Man-Animal Conflicts in India: Understanding Hidden Social Factors
Man-animal conflicts are increasing across India. Although news of such events was quite rare and obscure just 10 to 15 years ago, it is becoming alarmingly more visible in the media. Does this indicate that man-animal conflicts are recent in origin and unheard of in the past? That question is difficult to answer without serious research. However, it can be easily suggested that the media was not as concerned about these incidents in the past. Environmental awareness from a western perspective has been of fairly recent origin in Indian society and media. Hence, it is quite natural that these incidents were not given as much attention then as they are today since environmental issues are now widely covered in both print and electronic media. This is especially true when it comes to the most pertinent and burning issues of the day.
It is possible that man-animal conflicts have existed since time immemorial. However, recent trends and patterns of these conflicts have taken a serious turn. Not handling these issues properly now could mean a long-term loss of wildlife as well as human life and property. But why are these disturbing incidents hitting the newsstand so often now? Current conflicts receiving news coverage today run the gamut from repeated poaching of rhinoceros in Assam to widespread and erratic elephant migrations in eastern and southern India to the poaching of tigers and defenseless migratory birds. Even rare and endangered animal species kept and bred at zoological gardens are being targeted.
The important question is where is this going? Why are animal deaths and destruction, and loss of human life and property from man-animal conflicts taking such serious turn? Reports are pouring in almost every month from the states of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Tamil Nadu about rampages by big herds of elephants and indiscriminate poaching of rare and often critically endangered species in northeast India. Reports are also pouring in regarding loss of precious vegetation from the mangrove belts of the Sunderbans and the occasional venturing of precious wildlife into human habitation in search of food and water. Annual migration of elephants has become a regular story of pain, death and huge economic losses.
It is important to take a peek into the underlying factors that may be impacting the serious nature of such conflicts. One of the hidden truths is that India’s post independence conservation efforts and strict wildlife protection laws did have important impacts on the increase of wildlife populations with varying success across the nations. While this is good news (and kudos to the old conservators), one important factor not taken into consideration, however, was the expansion of protected areas. As a result, wildlife populations in different protected habitats are competing increasingly for space, food, water, mates and prime hunting grounds.
The consequence of this unfortunate factor has been the erratic migration and occasional (or more correctly said “frequent”) movements of wildlife species into adjoining human habitation in search of perpetual resources necessary to maintain the life process. Migrations are a regular and common feature of the normal life cycle of several large and small herbivores, and they have been doing this since time immemorial. Unmanaged and illegal human construction and habitation on these routes have greatly impacted erratic migration patterns and aggressive behaviors for such animals. In addition, agricultural lands have been carved out of previously forested tracts without any scientific management or understanding to support the livelihood of local human populations.
All these have opened Pandora’s Box with respect to man-animal conflicts. Not only did wildlife populations increase, so did the surrounding local human populations. People cannot just survive on air. They need livelihoods and a place to protect themselves from elements of nature. Now the situation is worse because human settlements and activities are almost directly encroaching on or, in other words, engulfing wildlife approach areas. Hence, conflicts are inevitable. Stray animals will keep venturing more and more into adjoining human settlements for their natural urges, and loss of human and animal life and property will become a daily saga.
Add to this the dependence of local inhabitants, mostly poor laborers or marginal farmers, on forest resources for their simple daily sustenance, such as food, fuel and fodder. On top of this, due to the absence of any foraging facilities for the standing livestock population, domestic animals are free to roam and browse inside protected areas. Resources have been fragile and with population increases pressures from both ends (human and wildlife) beyond their carrying capacity are virtually collapsing, thus bringing more wildlife into human territories for their sustenance. What a turn this is for the man-animal relationship that has stood the test of time across centuries. To add further misery, forest departments do not have enough guards and trained personnel to handle this delicate situation.
Poor pay, primitive weapons, poor training or no training, and lack of security has made forest staff vulnerable in the face of such massive conflicts. One telltale example of the improper training of forest officials and staff is the unfortunate killing of wildlife species during capture/recapture by overdose of tranquilizers, which are used in the process of animal transportation. The question is, “Who is at fault?” Is it the ground-level workers or administrators or policy makers or guards or local government, or is the whole system to blame? If no comprehensive training is available for people to handle delicate situations and crisis, more wildlife deaths are guaranteed.
Developing infrastructure without long-term planning and true environmental impact assessments are other important factors contributing toward wildlife deaths, such as railroad accidents within forested areas. Lack of coordination and genuine communication between different government departments, and lack of proper funds, resources, education, training and awareness have further contributed to these conflicts. Society mostly responds reactively once an incident has occurred, but it does not prepare proactively in advance to handle the situation scientifically and sustainably, both with resources and man power.
A new angle added to this melodrama is the recent and increasing involvements of insurgents in poaching activities. Lack of awareness and jobs have forced many youth among resource poor, rural areas to join insurgent groups.
Chased by security forces, they are moving inside forested areas as a safe refuge and making the situation even worse. Some forms of wildlife harvest have always been common among forest dwellers and fringe inhabitants for their sustenance. But the weapons they used were primitive and, therefore, restricted them to small hunting success, which was enough for these people to survive.
Now the modern AK 47 and other self-loading rifles and ammunition easily accessible through insurgent groups and their members have started modern gun harvest in the direction of mass killings of wildlife species at an alarming rate. A huge market exists for wildlife and wildlife products in west Asia, central, south and Southeast Asia from the context of traditional medicinal practices. Insurgent groups have identified wildlife harvesting as an easy and comfortable funding source with the help of local villagers, fringe dwellers, pastoralists, farmers, trackers and trappers. This has been transforming ordinary villagers into professional poachers and is one of the primary factors behind the incessant man-animal conflicts reported across the nation.
The bottom line of this debacle is that unless economic and social conditions of people living around forests, fringe dwellers, tribal communities and forest inhabitants are grossly improved, these conflicts will not be eradicated successfully. The success of Joint Forest Management approaches together with better understanding, education and training of forest workers and officials are necessary to properly manage this delicate situation. In addition, coordination among different related government departments, such as Environment & Forest, Agriculture, Rural Development, Education, Cottage Industry, Health and Infrastructure Building and Development, are absolutely essential.
Many have recently become engaged and entangled in the “blame game” and “witch hunting” process while looking for solutions to these problems. However, what is needed is serious introspection. Society, which consists of all of us, needs to take the blame in its own capacity rather than pointing fingers at others individually. What will be essential is an empathetic attitude toward those suffering and a willingness to assist with their needs to the best of our abilities. If we are all sincere in fulfilling our own pledge to help protect the environment, positive results are bound to come today and tomorrow.
We, collectively as a society, have to acknowledge the issues first and then think about resolutions to these situations. Only when we have accepted the hard facts, which are difficult to swallow, will we be able to identify ways to solve the problems. Unless comprehensive economic packages, bank loans, employment, education and health services are delivered to these under privileged areas, no long-term plans for wildlife conservation could ever be successful.
Without proper social and economic development in forested belts and until appropriate support systems are made available, the conservation success of the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s will start dying out in the new millennium. The symptoms are already showing, and it is not difficult to diagnose the root cause of the social unrest in these vulnerable areas. If we stop hiding our face from reality and face the crude and bitter truth, we could possibly start working toward rebuilding these areas and, thereby, protect the precious legacy and heritage of India’s legendary biodiversity.