Saturday, 13 April 2013

Human-Wildlife Conflict: A Dialogue with Mr. Ashok Bang

Human-wildlife conflict refers to the negative interactions between human beings and wild animals and usually takes into account losses with respect to resources, habitats and lives of one or both the involved parties. In a detailed interview with Mr. Ashok Bang, Director of Chetana-Vikas, we bring to you the nuances and topicality of the conflict between farmers and wildlife.

The Problem

Q: What are the various ways in which encounters with wildlife can be costly to farmers?

A: Crop raiding, destruction of stored goods, attacks on humans, disease transmission to humans and to livestock, and opportunity costs to the farmers.

Q: Which species are the most destructive in this regard?

A:  In Vidarbha, especially in Wardha district, monkeys, nilgai (blue bulls) and wild boars are the most common wild animals that farmers encounter in their fields. The species composition changes from place to place but these are few of the commonest species with a pan-Indian distribution.

Q: Is human or livestock predation by the wildlife common?

A: This is a problem in areas immediate to wildlife reserves and protected areas, especially the ones that house big cats. However, in Wardha district, predation is not the major force behind the conflict between farmers and wildlife. It’s the herbivorous animals such as the ones mentioned above. With carnivores, there is also a swift regulatory mechanism implemented by the government, which is at least swifter than the conflict that concerns herbivorous animals, as carnivores pose an actual and immediate threat to the human life. Media brings it quickly to the public fore as well, which plays an important push to address the issue.

Q: Could you explain the process of compensation in detail with various rules and caveats when a farmer reports loss incurred by wildlife?

A: 1. A farmer can injure or kill an animal only if the animal happens to be within the boundaries of his or her farm. It is so often the case that the animal eats the farm produce, damages a great deal in the process and at the slightest hint of approach of a human being, runs away. If the farmer is unable to stop the animal from going outside the boundary, he cannot claim any compensation.

In last thirty three years of Chetana-Vikas's work with thousands of farmers, only one farmer got partial compensation for his losses.

2. In case the farmer is able to successfully contain the said animal within his field, either alive or dead, he needs to immediately contact a forest officer and make an application in writing to send a forest functionary to his field for due examination and verification of the spot where the animal fed and was later injured or killed.

3. Once a forest functionary completes this procedure, the matter is taken to the forest office at the taluka-level or district level and is considered for compensation. Even if the complainant gets fully compensated, the amount is very meagre.

This whole process of consideration and actual compensation is in the hands of bureaucracy and is usually ridden with bribes and corruption. The farmers seldom get anything substantial out of this process. There's usually a long delay, the process is very tedious and difficult and full of hurdles at the end of which the amount of compensation is nowhere close to the actual loss.

In last thirty three years of Chetana-Vikas's work with thousands of farmers, only one farmer got partial compensation for his losses.

Q: What happens if the farmer injures an animal but the animal escapes and is found outside the field?

A: The forest department can sue the farmer in such a case! Some of the farmers Chetana-Vikas has been working with had to be in police custody because they were unable to contain the animal within their fields. So to get rid of all the further possible problems with the law and the government, the farmer does not kill the animal even if it is found to cause damages to his property.

Q: Are police cases and custody of farmers in such incidents quite common?

A: Common enough to be not unheard of. I will say, it is frequent, if not common.

Q: Is wildlife responsible for other problems for farmers apart from crop losses? Such as carrying diseases to cattle and other domesticated animals?

A: The very well-known example is of rabies, which is very dangerous and is of great concern. Apart from that, foot-and-mouth disease which is a disease of cattle, goats and sheeps wherein infected wild animals could transmit the virus to the domesticated animals. There are some reported cases of worm infections as well, from the wild ruminants to the domesticated ones.

Q: Are these links of the wildlife acting as disease carriers well established?

A: Yes, well-proven.

Q: Abroad, the solution is to cull the entire population of the infected domesticated animals. What are your views on that?

