A tigress branded a ‘man-eater’ without evidence to prove its culpability in the crimes attributed to it, is shot dead by a private hunter in Maharashtra. Elsewhere in Odisha, a long-planned operation to repopulate a tiger reserve with the apex predator comes to a grinding halt after a male tiger brought in from Madhya Pradesh is found dead, throttled and its throat slashed by a poacher’s wire snare. In Telangana, a tigress miraculously manages to stay alive despite a debilitating wire snare, again placed by a poacher, cutting into its abdomen.
Tiger cubs and leopards are run over by trains on tracks cutting through forests, and in Odisha, an elephant herd dies from electrocution because of apparent carelessness of engineering staff at a work site. Shoot orders are routinely issued to kill a large number of wild boar and various species of deer that find an easy meal in crop lands creeping very closer to forests.
India, it appears, is in the throes of an increasing conflict between its people and wild animals. And just as any other story, this burgeoning man-animal conflict across the country’s forest pockets, has two sides.
Who’s the Threat?
People living in forest edge communities are rightfully concerned about their lives, their crops and their livestock, which they say are under threat from wild animals, including the big cats.
And individuals and groups involved in nature and wildlife conservation are very concerned that hundreds of environment, forest and wildlife clearances have been given to projects across the country in just the past four years. Their fear of the watering down of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, they say, are very real.
Care for Whom?
While the need for the country to leapfrog on development is well understood, the callousness with which forest land is diverted for development projects without first putting in place mitigating measures to ensure survival of wildlife, is what conservationists find galling. The questions they raise usually get drowned in a cacophony of accusations that they only care about animals and not about humans, thus effectively shutting them up in most cases.
The concerns over collapsing forest cover are not without good reasons. Despite official claims that India’s forest cover has increased as a whole, available data shows that India lost nearly 6,500 sq km of dense forest cover just between 2015 and 2017, which is nearly three times the loss recorded between 2005 and 2007 that stood at about 2,200 sq km.
Cause for Concern
The single biggest cause of rising man-animal conflicts in the country is fragmentation of forests and even increasing encroachments for agriculture. The absence of contiguous forests or at least enough patches of forest close to each other that connect with other larger forest areas to form corridors, inevitably result in wild animals, be they tigers, leopards, elephants or herbivores such as deer coming in conflict with man as well as increasing crop depredations by the hardy wild boar.
Adding to these challenges are linear projects such as highways, railway tracks, irrigation canals that cut through forests creating artificial barriers that wild animals find hard to negotiate. And then of course, there are large projects that engulf vast tracts of forests that simply drive wildlife away but with the forests themselves already fragmented, they are forced to come in contact with humans. In all these situations, there is only one loser – wildlife.
How India defines forest cover
The Forest Survey of India (FSI) uses satellite images to estimate forest cover. Any land with more than 10% canopy density (tree cover when seen from the air in a patch of not less than one hectare of land) is considered a ‘forest’.
FSI does not distinguish between native forests and man-made plantations. This means that the actual ‘true’ forest cover could be much less than what is stated by FSI.
On the other hand, Global Forest Watch (GFW), which too relies on satellite imagery finds India’s forest cover much less than what FSI reports. GFW also employs criteria similar to FSI in terms of canopy density but considers an area as a forest only if the tree cover is taller than five metres.