Karnataka sees rapid rise in man-animal conflicts; Experts seek better plans

The rate of conflict has increased manifold and the human deaths reported in the last 15 months stands testimony to it.
Villagers of Halasulige, led by Sakleshpur MLA and JDS state president HK Kumaraswamy, staged a protest with the mortal remains of Vasanth, who was trampled to death by an elephant, in Hassan district
Villagers of Halasulige, led by Sakleshpur MLA and JDS state president HK Kumaraswamy, staged a protest with the mortal remains of Vasanth, who was trampled to death by an elephant, in Hassan district

An increase in conservation measures, degradation of wildlife habitats and expansion of human activities, like farming and industrialisation, has led to a spike in man-animal conflicts, emerging as a growing concern for the Karnataka Government. For the state, which has traditionally had a high number of elephants, tigers and leopards, the issue of man-animal conflict is not new, but the rapid rise in cases in the recent past is demanding concrete plans to mitigate it.

The rate of conflict has increased manifold and the human deaths reported in the last 15 months stands testimony to it. During the period, 30 people have been killed and of them, 18 were cases involving elephants. The reason for the spike is also close proximity of human habitats to national parks and areas with a high density of big cats and elephants. Those living on the fringes of forests in and around Bengaluru, Chamarajanagar, Mysuru and Mandya are noticing a sharp increase in such conflicts.

The cases are not just of wandering leopards and elephants, but also of wild boars straying into fields and attacking people. Other herbivores, like spotted deer, blackbucks and primates -- monkeys and langurs -- also have their share in the conflict. While forest officials say human habitation has increased towards forested areas and buffer zones have shrunk, experts say there is less patience and tolerance among people. The coexistence that was practised for centuries is now fading, forcing the authorities to take alternative measures, like in Tumakuru where people, especially children, have been provided with reflective jackets to wear while moving out at night to ensure they are safe from leopards.

But in many cases, people themselves are at fault. Subhash Malkhade, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), says, “Mobile messages are sent and even loudspeaker alerts are given on wildlife movement, especially about elephants, to ensure that no lives are lost. But still, unfortunately, between April 2020 and February 2021, 30 people have lost their lives.” Vijay Kumar Gogi, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife), says the habitat for wildlife outside Protected Areas has shrunk in recent years. “The Forest department digs trenches to prevent animals from straying into human habitats. But at many places, local residents fill up trenches to take cattle inside the forest for grazing.

The same paths are used by animals to get out of forests in the night,” he says. Col (Retd) CP Muthanna, vice-chairman, Kodagu Model Forest Trust, agreeing with Gogi on degradation and shrinking of wildlife habitats, explains how changes in wildlife have occurred because of this. “Some 20 years ago, the jackal population across Kodagu was high. They are almost extinct now. This has led to in an increase in the population of wild boars outside the forest. Tigers and leopards find comfortable prey base outside the forest that in turn leads them to the cattle,” he says.

In Hassan district, there are no signs of man-animal conflicts ending. Elephants entering human habitats have become common in parts of Alur and Sakleshpur, which are Malnad taluks of the district. 
According to an estimate, 71 people have been trampled to death and over 250 have sustained injuries while escaping from elephants in the last two decades in Hassan district alone. Kishore Kumar, president, Malenadu Janapara Horata Samiti, says that the need now is to come up with a concrete plan to combat man-animal conflict. “Vital projects, including an elephant camp near Madihalli of Alur taluk and an elephant corridor in Sakleshpur, have been gathering dust at the government level.

The government should conduct a survey of reserve forests and take steps to fence areas to avoid elephants entering into human habitats,” he says. Farmers in Udupi district are struggling to cope with the monkey menace. Though stray monkeys have been a problem for decades, of late there has been a big increase in their raids. Chasing away monkeys is the only remedy followed, but it is not yielding results. Villagers have been demanding action from the forest department to fight the menace.
Sathyanarayana Udupa, General Secretary, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, cites the example of Himachal Pradesh government, which sterilised male monkeys where their population is high. Now, the number of monkeys has gradually come down. “The same method should be adopted in Udupi too,” he suggests.

Look after prey population to reduce wildlife entering human habitats 
Although the context differs across time and location for different species, there are more reports of human-animal conflicts in recent times. In some cases, this reflects reality, but in other cases, it could simply be due to increased awareness, social empowerment, literacy, proliferation of social media and cell phone technology. There is also more interest among urban people in conflicts unfolding in remote rural areas, specifically for some charismatic species like tigers and elephants.

What is ignored in all this surfeit of media coverage is that many of these species that were absent from human-dominated landscapes over the last 50 or more years have been straying out of forests. With strict laws against killing of wild animals, in many parts of the country, leopards, and to a lesser degree, tigers are now breeding populations in some human-dominated landscapes.

In the case of leopards, eliminating their food supply, mainly livestock, feral dogs and cats, which form bulk of their prey, is the best strategy to reduce their density and conflicts. The irony is that the so-called ‘animal lovers’ are aggravating the problem by increasing the numbers of feral dogs and cats. These are not only preying on wild animal species but also becoming a new prey-base that feeds leopards, increasing their densities and engendering more conflicts with humans.

— K Ullas Karanth, tiger biologist, Centre for Wildlife Studies

Inputs by: Karthik KK/Mysuru; BR Udaykumar/Hassan; Prakash Samaga/Udupi; and Prajna GR/Kodagu

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