Recently, there was a huge public outcry after the death of a pregnant elephant. Motivated by this, this article explores the increasing dimensions of man-animal enmity and the resultant loss of wildlife.
On May 30, 2020, Mohan Krishnan, a section officer, posted on his Facebook page about the death of a female elephant he had witnessed. The elephant dwelled in Silent Valley National Park (SNVP), Nilgiri hills, Kerala. Mohan’s explanation and the posted pictures showed a 15-year-old wild elephant in the Velliyar River with her wounded mouth and trunk immersed in the water.
On May 27, 2020, Mohan reached the river spot and saw her weak and starved. The rapid response team pulled her ashore, but she showed resistance. She died on May 27 around 4 pm in the water.
Suspecting an unnatural death, post-mortem revealed her jaws were severely destroyed and tongue burned. Moreover, the elephant was one-month pregnant.
It was speculated that the elephant entered the village area, ate some fruit laced with explosives; the explosion severely damaged her mouth area. Injured and starved, she went back to the wild. When the team saw her after suspected 20 days of the incident, she was probably trying to get some relief from the pain and getting rid of the flies around her wound in the river.
There are many speculated reasons for this incident. A forest officer brought out two possibilities. There were chances that the elephant fell prey to a trap for wild-boars that trample or eat crops. Or, she might have become victim to some insane people who were fearful of wild elephants ravaging their property.
Mohan used the word “pineapple or some other fruit” as the cause of the wound on the elephant’s mouth and tongue. This is because small explosive lumps are sometimes used as a desperate measure to ward-off wild animals from raiding crops.
Monkey and wild boars are among the top crop destroyers in India.Wild boar population is consistently expanding. They know the mantra of survival with phenomenal reproductive rate and exceptional intelligence in par with chimpanzees.
Monkeys and wild boars have developed instincts such as smell that defend them from stepping or touching on crude explosive bombs, but wild elephants often get hurt indiscriminately.
Sometimes, fences around the farms are connected illegally to high voltage electricity wires to keep wild boars away. In 2016, an electric fence around a private coffee estate near Mudahalli Elephant Corridor led to the killing of a 15-year-old elephant. Similarly, two elephants lost life in 2019, touching electric fence while entering a maize farm close to Talavadi hills. Numerous other incidences were recorded in 2020 as well.
However, we cannot sideline the possibility that mini-grenade explosive balls are handy tools for hunters. Poachers coat gunpowder around flour ball. In 2018, a spotted dear died after eating such ball.
Poachers know the forest and migratory routes of animals very well. They patrol the area searching for large tusked elephants. Poachers keep explosives where animals drink water or on a particular route.
Whatsoever be the motivational factors, intentional or unintentional, India’s elephant population declined by 10% from 2012 to 2017.
Two tigresses and one tiger died in 2019 and a male-female pair died in April, 2020. These deaths were unnatural; their autopsy reports suggested that the tigers ate poisoned boar. All these cases took place around wildlife sanctuaries or forest reserves, pointing to poisoning to bait boars by farmers.
The farms adjoining core zones of forests face pronounced wildlife damages to crops.
Wild boars are proliferating at such high rates that the Indian states Uttarakhand in 2016 and Karnataka in 2017 declared them vermin. This allows farmers a legal cover, for over a period of one year, to shoot boars wandering around their land. It is one way to relieve the farmers, provided their method of killing, hunting permits and number of culling boars are monitored.
It is a tricky affair! If wild boars or other herbivores like nilgai decline, carnivores like tigers may start preying on livestock and humans. In one incident in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa, farmers poisoned a tigress and her three cubs on the pretext of saving their cattle.
It is unwise for humans to continue man-versus-beast showdowns in India.
Introducing predators could be effective in restoring the balance amongst different animal species. For instance, in the Yellowstone National Park of America, hunting fully eliminated wolfs by the end of 1920s. In the absence of wolves, the population of elf (deer family) exploded. They grazed on young trees, leading to the degradation of the national park. In 1995, the wolves were reintroduced to keep a check on the elk population.