A: That is cure. A preventive measure would be to regulate the channels through which these microbes reach domestic animals. One of the channels is wildlife, and hence the true preventive measure would be to minimise the points of contact between the two sets of animals. This will be the best solution. To repeat what I said before, if habitats are made suitable for the wildlife to live and forage inside forests, at least the wild herbivores will stop coming to human habitations. Since many of these diseases affect closely related species (for example foot-and-mouth disease is transmitted between bovids, so antelopes, gazelles and bisons could easily transmit or pick it up from cattle, goats and sheeps), regulation on their common grounds would help check the spread of such diseases.

Q: Is wildlife also involved in damaging the stored products of goods?

A: Very rarely in this area. In central India, this kind of damage is mostly caused by rodents and insects, which can’t be strictly classified as wildlife.

Q: Are losses being attributed to bigger and more visible animals such as antelopes and monkeys, who might be causing only a fraction of the damage caused by rodents? It might be easier to control rodents than the big beasts.

A: It is in fact the other way round. It is easier to control a nilgai or a monkey rather than hoardes of rodents. Secondly, even if the wild animals might be less in numbers, and the frequency of their entering fields might be less, when a herd of nilgai or a pack of monkeys come to the fields, they compensate for being rare by causing huge one-time losses.

Could you imagine not having sound sleep for two-thirds of a year?...if it were happening in any other profession, would lead to strikes and revolts.

Q: What do you mean by “opportunity costs to farmers”?

A: Apart from the economic and material components, it includes the component pertaining to the lifestyle. Let me give you an example. A farmer and his family can’t have a good night’s sleep from June till January, which makes it 8 months a year because he and his wife, and if the farm is large enough, then the children too, have to become watch guards of the fields to prevent any wild animal from entering the fields. Could you imagine not having sound sleep for two-thirds of a year? A farmer is focusing so much on day-to-day survival that he does not have time or resources to pursue opportunities that otherwise would make his life better. This is a gross misconduct toward 50% of the population and if it were happening in any other profession, would lead to strikes and revolts. Unfortunately, this happens because farming is still not considered a worthy enough profession.

The Other Side of the Coin 

Q: The conflict part of the human-wildlife relationships is discussed often without much discourse on the part where the two cooperate. Can you give instances where the two cooperate, directly or indirectly?

Cooperation and conflict often go hand-in-hand as a beneficial agent at one point in time may turn harmful...the association (with wildlife) is helpful nevertheless, sometimes unidirectionally, sometimes bidirectionally.

A: Very interesting question. In long-term, and in view of the larger picture the two are definitely in tandem. Different components of wildlife and forests are instrumental in maintaining the ecosystem balance, which sometimes directly, and many times indirectly and positively affect the farming, yield of the farms and hence, the farmers.

To name a few instances of direct benefits, a large number of wild and domesticated plants are dependent on wildlife such as insects, reptiles, birds and animals for pollination and elimination of herbivores (such as insect pests and rodents that cause huge damage and losses in the field and orchards). These beneficial animals may not necessarily be wild, but several times they are dependent on forests and other wildlife for their survival.

Cooperation and conflict also often go hand-in-hand as a beneficial agent at one point in time may turn harmful at some other point. Most common example from a farmer's perspective would be poisonous snakes, which help the farmers by keeping the rodent population under control and thus preventing the havoc rodents cause by destroying the crops in the field and the stored grains, but the same snakes can be deadly to the farmer himself. Coming back to your question, these incidents cannot be termed cooperation in the truest sense of the word. The association is helpful nevertheless, sometimes unidirectionally, sometimes bidirectionally.

Q: The phrase ‘human-whildlife conflict’ is quickly gaining grounds and has become a common parlance. So common in fact, that there is an assumed negative association between humans and wildlife from that start. In farmers’ case, we know that this terminology is valid. However, the non-farming sections of the society should not view the wildlife with undue scrutiny. Do you think there is a need to change the semantics? Something such as ‘human-wildlife relationships’ to include positive, negative and neutral relationships?

A: Yes, that would be nearer to the truth if such a phrase is introduced and used. Semantics play an important part in shaping our view. Such a term would reflect our approach as human beings towards non-human life which is very important. Such a term will also help us look at co-existence in a much more holistic way.

