Two people a day — that’s the average death count from man-animal conflict in India. It’s been this high for seven years; higher than terror attacks, higher than malaria.
Elephants, tigers, leopards, lions and snakes cause most of these deaths, across urban and rural India. That’s over 6,000 deaths in seven years, according to data from the Union environment ministry.
In response to questions posed by the opposition regarding the Centre’s stand on the issue during parliamentary meetings earlier this year, environment minister Anil Dave confirmed that man-animal conflict was a “cause of concern”.
The problem is only set to get worse. “Man-animal conflict is increasing and will increase further because wildlife habitats are shrinking under pressure from humans,” says Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based thinktank.
Here’s a snapshot of that pressure. At the last meeting of the standing committee of the Union environment ministry’s National Board for Wildlife, on March 27 (see the minutes here), a total of 25 infrastructure, road-widening and projects relating to the setting up of railway lines were proposed, both inside protected forests and in buffer areas, in states across the country. Seven were given a primary nod during the meet.
“When development does not take into account the negative impact on forests and wildlife, the result is a growing interface between wild animals and people. Under stressful situations, both parties behave abnormally,” says Anish Andheria, president of the non-profit Wildlife Conservation Trust
A state highway through the Satpura-Pench corridor in Madhya Pradesh, home to 53 tigers, is set to be widened. A river-linking project will submerge 4,600 hectares of the Panna Tiger Reserve, also in MP. Mining projects are awaiting approval in wildlife corridors.
Already, between 2001 and 2003 alone, nearly 8,000 hectares of forest were lost in West Singhbhum district, Jharkhand, to iron ore, coal and limestone mining. Elephants, bison, tigers, leopards, bears, wild dogs and wild boar have been pushed eastwards as a result.
Roads and power lines in the elephant corridor are causing the first-ever man-elephant conflict in Maharashtra.
“We had objected to the widening of a 3.5-km stretch of highway within the Karnala bird sanctuary in Maharashtra and it had been taken off the table. Now, the proposal has been cleared,” says Godfrey Pimenta, trustee, NGO Watchdog Foundation.
A senior official from the Karnataka forest department admits there is a need to protect core areas within protected forests. “These areas are being targeted for shorter commute routes. Roads and rail links are running through them and destroying habitats of major predators. It would help if artificial water bodies were constructed around these areas as well, to ensure that these animals do not travel long distances for water because that has become a key issue amid declining rainfall and changing climate.”
Wildlife experts say gaps in reserve and sanctuary management are also to blame.
“The entire focus of management is directed at the animals. In most cases, there is no coordinated effort to safeguard people,” says wildlife biologist and researcher Vidya Athreya. “What little action is taken is taken after the fact. And even that tends to focus on paying compensation. Instead, governments need to proactively help farmers build livestock sheds and fences, generate awareness about simple ways to keep the animal concerned at bay.”