The animal attacks trajectory
An elephant on the loose has in the past few months trampled to death about 15 people in Jharkhand. Animal attacks such as these are not isolated incidents.
As urbanization extends and encroaches upon animal habitats, such incidents are likely to become more and more common. In Uttar Pradesh’s Pilibhit Tiger reserve, deaths due to tiger attacks are fairly regular – with 3 deaths in the last few weeks. Since October last year, more than 16 people are estimated to have been killed by tigers around the reserve (A. Ethirajan, 2017).
With such a miniscule population of tigers in India, this leaves the Forest Department and conservationists in a quandary as villagers and the kith and kin of victims angrily demand that the guilty tiger be put to rest. The frequency of these attacks such as those by leopards adds to what counts as one of development’s public relations crises.
Elephant Attacks & Conservation in Kerala
The state of Kerala suffers from animal attacks in the form of elephant attacks, in a place where elephants are revered and worshipped. However, numbers reveal that even with high human-elephant interaction in Kerala, the number of deaths due to elephants in Kerala is less than that in other Indian states.
For example the highest number of deaths due to animal attacks by elephants is recorded in West Bengal, with 283 deaths in the last 3 years. The last 3 years in India have witnessed a total number of elephant-induced deaths of 414, 443 and 423 deaths respectively. This statistic is especially pertinent when Kerala has the highest population of elephants in India, but the total number of elephant-induced deaths for this period was 57, which is a lot lesser than that of certain other states with substantial elephant populations.
The largest population of Asiatic elephants in Asia live in India, with their numbers estimated to be between 13,000 and 17,000 (D. Kallungal, 2017). With large numbers of deaths reported in West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Assam, we must ask why the state with the highest population of elephants records less deaths than those with substantial albeit lesser populations.
Referred to as the sons of the Sahyadri mountains, elephants in Kerala are not just revered by religion but represent the state animal for Kerala as well, being part of the official emblem of the Government of Kerala.
In Kerala the region around the Eastern Ghats, Nilgiris and the Brahmagiri forests provide habitats to more than 6,500 elephants (Elephant Family, 2017). However, these same regions house a large population of humans, whose expansion and development in terms of agriculture, settlements and economic development has resulted in a loss of habitat for elephant populations. In such a scenario, there should be an imminent risk of animal attacks by elephants.
In 2011, after elephant corridors were demarcated for these territories, families shifted and were relocated to another location on a voluntary basis. This was followed by a funding campaign involving the conservation society Elephant Family for an elephant corridor comprising a territory of 2,200 acres in Wayanad in Kerala.
Elephant corridors are strips of land that are supposed to provide safe passage for elephants to travel from one area of habitat to another, and this funded elephant corridor was able to provide safe passage for about 1,400 elephants. The funding was necessary in order to first purchase the land, and also to rehabilitate those choosing to leave their houses.
This was followed by a handover of this land to the Kerala Forest Department for long-term monitoring and conservation. This represents an example of habitat conservation and the preservation of the pristine nature of wildlife. Globally the IUCN has placed Asiatic Elephants on the red list with a 90 per cent decrease in their populations over the last 100 years, mostly due to habitat destruction and commercial activities (Elephant Family, 2017). This represents an example of how preservation of habitats can aid conservation efforts as well as reduce man-animal conflict and animal attacks, as is the case with large areas of forested land in Kerala.
Is Neutralization the Only Way?
The Hindustan Times reports that in the adjoining area around Corbett Tiger reserve, about 2,000 people armed with sickles and sticks had surrounded a tigress which had recently killed a woman in September 2016. The villagers were in liberty after their pressure on authorities obliged the Uttarakhand Government to declare the tigress as a man-eater. After choppers and drones were deployed and about INR 1 crore was spent, the tigress was finally gunned down 40 days after the incident occurred.
In three years until November 29, 2016, about 1,360 people were killed in India by tigers and elephants alone (C. Chauhan, 2016). In a stark statistic, with a population of about 761 leopards in Himachal Pradesh recorded in the census of 2004, the state alone has seen 34 deaths and 367 injured people due to animal attacks by leopards since 2004 (G. Bisht, 2017).
The standard policy for such attacks is usually to gun down the animal, but with such a high amount of animal attacks from a small population as is the case in Himachal Pradesh, would this measure be advisable? Would it not help to look for other alternatives to animal attacks such as is the case with Kerala?
If conservation efforts are successful, and populations of animal populations increase, their cumulative habitat needs also increase in area. This can lead to interloping and clashes between animal habitats and human populations.
On one side, there is a severe crisis of conservation, and on the other is an ever expanding development of human life. Animal attacks due to this intersection can thus create a public relations problem in terms of development, whereby the burden is borne by animal populations.
The government incurs massive expenditure in terms of compensation to victims of animal attacks, with the Tamil Nadu Government alone, for example, spending INR 4.27 crores on 2,921 beneficiaries in 2016 (C.S. Kotteswaran, 2017).
Beleaguered governments look to gunning down or shifting animals involved in animal attacks to other locations or zoos. This is followed by an expensive compensation policy. Both activities make governments incur massive costs.
Trends show an increase in animal attacks, with 2,920 people estimated killed in tiger and elephant attacks alone since 2009. This represents a 30 per cent increase since 2000 (C. Chauhan, 2017). Many unconventional solutions have been imagined, such as a helpline devised by the Forest Department to keep a check on the entry of wildlife into human settlements, and the declaration of eco-sensitive zones by the Uttar Pradesh Government. However, policy is still found wanting in terms of checking animal attacks.
In a recent development, the Environment Ministry announced the National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-2031) that has a people-centric focus that considers the entire territory of operations and not just protected areas. The plan is to be launched during Wildlife Week in October 2017.
The plan proposes the use of technological means such as GPS surveillance and rapid response personnel in addition to streamlined dispensation of compensation. Although the document recognizes the interference to and overlapping of the biotic habitats with human activity, it is yet to be seen whether the plan can balance conservation with human activity.
Kerala’s example of preserving habitats with the help of elephant corridors helps in maintaining the separation between anthropogenic activity and pristine wildlife. If conservation is to succeed and not be detrimental to human safety at the same time, such that wildlife can grow along with development, it is essential to have a plan that preserves habitats and separates wild and human spaces at the same time. This can be a lasting solution to the ever increasing problem of animal attacks.