Beena Pradhan, a young entrepreneur, runs a cosy homestay called Green Magpie in Lower Kitam village, right next to the boundary of Kitam Bird Sanctuary in South Sikkim district. Her parents own some land near the protected area on which they grow corn and rice.
But every year, they lose a majority of their crop due to regular visits of wild animals to their farmland. A postgraduate in sociology, Pradhan quit her job in the eastern metropolis of Kolkata to return home and support her parents. “My father is a farmer and knows only farming. So, in spite of losing crops to wildlife attacks, he continues to practice farming,” lamented Pradhan. “Crop depredation by wild boars is nothing short of a disaster in our area.”
Pradhan isn’t exaggerating. A recent pilot study on human-wildlife conflict, conducted by Kitam-based non-profit Lakshaya Organisation, has recorded how within a span of last 8-10 years, crop depredation has badly affected livelihood of marginal farmers in Kitam-Manpur gram panchayat unit and Sumbuk-Kartickey gram panchayat unit in South Sikkim.
The study notes there is a shortage of food in forest areas, possibly due to changing climate such as long dry spells and erratic rainfall, which is forcing wild animals to move towards farmlands. It also blames other factors, like an increase in wildlife population, forest fires, growth of invasive species in forests (Eupatorium cannabium and lantana camera), and fracturing of wildlife migration corridors for increasing human-wildlife conflict in the region.
“Our rainfall pattern has become erratic, making farming difficult. To top it all, changing climate has impacted vegetation in the forests, which has increased human-wildlife conflict,” said Roshan Kaushik, General Secretary of Lakshaya Organisation. According to him, the conflict affects all 290 households in Kitam-Manpur village council area, but the worst affected villages are Lower Kitam, Middle Kitam and Belbotey that are located right on the boundary of Kitam Bird Sanctuary.
Whereas there is no established cause-and-effect relation between the changing climate and the rising human-wildlife conflict, various reports of the state government point towards such a linkage. The draft State of Environment Report Sikkim 2016 reads, “Climate induced changes have directly or indirectly impacted the habitat and distribution limits and the food availability for wild animals. Due to the shortage of food, wild animals wander around human habitations in search of food.”
It further notes, “With flowering and fruiting being affected by the changing climate, availability of food inside the forests for wildlife has changed over time. This has a direct correlation to more incidences of wildlife straying into villages, leading to increased human- wildlife conflict.”
Rising conflict and its impacts
Over 82% of Sikkim’s total geographical area is under the administrative control of the Forest Department, and more than 30% of the state’s total geographical expanse is classified as protected areas. Because of high forest cover, a large portion of the state’s population lives in close association with the forests.
“Skirmishes with wildlife used to happen even in the past, but the conflict has grown manifold in the last 10-15 years,” Til Bahadur Chhetri, a 92-year-old farmer from Hee Patal village in West Sikkim, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. He blamed the black bear, porcupine, barking deer, wild hare and Assam macaque for maximum crop damage.
Similar conflict situation exists in other districts as well. BB Rai, a 75-year-old resident of Talkharka village near the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary in East Sikkim, said, “My maize crop is destroyed by black bear and wild boar; vegetables and millets are eaten up by deer; porcupine damages yam, potato, pumpkin, and other crops. Poultry is killed, too.” He claimed in the last one decade, his crop losses had increased from Rs 3,000 a year to over Rs 11,000 every year.
Although there isn’t any comprehensive data on human-wildlife conflict in the Himalayan state, some research studies have calculated the losses. A 2015 study, carried out by Darjeeling-based DLR Prerna and Gangtok-based WWF-India Khangchendzonga Landscape Programme, estimated three villages around the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in West Sikkim lose up to 64.44% of their crops (maize, potato, beans, green peas, cardamom, soybean, millets, etc.) due to the human-wildlife conflict.
Six years ago, another study recorded crop losses due to rising human-wildlife conflict in five villages around the Kitam Bird Sanctuary. “Of the total land being cultivated in these villages, an average of 85.92% damage was done by the wild animals to their fields,” noted the 2012 study.
It is important to note that only 12% of Sikkim’s total land is cultivable, whereas 65% of its population is dependent on farming for a living. As per news reports, a large number of farmers in the state have quit farming due to the rising human-wildlife conflict and other environmental factors. This is noted in the draft State of Environment Report Sikkim 2016, which reads: “The contribution to Sikkim’s economy from agriculture and allied sectors has been on the decline… There has been a decline in the total cultivator’s population.”
Taking note of the rising conflict, the state’s Chief Minister, Pawan Chamling, announced on March 10 in the state assembly that villagers can chase away wild animals (when they are foraging into farmlands or attacking cattle or poultry) using stones, sticks or weapons, and no legal action would be taken if the wild animal was killed in the process, as it would be treated as an accidental death. In December 2015, his government notified a grant for the loss incurred by wildlife, which is applicable to the entire state irrespective of distance from the protected areas.
Why is conflict rising?
