Rising deaths due to man-animal conflict

Man-animal conflict: Rising deaths, but ignored realities

What mitigation measures are being tried out to arrest the rising conflicts? What about the governments? Are their policies based on verifiable data and reality checks? Rasheed Kappan writes for The Probe.
First Published: Nov 24,2022 05:00PM
by Rasheed Kappan

Rail and road projects through wildlife habitats often lead to accidents and fatal interactions | Pic by: Ankit Kashyap | Courtesy: Centre for Wildlife Studies

A leopard killed inside a tea estate in Dibrugarh, screams a headline from Assam in November. In distant Mysore down South, another leopard kills a student and attacks a biker and forest staffer in the same month. A wild elephant tramples a sixty-year-old man in Kerala’s Palakkad to death, adding to the State’s record of highest human casualties in such conflicts over the last four years.

These deadly man-animal conflicts are now in sharp focus as debates and protests intensify over the Supreme Court directive in June to earmark 1 km buffer zones and Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZ) around wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. But does this amount to escalation?

The conflicts are often attributed to the fragmentation of forest areas, forcing animals to stray into human settlements and farmlands. In the last financial year alone, Kerala recorded 27 human deaths in conflict with wild elephants. This broke the 2016-17 record of 26 deaths caused by both elephants and wild boars. Tigers and leopards continued to kill cattle, mimicking a trend in States with large forest areas countrywide.

Inevitably, shrinking natural habitats and the rising human population have triggered a spike in man-animal conflicts as interactions rise over space for food and water. Scientific studies have established that fragmentation of forests deprives wild animals of their natural resources, forcing them to move out, affecting livestock, plantations and human lives. Fragmentation creates patches, disrupting the connectivity of forests.

The science is clear. But as protests by conflict-affected communities grow and governments and forest departments struggle with compensations and enforcement of controversial laws, wildlife conservationists are seeking a balance.

In a nutshell, this is what they say: “Do not evict tribal communities and forest dwellers who have had a symbiotic relationship with animals for centuries. Unlike encroachers, the tribes do not see the deaths as conflicts. The cases might be perceived as rising due to amplified attention by social media. Making laws without a vision will get us nowhere.”

Conflict numbers

The data on conflicts is not clear, notes K Ullas Karanth, Emeritus Director, Centre for Wildlife Studies. Conflicts leading to crop damage from herbivores and livestock predation by carnivores had increased in regions where wildlife numbers had risen after the 1970s when strong anti-hunting laws were implemented. However, in eastern and northeastern India, where implementation of such laws is weak, this has not been the case, he points out.

Besides, he says, “advent of cellphones, electronic and social media now highlights such cases more quickly and rapidly making the rise in conflict far more intense than it actually is. The resurgence of conflict is mostly around wildlife reserves which occupy less than 5% of our land but seem more widespread because, unlike in the past, people air their complaints more widely too.”

Roads built through forests often lead to elephant sightings, some fatal, some arousing curiosity and interest | Pic by: Avijan Saha | Courtesy: Centre for Wildlife Studies

For example, in the 18th and 19th centuries, hundreds of human beings were killed by tigers each year. “Now it is a dozen or so cases in a year across the country. The most serious conflict now involves elephants (usually around crop raiding) with about 500 humans being killed each year.”

Not conflict, but ‘sharing’

Looking at this conflict purely from a material perspective will be to ignore the complexities involved, notes a seasoned wildlife conservationist, preferring anonymity. “It is not just about animals destroying crops or livestock. The relationships between humans and potentially dangerous animals have always involved certain negative interactions. How we make sense of these is what has changed,” he explains.

“It is not suddenly that leopards or tigers are killing livestock, or elephants are raiding crops. It has been happening forever,” he notes, drawing attention to a researcher’s experience while doing a survey in the Mudumalai forest reserve in Karnataka. “The researcher found that marginal cultivators near large populations of elephants and pigs did not see it as a conflict. They did not see elephants raiding their crops as a problem at all.”

The cultivators from the Irula tribe saw it as a shared space. “They told the researcher that some years they get lucky, and some years the elephants get lucky. It is basically a gamble. Both are trying to make a living from the land, and that’s how it works.”

So a community that grows crops for its own food security sees it as sharing. “Sharing food in our culture, regardless of what they are. There is an amount of piety involved. This is common to many cultures across our country. It then makes sense to see the elephant in the image of God or something supernatural. This is very different from saying an animal destroyed my crop,” elaborates the conservationist.

Working with tribal communities for over four decades in Hunsur near the Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka, Dr S Sreekant, director of the non-government organisation, Development through Education (DEED), deeply understands this relationship. “For decades, the communities and the State forest departments worked together for the welfare of animals. The Wildlife (Protection) Act ensures that only the forest department is allowed to do that. Earlier, communities on the forest fringes and forest dwellers would cultivate ragi, paddy and other crops, which both animals and people shared. Today, due to this separation, there is no valuable fodder for the animals,” he explains.

