In Wayanad, a man-wild story caught in poll season promises

Rahul Gandhi, Congress leader and MP, promised resolution during his two-day election campaign but with a disclaimer.
Last Updated : 26 April 2024, 10:13 IST
Last Updated : 26 April 2024, 10:13 IST

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Mananthavady: Between late January and mid-February this year, three men were killed in elephant attacks in Wayanad, one of them by a radio-collared wild elephant.

The attacks, seen as an escalation in human-wildlife conflict in this largely agrarian district in north Kerala, set off another round of angry public protests. A day-long shutdown was called by Kerala’s ruling Left, the Congress-led opposition, and the BJP. This urgency in political engagement, across parties, two months ahead of the Lok Sabha election, reaffirms a larger story of tokenism and apathy: all involved, none accountable.

The introduction of invasive plant species has caused depletion of forest resources in the region which borders forest areas including Nagarahole and Bandipur in Karnataka, and Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu. Farmers trace the wild animal incursions to the lack of food and water in the forests and a systemic failure to foster habitats to supplement the rise in the number of animals.

The state Forests and Wildlife Department, in a 2023 report on tigers in the Wayanad landscape, says water is a “serious limiting factor” that induces the movement of wildlife from areas of scarcity to areas of availability.

Rahul Gandhi, Congress leader and MP, promised resolution during his two-day election campaign but with a disclaimer. He wanted the voters to remember that Congress is not in power at the Centre, or in the state, and this makes his interventions difficult to follow through.

“But this is not a 2024 issue. Man-animal conflicts have been causing deaths and loss of cattle and crops here for decades,” Shobin, who runs a hill produce trading unit in Mananthavady town, said. The Congress has won all three Lok Sabha elections since the Wayanad constituency was formed, in 2008.

Building resentment

In 2022-23, Kerala reported 98 deaths in human-wildlife conflicts; snake bites caused most of them, 48, followed by elephant attacks (27) and wild boar attacks (7). Of the 1,275 incidents of injury, 261 were caused by wild boars. Leopards and tigers accounted for the most number of cattle deaths, 244 and 191, respectively. The state paid around Rs 10.49 crore in compensation for the deaths, injuries, and loss of cattle, crops, and property.

I C Balakrishnan, Congress leader, and Sultan Bathery MLA, takes the narrative back to the MP’s limitations – “Forest laws need to be amended” is a familiar election campaign line in these parts of the state. Balakrishnan, however, doesn’t see human-wild conflict as a major plank in a general election fought on ideological lines.

The farmers have a different take. P M George, chairman, Farmers Relief Forum, Wayanad, puts it bluntly – “It’s not like the earlier elections; the results will reflect the resentment. If the Congress fielded anyone other than Rahul Gandhi, it would’ve lost.”

Last month, forest departments in Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu formalised plans to work together to bring down man-animal conflicts in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. In February, the Kerala Assembly passed a resolution seeking from the Centre an amendment to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, aimed at developing simpler procedures for handling these conflicts. Supporters of the CPM-led Left argue that Kerala can only mobilise support for the amendment since its implementation is outside of the government’s scope.

Elusive food, lurking fear

Sibi, who works in a cooperative society that markets agricultural produce in Mananthavady, has seen the fear of these conflicts alter the life-work routines of farmers. “In areas like Payyampally, tapping of rubber trees in the mornings comes with its risks. You don’t know where a boar or some other animal is moving around,” he said. Teak trees planted extensively in forests have contributed to the loss of plant species and forced the animals to come out in search of food, he said.

Many farmers acknowledge the factors that lead animals toward human settlements but have misgivings about funds allocated to conservation projects that, they allege, are shaping a wildlife-first approach.

The state has identified improvement of degraded forests and permanent demarcation of forest boundaries among conflict mitigation strategies but the farmers are seeking mandated cover for their lives and livelihoods.

George, who backs a retaliation through vote, is skeptical about quick relief – “The amendment (to the law) could’ve happened long ago. Governments always give in when the NGOs strike work, don’t they? Here, the problem is that political parties don’t need farmers between elections.”

Published 26 April 2024, 10:13 IST

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