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Wayanad requires long-term restoration, not trigger happy responses to human-animal conflict

Feb 20, 2024 11:24 PM IST

Locals want to be allowed to shoot marauding animals, but experts say this would lead to indiscriminate killing. Wayanad has turned into a political battlefield

When Congress president Rahul Gandhi abruptly halted his Bharat Jodo Yatra in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and headed for Wayanad, his Lok Sabha constituency, on February 17, a local story of animal-human conflict unfolding in the district nestled in the high ranges of the Western Ghats in north Kerala, suddenly caught the nation’s attention.

Wayanad: People block a forest officials vehicle during district-wide hartal at Pulpally, in Wayanad district, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. The wide hartal called by the ruling LDF, opposition UDF and BJP on Saturday to seek permanent solutions to the human-animal conflicts turned violent at Pulpally with protesters damaging a Forest department vehicle and tying a cow that was killed in a suspected tiger attack atop it earlier in the day. (PTI Photo) (PTI02_17_2024_000399B)(PTI) PREMIUM
Wayanad: People block a forest officials vehicle during district-wide hartal at Pulpally, in Wayanad district, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. The wide hartal called by the ruling LDF, opposition UDF and BJP on Saturday to seek permanent solutions to the human-animal conflicts turned violent at Pulpally with protesters damaging a Forest department vehicle and tying a cow that was killed in a suspected tiger attack atop it earlier in the day. (PTI Photo) (PTI02_17_2024_000399B)(PTI)

To be sure, Wayanad is not the only place in the country where reports of skirmishes — and in some tragic instances, deaths — between humans and animals are reported. Chandrapur, in Maharashtra, is a conflict zone between humans and tigers; in the Indo-Gangetic plains, farmers complain the most about nilgai; in urban and semi-urban parts of the National Capital Region and Haryana, such as Gurugram, leopards have terrified residents.

But in hilly Wayanad, the conflict has been waged for nearly a decade now.

A day before Gandhi visited Wayanad, the place saw a dawn-to-dusk demonstration where members of the Congress, the state's ruling Communist Party of India (M) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) joined residents of the district to seek protection for the predominantly agrarian residents from wild animals. Massive crop raids and large-scale destruction are common, but on February 16, a guide was trampled to death — and the state’s predominant political parties descended upon the district in protest.

VP Paul, an eco-tourism guide of Kerala's forest department at Kuruva Island, an otherwise picturesque river delta in Kabani, was trampled by a marauding wild elephant.

Paul was on duty at the eco-tourism centre at Cheriyamala, the entrance to Kuruva island, at 9.30 am. A wild elephant in the vicinity barged in and attacked him. It fled after a group of daily workers raised an alarm. Paul was rushed to the Government Medical College Hospital at Mananthavady and later to the Government Medical College Hospital in Kozhikode, but he succumbed to his injuries. He died within four hours of the attack.

Paul was 50-years-old. His family said that his life could have been saved if timely medical attention had been provided. There was no quality hospital or connectivity and transportation, they claimed.

Even after Gandhi consoled the victim's family and promised long-term solutions in consultation with the Central and state governments, Wayanad remained on the boil. People are demanding shoot-at-sight permission to kill such marauding wildlife — something that is prevented under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.

Section 11 of the act prohibits the hunting of wild animals. Clause (1)(A) of the act permits the Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) of each state to allow the killing of a protected wild animal if he or she is satisfied that the animal has become dangerous to human life, or is disabled or diseased beyond recovery and cannot be tranquillised and relocated.

The state is considering asking that the clause be amended to devolve the powers of the CWLW to the Chief Conservators of Forests (CCF). Such an amendment would simplify the procedure to deal with wild animals that pose a threat to human life, as it will enable speedy and timely decisions at the local level. Kerala has five CCFs, each is in charge of a different region of the state.

A section of the affected Wayanad residents, however, want permission to shoot wild animals that pose a threat to life and property. Kerala high court lawyer Harish Vasudevan said that the law did not permit shoot-at-sight orders and if the parliament were to pass such an amendment, this could give the mafia and poachers the chance to potentially wipe out entire populations of wildlife.

In the last 19 days alone, three people have been killed in elephant attacks in the district.

On January 30, 55-year-old KV Lakshman, a guard at a private tea plantation near Mananthavady, was killed in an attack by a wild elephant. On February 10, a wild elephant killed a 45-year-old farmer Ajeesh, in the premises of the farmer’s home. Efforts are on to capture the tusker named Belur Makhna, who is traversing the forests between Kerala and Karnataka. The tusker, who has a radio collar, had crossed over to Kerala from the Nagerhole forest area of Karnataka.

Thus, despite Gandhi’s assurances, the people are angry and the resentment against the forest department is widespread.

Political fallout

The hartal held by the residents on February 17 threw normal life out of gear in the leafy, remote district. At one point, protesters reportedly roughed up forest officials who were visiting the area where the body of the guide had been placed for viewing.

Local political leaders and MLAs who attempted to disperse the angry protestors were harassed, and some of the protestors even tied the body of a dead cow on top of the forest official’s vehicle. The cow was killed in a suspected attack by a tiger that very morning.

The police imposed section 144 in the district to prevent the assembly of people.

However, an immediate result of Gandhi's intervention was that the chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, convened a high-level ministerial meeting in Wayanad on Tuesday to sort out strategies to mitigate the human-wildlife conflict.

Kerala’s forest minister, AK Saseendran said that the government was committed to resolving the issues using experts and practical solutions. The violence targeting forest officials was delaying the implementation of sustainable solutions to mitigate the conflict, he said.

