Dusk had fallen in Kukrajhore village, tucked deep in the Bankura district of West Bengal. The day would have ended like any other for Hanuman Mondal and Ashis Mondal returning home from their farm. Hanuman has a vivid memory of February 2, 2016. “There, suddenly a huge tusker stood in our way. I did not know what to do. I lay on the ground but my phone suddenly started beeping,” recalls Hanuman as he walks painfully with a limp to his cot. The tusker lifted him up and tossed him away. His friend Ashis didn’t survive the attack. A fortnight later, the elephant returned. Sarojini Mondal, who was standing near the door of her own house, became its next victim. Over the past six months two persons have died in Kukrajhore. Close to 108 people died in elephant attacks last year in West Bengal. Around 50 elephants have been killed since 2004 by speeding trains on railway tracks which cross their paths.
At a public meeting on June 14 in adjoining Paschim Medinipur district, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee rapped Forest Department officials for letting elephants stray into human habitation. “The number of elephants has increased with many entering the State from Odisha, Jharkhand and Nepal. Attacks by elephants not only damage crops but often result in casualties,” Ms. Banerjee told journalists, adding in good measure: “There are some who show a lot of concern for elephants. I like elephants a lot too. But human life is also precious.”
As man sets the agenda for development, the beasts are pushed back. They return. In Bankura alone there are about 80 elephants that have settled in the region and show no signs of migrating. The number of elephants in the State is 800, as per the latest census — testimony to the conservation of the mammal, but also posing a serious dilemma in seven forest divisions in three South Bengal districts — Bankura, Paschim Medinipur and Purulia. The State feels permission to catch the elephants and transport them elsewhere can provide some respite and has written to the Centre for advice.
As this ground report shows, in at least nine States, man and wildlife are in serious conflict. As many as seven States have written to the Centre seeking its intervention.
Conflicts, east to west
If February was a cruel month for Bankura in the east, in the west, Goa was in the grip of an intense debate over the serious threat that the State’s wildlife posed to agriculture. The enemies were identified as bison, the State animal, and peacock, the national bird, followed by wild boars and monkeys. No one was willing to debate the contribution of humans to the conflict: agriculture has rapidly declined due to mindless conversion of land by real estate developers and unplanned development. Agriculture Minister Ramesh Tawadkar of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) says the peacock “should be declared a vermin” and culled periodically. This, despite the fact that the bird comes under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Senior Congress leader Pratapsingh Rane wants wild boars, “profuse breeders”, to be added to the vermin list as well and culled. A public outcry forced Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar to rule out the inclusion of peacocks on the vermin list but as things stand, the list is still a work in progress.
Much before the hue and cry over three notifications of the Union Environment Ministry — the first dated December 1, 2015 declared the nilgai, a large Indian antelope, and wild boar as vermin in some districts of Bihar; the second dated February 3 classified the wild boar as vermin in districts of Uttarakhand; and the third dated May 24 pronounced the rhesus macaque monkey as vermin in some districts of Himachal Pradesh and allowed their culling for a period of one year — the BJP government in Rajasthan wrote to the Centre after angry farmers living near the Ranthambore National Park complained to visiting Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje about the herds of nilgai antelopes that were destroying their crops. The State was told that it was free to take action on its own, as the authority to cull wild animals was vested in the State’s Chief Wildlife Warden. The matter remains unaddressed because of the local reluctance to kill nilgais.
They also are the prey base for the increasing number of tigers in the Sariska wildlife sanctuary in Alwar district. An announcement made by Rajasthan’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister Rajendra Rathore in the Assembly that the government intends to move nilgai from Schedule III of the Wildlife Protection Act to Schedule V and empower sarpanches to authorise its killing has met with strong opposition.
Guns and deities
Not so in Himachal Pradesh, where Ashok Thakur, 43, a farmer of Palyan village on the outskirts of Shimla, has used his rifle to shoot monkeys. “In August 2010, I got permission from the State Forest Department officials to cull the rogue monkeys and save my fields,” says Mr. Thakur. “I fired three shots with my licensed double-barrelled rifle and took out two monkeys.” The monkeys eventually returned in larger numbers!
But elephants are not monkeys. In Karnataka, man, wildlife and cattle are locked in a fight over land and fodder. Over 6,000 elephants roam free in Karnataka, primarily in six southern districts (Mysuru, Kodagu, Hassan, Mandya, Bengaluru Rural and Bengaluru Urban) near the 6,724-sq.-km Mysore Elephant Reserve. The competition is most acute in Bandipur and Nagarahole, which form the core of the elephant-cum-tiger reserve; while Bandipur is surrounded by 180 villages, Nagarahole is surrounded by 100-odd villages.
