Characterized both by a high density of human beings and a rich diversity of flora and fauna, India has often found itself conflicted by priorities. The struggles of coexistence between animals and humans in India has always subsisted. A variety of attitudes towards man and nature’s coexistence have resulted in different outcomes.
As we learned throughout the semester, early Indian history established a coexistence with nature. During the rule of Brahmin priests, established “sacred groves” conserved nature in the light of religious practices, and later on, the Mauryan Dynasty carried on this trend by establishing a code of ethics focused on the Buddhist practice of “Ahisma,”— no cruelty to life. Attitudes changed later in Indian history as the idea of coexistence began to die, and human domination over nature came alive. The Mughal empire began the domination movement by popularizing hunting in India. Later, the British followed this trend, depleting India’s natural habitat and much of its biodiversity. But since India’s independence in 1947, conservation and human influence in maintaining biodiversity has slowly made a movement towards the front of the Indian political agenda and identity. In the past half century or so, India has passed legislation such as the Environmental Protection Act of 1986, The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, and the Biological Diversity Act of 2002 to develop a basis for conservation of wildlife and the environment. In the hopes of continuing to make a significant step back towards developing a respect for nature across the country, India finds itself in the midst of a new struggle that intersects two conflicting priorities —the protection of human lives and the protection of animals.
Today, India’s population surges to an all-time high of nearly 1.3 billion people, contributing to 17% the global population. As consequence of India’s historical highs in population growth, open land and traditional wildlife habitat has diminished to a significant size. Today, only 3% of India’s land remains undeveloped, and 4.89% of its total land serves as conservation grounds for wildlife. With such a high surge in population, humans have begun to encroach upon wildlife habitat, and today human-wildlife conflict remains one of India’s most impending unaddressed problems. Population overgrowth pushes Indians into traditionally wild landscapes, and it shrinks animal habitats and movement corridors critical for many conservation efforts. Currently, humans are forced to confront many wild animals when territories overlap. For the past three years, one person has died every day from hostilities with tigers and elephants alone. Between April of 2014 and May of 2017, 1,144 people died as a result of human-wildlife encounters. Human retaliation amidst human-wildlife conflict has created a real problem too in the survival of endangered species. Both animals and humans stand at risk, and India has failed to provide a solution to the problem that can satisfy both parties.
Human-wildlife conflict has appeared in many forms in India’s recent history, but conflicts with the three-following species have recently attracted a lot of attention in conservation efforts: the tiger, elephant, and leopard.
Since 1973 and the emergence of Project Tiger, India has taken a serious effort to conserve one its most charismatic mega-fauna and iconic large cats. The tiger population in India originally stood at around 70,000 to 80,000 cats across the country. Quickly, that number dropped as tigers became overexploited by the British and wild game enthusiasts. As the tiger population dropped significantly to just a mere 1,800, the rise of Project Tiger successfully brought the tiger population back up to the existing 2,200 tigers today, roughly 70% of the world’s total tiger population. This huge population increase has been considered a great success in Indian conservation history, but it has also created a problem with larger tiger populations spilling into human territories. Conservationist Krithi Karanth points out that some of the success of conservation can lead to larger conflict, when that success cannot be controlled with the given resources you have. Currently, the tiger population has grown back very fast, but the current population size in many parks and reserves has unfortunately exceeded the appropriate landmass carrying capacity. The reason behind this? Home range. Big cats like tigers have large home ranges. One female tiger’s home range might consist of about 20 sq km, and most often males can have up to 7 females within their home range covering from 60-100 sq km of territory. As a result, territorial battles often ensue between male tigers, and those less fit to compete for already established home ranges must migrate to establish their own home ranges elsewhere. This migration causes problems for human settlements around established tiger reserves when population density has exceeded its carrying capacity. Often young males (or females) find themselves harmlessly wandering into human territory that can threaten human populations as well as the large cat itself.
