Col CHEPPUDIRA P MUTHANNA:
The memory of a raging tusker with its trunk raised, trumpeting, and charging at me from fifty yards away is entrenched in my psyche for life. The incident happened on a mid-morning in early November 2020 as I was walking on a jeep track in my coffee plantation in Kodagu, Karnataka. I dived for cover of the coffee bushes to my right and tried to run, but I stumbled and fell.
As I lay in a fetal position, I could hear the fast-approaching elephant as he came after me. With his head above the coffee bushes, he could not see me on the ground. Trampling my leg, he rushed away with a strange squeak. I felt no pain at that moment but that came later.
With a titanium rod hammered into my bone between ankle and knee, the recovery of the broken leg has been complete, but the scars remain. I am now just one more statistic under the ‘injured’ column in the data on Human- Wildlife Conflict. But it is only a few of us that have survived a wild animal attack who know the true meaning of ‘Conflict.’
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will launch a three-day mega event on 9th April in Mysuru to celebrate and mark the completion of 50 years of Project Tiger.
Conservation efforts have boosted tiger numbers across India. But it has also endangered human life. In Kodagu alone, there have been 10 tiger attacks with eight deaths in the past few years. Just some months ago, a youth who had come to Kodagu for coffee picking was killed by a tiger and the portion below his waist was eaten. His grandfather who came over to mourn met a similar fate the very next morning. His wife died of shock soon after, on hearing the news. Meanwhile, cattle kill by tigers in Kodagu has exceeded the 100 mark.
TRAUMA FOR ELEPHANTS
While an encounter with wild animals is traumatic for humans, it is equally traumatic for elephants to face a large congregation of “armed humans” to capture them from their wild habitats, as is being done for bull elephants in Wayanad, Palakkad and Idukki districts of Kerala. The process of migration through large areas of human habitation that were once traditional corridors of movement is also extremely stressful for elephants.
The only way the species can sustain itself is by migrating to greener pastures during summer for water and food through high-risk human zones crossing high speed highways and railways even in the night. It is to be understood that elephants under stress are more likely to be aggressive.
The strategy of Tiger capture may not be the ideal as a long-term strategy for elephants without compromising on their population. The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve and the adjoining Elephant reserves of South India covers an area of 12,587 sq Kilometers with a population of about 10,000 elephants – the largest in the wild.
These forests also have sizable numbers of Gaur, Leopard, Sloth Bears and Tigers that are increasingly coming into conflict with humans. There is a need for a coordination between Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu to draw up a road map for improved habitat management of this landscape.
While the elephant population has marginally increased from 1978, there has been a drastic disintegration of elephant habitat and corridors. While projects like hydroelectric dams swallowed and decimated elephant habitats immediately after independence, it is the tourism industry with mushrooming resorts and linear infrastructure projects that are major impediments to easy migration of elephant herds through a landscape that is a mosaic of disconnected forests and agriculture lands.
Between 2019-2022, over 1500 people were killed by elephants in India. Meanwhile, the figure for elephant deaths due to electrocution, poisoning, railway track deaths etc stood at 494 for the period 2018 to 2022. We have seen how bull elephants have declined in numbers in Odisha to just one male elephant in Ganjam district. The primary causes are poaching and unnatural deaths like electrocution, poisoning, rail, and road accidents.
Human-Wildlife Conflict, commonly known as Human Animal Conflict (HAC) is growing by the day. While Kodagu, Hassan, Chikkamagaluru and Tumakuru are hotspots of conflict in Karnataka, the problem is also acute further south in Kerala and Tamilnadu.
The conflict extends to Maharashtra Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Assam and to the foot hills of Himalayas in Uttarakhand where ‘Down to Earth Magazine has reported that several villages in Pauri district are turning into ‘ghost villages’ after being abandoned by their residents.
Many villagers are migrating to urban parts of the district after increased sightings and attacks by leopards. In fact, wild animals are snared, shot, electrocuted, poisoned, and targeted with explosives, causing agonizing pain, injury, and death.
During the past two decades, HAC continues to escalate despite continued efforts to mitigate the problem. Why so? The reason is not hard to find. Forest Department officials, policy makers, and NGOs are focusing largely on species management while ignoring habitat management. In essence, the very concept of managing wildlife has been flawed and the emerging strategies and conflict mitigation measures have largely failed.
STOP FOREST DESTRUCTION
For a start, there must be a total stop on further destruction of wildlife habitat due to so-called development projects such as dams, railways, multilane highways, power lines etc that continue to degrade forest habitat and cut off wildlife corridors and avenues of movement. Forest degradation is mainly due to rapid expansion of existing metropolises. For example, the continuing expansion of Bengaluru city will require more water and hence, more dams at the cost of forest habitat.
Satellite townships are not the answer as the ‘satellites’ soon link up and become part of the main city. Proliferation of invasive species due to forest fires also contributes to degradation of habitat, and bolder species such as elephant and gaur move out of the forests in search of fodder.
So, what is the way forward? The obvious answer is for the Niti Aayog to take the following steps:
- Consider the projected population of India by the year 2050/2060
- Assess the displaced population from India’s coastal areas and islands due to sea level rise by 2050/2060.
- Plan for accommodation of these populations in cities whose locations must be planned now.
- The planning of these cities should be in a manner – wherein resources & infrastructure requirements do not disturb existing forest habitat.
- Recommend capping of any expansion of existing metropolises.
- Recommend measures to encourage vibrant village economies to restrict migration from rural areas to cities.
- Recommend increased Government budgetary allocation to Forestry sector to include securing of Elephant corridors.
- Call for a review of mega projects such as river interlinking scheme that envisages 3000 dams and thousands of kilometers of canals. This will further restrict wildlife movement and escalate conflict to frightening levels.
- Recommend states to support the forest department by involving Chief Secretaries and DCs at the State and District level respectively for conflict mitigation.
HAC covers an extensive spectrum including vast landscapes beyond forest boundaries and beyond the mandate of the Forest Departments both at the Centre and the State level.
In essence, we must accept the fact that HAC is not just a problem by itself, but a symptom of a larger malaise! It is only then we will find a viable way ahead.
(THE AUTHOR IS FORMER PRESIDENT, COORG WILDLIFE SOCIETY, FOUNDER, ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH FOUNDATION (EHF), CONSERVATIONIST & NATURE LOVER)