Living on the edge

Living on the edge

India, with its 1.3 billion people, has one of the highest human population densities in the world. Yet, for centuries, the country has also been home to many tropical wild animals. With changing times and an ever-increasing population, however, the lines between human settlements and forests have started to blur. As a natural effect of this, conflict incidents between humans and wildlife have come to light more frequently in recent times. This has initiated a need to understand why and how such conflicts ensue.

How do communities living on the edges of the forest ward off wild animals? For example, people use many mitigation measures to protect their livestock and fields, but we don’t have a clear idea about how effective their strategies are. And how do people perceive animals trampling fields and stealing livestock?

To answer these pertinent questions, Dr Krithi K Karanth and Sahila Kudalkar from the Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, USA and the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru, have attempted to understand the use of different mitigation strategies, and the reasons for employing them, with an emphasis on environmental and social factors that influence their decisions. Their study, recently published in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife, is based on a survey of 5,196 households from 2,855 villages spread over four states in India — Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. The studied sites belonged to one of 11 fringe protected areas in the country, and the primary occupation of people living in these areas was agriculture.

Minimising livestock losses

“These interviews were conducted by teams of over 200 volunteers over the course of six years,” comments Krithi, on the scale of the project. Men and women were asked questions about what sort of conflict incidents they had faced with the wild animals of the neighbouring reserves, and what mitigation strategies they employed. In the area of the study, much of the livestock people owned were cows, which were often predated upon by animals like tigers, leopards and canids like wolves, foxes and jackals. On the other hand, wild animals like the nilgai, wild pig and elephant were responsible for much of the crop damage.

The researchers found that 80% of the households in these areas employed as many as 11 mitigation measures to protect their crops, with most of them employing an average of two. They commonly used scare devices, watched fields during the night, and erected fences to ward off wild animals. In spite of these measures, the study found that many households were still experiencing losses. The researchers opine that a careful analysis of the effectiveness of these mitigation strategies could help in reducing conflict incidents in the long run.

As a viable alternative to minimise livestock losses, the researchers propose using guard animals, feeding animals in stalls and encouraging people not to graze livestock inside forest reserves and/or penalising them for it. They argue that combining multiple techniques during high-risk times (when wild animals are more likely to invade fringe areas of the reserves) might also bring about positive results. For example, livestock could be protected within enclosures, while also using sound and/or light deterrents against wild animals for effective results.

Talking about the tolerance many people have, even when their crops and/or livestock are lost, Krithi recalls, “I remember one incident in Bandipur where I asked a woman why she was so tolerant of wildlife. She said that the conflict incidents were small scale, and felt that the animals were very much a part of the landscape. She said such short-term losses to animals like pigs were not a big deal. It was when really large-scale incidents occurred in which entire fields were destroyed by elephants that they really felt it.”

There is an imminent need to build such tolerance among people so that retaliatory killing of wildlife is prevented. While snare traps or poisoning may eliminate problem animals, non-target species may also fall prey to these strategies. Such actions could also have adverse effects on threatened or rare species. But some people have very different ideas about human-wildlife conflict. The Gond tribe around Tadoba-Andhari in Maharashtra think of the forest as sacred, and they justify incidents in which carnivores depredate their livestock. However, it may be because of such views that they do not invest in mitigation measures to begin with.

Regional differences

The researchers also found that there were a number of regional differences across different Indian states. For example, in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, people were most likely to use mitigation measures to safeguard against conflict incidents. In the past few years, the highest number of such conflicts have taken place in these two states. Both states have disbursed the highest compensation amounts, in addition to having detailed compensation policies in place. Yet, families put in the time and effort to avoid human-wildlife conflict anyway. On the other hand, households in Rajasthan are less likely to invest in mitigation strategies perhaps because of the higher poverty among people living near the reserve fringes in the state.

Additionally, vulnerable communities living on the edge of forests need more intervention and support, say the researchers. These are the families that already invest more into mitigating conflict with wild animals to begin with. This means that when risk-maps are made in the future, landscape and geographic factors should also be taken into account. Besides, since most people living in these areas lack awareness of the schemes that governments have in place with respect to compensation for losses, a stronger support system would help them cope with these situations better.

These communities need to be encouraged to use non-lethal mitigation strategies to protect crops from species that cause the most damage, so that their livelihoods don’t continue to be impacted adversely because of wildlife. Policies involving mitigation efforts and those that involve compensation claims’ processing must be standardised across the country.

Moving forward, Krithi comments, “The main point of the study is that so much time, money and effort is invested by people whether it’s the farmers or the government, trying to mitigate conflict. A lot of this is ad hoc and we really need to scientifically test and evaluate these strategies, compare them against each other to see which ones will work better.”

(The author is with Gubbi Labs, a Bengaluru-based research collective)

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