It’s a wild world out here

  • When voters start demanding from election candidates that they want protection from aggressive wildlife, it’s time for conservationists to listen
- Navin Singh Khadka

Jun 16, 2017-An image recently put out on social media by a cable car company showed a leopard and its cubs lapping up water on the Chandragiri hill. For some neighbourhoods in Kathmandu, especially those near the hills fencing the Valley, it was no big surprise, as they are occasionally visited by predators these days.

Around the same time when the picture of leopards on the Chandragiri hill came out, a video of a rhino running amok on an unpaved road in Chitwan went viral. This came out a few days after an elderly lady was killed by a pachyderm near the Chitwan National Park in April. In another incident in Chitwan on the same day, an elderly person was seriously injured by a rhino. A few months earlier, a tiger mauled a farmer to death when he was trying to chase a wild boar from his farm in Chitwan.

Sleepless nights

In eastern Nepal, many communities in different locations have sleepless nights because of wild elephants going on a rampage. Huts are trampled and crops eaten and destroyed by herds, mostly coming in from India. Villagers feel relieved if the marauding beasts don’t kill anyone and only cause physical damages.

In western Nepal, leopards killing and injuring people has made the news for some time now. Several villages in Baitadi and Darchula districts have been constantly terrorised by predators on the prowl. 

This week a report in Nature Khabar, an online portal on science and environment, quoted district forest officials who said 21 people had been killed by leopards in the past five years in Baitadi. This was the same district where around 15 people were reported to have been killed in little over a year in 2012. People were fearful of a leopard known as the “man eater” back then. 

It’s not only about flagship species like rhinos, elephants and tigers. Add menacing monkeys and wild boars to the list. “Locals in several villages of Arghakhanchi district say they would vote only for those candidates who would chase monkeys and wild boars,” this paper’s sister publication Kantipur reported this week. “At day time, monkeys eat our crops in the field and also those stored in our houses and then during the night wild boars raid our farms,” villagers were quoted as saying.

They said they were fighting a losing battle.  “If we go to the field to protect our crops when the monkeys arrive, they then enter our houses and make a mess of our things. And sometimes even when we are guarding our fields, the monkeys come in a huge number and they attack us.”

According to the news report, the villagers therefore have made it clear to the local election candidates that they would vote only for those who will chase away the monkeys and wild boars. They said the community forestry in the area has been a huge success but its downside has been wildlife incursions. A government report published last year showed Nepal’s forests occupying 6.61 million hectares—almost 45 percent of the total area of the country. Nearly 18 percent of the forest area was found to be in protected areas.

Not enough research

There have been very few studies on human-wildlife conflicts in the country. A peer-reviewed paper published in PLOS One last year showed “on average there were 7.7 attacks, including 2.9 fatalities, per month from 2010 to 2014.” The breakdown of the attacks was as follows: elephants (30 percent), leopards (21 percent), rhinoceros (18 percent), bears (12 percent), and tigers (10 percent).

“The results show that Asiatic elephants and common leopards are most commonly involved in attacks on people in terms of attack frequency and fatalities,” reads the paper titled “Human-Wildlife Conflicts in Nepal: Patterns of Human Fatalities and Injuries Caused by Large Mammals.” It further said, “Although one-horned rhinoceros and bears had a higher frequency of attacks than Bengal tigers, tigers caused more fatalities than each of these two species.” The paper also looked at when and where such incidents took place. “Attacks by elephants peaked in winter and most frequently occurred outside protected areas in human settlements. Leopard attacks occurred almost entirely outside protected areas, and a significantly greater number of attacks occurred in human settlements. Attacks by one-horned rhinoceros and tigers were higher in the winter, mainly in forests inside protected areas; similarly, attacks by bears occurred mostly within protected areas.”

Grisly or gorgeous

Human-wildlife conflict management, however, is not something new in the country. International conservation organisations, together with government agencies, have been implementing some projects to address this problem.  One of them is about dealing with tensions between locals and snow leopards, mainly in the Kanchanjunga conservation area in eastern Nepal. The endangered species kill yaks and horses for food and villagers resort to retaliatory killing. Wildlife experts say the increase in human population in the highlands has led to a decrease in the snow leopard’s prey species like blue sheep, as people kill them for food. So the elusive animal comes down to human settlements for their cattle.    

“WWF is helping local communities build predator-proof corrals. The corrals are carefully designed to comfortably house 20-25 baby yaks under a sturdy roof and behind a corral gate, all of which helps prevent entry by snow leopards, wolves, and other predators,” the conservation organisation has stated in its website. “In the past, baby yaks were habitually preyed upon by snow leopards, but since construction of the first predator-proof corral in October 2012, not a single loss due to predation has been reported.” There are other conservation areas like the Annapurna Conservation Area that have been successful in maintaining harmony between local people and wildlife.

But these success stories cannot justify the increasing wildlife attacks on people in different parts of the country. If there can be proper long-term planning for conservation of wildlife, which Nepal has demonstrated with 11 national parks, six conservation areas, two wildlife reserves and one hunting reserve, there should also be robust programmes to keep people around these conserved areas safe.

There are valid arguments that humans are encroaching upon wild animals’ territories and that people need to respect their space. But again, that alone does not explain the problem holistically, particularly in the context of an agrarian country like Nepal. It’s true that conservation has won a global image and that it has huge economic potentials—not to forget Nepal’s outstanding contribution in safeguarding biodiversity and carbon sinks for an ecologically and climatically troubled planet.

But these achievements can be advanced only if the general people are on board. If they are left out or remain on the receiving end, nature conservation cannot become sustainable. Add to that the mounting challenges posed by the “corporate world” that has been largely able to “brainwash” politicians that the agenda of environmental protection is an obstruction for development and economic growth.

If green becomes grisly for people, they too will start buying that argument. The challenge is to make them believe that green is gorgeous—and so is the wildlife that comes along with the greenery.

Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London 

Published: 16-06-2017 08:28

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