Beautiful People | Environment

Why do people sacrifice part of their livelihoods for wild animals?

Bengal tiger in Ranthambore   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Why do people make space for wild animals at a cost to themselves? If you believe news reports, then nothing good happens when humans meet animals. People kill animals or animals kill humans. The truth is these are aberrations.

To give wildlife a sporting chance of survival, conservation separates people and wildlife. Its core tenet is to keep national parks and sanctuaries, exclusive wildlife areas free of our presence so animals can multiply. But animals insist on stepping outside the boundaries we draw.

What do we do when they colonise farmlands and villages, compete with people for their crops and livestock, and sometimes even threaten human lives? For predators or herbivores we apply the same principle of separation.

Such animals, often leopards and tigers, caught transgressing into human lands are said to ‘stray’, meaning they are lost or wandering away from their home. The very use of the word suggests the solution: put them back where they belong, usually forests. This may seem to sanitise the landscape for humans but not for long.

Happy in villages

Almost every mammal is territorial, gravitating back to former homes in the farmlands. That may come as news to many but consider for a moment what stops these animals from living in villages. Predators have plenty of feral prey; herbivores have crops. Leopards, for example, may even prefer humans to forests ruled by tigers that will kill them if given a chance. Many species, large and small, from jackals and jungle cats to leopards and elephants, make a good living in the rural countryside.

When the animals are elephants and ungulates, conservationists suggest erecting fences, trenches and other barriers to exclude them. The tacit assumption is: humans and wildlife do not get along. If that is the case, this country of more than one billion people would be a war zone.

Instead, people and animals have a way of doing the unexpected as this column has chronicled. In Gujarat, lions live in mango orchards around Gir, and people of the Charotar share their ponds and backyards with mugger crocodiles. In the Deccan, the pastoral Dhangars literally sustain the wolf population with equanimity. In Rajasthan, the Bishnoi take on the powerful in defence of blackbuck, while Odiya villages let the antelopes eat their crops. Folks in Agumbe would rather use a neighbour’s bathroom than disturb a sleeping king cobra that has taken refuge in theirs.

Plain tolerance

Why do they sacrifice part of their livelihoods, even tolerating danger to their own lives, to make space for these animals? Religious and cultural beliefs may play a role but not always.

Is it the size of the animal or its destructiveness that makes people intolerant? When elephants visit a farmer’s field, the evidence is all over the place — their dinner plate-size footprints, the grapefruit-shaped balls of dung, and the flattened crops. But sight unseen, legions of rodents nibble at crops, causing more loss than the mammalian giants. Perhaps no field anywhere in India is free of rodents, and yet no one makes a fuss.

Taking it out

Or does it matter who owns these wild animals? If people think the government does, then they invest them with their anxieties about governance failures. When they feel overwhelmed and helpless, they take it out on the soft targets, bludgeoning leopards and setting fire to sloth bears. This is not to say that all these people are long-suffering saints or even that these communities always tolerate any loss.

Sadistic barbarians who torture and kill animals for no apparent reason should be condemned.

But urban citizens, who have nothing to lose but get high on their goody-two-shoes activism, show equal contempt for people who are down and out, without recognising the many years they have put up with dangerous wild beasts.

Snakes kill about 50,000 people a year, while other wild creatures put together kill less than 500. Yet, nobody makes a big fuss or hold the Forest Department responsible for the loss. One reason could be society’s belief that the reptiles are owned by god or their community.

Despite their struggles, rural communities accept many a wild animal’s right to live amongst them.

Peace moves

These feelings of inter-species kinship aren’t traditional for many communities but can be taught.

The work of Aaranyak (greater adjutant storks), Mumbaikars for SGNP (leopards), and Wildlife Trust of India (whale sharks) show the way. Much more needs to be done to help people make peace with the creatures who share their land.

If livelihood environmentalism, a phrase coined by former minister Jairam Ramesh, is the mutual trade-off that humans gain from caring for the environment, what does one call wildlife conservation practised by people at a cost to themselves? Altruistic conservation?

Contrast this situation with the U.S., a country with fewer but better-off citizens, where the mere sight of a wolf is enough for ranchers to reach for their guns. American conservationists who gave us the prototype of conservation practice — separation — are now struggling to turn their populace more wildlife-friendly.

However, in India, we are squandering what we already have by turning people into villains. More than human population size, it’s the space in people’s hearts that determines whether wildlife stays or goes.

The writer is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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Printable version | Oct 25, 2021 6:12:08 AM |

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