On the other hand, the farmers or in general humans (in cases of predation by the wildlife) view it as a destructive coexistence. Forest officers look at it as damage to the wildlife (and to forests).  The ontogeny of this term, thus, lies in actual disagreement and clash. Using the term as it is hence, is not unwarranted.

Soft Targets?

Q: Are there instances where undue frustrations are being taken out by the farmers on wildlife? A farmer is cornered from almost all directions, be it economy, policies, and climate, and may want to vent it out on wildlife, something that may qualify as a soft target.

The process of compensation is ridden with bribery, which makes prevention of the conflict as the only solution, and killing the wildlife only when absolutely necessary.

A: No, not at all. Unless the wild animals enter into the field and cause damage, farmers have absolutely no intention or desire, nor any courage, time or energy to chase the wildlife and harm or hurt them. They are not really in conflict with the wildlife if the wildlife does not come to the fields. In very rare cases, a tiger or a leopard which has already hurt the villagers, and may hurt in future, is targetted, so that there are no further casualties. Herbivores on the other hand are never harmed unless they step into the field.

Q: Let me play the devil's advocate. Are there instances where a wild animal which was causing no disturbance to the farmer, is killed outside and then brought to the fields, to claim compensations?

A: Animals are not being targetted unjustly, or being treated as scapegoats. Please remember, both the act of killing as well as the process of compensation is full of hurdles, is time-consuming and dangerous to the extent of being fatal. A farmer does not have any intention or time to play with fire. He is so deeply worried and engrossed in his day-to-day life that he does not have time or energy to indulge into these activities to claim fake compensations. The process of compensation is ridden with bribery, which makes prevention of the conflict as the only solution, and killing the wildlife only when absolutely necessary.

Q: Are we forgetting that unguarded cattle may cause some of the damage to the crops?

A: This almost never happens as there is a provision to regulate and check. Every Gram Panchayat (village council) has meetings periodically where villagers can report and solve damages caused by unguarded cattle. Since the problem as well as the implementation is at the local level in the hands of the people who are involved, it is very difficult to circumvent it. Since almost everyone in the village is a farmer in lesser or greater capacity, there is an understanding that as soon as the fields have crops, cattle should not be let loose. This is largely followed. A village is a close-knit place. In rare occasions when the rules are not followed, the perpetrator is easily caught. A village being a small place, there is at least one witness to the whole incident.

However, even if the cattle cause damage, they are owned by the farmer and the apparent damages will come back to the farmer in the form of benefits, such as increased production of milk or better work output by the bullocks. They are different from wildlife who are not directly contributing to the farmers’ lives.

Q: We all know that risks taken voluntarily are much well accepted than the same risks seen as being imposed. The magnitude of the risk doesn’t change, but the response does. Is something similar happening here? Instead of acceptance of the risks, there is a resistance by the farmers.

...the rationale of risk-taking works only if it is practised willingly, and if imposed, is imposed universally on everyone.

A: There is some truth to your logic. It is possible that the acceptance by the farmers will be much more if they see the risks and in this case, the conflict, as a professional hazard, but this is still a minor and less important factor. More importantly, farmers in general are so miserably destitute and are getting so less for what they produce, that even a seemingly small dent disturbs their economics heavily. They are on the brink of collapse due to non-remunerative prices to the produce and various other socio-, economical and political reasons; and this additional burden turns to be a real back-breaker.

Also, as I see it, you've answered your own question. Why is this expected and demanded only of farmers? Are we ready to demand monetary and other risks from other professionals? If losses are incurred by other professionals and the urban society, the government would be up in arms to solve it. Why is it less important to address causes pertaining to those on the fringes? Through your line of thought, you are imploring the farmers to be martyrs. The query you pose is a thought-provoking one, but the rationale of risk-taking works only if it is practised willingly, and if imposed, is imposed universally on everyone. This should not be expected especially of those who are already at a loss how to deal with the basic problems of survival.

Q: Is cultural integration of wildlife fast eroding from our lives, especially rural life? Conflict may aggravate the diminishing integration, or on the other hand, something else may cause disintegration which is leading to more and more conflict. Your comments.

