As the human footprint increases, it tramples on areas reserved for wildlife, pushing animal populations to disperse into agriculture fields and human settlements. This leads to greater human-animal interaction, affecting both. For humans, the interaction results in loss of crops and livestock and damage to property, and for animals, it often means death as they are trapped, poisoned or shot.
The periphery of protected forests is where a good number of these violent human-wildlife interactions occur. This is why individuals, institutions and governments engage a range of mitigation measures: while some may set up machans, others fence off properties. But do these measures, undertaken based on convenience and costs, prove effective in reducing the conflicts?
A recent study by scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bengaluru addressed this question by understanding the factors that influence individuals or governments to utilise the many mitigation measures. The researchers hope that this study will help improve the management practices currently in use.
“Resolving human-wildlife conflict requires revisiting the goals of conservation policies and investments by people and organisations,” Dr Krithi Karanth, a conservation scientist and lead author of the paper, said.
According to Karanth, before governments or farmers invest in ways to reduce human-animal conflicts, there is a need to evaluate which measures are effective. “What this paper establishes is there is no one single measure that works,” she said, “so we need to compare and evaluate mitigation measures, rather than making large-scale investments in particular kinds of mitigation actions.”
Mitigation measures involve reactive strategies like fencing to protect crops and proactive schemes like relocation of affected communities outside protected reserves. Some of these are targeted at particular species like elephants, but most are broad-brushed for all animals – without understanding their behaviour or differences in landscapes. For this reason, the success of the measures vary. For example, fencing may work in some areas, while in others it might funnel animals to raid neighbouring farms. In other cases, fences might impede animal movements to other patches of forests.
In the short term, investments in mitigation measures could be a financial burden on economically weak farmers, while in the long run, continuation of conflict usually results in people turning against the animals.
To understand the effectiveness of mitigation measures, Dr Karanth and her colleague Sahila Kudalkar, a researcher at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, examined the economic, environmental and demographic factors driving mitigation strategies across 11 protected reserves in India. These reserves are spread across different geographical areas and forest types – from dry, thorny, scrub forests of the Aravallis in Rajasthan to sal and dry deciduous forests in Central India to mix of dry, moist and evergreen forests in the Western Ghats.
The researchers surveyed nearly 5,200 households falling within a 10 kilometre buffer of these 11 forest areas. They found that 72% of the households reported some form of conflict with wildlife, such as crop damage or livestock depredation, with 58% of households in Nagarhole in South India and as many as 84% around Kanha in Central India being affected.
There are multiple factors that explain these differences. The researchers find close association between crops and the risk of damage by wildlife. “Crops such as rice, banana, sugarcane, and maize were especially vulnerable in the Western Ghats’ reserve, while pulses and millets are at higher risk of damage in Rajasthan,” Kudalkar said.
The reserves in the Western Ghats recorded crop and livestock losses in areas closer to the reserve. In Kanha, as many as 83% of households suffered crop damage due to more number of crops grown in a year. Eighty per cent incurred livestock loss, as a majority of households owned animals.
Animals associated with crop damage also vary between reserves. Out of the 32 different species attributed to conflicts across reserves, wild pigs were a common cause for crop damage across all but one reserve, whereas nilgai accounted for most in Western India and elephants in the Western Ghats. This may not be surprising as wild pigs occur throughout the surveyed landscape and are found in large sounders. Their preferred food is roots and tubers under the forest floor. Nilgai occur in open habitats in peripheral areas of the reserves, while elephants need large amounts of food and areas to sustain themselves. Similarly, leopards were responsible for most livestock kills around the reserves. This could be due to their ability to adapt and persist along fringe areas of the reserves.
Dr Karanth’s previous work on compensation policies has shown that many states like Rajasthan do not compensate crop damage by any animal, while Karnataka does not recognise crop damage by wild pigs at all. Hence farmers choose to ignore damage done by wild pigs or don’t bother filing for compensation. Not surprisingly, researchers found households were twice as likely to take mitigation measures against crop damage attributed to nilgai, as compared to wild pigs.
The study shows several patterns that emerge from mitigation measures used by households. Households that experience interaction with wildlife for longer duration are more likely to use any protection measures. Households closer to the reserves invest more resources and effort in safeguarding their assets. The higher the number of assets owned, greater the effort to protect them. The type of animal dictates the mitigation effort employed by people. Households in different regions and locations employ varying degrees of mitigation measures. Households continue to face loses despite employing many kinds of mitigation measures. This suggests there is an urgent need to use measures suited for local regions and practices.
Understanding these complex interactions will help authorities develop mitigation strategies, improve compensation schemes, etc. The researchers urge mitigation efforts should focus on the most vulnerable households, regions as well as species causing the most damage. This should build tolerance towards animals while failure to do so will only exacerbate hostilities against wildlife.