Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fighting battle we want to lose

23 Jan 2013
If man-animal conflicts are growing, it is primarily because we are doing things that promote such conflicts. And yet we keep saying that we must reduce these confrontations which are claiming the lives of both humans and wild animals. We have to get serious
I wanted to begin this article with the most recent human wildlife conflict incident, and in the past week I have had to rewrite it three times because of increasing incidents of such conflicts. Last Friday a leopard was killed by villagers in the Borhat forest range in Assam. The leopard was spotted resting on a tree near the village and within half an hour a huge mob formed and started attacking it brutally with sharp weapons. They first cut the tail off, then the legs and finally beheaded the leopard just as the forest staff arrived at the spot. Not only is this incident now quite typical in its brutality, but also by its nature. The leopard did not have a history of either attacking people or livestock and just happened to be near the village. Unfortunately when it comes to leopards the immediate reaction is to kill, often even before the animal has done any actual damage or harm.
The Wildlife Protection Society of India reported that leopard deaths in 2012 had been the highest, where we lost one leopard a day. Last year was also the worst recorded for tiger deaths where we lost over 70 tigers. While some deaths must have been due to natural causes, it would be safe to say the majority were not.
A change in land-use pattern and encroachment of forest land for plantations and agriculture have only made matters worse. In Gujarat, a shift to sugarcane and mango cultivation on the edge of the Gir forest has been identified as one of the reasons behind rising conflicts between human beings and lions and leopards.
We’ve barely crossed half-way through the month of January and the casualties have been rolling in. The human-wildlife conflict is a fight for space. and in this push and pull for space it’s not just the villagers who are at the front line. We have smeared our development over forests and rivers and grasslands, with no regard whatsoever. As a result, our forests have railway lines and roads bisecting them, mines and factories outlining them and the once continuous stretch of forest ends up looking more like an incomplete and scattered jigsaw puzzle.
Two elephants were mowed down by the Jan Shatabdi Express that cuts across the Rajaji National Park; while one died on the spot, the other elephant eventually bled to death. Another tragic and heart-breaking incident was that of five elephants which were killed in a train accident in Odisha’s Ganjam district. In both incidents the elephants had no choice but to cross the railway track to get to another part of the forest. Elephants travel in herds and have close ties with one another. I remember an incident of a few years back when an elephant calf was injured and couldn’t move off the track. The herd then formed a protective circle around it, but unfortunately even a wall of elephants was no match for a train that was too fast. Trains travelling through forested areas are supposed to slow down by law, but in all these incidents it was the speed of the train and the lack of a monitoring system that resulted in these tragedies.
Why is it that we allow a situation to repeat itself? Even in direct conflict situations the scenario is always familiar. An animal is spotted or strays into an inhabited area, a large angry mob gathers, people get hurt, animals get hurt (often killed). The mob is pacified, compensations are given — and then the cycle repeats itself somewhere else. In conversations with many people working in the field, I was told that it was the mob which was more of a challenge to deal with, especially, if a person had been injured or killed. A situation can quickly get bad with rising sentiments and sometimes rumors doing the rounds.
I spoke with Bhavna Menon, a project coordinator with the Last Wilderness Foundation, which is working towards not only increasing awareness about India’s wildlife but is also actively involved in the sustainable development of the villages and tribal settlements in the peripheries of the forests. Ms Menon had an interesting take on dealing with the mobs in conflict areas. She felt that people get even more aggravated because there is nobody there who can communicate clearly. There is a need to have somebody who can talk to people and can calm them down while the forest department personnel carry out their operations. A trained individual who is a part of the front line staff and is a local who is already sensitive to the situation and objective at the same time, could be the way forward to dealing with mobs.
The same situation exists in most of the countries in the tropics where the human needs and pressure on the land are constant and growing. What is happening may be a complex issue to deal with, but it is really quite simple and the result, if only delayed, will be the same. We have overpopulated our land and we need more space, not only to live in but to feed our millions. Nepal has announced what many had always feared. It has put a cap on its wildlife growth. In other words not enough space, too many animals. That country’s Forest Ministry officials, have made a statement stating that expanding existing ‘protected areas’ may not be an option as Nepal had already made huge swathes of land available for nature conservation. The only solutions presumably would be to translocate, send them to zoos or culling.
In India, we have often heard how culturally and historically we have been tolerant towards animals, and this is why the conflict situation is not as bad as in other countries. However reassuring that may be to hear, the reality is that things have changed and without a clear action plan to save our wildlife we will eventually follow Nepal’s steps. In fact, it has already begun, Nilgais and wild boar are classified as pests in some States as they raid crops and now ‘problem’ animals can be shot legally through a provision.
Ironically, while conservation has been successful in national parks like Ranthambhore, where the tiger population has increased, the challenge now is space. Translocation is one option, but how long will it be before we run out of space? Since our forests are not going to increase dramatically, what would that magic number be? How much wildlife can our forests hold before animals start spilling out? Conflict is inevitable. Solutions like creating forested corridors and translocation, rapid action teams and compensating losses help, but they feel more like a quick fix. What lies ahead and where we will end up is unclear, but what is very clear is that unless we put a realistic cap on development and make wildlife our priority, we could be fighting a battle that has already been lost.
(The writer is a wildlife film-maker)

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