Conservation Efforts are Unlikely to Succeed Without Addressing Human-Wildlife Conflict

Managing human-wildlife conflict in India will involve addressing the power structures that exist between the forest department and the local population. 

The relationship between human beings and animals in various parts of India has been riddled with conflict. Even when endangered species are involved, such as the tiger in the Sunderbans and the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga, conservation measures can scarcely address the tense relationship that these animals share with the local population who can often see these animals (especially in the reserves mentioned above) as threats or pests. Every year, there are reports of elephants that are severely injured or killed by trains that pass through the elephant corridors at the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal. The latest report came at the end of September 2019, when a speeding train mowed down and elephant in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal. Despite checks and measures that the forest department, along with the railways, have worked out over the years, including the introduction of speed limits, the reports of elephant deaths has remained frequent over the years. 

While it is easy to blame human encroachment for these incidents, the conservation debate now recognises the multitude of complex issues that exacerbate human–wildlife conflict. In light of this, scholars have made fresh attempts to address human-wildlife conflict in a more sustainable manner. 

In this reading list, we look at the recent developments in this scholarship from articles published in the EPW. 

Treatment of Wildlife

How a person is likely to behave towards animals is dependent on social factors, argues Jennie Miller, John D C LinnelL, Vidya Athreya and Subharanjan Sen. Gender, class and caste, all contribute to how an individual engages with the environment. Particularly, the authors point out, one’s relationship with local authorities is crucial in determining how they might relate to their environment. In areas where human–wildlife conflict is high, “whether or not people trust and respect their locally residing forest guard, can play an important part in whether they choose to engage with government programmes, such as those providing financial compensation for livestock losses, or suffer the social and financial burdens of living alongside wildlife without support.” This, they argue, is the fundamental condition on which the success of conflict management methods hinge. 

The Indian wildlife damage compensation system is widely viewed as being overly complex, nontransparent, and slow, to the extent that many victims of conflict feel unable or unwilling to engage with it (Agarwala et al 2010; Karanth et al 2012; Ogra and Badola 2008). This is especially true in the case of compensation for crop damage in central India. An accumulating body of research from other countries shows how making the same financial investments in proactive conflict prevention (rather than reactive compensation) can bring greater, and lasting, benefits. “Performance payments,” in which communities are rewarded for protecting natural resources at a specified level, recently explored in Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, is one such example (Zabel and Engel 2010).

Intensifying Conflict

Human–wildlife conflict has been on the rise in recent years. From surveys conducted in Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand, Shankar Gopalakrishnan, Terpan Singh Chauhan and M S Selvaraj found that respondents in both areas agree that the level of conflict is increasing rapidly. Despite that, policy interventions have adopted a rather narrow perspective, which has prevented a more nuanced evaluation of the problem. From their study, the authors found that human–wildlife conflict in both the states had strong connections to wider questions around forest management, and to the power relations current management institutions have created. 

By depriving people of their rights to use and manage forests, forest authorities set up a dynamic where they are not required to engage in effective management steps (as a result of their lack of accountability), while livelihood activities of the communities and management steps are treated as either irrelevant or criminal. Thus, in Uttarakhand, as we noted before, community-managed forests did better than department managed ones in the forest fires as people were able and willing to protect them when required, and because the regular use of the forest ensured that the build-up of leaf matter and dead plant material did not reach dangerous levels (Goswami 2016). We have also noted before in this paper, the impact of the ban on cattle grazing in the Nilgiris. In both areas, the forest department’s refusal to countenance or permit community forest management interventions thus results in a situation that exacerbates human–wildlife conflict at multiple levels. 

Killing “Vermin”

In 2015, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change under Prakash Javadekar sought to allow people to hunt animals that were deemed as “vermin.” The problem, however, was that several endangered animals could be considered vermin in certain areas. For instance, in Kaziranga, crop destruction by rhinos is a frequent occurrence, so they could potentially be considered vermin. Furthermore, the destruction of crops is only one aspect of the human–wildlife conflict, which will not be solved by simply classifying certain animals as “vermin” and allowing them to be hunted and killed. 

Culling such problem creatures seems at best treating the symptoms. Grave as it is, crop depredation by nilgais and wild boars is part of a problem of much more serious proportions. The two animals are not the only crop raiders. Monkeys are a menace in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. In many parts of the North East, Odisha and Maharashtra, agriculturists fear elephants. Rhinos are a scourge in many parts of Assam. Also, human–animal conflict is not just about crop damage. In Uttarakhand and Maharashtra, leopards are known to take away livestock. They attack and kill humans too. Last year, a leopard in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, was labelled a man-eater after it had killed 12 people. In Assam a few weeks ago, people killed a leopard after the animal had attacked them. 

Neglected Dimensions

Last year, the tiger, which came to be known as Avni was shot for the “transgression” of man-eating. Man-eating leopards and tigers have historically been put-down in India, but Avni’s case was met with widespread protest that highlighted clash between activism centred around animal rights and the ground realities faced by the local population. As Neha Sinha writes, in some of the protests for Avni, motherhood was an important motif that served as an argument against her “transgression.” Thus, while some conservation activists may focus more on the preservation of the tiger population, one cannot at the same time expect the local population to live with the fear of a man-eater. The case brought to focus the complex problems of human–wildlife interfaces in India, where prioritising the needs of one can adversely affect the other.

The frame of science and ecological restoration or reintroduction needs to familiarise itself with the thorny issues of habitual poaching, multiplicities of land use in a given area, and human–tiger interfaces. Further, monitoring and evaluation of these managerial activities need to be set in place. The tiger cannot have a future only in the box of a tiger reserve—indeed, it is hardly doing well there. But, the answers to address future conflict do not lie in carrying on aggressively with traditional conservation agendas, but towards fully managing the newly emerging threats and challenges. 


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