We need better research and management in areas where people and animals live side by side.
The little Amur falcons made international headlines recently, when radio-tagged birds flew from Nagaland to South Africa in less than a month. Rivers, seas, countries, continents meant nothing to these birds. Our man-made boundaries are meaningless to most other species, especially large animals like elephants, leopards, wolves and tigers. A single elephant ranges across a few hundred kilometres and a wolf pack about 200 sq km. Large cats can walk hundreds of kilometres. This implies that functional populations and families of these animals will span over thousands of kilometres. But India today has an average human population density of 300 people per sq km.
Historical evidence shows that wild animals have always been present across our landscape. The people of the land traditionally incorporated wild (and domestic) animals into their traditions and lores. For instance, there is waghoba, an ancient large cat deity, which provides these animals social and cultural space in the shared landscapes. It also allows people a way to better understand these animals, accept them in their space and minimise damage to themselves. It is known that it is not just ecological carrying capacity that determines a species distribution range, but also the social carrying capacity (simplistically termed tolerance), which, if high, allows these animals to persist alongside humans.
Crop damage and livestock loss to wild animals is an old phenomena, with societies having devised traditional and effective measures to deal with this. Unfortunately, the methods we use today do not build on these traditions but are based almost only on the philosophy of exclusion. For instance, although old and new evidence suggests that leopards can reside in and around settlements and with low levels of conflict, the current method to deal with this has been their removal from their territories and release into forested landscapes. This is done even though studies have shown they come back, and that vacant territories are filled by other individuals. More disturbing is the fact that these captured and stressed animals can attack humans near the site of release. Thus, our intervention, based neither on the biology of the species nor the way Indians have traditionally viewed wildlife, is only worsening the problem. Elephants are chased in drives that use fire. Recent research by Prithviraj Fernando in Sri Lanka finds that chasing elephants makes them more aggressive.
Unless we want to kill all wildlife outside of protected areas, we have no choice but to share land with the multitude of wild animals that considers India its home. continued…