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Of human-wildlife interactions

Human-wildlife conflict management still remains a grey area for conservation practitioners

Experts estimate that at least 100 elephants and 400 people die every year in conflicts.
Experts estimate that at least 100 elephants and 400 people die every year in conflicts.

Imagine this: You’ve been losing a major portion of your monthly income; you know the source of the problem and have tried every technique possible to arrest the loss, but nothing has worked. You don’t have the option of changing your profession, or relocating. Over time, a sense of helplessness and desperation takes a toll.

It’s a scenario that is quite common among the rural population living in and around nature reserves—national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. They may inhabit the ecologically richest areas but they remain the most economically backward.

Whatever they try to cultivate, even for subsistence, on their small plots of agricultural land can be destroyed by marauding herbivores from the forest—wild boar, deer, antelope and elephant. Tigers and leopards lay siege to their livestock. Bear maulings are fairly common. In many instances, people sustain grievous injuries and families have to cope with loss of life and property. Mitigation strategies like fencing, bursting crackers and digging trenches work for a while but animals are clever enough to figure out a way to return. In some cases, the problem is just transferred to adjoining areas.

Today, loss of livelihood (crops and livestock), property damage, injury and death have become major challenges to wildlife conservation efforts. Expansion of human activity—from agriculture to rapid urbanization—has left forests fragmented, leading to an increase in the number of human-wildlife conflicts. News reports of leopards and elephant herds being spotted in and around urban areas have become frequent.

Elephants are among the worst affected, with experts estimating that at least 100 elephants and 400 people die every year in such conflicts.

At least 32 wildlife species damage life and property, according to a new study, History, Location And Species Matter: Insights For Human Wildlife Conflict Mitigation From India, by Krithi Karanth, conservation scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and Sahila Kudalkar, research associate with the Centre for Wildlife Studies. Wild boar, followed by the nilgai and elephant, were found to be the most destructive in fields, while tigers and leopards topped the list of livestock predators.

The study, conducted from 2011-14 and published last month, surveyed over 5,000 households across 11 wildlife reserves in India. In all, 72% of the 5,196 households reported conflict with wildlife. Seventy-one per cent of households reported crop losses and 17%, livestock losses; 3% reported injury to people and death, despite the use of at least 12 kinds of mitigation measures, like fencing, sounds to scare off animals and guarding fields at night. The highest reported conflict cases (84%) came from the Kanha forests in central India.

It isn’t as if animal raids and damage to farms are new. In the past, however, marginal farmers, in and around forest villages, would not bother if wild animals took away small amounts of their produce. But a rise in human population, a resource crunch, deforestation, and the increasing dispersal of wild animals in human-dominated landscapes, is taking a toll on this traditional tolerance of wildlife. Some of the states which reports considerable number human wildlife conflict incidents—Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand according to information collected by WWF India.

Unknown to many nature enthusiasts, wildlife has become omnipresent outside human-demarcated nature reserves. New studies have shown how humans and wildlife share the landscape. The advent of radio telemetry (using radio collars on wild animals) and camera traps in recent wildlife conservation studies have made it easier to assess how big cats (tigers and leopards) live and breed in fields in human-dominated landscapes.

The extent of loss and suffering, however, tends to be under-reported for a number of reasons. There is little awareness of government compensation schemes, and when there is, these come with time-consuming and cumbersome processes.

“In Rajasthan, there is no compensation for crop damage but the state provides compensation for livestock loss," says Karanth. Of the 2,233 households Karanth and her team surveyed in and around four wildlife reserves in the state, 76% reported crop damage and just 15%, livestock predation.

Karanth and her team, who have been studying human-wildlife interaction across the country for over a decade, have helped farmers get government compensation in Karnataka through the Wild Seve programme.

While many non-governmental organizations working on wildlife conservation have been stepping in to assist with insurance and relief schemes, human-wildlife conflict management remains a grey area for conservation practitioners. There aren’t too many studies on mitigation measures or their long-term success rates.

“Resolving human-wildlife conflict will require revisiting conservation policies, and investments by people and organizations. People may be better served by deploying early warning, compensation and insurance programmes rather than by focusing heavily on mitigation," says Karanth. For focusing on investments in mitigation measures can be a financial strain and continuing economic losses are bound to affect attitudes towards wildlife conservation. It could even push people towards retaliatory killings and undermine conservation efforts.

“Understanding people’s attitudes towards wildlife, wildlife reserves, and estimating losses caused by wildlife is a priority," adds Karanth. The future of conservation will depend on locally relevant interventions which can help sustain human livelihoods and restore tolerance towards wildlife. Time, however, is running out.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

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