A: There are two sides to this. The tribal India differs a great deal from the non-tribal rural India. In tribal areas, the wildlife and the wild animals are very much a part of human societies, integrated in a variety of ways in the culture of the people. In the non-tribal rural areas, it's very rare that a wild animal has found a place in the culture of people, except when it comes to religious matters where some of the animals are associated with deities. The example of monkeys comes to mind as the animals which are especially integrated in the culture of people and hence they are usually spared even when they cause huge losses. Apart from that, wildlife is not really a part of people's culture and customs.

Coming to the second part of your question, it is not at all the case that the disintegration of humans and wildlife is leading to the conflict. Conflict happens because of the confrontation and costs associated with that confrontation.

Q: Throughout your growing years, the years of professional training, and later through Chetana-Vikas, you have been actively involved in agriculture, and with famers’ issues. How is the human-wildlife conflict changing? What do you attribute this to?

A: I don't think human empathy towards animals has undergone any considerable change in rural India from when I was a child in the 50s to now.

The encounters between the humans and wildlife on the other hand have undergone a significant increase. This is happening because of two reasons: one, their habitat is not favourable and suitable to support them, and they come to the farmers' fields in search of easy and better food, and second, in many areas, the monoculture of non- food crops. In many areas, there are fields after fields, hectares after hectares of non-food crops, which make fields with food crops appear as oases in the middle of a desert. This intensifies the damages sustained by those farmers who grow food crops. Overall damages per farmer as well as intensity of these damages have increased in last 50 years.

Mitigation and Solutions

Q: What could be some simple but effective solutions?
A: I can think of three solutions that jump immediately to the mind. Whether they are simple or otherwise depends on our outlook, but they will definitely be effective:

1. Wildlife habitats and reserves have to be upped considerably for the animals to feel safe and satiated inside and should not pose any threat or deficiency which makes them venture outside. 

2. Forest fencing or TCM (trench-cum-mounds) techniques have to be employed around wildlife habitats. 

3. Village boundary as well as solar fencing of individual fields or the whole village.

It’s a good mix of short- and long-term solutions and should be implemented for effective containment and security of the wildlife and the fields.

Q: Are mixed cropping techniques better to minimise losses? Even if one or a few crops are damaged, the farmers will still have others to count on. Is there research being done on the potential of non-palatable crops such as chilli to protect the palatable ones?

...the virtue becomes its own punishment.

A: In response to your first question: unfortunately, when a consortium of companion crops are planted as opposed to monoculture, especially a monoculture of inedible commercial crops, the invasions by the wildlife increase manifold. Such fields become more attractive to the wild animals. The swawalambi paryayi sheti (self-reliant alternative farming) model that Chetana-Vikas has developed includes several crops one after the other in succession, as a relay, to provide the farmer food and commercial crops throughout the year. This starts from August which is around two months after sowing, when the short-duration crops are harvested and goes on till the 8th or 9th month (January-February) when the last crops are harvested. So, the duration of food availability is probably much longer than the availability in the forests. The damages are hence more. Regrettably, the virtue becomes its own punishment.

In response to your second question: I am not aware of research being done on unpalatable crops with the exception of chilli. There are very few food or commercial crops such as these which may act as repellents to the wildlife. Repellent crops can be part of the solution but do not ensure a foolproof plan. Chetana-Vikas’s self-reliant alternative farming model has incorporated chilli, but it was seen that the animals avoid that particular area and crop, but cause damage to other crops. There are a good number of crops that have been identified as repellents for insects and nematodes, but not for larger wild animals.

Q: Is Chetana-Vikas helping the farmers to incorporate small-scale, non-farming based business ventures to have an independent alternative source of money?

Chetana-Vikas gave the initial push to the women to form microfinance groups 30 years back when the idea was in a nascent stage not just in Maharashtra or India, but all over the world.

A: Chetana-Vikas’s women’s empowerment programme (about which you have read before on this blog) is helping such ventures to start through microfinancing. There are about 325 women’s microfinance groups comprising of about 5000 women in 125 villages of Wardha district who manage their own funds. Chetana-Vikas gave the initial push to the women to form microfinance groups 30 years back when the idea was in a nascent stage not just in Maharashtra or India, but all over the world. We are proud to have developed an awareness and leadership among women to manage their own funds. Today the annual turnovers have reached Indian Rupees 1 crore (10 million). For them to manage such amounts is a huge achievement. Through these groups, women and men can take loans to start their own ancillary ventures such as animal husbandry, processing of agro-product, small-scale trading. All this provides them a little more stability and independence from the vagaries of farming.