The department does not allow any intervention by the communities. “Even planting a tree is not allowed. Animals dependent on vegetation are in serious trouble. The erstwhile forest dwellers are also not allowed to take out the weeds, which are spreading very fast inside the forest. This restricts animal movement. Even tigers find it tough to run,” says Dr Sreekant.

Short-staffed, the forest department staff are finding it tough to manage alone without support, he points out. “In the Hanagod area here, many people have lost their livestock, sheep and goats. The forest demands 24 hours, and the staff are tired. It is important to respect the neighbouring communities, take their support, and involve them.”

Srikant and DEED intervened when about 5,000 tribal families were evicted from the Nagarhole National Park area. “We filed a public interest litigation in the Karnataka High Court in 1999 and got an order to rehabilitate them. But the report, submitted by a court-appointed committee, is yet to be implemented,” he informs.

The extension of the Nagarhole forest area by about 200 sqkm on the H D Kote side has meant there is no place to resettle the evicted communities. “The Court had identified 3,418 families for resettlement. But with the remaining area being declared a reserve forest, resettlement has become an issue. A minimum of 9,000 acres of land is required.”

Voices from the ground

Seventy-year-old Basavaraju was one of the thousands evicted from Nagarhole decades ago. Today, he struggles to make a daily living with his four daughters and a son. “I have lost three cattle and four goats to leopard attacks. Each goat cost me Rs 15,000. I don’t know how to repay my loans,” he laments.

A forest department staffer inspects the carcass of a calf killed in a leopard attack in Karnataka | Pic by: Anubhav | Courtesy: Centre for Wildlife Studies

Elephants frequently get into his jowar and ragi fields, adding to the losses. “They come in groups of three to four and destroy everything. If there is light in the area, they tend to stay out. But there is no power here. Even to cook, we depend on batteries,” complains Basavaraju, who was allotted a two-acre plot of land in Vijayagirihadi in Hunsur taluk.

Evicted but resettled in Kolavige Hadi in Dodda Hijjuru within a one-kilometre radius of Nagarhole forest is Jayappa. Now 52, he recalls how his grandfather and family were forced out of the forest after living there for generations. “The government, while carving out corridors, should realise that we are also part of that ecosystem. We have had a symbiotic, sustained relationship with the animals there,” he says.

Elephants do try to get into Jayappa’s land. But he is lucky that a forest post is nearby. “They have built 8-9 ft high railings as barricades. It does work, and the staff help us drive away the herds. As for leopards, we have not had any incidents.”

Shrinking cover

As for fragmentation, the story continues. A 2016 land use analysis study in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka was a telling comment on the state of affairs: It found that the evergreen to semi-evergreen forest cover had fallen from 57.31% in 1979 to 32.08% in 2013. The study was anchored by Dr T V Ramachandra from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

Man-animal conflicts have consistently risen in several parts of Karnataka. In the Virajpet division in the Kodagu district, crop-raiding by elephants is a recurring affair. It was estimated that in the vicinity of the State’s Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary, the average losses due to elephant raids amount to 11% of the monetary value of the grain production of the affected households.

Wildlife Corridors

Shrinking wildlife corridors have only aggravated the crisis. In South India, most man-animal conflicts have been recorded from fragmented forest areas/edge forests. Particularly hit are protected areas and national parks. The big list with the maximum instances of conflicts includes the Bandipur National park covering border areas of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamilnadu, the Wayanad Sanctuary, BRT, Nilambur forest division in Kerala and the Nilgiris.

Tigers, leopards and elephants are often the animals involved. Wildlife experts draw attention to the Kerala villages of Pudussery, Walayar and Mannarkkad, where conflicts arise in perforated areas. But in Attapadi, Agali, Sholayur, Kottekad and Malampuzha regions, the conflicts are reported around the edge and transitional forests.

Elephants frequently stray into human settlements in the Karnataka villages of Chowrira, Koderi, Guyya, Ammathi, Virajpet, Ponnampet, Kanoor, Srimangala and Madare. Forest department reports indicate that tigers enter areas such as Kottageri, Hangala, Hanchipura, Kalsur, Madanayakanahally, Hanchipura and Chikkabargi.

Many areas on the forest fringes are shared spaces, transcending definitions of conflict | Pic by: Avijan Saha | Courtesy: Centre for Wildlife Studies

Animal movements are being choked both by industrial-scale projects as well as rural development activities such as rural roads and powerlines, notes Ullas Karanth. “Fragmentation has increased in many areas because of fresh forest encroachments, being encouraged by the thoughtless implementation of the poorly drafted Forest Rights Act (FRA). While the media focus only on industrial level project impacts, it downplays the massive ongoing fragmentation driven by rural and local pressures which are often more severe,” he says.

Marginal to year-round cultivation

The dramatic change in the way people cultivate has deeply impacted man-animal interactions. In rain-fed areas, marginal cultivation meant farmers grew one crop during a maximum period of four to six months a year. Today, there is increased exploitation of groundwater for year-round cultivation of high-value crops such as sugarcane.

