The majority of tigers of India’s parks and reserves tend to ignore people.
However, those in the Sundarbans, the mangrove forests of the Ganges Delta, are a major threat to life and limb; up to 60 people are allegedly killed by tigers each year.
Cats, it’s claimed, even swim out to attack fishermen in boats. Ironically, people praying for protection at little Hindu shrines around the area, are particularly vulnerable.
Tigers, stealth and ambush predators, seize their victims from behind, splitting neck-bones and clamping windpipes.
Frontal attacks are avoided; the quarry may spot the predator, reducing the chances of a successful ‘kill’ and putting the attacker at risk of injury from the victim’s teeth and claws.
During the 1980s, a student at the Science Club of Calcutta came up with a simple, but ingenious, idea.
Paint human faces on rubber masks, he suggested, and persuade people venturing into the forests to wear them on the backs of their heads.
A mask would fool the tiger into thinking that the potential victim was facing it. Insects use similar tricks; the circles on the wings of Irish peacock butterflies come to mind.
The idea was tested experimentally. Masks were issued to 2,500 of the 8,000 fishermen wood-harvesters and wild honey collectors entering the Sundarbans Reserve in 1986.
Over a three-year period, according to a New York Times report at the time, no worker wearing a rear-facing mask was attacked, whereas 28 people without masks were killed.
Alas, most tigers eventually spotted the deception.
An extraordinary piece of video footage, which ‘went viral’ recently, is a perfect illustration of the theory behind the two-faced mask trick.
In it, seven-year-old Sean Costello is seen viewing a tiger at Dublin Zoo; his father filmed him from behind.
The tiger and Sean eyed each other but the cat remained motionless several metres away.
However, as soon as the boy turned his back, the animal charged, only to be stopped in its tracks by the glass window of the enclosure.
Zoo animals, fed and found, seldom indulge in such shenanigans.
In the wild, however, young tigers must hone their hunting skills if they are to survive. Charging at Sean was typical of such behaviour.
Some predators even ‘teach’ their young. Domestic cats will catch and release a mouse repeatedly, allowing their kittens to play with the victim.
Peregrines, the supreme hunters of the bird world, also ‘educate’ their chicks. Each fledged juvenile may be allocated a station to which the parents bring food.
Then items are brought to locations some distance away, so that the young peregrine must fly to reach them.
Next, it learns to snatch food from the talons of a parent while rolling in the air.Finally, food is dropped from a height, to be caught in mid-air.
If the student fails to intercept it, the parent swoops down, retrieves the item, and repeats the exercise.
Plant eaters have different educational needs; their emphasis is on health and safety. Eyes ears, and sensitive noses, must be fine-tuned, if a youngster is to avoid becoming a meal for an enemy.
Developing lightning reflexes, strong legs, speed and stamina, are the order of the day.
“You are running for your dinner, I am running for my life,” is the herbivore’s motto.