With a rise in cases of animals entering urban areas, experts analyse the causes and possible solutions to human-wildlife conflicts. Unsurprisingly, mankind is to blame most of the time.
It was the winter of 2002. Yadram Sharma, who owns a furniture factory in South Delhi’s posh Sainik Farms locality, was going about his day-to-day operations. That particular day, however, things took a frightening turn. “It was daytime, 2.45 pm. My plot had a low boundary wall that lay adjacent to a field. He (a leopard) entered, but couldn’t figure out how to leave. Then he sought shelter in the generator room. I immediately shut down the factory, called the area SHO, and soon enough, many more people, including the media, were surrounding the place,” recalls Sharma.
Sainik Farms may be a posh South Delhi locality, but cases like this are not unheard of here. From the bustling Mehrauli-Badarpur Road, a left turn into the residential area, and then crisscrossing roads that seem to form a labyrinth, take you shockingly close to Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary.
Asola-Bhatti further connects to the Aravallis’ Southern Delhi Ridge, which is a constituent of the Northern Aravalli leopard wildlife corridor that leads all the way to Sariska National Park in Rajasthan, about 220 kms away. So it’s really not surprising when a leopard hikes the distance and enters the city. However, sitting in the comforts of their homes, city-dwellers do not expect to be confronted by big cats, bears, elephants and the like.
Consider it a by-product of urbanisation: We have built metropolises with concrete walls and marked boundaries, which have (for the most part) kept wild animals away. But we have also gone against nature in the process. “Wildlife has been coexisting with people since forest hamlets slowly became villages and then mushroomed into towns and finally exploded into cities. Today’s cities are sitting on what was once wildlife habitat,” explains Kartick Satyanarayan, Co-Founder and CEO of Wildlife SOS.
And little do we realise what ramifications this has had on wildlife. A strong ‘us vs. them’ bias comes into play between human beings and animals, which can turn drastic at times. Take, for instance, what happened next in the case of the leopard that entered Yadram Sharma’s factory. Kartick, accompanied by his NGO’s Rapid Response Unit, was among the people who rushed to the scene. “During the rescue operation, the Delhi Police, who were unfamiliar with how to deal with the situation, shot the tranquilised leopard dead and also put a bullet into my leg. It narrowly missed my bone but put me in bed for nearly four weeks,” he says.
Genesis of conflict
There are plenty of reasons for the latter’s occurrence, but it is primarily fear and the resulting overreactions, a lack of awareness, and people’s inability to effectively deal with such situations, that lie at the core of this issue.
Kartick continues, “In situations of conflict, people do not know what to do or who to call for help. Panic gets the better of them, which often makes the situation even more dangerous for them as well as the animal.”
And given the escalation in cases of animals entering urban areas in recent times, one is forced to ask — ‘Is this Nature’s way of getting back at us?’
Kartick references another case that took place two years ago. A wild leopard got impaled on a metal grill at a Chhatarpur (South Delhi) farmhouse while trying to leap over a 14-feet-tall boundary wall. Wildlife SOS’ team, accompanied by the Forest and the Fire Department, reached the location to help extricate the leopard. While the animal was sent to the zoo, its injuries and bleeding were excessive, which finally led to its death.
In other cities too, such conflicts have become topical. While Mumbai, for instance, has seen its fair share of leopards entering urban areas — including a mall and somebody’s apartment — from the nearby Sanjay Gandhi National Park, cities such as Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Chennai have also been witnessing such incidents.
As recently as June this year, a five-month-long search to capture the elusive denizen at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad, finally bore fruit. As for Bengaluru, over half-a-dozen sightings have been reported at the fringes of the city in the past few months alone.
Not just big cats, wild Asiatic elephants, cherished by people in the wild but considered an intruder in cities, have also been finding their way to city limits. This April, a lone tusker was tranquilised by forest officials in the city of Guwahati after it created panic in broad daylight. Two elephants are presently being pursued after killing five people across different towns in UP. Most of the time, the animal strays from its usual path, which experts attribute to fragmentation of forestland, migration paths, and also to the building of highways and other infrastructure through forests.
