On a September morning this year, about 2,000 people carrying sticks and sickles surrounded a sugarcane field on the periphery of Corbett tiger reserve in Uttarakhand to kill a tigress that mauled a woman the previous evening. The tigress, pushed out of India’s most densely-populated protected area for big cats by bigger, stronger predators, sneaked into Talla Kaniya village looking for prey when it attacked the woman. In a moment, the tigress became public enemy number one of the villagers, as well as the forest department.
The villagers wanted her blood at any cost and the state government obliged by declaring her as a man-eater. They gathered an army of hunters to kill her, but she remained elusive for weeks, even as the state forest department deployed a chopper and drones to track her down in the fully grown sugarcane fields where she was hiding.
Forty days later and after spending more than ₹1 crore, the big cat was finally gunned down, much to the joy of the villagers and the forest officials-- yet another casualty in the rising human-animal conflict in India.
Data presented in Parliament on November 29 showed that 1,360 people were killed by tigers and elephants in the last three years, higher than human fatalities in Maoist red zones.
This was about a 20-25% increase in human deaths by the two dominant species compared to the previous three years (2010-2013), as the conflict zone spread to new areas in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and Odisha.
While conflict with tigers and elephants is restricted to smaller towns and villages, it is the leopards that reach the bigger cities faster. This year, they have been spotted in residential areas in Gurgaon, Mumbai, Nainital, Meerut and Bhopal, to name a few.
Ullas Karant, director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Wildlife Studies, said the spread of leopards is five times than that of tigers and that they live in closer human proximity. “As most green areas around cities are vanishing, they have become the poster figure of the conflict.” The government, however, does not maintain data on human conflict with leopards, estimated to be around 12,000 to 14,000 in India.
It is not that only people are getting killed. Animals, too, are at the receiving end of this conflict. Data shows that for every four people killed, an endangered animal is also lost. As many as 189 elephants and around 110 tigers were killed in man-conflict zones between 2012 and 2015, according to latest government data. Many animals were captured and summarily sentenced to a life inside enclosures, which animal activists say is the cruelest form of punishment to be given to animals born free.
The core issue for this rising conflict is the depleting forest cover and growing human presence, in around 650 wildlife zones in the country.
Reports by the Forest Survey of India since early 1990s indicate that around one-third of the dense forest cover has been lost and half the traditional wildlife corridors have disappeared, bringing animals and people dangerously close.
The inviolate tiger area --- where animals can move freely without human interference --- has shrunk to 31,207 sq km in 37 tiger reserves, as compared to over one lakh sq kms in 1970s, when Project Tiger was launched.
“In order to maintain 20 breeding tigresses, a minimum space of 800-1,200 sq kms needs to be kept inviolate, as a core area with an exclusive agenda for tigers,” said Rajesh Gopal, former member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. “That is becoming difficult with the rising tiger population.”
The Tiger Estimation report, 2014, states that around 60% of 2,226 tigers reside outside the most protected core areas, bringing them in direct conflict with around 6,000 villages still in the reserves.
Official data also shows that around 14,000 of the 26,000 elephants in India live close to human habitats in West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Assam --- states that reported most deaths by elephants between 2013 and 2016.
Dipankar Ghose, a wildlife species specialist with an advocacy group, the World Wide Fund (WWF) for nature, said: “The fault is not of the animals as they are in forest areas which were traditionally their habitats. But with then increasing population, many of these green corridors have now been occupied by people. This is a cause for (the) rising conflict”.
With the human-animal conflict turning into a political issue, states have came out with their own ways to deal with the problem, including relocating man-eating animals to new wildlife zones where the population is less.
One possible solution to the increasing tiger problem – relocation of tigers straying out – was implemented in Assam, where a man-eating tiger from Kaziranga was successfully rehabilitated in the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary.
“If done scientifically, such relocation is possible elsewhere also,” said Vivek Menon of the Wildlife Trust of India.
In Kerala, the forest department has constituted primary response teams of locals in all panchayats sharing forest boundaries. Each team is trained in wildlife monitoring, management of conflict situations and crowd control.
In the high-conflict zones of Karnataka, conservation efforts have helped reduce the problem. Karanth said re-developing corridors connecting habitat and sensitising people on how to deal with animals has helped.
Despite these proven examples of success, the government has often come up with weird ways to check the conflict. The Centre had allowed six states, including Bihar and Himachal, to declare notified wild animals such as blue bulls and monkeys as vermin, meaning people could hunt them freely in permitted areas.
Earlier this year, the West Bengal government dug a 10-km-long trench on its border with Jharkhand, to prevent elephants entering the neighbouring state during the May-July migration period. Maharashtra came up with solar-powered electric fence around fields to protect them from elephants.
“Such measures normally fail, as the conflict can be tackled only through conservation,” an environment ministry official said.