More animals, less forest cover

The government’s conservation policies are at odds with its development plans

February 21, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Villagers mourn the killing of a young boy by a leopard near Kutta in Kodagu district of Karnataka.

Villagers mourn the killing of a young boy by a leopard near Kutta in Kodagu district of Karnataka. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In recent years, Karnataka has been grappling with an increase in man-animal conflicts, which have brought wildlife and forest conservation issues to the fore and led to questions about the State’s response to them. Earlier this month, a 70-year-old man belonging to the Jenu Kuruba community and his 12-year-old grandson were killed in separate tiger attacks on the boundary of the Nagarahole National Park near Kutta in Kodagu district.

According to the Forest Department, during 2020-21, there were 24,740 cases related to crop damage by wild animals; 3,019 cases of cattle kill; and 36 human deaths in the State. The compensation paid in all the cases put together was ₹21.64 crore. In 2021-22, cases of crop damage caused by wild animals increased to 31,225; the number of cattle kill went up to 4,052; and 40 human deaths were reported. The compensation paid exceeded ₹27.4 crore. In the current year, over ₹20 crore has already been paid by way of compensation. And once the pending applications are processed, this figure is expected to cross ₹40 crore.

The cost of the conflict, both in terms of deaths and crop damage, is being borne by the people living on the forest fringes and in villages. This means there could be less local support for wildlife conservation. To address this, the authorities have thought of mitigatory plans to reduce conflicts. These include fencing villages abutting forest boundaries with discarded rail fences, and relocating elephants and tigers from conflict zones.

Following the spike in human-leopard conflicts in south Karnataka, where four human deaths took place over a span of a few months in T. Narasipura taluk of Mysuru district, the Forest Department is now toying with the idea of creating two or three separate enclosures or rescue centres. Each of these will have the capacity to house 250 leopards that have been tranquillised and captured in conflict zones. Nearly 130 leopards have been captured from conflict zones in Karnataka between April 2022 and January this year alone; this figure is only expected to go up.

Studies by conservation biologist Sanjay Gubbi and his team peg the leopard population in the State at around 2,500. They point out that more than 50% of the human-leopard conflict takes place in five districts — Ramanagara, Tumakuru, Mandya, Mysuru and Hassan.

Though mitigatory initiatives are imperative, some believe that they only address the symptoms and not the cause. This is because the increase in conflicts and the rise in human deaths is perceived to be a direct fallout of the government’s conservation measures on the one hand and development policies on the other, which are at odds with each other. As a consequence, the environment gets short shrift.

When the wildlife population was increasing due to protection measures, the area under forest cover should have been expanded by creating buffer zones. Such areas could have acted as sinks to absorb the rise in animal population and provided connectivity for animal migration. But the converse happened in Karnataka. Forests have either shrunk or been disturbed with the government clearing infrastructure projects by diverting forest land for non-forestry purposes.

Between 2020-21 and 2021-22, when human-animal conflict reached a new high, more than 450 hectares of forest land were diverted for as many as 39 projects including mining, road construction, irrigation, windmills and railway lines. The total land area under forest cover in 2012-13 was 43,356.47 sq km, or 22.61% of the State’s land area. This has declined to 4,0591.97 sq km, or 21.16% of the land area, in 2021-22.

Conservationists argue that procuring plantations and land abutting forest areas can augment and strengthen the buffer zone and help reduce conflicts. But instead of securing forests, the existing forest land is being diverted for other reasons. The government has also opposed the Union Environment Ministry’s notification on Ecologically Sensitive Areas in the Western Ghats that could help protect green cover. Last year, it denotified 6.5 lakh ha of deemed forest. If policies such as these, which are detrimental to the environment, are not reversed, the impact of mitigation measures to reduce conflicts will be neutralised and human-animal conflicts will only escalate in the days ahead.

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