Born to be Wild – And Hunted

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Standoff Just 45 km from Guwahati, elephants foraging for food caused a major crisis in 2012
Standoff Just 45 km from Guwahati, elephants foraging for food caused a major crisis in 2012

As the sun dawns on Madhya Pradesh’s Umaria district, a 48-year-old shepherd is mauled to death by a tiger. Villagers of Umaria, which forms the buffer zone of Bandhavgarh National Park, block state highway 11 in protests. In another part of the state, Panna tiger reserve, drones are being run on a trial basis to help ease human-animal conflicts. Up north in Srinagar, the state environment minister calls a meeting to discuss increasing instances of wild animal attack in Doda, Kupwara and Budgam districts. Down south in the Nilgiris, various political outfits demand a ‘permanent solution’ for tackling attacks by wild animals. All in a span of one month: August 2015.

Unlike these instances of human-animal conflict, the capture of Ustad, the famous tiger of Ranthambore in May 2015, became a subject of nationwide discussion. The big cat, a favourite of frequent travellers to the national park, received support from all quarters for immediate release back to his home. For a carnivore that had allegedly killed three patrol guards and was fighting charges of being a ‘maneater’, the support would have been overwhelming, had he been aware of it.

India has a network of 668 ‘protected areas’, as per data with the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC). This extends over 1.61 lakh square kilometres but is merely 4.9 percent of the country’s total geographic area. The protected areas include 102 national parks, 515 wildlife sanctuaries, 47 conservation reserves and four community reserves. Incidents of human-wildlife conflict occur in different parts of the country — be it snow leopards feeding off livestock in Himachal Pradesh, elephants entering paddy fields in the Western Ghats, demolishing makeshift camps of the army in the Garo hills located on the Indo-Bangladesh border, leopards strutting around residential areas of Mumbai or turtles lacerating fishermen’s nets in the Lakshadweep islands. The conflict turns ugly when there are deaths or damage to property, livestock and agriculture. As the last example shows, it’s not only big mammals who are causing grief to humans.

The most feared, of course, are predatory animals like the lion, tiger, leopard and elephant known for their ability to take lives and cause irreparable damage. Nilgai, wild boar, wolves and deer are other species also pose a challenge to many agricultural communities in India. In the year 2014, the National Crime Record Bureau noted 886 deaths due to animals while in 2011 and 2012, the numbers were 959 and 1,233.

Elephants in particular are attracted to sugarcane, paddy and maize fields. “For them it is maximising resource potential; food is readily available in fields and so they do not have to hunt for it,” says Akshita Misra, an environmental consultant based in Delhi. However, what is attractive to mammals like the elephant turns out to be destructive for farmers, whose fields are sometimes their only source of livelihood.

An example of the extent of the damage caused can be understood by a study conducted by the National Conservation Foundation (NCF) in the Western Ghats. There, over a period of five years (2007-12), the group observed 5,000 cases of crop destruction in 18 villages around the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. Similar instances, are part of the everyday lives of farmers in the Garo hills of Meghalaya, where crop raids by the pachyderms are frequent. In the Garo hills — an important remaining habitat for the Asian elephants in Northeast India — projects involving the community like participatory elephant monitoring has been undertaken to alleviate the human-elephant conflict. Conservationists say the trend is fuelled by humans who poach the habitat of elephants in search of resources, thereby competing with the mammal for space, water and food. For example, the conversion of large swathes of the forests into agricultural fields in Garo has drawn elephants near human settlements.

Fragmentation of land for agricultural and infrastructural purposes adversely affects these species, which are known to travel long distances every day. Construction of highways and train tracks amidst habitats have given rise to accidental deaths of elephants. “Animals do not recognise man-made boundaries: It is imperative to understand this,” points out Vidya Athreya, ecologist at Wildlife Conservation Society of India. In November 2013, seven elephants (including two calves) were mowed down by a train passing through the Chapramari forest in West Bengal. The train was passing through the Jalpaiguri district, a famous elephant corridor.

In December 2012, five elephants had met the same fate in Ganjam district, Odisha. From 2004 to 2013, deaths of 44 elephants were recorded in West Bengal alone, parallel to the conversion of the railway track from narrow to standard gauge.

“There is a mindset that wildlife belongs to a restricted area, and so an effort is made to keep them there,” says Athreya. This resistance to wild animals was clearly visible in Mumbai, where leopard sightings increased considerably from 2004 to 2013. The leopards first made headlines when they entered the premises of iit Mumbai, were later spotted curling up in residential areas encircling the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and then killed two children in succession. In one such instance, a leopard had killed a child and was spotted sitting on the child’s body. Conservationists speaking to media had said this behaviour was peculiar for a leopard and attributed it to stress or injury. The brutal deaths provoked residents to raise an alarm every time they spotted a leopard.

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