[Commentary] Conflicts – historical perspectives and present day dilemma

  • Animals usually found in forests or its immediate precincts have ventured further, pushed out by competing animals (both interspecific and intraspecific rivalries) writes Mathen ‘Rajeev’ Mathew in a commentary, calling for sustainable use of bioresources.
  • Crop raids by animals in human-dominated landscapes have led to the modification of agrarian habitats. Farmers are forced to cultivate less remunerative crops.
  • There is a need for adaptive management of wild animals and wilderness habitats.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

The past few years have witnessed an upswing of human-wildlife conflicts throughout the country. India is never complete without her complement of animals – domestic, wild, and mythical. From time immemorial, animals have played a significant role in the evolution of her culture; animals ascribed to gods, goddesses, and deities as incarnations of divinity and also as vehicles; and animals used in rituals. Wild animals were used as beasts of burden for food, clothing, fashion, and sport.
In earlier times hunting wild animals as a sport was restricted to royalty. There are books, accounts, and decrees from India and around the world about hunting and the rules governing who could hunt.

To understand the situation better, let us turn the clock back by some hundred and fifty years. It was when the human population was a fraction of what it is now, wildlands were plentiful, and wild animals abounded. The chief mode of transport was on the hoof. Bullocks, horses, mules, and donkeys formed the bulk of the transport; but so also the spectacular elephant. Caught wild; tamed for use in ceremonial processions; as animals of war, hauling cannons and as royal mounts; for forestry activities like the extraction of timber and for hunting as hunting grew as a sport (especially for tiger hunting, elephants were used as mounts and high platforms for its chase).

In doing so, a certain percentage of animals were removed from the jungles regularly. Similarly, tigers and leopards were hunted, removing a certain number from the forests. Many were proscribed as problem animals –rogue elephants, cattle-lifter and man-eater leopards and tigers – and were shot or otherwise eliminated, either for the bounties placed on their heads or as trophies for the hunters, depending on the means of the people. Crop protection by way of shooting was a common method for the elimination of crop raiders like wild boar, deer, and antelope.

Bullock cart being readied for hunting in Kolapuram in 1922. Photo by Aditya Laxma Rao.
Bullock cart being readied for hunting in Kolapuram in 1922. Photo from Aditya Laxma Rao.

Wildlife management’s rudiments were sown back then; the habitat – including agrarian – was managed by regulating the species. Thus, many animals were maintained at sub-optimal to optimal carrying capacity for that given habitat, but never over. Almost a century later, with the Second World War just over, colonial rule was losing its grip and control over India. With India’s Independence came the sudden lawlessness that almost wiped out wild animals here. Land-use change, greater availability of all-terrain military surplus jeeps, weapons, and searchlights, and no regard whatsoever for the ethics of hunting, wild animals were simply gunned down.

Without any reprieve, animals were pushed to the brink and in 1972 the Wild Life (Protection) Act came into being. Over time, from the ban on tiger hunting, it slowly but surely encompassed all wild animals. With the blanket protection afforded, national parks and sanctuaries created under the colonial period, and others added subsequently, wild animals were given a chance to bounce back, and bounce back they did!

Now we are in a difficult situation. Wild animals have increased. So too has the human population. The only constant is land, and the land available to wild animals has reduced considerably. Because of this, there is a spillover of animals. Animals usually found in forests or its immediate precincts have ventured further, pushed out by competing animals, both interspecific and intraspecific rivalries. This has led to what I call the ripple effect. This is seen with carnivores mainly.

An example can be drawn from the national parks. The core of a national park is the abode of tigers, the apex predator, while its immediate fringe inhabited by leopards. As tiger numbers grew, leopards were pushed into the buffer, and as tigers took over the buffer, they were now forced into a human-dominated landscape. Young tigers are generally pushed out of the area they are born in, and come into human-dominated landscapes devoid of natural prey; and are are forced attack livestock, since in human-dominated landscapes only domestic animals survive.

