ISSUEAnimals have become the innocent victims of haphazard development, irresponsible tourism and human intrusion into their land, rue conservationists

Recently, a six-year-old leopard made news. Spotted on the footpath to the famous hill shrine of Lord Venkateswara at Tirumala, it spread panic among devotees. In Coimbatore, it is wild elephants in herds that regularly stray into the fringes of the forests. In Valparai, leopards enter villages, lift children and cattle. They are frequently sighted on the fringes of Thimbam and Sathyamangalam forest areas too.

Animals straying into inhabited areas leading to man-animal conflict is not a healthy sign, warn conservationists. They say it is because of uncontrolled and irresponsible tourism, especially in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR) that includes the western part of Coimbatore, Sathyamangalam (Moyar gorge), the Nilgiris (north and south), Mukurthi National Park, Mudumalai Tiger reserve, Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Wayanad Sanctuary, Nagarhole, Silent Valley and Kabini. “Studies show that the NBR has the highest density of Asian elephants. Every year, more than 8,000 elephants migrate to this area,” says environmentalist C.R. Jayaprakash. The bio-diversity of the rich forests and the mountain streams provide food, water, clean air and support a thriving wildlife. Estimates by Wildlife Institute of India put the number of tiger density in the belt at 300-plus, much higher than Madhya Pradesh referred to as ‘tiger land', he says.

A flourishing tourism industry has eaten into the habitats of the wild animals. In the last five years, over 50 resorts have come up in Masinagudi near Ooty, an elephant corridor. Such anthropogenic pressure (created my human activities) fragments the forest and disturbs the movement of animals.

Elephants that follow traditional paths move haphazardly resulting in conflict. Electric fences are a deterrent too. Animals enter villages, feed on maize, mangoes, sugarcane and banana, acquire a taste for these and keep coming back for more.

Depleting prey population

Environmentalist and wildlife filmmaker Mike H. Pandey says depleting prey population compounds the problem. It is “A case where leopards are fighting against man instead of tigers for food,” he says.

In the Himalayan region and in areas such as Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal, there is a large scale depletion of prey species such as deer (because of rampant hunting). Driven by hunger, they look for food outside the forest. Dogs, goats, and small animals in villages become their source of food. Pandey has been campaigning for saving India's wild life and environment for three decades through his films. His “The Last Migration” made in 1994 showed the conflict between man and animal over forest and land resources. “Man-animal conflict started as early as the 1980s when huge concentration of elephants lost their habitat in the Chhattisgarh region,” he says.

Poachers and greedy developers

Wildlife and Nature have become the biggest casualty of development. Habitat loss due to poachers and greedy developers, severe depredation of jungles, illegal deforestation, activities of the timber mafia and encroachment by migratory communities, have tipped the balance and we are paying a price, says Pandey. He won three green Oscars for his documentaries. He is currently working on films on migratory birds of the Himalayas, high altitude lakes of India and on endangered species.

“My focus is to educate people to live in harmony with the wild life. Every little creature has a role to play to maintain the web of life,” he adds.

As forests shrink in the name of development, animals have no place to go to. “We have acquired their land by erecting religious and educational institutions and resorts,” rues R. Mohammed Saleem, president of Environment Conservation Group, which takes environmental awareness to schools and colleges. In Valparai, wild animals stray into human habitation as the forests have been converted into tea estates. Says Shekar Dattatri, who makes films on wildlife and conservation, “We are the intruders. Animals are the innocent victims. Though a number of elephant corridors have been identified and mapped, the crucial corridors must be acquired so that the problem can be mitigated to some extent.”

With a collaborative effort, time has come to reverse and restore the balance. “There is nothing bizarre or strange about the conflict, it is a direct consequence of our action or inaction. It's time to introspect.”