The Man v Wild Conundrum

There’s never been a time in history when a wild vertebrate did not kill a man or man did not kill a wild vertebrate. Not once for the last 15 million years since early humanoids roamed the planet. In fact, man killed more wild vertebrates than they killed us, and that is perhaps evident in us becoming the most successful species in spite of lacking claws and fangs.

Man has always been against the wild, always the rebel, always the one to straighten things out, to mend and to tame. If it did not suit him, he destroyed it, and if he liked it, he finished it off. And then we drifted off, slowly, from all things wild. Today, we believe that money plants (Epipremnum aureum) bring us wealth, but we don’t know that that inconspicuous little fly, lovingly called a tiger fly (Coenosia sp.), is sitting on its leaf to prey upon the other tiny insects that feed on this plant, and we bug-spray the plant, killing everything with it. That’s wildlife right there. We just wiped it out of existence from our house.

A new-era subtly dawned upon us, of human-wildlife conflict, when we perceived the wild as a threat to our property. They attacked our crops, our livestock, invaded our homes and lay our wood to decay, and they killed us. What’s interesting to note is that all this had been happening for countless years, but we started noticing it only recently. Man waged war on the wild. Killing the problem animals – from aphids to elephants, and side-by-side, hunted them just for sheer adventure, obliterating most of them, such as the wolves, rhinoceros, and the tiger – became the norm. Even sparrows were not spared in some parts of the world. A novel idea of creating refuges for the wildlife prevailed only in the last century, and areas were protected from the people to conserve the diminishing wildlife. Back then it wasn’t envisaged what an enclosed area – with porous boundaries – would do to people immediately living around it. Animals wandered off, plundered crops or hunted livestock or humans in their immediate vicinity. To counter this intense problem, we started compensating people for the loss.

To avenge the loss, they sprayed pesticides, they poisoned the animals, they set traps to catch the perpetrators, they used sticks and axes to hack them, and they burnt them alive. Here I must say that there is a reason why I started with man, came to we, and then to them. Man is when I encompass every human being from history, we is when I focus only on the people from the modern age, and them marks the demarcation of urban and the rural life. The urban us lost the contact with the wild that the rural them still deal with today from – to name a few – rice hoppers to snakes to tigers. They did this. A very sinister division appeared here between them and us.

Human-wildlife conflict is not a stand-alone entity. It is a part of the larger human-wildlife interaction where the focus on negative interactions outweighs the positive interactions. It is indeed an unsolvable conundrum in the field of conservation, because we often look for synthetic solutions where in fact we should be looking for organic solutions. Fencing, culling, translocating are synthetic, band-aid solutions that are not foolproof, whereas community-driven (solutions derived by the people for the people) models of dealing with negative interactions such village-managed livestock insurance for snow leopard conservation, are organic.

When a wild animal does attack a human, what happens is a flurry of emotions erupting from all sides: from the affected person’s community, the forest department, the conservationists, and the animal-lovers. There’s a lot of pressure, but the members of the community are generally tolerant, and with superb coordination from the government departments, they understand the consequences of sharing the space and time with wildlife.

What happens when the incidences repeat one-after-another is a different story. Common sense tells us to remove the problem animal from the area. 

What usually happens is this:
1.       Capture, confirm, and translocate: The forest department swings into action to capture the problem animal (only those involved in killing humans are captured, but there are instances of capturing entire herds of elephants that cause crop damage), once caught, it is then confirmed that it was indeed the problem animal, and then it is translocated to an entirely different landscape. But this is often like pushing the problem from your house to another’s and it doesn’t quite work well as this wonderful work for leopards shows.
2.       Capture, confirm, and re-release: In some instances releasing the same animal in the same locality has also resulted in increase in conflict as the same study shows. 
3.       Capture, confirm, and euthanize: One of the last resorts is euthanizing, for which, too, there are protocols, but whether killing is the solution is still not determined.
4.       Capture, confirm, and confine: Confining an animal is still practiced, however it is unethical and with the current state of infrastructure, a real torture for the animal. There are no rules that state that an animal can be jailed like a human being. In other words, we cannot dub an animal a criminal, but some are sent to zoos for pseudo-education of wildlife, hardly any are given a safe refuge in rescue facilities.

Then there is a last resort when the above four methods fail:
5.       Shoot at sight: This is often implemented in extreme cases, when the problem animal remains elusive, as this case from Murbad (Maharashtra) shows. Unfortunately it is confirmed if the animal was the problem animal only after it is killed. 