In fact, human-wildlife conflict is a global phenomenon. Just last month, a polar bear entered the Russian city of Norilsk by walking southwards for hundreds of miles in search of food. The melting of ice caps as a result of global warming has been attributed as the reason for this forced journey. Similarly, a black bear was found lounging on the porch of a resort in New Hampshire, USA, after scrounging through a trash can!
Busting urban myths
The first step to deal with the problem is to identify the flawed perceptions that people have, and work towards altering them on a priority basis.
But what about the danger that a carnivorous predator, capable of dashing at nearly 60 kmph, can pose to human beings? To that, Dr. Vidya Athreya, Associate Director, Conservation Science at Wildlife Conservation Society, comments, “Rarely have these animals attacked people. The only time that happens is when people corner one. They (the animals) come and go... Once people get used to these animals, they are no longer considered aberrant.”
Now, imagine a place where people not only believe in the possibility of human-leopard co-existence, but practice it too! In Akole village of Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra, leopards casually amble through sugarcane fields and streets while people remain as unperturbed as they would be upon sighting a bunch of hens! The denizens mostly mind their business and mishaps are virtually unheard of.
Anyway, city or village lines are invisible to an animal. The larger cats especially, require expansive territories to roam around and survive. Dr. Athreya, who has worked extensively on human-leopard conflicts adds, “Usually, there is some refuge human beings end up creating for the animals (in urban areas). Or the animals have existed in the area since before, like in the case of Gurugram.”
As is reflected in cave paintings and mythological depictions, humanity has historically shared space with wildlife. “Even human beings have used certain adaptation techniques to minimise the damages caused to livestock; collars on dogs, for instance. However, these protection practices have not been extensively documented,” reveals the conservationist.
Speaking on the broad problem plaguing human-wildlife interactions in India, Belinda Wright, pioneering conservationist and Executive Director of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), says, “This is not a new phenomenon. What has changed is the pressure on wild areas. Due to habitat destruction and disturbance, in many places, wild animals now find themselves with insufficient land, food, water and security, and they enter human habitation in order to try and survive.”
From an urban perspective, leopards are perhaps the most frequent visitors to human habitation. Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai for instance, has over 50 in an approximately 100 sq km area that makes it one of the densest leopard populations in the world — that too within city limits.
Human-wildlife conflict zones extend far beyond leopard corridors. Dr. Gowri Mallapur, a well-known wildlife veterinarian, has done comprehensive work on animal-reptile conflict. On problems facing crocodiles, she comments, “I believe there is an ever-increasing pressure on water systems for human use... There is an issue of sharing of a resource.”
She also highlights how the fragmentation of landscapes caused by the building of dams and barrages may bring crocodiles and people too close to one another for comfort. Since the animal’s eco-biological habits and landscape-use patterns aren’t fully understood, this is not an ideal situation at all.
Aditya Panda, wildlife conservationist and naturalist, who has worked extensively with human-elephant conflict, says, “Elephants are large-ranging social mammals that require a rich, undisturbed, high-quality habitat spread across vast landscapes spanning several thousand square kilometres. Their large size, large herds and large appetites mean that they must migrate over long distances to forage in fixed patterns formed on the basis of seasonal availability food, water, safe sanctuaries and all of this is built upon ancestral memory over several generations.”
When these migratory paths or ‘corridors’ are disrupted by human infrastructure, be it through urbanisation, destruction of habitat, creation of farmland, and as Aditya says, “most lethally, by linear infrastructure such as roads, railways, power lines, canals, etc. — conflict becomes inevitable.” He goes on to state many examples, but one stands out — when the tiny Chandaka-Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary near Bhubaneswar was disconnected from nearby elephant habitats because of infrastructural development.
“This has nearly wiped out the entire elephant population of the sanctuary as they were forced to abandon it and move to unsafe areas where many of them perished and the survivors are locked in intense conflict with people,” reveals Aditya.
