Pushing ever closer to protected areas and wild lands are farms and settlements, the porous margins becoming the frontlines of human-ungulate conflict. Arati Rao explores the dynamics at these edges, the main players and how their perceptions affect reality.

The people of Sunkesula village are not happy. 500 families in the tiny village in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh gave up 860 acres of their land to the forest department for the expansion of the Great Indian Bustard Wildlife Sanctuary (famous for the endangered blackbuck). The reservoir that was their source of stored-water now lies within the sanctuary. Access to it is denied. No promised compensation has come their way. On the flip side, a thriving population of blackbuck calls this small sanctuary home. Hemmed in by fields, in times of want, they step out of the protected areas looking for forage and are in grave danger of being poisoned by the already disgruntled locals.

Conflict Here Is Rife

Jostling for resources and elbowing the human bulge all over the tropics, is wildlife. The increasing human demand for natural resources, forests, grasslands, and water brings animals and man in direct competition with one another. And when policy to resolve this situation is crafted, borders carved and laws laid down by a few people in high-ceilinged rooms without the buy-in of the affected communities, the seeds of conflict are sown.

In India, this face-off between humans and wildlife has been escalating steadily given that 69% of the protected areas also support estimated human populations of over three million (1995 figures). The conflict is especially stark at the ever-shifting, porous margins of these protected areas. People living here deal with livestock and crop depredation by wildlife as a part of their lives—with some communities being more tolerant than others. But when there is a perceived injustice towards them, or losses are truly incurred and bankruptcy stares them in the face, knee-jerk reactions sometimes come at a deadly cost to the already endangered wildlife.

Human-wildlife conflict tends to be complicated and nuanced: what factors play out at the margins, who are the players, what precipitates conflict—is it real or perceived—and what drives those perceptions, are all questions worth exploring thoroughly. And, most importantly, what solutions work for the communities without undermining wildlife conservation efforts?

There have been several documented cases around the world where human-wildlife conflicts have arisen and have been resolved or at least mitigated to some state of equilibrium. However, each case tends to be particular to the region, religious and cultural demographics, species involved and social settings. Adopting those measures in other situations might be iterative at best, but exploring it is still worthwhile as it provides a framework of possibilities.

We look at human-ungulate conflict in this article through the lens provided mainly by three studies conducted in peninsular India: Kavita Isvaran and Chaitanya Krishna’s study of black-buck foraging patterns in Nannaj; Kartik Shanker’s research on perceptions of conflict in Rollapadu and Kutch; and Milind Watve’s research on nilgai and wild boar foraging patterns on the outskirts of Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve.

Factors Contributing To Crop Depredation

All over the tropics, settlements–urban, suburban, and rural have pushed ever so close to protected areas and areas with significant wild animal populations. While in some cases the wildlife are habituated to areas outside protection, and therefore directly coexisting with human populations and in other cases sanctuaries are surrounded by settlements and the interaction takes place on the margins. If the main source of income for the communities, in either case, is livestock or agriculture, the chance of conflict is the highest.

Factors leading to crop depredation by ungulates as shown in these studies are mainly three-fold. Local overabundance of species, seasonal dips in forage quality within protected areas and the lure of better forage on the margins, changes in land use patterns, encroachments and species habitat loss.

Local Overabundance Of A Species

The conflict at The Great Indian Bustard WLS (Rollapadu) is a prime example of conflict arising from such a situation. Just 6.14 sq km of grasslands is surrounded by villages and supports a robust population of blackbuck and wolves. While wolf attacks on livestock have actually declined, damage to crops by black-buck—the villagers contend, has seen a sharp rise since the establishment of the “protected area.” They say that hunting and predation by wolves used to keep the blackbuck population in check. But since declaring the Rollapadu area as protected, blackbuck populations have thrived and they claim that crop-raiding by the ungulates has resulted in steep losses.

Local overabundance of a particular species, thanks to success-ful conservation programs (like in Rollapadu), could be an issue. While the species numbers may have recovered, the area and quality of the habitats they are housed in have not increased or improved—and the existing habitat may not be able to sustain the new numbers. This could necessitate the ungulates to look beyond the boundaries of the park for food.

