Around many forests, the land use pattern is fast changing from agriculture to residential, to industrial to educational set-ups, aggravating the situation.

Many forest lands in our country have a hard edge with human habitations, resulting in frequent human-wildlife interface that sometimes culminates in conflicts. Around many forests, the land use pattern is fast changing from agriculture to residential, to industrial to educational set-ups, aggravating the situation. The situation in the Coimbatore forest division in the Western Ghats, sprawling over 690 square kilometres and harbouring an amazing assemblage of wildlife diversity, is perplexing. While many believe that the land use change is happening because of the high-intensity of conflict with elephants, the reverse can also be true.

Yes, the fast-changing land use pattern around forests, flouting norms and marked by construction of structures close to the forest boundary, is hindering the migratory paths of elephants and driving them into villages and fields. The free ranging large mammals are always on the move in search of their voluminous daily food and water requirements in the increasingly human-modified landscapes, and when their migratory routes are blocked, they land in alien territories creating havoc. For example, a government campus near Coimbatore with a sprawling compound wall that is constructed right on the forest periphery and even extending into the forests impedes the movement of elephants through the lower elevation forests (as herds with young calves prefer negotiating low gradients, passes and dry streambeds, instead of steep slopes and sheer rock faces).

The only recourse for the elephants is to walk along the compound wall into the villages, fields, gardens and even houses before reaching the other side of the forest. While elephant conflict remains the talk of the town, seldom do people talk about these obstructing structures that have given birth to the conflict situation in the first place. Crop cultivation has ceased in the area once and for all, paving the way for the proliferation of real estate sites and projecting elephants as a scourge, while the institutions that changed their migratory patterns are seldom bothered.

This is not a one-off example. There are plenty of similar structures all through the boundary of the Coimbatore forest division that is an integral part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. At a recent conference held at the Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala, conservation activists from the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, viz., Madurai, Rajapalayam, Tirunelveli and Nagercoil, lamented the problem.

Besides, the conversion of agriculture land into residential and industrial sites, provisioning of water turfs, checkdams and other structures just outside the forest boundary can actually affect the seasonal movement patterns of elephants, leading to higher levels of conflict. A scientific paper published by Sanjay Gubbi, a leading conservation biologist and member of the Karnataka State Wildlife Board, in the Economic and Political Weekly says there could be a direct correlation between human-elephant conflict and an artificial increase in surface water availability.

In and around the Coimbatore forest division, we have seen over the years an influx of new surface water sources — irrigation checkdams, excavated brick kilns containing water all through the year and water turfs — which can all have contributed to the increase in the conflict levels. While these checkdams and waterholes are meant for aiding agriculture, in reality they may be sounding the death knell for it. Any modification of the landscape and hydrology in and around the large mammal habitats needs careful thought with sound animal ecology in the backdrop. Even the tasks carried out with good intention can go wrong. Oblivious of this fact, proposals for new checkdams keep flooding.

One of the most ideal ways of managing human-wildlife conflict is to ensure spatial separation. While in the sea of human-dominated landscapes, it is almost impossible to allocate vast landscapes for the wildlife, at least critical areas such as valleys and lands within 3-5 km from the forest boundaries should be kept free of adverse development activities like large-scale urbanisation, industrialisation, mining, roads and dams. This requirement is not only in the interest of wildlife but also in the general interest of containing conflict and sustaining agriculture.

Over the years, realising that it is imperative to insulate the forest peripheries in the larger interest of wildlife conservation and to tap the invaluable ecosystem services such as water these forestlands provide, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and other regulatory bodies such as the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA) have laid down regulations and guidelines. One such guideline issued by the MoEF emphasises implementation of eco-sensitive zones around the Protected Areas and till such notifications are implemented, clearance from the National Board for Wildlife is required for taking up any non-forestry activity within 10 km from the forest boundary. The HACA has listed many villages around the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu and prescribed norms for the upkeep of the hill areas.

By steadfast implementation of the guidelines, adhering to the HACA regulations and declaring a decent buffer around the forest, the intensity of the human-animal conflict may be brought down. The time is ripe for us to look at the broader picture of the conflicts and implement proactive mitigation measures on the ground rather than remain reactive every time.

(The writer is with Wildlife Conservation Society – India Programme, Coimbatore. His email ID is: westernghats.

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