By Nithin Sridhar
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat said on Saturday that his government will build animal protection walls in villages adjoining the forest areas. The measure, if properly implemented, will help the government decrease the entry of wild animals into human villages that result in man-animal conflicts.
The Chief Minister also suggested growing fruits and fodder bearing trees inside forest areas that are enclosed by protection walls, so that animals will have access to sufficient food within the forest, thereby reducing their need to stray into human habitation.
Uttarakhand has been a hotbed of man-animal conflict since its formation. According to a Times of India report, between 2000 (when the state of Uttarakhand was formed) and 2015, around 400 people have died in some 14,000 villages that exist in proximity of the forests. Of these 400 people, around 241 people were believed to have been killed by leopards. Further, these man-animal encounters have killed 800 leopards, 90 tigers, and 280 elephants during the same period.
A 2012 report on the mortality of the leopard population in Uttarakhand states that, between January 2009 to October 2010, 78 leopards had died in the region. Of those 78 leopards, 11 were found dead, scrambled in a trap and 21 cases of poaching were documented. The report further states that between 2000 and 2008, out of the 394 leopards that died in Uttarakhand area, only 236 were incidents of natural deaths. Around 116 leopards had died due to accidents and 50 died due to poaching. Around 50 tigers were also declared as man-eaters during the same period and most of these were shot as well.
The major reasons for increased man-animal conflicts include poaching, declining availability of food, and the dwindling forest habitat. In the case of leopards, though their population across the country may have decreased by 70-80% in the last 100 years, the population of leopards in Uttarakhand increased between 2003 and 2008. During 2003, the leopard population in Uttarakhand was 2092. This number increased to 2105 in 2005 and to 2335 in 2008.
This increase in leopard population has further increased the competition for food and resources available inside the forest that has further given a rise in the incidents of leopards straying into human settlements in search for food.
Highlighting this, Tushar Rattan, a journalist who writes on conservation, writes in his article: “The Indian leopard is reclusive by nature. But of late it is increasingly venturing into the human habitation because of dwindling prey base, habitat loss, and poaching. There, it preys on dogs, sheep, goats and young ones of cattle. Occasionally, it attacks humans, particularly children and women.” Also, the presence of water and palatable crops in the villages adjacent to the forests have caused the wild animals to roam into the villages.
The branding of leopards as man-eaters is another reason behind the death of leopards. In many such cases, the leopards are named as man-eaters and killed without following due procedure.
Tushar gives an example of 2 leopards that were killed in Himachal Pradesh (another hotbed of man-animal conflicts) after getting the permission of Himachal Pradesh wildlife department to kill the ‘man-eaters’. But, the autopsy done later on the two leopards failed to establish that they were man-eaters.
He points out that for a leopard to be branded and then shot, by law, a special committee has to declare a specific leopard a man-eater after thorough investigation into pug marks, DNA scans of hairs etc. Even then, shooting the animal is to be adopted only as a last resort and after getting a written permission from chief wildlife warden. But, apparently this procedure was not followed in the Himachal incident.
Therefore, poaching, increased competition for resources, shooting of man-eaters, and accidents are among the primary causes for unnatural deaths of leopards. The same holds for many other animals as well.
Measures that could minimize the man-animal conflicts
The best way these conflicts between animals and humans can be reduced is by reducing the interaction between people and the wild-animals. The Uttarakhand government’s plans for building animal protection walls and planting many fruit and fodder bearing trees are very positive and may go a long way in minimizing the conflict.
The 2012 report quoted earlier makes several recommendations for leopard conservation that can be adopted for the conservation of other wildlife as well. These recommendations include:
- Conducting a proper census at buffer zones and potential risk sites where leopards’ movement is common but at risk.
- Patrolling the villages and other areas surrounding the forest during the night will help in monitoring poaching activities.
- Including the knowledge and the opinion of local villagers who are living adjacent to the protected forests in framing the conservation policy.
- Community participation should be ensured besides; involvement of local people, government organization, NGOs, and subject experts is highly required.
- Affected regions should be monitored sharply and the movement of other wild animals (herbivores) should be ensured. This would help in knowing the specific status of poaching of wildlife.
- The reasons behind the death of wild animals must be explored and found out so that it may help in taking proper measures in the future.
- Radio-telemetric studies are required on leopards, which were released / translocated to protected habitat. This will be helpful in knowing the adaptation status of the species.
These measures, if implemented thoroughly and consistently, will result in increased protection of wildlife and reduced degree of man-animal conflict.