New Delhi: The recent death of a wild elephant that was first chased away by villagers and later died by getting stranded on a railway fence in Karnataka’s Nagarhole National Park, has put the spotlight back on the human-wildlife conflict.
In the past year alone, as many as 97 elephants have died due to man-animal clashes. A total of 490 elephants have died since 2013.
But human wildlife conflict is a misnomer. Wildlife and people are not in conflict with each other. Sure, they occasionally face problems with each other as both need to share the same space and resources. An elephant finds the crops at the edge of the forest delectable, but for the farmer the crops are his bread and butter.
Both elephants and humans vie for the harvest. If the farmers have worked hard to till the soil, the elephants have ensured rainfall by spreading the forests when they dispersed seeds over long distances. The conflict arises because both want to use the same resources but are unable to reach a middle ground.
Wildlife causes very little damage to human property and life compared to several other causes when viewed from a broader perspective. A lot more people die due to malaria or get injured in traffic accidents compared to what wildlife can do in a decade, and yet, to a poor farmer whose yearly subsistence is damaged by elephants the impact can be very real and severe.
It is also important to realise that feeding on crops by wild herbivores is as ancient as farming. Some societies that have historically lived near the forests, like the farmers near Tadoba Tiger Reserve, have accepted that a part of their farm will be eaten by wild herbivores since it is also their area. This is probably an ancient coping strategy to deal with crop loss in an area that also is home to wild animals.
When a farmer starts growing cash crops for which he has taken loans, the extent of damage can prove costlier and hence acceptance towards the losses may be low.
The biggest issue plaguing the wildlife and human interactions in India today is the notion that wild animals should be confined to forests only and this is in direct contravention with how our people have shared spaces with large wildlife over hundreds of years and still continue to do so.
Our analysis of researches carried out in India on large cats such as tigers and leopards found that the majority of the research was restricted to inside protected areas. With a limited view of the wildlife through the protected areas lens, we have ended up believing that animals should only exist there. But 95 per cent of spaces that are outside protected areas all have wildlife.
One great Indian bustard that was GPS-tagged was found to have used more than 1,000 sq km area across three states. So how does one restrict it to a 5 sq km protected area? An elephant in West Bengal went across to Nepal and came back, covering over 700 sq km area. How does one expect him to live in a 600 sq km protected area?
As long as we believe that wild animals have to be confined within forests, there will not be any right solutions in sight because our presumption itself is faulty. On the contrary, we may end up restricting wildlife forcibly to protected areas and jeopardise their conservation in the process.
Since the lines of restriction – protected areas -- have been drawn by humans, the humans only can understand them. Another area of problem is that the issue is one related to humans and their interactions with wildlife but all our interventions are targeted at wildlife, especially techno-management such as sleeper fences and capturing tigers the moment they step foot outside protected areas.
Recent studies and discussions in the field indicate that it is critical to concentrate on the human dimension of these issues and that we will not resolve the issue by involving merely the biologists who study the animals. We need people who also understand the human side of it.
It is also increasingly evident that the forest departments cannot do it all by themselves as wildlife does not heed to them. For emergencies, they require the help of the police, the revenue department, media etc. But all these engagements need to be done before a problem arises. The police must know that they have to control the mob when an elephant is in town before the elephant actually comes to town and things go out of control.
We are already beginning to see such collaborations in multiple states. Some forest departments under good officers are able to maintain good connection and rapport with other departments.
In a way, these wild animals which roam our lands and have been doing so ever since people have been living in this country, are forcing us to open doors of engagement between different agencies. They are forcing biologists to interact with social scientists and with the media — which has so far been working in its own self-contained silos.
A powerful way forward would be to accept that wildlife is never going to understand our boundaries of where we think it should be restricted to. We also need targeted actions to sensitise humans about this aspect.
Also, the forest departments must change the way they deal with humans. For a large part, these departments are a colonial force that polices the forests. But when dealing with wildlife that stays among people, the officials need to don a different hat — that of assisting the people who suffer damage to wild animals. These
departments needs to be people-friendly and acquire strong public relations skills.
Every time a problem was been solved was when the actions were directed towards the public. While compensation is touted as a good solution, many forest officers that I have interacted with tell me it is not an easy thing to implement in a country like India that is burdened with corruption and loopholes. Furthermore the compensation scheme is not transparent and subjective in its assessment of loss.
Instead of top down government schemes, it is community-planned, run and managed schemes that are likely to be more successful due to the inherent nature of the community involvement.
Studies have shown that often human wildlife conflicts represent human-human conflicts. We see this when the public burns the forest department vehicles in ire -- they are targeting their frustrations at a force they otherwise cannot do anything to, and any wild animal incident is then used as an excuse. This is why establishing healthy communication between the locals and authorities is critical Shift from reactive measures (such as compensation) to proactive measures such as providing assistance in building livestock shelters, assistance for community run electric fences, awareness about the issue and possible solutions that arise out of discussion with the communities themselves rather than techno management solutions that are top down.
Fencing the forest for elephants has seen to be a failure in neighbouring Sri Lanka because elephants live on both sides. They do not accept the notion of a fence. Community managed fences around croplands are much more effective. Only a combination of a good understanding of wildlife outside Protected Areas and combining it with a focus on the human dimension in a proactive way is the way forward to shift from conflict to a more peaceful relationship between wildlife and humans in India. A relationship that is as old as our civilisation.
The author is an ecologist working on human wildlife relationships in the backdrop of socio-cultural ethos in India. Views are personal.