An elephant crosses a road. Representative image. Photo: PTI
- Deforestation and habitat fragmentation are forcing animals into areas they’d rather not be – it’s not coexistence.
- In Karnataka, a study found that snares trapped leopards more often when the population increased beyond a certain point.
- It would be great if humans and other animals could coexist – but it won’t happen if we pretend we already are.
Bangalore: Most of the most common images we see of wildlife – which weren’t captured with camera traps – take place in towns and villages where an animal is walking on a street or highway while people are watching. not too far away.
One such video clip that was circulating recently was of a wandering crocodile in Kogilban, a village in Dandeli, Karnataka.
Many, including some wildlife advocates, shared the video on social media, touting it as a sign of coexistence between people and wildlife in India. But the whole clip reveals both intolerance and fear. At first, the villagers seem fascinated by an adult crocodile slowly walking through their streets and tolerate its presence. Later, however, they start chasing him and throwing stones, even while falling in panic.
“We went [to Kogilban], spoke to the villagers and stopped them from throwing stones, ”said Rahul Bavaji, Honorary Wildlife Custodian of Kali Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. “Raising awareness” about wildlife conservation and conflicts with crocodiles “between people is important”. He added that while conflict with crocodiles is not a major problem in Dandeli today, “it could happen in the future because the breeding and nesting grounds are being destroyed by tourism-related construction activities” , which push crocodiles out of their habitat.
Some local practices in Dandeli also require attention. Tourism operators and tourists to the area have been known to feed crocodiles – a practice that flies in the face of conservation recommendations due to fallout such as unhealthy dependence on people, conflict and increased susceptibility poaching. In one case, when a forestry official opposed such feeding, tourists killed him.
In states like Odisha, with large crocodile populations, conflict is a serious problem. Last year alone, six people were killed in crocodile attacks. This is why it would be premature to assume that humans and animals coexist because they are in the same space – in the absence of explicit evidence.
Another case in which the conservation community and people in general assume coexistence is when leopards are found roaming concrete jungles. Their accounts equate the presence of leopards in these areas with their supposedly unique adaptive abilities, and then with human-leopard coexistence. But this is not the complete picture.
For example, the extent of natural habitats such as rock outcrops and forests has slowly receded in Karnataka, pushing leopards into “sub-optimal habitats,” said Sanjay Gubbi, wildlife biologist and state ecologist. . “Suboptimal habitats” refer to sugarcane and cashew plantations, corn fields and prey such as livestock. He says leopards are forced into landscapes they probably wouldn’t naturally choose to be in.
The number of leopards captured and moved in India has been steadily increasing since 2011, largely due to depredation of livestock. Ten years ago, 32 leopards were captured and 21 moved. These numbers rose to 73 and 55 in 2016. This trend suggests that human-leopard encounters have become more common in Karnataka, particularly in Tumkur, Mysore, Hasan, Bellary, Mandya, Udupi, Koppal and Ramanagara.
Then there are threats to leopards in the form of snares, which people use to trap wild herbivores.
Gubbi is the co-author of an article published in June 2021, showing that more humans in an area (in Karnataka) generally meant more trapping incidents, and therefore more deaths – especially as the first exceeded 225 people per km². “The more traps occur the closer to human dwellings,” Gubbi said.
Many of these Karnataka leopard landscapes are mosaics of agricultural fields, forests and rock outcrops. And all the evidence we have suggests that leopards also need forests to survive; just buildings and roads all the time will not be enough.
Conflict with elephants
Like crocodiles and leopards, elephants are also particularly difficult to live with.
Earlier this month, the Union’s new Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav told Rajya Sabha that human-elephant conflicts between 2014-2015 and 2018-2019 had killed 510 elephants and 2,366 people. Likewise, from 2018 to 2020, 301 elephants and 1,401 people died.
As with dwindling natural habitats forcing leopards into suboptimal spaces, such as agricultural fields and villages, elephants have been driven out of the forests of Chhattisgarh and Assam.
“Only about 30% of elephant habitat in India is in protected areas. In the remaining 70% of their range, elephants share space with humans, ”said Varun R. Goswami, co-founder and senior scientist of Conservation Initiatives, an NGO in the Meghalaya.
Goswami said some species, like elephants and monkeys, enjoy a certain “conservation ethos” in India rooted in religious and cultural sentiments. So people are generally sympathetic to their lot. But, he continued, this philosophy is not pronounced enough to prevent animals and humans from dying.
The immediate cause of the human-elephant conflict in the elephant range in India is that they feed and plunder crops. “Deaths and injuries often occur when people hunt elephants, usually far from their fields,” Goswami said.
And the distal cause? Again, habitat loss and fragmentation.
This was also true in Karnataka. Gubbi said that in Hassan, a town some 200 km west of Bengaluru, thanks to billboards and SMS alerts, victims among humans have fallen “- but” elephants continue to fall. to be killed, captured and displaced ”.
According to a report, 61 people have been killed in encounters with elephants since 2001 in Hassan alone. People often respond to these tragedies with retaliatory gunfire, poisoning, and installing (illegal) electric fences around their fields. Residents of some villages in Hassan have also protested to demand that the giants be relocated.
Elephants are a large-scale species that need a lot of space and resources to meet their ecological needs. “This is exactly how biology works for a 3000 kg animal,” Goswami said. “We cannot pocket them inside protected areas. So if we are to maintain our Asian elephant population – the largest in Asia – we must find imaginative ways to facilitate [space-sharing] between humans and elephants, keeping in mind landscape-level thinking to resolve conflicts. “
It would be ideal if humans and animals coexist. Most of India’s wildlife live outside the 5% of the land area they are protected by law and interact with people on a regular basis. From the point of view of the populations, these landscapes have been assigned to multiple uses, including agriculture and agro-pastoralism.
Finding the right balance here isn’t going to be easy, especially if we also pretend that we already coexist.
Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bangalore.