Nandini Velho, a field biologist at Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, agrees and says, “A couple of years ago, there were incidents of elephant herds finding their way to the middle of Tezpur city, which could be a reflection of the changes that are happening around these urban areas.” She points out that a lot of peri-urban spaces (areas proximate to a city) have come up in the Northeast, including places marked by linear infrastructure (roads and highways, electric power lines, railway lines, etc.).
As more and more species get involved in human-wildlife conflicts, each warrants a specialised approach. Interestingly, the rise in such incidents, be it urban or non-urban, also comes with an increase in human interference in forests.
Unity in biodiversity
While the causes of the conflict and its many avatars are quite apparent, the solutions may not always be as clear. Non-solutions like relocating the animal, knee-jerk reactions and retaliation are obviously counter-productive.
On ‘animal relocation’, Dr. Athreya informs, “You can have leopards close to a city without any problem. But when you start using unscientific methods such as capture-release, you are interfering with a wild animal that could be potentially dangerous. You don’t know how it will change its behaviour upon release. We found that the more capture-releases you do, the more attacks on people you have near the release sites.”
She also explains ‘knee-jerk reactions’, which refer to the pressure an uninformed public puts on authorities to act against the invading animal. This can often lead to drastic and unfavourable consequences.
Talking about ‘retaliation’ in reference to the farmlands of the Northeast, Nandini adds, “Unfortunately, the first sort of mitigation measure that people take is retaliation, where they will kill a carnivore or a wild dog.” But thankfully, scientific observation and research have helped determine the best ways to tackle human-wildlife conflicts, and many of these measures are now being implemented.
Nirmal Kulkarni, herpetologist, conservationist and chairman of the Mhadei Research Center, broadly outlines some of these measures: “The need for sensitisation of people, especially those living near or in conflict zones, is as essential as a quick response by local government agencies when such situations arise... so also the need to acknowledge the challenge of habitat conservation, secure migration corridors (as in the case of elephants), monitor prey base and human encroachments in forest habitats.”
However, Dr. Mallapur points out that the need to prevent conflicts with animals on a species-to-species basis results in certain wildlife getting more attention than others. “A big step would be for crocodile conflict to be given the same importance as conflict with mega carnivores like tigers, leopards and even elephants. Translocating these animals to dams, reservoirs and no follow-up monitoring is not a solution (just as it is not a solution with mammals),” she says.
Similarly, Kartick also advises awareness and sensitivity around animals, adding, “Don’t remain a mute spectator or a helpless witness. If you see someone poaching, harming or killing wildlife, make an effort to stand up for the voiceless animals… Report it to the police and forest department, take a video and photo and make it public. Jaw-traps are illegal and cannot be used to trap, kill or maim animals. If you see something suspicious — make a noise, report it immediately.”
Awareness is definitely a key point expressed by most of the experts, who also seem to prefer keeping direct intervention to a bare minimum. Aditya presents a few proactive measures by stating, “The only long-term solution lies in strict protection of existing habitat and war-scale restoration of poor quality and destroyed habitat that includes, of course, habitat connectivity.” This measure would also put the onus on bureaucrats and political leaders to expedite the implementation of such policies. To conclude, Aditya says, “I work as an informed and concerned citizen, as a watchdog and an advocate for wildlife conservation through several means and forums. This is something all of us could and should do if we expect a difference.”
Co-existence is key
What then is the ultimate solution and perfect reality when it comes to human-wildlife conflicts? The answer is what Dr. Athreya and Dr. Mallapur hinted at above — human beings and animals must co-exist in the same space.
Understanding the challenges that come with such a reality, Dr. Athreya says, “Our awareness is not about saving the leopard but about what actions people need to take to ensure the safety of their families. When you’re helping people deal with the issue in a way that minimises danger to self, then they’re willing to accept the presence of the animal. Sometimes, a year on, they’ll send photographs of the leopard sitting on the building wall saying ‘It’s come after a year with two cubs!”
And, when that happens, the unfortunate leopard firing that took place in Delhi 17 years ago will become a thing of an era gone by. And best forgotten....