Wildlife & Biodiversity

Kerala’s gaur-human conflict debates fail to address some core issues; here is why

Gaurs had turned violent & aggressive after being shot by poachers; contentious issues, including the role of poachers, remain unaddressed

By K A Shaji
Published: Friday 26 May 2023
 A gaur crossing the road at Marayoor Sandalwood Reserve in Kerala. Photo KA Shaji.
 A gaur crossing the road at Marayoor Sandalwood Reserve in Kerala. Photo KA Shaji. A gaur crossing the road at Marayoor Sandalwood Reserve in Kerala. Photo KA Shaji.

Three persons were killed in two different incidents of gaur attack in the Kottayam and Kollam districts of Kerala last week. The issue initiated a high-pitched war of words between the state’s forest minister AK Saseendran and bishops of the powerful Catholic church.

Although a week has passed since the attacks, the debate over the solution — killing down or tranquilising and relocation — is still ongoing. However, despite bickering over the issue, Kerala is yet to evolve a strategy to mitigate the tension between those living in the forest fringe villages and the world’s largest species of wild cattle.

Gaurs, which inhabit evergreen and moist deciduous forests of the Western Ghats, are now moving out into human habitats in different states. They have become accustomed to feeding on garbage and various familiar agricultural produce. 

Also read: The problem with Kerala’s compensation rules for human-wildlife conflict

Improper waste management in towns and villages bordering forests are among the primary reasons cited for the increased seasonal movement of the animals outside forests — especially during food-scarce summer days.

Habitat fragmentation caused by infrastructure projects is another major reason for gaur-human conflicts. Forest veterinarians have noticed a recent shift in the dwelling preference of gaurs — from forest environments to defunct plantations — especially where coffee and tea are grown.

Such plantations offer more food and living conditions, and gaurs migrate to them in large groups, occasionally engaging in crop raids in nearby villages when they face any disruption inside the plantations.

But in the case of Erumely and Anchal in southern Kerala, where three people were killed recently, forest officials confirmed that the animal had turned violent and aggressive after being shot by poachers.

The gaurs, injured by poacher bullets, had attacked farmers on the forest fringes, they said. Local participation is the only effective solution; it helps the department arrest and punish those poachers who remain active despite stringent laws protecting wildlife.

“The department has received convincing evidence on the presence of poachers in the two regions, and their actions were behind the unusual aggression by the gaurs, which are usually docile,” Saseendran told this reporter. 

Wild gaurs are normally not aggressive, and the behavioural changes must be studied, said Arun Zakhariah, a forest veterinarian.

“The species has been witnessing behavioural changes for quite a long time. They now move out of the forests into human settlements and show the desire to coexist with humans. It’s a matter that baffles the scientific community. But the gaurs getting angry and killing humans is something else, and the real reasons must be ascertained,” he said.

Also read: Saseendran’s ‘tiger cull’: Kerala forest minister made a gaffe; but state’s human-wildlife conflict needs redressal

However, the Catholic bishops who took an adamant stand — animals that kill people must be shot dead — are not ready to believe the department’s version of poachers’ attack provoking the gaurs.

They said the officials were fabricating stories to divert public attention from the real reasons behind the gaur-human conflict, which is now getting aggravated across the state.

Escalating human-animal conflicts have turned into an emotional issue across the hilly regions of Kerala, where bishops turn the spokespersons of the predominantly Christian farmers who occupy lands close to forests and cultivate cash crops there. 

Gaurs are the latest addition to the crop raiding and conflicting animals, which include elephants, tigers and wild boars. For religious leaders and politicians who often appear as spokespersons of the farming community, conservation and coexistence remain excluded from their priorities. 

Instead, they demand immediate gunning down of the animals, even unmindful of the protocols and mandatory procedures involved. 

The debate this time began with the Kottayam district collector directing the police to shoot down the attacker gaur that roamed Erumeli, using his powers as district magistrate to mitigate the tension. However, the police refused to undertake the order, saying only the forest department has the authority to shoot any wild animal.

Going by the Wildlife Protection Act, only the chief wildlife warden has the authority to order the killing of a wild animal. When the local community turned against the forest department, protesting the delay in killing the gaur, the chief wildlife warden issued an order to tranquilise and relocate the gaur. The order was silent on killing the animal and suggested taking all possible steps, including tranquilising and relocating the animal to ease the worry among the local community.

Conservationists pointed out that district collectors must grasp forest and wildlife rules before clamping orders as executive magistrates under Section 133 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which envisages the ‘removal of unlawful obstruction or nuisance from any public place’.

“It’s not a law and order issue. The collector’s action has triggered sharp and angry reactions from the farming community and bishops,” pointed out Kerala-based environmental activist N Badusha.

Also read: Climbing the machan: Poverty and animal conflict in Karnataka

Forest officials say no gaur can be tranquilised or relocated as long as they are not straying into human settlements. In both cases, there are reports that the people killed by gaurs had entered the forest for unknown reasons, and the incidents did not occur in human settlements.

However, the Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC) is seeking lasting solutions to the growing wildlife attacks on settler farmers in the Western Ghats. 

As many as 735 people were killed in attacks by wild animals, including gaurs, in Kerala, in the last six years, according to Kanjirappally bishop Mar Jose Pulickal, the president of KCBC. He said 121 people were killed between June 2021 and December 2022 alone.

“Who must be accountable for this? Have all these people been killed for creating trouble in the forests,” he asked. 

In the case of wild animals, there are many protectors, including political parties, government, forest department, environmentalists and opinion makers. But for the settler farmers, there are none. But it would be best to remember that wild elephants have no voting right. The farmers have voted and will prove what they can do with their votes in the next election, said the bishop while addressing a farmers’ meeting in Idukki.

Meanwhile, Saseendran urged the bishops not to issue provocative statements and to respect the prevailing laws. 

“Across the state, there is a purported attempt to turn the general public against the forest department. Some people engage in poaching and other illegal activities under the cover of fake farmers’ organisations and try to exploit the situation. They make matters worse,” said an officer who preferred anonymity.

In the meantime, guidelines with the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change recommend a balanced coexistence approach towards human-gaur conflict rather than a confrontation using bullets. 

Gaurs are included in Schedule I of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 and listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. Their estimated population is around 13,000 to 30,000 globally, with approximately 85 per cent of the population in India. 

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