Q: 10 million Indian Rupees is a big amount and could be used for the solutions you suggested towards mitigating the conflict.

A: The math comes to about Rupees 2,000 ($ 40) per person per annum on an average. It’s paltry even by Indian standards. About 20% of these loans (Rupees 400 or US Dollars 8 per person per annum on an average) are spent on the ancillary business ventures, rest being required for health and family matters. Though the collective amount is quite big, the average amount per person is infinitesimally less as compared to what an average Indian is earning. It is just enough to scrape through.

Q: Are their clear differences between people wholly dependent on agriculture versus people who have alternative sources of income?

The society always has ready advice for farmers how to come out of their miseries without much regard for the practicality, the hardships or basic sensitivity.

A: There is a difference to some extent in terms of stability, although it is not to a level that is sufficient and satisfactory to the farmers. The reasons are, the remunerative prices for even these products are not sufficient, and more importantly, this adds a burden of added work to their already crammed life. The burden is already breaking their backs. Do we advise the doctors or bank officers or teachers who want a hike in their pay, “Why don’t you start some business venture in your free time? You can do several things that will help your income grow!”? We don’t say that to them. The society always has ready advice for farmers how to come out of their miseries without much regard for the practicality, the hardships or basic sensitivity.

Polity and Policy

Q: Government has ongoing dialogues with both the pro-wildlife and the pro-human lobbies. Right now, in whose favour the scales are tilted?

A: Interests of the farmers are not sufficiently looked after in comparison to what is being done for forests and wildlife through forest departments. Even the efforts for wildlife are not sufficient, but the efforts made towards answering farmers' questions and problems and solving those is even less than that. Environmentalists and ecologists are concerned about the fate of the wildlife but the other side which you called the 'pro-human' side is not well represented, and worse still, is not heard. It's a sad situation really. It doesn't have to be one or the other. Both are important and both should be sufficiently cared.

Q: Ecologists are going to react harshly if any decision is taken against wildlife. Are farmers and pro-farmer lobbies being ruthless towards wildlife? Are ecologists and pro-wildlife lobbies being tad too insensitive about the issue?

A: When ecologists say that the government is not concerned about the wild animals, it is a correct observation and one fully agrees with them. However, when the issue of wildlife and the farmers' conflict arises, in that small and limited sphere, ecologists and the urban population are not really sensitised towards the misery of the farmers; farmers who are feeding the society, including the ecologists. Ecologists have to become more sensitive to the needs of farmers, be more concerned and come up with solutions. In fact, both the lobbies instead of posing against each other, should join hands and put pressure on the government to make the habitats better so that the wildlife is content and satisfied in the area reserved for them and they are not sourced to venture out for food.

Q: How could be the government of help in this?
A: The government should help the forest department as well as the farmers to design methods and techniques to contain the problem. However, if the society and the government feel that stopping the wild animal from entering the fields is not viable economically, the farmers must be duly compensated to the degree of the damage. One may not insist on this, but one feels that this should be the moral obligation of the society and the government to look after the farmer who is feeding them thrice a day. If wild animals and the forests are necessary, and they are, the cost must be borne by the society, not only by the farmers, and definitely not only at the cost of the farmers.


Q: What about non-ecologists, non-farming part of the society? In my observation, they take stand and form allegiances more for the wildlife. I have two questions. Is my observation correct? Secondly, are they tad too sentimental about the wildlife, without understanding the situation?

...first comes awareness; then comes sensitivity. When it comes to farmers, the society is not even aware..

