A perception widely prevalent among people living around forests and others is that the wildlife populations of large mammals have increased phenomenally. In regions of high intensity human-wildlife conflict like Coimbatore, Valparai and Sathyamangalam in Tamil Nadu, this perception is widespread and getting fostered with every passing day. There are several reasons for the wildlife to emerge out of forests and their appearance outside the forested areas does not mean their numbers have overshot the limit?
In India, elephant is the largest mega herbivore that unfortunately involves in direct conflict with human beings, owing to many factors. Less than 25% of the total elephant habitat falls within the Protected Area (PA) network that comprises the wildlife sanctuaries and the national parks. The rest of their habitat lies outside the PA network, which is a mosaic of multiple-use forests (government reserved forests), plantations and cultivation that have penetrated into the natural forests. Living outside the forested landscape is a destiny imposed on the elephants in this epoch as we have been incessantly chiselling out their habitats for our expansion. These days their survival outside the Protected Areas is extremely tenuous as exemplified by the increased conflict-related deaths.
Even the 25% of the elephant habitat falling within the PA network is not completely devoid of problems. Within the PAs we have linear intrusions like roads, canals, dams, railway lines and settlements fragmenting the habitat and reducing its quality. Some of the PAs and reserved forests have a very high density of cattle that competes with elephants and other wild herbivores over the available plant biomass. Even the best large mammal habitats like the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in the Nilgiris continue to suffer annual man-made fires that destroy the precious fodder available for the ungulates.
The quality of habitats has also degraded due to our intrusion resulting in the proliferation of invasive toxic plants like Lantana camara, Parthenium hysterophorus, Chromolaena sp and scores of other Forest Invasive Species (FIS) that have colonised good wildlife habitats. In many PAs, productive riparian forests and vayals (swamp fallows) that support luxuriant vegetation were taken over for paddy cultivation and thus the herbivores are deprived of food availability. The collection of huge quantities of minor forest produce that includes edible fruits and even the bamboo has depleted the food source for the wild animals. All these factors have directly or indirectly rendered wildlife such as the elephants “straying” out of their habitats.
There is also a hypothesis of population constriction of large mammals in some PAs because of the indiscriminate habitat loss in the surrounding areas and the wildlife obviously seeks refuge in the areas with minimum human disturbance. This again cannot be claimed as increase in population.
Comfortably ignoring all these facts, there is a vehement claim that wildlife populations have increased everywhere. The human-wildlife interface has indeed increased significantly as more roads are laid inside the forests and lengthy hard edges are created around the wildlife habitats. Even the once obscure forest roads now have many visitors and the forest boundaries have been filled with tourist resorts, industries and housing colonies.
Wildlife habitats continue to suffer shrinkage and fragmentation. These days an elephant or any other wildlife, for that matter, may have to ‘encounter' human beings several times during its daily movement within its range.
A decade ago elephant herds might have peacefully crossed the Mettupalayam-Ooty road under the cover of darkness. This is just not possible today with over 3,000 vehicles on average plying on this road day and night without any respite. The herds stay baffled on the roadside awaiting a lull in the traffic to cross the road. They stand exposed, being watched by hundreds of people. Many of them think that the elephant numbers have increased just because they saw them! A mere increase in the sighting rate within or outside the habitat does not mean that there is a true increase in the wildlife population.
Wildlife populations, especially the large cats and even the elephants, suffer high mortality rates. The unnatural mortalities resulting from poaching, road kill and electrocution continue to haunt the wildlife populations jeopardising their very existence. Further, there is no factual basis for claiming an increase in populations as we don't have reliable baseline information to compare the numbers over a period of time. Moreover, a scientifically accepted manner of enumerating wildlife populations is nonexistent in most of the areas.
A recent article published by a renowned primatologist in Down to Earth (Title: Monkeys common no more) claims that even the common monkeys around us are dwindling in numbers and they occur in low densities in forests. This is much contrary to the popular belief that monkey populations have exploded. Wild pigs were in the news for the wrong reasons. The Kerala government recently allowed the killing of wild pigs that ‘stray' out of forests in some districts. This decision is based on the opinion that their numbers have exploded in the State.
Wild pigs belong to the family of Suidae and are the most widely distributed prey species for tigers. All the three major predatory carnivores in our region, the tiger, the leopard and the dhole (Indian Wild dogs) predate on wild pigs.
A long-term scientific study on tigers conducted in the tropical forests of Karnataka by deploying techniques such as the scat (faecal matter) analysis has revealed that, on average, 9.5% of tiger's diet constitutes wild pigs. Experts with years of field experience assert that the wild pig population is subject to high seasonal fluctuations. An increase in their numbers in some areas may be a wholly temporary phenomenon. Knee-jerk reactions to specific situations and the resultant, hasty decisions such as the lethal control of wild pigs may reduce the prey base of the predatory carnivores and even increase the human-carnivore conflict.
Undeniably, the human population is exploding and our demand for forests and forest produce are reaching a point of no return.
The baseless claim about the population increase of wildlife species is an emerging threat to wildlife conservation. Resultantly, there is a false complacence that the wildlife is doing well despite our negative interventions in the habitats. Major threats to long-term survival of the wildlife such as poaching and habitat loss are getting overshadowed. There is an unnecessary increase in the resentment level of the villagers living on the borders of the forests against large mammal conservation. False propagation of number increase in wildlife populations will only distract us from key conservation priorities and wipe out the last level of sympathy people have towards wildlife.
(The writer belongs to the Wildlife Conservation Society – India Programme, Coimbatore. His email is email@example.com)