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. But we need to understand how they live among us and how humans react to their presence. A 2013 study by Ghosal, et al finds that research on large cats in India is dominated by the biological sciences and conducted mainly within protected areas. However, society, politics and economics play important roles in determining conservation outcomes, none of which is included in biological studies. Further, mitigation actions by the forest department rarely employ the use of proactive measures such as dialogue and interaction with the communities that share space with wildlife. Nor do most scientists or managers emphasise proactive mitigation measures like better crop and livestock protection.
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A tigress we collared in 2011 lived for at least four months in a human-use landscape about 40 km away from Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve till her collar stopped functioning. The local forest staff says there are others in the same landscape and breeding as well.
She occupied an area of more than 400 sq km and was photographed at a camera trap two years later in the same area. Her behaviour was like that of leopards in croplands; she sat all day and was only active after dark. She did not attack humans, even though people lived within hundred metres of her.
With intensive media coverage of tiger attacks on humans, the reasons provided by each expert are at best opinions because there is a paucity of information on wild cats in human-use landscapes and their interactions with humans. There was an incident in eastern Maharashtra early last year where a young tigress was killing people in the daytime and attacking people in groups; something a normal tiger would not do. Why did she do it? We don’t know and we never will, unless we accept the presence of these cats in human-use landscapes and learn more about how they live side by side with humans. With societies changing a rapid pace across India, human-wildlife “coexistence” will become increasingly challenging. The solution must start with more sensitive research and management in areas where people and animals live side by side, which does not assume that people and wildlife are inherently incompatible.
The writer is a wildlife conservationist based in Maharashtra