Man-animal conflicts are on the rise. Every week or two news flashes in corners of various newspapers point towards casualties caused by such conflicts. Though bytes about leopard trespasses and attack, routing of crops by wild elephants or death due to snake bites do not grab eye balls – they signify an underlying problem. News about irate mobs stoning a stray leopard to death or burning it alive is equally on rise. Why are these animals in human territory? The obvious answer is habitat destruction with shrinking forests rendering wild animals homeless, forcing them to come out in search of shelter and food. Result – conflict.
India has been making claims to forest at least 33 per cent of its land mass – the actual figure being far below. As stated by the National Forest Policy 1988, ‘The national goal should be to have a minimum of one-third of the total land area of the country under forest or tree cover. In the hills and in mountainous regions, the aim should be to maintain two-third of the area under such cover in order to prevent erosion and land degradation and to ensure the stability of the fragile eco-system.’ Contrary to this, as per 2003 assessment of Forest Survey of India (FSI) the forest cover is only 20.64 per cent of the total geographical area of the country; by 2007 assessment, the forest cover has increased to 21.02 per cent; and by 2009 it was marginally higher at 21.05 – still far away from the goal.
The burgeoning population of India has worsened the situation – 1.21 billion by the 2011 estimates of the Census. In fact the urban population is estimated to reach 428.9 million by 2016 (Gandhian Approach to Development and Social Work – K. D. Gangrade). The swelling population requires more food, water, sanitation, infrastructure and dwelling units. Besides, land is also required for the development of roads, powerhouses and mining. The increased demand puts heavy pressure on natural resources and forests. Although the loss of green cover is endeavoured to be compensated by planting trees through compulsory afforestation, it is unable to fill the void created by clearing of forests. It needs to be understood here that forests are not just a group of trees but are custodians of ecological balance and myriad flora and fauna. The plantations can produce woodlands but not forests.
To feed our increased human population more tillable land is required. The terai belt of Uttar Pradesh is an apt example where a shift in the cropping pattern led to the emergence of the so-called ‘cane-tigers’. The belt is amongst the most fertile in India where fine quality rice such as the basmati is traditionally grown. In the recent past sugar mills lured farmers to sow sugarcane as a cash crop. Gradually and stealthily large forest areas were cleared and encroached upon to give way to sugarcane production. The shrinkage of the natural habitat pushed wild herbivores to fringe areas and adjacent sugarcane fields. This in turn, inevitably, attracted the tiger. Unable to differentiate between grasslands and sugarcane fields, the tigers demarcated cultivated areas as its domain and began preying on domestic cattle and circumstantially humans. This created inexplicable furore among people living in the vicinity who reportedly took to poisoning the magnificent tigers. The angst was a boon in disguise for poachers who mandated the killing of the so called man-eaters.
As outlined in a research article titled ‘Snakebite Mortality in India: A Nationally Representative Mortality Survey’ by B Mohapatra, DA Warrell, W Suraweera, P Bhatia, N Dhingra, et al. (2011) annually 45,900 person in India die, unable to access antidotes of snake venom. Snake bite, yet another outcome of the conflict, even today remains a major threat to human life. The article also adds that annual snakebite deaths were greatest in Uttar Pradesh (8,700), Andhra Pradesh (5,200), and Bihar (4,500). These figure are indicative as some cases go unreported with victims relying on exorcisms for cure. The Indian Government has put in place rules to compensate such conflict related accidents wherein the Government makes ex-gratia payment to the sufferers. However, no compensation is provided to the wildlife or its kin who suffer collateral damage.
The conflict between beast and humans – the most primordial of all urges, has today led to mass destruction of creatures that once adorned our virgin forests. Despite elephants being regarded holy and declared a national heritage animal, they are under constant and significant threat. Elephants being migratory pachyderms, roam from one place to other in search of water holes and fodder. The fragmentation of forests with mining projects being aggressively developed, especially in the states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have destroyed forest corridors that enabled their free movement. The result – they walk out into the open and their doom. According to a recent estimate by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India, only 26000 elephants are left in India out of which just about 8000 are in captivity. To conserve elephants on the lines of National Tiger Conservation Authority, MoEF launched a programme ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’ on 24 May, 2011, but it was shelved soon after, in view of the large number of mining proposals.
In 2006 the Government of India enacted the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act – a dangerous piece of legislation. On the face of it, this Act may appear to be a beneficial piece of legislation, but it is ruinous for the forests which is bound to exacerbate the incidences of conflict. It is to be noted that the Act has an overriding effect on the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, which hitherto was the saviour of our forest’s wealth. In fact, Section 3(2) of the 2006 Act grants permission of felling up to 75 trees per hectare and diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes without any compensatory forestation. This paves the way for unwarranted clearing of forests which are in any case severely stressed. The construction of roads, community centres, fair-price shops etc., in forests will lead to further forest shrinkage and aggravate plastic litter. A brief study of the 2011 State of Forest Report by FSI will reveal that core forest areas (with very high canopy densities) all over India have undergone a decline despite a marginal increase in the overall green cover. This is indicative of degradation. Also the growth of weeds and pests like rats will degrade the forest environment and the pristine nature of forests will be shattered in hustle-bustle of activity.
Forests and the wildlife contribute significantly in sustainable growth of the earth. Our ancient texts have over and again reasserted the importance of forests and the life inhabiting them. It is time that the man-animal conflict is looked upon less as a social issue, but more as science. It is perhaps then that we can look for solutions that seeks technology as the saviour to the plight of the mute sentinels of our forests.