While the urbanised elite of the country is preoccupied with politics, fashion and so on, a silent terror lurks in rural India. Hunting, although illegal, still thrives in many parts of the country as people enter animal territory looking for the spoils of fauna. The animals, desperate and forced to share resources with people, often lash out, leading to conflicts. More modern activities such as mining also threaten forests. In light of reports of attacks and deaths, Tehelka traversed the borders of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh which have been affected by the human-animal conflict.
Bordering the Chhattisgarh border, Bandhavgarh National Park is known for its tigers. Close to the national park, in the northern part of Chhattisgarh, comprising districts such as Dharamjaigarh, Jashpur, Raigarh and Korba make up a vital part of the Elephant corridor originating at Odisha. Incidentally, these districts of Chhattisgarh are also famous for a large number of mines.
Bandhavgarh is a popular tourist spot for nature enthusiasts from around the world. In the year 2009-10, Indian tourist numbered 10,72,841 and 70,805 foreign tourists visited according to reports by the Madhya Pradesh government. This national park has been divided into five zones, namely Magdhi, Khitauli, Tala, Kallawah and Panpatha. Out of these five, the first three are open to tourists and currently, most of the tiger sightings are said to be in the Magdhi zone.
In 2012, the population of tigers was 22 and spread over a total area of 105 sq km core zone and 400 sq km buffer zone of Tala. The sarpanch of Tala village says, ‚ÄúThe tigresses that have their territories close to the boundaries of the forest depend on cattle for feeding their cubs which results in either human or animal death. There are four to five deaths every year due to this reason.‚ÄĚ
The last known incident of human-tiger conflict occurred on 29 March 2015 where timber smugglers poached a tiger cub. The mahua or the honey tree fruit collecting season is when most episodes take place.
The tiger is only one part of the equation. According to the sarpanch, ‚Äúsloth bears are more dangerous than any other animal. The honey tree (mahua) is a staple diet for the sloth bears and when they see a human bending over to collect the fruit, they attack.‚ÄĚ In another incident, a man bathing in a pond was killed by a wild boar.
‚ÄúThe conflict erupts over sharing of the same resources such as a lake or the mahua tree,‚ÄĚ says Abhinav Sarkar, (name changed) manager of a well-known resort in Bandhavgarh. According to Sarkar, tigers never choose to attack and it is only when their lifestyle is disturbed that they make violent advances on people. However, the government officials here do take the necessary precautions. As Sarkar tells Tehelka, ‚ÄúIn the Khitauli region, tiger cubs had started to roam around the entire village leading to mass protests. The government took action and shifted those cubs to the Magdhi region.‚ÄĚ
Resultantly, the conflicts seem to have reduced. Devendra Tanwar, (name changed) a wildlife enthusiast and activist says, ‚ÄúThere were no attacks in this mahua season in the regions open for tourists.‚ÄĚ When questioned about the poaching of the tiger cub, he says, ‚ÄúThey (the smugglers) enter into regions that are not open for people which in itself is an illegal act.‚ÄĚ
The sarpanch however, feels that these incidents have affected the economy of the village. ‚ÄúOnly 20 percent of the park is now open to tourists. This has resulted in a lesser number coming to Bandhavgarh. Nobody can peacefully carry out farming due to animal interference. The people used to come for work to Bandhavgarh, they have now started to leave for bigger cities for means of subsistence.‚ÄĚ The Sub Divisional Officer (SDO) of Bandhavgarh was however, unavailable for comment.
Situated in the northern region of the state of Chhattisgarh, the Kartala forest region forms a part of the Korba division and is known for elephant-human conflicts. In 2000, after the floods in Odisha, four elephants migrated to Chhattisgarh and since the environment and topography of the area suited them well, they stayed on. The District Forest Officer (DFO) of Korba tells Tehelka that there are 120 elephants in the area today.
Making the news most often for human-elephant conflict are the districts of Jashpur and Dharamjaigarh. Jashpur district faces elephant conflict almost every other night. In Dharamjaigarh, two herds of elephants had been moving around in the Tendumoodi and the Haati forest villages, destroying crops. However, the villagers along with a group called the Haathi Mitra Dal have devised a way to keep the elephants at bay. ‚ÄúTo deal with this problem it is very necessary to know the behaviour of the elephants,‚ÄĚ says Ravi Girdhar, (name changed) a range officer in Korba district. He explains that when they approach a human settlement they trumpet to warn the humans of their approach. The intention is never to attack. Even then conflict occurs.
