Every year, visitors flock to the lush deciduous forests of Karnataka’s Bandipur and NagaraholeNational Parks, hoping to sight charismatic wildlife – the tigers, leopards and elephants that they harbour. The fringes of these forests, however, see a role reversal: wildlife visits people instead.
“Just look at it.” Parashivappa scoffs, pointing at elephant footprints embedded in the moist soil that holds his now ruined tomato harvest. “They visit daily, and we have tried to scare them away, but it never works.” The thought of a lone tiger or wild elephants visiting your backyard might never cross your mind, but they are common and unwanted visitors for Parashivappa. He has resigned to spending most of his nights with a flashlight on a machan (a temporary watchtower perched on a tree) that he built on the edge of his tomato field, trying to guard it against the wild animals.
Parashivappa’s village, Maduvinahalli borders the Bandipur Tiger Reserve of Karnataka. This nature reserve forms a crucial part of the mountain range that runs parallel to India’s western coast and is one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots of the world – the Western Ghats. Together with the Bandipur, Nagarahole, Wayanad and Sathyamangalam ranges, these forests are well-known globally for the staggering variety of endemic and endangered wildlife they harbour. They boast of the world’s highest conglomeration of Asian elephants and tigers, and several other vulnerable and endangered wildlife like leopards, sloth bear, gaur and dholes.
With growing human populations overlapping with forests that are rich wildlife habitats, increasing interactions between people and animals are inevitable. Rural communities of India are known for traditionally being tolerant of wildlife, and accepting of the presence of animals as a part of their daily lives. However, this fragile state of affairs is quick to erode when people incur heavy and consistent losses of livelihood – including crops, property and livestock, or sometimes human life, due to wildlife.
Continued Parashivappa, “Our farms are so close to the forests. Of course, we know elephants will occasionally come, but it is very difficult to consistently lose our hard-earned harvest.” Parashivappa has been farming on this land for 25 years and initially, his crop of tomatoes would yield 100-120 cartons of that he could sell for a decent price. However, he feels that the frequency with which elephants venture out of the forests has rapidly increased over the past 10 years, due to which he is only able to harvest 30-40 cartons now. “It is tough to sustain my livelihood due to this consistent problem. I have had to give up harvesting banana and sugarcane.”
Mainstream media coverage of human and wildlife interactions tends to lean towards sensationalism, painting fierce conflict or violent loss of human life as an inevitable and frequent conclusion of living around animals. Such reportage often ends moulding the public’s perception of human and wildlife interactions with a dangerous bias against wildlife – especially predators – as blood-thirsty animals on the prowl, rather than reflecting on their inherently shy nature and tendency to avoid humans as much as possible. A consequence of this unfortunate trend is that the complexity of people’s relationships with wildlife, and the underlying nuances of the factors affecting human and wildlife interactions remain unheard.
“Our village is surrounded by the forest on three sides” narrated another farmer, Swamy, pointing towards the hills of Bandipur that border his village, Kundakere. “My father farmed here before me, and I continue the same work. We have had problems with wildlife for as long as I remember,” he continues, monotonously. Notorious in his village for his eccentricities, Swamy once locked up forest guards in their office. The reason? Having lost crop worth Rs 70,000 and frustrated at not having received a response, he saw no other way of capturing the forest department’s attention. Swamy’s concerns are not unique. There are sufficient funds in the governmental systems for providing loss compensation, but most of these do not reach the intended beneficiaries.
The Indian government has provisions and procedures in place for compensating individuals for losses incurred due to protected wildlife, and they vary across states. Yet, farmers report a general dissatisfaction with the process, saying that they found it time consuming and inefficient, and ironically, very costly.
We spoke with Muddappa, a farmer residing in the village of Hadanur bordering Bandipur, which sees a very high level of human and wildlife conflict. An ageing tiger had killed a resident of this village a few years back, leading to a violent backlash against the forest department and government – a frequent culmination of events when cases of conflict rapidly escalate. Yet, we found in Muddappa a perspective that we didn’t quite expect. “People completely lost their minds here and there was a lot of unrest, but it really wasn’t the tiger’s fault. He was old and injured, that’s why he ventured out of the forest” he recalled.
Over the years, he has incurred losses worth Rs 74,200 due to livestock predation and elephant raiding, yet he does not seem to harbour any visible resentment towards wildlife. “Living so close to the forest, I face wildlife raiding my crops very often, but I tend not to retaliate that much. They are wild animals, we cannot expect them to not move around.”
