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'Can you do family planning of nilgai, sir?'

All of us hate the idea of hunting or killing wildlife, writes Ashish Kothari. But with villagers across India facing increasing attacks by wild animals, conservationists must realise that in the interests of both wildlife conservation and people's livelihood security we must look beyond the narrow ethics of individual animal protection to a broader one of survival of species and ecosystems

"Please do something about the monkey menace, beta." Bachani Devi, former head of the women's committee of Jardhargaon village, Uttarakhand, had a quiet look of desperation. She had seen plenty of tough situations in her 70-plus years, including having to fight off wood thieves and miners, but she seemed helpless in the face of this new problem. Jardhargaon, like many other villages in the region, was facing increasing damage to its crops by wild animals. Villagers repeatedly mentioned monkeys and wild pigs as the biggest problems, but damage was also reported by bears, goral, parakeets, and other animals.

Several farmers reported a loss of over 50% of their crops. In nearby Patudi village, the damage is so great that some traditional crops have been almost abandoned. These include mandua or finger millet, a highly nutritious grain that is a crucial part of the local diet....but is also liked by wild animals!

Ironically, these are also villages that have shown exemplary consciousness in regenerating and protecting their forests. The initiative of Jardhargaon is well-known amongst environmentalists working on community-based natural resource management; its 5,000-plus inhabitants have protected several hundred hectares of broadleaved Himalayan forest, and many of its farmers have been active with the Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seeds Campaign) which works to revive and spread traditional agricultural biodiversity. But some villagers are beginning to ask if the forest protection was a mistake, if it was what had brought about an explosion of wild monkey and pig populations.

A pan-Indian phenomenon

Jardhargaon and Patudi are not alone in their predicament. Across India, villagers already living on the edge of survival are facing increasing attacks by wild animals. The species and kind of damage differs from place to place, though one species that seems to be implicated almost all over India is the wild pig. In Rajasthan and Gujarat, crop depredation by nilgai is widespread; in Maharashtra, leopards routinely lift livestock. Elephants cause truly elephantine headaches to cultivators in the south and north-east, and occasionally kill people too. Tigers across all their territory do plenty of livestock damage. Fortunately they kill very few people, other than in places like the Sundarbans --where ecological and livelihood conditions bring fisherfolk and honey-collectors directly in conflict with tigers -- or occasionally around protected areas such as the ongoing incidents of over a dozen kills by tigers near Tadoba National Park, Maharashtra. Leopards in the western Himalaya are widely feared; in Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand, official records listed 141 people killed by them between 1988 and 2000. Parakeets are infamous for coming in large flocks and cleaning out ripening grainfields or orchards. Bears in parts of the Himalaya, and in the central Indian forests, are notorious for disfiguring people's faces; the brown bear even picks up livestock. Pastoralists in many regions are not too fond of wolves, who regularly prey on lambs and calves; wolves are also charged with 'child-lifting'. In Ladakh and Lahaul-Spiti, the snow leopard takes a toll of sheep and the occasional yak. Around many lakes, migratory cranes or geese raid fields in huge numbers. Bats too can be extremely damaging to fruit orchards.

In some areas, the problems are very new, relating to species never previously seen there. Southern Maharashtra has for the first time become host to a small population of elephants that has come in from Karnataka and Goa, which must bear the ignominy of being called "strays". In Ranpur area of Orissa, villagers are reporting elephant presence for the first time ever, in forests that communities have helped regenerate; driven away from their traditional migration routes by roads and canals and mining, the animals are finding shelter in these forests. In such situations people are even less prepared to deal with the problem.

Age-old and brand new

There is nothing new in animal-related damage; it is inevitable in any landscape shared by wild animals and people. Undoubtedly, citizens of India have throughout history been eaten or maimed by tigers, had their livestock picked up by various predatory animals, and seen their fields destroyed by herbivores and birds. But for the most part they had perhaps come to accept this as a 'natural' part of life, much like other 'natural' occurrences like floods and droughts. There has to be something in the famous Indian attitude of 'tolerance', for how else does one explain the continued presence of so much wildlife in the midst of some of the world's most densely populated areas?