The elephant, if its routes are blocked, tries to make its way through human settlements leading to conflicts. The villagers come to know of the elephants‚Äô position when they trumpet. The next step is to warn everybody of the presence of the herd in the forests. They burn red chilli powder, a smell that the elephants cannot stand. The villagers sometimes have the help of Haathi Mitra Dal, which works in the night and coordinates with the range officers.
people LIVING living near the forests derive most of their subsistence from it. Girdhar tells Tehelka, ‚ÄúPeople venture into the forests throughout the year. After the mahua season in the months of March and April comes the season to harvest the ebony leaves (used for making beedi). After this they will go to collect the sal seeds used for making edible oils. During the monsoons they go into the forests to collect mushrooms.‚ÄĚ In such a scenario, it is difficult to reduce the people‚Äôs dependency on forests.
Simultaneously, the elephants cannot be removed from these forests either as they find the dense sloping topography of the forests apt for their habitation. The range officer says, ‚ÄúAnnually on an average in the Korba division, five calves are born. A herd of elephants generally comprises of 6-20 elephants out of which a third are males. These figures give an idea about the amount of females and the number of calves born. This year 90 elephants have been spotted only in the Kartala range.‚ÄĚ The increase in elephant population is surely a reason for the increasing number of incidents of human-elephant conflict.
October and November, when the crop is ready to be harvested, and March and April, when the mahua fruit starts to fall, are the peak seasons for the elephants to come into human territories. The smell of mahua drives the elephants to break down walls of houses to get to the fruit. Elephants are also attracted to the smell of rice as Girhdar elaborates, ‚ÄúThe government had recently introduced a scheme in which rice was sold at 2 per kilo. This led to mass storage of rice leading to an attack by the elephants who smelled the rice.‚ÄĚ
This constant contact dilutes elephants‚Äô fear of humans. The government has taken various measures to mitigate the terror by training villagers and dispensing information about the elephants‚Äô behaviour.
The range officer says, ‚ÄúTalks are going on to put up solar fencing around the borders of villages. The elephant will experience mild shocks and it is hoped that its behaviour will be eventually conditioned in this manner.‚ÄĚ
Girdhar along with the DFO¬†says that mining in Chhattisgarh is not a reason for these conflicts as the mines that were sanctioned in the state in the past were done so under strict laws of the environmental department. A senior government official in the state Ministry of Mines says, ‚ÄúThe total mining area is less than two percent of the total area. Around 44,000 sq km is under dense forest cover and 12,000 sq km under marginal forest cover. Mining activity is yet to be started in the areas where wildlife may be affected.‚ÄĚ The densely forested areas of Raigarh up to Korea are abundant in coal and the resources in this region have not yet been tapped.
Opening up new mines in itself is a long drawn process, a part of which is acquiring environmental clearance. ‚ÄúEven when coal blocks were allotted to private companies like Jindals, the ecology was never disturbed,‚ÄĚ says the official on condition of anonymity.
Highly placed state government officials inform Tehelka that although the current operational mines do not have an effect on wildlife, the ones in the planning stage will definitely affect the wildlife and forest cover. Environment advocate and activist Laxmi Chahuan states, ‚ÄúChattisgarh is the state which produces the maximum amount of coal and my only concern is that when there is already so much production in the brown belt, why is there a need to touch the green belt?‚ÄĚ
Throughout Dharmjaigarh and down to Lemru, some 30-odd coal blocks have been sanctioned. However, most of these were cancelled due to objections over environmental clearances. This region is an important wildlife corridor with regular migration of animals and if mines are dug, the wildlife would be in danger. The irony here is that the forest cover of Lemru was supposed to be categorised as a reserve forest, a categorisation that failed to happen due to the region‚Äôs abundance of coal. Along with that, an ultra mega power project is in the planning stage that will affect the dense forest cover of Dantewada in the southern part of the state.
According to a report by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010, India is home to 26,000 wild elephants and 3,500 captive elephants. Project Elephant started in 1992 aims at the conservation of the wild and captive elephants along with their habitats and mahouts. In a recent development, scientists in the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, have developed a surveillance drone that will help rescue those caught in human animal conflict.
According to the plan, states where such conflict occurs will deploy these drones for surveillance. At the same time, the inability to reserve forest covers, like Lemru, is evidence to show that the efforts of conservation carried out by Project Elephant lacked attention at the highest level of governance.