NEW DELHI: Four years, 1,557 lives lost. These are the numbers of a different kind of war zone—one that is created by development and loss of habitat. According to data collated by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), between April 2013 and May 2017, West Bengal lost 367 people to man-animal conflict. The state is followed by Assam with 241 deaths and Jharkhand where 214 human lives were lost in fight for space.
Despite the government taking steps to tackle increasing incidents of man-animal conflict, in the last four years alone, at least one person has been killed every day on an average due to attacks from tigers and elephants. The shrinking habitat of these animals thanks to development and encroachment of forest land, has given rise to such unnecessary deaths.
What is perhaps more worrying is the fact that with the number of tigers and elephants increasing gradually, the man-animal conflict is also set to rise further.
India is home to the largest population of tigers in the world with the Tiger Census 2014 pegging it at a healthy 2,226. Elephant population is also on the rise and the 2012 Census said that 30,000 elephants live in the wild across the country.
The new Census is due in another month and conservationists are hoping that the numbers will rise.
Despite the number of human lives lost in attacks by animals increasing in last three years, the new National Wildlife Action Plan which was mooted to address and manage the conflict has been on the files alone. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests is deliberating over it for over a year now.
The draft action plan clearly outlines reasons for the conflict as loss, degradation, and fragmentation of wildlife habitats. All these in turn increase the chances of wild animals moving out of their natural habitat and encountering cultivation and people.
Such conflict situations also lead to growing antipathy among people towards wildlife conservation, resulting in retaliatory killings.
Another important factor behind the conflict is imbalance of wildlife species. For instance, killing of big cats, such as deer, wild boar, in the forest results in human-wildlife conflict in the fringe areas due to decrease of prey species.
Environment minister Harsh Vardhan agrees that the situation is worrisome but emphasised that the ministry is taking measures.
“Financial assistance is provided under Centrally Sponsored Scheme (CSS) of Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats (IDWH) and Project Tiger for voluntary relocation of villages from within Protected Areas to outside. This helps in moving people away from wildlife-rich habitats,” said Vardhan.
He further said that a network of Protected Areas like national park, sanctuaries, conservation reserves, and community reserve covering important wildlife habitat has been created across the country under the provisions of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. This aims to conserve wild animals and their habitats and also aids mitigation of man-animal conflict.
But wildlife experts feel that this is not enough. They stress that in case of tigers about 40 per cent live outside the 50 tiger reserves and the approach has to be aggressive. Conflicts also occur more outside Protected Areas and there is need for a human-wildlife conflict management plan.
“Addressing wildlife human interface requires an aggressive and active ‘co-occurrence’ agenda which will have pro as well as retroactive measures, based on landscape approach, in ongoing manner with an eye on specially Protected Areas in proximity to human-dominated settings,” said Rajesh Gopal, former National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) chief and Secretary General of Global Tiger Forum.
The draft action plan recognises that man-animal conflicts are largely a human-induced phenomenon combined with the specific behavioural ecology of animals, and external environmental factors. Long-term conservation measures are only possible through people’s cooperation.
Explaining about steps taken jointly by the Centre and states, R K Srivastava, director, Project Elephant, Ministry of Environment and Forests says technology is being used and SMS alerts are sent to people by district committees in areas in vicinity of elephant corridors. Besides, innovative methods like chilly and honey fences are used.
“Population of elephants in the country is slowly rising, while their habitat is reducing. There is a pressure to come out of the thick forest for food, water, mating. Government can reduce the conflict intensity but it cannot be eliminated,” said Srivastava.
Apart from the obvious solutions, the government is also looking at out-of-the-box options. For instance, it has suggested using beehive fences and chilli fences to prevent elephants from entering crop fields. The draft plan also ponders the option of euthanasia. The government also has repeatedly suggested to states about importance of involving locals in conservation work.
Sandeep Kumar Tiwari, Programme Manager, IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group, says that one has to take both short-term and long-term approaches.
“We should not look at band-aid approach and fire-fighting but work towards long-term mitigation measures like habitat management and protecting and securing wildlife corridors. Development activities through forest areas need to be planned,” he said.