Wildlife – Human Conflicts: Fractured Perspectives
Chandrapur, the district where the 26th Vidarbha Paryavaran Parishad (26th Vidarbha Environment Conference) is taking place, has emerged as a site of human – wildlife conflict. In the past five years the number of casualties and injuries to humans and livestock has increased steadily. The impact on local lives and livelihoods, especially in the rural and tribal areas has been manifold. The shooting of the tigress Avni in the neighbouring Yavatmal district in November 2018 led to an outpouring of outrage and protests especially in the metropolitan centres such as Nagpur, Mumbai and Pune. Environmental activists and animal lovers came out in numbers to protest against the shooting of Avni. There had been similar protests in 2016 after the forest department engaged sharp shooters to cull wild boars following the complaints of farmers leading to court cases against the department’s action. These protests can be seen to emerge from what can be called a Distant/Metropolitan Perspective which often does not take into account the quotidian realities of rural life.
Such a perspective emerges mainly from an imagination that envisions tigers and leopards, bisons and herds of deers living in natural environs, (that ought to remain) undisturbed by human interventions. The urban engagement with the wildlife in places such as Chandrapur is mainly through vacation tours to protected sanctuaries such as the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. The safaris provide a much needed relief from the concrete jungle and the everyday demands of city life. The return to greenery, forests, the closeness to birds and animals brings a literal and metaphorical breath of fresh air for those from the cities. The eco-tourism programmes established and encouraged by the forest department have created fresh opportunities for city people to enjoy the ‘return to nature’ experience for a price.
The distance from the forest and wildlife often breeds a romantic notion amongst city dwellers. They feel a love for nature and wildlife which is located elsewhere and which does not demand any change in their own day-to-day living or consumption patterns. They become well-meaning and committed protectors of wildlife and the natural environment. The problem arises when this world-view remains blind to the issues being faced by the local human population. Apart from individuals and socio-environmental organisations, the urban media (with honourable exceptions) too often devotes itself to the concerns of wildlife conservation, without factoring in the local human element.
This Distant/Metropolitan Perspective can be posited against what we could call a ‘Local/Rural Perspective’. For the local rural and tribal population there is no physical or mental separation from wildlife and forest. There is no understanding that wildlife and wilderness are out there somewhere, a distant place which they can approach or retreat from at will. On the contrary wildlife and wilderness are realities with which they have to engage with on a daily basis. There is neither escape to nor escape from these realities.
In Chandrapur district rarely does a week go by without wildlife attacks on humans, livestock or poultry. Women who go to gather fuelwood from the forest, children who wander out to pluck fruits, villagers who go out to collect mohua flowers, cut bamboo, fish in forest streams have all been casualties of tiger and leopard attacks. In the past the attacks occurred when humans entered forests, but increasingly wildlife is entering human settlements and attacking people even in their own homes. Khushi a nine year old girl was picked up by a tiger in Awadgaon village in front of her father, a nine month old baby boy sleeping in his hut was picked up by a leopard in Gadbori village and an old grandmother was dragged from her home at night by a leopard also in Gadbori.
The condition of survivors of wildlife attacks is in some ways worse than those who die. Meena and her teenage son of village Kitali were mauled by a bear in the forest near their home. Although they survived both were grievously injured in their eyes, nose, jaws, and neck. They look ghastly with their scars and cover their faces. They continue to live in pain and can hardly do any wage labour.
The attacks on livestock and poultry cause heavy financial loss to farmers. Although the forest department has increased the compensation for dead livestock, the loss of poultry does not fetch compensation at all.
In the kharif season farmers fear going out to water their fields at night leading to a demand for undisrupted electricity supply during the daytime to run agricultural pumps. There is a significant decrease in crops such as chana, pulses, turmeric, because of the destruction by wild boars. Farmers have given up cultivating these crops in many villages incurring financial loss. They have also started leaving agricultural fields adjoining forest areas fallow. The non-cultivation of fields and decrease in crops is not only a loss for individual farmers but for society as a whole. Women say that they never had to buy Urad, Tuvar and other pulses but with the increasing menace of wild boars they have stopped cultivating these crops. This means they earn less money from the markets and they cannot buy these foodstuffs from the market. Today when Maharashtra is battling against malnutrition amongst rural and tribal children the disappearance or decrease of certain foods from the farmers’ plates is something that needs to be taken very seriously by policy makers.
Even more than the real losses, the fear that people live in day in and day out cannot be described in words. The very sight of tigers, leopards, wild boards, and bears is enough to create panic in the villagers – near their homes, in their fields, on their roads, in the marketplace, near schools and bus stops, sitting at wells and water sources. “It is as if bakasur is waiting to eat us one by one, and we are alive because we are waiting our turn to be eaten”, a villager says.
The losses and panic create a confrontation with the forest department. No matter what the department does they cannot bring down the sightings and the attacks to zero. And as long as there is a single attack villagers feel unsafe and angry. They take out this insecurity on forest department officials demanding increased compensation, jobs to family members who have suffered casualties, wiring around the village, removal of animals to zoos, continuous electricity supply in the night, better lighting, clearing the undergrowth around the village and so on. In some villages like Halda there have been bitter confrontations between the forest department and village people.
It is obvious that the rural people who are suffering due to wildlife attacks do not have the same kind of sympathetic perspective like metropolitan people. While the conservationist approach of metropolitans most often reflected in state policies, media reporting and judicial pronouncements is absolutely necessary to ensure the protection of wildlife and natural habitats, the zeal needs to be tempered with a deeper understanding of the realities of rural life and their dependence of natural resources for livelihood requirements. Unless this happens the rural people are bound to feel alienated and anger that their legitimate concerns are being suppressed. At worst such anger can lead to a surreptitious support to wildlife poachers. While this has not yet happened in Chandrapur but unless short and long term solutions are found to the wildlife-human conflicts such tragic outcomes cannot be ruled out in the future.