There are however crucial differences in the situation today, which is the cause of serious concern. In the past, barring a few localised areas (such as perhaps the Sunderbans in West Bengal which is reported for many decades to have had a heavy incidence of 'man-eating', more accurately 'man-killing', by tigers), animal-related damage was perhaps small in scale. Farmers tolerated damage by herbivores, and often (though certainly not always) actually considered this an acceptable part of the cycle in which they took resources from nature, and gave back to it in the form of crops and livestock to wild animals. Even where not motivated by benevolence and the ethics of reciprocity, people grudgingly bore the damage. Now, however, the tolerance and benevolence is breaking down. Either attitudes have changed, with the intense struggle to survive reducing the amount of loss a person is willing to bear (fisherfolk in parts of the Gangetic basin are no longer willing to share their fish with the dolphin) or the damage itself has significantly increased, with greater intrusions by humans into natural ecosystems straining the traditional worldviews of tolerance and co-existence. The same farmers who once worshipped the nilgai are now cursing it. And in areas where the problem is relatively new, as with elephants moving into new territories, communities simply have not had time to adjust and accept.

Just how widespread and intense is the problem of animal-caused damage? No one really knows. In the mid-1980s a team of us at the Indian Institute of Public Administration put together a database of available information from the country's protected areas on human injury or death by wild animals. Sixty-three protected areas (out of 206 for which data was available) reported such incidents. Out of the 629 cases reported in a five-year period (1979-84), 485 (77%) were fatal. The highest number was from the Sundarbans (192 cases, 189 involving tigers). Undoubtedly too these figures are only a portion of actual incidents, since many simply go unreported. Shockingly, some states were at that time paying only Rs 200 as compensation for death caused by a wild animal, with others going up to Rs 10,000.

A paper on the subject commissioned as part of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) process, written by researchers at Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), listed over 20 species of mammals that were causing significant damage to crops, livestock, and/or humans. In addition, there are a number of bird and reptile species that are regularly reported. Snakes top the list with an official figure of 50,000 deaths caused by snakebite! At the other end of the spectrum are saltwater crocodiles off India's eastern coasts, which bite into human beings once in a while. In 2007 the newsletter Protected Area Update (Vol XIII No 1) noted nearly 50 incidents of conflict in a three-month period, based on only newspaper reports available to the editor, and not including snakes.

A number of studies of specific sites or of particular species exist, and point to the fact that the villagers of Jardhargaon are not exaggerating. The same issue of the Protected Area Update noted that the Karnataka Forest Department had reported 3,000 'conflict incidents' in and around Bandipur and Nagarhole Tiger Reserves, in 2005-06; the precise meaning of 'conflict incidents' was not clear, but provided enough indication of the seriousness of the situation. In 2002, H S Pabla, a senior forest officer of Madhya Pradesh, conducted an assessment of the economic damage caused by various species (pig, chital, chinkara, nilgai) to villagers in and around Noradehi Wildlife Sanctuary and other areas. Some villagers were losing upto 40% of their gram crop. In addition there was considerable 'invisible' labour being put in -- over 100 nights -- to safeguard crops. Based on these studies, he estimated that villagers in the state as a whole were losing an astounding Rs 628 crore (6280 million) per year; in other words they were subsidising wildlife conservation to the tune of many times the amount the state government was putting into it!

Why must we pay attention?

Though the problem is widespread and intense, it has not yet received the attention it deserves, from conservationists and from the government. One major problem is that many of the most vocal voices in conservation today are simply unable to appreciate the intensity of the problem, or go beyond looking at it from an animal welfare angle. If they stayed awake with a villager on a flimsy bamboo framework night after night for three months, warding off pigs and deer, or worse still, fearing attack by a herd of elephants, they might have a different take on things. As Pabla noted in the abovementioned study: "Spending close to 100 nights aperch precariously built machans in cold and wet weather must be wreaking serious costs in terms of the bodily strength and social costs." We conservationists should realise that not only is this is a human tragedy of immense proportions, but that it is ultimately also a massive wildlife tragedy. For sooner or later, victims will lose their tolerance and hit back.

