Policy decisions in wildlife are rarely rooted in science and are often a result of political processes. In countries like Norway and North America, with their high quality and quantity of wildlife science, hunting of wild animals is culturally acceptable and carried out for harvesting meat, recreation, tradition and empowerment of rural communities. Culling is also carried out in response to human-wildlife conflict, despite lack of evidence of its efficacy.

The Indian cultural ethos is different. Which is why we have half the world’s global tiger and elephant populations along with a high diversity of megafauna, despite an extremely high density of people, nearly 20 times that of countries like Norway. But recently, culling in response to conflict has been accepted as a political decision.

Our rural communities have historically shared space with a wide variety of wildlife. The strict protectionist conservation ethos that prevailed in the political sphere since Independence makes the present day culling an even starker contrast. Although the decision is political and not scientific, it is also true that things have come to such a level that people are desperate, putting pressure on their political masters to do “something”, including involving hunters who have their own vested interests at stake. Losses due to wildlife severely affect the lives and livelihoods of a majority of the rural population. Even a goat being killed by a leopard or crops lost to wild boars have cascading effects on the welfare of entire families.

Why have we come to such a situation where the pendulum of political thought has swung the other way? There are many reasons, all of which can be easily addressed:

  1. Human-wildlife conflicts are seen to be the domain of biologists but they are ignorant of the human dimension of the issue. Therefore, their advice is not effective.
  2. The forest department is the only agency dealing with conflict but it is the actions of other departments – revenue, road, railways, agriculture and animal husbandry – that severely impact conflict.
  3. Policy and action currently target animals and ignore helping the people.
  4. The focus is reactive – such as culling, translocation, removal of animals, and ex-gratia payments – rather than being proactive and preventing the loss from occurring in the first place.

Culling not the answer

The reason why culling appears to be a solution is the misconception that conflict is related to the number of animals. But wild animals are biological entities and conflict is an interaction between them and humans (with their socio-political-cultural complexities).

In France, it was found that despite a 10-fold rise in the number of wild pigs shot over the last 30 years, with more than 560,000 killed since 2009, the wild boar population is still increasing. This is because they are voracious breeders and when you remove a resident animal, you are opening up space for younger animals to immigrate into from other areas.

The other complexity is that introducing hunters in an area will make the resident animals leave, only for them to return later. So, getting a hunter to kill a nilgai will make the animals leave, but they will be back once the hunter has left.

In the case of mountain lions in the Americas, it was seen that resident adults were less prone to cause conflict as they knew their areas. But when they were hunted, younger animals who did not know the area moved in, and this led to a rise in livestock losses. The population of the animal also increased with more young animals occupying the same area that fewer adults had earlier.

In Sri Lanka, the experience was that the removal of elephants did not work in the long term but focussing on reducing crop damage by the animals through the use of innovative ideas and technology did.

In a few instances in India where conflicts declined despite a high density of leopards in Mumbai or an increase in the presence of elephants in the Valparai plateau in Tamil Nadu, certain broad principles were the same:

  1. The need for basic information that uses science and traditional knowledge.
  2. Using this knowledge to communicate to the community via innovative methods.
  3. Focusing the proactive mitigation on making human lives safer.
  4. Proactively engaging with important stakeholders such as the forest department, other government departments, citizens, police and media.
  5. Increasing the responsiveness of the forest department, because an unresponsive government agency evokes deep-rooted anger that is then taken out on the animals it symbolises.

In the case of the elephants in Valparai, SMS-based technology was used to alert people to the presence of the animals. This was quickly picked up and operated by the people themselves, and the conflict declined as a result.

These principles of dealing with conflict require a lot of human-human interaction, which is time-consuming, and are more difficult to implement than culling. But they provide long-term solutions.

Categories of conflict

People who share space with wild animals usually face two kinds of losses – livestock losses to wild carnivores and crop losses to wild herbivores. The former is more easily dealt with and we need look no further than the traditional methods used by our own people. These include guard dogs for sheep, and different kinds of livestock sheds. The presence of adult graziers is also known to deter large carnivores from attacking livestock. Sadly, there has been no documentation of these preventive methods or of the traditional knowledge people have on avoiding conflict.

The more widespread and serious problem is crop depredation by wild herbivores. There is no way we can successfully keep all wild herbivores (monkeys, nilgai, wild boars, elephants) inside small protected areas. But we can definitely use mitigation measures that prevent them from grazing on people’s crops. This can be done by using a variety of measures, from traditional knowledge to technological products like community-maintained portable electric fences – used in Sri Lanka to keep elephants away from paddy fields during the harvest season – and security guards for fields, because human presence is one of the biggest deterrents to wild animals.

In India, technological jugaad in conjunction with traditional knowledge can open up a host of possibilities for preventive conflict mitigation, which could then be useful the world over. Currently, there is no research and development potential for this. But it could have economic potential in rural areas. For instance, people could set up barriers based on new technology, with traditional knowledge contributing to what kind of barriers would work in a particular area. State governments could encourage such measures by funding their development and initial subsidy.

The rarest but most publicised conflict is one that affects human lives and safety directly. To deal with this, people must be made more aware of the animals causing conflict. Currently, much of the awareness is spread by conservation groups, who focus on saving wildlife, which is of little use in a conflict situation. Instead, people must be told about the basic behaviour of the animal in relation to the precautionary measures they need to take against it to reduce the threat to their lives and property.

People are scared because they do not understand, and our experience with the Mumbai leopard issue is that increasing awareness increases acceptance.

For instance, in some cases of elephants making their way into human use areas, parents, fearing for their children, only want street lights – an easy solution to implement compared to the crores being spent on unsuccessfully keeping the animals in little forest patches. For the forest department, human-centric actions are more doable than those targeting the animals, as is the case now.

Political pressure

However, the most important factor in the entire conflict issue is the role of politicians. They put tremendous pressure on the forest department to take action, which results in knee-jerk responses that only worsen the conflict.

For example, whenever there are cases of leopards being trapped after being sighted in human use areas, more often than not, the reason for such action is political pressure. The leopards are then released in far-off places. These release sites then report attacks on humans by the animals, which had done nothing to people prior to their capture.

The media also habitually sensationalises such cases, leading to a vicious cycle of greater political pressure, bad intervention and an adverse impact on the lives and property of people.

To put it simply, there is a great need for dialogue between politicians, line departments, media and ecologists. Perhaps, a focussed committee could be set up to recommend knowledge-based action to be taken in the event of a conflict. The focus has to be on proactive preventive measures targeted at people and not at animals. Otherwise, we will make monsters of the animals and no amount of culling will reduce the conflict. This will have a disastrous effect on the very people we want to help.

The writer is a biologist with Wildlife Conservation Society – India.