By Priya Ranganathan

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India is a land of extremes, home to the world’s second largest human population, some of the most crowded cities, vast stretches of productive agricultural land, and forests crowded with the planet’s rarest wildlife. In this land of opposites, however, two entities are often brought into direct opposition – humans and wildlife.

I spent a year studying human-wildlife interactions in southern India and there are certain patterns that stand out in this landscape of mixed forest and agricultural fields. People in rural India are extraordinarily tolerant of wildlife. Wild animals are revered – elephants are deified in the form of Lord Ganesha in the Hindu pantheon, tigers are the vehicle of Goddess Durga, and local tribes have their own cultural associations with wild species of the forest. Indeed, India has the largest population of the tiger, the Asian elephant, the leopard, and the gaur in the world. However, with large populations of wildlife comes the need for large forest patches, and that is one thing lacking in the Indian landscape.

An elephant in a crop field (Image: Chester Zoo/Assam Haathi Project)

India has been a member of Project Tiger and Project Elephant, among other government initiatives, in the hopes of protecting these wild species. However, both species need large, connected patches of forest in order to survive. Tigers have large territories, and too many big cats in a small patch of forest leads to territorial fights, inbreeding, or a lack of prey. When this happens, tigers may leave forest patches to find easy food – often livestock. In India, livestock is often grazed in forests; when I worked in Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, we often came across herds of goats grazing on the tender grass by the Kabini River well inside the forest boundary. In such situations, a fat goat makes an excellent meal for a hungry cat. Elephants, too, follow ancient migratory routes across the country, and they don’t recognize human boundaries and legalities surrounding their movement. As forests shrink due to development and agricultural and urban expansion, elephants look elsewhere for nutritious food, and conveniently find this requirement in the vast agricultural lands around forests. India’s protected areas are surrounded by agricultural fields, which offer high-calorie food for hungry elephants, deer, and wild boar. The proximity of livestock to these forests attracts leopards and tigers, and thus is born an age-old conflict between humans and wildlife.

Villagers wound and drive away a trespassing leopard (Image: Biju Boro/The Guardian)

The Forest Department in India often takes responsibility for damages caused by wildlife to humans, including crop raiding, livestock kills, and injury or death to people living near forests. Affected families receive money to make up for the loss, and sometimes other incentives are involved. The rise in conflicts in some villages located within or right beside forests has led villagers to relocate to towns further from forest areas. This also allows for their children to go to schools instead of walking long distances to reach village government schools around the forest.

I had the opportunity to teach children in government schools in and around forests of Karnataka about wildlife and nature, and during this time, I saw firsthand the way these children viewed wildlife. Most children loved and respected wild animals but also knew the dangers of approaching of living near wildlife. But seeing the way the children absorbed information about these wild animals and the way they were willing to sympathise with their plight gave me hope. After all, India’s future lies in the ability of her people and her wildlife to coexist.

About the Author:

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’