Leopards are opportunistic hunters; they are very intelligent and use every opportunity to secure their prey. In recent times, routine leopard attacks on humans are reported (mainly women and children), especially in the hills. With the increase in tiger population, especially in the highlands of central India, tigers are being pushed out of the territory in which they were born. These animals have to move out of the dominant animals’ territories and as they skirt the edges of such territories, they come into conflict with people. They are not strong enough just yet, nor have they the skills to tackle large prey, what they see all around is cattle. Their attacks are less than productive, so they look elsewhere for suitable victims. Here they confront humans, cowherds, and farm workers. The migrating tigers target them, and since they hunt also by day, the people are killed and carried away in broad daylight.

Many propound that people and large predators can coexist. I do not see how. People in rural areas depend on agriculture, dairy, and meat and poultry as sustenance livelihoods; many, especially the landless depend on the forest produce for sustenance and some commerce. These are also the only trades most know and it is what finally feeds the country. Therefore, no amount of support to the cause for wild animals will work, especially if the rural people are not protected. Those professing the theory of coexistence are far removed from the realities of rural life.

Wild boars are more to be found in human-dominated landscapes, living on the farms’ fringes and often in them. The other animals that are in conflict, the monkey, the blue bull (nilgai), and the blackbuck, also prefer human-dominated landscapes. All of them are afforded protection under the law, and the monkey, the blackbuck, and the blue bull get special protection because of religious beliefs. This has led to the agrarian habitat being modified because of the crop raiders. Farmers are forced to cultivate less remunerative crops. Even so, this has not changed nor alleviated the farmers’ problems. If anything, it has exacerbated the problem. The poor remuneration of crops and raids by wild animals leave the farmers poorer, pushing them evermore into penury.

A farmer points at Nilgais in his field in Bihar. Photo by Anuradha Dhar/CIMMYT.
A farmer points at Nilgais in his field in Bihar. Photo by Anuradha Dhar/CIMMYT.

Many are small farmers, with small landholdings of two to five acres each. Most are, however, subsistence farmers and any small imbalance will have catastrophic consequences for them. They are vulnerable to chronic attacks on their crops by various pests and by wild ungulates like wild boar and blue bulls. The farmers are also at constant war with carnivores, the leopard and the tiger, because of livestock depredation and sometimes attacks on them. Elephants destroy everything that falls in their expanding ranges: men, houses, and crops.

It has, therefore, thrown up challenges that need to be addressed intelligently. Can a model of sustainable use help, especially the farmers who are at the mercy of these marauders? Can a win-win situation be created where the endangered animals are not killed to get rid of the crop raiders but for their sustainable use? Can innovative mitigation measures be taken to reduce livestock and human deaths? These are questions that need to be addressed, urgently too. The world over, if there is a problem animal, it is eliminated. This is done so that there is no killing of the animals in retribution. Most countries have some system in place to address livestock depredations and man-eating. There are also systems in place to keep the numbers in check, the habitat and diverse biodiversity given greater preference over single species or a select few species. Here, however, it is not so.

There is a serious disconnect between people. The city dwellers are replete with comforts and disconnected from the realities of rural life. The agrarian landscapes have also altered to factor this in. There is greater distrust, the urbanites dictating terms for the rural people to adapt, including not killing or getting rid of the crop raiders or other more dangerous animals threatening their very existence. It is time a more pragmatic view is taken.

Many states have proscribed animals like blue bull and wild boar to be shot. However, not much shooting is happening because the meat is not allowed to be consumed, hunting is very expensive and difficult, and, because there are not many hunters around. These factors have to be kept in mind if we are seriously interested in protecting the poor farmers. If meat can be used as food, it will, to a large extent, address the protein deficiency facing our rural poor. This is a bioresource that is renewable, and its judicious use will create more stakeholders who will view wild animals as a positive asset. We need to be practical in viewing wildlife management if we are not to fritter away our natural heritage – now treated with disdain – in wanton. If the state does not intervene, people will get rid of the problem their way: by electrocuting, snaring, and poisoning the animals so dear to the urban sophisticates.

Mathen “Rajeev” Mathew is an independent researcher with over 35 years of experience.  Mathew is a member of the State Board for Wildlife, Telangana, and member of the Biodiversity Board of Telangana. He is a wildlife consultant primarily working on human-wild animal conflicts and building innovative livelihoods for affected people.


Banner image: Blackbucks foraging on farmland in Haryana. Photo by Travelling Slacker/Flickr.

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