Lack of natural predators of wild boar has made them a pest. They damage crops and eat new plantations, seedlings, seeds available for wildlife. Few animals that naturally prey on wild boar, like panther, jackal, wolves can keep the boar population under control.
Desperate killing of wild boars would endanger food source of tigers, panthers and others. Reduced predators further contribute to more boars. In nature’s food chain, one desperate action for one may lead to endangering others.
Wild boars attack crops at night. Aggressive behaviour of boars makes it impossible to guard the crops at night. India experiences the second-largest percentage of wild boar attacks on humans, after the US. This is contrary to the innate nature of wild boars; usually they flee away from humans. Shrinking food resources and over-multiplication of boars have made their behaviour aggressive.
Entirely blaming rural community for the conflicts will not be justified. Tribal and indigenous people living in forest fringes often share spaces with wild animals. Illegal wildlife trade lures several traditional hunter communities and other actors into commercial hunting.
For instance, pangolin scales are traded from tribal Indian forests to China through urban middle men. Tribal hunters usually rely on subsistence farming and hunting. Middle men manipulate them to hunt pangolins in exchange of few rupees.
Elephants have had traditional migratory routes way before agriculture was practiced.
Over centuries, elephant herds from Northern West Bengal migrate to East Nepal, crossing River Mechi. Expanding crop fields and human habitation into forest has deterred free movement routes of wild elephants. With more crops destruction and elephant-human casualties, in 2016, Nepal set an 18-km long electric fence, restricting elephants’ entry. Diverted from their natural route, agitated elephants are causing havoc in other parts of North Bengal.
Just like elephants, sea turtles are endangered and completely protected species included in the Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972, Schedule I.
Turtles existed way before the first modern human appeared. They are one of the oldest reptile groups and date back to the Middle Jurassic Period. Today, sea turtle numbers have dropped to 0.1% of what they were historically estimated.
Sea turtles are depicted in mythology and/or worshiped in various cultures. The cultural faith, however, is gradually weakening. At beaches, turtles bury eggs in sand to hatch. Despite legal protection, they are eaten or sold in the market.
In other parts of the world such as Mexico, eating turtle eggs has been part of local culture for centuries.
Man must essentially learn to co-exist with other life forms. The more plant-animal varieties, the more are the survival chances of mankind.
Each species has a distinct role in nature. For instance, Orangutan, a tree-dwelling animal, is the major seed distributor in tropical rainforests. Orangutan’s strong jaws open fruits which other animals cannot. The undigested seeds pass through excreta to germinate on ground.
Similarly, elephants eat fruits and drop the seeds after many hours and over several kilometres. This helps seeds to disperse widely. Many plants have evolved in such a manner that their seeds germinate only after passing through elephant’s digestive tract into the ground.
Open public forum: Drafts on forest and wildlife conservation policies should be widely discussed. Wide circulation of technical drafts in people’s language will motivate public responses.
More Wild Food Forests: Man-animal enmities have crossed beyond rural areas. There are numerous instances where Himalayan Black Bear intruded in urban spaces of Gangtok, Sikkim. Bears are starving with no fruits, roots and nuts. Strict vigilance is required to stop commercial extraction of wild edibles from forests, and we need more rejuvenation programs on native fruit-bearing plants.
Awakening: In 2019, some villagers in Gurugram killed a Pangolin as they were terrified of its strange snake-like appearance. Had they known it is a harmless, docile mammal, it would have been a different story. Pangolin is the most trafficked and critically endangered animal. After Pangolin was suspected as an intermediary host of the coronavirus, it is feared that the panic would wipe the creature from the earth.
Natural Practices: Planting lemongrass, agave, orchid cactus, etc. as bio-fence instead of electric fence will keep wild animals away. Farmers in Thailand hung CDs in front of a torch powered by a car battery at night. The CD flickers with the light beam to scare off elephants.
International Pressure: Origin of COVID-19 is suspected to link with “wet” markets in China. Wet markets are common in Asia, Africa and elsewhere where wild animals are sold. Wildlife trade of animals should be strictly checked on public health ground.