However, things can go wrong at any moment, and when they do, this is what it results into:
6.       Mob killing and vandalising: This is inevitable in certain situations, but it can occur at any point of time in the above five cases. It has happened time and again, in Gujarat and in Uttarakhand, when a trapped leopard, before being confirmed that it was a problem animal, was burnt alive by the mob; recently a leopard was beaten to death by the mob in Haryana during a rescue operation – which, in turn, led to decision of relocating the first ever leopard in Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi to Uttarakhand fearing a backlash similar to the one in Haryana.

The question is: how to tackle the sixth? It is a complex situation which cannot be confronted at the moment it happens. In such a situation, what can be done needs to be done before such a situation to prevent it, or after it has happened to subvert it.

A.      Awareness? Of course. We create awareness among people from all walks of lives – from urban residents living on the edge of forests, to forest-dependent communities; from young ones to the eldest. Awareness can be sensitisation, where the people are made aware of the wildlife of their area, and they can also be trained to avoid confrontations or informed about what to do and not to do during a confrontation.
B.      Community conflict management? A step beyond awareness. Empowering everyone mentioned above to mitigate conflict with wildlife – particularly when humans get hurt or are killed by wild animals – by developing a committee that watches over an area – such as the SMS-based alert system developed in Valparai in Tamil Nadu.
C.      Conflict stewards? A novel approach, which is linked with B is and similar to the example given above, can be used at a micro-level, focusing on one village at a time.
D.      Compensation? A practice that is currently being implemented across the country by the forest department and private organizations. This has worked in Corbett Tiger Reserve, where no cases of poisoning tigers which killed the livestock are reported since 1999, about time when the interim relief scheme picked pace in the reserve.

It often is not enough, and mob fury can result in spite of all these measures. What to do after, then?

E.       Jail term? Perpetrators must be identified and punished as per the law.
F.       Branding criminal? Can a handful of perpetrators be held responsible for calling an entire village or a community criminal?

Once an event takes place as per 6, irrespective of what measures one takes, E and F must follow as per the law. The human perpetrators should be punished. What we must consider is whether we can dub an entire community or a village as criminal for this act. A mob does not work as a collective wisdom of many, it is ignited as a flicker of flame – all we need is one spark – and that spreads like wildfire, and in that heat of the moment, it multiplies the force which often comes out as rage. When it comes to human wildlife conflict, this rage is particularly focused on that certain individual or individuals, and not the species as a whole. In other words, we cannot simply call the entire community which resulted in lynching the wild animal during the rescue operation as criminal, exactly the way we do not see every wild animal as a problem for humans. For if we do so, not only do we undermine the entire species existing in that habitat, but undermine the existence of that entire ecosystem.

There are many issues at work in that instance when a wild animal is attacked by a mob – the temperament, the socio-economic status, the dissatisfaction with the concerned authorities, disconnection with nature, and also anthropomorphisation of that animal: dubbing it as a criminal or an outsider. All these combined are a potent mix to ignite mob fury. It is particularly the last two that overshadow everything else, as was the case of the killing of the leopard in Haryana.

Once a tiger wandered in a village nestled at the edge of Kanha Tiger Reserve and became trapped on the village side of a fence that separated it from the forest. It attracted a large crowd. Many went quite close to see what she was doing as she tired to dig through, climb up a tree, and paced to-and-fro. Many also tried to push her away from the village by simply walking up to her, but when the officials spun into action, and asked the crowd to scatter away, they resisted saying that the tiger will enter their house during the rescue operation. The fence was then removed in some places, allowing her to walk away, and the crowd faded.

One of the tigers of Kanha, now past his prime, had lost his territory to a younger male and had made his home close to a village where he often killed cattle for survival – this went on for several weeks as the officials kept him in check, then the depredations suddenly stopped, and it was realised that the tiger had disappeared. After several months he was seen, once again, back in another village, killing livestock. There had been no attacks on the people, which was fortunate and hence, perhaps, given the fact that compensation for livestock depredation is effective in this reserve, people tolerated this old male’s presence.

A similar case also took place in Bandhavgarh, when a male past his prime moved into a village after losing his territory to a younger male. He attracted a large gathering of people. With officials and guards on elephant at the tail of this tiger, there were no casualties recorded, and the tiger was, without tranquillisation, hurried back to the forests.

