When photographer Senthil Kumaran was 10, he watched his first documentary on tigers on BBC. A dream was born. "As a child, I roamed the forests in India trying to find a majestic royal Bengal tiger," he says.
The dream took on a darker dimension many years later in the Periyar Nagar village in Anamalai Tiger Reserve. "I received a phone call when I was at the Theppakadu Elephant camp in the Mudhumalai Tiger Reserve in South India," he says. "A tiger had entered a village and they were trying to catch it with a tranquilizer. After an eight-hour drive, I arrived to find 500 to 600 villagers standing around the tiger with sticks, stones, and weapons. The horrifying scene of this tiger lying down wounded and unable to move shattered all my ideas of the majestic tiger."
The people were not viewing the tiger as an object of mercy but as an enemy. The incident inspired him to look into human-animal conflicts more closely.
In an effort to bring attention to the struggle, Kumaran has spent the last five years photographing tiger sanctuaries and reserves in eastern, middle and southern India.
India is home to 2,300 of the 4,000 remaining wild tigers in the world. The country has 55 tiger sanctuaries, where the animals have to share space with humans. The livelihood of the people living in the surrounding buffer zones is mostly dependent on agriculture, livestock grazing, honey collecting, and fishing.
Kumaran says increased human activity inside the sanctuaries, shrinking habitat, and the ensuing loss of natural prey has created a co-existence crisis in many areas around the country between the villagers and the tigers. There is also conflict between the villagers and forestry officials tasked with protecting the tigers.
Incidences of maulings, sometimes fatal, have sparked angry protests. In 2015, after one woman was killed and a man injured, Kumaran attempted to travel to the village only to find the roads blocked. "Hundreds of local people torched a few government vehicles in the area, stoning the department’s offices and media people. They wanted to kill the tiger," he recalls.
When he finally did make it, he found another angry crowd whose protests resulted in a police curfew.
Retaliations against the tigers often come in the form of poisoning. In one village, an adult tiger was found dead near a farm.
"The veterinarian who did the autopsy confirmed that the tiger was poisoned with a pesticide used to control nematode worms," Kumaran says. "It is suspected that some locals mixed the poison in the remains of the mule, which was mauled by the tiger a few days earlier."
Kumaran's journey and point of view traverses between tigers and humans. He credits his relationships with conservationists, villagers, and local NGOs in gaining access to both sides of the story. (Learn about another program to reduce wildlife-human conflict in India.)
"For centuries, the tribal people and animals have lived together in the forest," Kumaran says. "In order to save their livelihoods, both animals and people have started to fight with each other to survive."