A number of recent grisly incidents of leopards or elephants being burnt alive are only the most dramatic manifestation of what is becoming commonplace. Poisoning of tigers and leopards and lions by spiking their prey is another manifestation; several dozen tigers have fallen prey to this in the last decade or so. In Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand, where, as reported above, nearly 12 dozen people were killed by leopards, 93 leopards too were killed. Even where there may not be a directly revengeful act, there is a loss of support for conservation that makes the job of wildlife officials that much more difficult.

The paper by WTI commissioned under NBSAP had this to say, citing a researcher at the Wildlife Institute of India: "It is generally observed that a close association exists in particular between human-wildlife conflict and the illegal trade in wildlife. How does one understand this? In areas with a high degree of conflict (in the form of crop raiding, cattle-lifting by carnivores, man-killing or, more infrequently, man-eating), local people become increasingly hostile towards wild animals. This gives rise to feelings of apathy or even violent anger, causing people to directly or indirectly engage in/support illegal hunting/trapping for both consumption and the wildlife trade. Even people who do not directly engage in hunting/smuggling may be tempted, under these circumstances, to aid outside poachers or traders in their nefarious activities. A vicious cycle exists: various causal factors - poverty, population growth, deforestation - may lead to human-wildlife conflict, which in turn fuels the wildlife trade and other threats."

And the most worrying sign of the backlash is that members of communities that have sacrificed immensely to protect forests and wildlife, are beginning to question whether they did the right thing. In Jardhargaon, this creeping doubt led the village head to incite the thinning of a patch of forest closest to his hamlet; this was quickly stopped by other villagers, but it led to an ongoing and bitter debate within the community on whether protecting forests was such a good thing after all.

What is being done?

Surprisingly, there has been no systematic nation-wide exercise to gauge the extent of the problem, and disappointingly, no national process of tackling it. In 2002, the Centre for Ecological Studies and other organisations put together a national workshop on the subject, as part of the NBSAP process. The meeting came up with a set of recommendations and actions, but unfortunately the participating organisations could not take it forward (and the NBSAP draft, which incorporated these recommendations, was put on the shelf by the MoEF). Now the elephant specialist Raman Sukumar (also at CES) is coordinating a major study in various parts of India, which will hopefully result in a more systematic understanding and the basis for taking some action.

Simultaneously, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has highlighted "man-animal conflict" as an area requiring major attention in its proposals for the 11th Five-Year Plan. The precise contours of what the MoEF is considering are not yet clear, but hopefully some targeted allocations will help focus national attention on the issue.

Over the years, a number of site-specific solutions have been attempted by communities, NGOs, or government officials. With varying results. The Snow Leopard Conservancy in Ladakh and the Nature Conservation Foundation and International Snow Leopard Trust in Lahaul-Spiti, have helped villagers save livestock from the snow leopard by designing leopard-proof enclosures. Forest and wildlife departments have tried reducing damage by fencing, trenching, and other measures, with limited success. Farmers in some areas have employed 'live' fencing with species like cactus and bamboo. Innovative techniques such as burning chillies around a field to ward off elephants are being tried. In some states like Maharashtra, nilgai or wild pig are allowed to be hunted, but under such strictly supervised and bureaucratic conditions that the relevant government orders have remained non-starters. In Assam officials are ready to try a method villagers suggested to scare away elephants: playing the sound of neighing horses through loudspeakers. In a state that has witnessed over 230 people killed by elephants, and nearly 250 elephants killed by people, officials are willing to try anything innovative suggested to them.

But while many of these approaches have some value, they do not add up to a systematic, nation-wide approach. Most importantly, they do not help tackle the root causes of the crisis, including the widespread loss of habitat and food sources, changes in land use and cropping patterns, cutting off of corridors or diversion of wildlife habitat to 'development' projects, and others. When I asked Bachani Devi of Jardhargaon her thoughts on why the monkey and pig 'menace' had increased, she said it was because humans had not left appropriate diversity in the forest for them to survive on. She and many others in the village were emphatic that it was not the increase in forest cover per se that was the problem. They asked if outside experts could help them revive the diversity of vegetation in their forests -- that would suffice for wild animals.