Land-Use Patterns, Seasonal Variations And Crop Choice

According to a 1997 study, 73% of Indian parks and about 39% of protected areas have livestock grazing within them. Intense livestock grazing could have two effects on wild ungulates. Alien competition for food within the park could drive wild ungulates to look for more nutritious diet in the fields surrounding the parks. This is not always the case and sometimes the livestock actually act as lawnmowers, improving the quality of the forage in the parks and allows the ungulates to stay within and forage. Studies from Tadoba and Nannaj have shown that when food is plentiful within the park—like during monsoons—the ungulates seldom venture out.

In fact, the Nannaj study showed that the blackbuck prefer the relative security of the grasses far from human activity. They tend to avoid areas with heavy human and livestock activity. Crop depredation by blackbuck was most severe near the margin delineating agricultural and non-agricultural habitats. The ungulates tended to foray no more than a few tens of meters in to the agricultural habitat, possibly due a perceived higher risk in agricultural habitats (more human and livestock activity, more dogs). When the nutrition of the forage is high (monsoons), blackbuck tend to keep to protected grasslands. But in the dryer season they tend to step out farther, venturing in to marginal agricultural lands. The Tadoba study has showed that depredation does decrease with increasing distance from the park boundary.

However, when open grasslands at the edges of the forests and protected areas are converted into crop fields, as is the case around Tadoba, the ungulates lose any buffer zone that they forage in. Moreover, blackbuck like cereal. In lean times, the nutritive value of staple (cereal) crops serves as a huge draw for foraging wild ungulates. Moreover, in summers, crop fields around the parks are better sources of water and food, attracting ungulates to raid the fields.

Each ungulate species has its own favorite crop, as evidenced by the study in Tadoba. Wild boar, partial to sugarcane, would raid throughout the season whereas nilgai, favoring soybean, would raid only after fruiting. Soybean was found to be the most frequently raided crop around the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) by nilgai. Yet, farmers there grew soybean the most. Why? Because it had great market value.

Saffola oil seed (karadai) on the other hand tended not to be raided by nilgai or wild boar and had good market value. Yet farmers resisted planting karadai because of the difficulty in harvesting it and in “reaching the right market channels.” This showed that market decisions—rather than susceptibility to raids, also seemed to govern choice of crops.

 

The Importance Of Buffer Zones

There are distinct advantages—not least that the soil moisture content is higher. The water table was much higher close to the park and yields were higher, but losses due to raids were higher too. Net losses were almost 50% or more near the park and grad-ually reducing over a distance of about 5-6km. Given that raid-ing mostly happens at the margins and that certain crops are preferred over others, could a buffer of an inedible or less-preferred crop like karadai help decrease depredation? Can these studies help the local communities with strong data that can inform better crop planning and management? Can organizations address the access issues of the farmers and help them reach their crop to the right marketing channels?

Is Perception Reality?

Perceptions of conflict, as well as religious and cultural bias, seem to play a big role in the psyche of the farmers and herders. More importantly, as evidenced in Tadoba, Rollapadu and Kutch, per-ceptions of loss (what season and the extent) and raiding behav-ior were often at odds with observed data. For example, villagers around Tadoba contended that raids started post-monsoon and hence began guarding their fields then. According to data, though, there was no difference in frequency of raids between the two seasons. But taking perception into account, maybe their heightened vigilance is caused by a previous severe raid that might have resulted in bankruptcy. A single event, even if not borne personally could lead to such perceptions.

Religious bias too is strongly ingrained in these communities. In Kutch, nilgai in spite of causing significant losses through crop depredation were tolerated by the farmers. They believed nilgai “belonged in nature.” This could well be, the researchers feel, due to the fact that nilgai is somehow thought of in the same vein as the sacred cow and hence absolved. The wolf, which also shared the landscape with the livestock herders, cultivators and pastoralists, was not accorded the same leniency. Even if the losses due to the wolf were lesser.

Direct And Hidden Costs Of Crop Depredation

Beyond the direct loss of crops (which could, in some cases, be over 50%), there are other hidden, indirect costs to crop raiding. In Tadoba, farmers undertake strict guarding of the fields at night, especially post-monsoon. Even if farmers might not employ and “pay” for the vigil, they are out all night every night guarding the fields. Their women at home complain of this pressure hurting the family structure.

But even more telling is the perception of loss and the threat of bankruptcy due to frequent crop raids. The researchers note that there is a distinct reluctance to invest in better technologies or farming practices. This is a high, lost opportunity cost.

