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The survival game in the forests

R. KRISHNA KUMAR
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The human pressure on vegetation harbouring wildlife is immense.— Photo: M.A. SRIRAM
The human pressure on vegetation harbouring wildlife is immense.— Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

These are testing times for the Forest Department as the denizens of the jungle world have to cope with acute water stress and fodder scarcity in the run-up to the summer in the Bandipur-Nagarahole belt spread over Mysore, Chamarajanagar and Kodagu districts.

The ravaging forest fires of last year followed by failure of the southwest monsoon to keep its annual tryst with the region in full measure has amplified the distress this season. With waterholes running dry, there are fears that the backwaters of the Kabini and Nugu may be the only major source of water till the advent of the next monsoon sometime in June.

Though part of a natural phenomena that has unfolded in periodical cycles since millennia, the crisis is acute in the present times as the human or anthropogenic pressure on the last surviving tracts of vegetation harbouring wildlife is immense and has heightened the problems in the animal kingdom.

While the animals and birds in the wild have always discovered a way out to survive the stress, the weak and the puny tend to get exterminated in tune with the nature’s brutal law of the survival of the fittest in the constant struggle for existence. In the meantime, parts of Bandipur is bone-dry though there is sufficient moisture in the Kodagu portion of Nagarahole while the area of the national park in Mysore district is dry. The existing waterholes may last for another month before the stress is felt, unless there are unseasonal rains.

And as the natural law of the jungles unfolds with devastating impact on wildlife, the Forest Department has reasons to be perturbed. This is because increase in wildlife population due to conservation initiatives in recent times coupled with habitat degradation over the decades tend to bring wildlife into direct conflict with humans who live on the fringes of the national parks and co-exist to share the habitat. There are more than two lakh people living on the fringes of Bandipur and Nagarahole with as many cattleheads.

And this human-animal conflict tends to increase during moisture and fodder stress in the jungles as being witnessed in the present times. The flowering of the bamboos reported from large swathe of the two national parks will have a bearing on the fodder requirement of the nearly 8,000 to 10,000 wild elephants that roam free in what is recognised as Asia’s best elephant habitat.

Temporary measure

The Forest Department is toying with the idea of construction of artificial water tanks and at least one has been constructed while three more are in the pipeline in Nagarahole. As R. Gokul, Conservator of Forests and Director, Nagarahole National Park, pointed out, these are purely an ad-hoc measure taken up on an experimental basis and can help alleviate water stress to an extent. The work was taken up to prevent a large herd of wild elephants from straying near Metikuppe range and the experiment has been successful to a large extent. Similar experiments will be taken up at Antharsanthe and Veeranahosahalli.

However, artificial tanks are not reckoned to be a feasible solution to tackle water crisis for a habitat whose combined area is over 1,500 sq. km. Again, given the density of animals in Nagarahole which is about 50 prey animals per sq. km, water stored in such artificial ponds may not suffice to last through the summer. With the mercury levels expected to soar in the weeks ahead and depleting water levels in the major reservoirs, the Forest Department anticipates twin problems: of man-animal conflict and forest fires.

This calls for roping in the local community to help in wildlife conservation during such testing times and the Forest Department has already launched an interaction with the local community at Gendattur and surrounding villages. Reason? The region of Mysore which is not new to elephants raiding agricultural land for fodder, is witnessing an unusually high frequency of predators coming into human landscape. While leopards stray, survive and adjust in scrub jungles and agricultural fields surrounding the villages and are a common phenomenon, they are also shy creatures seldom attacking humans unless provoked or do so in self-defence and hence less dangerous. But this year six tigers have strayed from their natural habitat and entered human landscape and has sent the alarm bells ringing.

This is reckoned to be a dangerous development as the local community is bound to safeguard itself from the predatory attacks of the tigers and already one tiger was poisoned in Nagarahole in January. For, it had attacked and killed cattle. People struggling to make ends meet seek to avenge the loss.

“Their sentiment and attachment towards livestock being what it is both for cultural and economic reasons, the Forest Department has to come out with suitable measures to prevent a backlash from the village community. For, without the support of the local community on the fringes of the forests, wildlife and forest conservation is next to impossible”, says D. Rajkumar of Wildlife Conservation Foundation.

Greater interaction

Mr. Gokul pointed out that the Forest Department has stepped up interaction with people living in the village and more importantly, has decided to award cash compensation in case of animal deaths on the spot instead of making them wait as the current procedure requires. What is equally significant is the decision to increase the compensation amount in a bid to win over the local community. As he explained, the funds released by the State Government to compensate the animal loss will be enhanced with additional funds from the Tiger Conservation Foundation so that the person who loses his livestock is adequately compensated.

Timely and on the spot distribution of cash compensation is as important as the amount disbursed because a farmer would have spent a quarter of his savings in raising the livestock. At present, the amount sanctioned is Rs.3,000 approximately for animal loss suffered but the actual loss incurred is much higher as he would have reared and raised it over the years. The compensation of Rs.3,000 will suffice to buy a new calf but the farmer has to bear the additional burden of rearing it for a few months or years before it is of any economic value to him. Hence the decision to enhance the compensation is not only sound but timely, said Mr. Rajkumar.

R. KRISHNA KUMAR

Acute water shortage, fodder scarcity, man-animal conflicts… it is stress time in the run-up to the summer in the Bandipur-Nagarahole belt