I'm backpacking through a national park in India, which also happens to be a tiger reserve. I understand that chances of even spotting a Bengal tiger are slim, but still, what precautionary measures can I take to avoid an encounter with the largest non-aquatic mammalian predator on Earth? And if I still find myself facing the beast, what actions can I take to keep me (and others if it's a group) safe?
After spending quite some time researching what you can do to avoid tiger encounters, the best advise I can give you is–don't put yourself in a position where you might encounter a tiger. Tigers are man-eaters, estimates put fatalities due to tiger attacks at about 373,000 since 1800. The only truly effective safety measure is a big gun.
Various measures were taken to prevent and reduce the number of tiger attacks with limited success. For example, since tigers almost always attack from the rear, masks with human faces were worn on the back of the head by the villagers in 1986 in the Sundarbans, on the theory that tigers usually do not attack if seen by their prey. This had temporarily decreased the number of attacks, but only for a short while before the tigers figured out it was not the front of the human being so the villagers no longer wear them for protection. All other means to prevent tiger attacks, such as providing the tigers with more prey by releasing captive bred pigs to the reserve's buffer zones, or placing electrified human dummies to teach tigers to associate attacking people with electric shock, did not work as well and tiger attacks continue. Many measures were thus discontinued due to lack of success.
I would learn how to identify tiger-sign; what their foot prints look like, what their urine smells like, how they mark their territory, and stay out of that territory. Other than that, the only advise I could give you would be the usual advise for avoiding encounters with big predators: Let them know you're there.
If an animal can hear you, smell you, or see you coming form a distance, and identify you as a human, they will typically try to avoid you. Lots of tiger attacks have occurred because of mistaken identity–the victim was crouched down collecting wood or working on the ground. Be loud, be tall, and don't put yourself in any vulnerable situations, like wandering in to the woods alone. I imagine that you'll be given a lecture about tigers when you enter the park as well, they're an endangered species, they keep tabs on their populations and typically know where the cats are on the reserves.
What do do if you encounter a tiger
After doing all you can to avoid an encounter, If you still end up meeting one, and you're still in a group, then you need to get everyone together and be as aggressive and intimidating as you can. Stand tall, get to a high place and act bigger than the tiger, throw rocks (aim for the face), bang sticks, face the tiger and be fierce. Do your best to intimidate it. You either have to scare it off, be prepared to fight it off, or shoot it.
If you're alone and you encounter a tiger, then you are in extreme danger, it's unlikely that one person can scare off a tiger without a gun. You have to try to elude and escape the tiger, but never turn your back on a tiger if one is watching you, and never run–there's actually a wikiHow on How to Survive a Tiger Attack. Remember, tigers are man eaters, you are their prey, your chances of actually fighting off a tiger are slim, but aside from shooting the tiger it's the only option you have if you can't convince it to leave you alone otherwise.
I've never been in tiger country, but I do have some experience with big cats. We have lots of cougars in the Canadian Rockies. When I was a kid we had 3 cougars roaming around my hometown making easy pickings out of people's pets one year. Some rangers came to our school and taught us how to avoid an encounter, and defend ourselves if necessary. Their advise was basically what I told you; stay in groups, be loud, and don't wander into the woods.
The part of the answer may sound very specific to India, and at some part indeed I would try and be more generic.
(Specific to India) When you say feline, and specifically in India, you are more likely to encounter a Leopard than a Tiger, even if its a Tiger reserve. If I can relate some data and my experiences about trekking in Tiger Reserves (Rather, to be specific I should say region under STR whats now called STP: Sahyadri Tiger Project), Its very unlikely that you are going to face a Tiger. Of course No one can banish the fact that you may face one depending upon your location.
(Specific to India) Speaking of India, typically starting towards south from Maharashtra (I'll deliberately not speak of Tadoba Wildlife Sanctuary, as I haven't been there yet and have no experience of the kind of Wildlife and the anecdotal Territory reserved for Big Cats), the kind of regulations and the way authorities have maintained the regional boundary is such that, you'll have to go in deeper sections (what people generally call the core regions) to come across a Tiger. And, fortunately (or unfortunately for someone like us who only wish to see, photograph the wildlife and not disturb and/or harm it by any means) the access to these core region is not commercialized yet, and is very limited, and at most of the places it is simply prohibited (For e.g. Chandoli, Koyna). Though one still may have some illegal resources/means to get into the prohibited section, but that is immaterial (and Off topic for TGO.SE) here.
Its necessary to understand that all the cat family doesn't think the same way, though it may appear that apart from Lions, they all hunt in the same manner, like hunting in ambush.
Out of the whole cat family, In India, Leopards have been making up news more frequently than any other feline. And yet, Leopards are probably the least likely out of the big cats to attack a human. They are naturally cautious animals and have the tendency to back down if thrown into a conflict rather than attacking. Thats said, if there are frequent news and sightings of an old and/or injured Leopard around a village, it very valid to say that while attacks on adults are relatively rare, leopards on occasion will pick off children, as they are easier prey.
There are precautionary measures to avoid such an attack.
- Stay in group, move like a convoy, be loud if you have seen pug-marks and/or feces of a feline. Make your presence felt. Being loud can really keep you safe from other wild animals as well. The easiest way that I can think of is, get an empty can with a couple of small stones/pebbles in it, hang it to the side pouch of the bag or something similar.
- Be very selective about picking a campsite. Avoid camping near Water sources in the middle of the forest.
- (A bit more specific to camping habits in India) If there are sightings near a village, do not camp on the outskirts of the village, or on the river-bed if it is near. Instead pick a temple, or a safe premise like school.
- Avoid taking a stroll/wander in woods during late hours of day.
- Keep the kids and pets safe by keeping them surrounded by adults. That can really make a feline think before attacking.
- When under attack, don't panic and run, stay together, don't let it corner out anyone, appear big, make rapid movements like waving hands, so don't duck, don't hide.
- This one is unlikely but still worth a mention: Never approach a cub if you come across any.
- If you see anyone under attack, charge the animal. That can scare off the animal and retreat. (Or, on a funny lighter note, or worst case you'll get necessary adrenaline to combat a big cat).
- And last but important: Follow the rules set by authorities about access limitations.