Collapse of the ecological balance and an undeclared war with nature

The human-animal conflict has intensified in Wayanad indicating a scramble for resources in the degraded ecology of the Western Ghats

February 22, 2024 01:45 am | Updated 01:50 pm IST

A wild elephant named Belur Makhna (in picture) went on a rampage in Wayanad, crushing a 47-year-old farmer to death. Photo: Special Arrangement

A wild elephant named Belur Makhna (in picture) went on a rampage in Wayanad, crushing a 47-year-old farmer to death. Photo: Special Arrangement

Wayanad is in a state of undeclared war as seen with the rising human-animal conflict in the district. Two recent tragic events occurred involving a wild elephant named Belur Makhna, went on a rampage, crushing a 47-year-old farmer to death. Followed by another incident where an elephant herd attacked and killed an ecotourism guide at Kuruvadweep Islands. These events have triggered protests, strikes and has led to a political slugfest in Kerala. In the ongoing cacophony, one should not miss the onus of responsibility as wildlife experts believe this is only the beginning of what is yet to follow from the Western Ghats if the ecological balance is not restored.

Statistics first

A study report titled Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors of India conducted by Wildlife Trust of India identified 88 elephant corridors in 2005. As per the report, 24% of the corridors were under reserve forest and 76% under forest, agriculture, tea gardens, and human settlements. Fast forward this data to about 20 years later would invariably show reduced corridors for wildlife. This renders the agricultural fields, tea estates, human habitations, busy highways, and ecotourism spaces as open sites for wildlife movement. This indicates the significant loss of ecological connectivity and habitat, and the resultant confinement of wildlife to fragmented forests forcing their raids to the surrounding areas.

In Wayanad alone, the official data has documented 51 human deaths due to wildlife attacks during the last 10 years. This number surged to a total of 98 fatalities, encompassing 8,873 attack incidents in the fiscal year 2022-23, with 27 of those deaths attributed to elephant attacks.

In addition to the threat posed to human safety, these attacks have also inflicted significant damage on Kerala’s agriculture sector. Over the period from 2017 to 2023, there were 20,957 cases of crop loss due to incursions by wild animals, leading to the death of 1,559 domestic animals, primarily cattle. A staggering 7000 plus applications are pending compensation from the government for human deaths, property, and crop loss.

Crisis in ecosystem services

The clearing of forest lands for non-forest use marked the beginning of the destruction of natural ecosystems and this was further accentuated by the provision of contract farming agreements to claim uncultivated land. Although the move was

expected to boost the agrarian sector, instead it led to an agrarian crisis that highlighted drastic changes in the topographical atmosphere and landscape accompanied by price crash indicating a weakened ecosystem that provided the services for agriculture.

The trend of monoculture plantations, usage of pesticides and insecticides depleted the soil. This disturbance was evident in the diminished yield of cash crops and diseases, gradually impacting the plantations despite favorable market prices, of late. The loss of invaluable greenery, extensive forests, and large water bodies is the visible impact. Further worsened by quarrying and deforestation activities for the expansion of monoculture plantations and the tourism industry.

Mushrooming of resorts and revenge tourism

The tourism industry has expanded from a regular silent weekend tourism spot to a bustling destination, especially at the tourism points developed by the District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC) on the forest edges and elephant corridors. The infrastructure and connectivity with the nearby cities of Bangalore and Mysore and the post-lockdown-induced revenge tourism have further aggravated this steep climb in tourist arrivals. In Wayanad, it is also ironic to see the Forest Department’s role in uncontrolled ecotourism, contributing to the issues of cattle grazing, invasive plants, and forest fires destroying wildlife habitats wherein they are expected to protect and enhance the quality of forest.

Nowadays, the peaks, lakes, waterfalls, sanctuaries, dams, and plantations are all converted as tourism products to make the human activities appear harmless without sufficient studies on their impact, waste management, and tourist behaviors in an ecologically fragile zone. Tourism is often projected as an apolitical phenomenon - a liberating experience and an activity that obscures its direct connections with the environmental, societal, and policy implications.

Increased human activities and the degradation

The ecological destruction in the forests, tribal areas, and elephant habitats continues unabated, with no control over the resorts operating without any stringent regulations. The economic consequences of the destruction of the environment, the ecotourism in the region, invasive species, and wild animals, combined with the violation of all standards, have led to the degradation of Wayanad’s ecology.

In addition, foreign trees planted inside the forest like eucalyptus and acacia, especially in the Brahmagiri Hills, Banasura Hills, and Chembra Hills have denied food and water for the wild animals which is now resulting in evacuation of animals from the forest areas as the interiors are turning to barren lands. Today, 36,000 hectares out of the 1 lakh hectares of Wayanad forests are monoculture plantations such as eucalyptus.

The continuous and decades-long struggle of scientists and activists demanding the revival of the habitat management of Wayanad’s forests has fallen on deaf ears of the administrators and political leaders. The Forest and Wildlife Department has not yet identified or addressed the growing concerns nor has their responsibility towards wildlife and nature protection understood beyond the usual rhetoric.

The onus of responsibility to mitigate conflict

The recent Operation Jumbo Parade captured nine elephants and two were released to Kerala with radio collars installed, without adequate surveillance and no watchers to follow. This has to be investigated first and the government needs to extend its efforts to ensure proper monitoring, continuous conservation, and public awareness. The forest department should steer the efforts with the involvement of other departments to actively engage with public, wildlife enthusiasts, and environmentalists to create a sustainable environment for wildlife and the community.

Also read | Kerala High Court suggests formation of joint action plan to tackle human-wildlife conflicts

Following the tragic incident and the public outrage, the government has now announced the formation of a high-level panel comprising top officials from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka and Rapid Response Teams. However, first, a concerted effort from the Forest, Revenue, and Tourism departments is required to assess the situation and chalk effective strategies by recognizing the fragility of the region. Second, a statutory body is required to coordinate the forest issues spread across the three South Indian states under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. And third, the Forest Conservation Act should be strictly enforced with a Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) principle which is widely recognized as a critical process of stakeholder engagement to prevent further degradation. While it is high time for the Kerala Forest Department to act responsibly, implement effective strategies to protect and revive the forests in the state, we should also collectively understand that in a war with the nature, no human would survive.

Philip Varghese is a JSPS-UNU postdoctoral fellow associated with the International Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative (IPSI) in Japan. Views are personal

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