A: The latest figures state that almost 50-60% of the population of India is into farming and agriculture. So basically we are talking about the other half of the society, which constitutes the non-agrarian part of the society, who is also better-off. You are bang on. The non-agrarian section of the society is hardly concerned about the farmers. They are not sufficiently sensitive about either wildlife or farmers, but because of dedicated wildlife tourism and wide media coverage to ecology and wildlife, they are at least aware about the problems wildlife is facing. My observation in general about human nature is: first comes awareness; then comes sensitivity. When it comes to farmers, the non-agrarian parts of the society are not even aware. When the society hears atrocities against wildlife, they put a face to it. They empathise. Everyone has their pet causes. Someone picturises tigers, some others imagine whales, and others imagine forests being cut down. When it comes to farmers, people have rosy ideas such as green fields, pure air, chemical-free food. They are largely unaware about the farmers' problems, their drudgery and their hardships. It is only recently that people have started empathising with farmers, and that has happened when over 200,000 farmers committed suicide. 20 tigers died in a tiger reserve and there was an official inquiry and required steps were taken to stop it. What about farmers? This is the genocide of the 21st century. There were steps taken, but they are nowhere close to enough. The result is farmers are still committing suicides. The empathy I would say is nowhere close to what environmental issues generate, and does no justice to the numbers of farmers who commit suicides. A farmer being driven to commit suicide is a sum-total of a lot of factors, and I would say conflict with the wildlife is one of the important reasons for that.

All images courtesy Google images and

Q: How do you see Govt.’s reaction to big corporate vis-a-vis farmers? Govt. sometimes delays and refuses to take decisions when it comes to big hydroelectric power stations that will drown hundreds of acres of pristine forests or mining operations in the middle of a National Park. A Govt. which has no regard for wildlife in such cases suddenly turns protective of the wildlife when the conflict is with farmers.

A: You are right. Apart from the area to carry out the required operations, various resources pertaining to energy and water are taken out of these forests and handed over to the corporates. This reflects the government's sensitivity and concern for big industries. This in the context of either wildlife or farmers and how such decisions affect both these players is hardly a concern for the government right now. This is the sad truth.

However, I am not an expert on government policy towards industries and how that might be affecting farming, especially human-wildlife conflict. All I can do is speculate and form a possible link between various events. In my mind, the two, namely, policy towards industries and problems in the agriculture sector, including the conflict with wildlife have a strong association, but I will not be able to make a much stronger claim than that.

Q: Do you see social inequality and poverty contributing to the conflict with wild animals? A farmer can see witness a class divide, he gets to hear about perks and pay packages handed to other professionals, and can sense at the same time that he is being robbed off of his share and what he deserves. Do you think that the conflict might have been tolerated earlier, but not anymore because the farmer thinks he needs to take care of himself as no one else is going to do that for him.

...if everyone so openly works towards their interests, why should the most downtrodden be asked to make a sacrifice and be altruistic? It's a question all of us should ponder on every time we think farmers are overreacting.

A: This is an extremely sensitive line of thought. You are right. This is one of the most important reasons why farmers now are less inclined to bear the brunt and tolerate it. In the past, it was difficult too, but there was not such an apparent class divide, and hence, I would say there was solidarity. But now the class divide is humongous. When a farmer reads in newspapers that top 10 richest Indians have amassed wealth of >100 billion, or when he reads how much the government pays to its employees in various governmental or semi-governmental sectors, he feels cheated.

Add to that, society in general has become more selfish and individualistic. The needs have risen. Earlier, farmers were probably happy in producing enough for three meals a day. Now they are not satisfied. The aspirations have mounted. It's not necessarily bad. However, if everyone so openly works towards their interests, why should the most downtrodden be asked to make a sacrifice and be altruistic? It's a question all of us should ponder on every time we think farmers are overreacting.

Q: Do you think that that human-wildlife conflict is slowly and steadily transforming into human-human conflict? 

Only if we look at these conflicts as human-human conflicts, could we effectively appreciate, comprehend, dissect and solve the problem.

A: You are right. The wildlife is not really at conflict with the farmers. It is the wrong policy, implementation of such faulty policies, and implementation without much regard to the human beings on the other side of the fence. So I agree with you that it’s indeed human-human conflict and wildlife is unreasonably being blamed for it. Only if we look at these conflicts as human-human conflicts, could we effectively appreciate, comprehend, dissect and solve the problem.