“We’re competing with wildlife for their food & shelter”: Prakriti Srivastava on Challenges in Conservation and Human-Wildlife Conflict
Prakriti Srivastava is an officer from the Indian Forest Service, currently country director, Wildlife Conservation Society – India. In this interview with Aditi Phadnis, she discusses a host of challenges faced by those who want to conserve wildlife, including the animal-human conflict.
The horrific incident in which an elephant died in Kerala recently has once again brought to the fore the conflict between animals and humans. The bestiality of this attack has shocked everyone: but killing of animals when they stray into human habitations is commonplace whether it is leopards or elephants or even peacocks. Why is it that after all these years of trying to sensitize people about nature, India is unable to put a stop to this?
The recent attack on the pregnant elephant in Kerala is extremely tragic. There should be strict punishment meted out for this crime, which will hopefully act as a deterrent for others with similar intentions. I am sure, the Government of Kerala is taking this issue very seriously. It is also a reality that there are many more similar horrific instances that have happened in many parts of our country.
Human-wildlife conflict is a complex issue driven by a myriad of ecological, socio-economic and cultural factors. It is also a reality of our times that this conflict is here to stay and we need to take all measures to minimize and mitigate it. Our rich biodiversity includes elephants, tigers, leopards, and several ungulate species. However, our forests are fragmented and heavily impacted by anthropogenic stressors. The Government of India has taken several measures including creation of a number of Protected Areas (PAs — national parks and wildlife sanctuaries) that serve as critical sites for conservation. At the same time, these PAs also support a large population of humans that live in close proximity to wildlife. The problem of conflict becomes more serious for wide-ranging species such as elephants and tigers that are known to move across several hundred kilometres over a large landscape, using wildlife corridors that are often situated in human-dominated landscapes. Conversion of wildlife habitats and corridors into human-centric land uses drive these animals into the surrounding villages and farmlands. This increases the risk of dangerous encounters with wildlife, increased crop and livestock depredation, eventually leading to people taking measures to protect themselves and their property which could result in intentional as well as unintentional injuries and fatalities of our wildlife. It is time that a landscape-level conservation plan is developed that incorporates strategies to promote mitigation of human-wildlife conflict through maintaining and restoring connectivity between the critical wildlife habitats.
Kerala, where you have served extensively, is home to a timber mafia like many other states. Animals who live in the forests are forced to leave them when they are denuded. Why is it so hard to dismantle this mafia?
Kerala is a state where timber smuggling is under very good control. The time that I was a divisional forest officer in Nilambur in 1999 and Munnar in 2001, timber smuggling was rampant. Teak smuggling in Nilambur and sandalwood smuggling in Munnar division was huge. Tough enforcement action was taken for controlling this. The Joint Forest Management Programme involving people’s participation in forest management also helped in addressing timber smuggling effectively. Now I believe, timber smuggling in Kerala is very insignificant.
The greater universal problem in our country, is the presence of large human populations within forests who clamor for modern facilities, which understandably is a need for a developing society. Other causes for fragmentation and degradation of our forests and PA’s is diversion for infrastructure such as dams, highways, etc. Mushrooming of agricultural communities, townships and cities around forests and PA’s is a harsh reality of our times.
Unscientific exploitation and commercial harvesting of our forests for non-timber forest produce (NTFP) is degrading and browning our forests and we are competing with wildlife for their food and shelter. Forest fires caused due to leaving debris after bamboo harvesting from natural forests, destruction of natural growth of forests for extraction of reeds and canes is what I have personally witnessed during my field tenures. Unscientific, over-exploitation of medicinal plants by contractors in the name of tribal welfare was also an unpleasant reality witnessed by me.
Those who live in the forests — many tribal communities — also need to find sustenance and find wild animals an obstruction. How do we address this problem?
The communities residing within PAs often have to live under constant conflict with wildlife that threaten their lives and face crop damage by wild animals and birds, or livestock depredation. Additionally, the communities dwelling inside PAs are isolated and often feel marooned. They deal with poor livelihood conditions and battle with a lack of basic amenities such as proper transport, electricity, education, medical facilities, markets, shops etc. Young members often move to nearby cities in search for livelihoods and end up working as manual laborers due to lack of skills. Their children are often sent to towns for better education, leaving behind only the women and elderly.
