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Usually, you would need need to visit a national park or sanctuary to sight beautiful wild animals such as the wild boar, blue bull (Nilgai), spotted deer, chinkara, blackbuck, Indian hare, or monkeys. Today, just go round to any agricultural field and you may find plenty of wild herbivores roaming the grounds freely and feeding on the crops and natural palatable plants therein.
When forests were abundant, ecologically sound and self-sufficient, the movement of wildlife inside the Protected Areas / forests in search of food would extend no further than the buffer zone. Over time, however, the alarming rise in human population has put immense pressure on forest wealth, leading gradually to large swathes of the forest, including the buffer zone and corridors, being converted into agriculture fields and industries, and cleared for the construction of urban zones, big dams, railway tracks, roads and highways, mining corridors, electricity transmission lines and other development works that massively reduce forest area and shrink good-quality wildlife habitats.
Resultantly, as wild herbivores made to move or migrate, through natural corridors, from one forest to another in search of food, they found themselves in agricultural fields, which are full of easily accessible feeding material. This has been the gradual effect of encroachment into the homes of wildlife by humans, compounding the human-wild animal conflict to boot. Exposed, such animals also come as easy prey for poachers or become roadkill. As per Delhi-based NGO Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), over 1,000 tigers have been killed in the country by poachers over the last two decades. Over 650 instances of roadkill have been recorded in the last five years.
So, on the one hand, wildlife outside the protected areas is in great peril. On the other, farmers and locals in and around the forest-fringe areas are at a loss due to crop damage and the danger posed to human and livestock lives. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEF&CC) estimates that between 2014 and 2017, one death took place every day due to human-animal conflict . It is observed that the wild herbivores damage between 15-50% of the standing crops in the field and may affect 50-75% of the total agricultural area. Hence, a balanced solution in the form of a ‘Special Management Plan’ (SMP) is a need of hour, not only to protect wildlife outside protected areas and forests but also to safeguard human lives and livelihoods.
Our Nation’s Wealth
India, the seventh-largest country in the world, occupies approximately 2.5% of the total global geographical area, supports 18% of the planet’s population and 18% of the livestock population. As per Conservation International, there are 35 biodiversity hotspots in the world, of which India is home to four. Indian soils occupies near about 11 per cent of the world’s biota, 6% of world’s flowering plants and fauna, whereas, tens of endangered species are found in India. Many ecological regions such as shoal forests exhibit a very high rate of endemism — meaning they are host to species that are found only there.
As per the ENVIS, WII, Dehradun, India’s Protected Area network includes National Parks (104), Wildlife Sanctuaries (543), Conservation Reserves (76), Community Reserves (45), Tiger reserves (49) and Elephant reserves (32), which covers only 5.01% of the total geographical area, whereas, on the other hand, agricultural land occupies nearly 60.53%. Still, the alarming rate of population growth puts tremendous pressure on forests as well as on forest land resources.
Management of herbivores outside forest
It makes sense for wild herbivores to migrate to agricultural fields, where they get plenty of fodder. The rise in their population may be seen as a positive sign for wildlife recovery. However, in the absence of a dominant predator of the ecosystem, which ensures an equilibrium, the ecological population pyramid of wild herbivores outside PAs and forests is liable to get disturbed if the active population is not managed properly. This may tremendously compound the man-animal conflict.
Wild animals grazing in agricultural field constitute one of the major causes of crop damage, which ultimately affects the livelihoods of farmers. The patterns of damage caused by wild herbivores vary — blue bull (Nilgai) graze on the standing crops and trample them, whereas the wild boar dig out the roots of crops, especially sugarcane, maize, jowar etc., and monkeys not only eat grains but also break stems.
Farmers have no control over natural disasters such as floods, dry and wet droughts, erratic rainfall, forest fire etc., but they can exercise some control over insect- and pest-borne crop disease. However, farmers are unable to control crop damage by wild herbivores, which are protected under Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and the respective wildlife laws of States. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, and the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, also helps provide complete protection of the environment and conservation of biodiversity respectively. Before 2002, the Wildlife (Protection) Act included only two main types of protected areas — National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. Conservation Reserves and Community Reserves were included under the 2002 Amendment, while Tiger Reserves were added with the 2006 Amendment.
Government efforts to reduce the human–wild animal conflict
In 2016, the Environment Ministry issued a notification declaring as ‘vermin’ certain wildlife like wild boars, nilgai, and rhesus monkeys. This empowered farmers to cull or kill such animals in certain areas of States like Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh etc. However, such a measure runs counter to sustainability principles, which hold forest and wildlife to be an integral part of the ecosystem.
The Centre also provided funds under the Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats scheme, which was modified during the 11th Five-Year Plan to widen the scope of conservation intervention by offering technical and financial assistance to States and Union Territories. The National Wildlife Action Plan (NWAP) (2002-2016) seeks to provide protection to wildlife in multiple-use areas such as farm lands, wastelands, wetlands, coastal habitats, etc., which helps to re-establish natural wildlife corridors and link the protected areas to enable genetic continuity between and among them. Further, the draft of NWAP (2017-2031) is ready for approval from the Centre.
All these measures notwithstanding, there still remains the need to innovate solutions and approaches that are sustainable and gives justice to both wildlife outside PA/forest and farmers.
Special Management Plan
A ‘Special Management Plan’ (SMP) for wildlife outside protected areas and forests should consider the following components — active population management, innovative crop protection techniques, adapting cropping pattern, reasonable compensation (crop insurance) to farmers and awareness-generation. Research into need-based, low-cost, effective and efficient innovative crop-protection techniques would go a long way into reducing crop damage. Ideally, complete crop and property damage insurance (optimum easy access compensation) should be given to farmers, to cover life, crop and property damage. According to reports, only 0.1 to 8% farmers received compensation between 2009 and 2015, and while over 90% farmers near buffer zones suffered losses, not more than 20% of the actual loss was compensated.
Who is the greater victim in this situation? The animals who seek to widen their territory in search of food because their habitats are encroached upon? Or the farmers who feed the world and whose livelihood is completely dependent on agriculture?
To ensure a balance of justice, collective action needs to be taken by the government, policymakers, Forest Department, Revenue department, locals, NGOs and other stakeholders to ensure a balance of justice. So, any effective SMP in this regard would need to be a community-based one. Perhaps there is value in taking inspiration from nations and communities that have learnt how to live with nature without harming it, evolving very sound co-existence practices that are tailored to preserve, conserve, protect and sustainably manage natural resources. Human encroachment upon natural wild territory is an inevitability at the current juncture in human evolution, which is insatiable due to rising population. How can human beings be helped to find satisfaction in the territory they currently have? is a question to ponder.
Skill-development programmes for people living in and around the forest would offer them better opportunities for self-employment, and consequently reduce the combined pressures on agricultural land as well as forest land.
Indian Forest Act and policies need reforms that help incorporate traditional practices as well as a spiritual lifestyle. Inculcating values of preservation and sustainability via the school syllabus could be a step in ensuring that the future citizen gets an early education about one’s ethical and social responsibility towards nature conservation.