Villagers of Mendha-Lekha in Maharashtra, who complained about damage by wild pigs, said their population had exploded because villagers were no longer allowed to hunt them. This view was echoed by the WTI researchers who wrote on human-wildlife conflicts for the NBSAP process. Other researchers however insist that these views also need to be 'verified', especially since in many instances hunting itself has been known to cause aberrant (and more conflictual) behaviour in animals.

Other solutions have remained at the level of proposals, unable to get past the protectionist ethos that still dominates wildlife conservation policies in India. So when state governments propose orders to allow limited hunting, there is an immediate hue and cry by some conservationists who fear it will lead to the extinction of the concerned species. A proposal by H S Pabla to allow hunting of wild pig in Madhya Pradesh and give the proceeds to villagers as a means of compensating their losses and creating goodwill towards conservation, has remained in the files for several years.

Time for holistic solutions

"Can the government not do family planning of these monkeys," asked Bachani Devi. I had no answer. It was a question I have frequently encountered, with regard to nilgai in Gujarat (where farmers will complain bitterly but not allow anyone to kill the animal either), wild pig in Maharashtra, or deer at other places. Such an approach may work with some species, not with others, but remains untested. Rather more hesitantly, when faced with the uncertainty of such an approach, villagers almost always ask why limited hunting cannot be allowed. Not for commerce, not for sport, but only to keep the population in check. Interestingly, this view finds support in many conservation organisations and government officials who have realised the gravity of the situation. And this goes beyond the current (failed) approach of declaring a species 'vermin' and allowing it to be hunted only under strictly supervised conditions.

Villagers of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, who have for over three decades protected large stretches of forest, suggested that they be allowed to resume their traditional techniques of wild pig control. This included digging pits across the usual passage routes of the species. They said such techniques were no threat to the species as only a few animals from any pack would get caught, and many more inevitably escaped.

I have always hated the idea of hunting or killing wildlife. I remember reading with horror three decades ago a suggestion by Dr Salim Ali, unquestionably India's greatest-ever ornithologist, that parakeet soup should be popularised as it would help keep its population under control. I think I even wrote him a stinker at that time. Today I realise that such a disdain is fine sitting in the comfort of an urban home where one only needs to deal with cockroaches. The imperatives of both wildlife conservation and people's livelihood security demand that we look beyond the narrow ethics of individual animal protection to a broader one that ensures the survival of species and ecosystems. If this requires limited, site-and-species-specific solutions of the kind that Salim Ali, H S Pabla and the villagers of Mendha are suggesting, we should be open to considering them, even if they hurt our sensibilities.

Of course, what may work for one species in one site may not work for the same species at another site (especially in the case of species that can rapidly adapt to local situations), and even less so for other species. Which means that the first absolutely essential step is a good understanding of each local situation, based on a combination of available local knowledge and what outside wildlife experts can bring in. We have to admit that we know very little about many of the human-wildlife conflict situations, and it is dangerous to jump to solutions based on assumptions. A group of young researchers who studied the leopard conflict situation in Maharashtra, showed the folly of large numbers of translocations that the government was ordering, often under public pressure. Capturing and relocating 'problem' leopards was only transferring the problem elsewhere, and in many cases leopards were even coming back to their original territories, sometimes attacking people on the way. The researchers showed that leopards may have for centuries been living in human-dominated landscapes, so solutions to conflicts would need to be based more on understanding the biology and behaviour of the animals where they were, and on people adopting simple safeguards such as not leaving children, livestock and dogs untended. A very useful manual brought out by Vidya Athreya and Aniruddha Belsare of the team that studied the leopard problem also stresses the need for public education of leopard behaviour, and what forest staff and people should do to enable the animal to continue living in human-dominated landscapes.

