Kerala elephant death symptom of habitat loss.
Though it was quite gut-wrenching, the death of a pregnant elephant from eating food crackers-laden pineapple laid out by locals in Manarkkad, a municipality in Kerala’s Palakkad district, is a mere symptom of a larger problem: human-wildlife conflict, primarily because of habitat loss. The state has launched an investigation into the wildlife-crime, and has even offered a reward for information that can help identify “perpetrators”, but the preliminary investigation seems to suggest that the elephant’s death was accidental, a collateral in an older fight between local farmers and boars that routinely destroy crops, foraging for food, even as forests continue to shrink.
As per a report in Moneycontrol that quotes a senior forest official, though elephants have strayed from the forests into the town in the past, locals have largely maintained a distance with the pachyderms. However, even though it is important to settle whether the elephant was targeted or merely an accidental victim, the crux of the issue is that human-wildlife conflict is not linear, and can have unforeseen ripple effects on biodiversity and the forest ecosystem—the bait might have been laid out for a boar or some other “critters”, but it was the pregnant elephant that died; similarly, rats have been exterminated as vermin in other places, but that has led to a crash in owl populations in the wild.
Between 2015 and 2018, India lost dense forest cover the size of Kolkata, though the Forest Survey of India (FSI) 2019 reports an increase in green cover. Moderately dense forests have also shrunk. Apart from the obvious impact for climate change—FSI 2019 reports the loss of old forests in the north-eastern states, apart from a dip in the carbon stock of Indian forests—the loss of such cover, across states that are known for wildlife diversity, has meant human-wildlife conflicts steadfastly remaining high. As per the environment ministry, nearly 2,400 people have been killed by elephants alone between 2014-2015 and 2018-2019, while tigers have killed 221 people between 2014 and 2018.
The Centre has paid nearly `6 crore between 2014 and 2018, under Project Tiger, to states as assistance for compensation to families of people killed by tigers—for wildlife habitat development, between FY15 and FY19, it gave the states Rs 532 crore. But, states have done little to conserve forests—indeed, destruction of forest land has been to the detriment of both wildlife and forest-dwelling people and locals dependent on forests for at least a part of their income. It is evident from both, the incidents of human-animal conflict, as well as the fact that some of the states that saw the highest diversion of forest land are also those that saw green cover expand, with monoculture (often, of unsuitable tree species) the norm for reafforestation.
That apart, states’ solutions like trenches, fencing, etc—though good on paper—have proved impractical on ground with neither animal nor human bound by these. It is key to not only focus on protecting existing forests and work on expanding true forest cover in the long-term, but also to work on protecting livelihoods of people dwelling in and near forest areas, and partnering with them for conservation efforts.