In all these cases there were no violent mob reactions. The case of Haryana being an exception, most cases involving lynching of the animal occurred because of the animal’s behaviour of preying on humans. In case of Haryana, the disconnection with nature could be considered as one of the driving reasons for the mob fury.

Many of us (only 30%) from cities can’t possibly imagine what they think when wild animals depredate their livestock and also regrettably kill their relatives. They always face challenges that nature casts at them which we conveniently solve. When a large predator strikes, the tolerance tips over, primal instincts take over.

What we as someone removed from their situation can do is try to understand the various dimensions of human-wildlife conflict, to name a few:
1.       Forest Department: They are so understaffed, they can’t be expected to regulate the mob as well as capture the animal; furthermore most non-Protected Area forest departments are not trained to rescue animals.
2.       Police: They are also often understaffed in rural and peri-urban areas, unfortunately they also lack infrastructure for mob control.
3.       Animal in question: Was it a problem animal which had already killed people or livestock? Was it a stray? It is important to know exactly why the lynching took place since this shows the mob’s state-of-mind, was it sheer hatred – or fear – of the stray animal, as was observed in Haryana, or was it anger towards the problem animal, as it happened in Gujarat.
4.       Local community: Communities vary greatly in their temperament from place to place, even from hamlet-to-hamlet within a village. Scenarios can turn violent irrespective of the animal in question, or the people in question and it is about time the department learnt from the past and took stringent anti-mob controls during a rescue operation.

A case to note here is that of a rescue of a tiger which had sought shelter inside a home in a village close to Kanha but outside the protected area. The forest department swung into action, tranquillised the tiger as it rested in the house, and carried it out on a stretcher and into the rescue vehicle. The crowd had swollen into thousands. The mob fury erupted not because the tiger posed any threat to the people, but because the tiger was not displayed to the public – vehicles were tumbled over, some even burnt, and it was only through the sheer force of the police that it was brought under control. The mob mentality cannot be deduced.

Animal-killers should be punished, vandals must be imprisoned, but efforts also need to be taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Attacking the perpetrators on social media, calling them names, is also a mob reaction, how-much-ever it sickens us to our core.

There is a reason why grassroots conservationists stay mum on such issues. This silence could perhaps be translated into hopelessness that they feel when the animal starts killing people and when an animal is surrounded by people, or it is born out of the countless instances of animals being put to death for their erratic behaviours, that raising a voice seems to only fall on deaf ears. No conservationist will recommend caging an animal either, neither putting it down. There are several instances of conservationists escaping the mob fury because of sheer luck during rescue operations. There are those who were not spared by the wild animals as well, as the case in Bengaluru when a leopard entered a school showed earlier this year, when a conservationist – a part of the rescue team – was attacked by the leopard being rescued. To quote him from this article in Firstpost (Feb 8, 2016): “the loss and conversion of the leopards’ natural habitat seems to be an important driver for this spotted cat to come into conflict with humans. A comprehensive plan, where leopard habitats that occur adjoining to cities and towns, needs to be drawn up for long-term leopard preservation in the country.”

Conflict is however more prevalent in the countryside, where carnivores injure as many as a hundred people or a thousand cattle every year (why is it that social media activists raise no voices over this, I wonder). It will be interesting to map mob reactions across the country which can highlight where intolerance among people towards wildlife is highest. Social surveys may also tell us who is disconnected or wants to be unplugged with nature, or if it is just discontent with the government’s management of wildlife. In Haryana, where a part of the Aravalis still harbour leopard populations, there have been as many as 8 cases of leopard deaths since 2008 hinting at a complete intolerance towards wildlife - particularly large carnivores - in the area. It means that only declaring protected areas in the Aravalis - the oldest and the most exploited of mountain ranges of India - is not enough, working with the local communities is also required to reduce the tensions.

When it comes to conflict, we cannot point fingers. There is no they and us, certainly not when it comes to our interactions with wildlife. Just because some of us stay away from wilderness, and visit it only when we wish to, doesn’t mean that we’re doing no harm to nature (in fact it is worse). We all are working against nature, you who, like me, are sitting on your laptop with your smartphone besides you, to the one who beat the leopard out of existence.

We should stop the blame game and own it. A collective wisdom may show us a way towards tolerating each other’s presence, even if we can’t yet find peaceful co-existence.