Human-Animal Conflicts in India: Can We All Coexist?
The series of human-animal conflicts goes way back to primitive times, especially in a country like India that has a huge human population and a vast range of biodiversity. The land is limited and so are the resources. But, since the human settlements have reached the edges of forests, episodes of human-animal conflicts have increased as the wild animals often wander into the human colonies due to the dwindling forest area.
Episodes of Human-Animal Conflicts
Last year, a six-year-old tigress named Avni was shot dead by a private hunter’s son for allegedly killing 13 people in Maharashtra. After the incident, there was an outpouring of grief, anger, and protests from many regions of the country. Maharashtra government was criticized for ordering the kill despite opposition from several stakeholders.
Just a day after the ‘ghastly murder’ of Avni, another tigress was run over and beaten to death by angry villagers after she mauled a 50-year-old man in Utter Pradesh. On the same day, a leopard snuck into the Gujrat secretariat and the sprawling complex had to be cordoned off.
Seven elephants died of electrocution in Odisha only a week before that incident. An adult female elephant was deliberately electrocuted in the state’s Rourkela forest division for frequently damaging crops in the area. The killing was labeled a ‘revenge killing’ which is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon as human-animal conflict gradually becomes the order of the day. In Assam, 62 elephants have died in since January this year while 63 people have been killed in human-elephant conflicts.
As per the state forest department data, Uttarakhand has lost 34 lives to human-animal conflicts in 2019. The data only includes deaths due to attacks by wild animals such as leopards, elephants, bears, and tigers.
In a fifth such incident in recent weeks, a leopard mauled a 65-year-old labourer to death in Uttar Pradesh’s in Bijnor district. Hours after killing the labourer, a farmer was also attacked by a big cat, near the same spot. The animal has been declared ‘man-eater.’
According to the Environment Ministry, 1,608 human beings were killed between 2014 and 2017 due to such conflicts – an average of more than one human being every day. In the last five years, over 2,000 people were killed by elephants and around 200 lost their lives in tiger attacks.
Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), a Delhi-based NGO revealed that 1,000 tigers were killed by poachers in the last 2 decades. Whereas, there have been 650 instances of roadkill in the last 5 years. 32,000 animals including cattle, elephants, lions, and leopards were killed on railway tracks in the last 3 years.
There has been an increase in human-animal conflicts in India in past decades, with incidents ending in the loss of life – both human and animal.
Factors Fueling the Conflicts
Conflicts between people and wildlife have attained serious dimensions in many regions of the country to the detriment of conservation. Understanding conflict is the first step in finding solutions to mitigate the same.
One can only wonder: Is the animal population growing or are their habitats shrinking? Why, despite hundreds of wildlife sanctuaries and forests, these wild animals roam around in human settlements? Is retaliating the only answer to man-animal conflict?
The answer is not very hard to find. As the human population grows, forest cover shrinks and human and animals begin to compete and jostle for space and resources. The conflict for space occurs every day between wildlife and people living in and around forests.
The forest area of India covers 21.54 percent of country land, animal reserves cover merely 4 percent, and the Protected Area (PA) covers only 4.95 percent of the total land. This meagre portion of land is home to nearly 3,000 tigers, over 25,000 elephants, over 3,000 rhinoceros, and nearly 7,000 leopards and thousands of other wildlife species. It is absolutely preposterous to even think that wildlife can be contained inside these small patches of land.
There are many reasons for human-animal conflicts in India — human population explosion, shrinking forest cover, poaching, rapid and unplanned urbanization, which entails electrification penetrating into forest areas, increasing road density, destruction of natural animal corridors, agricultural expansion and cultivation up to forest boundaries.
Many factors contribute to the rising conflict incidents including development, human intervention has fragmented habitats of wild animals prompting them to enter human settlements in search of food and shelter.
Developmental projects such as highways, railway tracks, and factories have destroyed many natural habitats of several animal species in the country. Some of the road networks even pass through protected areas, hence creating danger zones for wild animals.
Whenever a wild animal enters into human colonies, both animal and the people act out of fear and attack each other, which further fuels the fear and conflict.
Major Conflict Zones and Aftereffects
The Western Ghats, north-eastern states, and a few other regions in the north are deeply affected by the human-animal conflicts in India. The conflicts often end in loss of life on both sides.
The Indian leopard is reclusive by nature, but due to dwindling prey base, habitat loss, and poaching it is increasingly venturing into human habitation. There it preys on livestock and pets, and occasionally, it attacks humans. The cases of leopards straying into human habitation are mounting in the states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and outskirts of Delhi.
Sundarbans is the hotspot for human deaths by tigers at its highest. The largest mangrove in the world, listed under both the World Heritage and the Ramsar conventions, the Sundarbans is home to an estimated 200 tigers. With the increasing population in the region, the conflicts are rising. Apart from Sundarbans, Kaziranga is also a human-tiger conflict zone.
Assam, Meghalaya, Karnataka, Orissa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, and Kaziranga are the main man-elephant conflict zones. The loss of forest cover, mining, and encroachment push the mammoth towards human habitation. Besides, elephants tend to move across habitats in for feeding and breeding. The destruction and obstruction of natural movement corridors often create confrontational situations that often result in the loss of life on both sides.
