Man vs. Wild: The battle for survival on Kerala's forest fringes

The ‘culprits’ are not just marauding elephants or leopards. Even tiny birds and butterflies do their bit in wreaking havoc.

Updated - November 28, 2021 11:28 am IST

Published - February 16, 2020 12:46 am IST - Kochi

Kerala, Palakkad, 15/02/2020. A peacock in agricultural farm at Thenkurissi near Palakkad. Photo: K. K. Mustafah.

Kerala, Palakkad, 15/02/2020. A peacock in agricultural farm at Thenkurissi near Palakkad. Photo: K. K. Mustafah.

The battle for survival is turning bitter in the forest fringes of Kerala as humans and animals are increasingly jostling for space and resources.

The number of lives lost in five years, between 2015 and 2019, in human-wild animal conflicts is 514, which is almost equal to the loss suffered in the decade from 2006 to 2015 (523). Curiously, snakebites outside forest areas accounted for most of the deaths. The five-year figure was compiled by the Kerala Forest Department, whereas the decadal data was generated by the Department of Wildlife Science of the Kerala Agriculture University, Thrissur.

It is not just the elephants, tigers, leopards, snakes, monkeys, deer and wild pigs that are giving sleepless nights to those living and farming in the forest fringes. Birds and even butterflies are engaged in a pitched battle with humans, though at a lesser degree.

Bleeding exchequer

Data with the State Forest Department and researchers confirm the worst fear. Conflicts involving wild animals in human habitats in and around reserve forests, wildlife sanctuaries, and national parks are on the rise. Besides snuffing out lives, the marauding wild animals often leave a trail of destruction, leaving the exchequer poorer as governments have to shell out compensation of a few crores annually.

Also read: Peacock threat peaks in Palakkad

For every life lost in conflict with wild animals, the State provides a compensation of ₹10 lakh as prescribed in the Kerala Rules for Payment of Compensation to Victims of Attacks by Wild Animals.

The compensation for a death due to snakebite outside forests and the permanent disability caused by wildlife attacks is fixed at ₹2 lakh. The maximum compensation for the loss of crops and cattle is ₹1 lakh each.

Wild elephants and wild pigs contribute to nearly 70% of the conflicts followed by bonnet macaques and snakes. The government decision to provide compensation for snakebite victims might have resulted in increased reporting of the deaths, said P.O. Nameer, Professor, Department of Wildlife Science of the Kerala Agriculture University, Thrissur.

Wild dogs too

Deer, leopard, tiger, guar, porcupine and wild dogs too cross the paths with human beings. South and North Wayanad Forest Divisions, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Kannur, Kasaragod, Mannarkad and Thrissur Forest Divisions were found to be the most hit areas, he said.

While the farmers of Palakkad and Chulannoor complain about the peahens that fly into paddy fields destroying the crop, monkeys and elephants bother farmers of Wayanad. Crop raids by wild pigs have been reported from across the State.


The attempts of the State government to permit the killing of crop-raiding wild pigs by relaxing norms for gunning them down have triggered an animated discussion in the State. Wildlife enthusiasts fear that the relaxation of the norms could lead to hunting of other animals too.

Porcupines and wild pigs are causing widespread damage to agriculture across the State, pointed out E.A. Jaison, former scientist of the Kerala Forest Research Institute, Thrissur. Detailed studies on crop loss caused by these animals were held in Nilambur and Thrissur. The two were found feeding on fallen coconuts in the most affected areas, he said.

Butterfly impact

Sun birds and flowerpeckers, the two commonly found birds in Kerala, play a crucial role in spreading semi-parasitic plant Loranthus, thereby reducing the yield of fruit trees like mangoes, said R. Sugathan, ornithologist.

While the crop loss caused by bigger animals easily gets noticed, the damage wreaked by birds, which may weigh a few grams, is mostly ignored. The birds, while helping the pollination of useful plants and trees, also aid in the propagation of semi-parasite plants, he said. There are also instances of larvae of butterflies from butterfly gardens feeding on plants leading to loss to farmers.

Hornbills and myristica

Grey hornbills have a special liking for myristica fruits which help them produce hormones essential for reproduction. “Myristica farmers need to be compensated for the loss caused by hornbills. Of the 62 bird species found associated with agriculture in the State, as many as 17 have a negative influence on farming,” says Dr. Sugathan.

Wildlife experts have flagged the fragmentation of habitats, cultivation of crops that attract wild animals, and dumping of waste on forest fringes as the key factors that contribute to the increased instances of human-wildlife conflicts. The changes in the land use patterns, reduction of forest areas and the increased farming of paddy, banana, coconut and areacanut in the fringe areas are responsible for the increasing incidents, said Dr. Nameer.


Surendrakumar, the Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala, said the department has been constructing elephant-proof trenches, setting up crash guard and stone-pitched fencings and drawing power fences to restrict the movement of wild elephants to human habitations. Rapid Response Teams have been deployed to push the marauding animals back to the forest, he said.

The tracking of movement of regular crop-raiding elephants by radio-collaring them and alerting people about their movements, relocation of cattle-lifting tigers and creation of awareness to avoid farming practices that attract wildlife and relocation of families from settlements located inside the forest area are also being undertaken, Mr. Surendrakumar said.

People need to develop a mindset to share space with animals. The outlook that animals shall restrict themselves to the forest and will not enter the nearby human habitations need to undergo a change.

The coexistence of humans and animals can address the issues to a large extend, he said.

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