Besides Wayanad, residents around the forests of Kannur, Palakkad, and Idukki districts are also experiencing a similar situation, where animals like elephants, tigers, bison, and wild boars are attacking humans.

Officially, there were 8,873 wildlife attacks on humans in Kerala in 2022-23. Of these 4,193 were by wild elephants, 1,524 by wild boars, 193 by tigers, 244 by leopards, and 32 by bison. 98 people died and of them, 27 were due to elephant attacks, according to government data. In the last decade, Wayanad has lost 41 lives to elephant attacks and seven to tiger attacks.

Between 2017 and 2023, there were 20,957 incidents of crop loss logged on account of wild animal raids in the state. 1,559 domestic animals, mainly cattle, were also killed. As per figures tabled in the Kerala Assembly, crop losses caused by wildlife since 2019 amount to an estimated 68 crore.

Leader of the Opposition VD Satheesan told the Assembly on February 16 during a debate on an adjournment notice that children in forested districts go to school in fear. Farmers risked their lives to collect fodder for livestock. Rubber tappers were reluctant to set out early to plantations.

Satheesan also said that tuber crop cultivation has reached a standstill in Kerala due to the menace of wild pigs.

Wayanad’s distress

A month has passed since a crop-raiding elephant that was captured, radio-collared, and relocated by the Karnataka forest department within its geographical boundary surfaced in Mananthavady town in Wayanad, creating large-scale panic despite its recapture and shifting back to Bandipur in Karnataka.

The elephant succumbed to the health-related complexities that emerged during the repeated capturing processes.

An estimated 36.48 % of Wayanad, which shares a border with the Nagerhole and Bandipur tiger reserves of Karnataka and the Mudumalai tiger reserve of Tamil Nadu, is forested.

Animals that face a shortage of water and fodder in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka forests often move into Wayanad. Ageing tigers target goats, poultry, and the cattle of Wayanad’s farmers.

According to N Badusha, president of environmental organisation Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithy, the alarming decline in the quality of forest habitats caused by the emergence of invasive and alien species is creating a severe food crisis for wild animals in the entire Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve region, which comprises Wayanad, Bandipur, Nagerhole, BR Hills, Mudumalai, and Sathyamangalam forest regions spread in three southern states.

Exotic invasive species like Senna, Mikania, and Lantena are eating into the biodiversity and food cycle of forests, and strangely, they were introduced here long ago by forest officials as a means to add attraction to the forest's beauty.

Planting commercial alien plants like acacia, magnesium, and eucalyptus in forest tracts also significantly contributed to the emerging grim situation.

With 30,000 hectares of forest land in Kerala alone being used to cultivate these species, animals are finding their natural habitat and food sources in danger.

Most invasive and alien plants are water-guzzling species, and they are straining the natural water resources of the forests. Elephants are among the worst-affected species due to this.

Forest officials told Hindustan Times that they stopped planting acacia and eucalyptus in forest tracts six years ago. All the same, regenerating natural forests till such time animals don’t face food and water shortages will take time.

Scientific eco-restoration is the only available option. So far, they say, only 1,115 hectares of forest could be reconverted into natural habitats — this is part of the scheme being run by the state government to acquire farmland and convert it to forest land. To date, 782 families have been compensated 95 crore and relocated, their farms are now back as forests.

But the elephants — and other animals that come within human settlements — cannot be simply “relocated”. Veena Maruthoor, a known environmentalist in Thiruvananthapuram, claims that the forest administration needs to ensure appropriate nourishment for Kerala's wild elephants. Relocating one elephant is not the solution.

Inhuman intrusions

In the latest round of unrest, the Kerala government issued a peculiar order — it banned parties with high-decibel sounds in Wayanad's mushrooming tourist resorts, mainly at night.

Indiscriminate tourism escalates human-animal conflict in the district where tourism is an important alternative source of income to agriculture, increasingly subject to the vagaries of the climate crisis.

Waste disposal near forested areas, fragmentation of animal habitats due to wanton construction, and increased human presence in and around animal habitats also contribute to increasing animal-human conflict in Kerala.

Over the years, Kerala has evolved several strategies to check the human-animal conflict, including constructing elephant-proof trenches, stone walls and solar-powered electric fencing.

In 2022–23, the state maintained 158.4 km of elephant-proof trenches and constructed 42.6 km of solar fencing and 237 m of compound walls, but these measures are far from addressing the massive crisis pervading the whole state.

In areas with the highest incidence of human-animal conflict, 15 Rapid Response Teams have also been established, and the plan is to establish another 25. According to conservation scientist O P Nameer, Wayanad requires short-term and long-term initiatives with huge spending of funds to address the prevailing crisis and the State and Centre must contribute liberally.

Paul, the 50-year-old guide who died, was an eco-tourist. The job itself is one rife with danger.

An in-depth study conducted by social anthropologists from Germany has found that eco-tourism is a threat to Wayanad’s biodiversity and wildlife and its extremely vulnerable tribal population.

“Going by the 2001 census, the Scheduled Tribes in Wayanad district is 17.43 per cent of its total population compared to 1.14 per cent for Kerala overall. Introduced as a panacea for Wayanad's agricultural and ecological vulnerabilities, the much-hyped eco-tourism has resulted in both 'Zooification' and 'Exoticisation' of aboriginal people and that verges on racism,” wrote Daniel Munster of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, and Ursula Munster of Department of Anthropology, Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.

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