Kallaiah and Puttamadaiah, both tribals from the Kaniyanapura colony — the last village in the Kaniyanapura-Moyar elephant corridor in Bandipur — say they “share the space with animals and harbour no hatred towards them”. A similar live-and-let-live philosophy underpins life around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the heart of Mumbai. For over 1,800 tribals spread across 54 hamlets inside the 103-sq.-km park, the waghoba or tiger is a deity. Sixty-five-year-old Chandu Jadhav resides at Vanicha Pada, Aarey Colony, near the park and claims to be friends with leopards, which occasionally prey on his poultry and then rest beneath a tree near his house. “This land belongs to them and for generations we have coexisted. They don’t bother us, we let them roam freely,” says Mr. Jadhav. Over the years, as tigers disappeared from the forest, leopards replaced them. “Skyscrapers, encroachments and the slums of outsiders surround our forest. If you take over my land, I will protest. So do leopards; what’s their fault?” he says.
With around 40 of them, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park has the highest density of leopards. “The leopard is truly a 21st century animal insofar as adaptability is concerned. They coexist with humans without disturbing them. So much so that we have even observed changes in their diet,” says Krishna Tiwari, a wildlife researcher. The march of modernity is, however, taking a toll: over 12 leopard deaths in road accidents were reported in the last decade. A new proposed Dedicated Freight Corridor threatens to cut the leopard’s path of passage from the park to the adjoining Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary.
Maharashtra allows the killing of wild boar and nilgai. Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, however, says there are caveats: they can be killed only if they are inside the farm and that too with permission from forest officials; in four districts — Beed, Latur, Osmanabad and Jalgaon — farmers have official sanction to kill these animals if they enter the fields.
Crops under siege
In Fulsaini, a peri-urban area near Dehradun, Uttarakhand, that is surrounded by forests, leopards are only part of a much larger problem.
Wild boar, monkeys, elephants, and nilgai have destroyed crops in various parts of the State. In 2015, crop damage of 307 hectares was recorded due to man-animal conflict, twice of that recorded in 2014.
The February notification of the Environment Ministry is cold comfort for residents of the six villages under Fulsaini gram sabha. Crop-raiding wild boars apart, the leopard threat has exacerbated the declining agricultural practice in the villages. “Earlier we would set up a makeshift machan (elevated platform) on a tree where someone would sit through the night guarding crops by driving away wild boars,” says Vijay Prakash Kala, a local. The practice stopped last year when a leopard killed a 10-year-old boy at Bajawala village near Fulsaini. The 2008 wildlife census data put the leopard population in Uttarakhand at 2,335. Current numbers would emerge only after the completion of an ongoing enumeration exercise.
While Uttarakhand grapples with its boars and leopards, the recent culling of nilgais in Bihar not only triggered a spat between two Central Ministers but also set off a debate over the killing of wildlife as a solution to man’s problems. In early June, over 200 nilgais were culled by two professional shooters hired from Hyderabad in the riverine areas of Mokama, some 90 km east of Patna.
Up to 12 of the State’s 38 districts have been suffering the ‘menace’ of nilgais for over a decade. Two years ago the farmers of Buxar, Bhojpur and Saran districts had demanded licences for guns to cull these animals but the government declined. Last year in Manjhi village of Saran district, the harassed farmers had even performed a yagna to keep nilgais away. In May 2015, the State government proposed to declare them as vermin. The proposal was then forwarded to the Union Environment Ministry, prompting its December 1, 2015 notification.
A similar problem plagues Gujarat, where the growing population of nilgai has led to extensive damage to standing crops in more than a dozen districts, causing an estimated loss of Rs.80-100 crore a year in the State. Nilgai numbers have risen to 1,86,000 in 2015 from merely 40,000 in 1995. In 2007-08, the State government had issued a circular empowering village panchayat sarpanches to kill nilgais and licences were issued to 3,475 of them. But till now, hardly any case of killing has been reported to the authorities.
In Kerala, the death of a man near Panavally in Wayanad in an elephant attack last week was only the latest in a long-running saga. More than 100 people have died in Wayanad district in the last 30 years, says T.C. Joseph, chairman of a district action committee constituted to prevent wildlife attacks. With the advent of summer, the elephant population migrates from Mudumalai and Bandipur at the tri-junction of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala to Wayanad in search of water and fodder — and that’s what sets off the conflict.
From 2006 to 2016, 42 people have died, and Rs.83.12 lakh has been paid as compensation over this period. This year three persons have been killed. The government has now installed solar-powered fences and dug trenches in villages.
Conservationists and activists say that merely declaring certain animals as ‘vermin’ isn’t a solution because this conflict — between the foraging habits of animals and destruction of cash and food crops of farmers — is due to reasons including receding forests and herbivores proliferating because of fewer preying carnivores. Besides, does the state know when to stop culling? How many, before we say enough?
(By Shiv Sahay Singh, Prakash Kamat, Mohammed Iqbal, Yogendra Singh Tanwar, R. Krishna Kumar, Mahesh Langa, Kavita Upadhyay, Alok Deshpande, Amarnath Tewary, Manoj E.M. and Jacob Koshy)