This past March, a young tiger roamed off of Corbett Tiger Reserve to the foothills of the Himalayas and into established human territory near the town of Bailpadav. Allegedly, the tiger killed two people in Bailpadav. In retaliation, locals tranquilized the tiger, but precaution turned into aggression as villagers crushed the tiger under the weight of an excavator’s arm immediately after tranquilization. The tiger died onsite, and much debate arose as to whether the tiger had reason to be killed or not.
In conflicts like that in Balpadav, the question arises where people begin to ask what they value more: protecting nature or their own lives. Even if wandering tigers do not show any aggression towards humans, people still tremble in fear of the large cat potentially killing their livestock and threatening their livelihood. In the face of fear, people lash out accordingly to defend what is rightly theirs. Sometimes, they take matters too far, and they compromise the lives of many predators, not just tigers.
Much like the tiger, the leopard represents one of India’s iconic charismatic mega-fauna, and despite its endangered status, it serves as an apex predator alongside the tiger in many forest and grassland habitats. Leopards also have large home ranges, and with dwindling habitat space and a shrinking prey base, leopards stray into human habitat very frequently. Leopards have been spotted in human settlements in and around Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu, Kashmir, Karnataka, the tea gardens of Asam, the Western Ghats, and Bengaluru. Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have been identified as the two locations with the largest number of human-leopard conflicts.
Every year an estimated 60 leopards get killed in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Leopards often roam into human settlements in these states in search of food. Scientists have researched leopard food base, and they have determined from analyzing leopard scats that close to 40% of the prey biomass in a leopard’s diet can include domesticated and stray dogs. Human landscapes can often offer predators a solid prey base to satisfy their diet. In the Ahmendnagar district in Maharashtra, scientists determined that the domesticated dogs and cats in the area had sufficient biomass to support the population density of leopards and hyenas estimated in the study at the time. Attracted by this abundance of available prey, Leopards extend their hunting ranges into human habitats, frightening residents, which heightens the potential for human-wildlife conflict. In 2014, an incident reported two “man eating” leopards had invaded a nearby village in a northernmost state of India. The residents felt frightened for their lives, so they hired a south Indian shooter to illegally put down both of the leopards. The kill ordinance violated the guidelines issued by Union Environment Ministry and Standard Operating Procedure laid down by the NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority), and the autopsies determined that the leopards had only preyed on stray dogs, not humans.
This kind of invasion of large predators creates a spark of irrational and impulsive human behavior in the concern of safety. As experienced with tiger sightings too, people at risk often act out of fear rather than rationality. However, to act rationally requires addressing the government protocol for the assessment of the potential dangers of big cats. These assessments fail to provide immediate help, so too often people have no choice but to act out in desperation. In order to legally determine a cat a man-eater, a committee comprising of various members from departments such as the NTCA, the wildlife warden’s office, veterinarians, and concerned NGOs must meet and investigate evidence from DNA analysis and game camera images to assure that the cat’s actions have resulted in a deliberate attack on human beings. After the assessment, and only after the assessment will they consider tranquilizing or trapping the animal for removal from the threatened area. Too frequently, locals at risk lose patience and decide to take matters into their own hands.
India’s elephant populations represent a third iconic group of mega-fauna that has caused considerable human-wildlife conflict in recent history. Although elephants do not prey on livestock populations or domesticated animals, their encroachment into human territory results from the same shortage of habitat experienced by both leopards and tigers. In the Western Ghats, humans established tea plantations early in history that have fragmented traditional animal habitats and forced pachyderms to wander through human territory looking for adequate vegetation for feeding. Since elephants forcibly must wander through human labor environments on tea plantations, humans frequently confront elephants during commutes to and from work in the fields. Elephants often damage property and crops during their migrations, and sometimes adult elephants will charge humans if they believe they feel the need to protect their herds. Often, humans lose their lives in these confrontations, but more importantly human disgust and frustration towards the elephants turns sour when the begin to lose crops and loved ones. In retaliation, they start protesting the elephant’s existence in and around these tea settlements that fragment wild habitats, demanding the government to do something. In Tamil Nadu alone, between 1994 and 2013, 41 people lost their lives in violent encounters with wild Indian elephants. Throughout the entire country, pachyderm migration into human territory in search of vegetation has caused 1052 elephant induced deaths. This has created a problem in places like Valparai where tea laborers constitute much of the population. As a result, many humans who are required to commute to and from work in the fields stand at the risk of danger of elephant aggression.
