Saturday, June 18, 2011

Riding the Elephant

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Incidences of elephants straying into towns and cities in Karnataka are becoming frequent. Tumkur set the precedence over a decade ago and towns both near and far from elephant habitats are joining this list. Recently, Mysore joined the group making news beyond the national boundaries. Fortunately, the losses both in terms of human life and property have been minimal (with due respect to the person killed by the elephant) in this instance.

We now have adequate empirical experience of such incidences. But have we put these understandings to practice to reduce occurrences of such situations or efficiently handle such conditions?

Approaches to reduce conflict

We need to take extreme care when any large wildlife, that can cause serious injuries or loss of life, strays into human habitations. Two of the most important issues that need attention in such situations are crowd control and assessing pragmatic solutions. We are yet to come up with answers for the former as handling mob is a colossal task. Only the police have the capability to manage mob and have to actively participate in these situations. Clamping section 144 to manage the rabble and publicising the implementation of the rule makes a big difference.

Mobile phones with cameras have become a nuisance. Everyone wants to store a piece of the history in their memory cards not realising that their actions are severely complicating the problem.

When elephants stray out of forests, initially for crop raiding, they are constantly chased around before they lose direction and keep heading in the wrong path. The pragmatic approach would be to ensure that the elephants are headed back in the right course. For this to materialise, meticulous logistics preparation is a necessity. Recently I was witness to an incident where two elephants were to be driven back towards forests. Our requests that prior announcement through public address system should be made in villages to ensure that people would stay indoors went in vain. An unwary farmer who continued to be on the streets lost his life due to the apathy of a couple of decision makers.

Perhaps it is essential to bring out rules in the line of the recently released human-leopard conflict guidelines. This would set out protocols that need to be followed when elephants stray into human habitations. These guidelines are best developed with the help of those who have hands-on experience in handling such situations. Veterinarians, officials and lower staff of the forest department, police and conservationists can all contribute to this exercise. However as with any other rules or guidelines, implementation is the key.

Countless number of times it has been said in various forums that our elephant habitats are being fragmented and degraded beyond tolerable limits. Forests in the Western Ghats have become soft targets for all our civil engineering projects and exploitative activities. Highways, railway lines, power projects, mining all contribute to reduction of elephant habitats leading to higher conflict. However this hasn’t deterred our development planners to continue with their sole goal of meeting financial targets.

In India, physical barriers such as elephant proof trenches and electric fences have long been used as a tool to reduce elephants moving out of their habitats. Effective maintenance of these physical barriers can largely help reduce these incidences. Forest department has taken this matter seriously. However the responsibility also lies with people not to dislodge these barricades.

Role of media

In the media world, there is intense competition to get the best footage and to be the first to break the news. To achieve this, media men crowd around the already traumatised animals confusing them further. What have these few individuals who do not act responsibly achieved out of all the human-wildlife conflict instances where they have got their best footages? Mere higher Television Rating Points (TRPs)? Have they put themselves in the shoes of the families who saw their father, husband or son killed that was telecast live? It must be harrowing for the family and friends of the victim watching the incidence on the television. I wish the media and decision makers within the media houses became conscious of their social responsibilities. Whatever little support and love people hold for wildlife can potentially be reduced through telecasting of such gory images and footages. Animals do not kill anyone with a purpose; it is a mere co-incidence.

Even basic understanding of wildlife is missing within the media. Most media had reported that the two elephants that roamed the streets of Mysore were a mother and calf duo. However it turned out to be a makhna (tuskless male) and a juvenile male.

Some people use these opportunities to proclaim that fodder and water need to be created in elephant habitats to prevent the pachyderms straying out of forests. Studies make it clear that conflict is high during post monsoon and negligibly low or almost non-existent during summers. Hence scientific understanding of conflict is very much essential to draw up plans.

Human-elephant conflict is inevitable until we share this planet with these mega-herbivores. However conflict needs to be brought down to tolerable limits through pragmatic, implementable approaches.

An edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald on 17-06-2011

Friday, June 10, 2011

Wandering tigers, fractured landscapes

Tigers that have moved over vast areas in Karnataka

An animal cage sat on the back of a mini-lorry, and inside the cage was a young male tiger. About a week ago this animal, approximately three years old, was captured in Gama village near Shikaripura and was brought to Bhadra Tiger Reserve to be relocated. As the light started to fade the door of the squeeze cage was opened by a forest department watcher. Initially showing no signs of hurry the fine-looking animal sat inside cautiously watching the dry grassland in front of it. These grasslands were paddy fields a few years ago before people were relocated from this forest village called Hipla. Within a minute the animal realised that the forests were a better home than the cage, jumped out and bolted into the nearby bushes. Hope it has found a place in Bhadra to establish as a resident male, and with a bit of luck it will lord over its own territory for the next few years.

Experts initially thought the animal had strayed out of the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, but surprisingly camera trapping results of Wildlife Conservation Society-India Program revealed that the animal originated as far south as Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Nature’s ability to throw up surprises is unmatched. In a span of 15 months (or perhaps lesser) the animal had covered an aerial distance of 280 km, one of the longest ever movements recorded for wild tigers.

In March 2009 another young male tiger, which was initially photographed in Lakkavalli range of Bhadra, was discovered to have covered over 200 km before settling in Anshi National Park. Findings of these two dispersing male tigers gave us some insights into the secretive lives of these enigmatic cats. On the other side these long-range movements of tigers alerts and calls our attention about important issues. These animals are not just dispersing within the safe heavens of protected areas; neither are they dispersing only when there is intense competition within their natal areas. Though Bhadra is yet to reach its optimal tiger densities, animals are already moving out of this protected area. Or was this a stray incident which managed to escape all the conflicts it would face during these movements and safely landed in another protected area? These questions are complex and may remain unanswered.

Fractured landscapes

These findings highlight the importance to conserve certain forests in the Western Ghats that are currently outside the ambit of protected areas. These reserved forests together with plantations such as coffee that have shade, cover and some food availability, act as corridors for wildlife movement. Tiger populations in some of the protected areas act as sources and connecting these sources is central for the dispersal of these wandering tigers. This will also help in genetic exchange and positively contribute to demographics in wild tiger populations.

However these reserved forests have become the target of perpetual developmental activities. As clearly evident from these two incidents, our wildlife species need space, space that is wider and longer. The current fractured source populations need to be connected and linked through corridors. When I say connecting corridors I certainly do not mean human-engineered connectivity, we already possess naturally engineered connectivity. All we need to do is protect these identified critical areas especially from the current trend of unending infrastructure development.

There is a lot of debate on the anvil about the central Government proposed critical wildlife habitats. Legally these are areas to be classified within the existing protected areas based on documentation that human-wildlife co-existence is incompatible. A small geographic area of this country (~4%) is declared as protected areas and by default we need to consider these regions as critical wildlife habitats. Further we should have looked beyond protected area network and identified forests outside this complex for identifying critical wildlife habitats. This would ensure that incompatible development is kept away from these critical wildlife habitats but would still meet needs of local communities. Halting activities that permanently fracture habitats and stop wildlife movement should be of high importance.

Biology of wildlife should be the core of land use and development in critical wildlife habitats. Needs of animals that are large-bodied and wide-ranging such as tigers, elephants are critical components of this landscape planning. Animals do not migrate in a straight A-to-B line, but rather follow a complex route based on various factors which we are yet to be understood. Scientific studies takes decades to bring out results. Hence we need to apply precautionary principle and based on available informed understanding, thinking ahead of time would help.

Reversing the trend of habitat fragmentation that’s caused by mammoth infrastructure development is necessary. Eternal growth of highways, mines, power projects, railway lines in wildlife habitats especially outside the protected area system will literally halt these large vertebrates to move to new areas. Even tourism projects that do not consider wildlife as core of their business are creating pressure on the natural world. Commercial resorts, vacation homes near Bandipur, Bhadra, Dandeli and parts of Kodagu stand as classical examples in the way they are eating into patches of wildlife corridors.

Luckily we have a legal provision in the Environment Protection Act that can help protect us corridors. Urgent delineation and declaration of eco-sensitive areas around protected areas and in critical wildlife corridors can bring some restraint in slowing down the onslaught.

Karnataka’s gold standards

Karnataka is known to set gold standards in wildlife conservation which has been largely rewarded by some of the highest densities of tigers, elephants and other globally threatened and charismatic wildlife species found in the state. This needs to be continued to achieve similar results outside our protected area system. Karnataka has over 5,000 sq km of reserved forests that can help connect all the important protected areas. The state Forest Department has already set goals to achieve this praiseworthy task.