There are multiple factors responsible for the rise in human-wildlife conflict in the state. “In some areas, such as Ribdi-Bhareng GPU [gram panchayat unit] in West Sikkim, forest cover has increased leading to an increase in wildlife population and hence, the conflict,” Kailash H Gaira, scientist with the GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development in Gangtok, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Human-wildlife conflict has also increased due to invasive species and lack of sufficient food for wildlife inside the forest boundaries.”
According to Kaushik, the problem started in mid-1990s when a complete ban on grazing and hunting was put in place. “Thereafter, in 2005, our reserve forest was notified as Kitam Bird Sanctuary, restricting human access to the forest for collection of fuel wood and fodder. Also, absence of predators has ensured an increase in wildlife population,” claimed Kaushik.
Chhetri believes grazing created a symbiotic relation between forests and cattle. “Earlier, we had cowsheds in the forest areas on hilltops. The cow dung and urine used to slowly flow down the slopes and keep the forestland healthy,” said Chhetri. Insects in the cow dung were rich source of food for animals like wild boars, he added. “We used to extract oil from a local wild berry, which was eaten by the black bear. Those berries have gone missing. Oak nuts have disappeared, too,” lamented Chhetri.
A recent study, published in Mammalian Biology journal, notes that rising conflict between the Asiatic black bear and villagers around the Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve in Sikkim is due to the food factor. Trees such as oak produce various fruits and nuts, which are staple food for black bears. A decrease in availability of food/nuts may be leading to an increase in human-bear conflict.
Climate change aspect
Interestingly, the study published in Mammalian Biology has linked the rise in human-bear conflict with the rising temperature in the Himalayan region and delay in snowfall. Reporting on the study, Mongabay India notes that an increase in temperature and delayed precipitation means less hibernation period for the black bear and more search for food.
The draft 2016 report, too, records a dramatic increase in direct encounter incidents involving Himalayan black bears with stray incidents of leopards. It notes, “One of the probable reasons for random movement of Himalayan Black Bear in villages and towns in recent years could be climate change.” This species eats acorns and nuts of the previous year, and if the productivity of such nuts decreases due to unusual weather events, they wander around for other foods. Many other animals might have been the victims of such events, warns the report.
That the climate in the Himalayas, including Sikkim, is changing is no secret. The state government’s 2012 report, Climate Change in Sikkim: Patterns, Impacts and Initiatives, notes that in the last two decades (1991-2000 to 2001-10), the number of rainy days and annual rainfall at Tadong meteorological station have decreased at the rate of 0.72 days per year and 17.77 mm per year, respectively. Further, the rate of increase in the mean minimum temperature between the decade 1991-2000 and 2001-10 is 0.81 degree Celsius per decade, or 0.08-degree increase per year.
Erratic rainfall is also a major concern. “Rainfall patterns have become erratic; monsoons are usually late. Torrential rainfall has replaced the monsoon drizzle. This has resulted in high surface run off, dry period during winters,” reads the draft 2016 report.
Responding to conflict
In LunchaKameru village, Sumbuk block, in South Sikkim, where peafowls have become a menace, as they destroy rice and corn crops, every morning a group of desperate farmers carries grains to the forest to feed the peafowls. “We know this isn’t a long-term solution, but we are desperate to save our crops,” Kushal Tharpu, a resident of the village, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Villagers around the Kitam Bird Sanctuary are doing something similar. “We have already planted fruit-bearing trees inside the sanctuary. We are also growing maize, millets, tubers, etc. inside the forest so that wild animals are not forced to attack our crops,” informed Kaushik, who said villagers have also created watering holes inside the forest.
In addition to this, farmers around the Kitam sanctuary have drawn up a plan to fence the boundary of the protected area. In 2013-14, the wildlife division had installed solar hybrid electric fence along the 3 km boundary of the sanctuary.
“We plan build an additional 3-4 km long barbed wire fence along the remaining boundary of the sanctuary. Bio-fence, a thick mesh of multiple plants, is also part of the project,” Kaushik told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Interestingly, villagers are using corporate social responsibility funds of the Axis Bank Foundation and labour funds under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to support their fencing project. They also plan to switch to crops like coffee and turmeric, which aren’t attacked by wild animals. Dairy, cottage industry (pickle making, local wine, etc.) and village tourism are also being promoted in villages around the Kitam sanctuary.
WWF-India is also working with villages on the fringes of protected areas to reduce human-wildlife conflict. “We are diversifying livelihood options of villagers so that losses due to crop depredation can be offset,” informed Priyadarshinee Shrestha, team leader, WWF-India Khangchendzonga Landscape Office-Sikkim.
In Talkharka village, near India-Bhutan border, WWF-India has trained villagers in bee keeping. “Thirteen households have got beehive boxes from which honey would be extracted every month and sold for Rs 1,000 (USD 14.28) a litre,” said Sabina Rai, a local resident trained in bee-keeping. Households have also been provided chicken coops to reduce wildlife attacks on poultry.
Farmers and non-profit organisations believe these initiatives may help find a long-term solution to human-wildlife conflict in the state.
This story is being published as part of IHCAP-CMS Media Fellowship Program. This article was first published on India Climate Dialogue.