To solve problems regarding human-wildlife conflict, two established approaches aim to attack the problem retroactively and proactively.
In retroactively addressing issues regarding human-wildlife conflict, a lot of emphasis has been placed on monetary compensation for loss. When territory has experienced damage or farmers have lost livestock, victims must file incident reports for forestry departments so that they have adequate proof in order to supply coverage. In Karnataka alone, the forestry department received 100,000 compensation claims between 2000 and 2010. Often, motivation to provide adequate and thorough compensation for every report remains low when residents make such a high frequency of damage claims. As a result, forestry departments often under compensate claims and fail to recognize claims that they believe do not deserve their time and effort. Overall, this leaves farmers frustrated on two fronts. First, the forestry department requires them to spend much time and money to fill out necessary incident reports, which never provide immediate response. Second, the forestry department never guarantees farmers will receive adequate compensation. Determined to fix the compensation process in order to provide a healthier relationship between humans and wildlife impact, conservationist Krithi Karanth has created a means of providing immediate response and thorough accountability throughout the compensation process.
Karanth’s company, Wildseve, represents an organization dedicated to providing immediate attention to wildlife damage claims. By providing a 1-800 number for farmers and livestock owners to immediately contact an agent when a claim needs to be made. Once a call comes in, a field coordinator records the location and date of the claim and then sends out his field staff to assess the damage. The field staff comes back with pictures and evidence of the wildlife induced damage, and then they begin the paperwork for the farmer who made the claim. Once the office completes the paperwork with the help of the farmer, the Wildseve office sends in the paperwork to the forestry department where they keep a close eye on the process and ensure that the department responds to the farmer accordingly. Increasing the efficiency of filing damage reports improves farmer’s lives, and it helps provide them with a process that they know they can rely on. Since developing their company Wildseve has remunerated 1/3 of their client’s claims. Wildseve has also witnessed a change in the mentality of farmers noting how they have begun to understand they have a process they can rely on:
“you [have] come and you help us see this through, now [we] have some faith that somebody cares and will come”
– Farmer response to Wildseve’s work in Karnataka
Currently, Karanth’s company has begun work on developing an app with an interchangeable software package that can provide a way for forestry departments across the country to provide adequate and quick response times for farmers claims elsewhere.
In proactively addressing the issue of human-wildlife conflict, technology has again provided a pathway to providing a solution. In Tamil Nadu, text messaging has been used to provide adequate warnings of elephant migration into human territory so that humans can avoid confrontations that would risk their lives. They came up with the idea when analyzing human-elephant conflicts in the past, realizing that most conflicts arise from lack of public knowledge when elephants are in close proximity. Currently, 3800 numbers have signed up in their database for elephant alerts, and the movement in Tamil Nadu expects to grow as word of mouth has expressed how well the text messages have provided safety from elephant confrontations. This technique could be expanded to alert multiple human residencies across India about local wildlife movements (beyond simply elephants) that could pose potential threats to human life or livelihood so that they can plan accordingly.
In other proactive efforts, conservationists have suggested identifying animal corridors to track animal migration and identify which areas of human settlement stand at risk to wildlife confrontation. By identifying this movement with trackers, they can relocate humans away from wildlife encroachment, or they can find ways of notifying populations of animal movement into their residencies when it occurs.
Human-wildlife conflict will always exist in a country such as India with such high population density and rich biodiversity. But, as seen above, using innovation and creativity with current resources, we can create solutions to the problems regarding humans and wildlife. Finding solutions takes a collective effort, and it’s man’s responsibility since man must stand with nature, not apart from it.
- Post Safari Discussion, Dr. A. Relton, Jungle Lodes and Resort, 11/4/2017.
- Conservation in India: A Historical Perspective, Dr. Ranjit Daniels, MCC, 8/30/2017.
- Overview of the Indian Environment, Dr. Selvasingh Richard, MCC, 11/27/2017.