Border conflict

Clashes between wild animals and farmers are rising along forest fringes. But the government is yet to gauge their intensity, forget developing a counter strategy

By Sumana Narayanan
Published: Monday 31 May 2010

In several regions in India farmers are switching crops—some are even abandoning farming. Their choices are not dictated by the agriculture market. They are doing so because they are too close to forests. And wild animals attack their crops and cattle so often that they cannot go on like before.

“Earlier, nilgais were rarely seen and in small numbers, so if they ate a bit of the crop we didn’t mind. But in the past 10-15 years this has changed,” said Ravinder Joshi, a farmer in Dulehar village of Una district in Himachal Pradesh. “Now nilgais come frequently and in large groups, destroying so much crop that farming doesn’t have a future here.”

Joshi has switched crops like many others in Una. He has given up growing sugarcane, wheat, maize and pulses. “I used to grow masur (red lentil), mustard, chana (gram) but the nilgai eats them. The only thing it does not like is tara mira. Now that’s all I can grow in my four hectares,” said Joshi. Tara mira of the mustard family is fodder. It has become the most common crop in Una, though it has no market value.

“The younger generation is switching to other jobs. Many of them drive trucks or work in factories,” added Joshi who himself has a second job as a pharmacist in the village. A lot of scrub jungle in Una is abandoned agricultural land overrun by lantana.

The range officer in Una offers an explanation for the rising incidences of crop raids. “The natural predators of nilgai—tigers, for example—are not found in Una anymore, so the nilgai population has increased,” said Manish Rampal who has been posted in the district since 2006.

The raiding species and the crops they attack vary from place to place. In Maharashtra’s Wardha district, Prakash Pote’s family have, for generations, grown cotton and chickpea as commercial crops. A decade ago they started facing losses because deer and boars began emerging from nearby forests with increasing frequency and attacking the crops in Jamgaon village. Pote’s family, like thousands of farmers in Asti tehsil, have switched, almost exclusively, to growing soy bean. They say this is the only crop the animals do not attack. “We can’t even grow chickpea enough for our own consumption,” said Pote.

In adjoining Chandrapur district, a similar switchover to soy bean happened in at least three tehsils, Warora, Bhadravati and Chandrapur, between 2003 and 2006. In the last decade, farmers say, the cases of hogs and deer destroying crops have gone up, even in areas where it was earlier nonexistent. “We can’t plant sorghum, cotton or chickpea,” said Devrao Dhandre of Mangli village in Warora.

The situation is serious, with crop losses in the Vidarbha region due to wildlife to the tune of 20 to 25 per cent, said A C Bhutada, divisional joint director of agriculture in Nagpur. “Animals entering farms was nothing unusual as far back as we can remember,” said elderly Annapurna Bai of Jamgaon. “But we have never seen such attacks as happen now. They do not walk in any longer; they attack in groups of 50 to 100, so we dare not chase them away.”

There is no one explanation for the problem Annapurna describes. Journalist Devendra Gawande, who has been reporting from Vidarbha for over a decade, said one reason could be rapid industrialization in Chandrapur. “The area already has 40 coal mines of Western Coalfields Ltd, five cement plants, several steel and power plants. More steel and power plants are being built on forest and agricultural land,” he added.

In Orissa, elephants are driving farmers to despair. Brahmanand Jena of Gangpatna village close to Chandaka wildlife sanctuary on the outskirts of Orissa’s capital city has stopped growing paddy for the past three years. “I decided to give up farming after repeated elephant raids. Ever since my two-acre (a little less than a hectare) plot has been lying fallow,” said Jena who now runs an almirah-making unit in the village.

In western India, blackbuck and wild boar are common.

Moola Singh, 64: He says he has killed six-seven nilgais on his land in Dulehar village in Una

Vikas Singh, 77: A retired army man, he is one of the few people in Dulehar village in Una to own a gun but has not killed any nilgai till date

Sparse data

No one quite knows how extensive the farmer-wildlife conflict is in the country. State or Central databases on crop raiding do not exist; information has to be collected from range officers. In some places even the forest department has no information. “Tiger reserves send their budgetary requirements every year. Crop or livestock compensation may be a component of their budget. This can give an idea of the conflict but such an analysis is usually not done,” said S P Yadav, joint director at the National Tiger Conservation Authority. While there have been some studies, these are scattered and usually done over a short period. “Recent studies have been only for one cropping season and data from long-term monitoring is not available,” said Chaityana Krishna, who is studying crop damage by blackbucks in Maharashtra and is project assistant at the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bengaluru.

Some trends could be inferred from government reports. Paddy damage by elephants in Orissa has increased. In 2009-2010, elephants destroyed 4,100 hectares (ha), a nearly fourfold jump from the 1,060 ha in 2001-02. In West Bengal, the government paid a compensation of Rs 2.53 lakh for human lives lost and crops damaged by elephants in 1986-87. By 1990-91 the amount rose to Rs 30.29 lakh and in 2004-05 it more than trebled to Rs 96.76 lakh.

