if it were hunted by a professional shikari, but also several more bekasoor bagh will be similarly targeted.

A prominent response by the Indian state – be it an institution like the judiciary or just an individual figure like the prime minister – to big problems seems to be to ban and damn. Thus, corruption or the presence of black money is dealt with by banning currencies of a certain denomination. If too many man-eaters are found haunting a region, then they are debarred from being even named as such and through a wholesale embargo on their hunting. Banning and damning of such a form makes for extremely poor policy and can only lead to outcomes that are bloody in the extreme.

The writer is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, and is the author of Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India.