Elephantine problem: Western Ghats states urged to innovate as wildlife conflicts surge amid habitat fragmentation

The human-animal conflict is more pronounced in the Western Ghats, which has the highest wildlife population and is home to prime national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
Image used for representational purpose
Image used for representational purpose

BENGALURU: Wildlife conflict is not new, but governments of three prime states of Western Ghats -- Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu -- need to come up with innovative solutions to mitigate it.

The Karnataka government’s decision to give an ex-gratia to Ajeesh Joseph Panachiyil, a tribal from Wayanad, who was killed in an elephant attack, has again brought to fore the issue of man-animal conflict and its management.

Animals know no political boundaries, but their movement, especially radio-collared ones, and ensuing problems have raised issues of coordination and management among the three states that share borders. The human-animal conflict is more pronounced in the Western Ghats, which has the highest wildlife population and is home to prime national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.  

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), in its recently released tiger estimation report -- Status of Tigers, co-predators and prey in India- 2022 - Final Report, said the Western Ghats, encompassing 140,000 sqkm, that traverses through Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat is one of the most-populated biodiversity hotspots in the world and faces numerous threats pertaining to human-induced activities.

Experts say the ministry’s observations are bang on. Despite the use of technology, orders from high courts of the three states and scientific reports, man-animal conflicts are only on the rise, year on year. The governments have seen little success in voluntary tribal resettlement, controlling change of land use and management of national parks and sanctuaries. Adding to the problem is the rise in commercial activities in the name of tourism, even eco-tourism.

The three states have prime tiger reserves in the country -- Bandipur, Nagarhole and BRT in Karnataka, Satymanagala and Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu and Wayanad in Kerala. As per the 2022 tiger census report, the Western Ghats region hosts 1,087 tigers.

In August 2023, the Karnataka government released a report -- Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Population, Size and Structure Estimates for Karnataka -- which stated that the state houses 6,395 elephants.

“The fragmentation of habitat occurs when landscape continuity is broken and forests shrink into smaller patches, resulting in honeycombing. This is a major cause of human-wildlife conflicts as it directly affects ecological and behavioural factors such as foraging movements, dispersal, migrations and colonisation abilities of species. Fragmentation also exposes more of the forests to increased contact with human settlements, roads, railway lines and such infrastructure. This increased exposure, as is happening in the landscape across three states from Nagarahole – Wayanad - Bandipur – Mudumalai and BRT, is driving increased human-wildlife conflict. Voluntary resettlement and strategic land acquisitions to reduce fragmentation have to be taken up in the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) mode urgently,” said Praveen Bhargav, Trustee, Wildlife First, and former member, National Board for Wildlife.

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Explaining why conflict has increased over the years, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) BK Singh said conflict is not new. It is not just limited to elephants but is also from tigers, leopards, gaurs, sloth bears and all animals.

Dr Nishant Srinivasaiah, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Raman Sukumar’s Lab, IISc, says there is no one specific answer.

“It depends on the local ecological and anthropogenic conditions. If we look at the change of seasons from post-monsoon to now getting into summer, increased movement of animals looking for forage and water is expected and this movement results in chance encounters and increased run-ins with people and infrastructure. Built-up areas are increasing, which means it is much more difficult for animals to navigate through increasing human spaces. Another is the adaptive responses of wildlife that are living alongside people mostly in secondary habitats, manifested in increased range areas sometimes to regions in which historically they did not occur.”

Recently, Union Forest Minister Bhupender Yadav, during his visit to Bandipur and Wayanad, said man-animal conflict along the borders of these two reserves is of grave concern. He also said chief wildlife wardens, under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, Section 11, can issue orders to either capture or shoot an animal to combat conflict.

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Later, the Kerala government announced roping in of sharpshooter Nawab Shafath Ali Khan to shoot dead the makhana that killed Ajeesh. It was the same makhana that was captured by the Karnataka forest department officials in Belur, Hassan district, in November 2023 and released into the core forest of Bandipur Tiger Reserve the same day, after being radio collared.  

Karnataka Forest Minister Eshwar Khandre said Karnataka takes pride in housing the highest number of elephants, but it also faces the problem of conflict. Habitats are shrinking and around 50% of the forest is infested with lantana, which is another major cause for conflict.  

Hearing multiple cases of conflict, courts in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, over the years, have ordered regular tripartite meetings among the states. The National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court too had made a similar point. Following these observations, meetings at the level of PCCF and Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) started to happen. It was announced that meetings at PCCF level should happen annually and that of DCFs once in six months.

On February 23, after Yadav’s visit and Ajeesh’s death, additional chief secretaries of the three states, along with PCCFs, DGPs and DCFs, held a virtual meeting.

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Human activities should be curbed to resolve 'animal-human conflict'

A Karnataka official admitted that the meetings have little impact as what is decided is not implemented because of other pressing issues listed by respective state governments.

“Merely having meetings is a waste of time and resources. The law (Wildlife Act) being the same across three states, the most important issue is to develop a scientific management plan to manage this landscape which supports the biggest meta-population of Asiatic elephants and tigers. This plan must be peer-reviewed by independent ecologists and conservationists who have extensive knowledge of these habitats and are aware of how they recovered and the historical failures of certain interventions,” Bhargav said.

PCCF, Wildlife, Subhash Malkhade said, “At tripartite meetings, discussion is on border protection and conflict. But the major focus now is on forest fire management. We share information about fires with neighbouring states and vice versa. Information on poachers, animals and smugglers, captured on camera traps and call records, is also shared. The movement of elephants is also shared as Karnataka is radio-collaring them,” he added.

Karnataka is the only state in the Western Ghats that is radio-collaring elephants and tigers before relocating them into the wild. The movement of these animals is tracked on the Hejje app. Karnataka has been radio-collaring elephants for the last six years and 10 have been collared in the last one year, including bulls, female heads of herds and makhanas. Earlier, GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) technology was used, now it is satellite based. But there is a catch as the movement is captured only once in two hours.

“In case of Belur Makhana, the Kerala forest department was informed of its movement, but they did little to track it. When they asked us for its new coordinates after Ajeesh’s death, it was traced to the core area of Nagarhole Tiger Reserve,” said a Karnataka forest department official.

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While Kerala appreciated Karnataka for the use of technology, it pointed out that more needs to be done. D Jayaprasad, PCCF, Wildlife, Kerala, said, “Karnataka shares information, but it should share equipment too. The satellite data is not continuous. The antennas need to be shared.”

Another reason for conflict, a Karnataka forest department official pointed out, was the forest patch in one state meeting with the non-forest patch (revenue pockets and urban areas) in another state. Citing the example of Satymanagala and BRT, the official said that every year, elephants from Satymanagala enter non-forest patches near BRT, creating havoc. This has left locals in Karnataka agitated as they are losing crops and lives. To such incidents, other states too should radio-collar elephants, he suggested.

Srinivasaiah, working on elephants and radio collaring, said collars are simple tools that help understand the behaviour of animals as far as their movement is concerned at a fine scale. It throws light on aspects like habitat use, identifying feeding and movement areas, home ranges and territories.

“It is not a solution to address conflict, but a mere tool to help understand the animals. It is increasingly being used to also inform people of animals living close to their areas. Conflict can be mitigated through proper coordination and cooperation,” he added.

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