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 ever more frequently in recent times. This has initiated a need to understand why and how such conflicts ensue. How do communities living in 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 Ms. Sahila Kudalkar from the Wildlife Conservation Society (New York) and Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore, 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 5196 households from 2855 villages spread over four states in India -- Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.
“These interviews were conducted by teams of over 200 volunteers over the course of six years,” comments Dr. Karanth, on the scale of the project. Men and women were asked questions about what sort of conflict incidents they had faced, 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.
In the areas studied, the researchers found that people often employed as many as eleven mitigation measures to protect their crops, with most households 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 carefully analysing the effectiveness of these mitigation strategies could help in reducing conflict incidents in the long run.
As a viable alternative to minimize livestock losses, the researchers propose using guard animals, feeding animals in stalls and encouraging people not to graze livestock inside forest reserves and/or penalizing 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.
Talking about the tolerance many people have, even when their crops and/or livestock are lost, Dr. Karanth 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.
Additionally, vulnerable communities living on the edge of forests need more intervention and support, say the researchers. 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 against species that cause the most damage, so that their livelihoods don’t continue to be impacted adversely because of wildlife.
Moving forward, Dr. Karanth 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.”