However, receiving compensation has been a difficult and demoralising process for him. “Hiring a photographer to document my losses, travelling to the nearest town to obtain the certificates and forms, arranging these logistics – all of it is costly. The compensation received is usually very minimal, I actually ended up spending more than I received!”
Dr Krithi Karanth has been studying the complex and increasingly fragile relationship between people and wildlife in rural and urban India for 19 years. As an scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, she has conducted research in 17 sites across seven states and interacted with over 10,000 rural households living near wildlife reserves. Her scientific and conservation efforts have attempted to understand the multitude of interactions people have with wildlife, and in the process, sought answers on preventing retaliation and promoting tolerance for wildlife while preserving livelihoods. Her team’s research, that focussed on understanding patterns of human and wildlife interactions as well as compensation in the Western Ghats, threw up some interesting results. Over 1,300 villages around a 7449 km 2 area surrounding five nature reserves in the Western Ghats were surveyed, for gathering information on losses incurred due to wildlife as well as governmental compensation received. “Our research revealed that 57% of households in the area reported crop loss to authorities, 64% reported livestock loss, and 77% reported human injury or death. However, only 31% of these households reported receipt of compensation from the government for their losses. The process was riddled with delays and lack of transparency.”
In several areas, increasing conflict, coupled with frustration with the system and the unreliability of the compensation process has harboured an increasingly negative attitude in people towards wildlife. Taken in a larger context, less than five percent of its India’s wild lands are legally protected for wildlife as nature reserves, and a major conservation challenge is to tackle anthropogenic pressures building in and outside these reserves, most of which are embedded with human settlements on their borders.
Mobile phone for a tiger
Attempting to alleviate this problem, Dr Karanth and her colleagues at WCS India initiated Project Wild Seve in 2015. Translating from Kannada into ‘in service of the wild’, the project aims to address this functional delay and provide a listening ear to distressed families who suffer losses due to protected wildlife. This is implemented through a mobile-based system for reporting and tracking responses to human-wildlife conflict incidents around Bandipur and Nagarahole Tiger Reserves. “I realised that even people living in the remotest part of India had access to mobile phones, and we could easily deploy mobile phone technology to assist them,” she added.
Owing to a toll-free number linked with a web portal, the live monitoring system assures that field staff is dispatched within a day to callers reporting losses. This creates a response system and builds case histories for every incident reported. In just two years, over 7,500 compensation cases have been filed and are being tracked from 600 villages around these reserves. So far, the project has empowered over 2,200 families who have received compensation totalling to INR 64 lakh.
Parashivappa has called Wild Seve eight times, and each time he has been greeted by the enthusiastic field assistants that comprise the Wild Seve team on the ground. These assistants were recruited from local villages and are familiar with the problems of human-wildlife conflict.
Wild Seve was first initiated in the Bandipur and Nagarahole National parks as they support a rich array of large mammal species living alongside very high densities of human populations, and previous research by Dr Karanth’s team in this landscape had given several insights into farming and mitigation trends, and examined crop loss, livestock loss , compensation reporting and receipt. Two years since the project, while compensation still takes time to arrive, there has been a general reduction in time for compensation receipt. Analysis of the data collected with the live monitoring system of Wild Seve over two years of the project’s involvement showed that the average number of days for receipt of compensation by families, after filing a claim, went down from 260 days to 152 days for crop raiding cases, from 611 days to 232 days for property damage cases, and from 261 days to 136 days for livestock predation cases.
Moving forward, these organisations hope to replicate the Wild Seve model in other Indian states that have forest reserves facing high anthropogenic pressures and consequently see increasing levels of conflict between human settlements and wildlife. Additionally, Dr Karanth believes similar projects can be employed beyond India too. “I believe the Wild Seve model can be adopted and implemented anywhere in the world where conflict occurs and government-funded compensation exists. The success of the program requires committed individuals who are deeply rooted in their communities and therefore respond immediately,” she adds.
With increasing fragmentation and mounting anthropogenic pressures on our forests, shrinking spaces for wildlife will continue to alter the delicate relationship between humans and wild animals in India. Strategic conservation efforts that aim to preserve the traditional tolerance imbibed in people can be an effective approach to conserving wildlife landscapes while supporting the welfare of the people.
You could hear the anger seething in Parashivappa’s voice when he began speaking to us, but he seems to have mellowed down now. “The compensation money still takes time to arrive” he states “…but I am just glad and very relieved that someone is listening to us, and helping.”
-Written by Vaishali Rawat
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