The Vanishing Wilderness

2 years, 1 month ago 1
Posted in: Blog

On World Environment Day, can we pause a bit to explore ways in which natural habitats can be conserved without negative impacts on any species?

Cheetal herd in Ammavayal land after the people moved out. ©Arul Badusha

Vast stretches of fallow land, deep in the forest, where paddy was once grown, have now turned pastures for cheetal, sambar and few wild pig. Congregating in large numbers they bask in the evening sun. It has been four years since the humans left this stretch of the forest in Ammavayal and Golur that are part of Kurichiat range of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala.

In the neighbouring state, a similar story was witnessed back in 2010. Forty-three families belonging to a tribal community had sought to be relocated from Murkal in the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, Karnataka. Within just two days of the people leaving, the wildlife swung into action. Bears were seen frolicking with cubs, as also tiger and leopard in the place just vacated by humans.


Dhole pack seen in Madla, Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary, after 199 families residing there moved out ©Mrunmayee Amarnath

And from there, further north to the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, now the model for voluntary relocation of people from forests, the wilderness reclaimed its lost terrain and slowly the animals followed. Around 463 families from 13 villages and over 4000 livestock moved out between 2001 October and 2003, leaving over 49 sq kms of forest inviolate.

In an excellent example of how protection of a landscape helps it flourish, in Bhadra the excellent protection provided by the forest department, along with a control on the grazing and fires, went a long way in aiding the process.

An enclosure in Kudremukh National Park, Bhagawathi, had eight families with over 450 cattle head in all, living in the forest. In a program fully funded by WCS India during 2003, the families opted for relocation. An image here shows the re-entry of wildlife into the region. © Niren Jain

In what is a win-win scenario for wildlife and people, humans have reaped many benefits from relocation.

Not only are the livestock kill by carnivores averted, but crop losses from elephant movement become a thing of the past. Daily visits into the forest, looking for firewood and the inherent danger from encountering wildlife, are prevented, with gas connections being secured in many cases. Health too has improved in the process as smoke is not inhaled.

All relocation schemes, initiated since the MoEF first proposed it in 1999, are voluntary by nature. In the case of Wayanad, it was funded by the MoEF & CC while the state government provides additional benefits.

Take Karupi of the Paniya tribe, resettled from Kurichiyat forest in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. Twirling a plant fibre into a roll and fitting it into the yawning hole pierced in her ear lobe, the 70-plus woman affirms that she and family are happy to be away from the forest where elephant trouble and tiger fear ruled their lives.

Karupi of the Paniya tribe in front of her new house ©Manish Machaiah

Relocated in 2014 as part of the voluntary relocation program (Integrated development of wildlife habitat scheme of the central government), Karupi, her daughter and three sons have done well for themselves with a house each to their names.

The compensation paid is Rs 10 lakh for every male member over 18 years, for unmarried women over 18, and for widows and orphans, while handicapped are counted in, irrespective of age. Additional benefits from the state tribal department include housing, etc. The family now lives on the ration rice they get. Labor work in nearby fields provides a source of livelihood to male and female folk.

For Kaatunayaka tribeswoman Sujatha and family too, the move from Kurichiyat has been good. Need for firewood has been replaced after the forest department provided the gas connection. The family has an auto rickshaw used to earn a living.

Many like Aneesh and Raghavan belonging to the Chetty community are doing well too after the relocation. Crops like paddy, ginger and banana are grown in the land allotted to them. Children go to school without fear of wild animals; and the family has access to healthcare.

Besides tribes like Kaatunayakas, Paniyas, and Mullukurmas, many non-tribal families have been living in the forests in Kerala. Given land on lease by the government back in the 60s as part of the Grow More Food campaign, and in some places title deeds too, these people have been growing paddy, ginger, areca nut, banana, pepper, etc deep in the forest core.

Krishnan from Arakunchi (Bathery range) is thankful for the move out. “It would take two hours daily for me to escort my two children to the forest periphery from where they took bus to school. Today, one is a nurse and the other an engineer,” he says proudly.

Chettiyalathoor landscape where over 220 families eagerly await relocation. ©Manish Machaiah

Meanwhile, in the Chettiyalathoor settlement in Muthanga range, over 220 families eagerly await funds so they can move out. Except for a handful of households, everyone is desperate to leave. Elephant visits and the long commute to the nearest village are the big problems here.

A wildlife sanctuary that boasts a diverse landscape covering moist mixed deciduous, semi-evergreen to dry mixed deciduous, the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, formed in 1973 and placed under Project Elephant, has around 110 settlements with 2,612 households and an approximate population of 12,000 living in the forest. This is also the home of elephants, tigers, gaur, cheetal, sambar, civets, dhole, leopards, etc.

While forests are claimed to make up 20% of the total geographical area in India, the protected areas hardly comprise 5%. This is the space we have for our wildlife and its natural habitat.

Humans, who have been on the planet for a mere 0.000014th fraction of time since the Universe began, or a mere 1/20000th fraction (0.00005) since the home planet first formed, have been instrumental, during the last 100 years, in causing the decline of 83% of all wild mammals. The figures based on weightage as calculated by carbon biomass (courtesy NASA and the UN) say that almost 60% of all mammals on Earth today are livestock, while humans comprise 36% and wildlife a 4 %.

Village in Bhagawathi, Kudremukh National Park before relocation. ©Niren Jain

Where wildlife numbers have been on the decline, in nine years we, in India, have added 133 million to the human population. At 1283 m we make up 18 percent of the world population. Land has not multiplied but on the other hand, being lost to various reasons.

Almost 38% of the global geographical area is cultivated, but not enough. By 2050 another 120 million hectares of natural habitat will be converted, even as 12 million ha of land has been lost to desertification owing to unsustainable farming practices.

On the one hand is the concern over ‘raiding’ elephants and ‘mauling’ tigers and loss of property and human lives from wildlife – in India, this amounts to one human life every day as per environment ministry figures.

On the other side is the oft-unspoken tale of shrinking wildlife habitats. Ministry figures tell us the country has lost more than 4,500 million hectares of forest land since 1947. These have been taken up for farming, dams, industries, townships, encroachments and roads.

Elephant ambling through a tea estate ©Varun R Goswami/Divya Vasudev

Loss and degradation of wildlife habitats and disturbances in wildlife corridors are increasingly seeing wild animals stepping out from forests. And venturing into tea estates, busy highways, farmlands and even factories (recently a tiger had adopted an abandoned rubber factory in Bareilly, only to end up with injuries on its legs from the rusted metals and rods lying around).

‘Raiding’ elephants then get electrocuted by fences carrying higher than permitted electricity, ‘jaywalking’ cheetal and civet cats get knocked down on the highways, while ‘mauling’ leopards are beaten up and even set afire by mobs for ‘straying’ into human habitations. These are the refugees of an environmental war. They are losing their homes. Happy Environment Day?

Do we care enough to set the picture right? To recognize that the planet belongs to all species, and stop this wanton destruction of their (and our) environment.

Written by Jayalakshmi K


One Response

  1. Ram says:


    Are you saying with this article that eventually the mob or the ‘mobocracy'(as famously coined by Justice Krishna Iyer) is going to encroach on to the resources from the protected areas??

    After reading this, I get a feeling that moving indigenous community and other settlers out of the forests resulting in increase in the protected areas a d it’s benefit is nullified by the rapid population growth and the resultant Anthropocenic pressure?

    I don’t see the humans slowing down neither in the population growth nor in thier hyper consumption of everything under the sky.Its very clear the root cause is human population growth, a precarious issue no one wants to address for the obvious reasons we all know.


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