Environment / Wildlife Conservation

Great Beasts III: how WE are driving Human-Wildlife conflict

What causes a gentle elephant to die on a railway track or go on a ‘rampage’? What stops the tiger from crossing the road?

Little-understood environmental clearances (roads, railways, highways), pigheadedness (making expensive walls elephants can break to keep them in) and an exclusively human-centric approach is increasing human-wildlife conflict throughout India.

Earlier this month, a leopard entered a school in Bangalore, injuring three people who tried to catch it. A few days later, an elephant tore through Siliguri town, breaking walls and smashing vehicles. Both incidents involve animals creating havoc where it was least expected: in places where people lived. And headlines suggest that we are in the deep throes of a human-wildlife conflict that consistently puts human lives at stake.

Other animal encounters are imperilling people’s livelihoods as well. For instance, in high-altitude villages in Ladakh and Spiti, snow leopards eat people’s livestock while posing no threats to the people themselves. “The snow leopard has eaten my donkeys which are crucial for my income,” says Nyamgal Lobsang, a villager who lives in Rumbak village in Ladakh’s Hemis National Park.

And the last few months have seen many moves by the government to declare species that impact livelihood as vermin: the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has asked states to report on which animals should be declared as such and culled. Many states have also named wild boars as pests; the state of Goa is considering declaring these animals as well as peacocks as vermin. In several instances, leopards, elephants and tigers have been forcibly caught and relocated away from places of conflict.

The clashes are rampant and often serious. Studies by Barua et al (2012) suggest that such interactions with wildlife entail direct financial losses as well as hidden costs, including the toll of fear, lack of social standing, loss of sleep, missed school attendance, and so forth. When Lobsang first lost his donkey, for instance, he recalls his utter frustration at not knowing whom to blame.

So, is successful conservation and the persistence of species leading to more conflict with people? “Certainly,” says Qamar Qureshi from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous institution under the MoEF&CC that works on wildlife research and management. “But the fundamental problem is not an increase in species numbers but the fact that we still do not have any policies to deal with animals outside protected areas,” he says. “We do not think about their dispersal, or the wider landscape. We manage protected areas and forget about the animal once it leaves the sanctuary.”

The human dimensions of conflicts

Blackbucks (shown here in a field in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh) often feed in cultivated fields, causing crop damage. Credit: Neha Sinha

The Kanha-Pench corridor in Madhya Pradesh is a good example. It serves as a hub between the Kanha, Pench, Satpura and Bor reserves. WII released a report on tiger corridors and detailed those used by tigers to move between these reserves, calling for their especial protection. But a proposal for widening National Highway 7, which bifurcates this area, has been cleared by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the MoEF&CC without even acknowledging the presence of tigers. Specifically, the FAC report says “no tigers” were found in the project area.

The ‘human’ in ‘human-wildlife conflicts’ suggests that many drivers of conflicts are the result of poor management, misguided clearance decisions and apathy. One of the worst recorded conflicts between elephants and people occurred  in the Alur area of Karnataka, where a herd of elephants killed several people in July 2014 and ate their crops. Genetic analyses of their droppings suggested that the animals were a non-traditional herd, with many of its individuals unrelated among themselves. The inference was that non-related females and males had colonised the herd and that the herd itself was created under high conflict situations. Following the deaths, twenty-three of these elephants were caught and relocated. Was the problem solved?

Far from it. “After the elephants were taken away, there is still loss of crops by other elephants. We look at the elephants as the problem and consider that taking away the elephants will solve the problem,” says T.R. Shankar Raman, a scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). But instead, we may be creating more problems. “The elephants that are there now have not killed people. So, the area is no more under the scanner. But what have we left the local people with?” he asks. “Who will address the other dimensions and reasons for conflict?”

If we looked beyond the allegedly offending animals, there lie other factors determining the context of people’s encounters with the animals. For example, the people in Alur had asked for better lighting and school buses to transport their children; a casual night-time stroll is capable of surprising both humans and elephants. But none of these demands have been met.

Apart from conflicts involving one side having gone ‘rogue’, the data suggests that there are hotspots that are spatially specific as well. Numbers put together by the Wildlife Protection Society of India, an NGO, on animal mortality as a result of collisions with trains showed that between 2011 and 2015, tigers, bisons, elephants and nilgai, and even birds like vultures, were killed. Topping the list were elephants. In 2011, trains had mowed down 13 elephants; and then 20 in 2012; 29 in 2013; six in 2014; and 11 in 2015. However, a majority of these deaths were on a single railway line: the Jalpaiguri broad-gauge. There are reports that 48 elephants have died on this line alone since 2004.

Trying to dismiss the problem

People track an elephant along the Jalpaiguri line in North Bengal. Credit: Aditya Panda

The behavioural ecology of the elephant is such that it needs to be able to move to its sources of water and food. And because of their tendency to move around in herds, more than one elephant is injured or killed in accidents. And as highways and railway tracks fragment habitats, herds are also trapped within pockets.

In Odisha, a herd of elephants is currently trapped between the Chandaka and the Kapilash wildlife sanctuaries. The elephants started venturing out of Chandaka in 2002, but the corridors since then have been eaten away by roads and factories, leaving the elephants with no means of reaching Kapilash. Meanwhile, authorities started the construction of sturdy stone walls around the same time to prevent the animals from leaving. One such wall on the northern side has actually prevented Athgarh’s stranded elephants from returning into the sanctuary. Only this year, with parts of it broken, have they managed to return temporarily.

