"If we could actually hear what an animal thinks, if they could talk to us, we would cry aloud and beg forgiveness."- April Peerless
The other day my mother woke me up when she saw the scrolling news in the channels that a man has been trampled to death by elephant in Kerala's Wayanad district. We belong to the town of Kalpetta there and such happenings are not new to us. But, in the recent years, wild animal attacks have increased on a rapid pace in Wayanad. The forest officials are finding it really hard to drive away the wild animals back into the forests and they also suffer injuries in their attempts. Despite patrolling, wild animals including elephants, tigers, leopards, bears and bison are straying into residential areas. Some opine that animal attacks have decreased, while others feel the opposite. But, we, the actual residents know the truth. So, I feel that I should write what exactly is happening in the district and what can be done about it.
Wayanad is bordered by Karnataka to north and north-east with the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and National Park; Tamil Nadu to the South-east with Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. Kerala's Malappuram to the south, Kozhikode to the south-west and Kannur to the north-west.
Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary has four ranges, namely, Sulthan Bathery, Muthanga, Kurichiat and Tholpetty. Moreover, the district has the largest tribal population in Kerala. The land has a long history of freedom struggles and other courageous stories. But, in recent years, Wayanad has become the epicentre of human-wildlife conflicts in the State. During drought season, the animals and birds from nearby sanctuaries come down to Wayanad range in search of water. Thus, we can spot variety of species of fauna in the district.
Unfortunately, the forests are shrinking now due to deforestation, climate change, forest fires, change in use of land-pattern and urbanisation. This forces wild animals to move into places which have adequate water and food. Further, the unprecedented loss of wild habitats has decreased the tolerance level of wild animals to man and his actions. The rising elephant, tiger and leopard attacks on the local residents are triggering panic and chaos among the people in Wayanad. Crop raiding and manslaughter by elephants have steadily increased. The wildlife attacks are not only from these giant beasts, but also are caused by wild boars, monkeys and even bats.
More than 20 people are killed every year on an average in wildlife attacks in Wayanad as man and animals are vying for spaces. What is happening in reality?
When habitats are destroyed, wild animals are slowly learning to adapt to their new environment. For instance, let us look at the case of monkeys. The menace caused by monkeys in residential areas is nearly intolerable. They eat fruits and vegetables which are grown in farmlands and backyards, they destroy anything that is kept outside, they attack children frequently and even scratch and destroy vehicle mirrors. In 2015, forest department carried out mass relocation of the simian population to remote forests. But, the problem has not yet been solved. Similarly, other wild animals stray into tribal settlements and other residential areas when their habitats and resources are depleted. Some officials opine that there are already Protected Areas (PAs) and reserves for various animal species. But, in a survey conducted by Wildlife Institute of India in 2016, 29% of tigers and 67% of elephants live outside PAs in India. This has a bearing on the unfortunate occurrences in Wayanad.
What can be done about this? Any developmental activity causing interference in the privacy of wildlife should be banned. Even though it is banned on paper, we can spot several home stays, resorts and illegal constructions in the vicinity of Muthanga and Tholpetty ranges. Development should not be at the cost of ecosystem. Most of the laws are anthropocentric, which means they are human-centered and that all other beings are means to human ends. It is ethically wrong and is the root of ecological crises. For example, we consider that biodiversity is necessary for the well-being of human beings. Nothing will change unless we realise and accept that biodiversity is vital for the well-being of all forms of life on earth.
The anthropocentric approach should change into eco-centric approach. The local people should be made aware about how to stay safe till the situation is brought under control. We cannot run away from the responsibility of causing harm to our forests and wildlife. We only react when the situation becomes the worst. Now that we are at the brink of life and death, we should begin eco-developmental activities at the earliest.
Tribal communities played an important and inevitable role in community foresting and management. Their role cannot be forgotten. The government should take initiative to elicit cooperation of local community in forest management. Radio collars with high frequency, global positioning system etc can be installed to view the movement of wildlife. Strict patrolling should be carried out on a daily basis to stop poaching and illegal trespass into forest areas. Water bodies within the forests like small ponds can be refilled to provide water to the wildlife. Measures should be taken to prevent forest fires also.
Students also owe responsibility to protect our environment. Their active participation can turn human-wildlife conflict to human-wildlife coexistence.
Priority should be given to ecological security, afforestation, water conservation and habitat restoration. We should join together to conserve our flora and fauna. Can reserves or parks really protect fauna? Migratory birds fly from place to place in different seasons. The question is how can you restrict a bird? They fly out of the protected areas and are then hunted down for meat! So, as human beings, it is high time that we realise what Gandhiji said, "What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another."