Another grave problem is that of debt wherein loans are taken from moneylenders, who are exploitative. Bonded labor akin to modern slavery is often the outcome. In case of PAs, the Government of India has a policy of voluntary relocation for forest-dwelling communities. This is a very impactful policy which is a win-win solution for realizing the aspirations forest-dwelling communities as well long-term wildlife conservation. This scheme provides financial aid to forest communities within PAs who do not have the financial wherewithal to exercise their democratic right to freely move and resettle as they are constrained by lack of adequate finances as well as poor knowledge of government schemes and their operations. It is also a reality that many people are already moving out of PAs without any financial support which drives them to long-term poverty. Voluntary relocation if executed well, provides forest dwellers with better livelihood opportunities, healthcare, education etc. to have an improved quality of life. However voluntary relocation should be well financed, and executed in a fair and transparent manner which includes long-term handholding and support to the community.
There are many government policies for wildlife conservation. But they are clearly faulty in design. What is your experience as a government servant on the ground?
Let me start with first saying that we must give credit to our government and its policies for having ensured protection of much of our forests and biodiversity despite pressures of population, infrastructure, jobs,etc. Many laws such as the Indian Forest Act, Wildlife Protection Act, Biodiversity Act, etc are a testimony to this fact. Having said that, no doubt there are many ways in which government policies can be even more impactful for conservation. I will highlight a few that I consider a priority.
We need to grow out of the old mindset of planting as a major technique for conservation. While afforestation is important, it is not a panacea for all our conservation issues. Planting in urban spaces is great, however planting up our grasslands, and natural forests is counter-productive. Allowing our forests to naturally regenerate and rejuvenate by according it protection should be a priority. It is an established fact that old-growth forests are much more impactful for carbon sequestration, providing ecosystem services as well as for ameliorating climate change. Consolidating our wild spaces in PAs by voluntary relocation should be prioritized by focused funding and doing it at scale. Acquiring wildlife corridors, forested enclaves and mangroves should be one of our urgent concerns. In addition to ex-gratia payments, we need to find effective alternatives acceptable to forest-fringe communities which will reduce conflict situations such as advance compensations, compensation for keeping lands fallow for allowing wildlife movement, acquire wildlife corridors, etc. We need to find innovative ways to address human-wildlife conflict and seriously address it with focused and adequate funding.
The modern day “Ecotourism” needs a very hard look to reinvent it by making it responsible and sustainable with a very small footprint.
Exploitative use of our natural forests for commercial purposes should be on the backburner. Commercial planting and harvesting of NTFP outside natural forests and funding the same adequately will provide livelihood support to forest communities and reduce pressure from our forests while also catering to the burgeoning market for natural products by our society.
Further the forest department should steer clear of being a populist body. We should get out of the mode of pitting, planting, gully plugging, MFP collection and marketing and do what is right by the forest. We seem to have given science-based conservation a back seat while following a formulaic approach to conservation.
To end this list, funding is the mantra to good implementation of any of the above interventions. Utilization of all funds including Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act funds should be prioritized for voluntary relocation and other such impactful conservation initiatives rather than squander it on constructing grandiose infrastructure and purchasing infrequently used equipment. The government must be highly conservative in approving development projects that divert forests and place humans and wildlife in close proximity. The present-day argument is not about “development” versus “conservation”. It is the existing harsh reality of “pre” and “post” COVID times which should govern our conservation actions.
Like China, India too has many wildlife markets. How can we ensure that a COVID-19 type pandemic doesn’t occur in India?
The outbreak of COVID-19, which is a zoonotic disease, is a wake-up call about the dangers of wildlife trade. India does have several wildlife markets — in fact, all the major metros have wildlife markets. This fact is often overlooked when we talk about wildlife trade in India, and therefore the focus has never been on the public health perspective of wildlife trade. In fact the illegal trade in wild birds and mammals in India, particularly in the conditions of many wildlife markets, can be sources of zoonotic diseases that can harm humans. The key is to stop all commercial trade in wildlife in India, particularly birds and mammals to avoid any novel virus emerging in our country.
First published in Business Standard.