Fight for resources
Most farmers Down To Earth spoke to said instances of crop raiding are rising because wildlife population has increased and they do not find enough food inside forests. Researchers are quick to emphasise that the conflict is complex and reasons vary across the country. Farmers and wildlife observers, however, agree that pressure on natural resources is increasing, both from wildlife within the forests and people on the fringes. With both parties trying to access a greater portion of the natural resource pie, there is bound to be a greater conflict. All along the forest fringes, people and their fields have moved closer to the forest, observed K S Rao in his 2002 paper on crop damage by wild animals in Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve in Uttarakhand. The old practice of leaving a buffer area between the forests and fields is absent leading to easier access to crops for the wildlife.

The increased availability of energy-rich food on the forest edge also encourages animals to raid crops. “Even if there is good grazing option inside the forest, wildlife will raid if the crops offer them better food value,” said R N Mehrotra, the principal chief conservator of forests, Rajasthan. The answer is to increase the productivity of forests and encourage farmers to switch to crops that wildlife finds less palatable, he added.

Conservation policies have contributed their bit to the conundrum. The Wildlife (Protection) Act restricts peoples’ access to the forest for grazing their cattle and collecting fruits, herbs and fuel wood. In 2000, the Supreme Court imposed a blanket ban on the removal of any produce from protected areas. The restrictions meant people deprived of forest produce have had to turn more to farming. More land has been cleared for cultivation, bringing crops closer to the forests. Farmers have switched to cash crops for more money.

“Cash crop farmers are also more antagonistic towards wildlife. Now even in places where religious sentiments would stop people from killing animals, farmers hire nomadic people to kill the marauding wildlife,” said Anil Kumar Chhangani of the School of Desert Science in Jodhpur who has studied crop raiding in Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan. Ban on grazing is not a good forest management practice, he added, for grazing can promote forest regeneration.

No one shoe fits all

The usual response to contain the conflict is fencing fields, building walls, protecting wildlife corridors, translocating animals and sometimes killing them. The reasons and hence the workable solutions vary from site to site, say researchers. “There is no silver bullet, no one-shoe-fits-all solution,” said M D Madhusudan of the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation who is working with farmers around Bandipur National Park in Karnataka to mitigate the conflict. In some places fencing the fields makes sense if the farms are contiguous. But in some regions the plots are scattered and interspersed with forests. That would require a different approach, he added.

The Nagpur divisional joint director of agriculture regretted the government provides no subsidy for erecting solar-powered electric fences, despite the growing demand. “It is an expensive solution,” he said. “But the only feasible one in the region.”

Relocation, say researchers, might give temporary relief to the farmers but might stress wildlife. Some species are territorial, so moving them can cause clashes between individuals. Killing is a drastic step which is not favoured by most, even farmers. But recently farmers in Himachal Pradesh lobbied hard with the forest department to get the permission to shoot nilgais entering their fields. On March 4, the state government notified nilgai a vermin under the Wildlife (Protection) Act. Farmers in Una, Bilaspur, Nurpur, Paonta Sahib forest divisions can now apply for a shooting permit.

The permit issued by the district forest officer or range officer for a few weeks will allow them to kill nilgais on their land; they cannot hunt them in the forest. The forest department admits that so far no kills have been reported from Una—farmers are required to turn in the tails of nilgais killed as proof. “We have given 15 permits till date,” said the range officer. Nilgais are hardy animals and very few farmers have guns.

Near Sariska National Park in Rajasthan farmers are on edge; they are not allowed to kill nilgai. People in Todi village, 3 km from Sariska, refer to wild animals as “theirs”—meaning the forest department’s. Raghunath Meena, 65, is angry because “their animals” have destroyed about 900 kg of his barley crop. “I usually get 10 sacks of barley but this time I will get one because the nilgais have finished everything,” he said.

Farmers are also sore over having to pay a fine whenever their cattle are caught grazing in the forest. “But when their animals come out we are not supposed to do anything,” Meena retorted. “I’ll shoot them rather than see my crop being raided in front of my eyes, let the department do whatever it wants to.”

Time to intervene

It is time the government intervenes to compensate farmers adequately for the economic loss. Compensation schemes, say researchers, are not applied uniformly across the country. “Crop compensation is not a priority for the government. There are very few schemes, no estimate of the money required and no survey of the extent of the problem,” said Ghazala Shahbuddin, an ecologist who is associate professor at Ambedkar University in Delhi.

Blackbuck grazing in a sorghum field in Maharashtra

Managers of protected forests devise compensation schemes with funds from the state government or the Centre. The usual complaint is that compensation is not paid on time and is far less than the market value of the crop. At Malipada village near Chandaka wildlife sanctuary septuagenarian Bhagbat Jena said he got Rs 500 for half a hectare of paddy destroyed by elephants.

Compensation schemes are drawn up for specific animals in a given area. If damage is done by other animal, the farmer is not eligible for compensation, admit officials. Farmers complain getting compensation is a complicated process. One has to lodge a complaint with the forest ranger, who visits the field to verify damage as well as ownership and legal status of the land with the revenue department. Then a report is sent up the ladder to the office of the chief wildlife warden who is authorized to sanction the compensation. “Very often the crop is on encroached land close to the protected area, so compensation is denied,” said a senior official in the Orissa forest department.

To begin with the government can reform the compensation policy.

With inputs from Aparna Pallavi in Nagpur, Ashutosh Mishra in Bhubaneswar, Ramesh Raut in Aurangabad and Ravleen Kaur in Alwar

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