Which brings me to an even more important step. This is the need to revive attitudes of tolerance and co-existence. Villagers of Bhaonta-Kolyala in Alwar district, Rajasthan, who have declared a sanctuary out of the forests they have been conserving, had this to say when I asked them about wildlife damage: "Yes, deer come and eat our crops, and leopards kill our sheep and goats....but the forest if ours, we get water and medicines and fodder from it, surely we should also be giving back something to it and its inhabitants?" What was crucial was the sense of custodianship over the forest and its wildlife, a feeling revived by Bhaonta-Kolyala's villagers over years of regaining control over their surroundings. It is this sense that is missing across most of India, killed by the governmental take-over of forests during and after colonial times. Communities now talk of the sarkari tiger, sarkari forests. Unless there is greater community involvement in managing natural resources, feelings of belonging and custodianship will be difficult to revive. This will also require, of course, that villagers are part of decision-making, and benefit from wildlife programmes. Such benefits can come through the provision of essential services and appropriate development inputs (which if designed well could also reduce some damaging resource use practices like fuelwood collection), community-based sensitive ecotourism, employment opportunities, and so on. And where damage still occurs, efficient forms of compensation (not the red-tape-ridden ones that state governments have today) can be vital. A programme of immediate payments for livestock kills by tigers, run by NGOs around Corbett Tiger Reserve, is reported to have considerably brought down reprisal killings of tigers. The same is reported from Spiti, where the International Snow Leopard Trust and Nature Conservation Foundation encouraged villagers to start their own livestock insurance scheme (after trying in vain to get the government to make its compensation scheme more efficient). Villagers regularly pool money into a fund, and immediately pay farmers who lose their livestock to the leopard, which has brought down revenge killings considerably. Provision of much-needed services by the government and NGOs would also help. And, perhaps the most difficult of all, changes in human behaviour that drive or incite many 'normal' animals into becoming 'problem' animals, such as those relating to the leopards mentioned above.

Finally, and this is the most important long-term step, we will have to go beyond an approach of looking at individual protected areas and community conserved areas as islands in an ever-degrading landscape. Wild animals do not know boundaries, they cannot follow legal or customary lines that we draw with the message "wildlife here, people there". Nor do they know how to adjust to the disruption of their migration or feeding patterns by dams, canals, expressways, mines, and cities.

We have to move into integrated planning of the entire landscape (or seascape), with its mosaic of forests, wetlands, coastal/marine areas, pastures, agriculture, and settlements, including where necessary areas that are inviolate (=minimal disturbance) for wildlife. This is a major shift in thinking, challenging the conventional divisions between government departments and academic disciplines. It is also a huge challenge to institutional and political structures, forcing us to think as much along ecological boundaries and linkages as along political and administrative lines. And it also means saying 'no' to many big 'development' projects that disrupt and fragment landscapes. But it is only when we are able to conceive of, understand, plan and manage a river valley as a whole, a mountain range in all its elements, a floodplain as a single unit --- regardless of whether this cuts across state or international boundaries --- that we will create the conditions for people and wildlife to re-establish forms of co-existence. Many traditional landscape practices did precisely this, sometimes in dramatic forms such as visualising an entire river valley as sacred and treating each of its components as worthy of respect and careful husbandry. There is much to learn from such traditions; we must combine these with modern tools of mapping and planning, to break out of the island mentality that conservation (and for that matter, development) has otherwise been stuck in. And to retain the adaptability that will be so necessary in the face of the rapid climatic change that is already taking place.

It is a combination of the above steps that will help tackle human-wildlife conflicts. It's a big demand, but not too big for human ingenuity. Even as we grope for the holistic response, though, we need to provide on-site help to the farmers of Jardhargaon, Mendha, Noradehi, and thousands of other villages across India. A national mission on mitigating human-wildlife conflicts, integrated into a more comprehensive action plan on wildlife and biodiversity, is long overdue. Helping villagers reduce animal-caused damage may be the single most important step we can take to secure not only their livelihoods, but also the future of wildlife in such areas.

(Inputs for this article were gratefully received from Janaki Lenin and Vidya Athreya)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2008)