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Man-animal conflict: Stop testing India’s traditional tolerance for wildlife

More than two-thirds of India’s 650-plus protected forests have permanent human settlements that support an estimated four million people. But they are a handful compared to another 150 million who live around forests and suffer frequent losses to wildlife. At a conservative average damage per household of Rs 6,000, 15 million families could suffer a cumulative loss of Rs 9000 crore every year.

That’s a lot of money to lose, particularly if you are poor. Before eyebrows are raised at this ballpark estimation, here is a comparison. The US loses roughly $1 billion in agricultural damage alone to wild herbivores. Without being harsh on the rupee, that works out to be Rs 6000 crore. And we have not taken into account the loss due to livestock predation by wolves, cougars or coyotes.

So what do the Americans do? They kill approximately 2.5 million wild animals annually. In 2004, for example, the toll included more than one lakh wild carnivores, including at least 3000 of threatened or endangered species. Things are looking up though for a number of nearly exterminated species such as grey wolves, primarily due to a shift from agriculture that is allowing significant expansion of forests.

Blackbucks in a field. Image courtesy: Jay Mazoomdar

Blackbucks in a field. Image courtesy: Jay Mazoomdar

But the pressure on land in a crowded India means there is little room for increasing our green cover. So the man-animal interface is frequent and the conflict desperate. Yet, the poor villagers erect physical barriers, stay up all night, light a fire, make noise and try just about everything before considering the lethal option.

Those gruesome media images of a leopard being lynched or a bear being burnt alive are mostly urban phenomena. But for the largely tolerant rural communities, we would have lost most of our big mammals long ago in the absence of any effective mechanism to compensate villagers for damage caused by wildlife.

Fascinated by this traditional tolerance, scientists often get drawn into the daunting task of understanding conflict. Among them is Krithi Karanth of Wildlife Conservation Society, New York. She, along with three colleagues from universities of Columbia, Wisconsin and Oxford, has quantified in a recent paper -- Living with Wildlife and Mitigating Conflicts around Three Indian Protected Areas – that one out of eight households seeking compensation for damage receives any.

The study surveyed 398 households from 178 villages within 10 km of Ranthambore (Rajasthan), Kanha (Madhya Pradesh), and Nagarahole (Karnataka) tiger reserves. While 80 per cent of the respondents reported crop damage, only 11 per cent received any compensation. And yet, over 99 percent of these families did not kill any “problem animal”. Put in hypothetical situations, though, some of them appeared less forgiving. But their hostility remained proportional to the damage suffered.

So while the authors express surprise that households reported greater inclination to kill herbivores destroying crops (or carnivores harming people) than carnivores preying on livestock, their paper itself justifies the reaction by recording 82% crop loss against 27% livestock loss. This also explains why almost all mitigation efforts are aimed at reducing crop losses while very little is invested in safeguarding livestock.

Of course, even rare loss of human lives (or injuries to people) triggers strong retributive emotions. But it is not difficult to see why people are usually more concerned about losing their crop than livestock. Unless a carnivore gets inside a pen, the loss of livestock is sporadic and limited to opportunistic killing. But herbivores raid cropland in herds and can inflict consistent and widespread damage.

Also, the livestock, particularly cattle, is usually of inferior breed with many unproductive animals. Few resent losing a dry or diseased or old cow. But loss of more expensive buffaloes often leads to retaliatory action. The study, however, does not get into the relative impact of losing different types of livestock.

Interestingly, the study observes that crop loss (but not livestock loss) did not vary with proximity to the PA, suggesting that crop raiders do not necessarily emerge from PAs. But it is possible that the density of resident wild herbivores within a 10km ring of a PA depends on the dispersal rate of animals from that PA. It would be interesting if the study had included a fourth site further, say 100km or more, away from any PA to examine the conflict dynamics of a PA-independent wild herbivore population.

Karanth’s paper confirms a few popular hunches. Wild boars and leopards are identified as the most conflict-prone species causing crop and livestock loss, respectively. Higher crop loss is associated with more cropping months per year and greater crop variety. Carnivore attacks on livestock and people are higher in areas where animals graze and people collect fuel wood, water etc from inside PAs.

“India’s current compensation policy,” the study points out, “is oriented more toward alleviating economic hardship (versus discouraging retaliation against endangered species). At one level, our study suggests that this policy is on target given that so few respondents reported a wish to kill wildlife raiding crops or hunting livestock… For most scenarios, frightening and deterring animals was the most popular choice, although some respondents might have been reluctant to report their approval for killing animals in light of conservation rules.”

Clearly, it will be foolhardy to take the traditional tolerance for granted. At the same time, offers of compensation usually invite more complaints of damage. Therefore, as a combination of entitlement and incentive, compensation can be linked to certain responsibilities. A decade ago, the India Eco-Development Project failed to inspire any difference in conservation attitudes between beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries around Periyar tiger reserve because the lavish benefits came across as mere entitlement.

Also, compensation schemes should not target any “species of focus”. It is a recipe for corruption when a villager must establish that his field was raided by blackbucks and not boars, or his goat was taken by a leopard and not a hyena, to claim his due. As long as damage is caused by wildlife, he deserves timely and just compensation. His community deserves sarkari investment in site-specific mitigation efforts such as fencing, trenches and corrals. The thing with tolerance is that over time it only runs thinner.