Wildlife conflicts

Wildlife conflicts
A  facebook post by the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama said: “Because past environmental destruction was the result of ignorance, we can easily forgive it.

Today, we are better informed. Therefore, it’s essential that we make an ethical examination of what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations. Ours is clearly a pivotal generation. We have global communication and yet confrontation is more common than dialogue.”

As always, the spiritual leader has hit the nail with his words. Let us take for instance the human-wildlife conflicts in India, and for the sake of being particular, human-leopard conflicts. Media reports impress upon us that conflicts with leopards are all-too-common. One hears of incidents from remote rural areas as well as urban metropolitans. Both, people and animals suffer.

Researchers are constantly trying to find a middle path in conservation, that can benefit both people and wildlife. However, in a country as vast and complex as India, it takes time and effort to make these known to the wider mass for implementation. Danger from
humans aside, conflicts are among the greatest threats to leopards today. More because of the negative impression created about these animals on people’s minds following such incidents.

However, these impressions and subsequent actions against these animals, and understanding of the word ‘conflict’ itself are based largely on limited knowledge. Defeating this requires a majority of us to learn and act on it. Of course, media has a major role to play in awareness generation. With so many diverse issues to talk about, media priorities in general can change by the minute. That apart, sensationalist and incendiary reporting only aggravates the situation.

“Sensational reporting by media (of rare incidents of leopards attacking people) can harm the species. Negative words and headlines used give a wrong message to the public, making leopards seem like fearsome beasts rather than an animal that in fact wants to avoid people,” says Dr Vidya Athreya of the Wildlife Conservation Society India
Program who has carried out intensive research on leopards in human-dominated areas. All leopards are not man-eaters or conflict animals; they are not out to harm people or terrorise; or they have not lost their way into human settlements. They are only trying to adapt and survive, just as we do, but in a hostile, changing human-dominated landscape.

The adaptable neighbours

Among Dr Vidya’s collaborative researches was the long-term intensive monitoring of five leopards captured as a conflict mitigation measure – just because they were seen by people. None had killed people. Two were translocated and released more than 50 km away, while three were released near the site of capture. The research showed that these leopards were not ‘stray’ animals. They were residents living amidst people even after their release. Two females even went on to have their litter.

The animals had devised intelligent survival strategies, including moving mostly at night to avoid being seen by people. With no natural prey in this modified habitat, the leopards were naturally dependent on livestock for survival, and were at times, as close as
25 m to people. Yet, there were no ‘conflicts’, because the animals had successfully remained unseen by people.

Voicing against capture and relocation of leopards as a solution to conflicts, Vidya cautions, can do more harm than good. “As many as 106 leopards were captured in Junnar, Maharashtra, between 2001 and 2002. Within a week or so of their release, people began to get attacked. There were no attacks the previous year, but after the capture, there was a steep spike. It appears that the actual act of capturing the animal leads to stress; people are around it, it gets injured and then its attitude
towards people might change.” 

Understanding ‘conflicts’

In most cases, what we call conflict leopards are ‘animals living amidst us who had the misfortune of being sighted’. These encounters turn into conflicts when people react to these sightings in uninformed ways. The basic set of events that characterise many human-leopard ‘conflicts’ are similar: an animal is sighted; news spreads; curious crowd gathers; rescue teams are brought in; uncontrolled crowd aggravates the situation; people venture too close to provoking the animal; sometimes animals get captured and translocated, and at other times, more people are injured before the leopard is killed.
“Mostly, attacks by leopards are defensive in nature, or occur during sudden encounters. They are scared of people and avoid us,” says Vidya. The best way to mitigate conflict is to prevent it from happening, which needs basic understanding and awareness about the animals.

Preventing conflicts

Among Indian states, Uttarakhand is believed to have the worst levels of conflicts. Akhilesh Jayaram, a Bengaluru resident who spent two years working in a remote village in the State, recalls, “I know at least eight women who were killed in leopard attacks in my village and other nearby villages. It is absolutely heartbreaking that you are unable to help them.” Vidya opines, “Uttarakhand is an aberration and has always had predatory attacks on people since the time of Corbett. The people too respond by killing leopards; so basically it is a mutually aggravated conflict with serious consequences to both parties.”

“Our experience in Mumbai shows that increased awareness (of the right type), where we are not focusing on the animal but instead, focusing on helping people reduce their losses to these animals does lead to increased acceptance,” says Vidya.

These may include appropriate relief particularly to poor people who lose livestock to leopards. Human lives lost can in no way be compensated, although monetary relief may help families during this time of need.In rare instances, when an animal actually targets people, having it removed – either captured or killed, is crucial. There is no sense in jeopardising people’s lives and goodwill towards the species. Some argue against killing, advocating live capture. These choices are best left to authorities on ground. Capturing wild animals – particularly survival specialists like the leopard, is not an easy task. Additionally, from welfare perspective, confining them in small cages no way helps their mental well-being.

Our role

For mutual welfare of people and  leopards, our best option is to prevent encounters from turning into conflicts. Making conflict prevention measures a common knowledge requires greater participation from all of us. We have an obligation to be the positive change that the country needs.

Leopards are our natural heritage, our inheritance. What we do as individuals for these animals and their habitat reflects our attitude towards our country. Just like the octogenarian leader has adopted Facebook to pass on his teachings, even a share on social media about right actions and comments on wrongs, can eventually help. All we need to do, to begin with, is care.

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