One winter morning, Shivaarsa, 39, had no premonition of the misfortune awaiting his discovery. As was his daily routine, he awoke early and walked up to his banana plantation, on the fringes of Bandipur National Park. But when he got there, the sight of it made his heart sink. Elephants had figured out a way to walk past the fence that protected his land, and damaged his banana crop beyond salvaging.
Shivaarsa isn’t alone in suffering such tidings. In Boodanuru, a village in H. D. Kote, although crop damage occurs for various other reasons, human-wildlife interaction leading to crop damage is virtually a regular occurrence, too.
While human-wildlife interactions can have several positive impacts such as through wildlife tourism and wildlife education, negative interactions lead to damages and even loss of crops, property, livestock and so on.
Over 80,000 human-wildlife conflict cases are known to be reported to the government in India, and Karnataka alone records an annual average of 28,000 incidents (a startling average of about 77 a day). The state shelters a large population of tigers and elephants. Reports also suggest that thousands of incidents go unreported, implying that numerous families who struggle for their livelihood remain uncompensated.
“Nothing deters these elephants now,” says Shivaarsa, but in his next assertion you realise there’s no bitterness in his complaint: “But I do not blame them, for they are after all living creatures just like us and need space.”
Such empathy seems incongruous until he goes on to recall how, when he was little, his father always told him and his siblings how intelligent those giants were. That spawned in his impressionable mind a great deal of understanding, if not affection, for these large pachyderms. But compassion is a strained string when the only source of income is in grave jeopardy, especially because post-damage compensation is not always prompt or generous.
The cause of the problem has shifted from what was once a natural occurrence to a department which the public accepts services from, and when the service is mired in corruption and inefficiency, the blame is obviously on the animal.
“I wish for a way to avoid crop damage due to wildlife in the first place, so people like us living in the fringes of the forest do not have to bother the government for compensation,” explains Shivaarsa grimly, pointing to the lack of genuine interest and efficiency in the system to offer help in time.
He is grim, but not angry, because he understands it’s not the elephants’ fault. He points to some hollow banana stems explaining how they love feeding on their tender insides.
Shivaarsa’s seemingly quixotic equanimity brings into relief the inherent acceptance most rural people foster for wildlife. Most dwell peacefully in the realisation that to live around forests means to come in direct contact with large animals, resulting in crop loss, property damage, livestock predation, and occasionally human injury and even death.
“Although it appears that the media in the past has always sensationalised the acts of violence such as electrocution and poisoning in interactions between people and large mammals such as elephants, tigers and the highly adaptive leopards... in the recent times, constant engagement of wildlife biologists, scientists, conservationists and wildlife organisations with the media has led to a change in the way of reporting – from being sensational to fact-based reporting, asking the government to provide services with justice, speed and transparency so that conflict is minimised,” says Dr. Vidya Athreya, our Senior Scientific Director.
Some states have brought it under the Right to Services Act and some states are contemplating to employ mobile apps so that monitoring conflict is easy and the farmers can get text messages as constant updates stating how much was their due and the status of their compensation being processed.
Javaranna and Chikkaningi of Alalahalli in the H. D. Kote region are ardent devotees of the forest, which they revere as a ‘giver of many blessings’. They own a small piece of land hemmed to a part of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and National Park. Their primary source of income is agriculture, and they own a few cows. When asked about how they manage to live next to a tiger reserve, Chikkaningi’s voice quakes and her eyes well up as she narrates how a tiger had recently dragged one of their calves away right before her eyes.
She recalls tremblingly how she was hardly a hundred feet away, watching in debilitating fright, as the tiger dragged her calf out of her land and into the forest. Her terrified screams and flailing arms did little to scare the tiger away.
Javaranna is eager to share another story. He points to his collarbone recollecting a rampaging elephant that left it permanently damaged. “The pain is particularly acute in the winter season,” he adds.
But the tolerance of the people living around protected areas is not a virtue to be taken for granted, for repeated losses do sometimes necessitate local communities to resort to retaliatory killing of wildlife.
As a response to human-wildlife conflict, some of the highest ex-gratia compensation payments in India are recorded by Karnataka. There are, however, several hurdles.
To avoid retaliation against wildlife, the compensation payments need to be timely and easy to access, but the system is fraught with uncertainties. Several people are completely unaware of ex-gratia payments. The process to claim compensation is complex and itself comes with transaction costs that are too steep for people already facing financial stress. Many also report delays in receiving pay-outs. It is, therefore, imperative to innovate solutions that are proactive, rather than merely adhere to reactive measures, opine experts.
Says Preetha Dhar, a researcher studying environmental politics, public policy, participatory governance and law and courts, “The issue has to be addressed systematically, by examining the level of proactiveness or reactiveness that currently exists. Further suggestions that we make must pay acute attention to what the people affected by human-wildlife conflict truly need.”
She explains that we need to develop ideas not only in terms of payments, but also forms, processes, structures, and institutions. “The implementation needs to be mindful of the extent of people’s losses and must be done in a participatory way,” she adds.
Law experts suggest that there is a need for a more comprehensive legal framework that serves as more than an ad-hoc system; one that is easy to traverse for people from the rural communities, and less subject to the unbridled discretion of assessing officials.
Asserts Stella James, an environmental lawyer, "Any law that is under formation must especially consider streamlining and simplifying the process, and recognising that the beneficiaries of it are people who are facing a specific issue. It is hence crucial that we take into account their ideas and opinions during the process. Only in doing so can the law serve well in mitigating human-wildlife conflict not only in Karnataka, but also in the rest of the country.”
In the context of an ever-increasing human population and its impact on the resources of the forests, ensuring the coexistence of humans and wildlife is a challenge that can be best addressed with the combined efforts of the forest departments, governments, conservation organisations and the local populace. While creating awareness in the rural communities about the already existing compensatory schemes could reassure the victims of human-wildlife conflict, there is a long way to go for the legislation pertaining to it to assess the current and the future scenarios based on scientific and socio-economic studies and surveys.
The need of the moment, therefore, is for conflict-avoidance solutions, born out of innovative thinking. It is time for Shivaarsa and his kind, who have been exercising understanding and empathy for generations, to receive some of that themselves in their lifetime.
(Some names have been changed for privacy.)
Written by Sourabha Rao