So, what are the consequences? “It can be seen, for instance, in Bandipur, where farmers used to plough their land in April and cultivate till November, completing an entire farming cycle. Between December and April, the land would be empty, open and free of vegetation. A leopard will not enter that place since there is no cover,” the conservationist points out.

Today, the same place has transformed where sugarcane and banana are grown right throughout the year. “Leopards that always had dogs, cattle and goats to feed on in the surrounding landscape now have a place to hide. A predator needs both cover and prey to thrive, and leopards are incredibly adaptable.”

But old rules do not acknowledge this adaptability to novel habitats. “It is only humans who expect the leopard to live in the forest. The leopard is happy to live in any place with food and cover. So, the narrative that animals are losing habitat, and that is why they are straying into human settlements, is simplistic. Animals have an extremely good sense of space. They don’t stray. They are there because they want to be there.”

Conservationists do not even want to acknowledge and assess these novel habitats. “Look at Hassan, where elephants practically live on private land, causing enormous problems. Recently, one man was killed, and protesting crowds did not allow his body to be removed. There is only about five sq km of a reserve forest in a landscape of about 300 sq km. These elephants stay in the coffee estates at night, come out and feed on the paddy fields. They are thriving, and they are not stray animals.”

Mitigation measures

So, what mitigation measures are being tried out to arrest the rising conflicts? Restricting the conversion of forest land into cropland is one. Experts are unanimous that monoculture plantations that deprive wild animals of their food, fodder and water should be minimised. To ensure the continuity of animal corridors, the key is to regenerate natural forests.

Scene after an elephant raid on the forest fringe | Courtesy: From the Archives of Centre for Wildlife Studies

Wildlife conservation should be practised beyond national parks and sanctuaries. Buffer regions outside the protected area networks often serve as vital ecological corridor links. It is critical to protect them to avoid the isolation of fragments of biodiversity. Buffer zones with controlled land use activities are seen as a strategy to reduce the influence of surrounding land use on biodiversity within the protected area.

The conflicts are most intense in and around wildlife sanctuaries, where animal densities and interspersion of human activities with wildlife are high. “This interspersion needs to be reduced through voluntary and fair resettlement of villages and families away from wildlife reserves wherever possible with a total focus and major investments,” says Ullas Karanth.

‘Kill dangerous animals’

Besides compensating human victims, dangerous animals such as man-eating tigers should be promptly killed, he says. “The present policy of trying to capture and release them elsewhere and introducing captive raised big cats into the wilds are futile, unscientific and will only aggravate the problem.”

A lot of ‘wildlife activism’, he notes, is driven by emotion and not science. “That does not help. Urban citizens, safe from depredation by big cats protesting prompt elimination of man-eaters, is an example of such ‘activism’ that does not help.”

What about the governments? Are their policies based on verifiable data and reality checks? For instance, are radio-collaring of animals being tried out to tackle their movements and activate mitigation measures?

Scene after a plantation raid by elephants | Courtesy: From the Archives of Centre for Wildlife Studies

There is very little science in wildlife management across India, says Ullas. “The increased monopolisation of wildlife research by the Government agencies has led to suppression of quality science. This when the money being spent has increased multiple folds. There are no mechanisms in place to infuse genuine expertise into the wildlife sector on a systematic basis.”

Radio collaring, he says, is just a research tool for generating useful data through scientific publications. “It is now used for gimmicks mostly by government agencies. More than 70-80 tigers have been radio-collared in the past decade in India by government scientists. Where are the data from these, and where is the science?” he wonders.

The same is the case with camera traps. “What is missing is a scientific mindset itself, unlike in other sectors like medicine, engineering and agriculture, where scientists have made a real difference.”

New wildlife reserves

Despite protests from environmentalists, many road and rail projects are being proposed and green-signalled through forest patches in many States. Ullas agrees that, in some cases, these will aggravate the conflicts. “In other cases, mitigation can be built in. An approach of compensating for their damage by carving out new wildlife reserves is worth pursuing but has not been tried out at all much in our country.”

He draws attention to Latin America, where such ‘offsets’ have been helpful. “Also, continued use of old technologies, such as highways cutting across the surface of narrow but bio-diverse regions like the Western Ghats, should be replaced by Tunnels and High Arch bridges. While expensive, they offer permanent solutions.”

But, he laments, “there is no vision of such ecological approaches either in the contractor-driven mindset of the bureaucracy or among the wizards of the profitable IT and BT industries, who appear to monopolise scientific advice to the government on all matters. New ideas and solutions cannot emerge unless genuine scientific expertise plays a role in landscape-level conservation efforts.”

Rasheed Kappan is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru with nearly three decades of experience. In the past, he has worked in the Deccan Herald, The Hindu and The Times of India, covering issues related to urban mobility, sustainibility, environment and the interface between policy, planning and activation on the ground. A graphic cartoonist, he is the founder of Kappansky and explores the linkages of art, media and innovation through multiple creative platforms.

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