When life bursts at the seams (Kannur, India)


Mohamed Nazeer, The Hindu

Date Published

It would be beneficial for humans to share space with wildlife, feel experts

On March 6, a thickly populated residential area close to Kannur town in north Kerala witnessed what local residents had never imagined. As hundreds watched in fear and trepidation, a leopard that had ‘strayed’ into the town kept forest and police personnel on tenterhooks, trying to hide itself from searing gazes and deafening voices, and sprinting towards non-existent safety and, when not successful, pouncing on anything and everything seemingly animate before it.

For the hundreds gathered there and who kept moving with the leopard, it was a spectacle, almost every other mobile phone capturing the animal ‘live’. The onlookers apparently knew little about the inhumanity and unpredictability of the situation that unfolded before them. What was glaring during those eight hours was the lack of proper public awareness on a range of issues relating to what is popularly termed as human-wildlife conflict.

As cases of such conflict will continue to be reported, wildlife experts say that awareness initiatives have to be kick-started to keep the public informed about the multidimensional aspects of human-wildlife conflict, its impacts and ways for its mitigation.

Over the past few decades, cases of wild animals, mostly elephants, leopards, wild boars and monkeys, straying out of protected areas into human habitations have been hogging headlines. There have been several instances of wild elephants trampling to death people living within or in close proximity to forest areas. Forest officials often find themselves at the receiving end of the ire of settlers whose crops are damaged by wild animals. They come under tremendous pressure whenever such incidents happen as had happened when an Adivasi was trampled to death in the protected area of the Kottiyoor wildlife sanctuary in the first week of February.

Quick-fix solution

Whenever such incidents occur, blind anger of the local populace would force the authorities to think in terms of quick-fix solutions to avert the wild ‘menace’. The measures suggested and implemented include erection of solar fencing to check the ‘straying’ of wild elephants. On March 8, an Adivasi woman was trampled to death by a wild elephant near the Adivasi resettlement area close the Aralam wildlife sanctuary in Kannur. Adivasi leader C.K. Janu, who visited the locality the very same day, said, “the forest and district authorities are taking no action to check elephant attacks in the Adivasi resettlement area though such attacks have taken the lives of four Adivasis.”

Forest Department personnel are the first to face the heat of the public protest. With the government machinery failing to respond to the woes of the affected populace, the protests turn into anger, which often assume dimensions that are intractable.

Sensing the political and governance complexities that such situations culminate in, conservation activists have been advocating speedy payment of compensation to the affected to win back the trust and goodwill of the residents in the vulnerable areas.

Wildlife conservation experts say the problem will never be resolved unless there is a major shift in the way the officials and the local populace understand the situation. The problem, according to them, is the general perception that wildlife is expected to live only in protected forest areas. Sadly, such protected areas form only a small percentage of the total area and, as all the large wildlife species are biologically programmed to move out to find new territories, it is unrealistic to expect that all wildlife will be confined to islands of forests.

Specific reason

“Wild animals always have the tendency to move out. Especially after breeding, all the animals tend to move out,” says P.S. Easa, who has extensive experience in areas of wildlife biology, conservation biology and human-wildlife conflict. Dismissing the theory that climate change could be the reason for the straying of wildlife from their habitats, Dr. Easa says that conclusion can be arrived at about such mobility patterns only based on close monitoring of the forest.

“If an animal strays into human habitation, it would be for a specific reason,” he says, adding that the reason can either be a disturbance inside the forest environment, including lack of resources such as prey species or territorial issues or other unknown factors.

Conflict over resources, according to conservation experts, is inevitable when the same resources are shared by different groups of animals, including humans. Whenever people use the same habitats as animals, there is an interaction which can turn into a conflict which humans tend to define in their favour. Bluntly put, the conservationists are sceptical about media portrayal of this interaction as ‘human-wildlife conflict.’

According to them, the media portrayal of wild carnivores such as leopards as ‘man-eaters’ has only reinforced a negative image of wildlife. “A leopard straying into human settlements is nothing new as the animal has been found even in cities such as Mumbai and Bengaluru,” says Arun Zakharia, veterinary officer attached to the Forest Department in Wayanad, who has been involved in saving several leopards and tigers and wild elephants spotted in urban areas in the region including Kozhikode city, Vadakara and Tirur as also in Kannur on March 6.

Since leopard is a highly adaptable species and its prey preferences are very vague, it can survive in any situation. At Tirur, a leopard was found to have survived eating crabs, he says. Tiger, on the other hand, is different because it is a core species and, therefore, cannot be spotted in cities, Dr. Zakharia says. A tiger strays out when it is injured in competition with other tigers over territory, he adds. From his experience, he says that areas of tea plantations such as Meppadi in Wayanad are found to be leopard-resident areas.

Human behaviour

Deaths caused by attacks of wild animals often provoke public protests. But wildlife lovers say that human behaviour is also to blame for the wildlife straying into human habitations. Wild animals are inherently scared of humans and the attacks in self-defence happen when humans and the wild animal bump into each other.

While fragmentation of forests and degradation is as much the reason as the animals’ behaviour for the wild animals’ straying out, humans are also indirectly helping the wildlife get attracted to human habitations including urban areas.

“Our unscientific garbage disposal provides easy availability of food to many wild animals such as monkeys and wild boars, while carnivores such as leopards are attracted to stray dogs and other animals that our garbage dumps attract,” says P.V. Mohanan, retired government veterinarian, who now assists the district panchayat to start units for scientific treatment of wastes from animal slaughter centres in Kannur district.

Proper waste management practices can be an effective intervention for prevention of human-wild conflict which affects both the humans and the wildlife, he says. Poultry slaughter wastes are found even on roadsides and rivers. Whenever incidents of human-wildlife conflict occur, theories are often floated as to its cause or causes. Recently, the Kannur district panchayat came up with the demands that the Forest Department take steps to ensure adequate food and water inside forests to check wild elephants entering human settlements and wreaking havoc on their crops.

The panchayat’s conclusion was that the wild animals tended to intrude into the human settlements because the forests faced shortage of food and water. The panchayat’s solution, therefore, was to dig ponds and plant fruit plant in the forests.

“Policy interventions to bring the human-animal issue should be based on the advice of forest and wildlife experts,” says Dr. Easa, taking a dig at proposals that have no scientific basis.

Forests are unique ecosystems that have to be preserved, he points out. Politicians can claim that wild elephants stray into human areas because of the shortage of, say, jackfruit trees inside the forests. They might also propose planting of jack fruit plants as a solution, but such proposals, if implemented, will result only in causing untold damage to the unique forest ecosystems.

Wildlife conservation experts thus warn that the demand for inappropriate management actions can have adverse consequences. What is required is a policy that accepts that humans have to share space with wildlife and come up with measures that will mitigate the losses to both.

The proposed project for development of elephant corridors in areas covering forests in Kannur and Wayanad districts is one such. It would help prevent wild elephants from straying into the inhabited areas near forests of Kottiyoor and Wayanad as it would help reclaim the natural elephant habitats that have shrunk over the decades as land under cultivation in the settled areas adjoining the forests expanded.