Kottayam: The recent death of an elephant, after eating a cracker-loaded fruit meant to scare off wild boars, brought the problem of human-animal conflicts into the spotlight.
According to the people, they need to resort to such crude and brutal defensive measures because the government hasn’t instituted measures to protect their crops and plantations.
According to statistics from the Kerala forest department, from 2010 to 2020, 173 people die in human-animal conflicts. The highest number of deaths were reported in 2016 – 33 – and the lowest in 2015, of six.
In the same period, 64 elephants died after being hunted, electrocuted, hit by speeding vehicles and from explosions.
According to Aneesh Sankaran Kutty, who has studied human-animal conflicts in Palakkad district, the root causes of such conflicts include loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation, loss of elephant corridors and poor quality of vegetation.
Kerala’s most conflict-prone areas are Wayanad, Palakkad, Kannur, Calicut, Thrissur and Malappuram, according to data from the forest department. In these areas, 120 people were killed by wild elephants from 2002 to 2012; some 119 were killed by snake bites, 15 in tiger attacks; eight in gaur attacks; five in bear attacks, and two in leopard attacks.
Further, elephants injured XXXX people in the same period; wild pigs, 114; bears, 15; gaur, 27; leopards, 13; and wild dogs, 17.
As for losses: tigers killed 301 domestic animals; leopards, 152; elephants, 91; wild dogs, 87; and wild pigs, 16.
While wild elephants have often been in conflict news, experts say only a few elephants tend to be aggressive. P.A. Vinayan, president of a conservation society, observed elephants from 2012 to 2017 at the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary after attaching radio collars to them. He said only 10 were found to be ‘conflict-prone’.
Need for mitigation measures
Instead, Vinayan said the government ought to institute better mitigation, including investing in better fences or trenches and encouraging community participation. “Currently, due to a lack of coordination, the established fences are getting dismantled by the people themselves at various places,” he told The Wire Science. “A government project ensuring the participation of the public is the need of the hour.”
Rohini C.K., one of the authors of a study of elephants in the Nilambur forest range of Malappuram district from 2014 to 2016, said solitary elephants damage crops more often than elephant herds. She also said the frequency of conflicts decreases with an increase in the distance from the forest boundary. “Forty-three percent of [all] raids by elephants happened in the immediate fringe areas.”
According to her, “in some areas, the conflict occurs because the elephant depends on water resources (like rivers) adjacent to villages. In such cases, creating artificial water resources inside forests will help rein in raids.” She added that in a survey of 510 people in the area, 60% said food and water scarcity inside forested regions have been the root causes of conflicts.
People in the Munnar-Anayirangal region in Idukki district have frequently reported encounters with wild elephants. A study published in 2014 suggested the incidence of conflicts could drop if the government properly managed the elephant corridor between the Anamalai and Periyar Tiger Reserves. According to another study, there were 1,200 instances of crop damage, property damage or human attacks in this area between 2007 and 2009. Five people died.
Venkitesh Kattikulam, who lives in a human settlement inside a sanctuary and owns 13 acres of land, says elephants are attracted to such settlements as they look for plantains and jackfruits, and because nutritious food isn’t available inside the forest.
“Wild animals are intruding into inhabited areas, and at least 5 km into human settlements,” Kattikulam said. “The government should give subsidies for farmers in conflict-prone areas. Currently these farmers are [erecting fences] at their own expense.”
On the other hand, the principal chief conservator of forests Surendra Kumar says people should be more tolerant and bear in mind that encroaching into forest areas is bad.
Ramesh Bishnoy, the divisional forest officer in North Wayanad, said the main reason for the conflict in Wayanad is due to habitat fragmentation; elephants seasonally migrate through specific corridors here: Brahmagiri, Periakottoor and Periathrikathalam.
“The forest department is establishing solar fences, elephant trenches and rail fences so as to contain human-animal conflicts,” Bishnoy said. “This is the first time the forest department has established rail fences and until now they have been effective.”
Abhish K. Bose is a Kottayam-based journalist.