The term human-wildlife conflict seems to create the illusion of humans on one side and animals on the other, in a boxing match like situation fighting for common resources. The truth, especially in a country like India where biodiversity thrives amidst human-dominated landscapes, is far away from this imagery. Regrettably, even people trained in conservation biology for too long have perpetuated this myth- a scientist I met at a conference recently, insisted- humans live in cities, villages or towns while animals live in the forest. This storybook division of where humans and animals dwell has done the greatest disservice to wildlife conservation as it reinforces the belief that if animals ‘stray’ into human areas they should be removed or destroyed. Fact is, and this has been corroborated by several scientific studies human and wildlife boundaries often overlap, large sized animals like elephants make their way outside of designated forests, species like blackbuck, hyenas, jackals are often found outside protected areas, some species, in fact, thrive close to human habitations.
So, if we need to resolve conflict we have to accept wildlife habitats as being a continuum, where species live off a mosaic of land types that include wetlands, forests, grassland and even open agricultural fields. As Markus Nils Peterson and his co-authors rightly state in the paper titled- “Rearticulating the myth of human-wildlife conflict’ that ‘ When animal damage is portrayed as human-wildlife conflict, it may perpetuate the anthropomorphic view that animals possess humanlike consciousness, including values, interests, and intents—that they want what is ours, thus representing wild animals as human antagonists’. Labelling conflict between humans regarding biodiversity conservation and animal damage as human-wildlife conflict dichotomizes humans and nature, framing wildlife as something that threatens human existence, rather than contributing to human welfare”. That is why conservationists are now asking for a shift in terminology from ‘conflict’ to ‘human-wildlife interactions’ that directs attention toward the potential for coexistence between all species, while still recognizing the existence of multiple, sometimes contradictory needs. This is best illustrated through a working example from India. Take the case of Valparai a small hill station in the state of Tamil Nadu, a plateau in the Anamalai hills where thousands of hectares of land are owned by tea estates, flanked by isolated pockets of forests, home to a large population of the Asian elephants. Scientist Dr Ananda Kumar from the Nature Conservation Foundation( NCF) has over several years succeeded in reducing the deaths due to elephant-human conflict through an early warning system. Dr Kumar after interacting with the local people found that most seemed to believe that the elephants came with the deliberate intent to kill, the fact is that his research showed the deaths were accidental, due to a chance encounter between the victim and the pachyderm.
And so in order to reduce such instances, the research team at NCF set up a conflict response unit (CRU) with local tribal people to track elephants when passing through human-inhabited areas. Based on the information from CRU, local informants, and the Forest Department personnel, three kinds of early warning measures were deployed to alert people about elephant presence within plantations and reduce fatal encounters with elephants: message on cable television network, bulk SMS, and mobile-operated flashing red LED lights in strategic locations.
Through this simple intervention, incidents of conflict have significantly reduced in Valparai. By working on reducing the number of deaths due to elephant encounters, Dr Kumar his colleagues succeeded in reducing the local people’s fear and also eased the pressure on authorities to take steps against the elephant population, such as capturing them. If the people of Valparai viewed elephants as only belonging to the forest, then the pressure would have been to remove the herd, capture it or even cull, as is the practice in other countries. One step towards resolving human-wildlife conflict is to move away from such terminology so it doesn’t create the illusion of antagonism. Wild animals live in a mosaic of land use types, the sooner we accept that the closer we are to finding solutions to any potential ‘conflict’ situation.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and award-winning environment journalist.