By Anushree Bhattacharjee, IUCN CEM Young Professional.
The unfortunate incident of the pregnant elephant that succumbed to injuries from the food bomb in Kerala, India on May 27, 20201, brought forth an outpouring of righteous anger and demands for immediate punishment for the perpetrators from across the country. My social media was abuzz for weeks after the incident, and not just from my wildlife biologist friends. I found myself engaging in multiple discussions on the complexities of the human-wildlife conflict that is the underlying cause of this particular incident, trying to explain that this was a nuanced issue, not be dealt with a knee-jerk reaction.
Working with wildlife for over a decade, this was not the first such tragic loss that I had come across. It is easy to be oblivious from our comfortable urban existence that approximately 100 elephants and 500 human lives are lost every year across India to human-elephant conflict2, along with countless human injuries, damage to properties, crops, and livestock. The affected are also often the most economically deprived. While the forest department provides ex gratia payment for loss to wildlife, the amount is often not enough to cover the losses, while the time taken for relief disbursement and the paperwork to process the claims daunt many. Recently, many state governments have worked to increase the relief amounts and reduce the processing time. Still, there is no panacea for the mental trauma and debilitating fear that such encounters may leave behind.
India has traditionally demonstrated higher tolerance towards wild animals sharing our spaces in comparison to western countries. However, we seem to have become a less tolerant society in recent years, both towards fellow humans and animals. There is also a tendency to treat local forest-fringe dwelling communities as a homogenous population rather than a group of individuals with diverse aspirations, not all of them complimentary to wildlife conservation. However, despite the many hardships faced by the forest-fringe communities, community conservation models still exist across the country and need to be supported and strengthened.
On July 10, 2020 the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Centre and the thirteen states (including Kerala) named in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) for declaring the practices of food bombs and snares to drive away wild animals barbaric and illegal3. The PIL calls for stringent punishments for perpetrators through an amendment of the Prevention of Cruelty against Animals Act, guidelines for forest departments to tackle such instances in the future, and filling of vacant positions in all states. While I agree that the ground staff of the forest department face challenges of manpower, training and equipment, the request for increasing punishment for those who are the victims of conflict worries me.
Human-wildlife interactions are extremely complex, and only the negative interactions (the conflict) get highlighted, not the numerous instances of humans and wildlife coexisting. The conflict is due to the competition for resources which gets exacerbated by destruction and degradation of forests for infrastructure projects (mining, highways), as well as the diversion of forestland for agriculture, commercial plantations, and human settlements. We often forget that the elephants have been using the same routes for many years, and it is humans that have encroached on their habitats and migration routes. This has driven elephant herds to enter human-dominated landscapes, either while passing through their traditional routes or for seeking nutrition, as agricultural fields provide easy access to good food. Most human deaths and injuries are found to have been caused either while driving elephants away from crop fields or due to accidental encounters.
The Central Government already has guidelines on managing human-elephant conflict4. However, it is focussed on managing elephants in protected areas, and not at landscape-level, a strategy that is not compatible with elephant ecology or their movement patterns. The Environment Ministry released a publication on best practices of human-elephant conflict in India5 for the occasion of World Elephant Day (August 12). However, it was with concern that I noted that securing elephant corridors is only mentioned once through the entire 42-page publication, and then only under the problematic chapter heading of ‘Restricting elephants in their natural habitats’.
Even among the mitigation strategies suggested in the guidelines, the implementation on the ground is often a major challenge. The forest guards who are the backbone of wildlife protection are extremely over-worked and underpaid, often with no proper equipment to protect themselves. During my fieldwork, I met many who had come up against illegal timber loggers armed only with sticks and old rifles, while the loggers carried expensive firearms and did not hesitate to use them. Many of the ground staff have been on temporary contracts for decades. Steps taken to strengthen the forest forces is the need of the hour, and directions from the Supreme Court to that effect would be very welcome.
However, the elephant in the room when dealing with this issue is ignoring the numerous forest clearances being given across the country for mining, highways, and other infrastructure projects. If implemented, these projects could magnify the human-wildlife conflict in these areas as they would further destroy and degrade the wild habitats. One such project is the coal mine clearance that the Central Government recommended during the national lockdown in the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam6, which would transfer over 98 hectares of rich forest land to Coal India Limited. While several youth organizations, local communities and environmental scientists have raised their voice to protest this project and other similar ones being sanctioned across the country, it has not yet gathered the public fury that was witnessed in the Kerala incident. Similarly, the recent de-notification of the Shivalik Elephant Reserve by the Uttarakhand Forest Department (November 2020)7 for airport expansion has only drawn the attention of the scientific community and environmental journalists, while failing to capture public passion. While punishing perpetrators of food bombs may be only a small bandage to cover up the problem, real and lasting solution can be brought about only by supporting community conservation models, strengthening the forest department, and preventing further habitat degradation and loss.
Maybe that is what our collective conscience should be clamouring for.
Ms Anushree Bhattacharjee is an ecologist working on climate change and natural resource management with the Green Climate Fund (GCF). She is also a Chevening Research, Science, and Innovation Leadership Fellow at the University of Oxford.