With political commitment, bureaucratic interest and appropriate landscape level planning this aim will be less herculean. If we do not change the way we are looking at infrastructure development we will possibly be spending billions in the future attempting to bring wildlife to areas which would have faced local extinction as it’s currently done in the western world.

This article was published in Deccan Herald on 10-06-2011

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Not out of the woods, yet

Landscpae species such as the elephant needs vast spaces. Pic:Sanjay Gubbi

Another year has passed since the last World Environment Day. The media and public had a burst of information about climate change and are perplexed by it as this hazard would directly affect Homo sapiens. On a global scale the society wakes up to such daunting environmental issues as it happened in the past with nuclear energy, greenhouse gases and others. Nonetheless there are equally serious concerns with saving species that co-inhabit this planet and has failed to generate similar levels of attention or commitment from the society.

Species conservation

The nation faces an uphill task in saving its national animal, the tiger. Loss of habitat and prey continue to threaten the tiger. However one question that draws the attention and curiosity of most people from laymen to policy makers, how many tigers do we have? Countrywide estimates of tiger densities that were recently put out by the Government drew flak from certain sections of the wildlife community. Nevertheless India is still the best prospect for saving this amber-eyed cat beyond our generations is a matter of solace.

Taking cue from the committee set up to devise policies to save tigers, the Government instituted the Elephant Task Force for drawing up plans to ensure the long-term future of this species. However due to lack of public and media pressure the recommendations of the task force did not go beyond the symbolic declaration of elephant as the national heritage animal. Wish the recommendations were taken seriously about the species which is largely responsible for creating tension amongst its human neighbours due to its ability to damage crops and inflict human fatalities.

The other species that draws attention due its biological and elastic nature of living close to humans and also responsible for high levels of conflict is the spotted cat; the leopard. The species continues to be hacked, stoned and burnt with little pragmatic approaches to reduce the problem. Very importantly the behaviour of people in situations when large-bodied wildlife enters human habitations is appalling. Large-scale public education and crowd management by the police are very essential.

Recent information reveals that tigers move vast distances in search of new territories. This brings into limelight the issue of creating corridors and holding on to viable forest cover between protected areas. In this direction the concept of critical wildlife habitats needs a relook. We need to identify and declare areas that are ecologically vital and provide linkages between source wildlife populations especially for wide-ranging species such as the tiger.

The future of large mammal conservation depends upon political will and integrated conservation planning. Pic:Sanjay Gubbi

The decision maker

After decades the country has a Minister for Environment and Forests who has made his presence felt. There is little doubt that a few issues could have been dealt in a more realistic manner. At present the ministry is more transparent and trying to move away from the tight totalitarian regime. Opportunities are provided to civil societies, eminent scientists to participate in the decision making processes which were almost non-existent during the previous administrations. The minister faced wrath of the business community for going by the rule book. A leading journal from the Wall Street touted him as someone with an ‘activist agenda’ and sacrificing economic growth for environmentalism.

Despite all the criticism I would say the minister got some respect to Paryavaran Bhavan which earlier acted only as a project clearing machinery. It is true that rearranging a system built over half a century is not as easy as rearranging nuts and bolts of machinery. There surely have been a few steps in the right direction that needs to be appreciated.

Infrastructure development should be kept out of critical wildlife habitats. Pic:Basavanna.H.S


Currently the world is filling up; filling up with more people. India announced its population to be about 1.21 billion, with it has also grown the economy. The mantra of perpetual development is now the secular religion. Development projects uninterruptedly continue to assault natural habitats. Today there is little doubt to believe that our world is crafted and guided by a few corporate houses and individuals. Development lobbyists from across the globe are the political actors deciding the way our wildlife habitats are sliced, cut, divided and distributed among several interest groups that want a piece of our wildlife turf.

It is not development versus wildlife conservation. A middle path where wildlife is kept at the core of development planning when it involves ecologically sensitive areas is the need of the hour. If highways, dams and mines do not slice the country’s four percent land area that harbours our national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, it makes little or no dent in the overall growth objectives of the country. In this world of limitless demands and with limited land area for wildlife, urgent steps are to be taken if we are serious about securing the homes of tigers, elephants, rhinos and other habitat-specialist species.

An edited version of this article has been published in The Hindu on 05-06-2011