On a recent broiling afternoon, Shakuntala Satpute, 35, was collecting firewood in a patch of forest abutting this tiny village in central India, when a tiger pounced on her. 'Tiger! Tiger!' she screamed as her firewood went flying. Villagers scurried to the forest as they heard the screams, only to find a trail of blood leading to Satpute's mutilated body, which had been dragged deep into the woods. 'The tiger was so huge,' said Rukmani Satpute, the victim's sister-in-law, stretching her hands wide to indicate its size. Rukmani, who was with Shakuntala but managed to flee, shuddered as she described the massive cat. In villages like Uthalpeth, located in the Brahmapuri Forest Division of Chandrapur district in central India, a conflict is raging between man and beast. This region, at the threshold of a protected reserve called the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, is home to some 90 tigers. Since 2006, about 40 people have lost their lives in tiger attacks. Conservationists say the attacks are unusual, considering tigers in this area typically gorge themselves on wild cattle and have co-existed with villagers for decades. They blame the attacks on the disappearance of the tigers' traditional prey and a shrinking of their habitat. 'Why are humans suddenly figuring on tigers' menu in the Chandrapur Forest Circle? One reason is clear that the wild boar, deer and sambhars - the big cat's traditional prey - are dwindling,' a study by the wildlife protection group Satpuda Foundation said. India's tiger population has shrunk by 50 per cent in the past six years, dwindling to 1,411 animals from 3,642 in 2002. The reserve, which is home to 43 tigers, is a rare success story with tigers breeding exceedingly well. However, as the human population around the reserve swells, farmers are clearing more of the forested land to make room for cultivation and shepherds for grazing cattle. Loggers and poachers fell trees and hunt wild cattle, shrinking the existing tiger habitat. And that is creating pressure on tigers to prey on humans, conservationists say. 'Human interference' is the source of all the trouble, according to Kishor Rithe, the director of the Satpuda Foundation. Increasing human dependence on forests is creating an 'anthropogenic pressure' on tigers, causing them to prey on humans, he said. B. Majumdar, the region's chief conservator, said these attacks were possibly in self-defence. 'Let's not forget most of these cases have happened when people ventured into the forests,' he said. In Uthalpeth village, the threshold of the emerald-green forest had been receding by the year, said Nandaji Chalak, a 45-year-old paddy farmer, who was attacked by a tiger just two days after Shakuntala Satpute was killed, but managed to escape. 'Do you see that?' he said, pointing to a denuded hillock. 'That was once enveloped by tall trees.' As farming yields dwindle, villagers were turning to the forests to supplement their livelihoods, he said. Paddy farming keeps Mr Chalak's family going for only five months in a year. Like other villagers, he often ventures into the forest for bamboo, firewood, tendu (East Indian ebony) leaves to make beedi (a rurally made cigarette) and a wild flower called mahua, used to prepare country liquor. All these forest resources supplement his income. Mr Rithe added: 'Over the years, agriculture has failed to generate a substantial income for marginalised landholders. They don't have any other major source of livelihood besides selling minor forest produce.' India has experienced an economic boom since the early 2000s, but it has largely bypassed the farming sector. Agriculture employs two-thirds of India's 1.15 billion population, but it contributes a minuscule fraction to the growth of the gross domestic product. India's farm sector has grown by just 2.3 per cent over the past three years, and grain production remains stagnant. Eight million farmers quit farming between 1991 and 2001 alone, according to government statistics. Mr Rithe emphasises that the government needs to generate more non-forest-based employment for Chandrapur's farmers, so that they don't intrude on the tiger habitat. Satpute's killing has made Uthalpeth's residents restive. They are clamouring for the prowling tigers to be immediately 'killed or caged'. At sundown, farmers in this tranquil village abandon the paddy fields and head home. Children playing in the village square are ushered indoors. If they have to venture out to the fields, they do so wielding machetes and bamboo batons. Forest guards have erected makeshift watch towers in mango trees, and set up tiger traps baited with bleating goats. Forest officials share the concern that the rising animosity might lead to retaliatory killings of tigers. Three tigers were recently fatally poisoned in Junona, a village on the threshold of the reserve, after they killed domestic cattle. 'It is unlawful to kill a tiger, otherwise we'd hunt them down,' Mr Chalak said, bending over a fresh pug mark imprinted on a dirt road on the threshold of Uthalpeth. 'One of these killed our woman.' The tiger population, he contends, is rising sharply and getting out of control. But conservationists like Mr Rithe say that is not the case, insisting it is the human interference that is forcing tigers to stray towards villages. Conservationists point out that in the six villages inside the reserve, the story is markedly different. There are 43 tigers in the reserve's 625 sq km area, but they have never preyed on humans in the reserve, conservationists say. Forest reserve officials strictly enforce a ban on logging and poaching, thus maintaining a habitat for humans and tigers to coexist amicably. In a village called Jamni inside the reserve, Inder Shah Madhavi, 35, a paddy farmer, said he often saw tigers as he headed to his one-hectare plot. 'They are more scared of us than we are of them,' he said, adding that he did not feel they were hostile to him. The tigers, he said, protected his fields from wild boars, blue cows and sambhar deer - all animals that often destroy the paddy crop. 'The tiger is a friend, not an enemy.'