- Kotagiri town in the mountainous Nilgiris district is witnessing increasing reports of human-wildlife interactions.
- The hill town with its fragmented forest patches has open dump sites and landfills that attract and feed wildlife.
- Preparedness of forest department and local authorities to deal with the issue is questioned when humans and wildlife jostle for space in expanding towns.
Jayasudha, 38, counts it as a blessing that she was not home on the night of December 11, 2020. It was then that a bear with two cubs entered her home in Indira Nagar, a residential colony in Kotagiri town of Nilgiris district, Tamil Nadu, and took away with some ration. “My daughters and I did not come back for a week until my husband fixed the broken door. We were gripped by fear,” she added.
In another incident, a bear entered 54-year-old Ramar’s home when his family of five were sleeping. “We shouted, which deterred it from venturing further in,” said his 26-year-old son Ranjith. Four more houses and a few shops were broken into before the residents chased the bears away. The forest department set traps for the bears, and soon enough, they were caught in the nearby Milidhane village and relocated to Upper Bhavani, in the western catchments of the Nilgiris district.
Such close encounters with the wildlife is not new to Indira Nagar residents. Wedged between endless tea plantations and Longwood Shola, a reserve forest, this colony of about 750 residents gets frequent visits from a number of wild animals. On March 18, 2022, a gaur grazing on a slope slipped and fell through the roof of 67-year-old Doraisami’s house. “We had newly built the house and had not had a chance to live in it comfortably,” he said. Doraisami’s wife, Veeramani, said that there are many gaurs in the area. “Bears also come, which is scary because they kill people. Nobody sleeps peacefully here (in the colony),” she added.
Residents of Ambedkar Nagar, another colony of about 150 people located south of Longwood Shola, have similar stories to narrate. Ramajayam, a youth from the colony, told Mongabay-India that the residents live under constant threat of being attacked by wild animals since the colony is on the fringes of the forest. “There are no boundaries or fences that separate our colony from the forest,” he added. “When we complained, we were told to take care of ourselves. Our movements are restricted due to this. There are no playgrounds; children play near the forest, which increases their risk of being attacked by animals.”
Biosphere reserves reduce space between humans and animals
A land-locked district in the Western Ghats region, Nilgiris with an area of 2,545 square kilometres (sq. km.) has a forest area of about 1,731 sq. km. Interspersed with vast tea plantations and agricultural lands, this forest area is highly fragmented. The district falls within the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, the first biosphere reserve in the country with an area of 5,520 square kilometres. Biosphere reserves, as described by UNESCO, are “learning areas for sustainable development.” Modelled in such a way as to promote human-animal coexistence, it is divided into a core area, which is a strictly protected area for wildlife; surrounded by a buffer zone, and a transition area where the boundaries between humans and animals become progressively thin.
Animals do not understand boundaries. Several push and pull factors are bringing them closer to human habitation. While forest degradation, agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, and climate change are some of the factors pushing the animals out of forests, they are pulled towards human-dominated landscapes by easy access to food like crops, fruiting trees, food waste, and livestock.
Many cases of close interactions between humans and wildlife are being reported from towns in the upper plateau of Nilgiris such as Ooty, Coonoor, and Kotagiri. In November 2022, a tiger seen with its kill near Ooty Golf Course was widely reported. Sightings of the rare and elusive mammal Nilgiri Marten, endemic to the Western Ghats, was also reported from towns such as Ooty and Coonoor. Herds of gaurs grazing in the tea plantations are a common sight here and now, animals like bears, leopards, porcupines, wild dogs, and jungle cats are increasingly seen in residential areas. Rajesh Kumar, wildlife veterinarian, Mudumalai National Park, said that in these towns, solid waste that is indiscriminately discarded is easy food for animals, while abandoned buildings provide shelter.