Several other wildlife species such as nilgai, monkeys, and wild boars destroy the crops and stimulates anger from the people, who take desperate measures to take revenge.
Often the wild animals stray in the human settlements in search of food and shelter as their natural habitats are shrinking or to put precisely – getting destroyed by human activities. If the wild animals come across people, they act out of fear and attack, which invoke feelings of anger and fear among the humans and they retaliate.
Expert Opinions on the Matter
N.V.K. Ashraf, a veterinarian at the Wildlife Trust of India, said the high death toll was likely because large numbers of people are dependent on forests for their livelihood. People going deep into the forests in search of food or forest produce to run the risk of crossing the path of a tiger or a herd of elephants.
Dr. Ullas Karanth suggests that when a carnivore animal starts feeding on human flesh, it’s better to end its life rather than attempting to catch it and put it in a cage. He also advised that the resources must be put to the conservation of wildlife in an efficient manner.
Prerna Singh Bindra in her book “The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis” raises a few ever-present questions. All these questions break down the complex topic of human-animal conflicts in India into a few simple yet very crucial points.
She asks a series of questions: Can a country like India ‘afford’ to protect wildlife? Is there space for wildlife in a land-scarce, densely populated country? Can wild animals and people coexist or is the relationship inevitably confrontational? Is conservation and protecting the flora and fauna a hindrance to the growth agenda? Is development inimical to ecological security?
According to Vidya Athreya, wildlife biologist, Wildlife Conservation Society, India, in order for animals to survive in India, there is no other choice but to share space with humans.
Ravi Chellam, who did a detailed study on Gir’s lions simply questions the importance of “who was there first.” According to Mr. Ravi, it is essential to understand the spatial model and share space and resources with the wildlife species as they were here long before mankind.
It is evident that the conservationists emphasize the importance of the co-existence of humans and wildlife.
Measures Taken by Government
The government has initiated ‘Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats’, ‘Project Tiger’ and ‘Project Elephant’. The Central Government provides financial assistance to the State Governments for improvement of forest and wildlife areas such as the national parks and sanctuaries to augment food and water availability in forests to reduce animal migration from forests to habitations.
Construction of barriers like boundary walls and solar-powered electric fences around the sensitive areas to prevent the wild animal attacks. The authorities have also developed the necessary infrastructure and support facilities for immobilization of the identified problematic animals through tranquilization, and their relocation to the natural habitat or rehabilitation in rescue centers.
Many programmes have been launched to sensitize people and create awareness about the precautionary measures in case of wild animal attacks. Eco-development activities are undertaken in villages around Protected Areas (PA) to elicit the cooperation of communities in the management of PA, which include actions to address the grievances of people regarding human-animal conflicts.
Training programmes are conducted for forest and police staff to address the problems of human-wildlife conflict. The involvement of the research and academic institutions and leading voluntary organizations having expertise in managing human-animal conflict incidents. Immune-contraception has been introduced in order to control the population of nilgai, monkeys and wild boars.
Uttarakhand government has decided to use bio-fencing to avoid human-animal conflicts in the state. Recently, the state government has declared to use bio-fencing by growing various plants and grass species in the areas known as animal entryways into residential areas.
On November 11, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) issued revised guidelines and standard operating procedures (SOP) to deal with the cases of human-tiger conflicts. In the new guidelines, the NTCA stated that during the emergencies arising due to straying of tigers in human habitation, tigers should be labelled as ‘dangerous to human life’ instead of ‘man-eaters’. The removal of this degrading label will help resolving the misconception regarding the animal, hence a step forward toward resolving the conflict between two species.
Recently, the central government has proposed to build a flyover on the National Highway 37 (NH37), which passes through Kaziranga National Park to help protect wild animals from being hit by the vehicles.
The prompt delivery of compensatory assistance for the victims of the unfortunate conflicts helps mitigate local hostility towards animals to some extent.
Effectiveness of these Measures
It is a natural instinct to fear the unknown. Though the science has made breakthrough discoveries regarding animal behaviour, the mankind spirals out of control when encountering a wild animal, leading to conflicts. Until the fear and misconception are there, resolving such conflicts between man and wildlife is not possible.
Initiating conservation projects is not enough, as there are people (poachers) who will kill for profit they get after selling the animal organs in the black market. Building community participation is a better option than having Protected Areas. Putting up walls and electric fences might protect human beings and their properties from damage but it could end up killing the wild animals trying to trespass.
The governments need to formulate teams like the Anti-Depredation Squad in the Assam that has been formed to effectively handle the human-animal conflict situations.
It is essential to find new and more effective measures to resolve human-animal conflicts. Relocation of human settlements should be done, which will alter the ecological setting in favour of wild animals, and thus prevent conflict.
An Unavoidable Threat
The escalating human population burdens the land and resources of the country. Man encroaches the forest area and natural habitat of the animals which creates conflict scenarios. Conflicts between humans and wildlife are one of the main threats to the continued survival of many endangered species found in India and are also a significant threat to the local human population.
It is absolutely important for humans to understand the need for living in harmony with wildlife species while keeping a safe distance. It is time to move from conflict to co-existence.