By Sameer Khazir Dar
As the wildlife week is being celebrated with gusto from October 2-8, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, held to be a as a paradise on earth seems to have nothing, or rather little to celebrate in terms of milestones of conservation efforts.
Though Wildlife resources are vital to the survival of humans and have been a subject of much fascination, interest, and research all over the world however all is clearly not well in Jammu and Kashmir: The wildlife of our state is threatened by problems of immense proportions of which the rising tide of human- animal conflict is one. Conflict between humans and wild animals is not a new phenomenon; it finds mention in several ancient texts including the Rig Veda. However, what is worrying is that the graph of conflict has escalated in the recent years with heavy damage inflicted on both the sides.
The increase in the conflict, at times, results in the death and destruction from numerous encounters with large mammals and hundreds of humans and wild animals being killed annually. Damage also occurs to crops, property and livestock worth millions of rupees, mostly in rural areas where an already poverty-stricken populace can ill afford such losses. This high cost of living with wildlife beyond tolerance capacity of the population causes enmity towards the forest managers and wildlife, thus resulting often into loss of trust and lack of participation in conservation efforts. This , in turn, can create further problems for forest management as the antisocial forest and wildlife offenders take advantage of the situation for their criminal motives.
While the major species in conflict with humans include the Asiatic Black Bear(Ursus thibetanus) and the common leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), it generally arises, when local people, dependent on forests for their various daily needs, inadvertently come into contact with carnivores, possibly resulting in an attack. The shrinking of wild habitats and depletion of prey animal populations also leads big cats, in particular, to venture into human-use areas to prey on domestic cattle. Retaliations by people only aggravate conflict situations, increasing the risk of animal and human casualties. The need of the hour is to prevent these conflicts and resolve them safely when they do occur, without endangering humans or animals. Conflict mitigation demands an understanding of an animal’s ecology and movements, and the root reasons for conflict.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to address conflict situations through the introduction of effective and creative mitigation measures. The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) has been working with communities and governments to this effect, addressing conflict through a holistic process that involves the implementation of one or more key strategies. Looking for solutions to this situation is not only the need of the people inhabiting vicinity of forests, but is also an imperative for the foresters in search of sustainable management of forests.
Solution(s) Generating conservation awareness through public participation;
In majority of the cases, it is the fault of the people themselves that results in their injuries as most bear conflict incidents devolve into display of how ugly we humans can become- a vivid exhibition of the hatred and contempt we harbor towards our wild cohabitants. The sighting of a Bear/leopard around a village gives rise to a leopard fever- an epidemic that spreads faster than wildfire by means of missed calls on mobile phones. Thousands gather in a blink well before the professionals from the forest department can arrive at the scene some with axes, stones and kangris, haranguing the forest department to ensure that no human being is hurt. The growing mob browbeats the forest department eager to save the leopard and convict them on spot for the offense of having introduced the leopard to the village. This, to my mind, has been the story of almost every human-leopard conflict situation in Kashmir.
Therefore awareness is the first step towards raising the pillars of wildlife, fostering the inherent love and respect that most Kashmiris have towards nature. It will also make people understand the root causes of serious issues like human-wildlife conflict in an enjoyable and interactive manner.
Primary Response Teams, Rapid Response Teams and Sociologist-Biologist-Veterinarian expert teams in areas of high human-carnivore conflict
Taking a holistic approach, a team comprising a biologist, sociologist and veterinarian is constituted in high conflict areas. The biologist determines why animals may be straying into human-use areas and the sociologist works with local communities to sensitize and prepare them for possible conflict scenarios. This trio works with the state forest department and forms the Primary Response Team(PRT) along with local volunteers. The PRT is trained to handle crowds, identify the presence of carnivores and negotiate safe passage for them in conflict situations. Only if a situation escalates does a PRT inform and call in a Rapid Response Team (RRT). The RRT is a team of specialists equipped to deal with displaced carnivores and injured humans. RRTs provide assistance in human-carnivore conflict mitigation and management of conflict animals, apart from in situ emergency relief to displaced or distressed wildlife. Each RRT comprises a transport vehicle, trained wildlife veterinarian, animal attendant, forest department staff, and necessary equipment and supplies.
Relief scheme for farmers losing crops to depredation by Black bears and monkeys
While long-term solutions include the protection of wildlife corridors and creation of effective barriers between the animals and crops are important, there is a need for instant relief in cases of crop depredation. For establishing trust and empathetic relationship with the local communities, a unique relief measure called the ‘Grain-for-Grain’ scheme was initiated by WTI and the Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department in villages around Pakke Tiger Reserve in 2005. Since then, the WTI has distributed some 62 tonnes of grain, providing direct relief to over 500 families. Significantly, no elephants have been killed in retaliation for crop damage in this region since the project’s inception.
This scheme also helped promote food security among the tribes around Pakke and has subsequently been replicated in Karbi Anglong in Assam and Wokha in Nagaland. The question is: Why the Jammu and Kashmir Government is not thinking on the same lines? I believe that if a scheme like “Grain for Grain” is launched in J&K it will go a long way in fostering love and respect towards wildlife .
Harnessing the sun’s energy to prevent damage
to crops and property
Solar powered fences are an effective solution to mitigate HEC. Fences made of five to seven strands of power lines (9 to 12V) are strategically installed on the margins of crop fields and villages to prevent leopard, black bear, monkeys and so on, from entering these areas. The voltage is strong enough to deter the elephants without causing them any harm if they come into contact with the wires. Solar fences are preferable as they utilise a natural and plentiful source of energy, which is an added advantage in remote areas where there is little or no access to a constant source of electric power from the grid.
Working in collaboration with state forest departments and grass root organizations, the WTI has thus far assisted in the installation of three solar power fences in high conflict areas: a 2.5km fence in the Kurichiyat Range of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and a 1.5 km fence in Aralam Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala; and an 8 km fence in Kuthori village bordering Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Post installation, monitoring has indicated a significant reduction in conflict in the villages, and an overall increase in crop yield.
Last but not least, I firmly believe that the role of communities in nature conservation can never be undermined for they are both the victims and agents of environmental degradation. Let the communities inhibiting the vicinity of protected areas live in co-existence with nature by serving it as if they are serving the Creator.
—The author is currently working as an assistant field officer with the Wildlife Trust of India. He can be reached at: email@example.com