Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary: Man and Animal Vying for Space

1 year, 7 months ago 1
Posted in: Blog

Humans and wildlife live in close confines, leading to negative outcomes. Ongoing voluntary relocation of people from the sanctuary is a clear win-win solution for both.

Written By Jayalakshmi K

Rughmini and family are finally ‘out of the woods’. Leaving Chettiyalathur that was home for decades is not easy, but the compulsions had been too many. Elephant visits for one, posing danger to human life besides the crop loss, lack of employment opportunities, the long trek for medical exigencies, distance to the nearby school, had all heightened the need for exit from home.

Chettiyalathur settlement inside Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary

Chettiyalathur in Muthanga range of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (WWS) is one of the largest settlements situated in the tri-junction of WWS and the Mudumalai and Bandipur tiger reserves. Around 160 families from here have sought voluntary relocation under the central government-sponsored Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitat scheme. The first lot of six families left the settlement in mid-July. (By end of 2018, around 97 families have moved out.) Another 50 more applications are in the pipeline. This is part of the relocation package that was initiated by the government back in 2012 for people living in WWS, declared a sanctuary in 1973.

Rugmini with her two daughters at their new house after moving out of Chettiyalathur settlement in WWS during July 2018

A wildlife sanctuary that boasts a diverse landscape covering moist mixed deciduous, semi-evergreen to dry mixed deciduous; and home to the Indian elephant, tiger, leopard, gaur, cheetal, sloth bear, sambar, bonnet macaques and many other species, the WWS also has around 97 human settlements nestled within, with an approximate 2612 households and a population of 12,000. They occupy around 34,000 acres of land, out of the total 85,000 acres of forest land.

Besides the many tribals who are natives of the land, many others were brought in during the 50s to work on the plantations and also as part of the Grow More Food campaign. The landscape further changed under the massive teak plantation by the government then. These replaced much of the bamboo the elephants fed on, sending them scouting to new areas for food. The drought has worsened the situation in the last few years.

The sanctuary has seen some of the most numbers of human-wildlife clashes, with loss of lives on both sides. However, a significant reduction is claimed to have been achieved in recent years following construction of stonewalls around habitations, as well as trenches and solar fences. According to news reports, the claims for compensation have almost halved from what was received in 2014.

Relocation hurdles

Wayanad Wildlife Warden N T Sajan looks at relocation as the best solution to resolving the problem. Around 241 families from 14 settlements in the sanctuary have moved out under the first phase of voluntary relocation programme, he says. The second phase will look at 12 settlements.

The peculiar problem in WWS is that there are both lease lands (under the forest department) and revenue lands (revenue department). Moving families out of the former is easy as the land is with the department while in the latter case, it becomes difficult and requires the identification of land by the revenue department, points out Sajan. This has considerably slowed down the process initiated six years ago, he says.

The compensation paid under the central government package 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. The state tribal department pitches in and builds the new houses as part of the state’s contribution to the relocation.

Cattle and forest fires big issues

According to N Badusha, president, and founder of Wayanad Prakriti Samrakshana Samithi, the biggest challenge in WWS is the human-animal conflict, and the prime reason for this is forest degradation. “Out of the 344 sq km, almost 100 sq km has monoculture plantations on it. That aside, there is the grazing problem with over 20,000 cattle heads inside. Forest fires are another major contributor as also tourism.”

Relocation is the best solution and must continue, says Badusha, noting how over 500 acres of deep forest has been released back to the wilderness so far. He is firm that tourism inside the sanctuary must be stopped and habitat improvement by way of natural growth be encouraged.

Prakriti Srivastava, Country Director – WCS-India, who was APCCF under deputation from the central Ministry of Environment and Forests and enabled the first installment for relocation from WWS in 2012, is all praise for the forest department and “the commendable job” undertaken by them under the various constraints. The areas from where people have moved out are now seeing the return of wildlife, she notes, while the intervention has also helped people live “peaceful and productive” lives.

The major challenge

Meanwhile, in every settlement in the sanctuary, the people have the same complaint – that conflicts have increased from a few decades ago.

Does that mean wildlife numbers have increased? Or wildlife habitat increasingly decreased, (or degraded as noted by Badusha) while both wildlife and human numbers inside have increased beyond carrying capacities? Experts suggest the truth is a combination of all the above.

Studies have also shown how human perceptions of conflict can vary significantly with the actual situation. The other inference could be that wildlife tolerance vis a vis human-induced stress has decreased. A recent study ‘Physiological stress responses in wild Asian elephants Elephas maximus in a human-dominated landscape in the Western Ghats, southern India’ by scientists from National Institute of Advanced Studies and associates found heightened levels of stress in elephants following elephant drives. (The high levels of stress could affect reproduction levels in elephants and in turn their survival, says Sreedhar Vijaykrishnan, lead author of the study published in General and Comparative Endocrinology.)

An elephant shot dead in Kurichiyat range, WWS ©Arul Badusha

Living in close confines to humans as in WWS, moving in search of dwindling food and water, elephants are exposed frequently to such drives where mobs burst crackers, throw stones, use fire, etc. These in turn make them more aggressive.

Comprising four ranges of Sulthan Bathery, Muthanga, Kurichiyat and Tholpetty, the sanctuary is split with Tholpetty in the north and the rest in the south, with the region in between spanning a few hundred km of human habitations. Part of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, the WWS is geographically contiguous with Bandipur and Nagarhole tiger reserve to the north-east and north-west, and Mudumalai tiger reserve to the south-east.

Moving through parts of the 344.44 sq km of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, what hits home clearly is the level of disturbance from humans. Deep inside the jungle, one is never too far from the sounds of ‘civilization’ – vehicle horns, music, and mobile phone ringtones!

In the words of wildlife expert D V Girish, Wayanad today is what Bhadra was 20 years ago, before the resettlement. With roads criss-crossing the region and so many settlements deep inside the forest, conflicts between man and wildlife are inevitable. Besides hunting and timber extraction, there is also the impact of collecting forest produce, often at unsustainable rates. Firewood, honey, lichens, herbs, and tubers are harvested by the people living here.

The erstwhile grazing fields at Ammavayal and Golur of Kurichiyat range are good examples of what relocation can do. Today the wide pastures are frequented by large numbers of cheetal. Watchers at the anti-poaching camp at Golur have frequently sighted a tiger, walking regally on the bund across the waterhole.

To the question of whether to build jumbo walls around human habitats inside the jungle, or shift the humans out, it is pertinent to realize that aspirations of people have changed. Many relocated households still use firewood and cook their food in makeshift huts, but most homes also avail of gas cylinders and boast of the latest television sets, music systems, cars, auto, bikes, etc. The tribal people do not want their children to have the same life they have led.

Sunita, and her family, belonging to the Katunaika tribe were relocated from Ammavayal to Pallivayal. She is studying at the Cooperative College at Sulthan Bathery © Prakriti Srivastava

“India is a welfare state, we can’t have two models of development for different groups of people. Confining the forest dwellers to the forest and expecting them to survive among the wildlife without any facilities and ignoring their aspirations while providing all sort of facilities to others is clear discrimination and supports the feudal  thinking,” says PM Muthanna, Assistant Director-Conservation at WCS-India, adding that conservation-induced voluntary relocation programs are helping to consolidate habitats and also ensure social justice by providing property rights to the section of society deprived of that opportunity.

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