By Preeti Negi
COVID-19 has altered the way our world used to function. This deadly virus has brought to life some of the biggest fears of human beings. The lockdown, in different parts of the world, upended humans by forcing them to stay inside their houses bringing the hustle and bustle of city roads to a standstill.
This became an opportunity for the animals to take over. Several videos showed animals venturing into territories which were claimed hitherto only by human beings. Penguins in South Africa, coyotes in the USA, Adelaide in Australia, reindeers in the UK, Haifa in Israel, monkeys, leopards and tigers in different states of India were seen in public spaces.
Animals coming out into human territory is not a new phenomenon here, as many states in India have been reporting intense man-animal conflict for quite some time now. Amid the lockdown, the pattern of the conflict, however, has not been uniform.
In Uttarakhand’s Corbett National Park, man-elephant conflict fell sharply as lockdown had stopped traffic. While in the same state, leopards continued to attack people. On April 5, two persons sustained injuries in an attack by leopards as reported by The Times of India. Another report mentions that a woman was attacked by a leopard in Bageshwar district on April 7.
It is not just leopards who come out of their territory to attack humans and livestock, but these attacks are often carried by monkeys, langurs, and wild boars. Villagers, who rely heavily upon their agriculture produce and livestock for sustenance, have to face heavy losses due to these attacks. In Uttarakhand, as per a report published in the Hindi daily, Jansatta, wild animals have destroyed 486.348 hectares of agriculture land in 2016-17, 270.764 hectares in 2017-18, 242.578 hectares in 2018-19, and 29.079 hectares till May 2019.
The attacks have been happening frequently in Uttarakhand and this rise can be contributed to several reasons. At the larger level, deforestation and shrinking of agriculture area in the hills constitute the prime causes.
As per a parliamentary report, between 2015 and 2019, 2,850 hectares of forest land was diverted to 255 development projects in Uttarakhand. This encroachment on the land that rightfully belongs to the wild species has led to an increase in this conflict.
At a more microscopic level, there are other reasons that attract wild animals towards human settlements. A trend has been noticed in the villages, where people carelessly leave their livestock unguarded which serves as an open invitation for wild animals to attack these pets.
Villagers, owing to the growing fear of these wild animals in forests, have started cultivating crops nearer to their houses. This practice, instead of helping them, has made them and their families more vulnerable to attacks by wild animals.
As per forest department data, “159 leopards were declared human eaters till October 2017, of which 44 were shot dead between 2006 and 2016. In 2016, seven leopards were shot dead after they were declared human eaters.” These wild animals have contributed to deaths of 79 humans and nearly 11,000 domesticated animals between January 2017 to September 2018.
Before 2016, the Forest Department was free to kill these human eaters. Seeing the rise in the uncontrolled slaughter of the animals, Uttarakhand High Court prohibited the officials from taking such actions in December 2016. The department has now become more cautious in declaring attacking leopards and tigers as human-eaters and giving orders to kill them. This, however, has provided no relief to villagers who fear for their lives from these big cats.
The human-animal conflict exists largely because of the human greed to encroach the natural habitat of these animals. The concept of ‘balance’ has been lost somewhere while chasing unorganised development.
To put an end to this conflict, the first step should be to restore their habitat which can only be achieved by afforestation. Then, smaller steps will help – putting livestock in pens at night, villagers should guard their villages and fields at night, crop insurance and other mitigation measures should be taken to ensure harmony between the social and the wild animals.
Note: This article has been written by Charkha’s rural writer Preeti Negi, from Uttarakhand