The problem once again lies with treating the symptoms and not the disease itself.

“Watchers have been employed to chase the elephants when they come too close. The forest department appears to have decided that Chandaka should not have elephants again,” remarks Aditya Panda, an Odisha-based conservationist. “The real solution is habitat restoration but this is unglamorous and no one wants to do this. Thus, chasing off elephants temporarily is paraded as a solution. Here, a sanctuary, protected on paper by law, is being lost to apathy. In other places where government wilfully diverts wildlife habitat, what does one do there?” he asks.

The reason the elephants left Chandaka in the first place was human disturbance. “Chandaka was encroached by five villages from northern Odisha. Till 2002, there were about 85 elephants. By 2006, all but 15-20 were left. The herds have dispersed to other parts of the state that are inhospitable. Many have perished.” And those that have survived are now refugees repeatedly coming in conflict with humans. Additionally, according to Panda, the calves born into such herds have a higher chance of growing up like children do in war-zones: confused, traumatised, and likelier to participate in future conflicts.

Operating in denial

A closer look at the way environmental clearances are granted shows that the impacts of projects on wildlife have been consistently ignored. Despite the Jalpaiguri elephant deaths, the Sevoke Rangpo line, to be laid in the same area, was cleared in 2015. It will cut through the Chapramari-Kalimpong-Mahananda elephant corridor. Clearance for coal mining in the Parsa Kante-Basan coal blocks in Chhattisgarh, densely populated by elephants, was also given by the MoEF&CC, with no mention of mitigation strategies for elephants (but was struck down by the National Green Tribunal in 2014). While authorities refused to accept the presence of elephants in the area, it was eventually established by examining records of compensations provided in the aftermath of human-elephant conflicts. “Under the Environment Impact Assessment process, even studies done by institutes of repute, wildlife is just not considered,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta. “If a wildlife sanctuary is involved, then the animal will be mentioned. Otherwise, in most cases, there is complete denial of the animal even being near the project site.”

Simply put, denying the existence of a potentially dangerous animal leads to conflict, even if solutions exist and have been mooted. In 2010, the report of an Elephant Task Force was submitted, while a background paper for the National Board for Wildlife was submitted in 2011. Both recommend that trains should slow down while passing through known animal corridors and that sensors should be installed. These recommendations have not been implemented – and elephants continue to lose their lives in these areas, hit by trains. In Jalpaiguri, seven elephants were killed by a train travelling at 80 kilometres per hour in 2013, following a similar incident two years prior.

An important issue that causes humans and animals to become proximate to each other is food – rather, its availability and sources. Garbage attracts animals and is a determinant in conflict. The dog population has exploded due to more garbage. Leopards (and even tigers) have been known to eat dogs that forage on garbage. So, to prevent leopards from coming into cities, garbage has to be managed better. A collaborative project around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Maharashtra educates people on how to avoid leopards and what to do if the cats are indeed encountered; this includes keeping dogs well protected, decreasing open garbage dumps and not crowding around the animals.

In our environmental decision-making landscape, there are various technicalities related to environmental indicators but no proper wildlife impact assessments. “We keep encountering EIAs that do not mention species. Instead of pretending there are no animals in the landscape, let us start by acknowledging their presence,” says Dutta. “We need to create staging areas where animals can safely cross railway lines, highways, etc. And we need to look at the landscape and how it is used in its totality.”

Something for the people

Tourists in Rumbak village, Leh. Credit: Neha Sinha

Another important aspect is focusing on the problems that people have. “Different state governments want to cull wild boars and other animals that may be declared vermin. In Uttarakhand, they may kill the boars for a year, but then what?” questions Vidya Athreya, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society of India. “The focus is on the animal when it should be on the people – we have to develop proactive methods of preventing livestock loss and crop loss using traditional knowledge and new technology.”

People also suffer due to other synergistic factors, sometimes dubbed ‘human-human conflicts’. In Rumbak, a village in the Leh tehsil of Jammu and Kashmir, for example, the issue of donkeys being occasionally killed by snow leopards exacerbates the already hard life of the villagers, which includes battling the elements and cultivating stony, hard soil for the barley grown in the area. By way of compensating for snow-leopard kills, an NGO called the Snow Leopard Conservancy set up an eco-tourism initiative in the village from 2003 (and which the forest department took over in 2008). The department extended help by providing solar panels, popularising the initiative in the area and by setting up home-stays. After first getting off to a rocky start, villagers like Lobsang recognised that the efforts were to offset the losses in livestock. The initiative seeks to address people’s aspirations and not just incidents of conflict. “The animal will still eat my donkeys,” he says. “But tourists come to see the snow leopard.” Lobsang now makes some extra money through home-stays and leasing out his donkeys to tourists for carrying provisions.

As more natural habitats get usurped by human activity, conflict is likely to increase. The ‘Make in India’ programme will be creating hundreds of kilometres of highways and roads in addition to those already stumbling through reserves and sanctuaries – so it’s only fair that wildlife impact assessments should be done at least in biologically rich areas, a longstanding demand by conservationists.

This piece first appeared in The Wire.

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