Karnataka, Kerala show how to achieve co-existence with wildlife

Animals cannot be confined to specific areas though there have been absurd suggestions that walls be built around wildlife sanctuaries.

ByRashme Sehgal

Published Feb 24, 2024 | 11:35 AMUpdatedFeb 24, 2024 | 11:35 AM

Representative image. (iStock)

Indian politicians are a short-sighted lot. Or else how would one explain the decision of the three ministers of the Kerala state government to curb human-animal conflict by increasing the number of rapid response teams (RRT), setting up a command control centre and forming a people’s monitoring committee to keep a tab on wild animal movements, especially elephants and tigers, wandering into human settlements along the fringes of forests.

This is in the wake of the death of 47-year-old Panachiyil Ajeesh and V Paul, an ecotourism guide in his fifties, who were trampled to death during the last fortnight in the Wayanad district. The elephant named Belur Makhna, who killed Ajeesh was radio-collared and had been captured by Karnataka’s forest department and kept in captivity before being released in December 2023 in the Moolahalle forest range near Kerala. Massive protests erupted in Mananthavady following the tragic death of Panachiyil Ajeesh primarily because no prior warnings had been issued about the elephant movement. Already, 57 people have lost their lives in the last four years in Kerala, where one-third of its territory remains under forest cover.

However, the measures suggested by these ministers are cosmetic in nature. It has been pointed out that elephant radio collaring and 24×7 monitoring will not solve the increasing cases of human-animal conflict. India has seen exponential growth in its population, touching 1.4 billion, and more and more land is required for housing settlements, agriculture and infrastructural projects.

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Cannot confine wild animals 

The question politicians should be asking is whether our animal population of around 25,000 wild elephants, 8,000 sloth bears, 2,700 tigers, and 600 lions confined to the precincts of the Gir forest is responsible for this growing human-animal conflict or is the increasing encroachments of human beings into forest land which has resulted in the destruction of key animal corridors and which lies at the heart of this problem.

It is difficult to ensure that animals remain confined to specific areas. However, some absurd suggestions have been that walls should be constructed around wildlife sanctuaries to confine them to a certain area. The heart of the problem is that our forests, as have our wetlands, have shrunk substantially. In a recent judgement, the Supreme Court wrapped the states on their knuckles for not being able to provide data about the extent of this loss.

Elephant herds are constantly searching for food and water, and as our forests become increasingly degraded, they will move further in search of food and water. An elephant herd’s ‘home range’ can vary from an average of about 250 sq km in the Rajaji National Park to over 3500 sq km in the highly degraded, fragmented landscapes of West Bengal. To ensure such movement, elephant corridors are a must to ensure free migratory movement, but sadly, most of these corridors connecting our 29 elephant reserves spread over fourteen states have been steadily encroached upon.

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Consolidate animal habitats, corridors

Keeping this in mind, the Wildlife Trust of India purchased a 25-acre Kollegal elephant corridor from privately owned individuals and transferred it to the Karnataka state government. This corridor connects the Kollegal forests to the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple wildlife sanctuary. It has provided a safe and contiguous passage of forests to over a thousand elephants and other wild animals for safe movement. This initiative was launched over a decade ago, and this exercise aimed to reduce human-elephant conflict.

The Wildlife Trust of India signed a second elephant corridor restoration agreement with the Kerala Forest Department for free passage for the Thirunelli-Kudrakote corridor to be used by 5,000 elephants between the Brahmagiri Hills near Kodagu in Karnataka and the northern Wayanad region in Kerala. Families living in these areas are provided alternate land with newly constructed houses in an alternative place. In all, 88 such corridors were identified by the WTI, as these provided traditional routes for elephants.

Many of these corridors have been identified and secured because the Gajah (elephant) Task Force was set up in 2010 to formulate future interventions. It immediately tagged 26 of these corridors as having the highest ecological importance. Following orders from the Madras High Court, the Tamil Nadu government also notified the Nilgiris district’s Sigur plateau to be an elephant corridor. The long-term survival of wildlife populations rests on consolidating habitats and maintaining the integrity of these corridors.

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Unregulated tourism, industry presence

The problems on the ground are far more complex. N Badusha, president of the Wayanad Praakruthi Samrakshana Samiti, a forum of environmentalists across Kerala, points out that faulty political decisions in the past are responsible for this state of affairs. Badusha said, “Seven decades ago, the state government allowed the Gwalior Rayons Factory in Kozhikode to harvest bamboo at dirt-cheap rates. All our bamboo forests were destroyed; bamboo is a shrub that elephants eat in large quantities. The Forest Department grew eucalyptus and teak instead of bamboo, which degraded the soil and accelerated human-animal conflict.”

“What has upset us environmentalists across the South is that vested interests have been allowed to take over. In the summer, there is a spike in forest fires, many man-made ones. Adivasis are often the fronts for grazing cattle that belong to non-tribals. This is being done inside the Wayanad sanctuary, which is completely illegal. The other key problem has been the mushrooming of unregulated and unlicensed eco-tourism inside our sanctuaries. The constant movement of vehicles upsets the wildlife and has also resulted in the creation and dumping of waste in our forest land. Wild animals then gravitate towards this waste, with wild elephants, leopards and hyenas being no exception,’’ Badusha said.

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Monoculture, relocation of non-tribals

Reenu Paul, a leading environmentalist, confirms that the increasing accumulation of waste in our forests and constructing roads in pristine forests is becoming a growing problem because animals gravitate to areas where food is available.

Monoculture plantations of acacia, eucalyptus, and teak have also depleted the soil in Kerala and precipitated a water shortage, especially during the summer months. “This water shortage has also impacted wildlife, especially elephants, who are now forced to travel longer distances in search of water. The Kerala Forest Institute has identified 23 exotic species spreading rapidly through our forests, which will worsen the situation for wild animals,” Badusha warned.

Another important measure to reduce conflict in Kerala launched by the Forest Department was the Navakiranam scheme, which, in a revised form, was kickstarted in 2020. Its objective was for non-tribals living in scattered pockets in forests in Kerala who have been living in dire poverty, unable to avail of development schemes and susceptible to attacks from wildlife, to be given a compensation of ₹15 lakh to relocate to a township of their choice.

The relocation package was adapted from the model of the voluntary relocation package initially approved by the National Tiger Conservation Authority for voluntary relocation from villages in the notified core and critical tiger habitats. Still, it was modified to suit the ground reality of Kerala.

Prakriti Srivastava, who recently retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in Kerala, said, “The Navakiranam scheme requires a lot of hand-holding because after the families moved out, we continued to provide the families with livelihood training, and this is a huge incentive for them. Six hundred and forty families have moved out, and 5,000 applications are pending. From this, we can understand that people do not want to live in continuous insecurity. We received a budget of ₹300 crore from which Rs 100 crore has been spent.”

This is not to reduce the magnitude of the problem. Shrinking forests have seen increasing incidences of wild animals, mainly elephants, tigers, bison and wild boars, attacking human beings. The issue is that the increasing human population has put insurmountable pressure on natural forests and wildlife. Environmentalists have repeatedly warned, and there is enough scientific evidence to show, that the long-term ecological security of our states lies in securing and safeguarding forests and maintaining their biodiversity.

A balance has to be achieved between our shrinking wildlife and forests to ensure the developmental aspirations of the people. However, the latter cannot be allowed to steamroll over the lives of our wildlife, given that they were the original inheritors of these forests. We must also realise that animals play a crucial part in our ecosystem. Every animal supports this ecosystem in its own distinct manner, and the extinction of these keystone species could mean the end of the road for all of us.

(The writer is a senior journalist and author. Views are personal.)