As organisers of the 21st International Bear Conference were busy receiving guests from 37 countries last weekend, news reached New Delhi that villagers in Kashmir had set a bear ablaze earlier in the week. Television news channels showed the desperate animal climbing a tree and the crowd reaching for it with burning clothes tied to a pole. Its pelt on fire, the bear jumped off and fled the murderous mob.
Six years ago, another bear was not as lucky. Another lynch mob in a Srinagar village stoned, thrashed and burnt the animal alive. Last year, villagers in Uttarakhand poured kerosene on a trapped leopard in transit and charred it in the presence of top forest officials. Shocking footage of both attacks made it to the national media.
Though gruesome, such assaults on the wild, particularly carnivores, are not aberrations. Man-animal conflict has always been real and is getting progressively worse. Space crunch due to exponential growth and development of human population and the resulting loss of wild habitat is the prime driver. Rapid colonisation of forests also brings settlers who are not used to living near wild animals. The result is frequent violation of the terms of co-existence, resulting in casualties on both sides.
One dangerous outcome of such ignorance and intolerance is the policy of capturing and shifting so-called problem animals elsewhere. This ends up fuelling, even creating, conflict because the displaced carnivores, often traumatised after prolonged captivity, try to find their way home and run into people on their way.
Whatever the trigger, bear victims crowd hospitals across the Kashmir Valley and elsewhere. In November alone, Mumbai lost a child and an elderly woman to leopards. This week’s first casualty, a woman, was from Odisha’s Ganjam district. Even tiger attacks are becoming routine. This year, the striped cat killed people in all corners of the country — from Sunderbans to Ranthambhore and Pilibhit to Mysore.
Human casualties aside, a majority of tigers in preydeficient forests are cattlelifters. The lions of Gujarat prefer buffaloes. At least half of the country’s leopard population possibly subsist only on non-forest prey in and around villages. Conflict also hurts productivity. Farmhands stay away when carnivores take shelter in fields and the damage can be significant for cash crop businesses.
So, retaliatory attacks on the wild have become preemptive and brutal. This is not some fad that most conservation NGOs and activists believe can be countered by awareness drives. While it is possible to imbibe tolerance to overlook financial damage, particularly when covered under a good compensation scheme, losing human lives or the fear of it is an emotion almost impossible to reason with.
More than 15 crore people live in and around India’s forests that host at least 10,000 carnivores. Each of these animals makes a kill every week. Annually, that works out to more than 5 lakh kills. We are too many and too easy to hunt down, and yet the number of human casualties does not add up to even 200. Clearly, carnivores do not consider us food. If only the logic was comforting enough.
“Can you guarantee that no one in my family will ever be hurt if we allow leopards on this property?” shot back an estate manager I recently met in Assam. More than 80,000 die in road accidents in India every year. Drowning kills many more. That is the cost people pay for living close to highways or rivers for obvious benefits. The planter agreed, but refused to discuss the benefits of having leopards around: “I don’t want my dog lifted. Liza is part of the family.”
When I shared this story, some conservationists frowned on me for giving up on that planter and tried to coach me on converting people. Unfortunately, the very basis of conflict resolution strategies offered in most campaigns is not only contradictory to the contemporary conservation goals, but also naïvely misleading.
On and around World Environment Day this year, a proud conservation story appeared in the media. Kerala’s Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary recorded 80 tigers, mostly a transient population between Bandipur and Nagarhole. Though these are tigers merely passing through this 344.44 sq km patch, they were celebrated as the second largest population of big cats in south India.
Cattle-lifting has been an issue at Wayanad since mid-1990s, but the hype over tiger numbers alarmed the locals. So last month, villagers reacted violently when two tigers were spotted preying on livestock. They blocked the national highway, forced the authorities to set up trap cages, and went ballistic when a caged tiger was released back into the sanctuary.
Tiger experts and managers dubbed it a problem of plenty. Since the Bandipur- Nagarhole-Mudumalai-Wayanad landscape is saturated with tigers, they said, the surplus population is venturing out. Same is the story with Ranthambhore, where conflict is escalating. Too many cubs here in the past few years has resulted in the spillover population moving out of the secure national park to the rest of the reserve and beyond.
The old school of conservation that swears by the protected forest model feels that surplus populations are doomed in areas that harbour no wild prey. They also fear that these conflict-prone tigers will erode the goodwill conservation efforts need to protect key populations within reserves. So, problem tigers outside forests, they concede, will have to be euthanised.
A younger generation of experts, however, believes that the future of conservation is outside the islands of protected forests that bottleneck populations of animals. For them, the ever-shrinking sanctuaries can at best serve as breeding grounds that maintain source populations of tigers (and other wildlife), but survival of wild species will depend on their acceptance among people in human-dominated landscapes.
Conflict resolution is the most important challenge before this co-existence model. Denial of food to wild carnivores — through proper disposal of waste, securing cattle and poultry in fortified pens, and reducing the number of feral dogs and pigs — is a key strategy here. But while food scarcity does dissuade a population from breeding, nothing stops animals passing by.
When a surplus tiger struggles to find prey in a saturated reserve, it does not step out knowing there will be food. It simply wanders and chances upon cattle or feral dogs outside. If it does not find any, it will only look further. Likewise, more surplus tigers from forests may come checking. These transient animals are more likely to be conflict-prone than a resident tiger familiar with the place.
True, conflict will come down over time if food is effectively and consistently denied to the wild across vast areas, but only because it will cause carnivores outside the forest to die of hunger. Clearly, a zero-damage arrangement of co-existence is non-existent.
The only way forward is to incentivise inevitable losses. The intricate ecosystem services of wild carnivores may charm conservationists, but the masses demand more tangible benefits. For all the chaos over tourism, conservation still enjoys more goodwill in Ranthambhore where tigers are killing people than in Wayanad where only livestock have been targeted so far.
Meanwhile, we must learn co-existence first as people. It may appear ridiculous that the celebration over 80 tigers degenerated to persecution of the 81st in less than six months. But before deciding how many is too many, let’s ask ourselves if the celebrators and persecutors were ever in it together.
Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent journalist