Every year hundreds of Indians have their crops destroyed or farm animals killed – and in some cases are killed or injured themselves – by tigers, elephants, sloth bears and wild boars, as villages grow and spill over into the bush.
How are wild animals and humans adapting to life in such close quarters?
Cattle are invaluable in India’s rural villages – not as a food source, but for milk, transport and tilling the soil.
Just metres away from many villages, including this one in Kaziranga in the north-east state of Assam, seldom separated by more than a river or rickety old fence, are forests that are home to the wild animals that people from around the world pay to see on safari.
When a hungry or injured tiger or leopard from the forest kills a cow or elephants raid crops the loss can be crippling for a family.
Dr Naveen Pandey is the deputy director and veterinary advisor of the Corbett Foundation, an NGO that has worked to reduce potential conflict between human and wildlife populations in India since 1994.
He says strenuous efforts by the government and organisations such as the foundation to save tigers in the wild are paying off. “Out of all the tiger-range countries, India holds the maximum number of tigers,” he says.
India’s estimated tiger population is almost 2,500, representing 70 percent of the global population of the endangered big cat species.
India is home to about 70 percent of the world’s tigers.
But simply increasing the population isn’t enough, Dr Pandey says.
“Being cats, they have got a tendency to disperse, so you have to ensure you have connectivity of forests so the growing number of tigers can disperse.”
With India’s roading and rail networks growing rapidly and tourist resorts expanding to meet demand in some areas, the routes tigers and other animals such as elephants take to watering holes and favourite food sites is under huge threat.
Elephants are often seen on roadsides, and crossing roads. While most Indian drivers instinctively swerve or hit the brakes when they see animals, drivers and animals still get hurt when collisions can’t be avoided.
International charity Elephant Family has spent millions of dollars moving entire villages that have been built along elephant corridors.
And it has enlisted some creative thinking to avoid crops being destroyed by hungry elephants, by encouraging villagers to experiment with new crops that don’t tantalise the taste buds of these hungry giants.
Kaziranga National Park is a World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most visited wildlife reserves. It’s one of the best spots to watch migrating birds in the country, and due to high rainfall is verdant compared to landscapes further south. It’s closed to tourists during the rainy season, when even native wildlife can perish in massive floods.
The Corbett Foundation offers free vet care for villagers’ animals and the locals in turn help the foundation, rather than poisoning animal predators or helping poachers.
Poachers in this part of India target the rare one-horned rhino. Despite the carnage, the population has still increased by about 3 percent a year, which Dr Pandey attributes largely to the Forest Service’s shoot-on-sight policy. The target? People found in the reserve illegally.
Despite its success in deterring poachers, Dr Pandey says it is unlikely this hard line will be taken in other reserves.
“It would be difficult for other parts to follow because a lot of tribal areas are around tiger reserves. Already there is a large resentment in tribal communities in India that they have suffered quite a lot because of tiger conservation initiatives.”
In many areas, farmers whose stock are killed by wildlife are entitled to government compensation, but that often takes a long time and involves a lot of paperwork. The tiger reserves in Corbett, several hours’ drive north of Delhi, are home to the highest proportion of tigers in the country.
While the big cats generate substantial income from tourists desperate to see them, and provide much-needed jobs for locals, tiger attacks on people and farm animals do also occur.
Here, the Corbett Foundation pays bridging compensation straight away to deter farmers from poisoning tigers, leopards and other predators responsible for the attacks.
Dr Harendra Singh Bargali heads the office in Corbett. His team assesses reports of wildlife attacks on animals within 24 hours and, once verified, pays bridging compensation to the owners – helping address the problem of the government compensation scheme taking time and paperwork to access.
There is also the issue of the nomads who live in the heart of the national parks in this part of India – in core zones, the main areas for wildlife, Dr Bargali says. They are being offered money to move out, hopefully to somewhere with better schools and job opportunities, and more productive land with fewer predators.
As a downside, they won’t necessarily all move to the same place, which means communities are being split up and dispersed. But the lure of better education, meaning better prospects for children, is a huge driver for rural communities. Education is also a priority for NGOs wanting to get the next generation involved in wildlife conservation.
These NGOs, and the Indian government, are working to help communities capitalise on work and business opportunities for locals as a result of nearby national parks and reserves.
Community-based working groups are catching on, especially among women wanting to earn money for their families.
Training women in skills like weaving, sewing, making candles and incense sticks, so they can make money for their families, is just one way in which these organisations are trying to help villagers who otherwise pay a high price for living close to nature.
And this approach is just one of many throughout India aimed at establishing or maintaining harmony between the nation’s people and wildlife.
If the government, NGOs and communities can’t manage a growing population, sprawling infrastructure and a rapidly expanding tourism industry, wildlife and people are on a crash course.
However, there is a great sense of optimism that the challenges will be met – and that harmony will win out.