And then there is the cost of conflict with the animal itself. The reaction in communities around the world to crop-raiding spans a range of emotions. In some cases, the villagers actually do not hold the depredation against the animals, recognizing their right to subsist in that area as well. On the other hand, there are villages where nothing can absolve the ungulates. For example, the villagers in Kutch want hunting reinstated and echo sentiments heard in Rollapadu. The villagers who claimed they couldn’t use pesticides said that should any blackbuck die, the forest department would blame the villagers, given the endangered status of the ungulate. The history here is that there have been cases of blackbuck poisoning by the villagers around Rollapadu in 2003. In other cases, around Kutch, villagers just wanted their crops safe from raiding ungulates at any cost—they were more radical, advocating killing the itinerant animals, or translocating them—just anything to keep their crops safe. Their view was that people came first, not wild animals. Or else they wanted compensation.

The Missing Compensation

This is another contentious issue. Some communities cared about and demand compensation for losses—especially in places where this scheme has been introduced and crop-raids are frequent with huge losses, while others do not believe it covers their costs or is a long-term solution. In communities in Kutch where wolves and blackbuck are in conflict with humans, communities resent the compensation scales. When a wolf takes a goat, they claim, compensation more than covers loss. Not so with crop depredation, they say and are disillusioned by the schemes in place. When the authorities do not disclose compen-sation obligations or fail to fulfill them, the situation gets exacer-bated. Surrounding the Rollapadu areas, bureaucratic corruption and lack of timely payment (in spite of significant damage claims) turns the local communities against the authorities, the park itself and, by proxy, the animals. This brings us to what is likely the crux of it all.

The Disconnect

Pockets of apathy, corruption and lack of follow through by some local authorities charged with compensation schemes for losses, is one thing. But it is only a symptom of a larger issue: how these boundaries, the players, park borders, and tourism revenue-sharing gets decided in the first place.

When decisions are taken in isolation, without involvement of the impacted communities, there tends to be a distinct disconnect and an inherent mistrust among them—this is true of probably any type of governance. When it comes to conservation and protection laws, who gets what is also often not decided by consensus or in consultation with the affected people.

There is another player in all this. The Forest Department. Chartered with a mandate to protect the animals, they are caught between the proverbial devil and the deep sea. Granted that corruption and apathy exist and are the causes of a whole host of problems in this conflict, but there are also ample instances of well-meaning and competent Forest Departments that find themselves helpless to mitigate the flare-ups. Most times, simply because the way the laws are crafted, the Forest Department’s mandate ends at the boundaries of the park or are limited to the animals themselves. The issues that involve the communities in the margins of protected areas, or the management of straying animals resulting conflict then are orphaned issues and conflicts remain unresolved. No one has a mandate to address or solve them because the laws did not take all the parties into consideration in the first place. Decisions about the livelihood of local communities made without their involvement has left all players at a disadvantage. But a more sinister fallout of this exclusion is that conservation itself could be undermined.

With Malice Towards Conservation Itself?

For example, the people of Kutch, having experienced this exclusion firsthand, have formed a perception: that conservation laws were not useful to society. They are not alone. Even on the other side of the Deccan Plateau, in villages around the Great Indian Bustard WLS (Rollapadu), people are not pro-conservation. They feel that the laws were made taking only one party into account: the animals, and that their own plight was disregarded or simply unheard.

Moreover, establishing the protected area and sanctuaries often seemed to bring in revenue to only a few. As was heard time and again from all the communities around the Rollpadu area, employment in the parks is rarely for the villagers and neither is the revenue shared among them. They perceive the park and the sacrifices they have had to make as going completely unrewarded—and that they instead have had to bear significant losses.

For conflict, and more importantly the perception of conflict, to be minimized, dialogue and collaboration between diverse stakeholder groups that are all involved in and around protected areas seems definitely a necessary if not sufficient condition while drafting policy and laws. Each of these stakeholders (the local communities, the farmers, the park authorities, NGOs, the scientists) has only parts of the story. Involving all of them and constructing management practices mindfully is important. The implicit buy-in from all these players is an absolutely necessary condition for conservation to succeed, which will be in accordance with the Biodiversity Convention’s guiding Malawi principles.

 

Arati Rao is a freelance journalist, market research analyst and graphic designer based in Bangalore. arati.rao@gmail.com

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