Keeping a culture of co-existence

Nagaraja Shetty did not want the day to dawn. It would mean that he could see exactly how much the elephants had taken. But the remorseless sun did rise, only to reveal a completely destroyed paddy field. Nothing was left of his meagre one acre. Starvation and deepening debt stared him in the face, but all Shetty could say was, “How can I begrudge the elephants their meal? They needed it just as much as I. For us both, the struggle is the same.”

A farmer surveys his paddy field destroyed by elephants. Photo: Sanjay Gubbi

Shetty is not alone. Across India, lakhs of marginal farmers and pastoralists with small livestock holdings compensate for the lack of physical space for wildlife with vast spaces in their minds and hearts. For many of these people who live on the edges of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, the losses inflicted by wildlife make all the difference between food and starvation. Yet, many of them do not retaliate or kill these animals.

Not long ago, bears and wolves roamed the European countryside but systematic persecution by farmers and herders, unable or unwilling to bear the killing of their livestock, has ensured their extinction. Recently, when it was suggested that wolves might be reintroduced in parts of Spain, local people threatened to shoot the reintroduced animals. Some years ago, when a jogger in California unknowingly ventured too close to a mountain lion’s cubs, she was killed. After a huge public outcry, the people of California voted to have the animal shot.

In stark contrast, dozens of people lose their lives to elephants in Assam each year. Large numbers of lives are also lost to tigers, leopards and bears across the country. But it is to the credit of our rural populace that they have only demanded safety from these animals, rather than their elimination.

The immense tolerance and accommodation millions of people in India make for wildlife, extends a huge and hugely unacknowledged subsidy to conservation. But for their forbearance, it would be almost futile to attempt conservation in a densely packed country of a billion. But this tolerance is not without contradictions; the same farmer who may forgive an elephant for pushing him deeper into debt may also set a snare to catch deer or pigs for an occasional dinner. Persecution and tolerance may seem incompatible, but they do co-exist in the same cultures.

Tolerance must not be seen as a substitute—but certainly as a very strong supportive element—to conservation action. However, this support cannot continue while people’s burdens continually increase. Farmers and pastoralists across India are known to lose around 15% of their produce or livestock to wildlife each year. These losses are driving rural poverty and people’s patience is wearing thin. Since 2008, in Karnataka alone, over 50 elephants have been electrocuted by live wires laid by farmers desperate to protect their crops. Increased desperation always means reduced tolerance.

An elephant feeds on a paddy crop while a farmer watches. Photo: Sanjay Gubbi

The people who share space and resources with wildlife are among the poorest and most disempowered in our country. Conservation efforts today are focused almost entirely on securing wildlife habitats and policing forest boundaries, but they ignore the costs the mere presence of wildlife can place on human communities nearby. If we do nothing to reduce the burdens conservation places on them, or at least to share in their costs, we will only ensure that the cultural space they make for wildlife is lost. And that loss is bound to leave us immeasurably poorer, both ecologically and culturally.

– M D Madhusudan and Pavithra Sankaran

An edited version of this article appeared in the Times of India dated 28 May 2010.

4 thoughts on “Keeping a culture of co-existence

  1. This article gave me the goose-bumps…how much we take for granted and how easy it is for us ‘elite’ city and town folks to always put the blame on our farmers and our forest dwellers when we lose some of our plant or animal life.
    We demand for boundaries to protect our wildlife, but so long as they are not boundaries in our backyard. Our everyday requirements and lifestyles must be destroying forests and life forms which we never experience directly.
    How often the uninitiated have commented that India should take lessons from America and Europe’s approach to wildlife protection – and while it is easy to get livid at their observations and half-baked knowledge – we have to (as people who work towards a reasoned reconciliation between humans and wild nature) put out the facts in a way which can be easily understood and this article does that beautifully.
    While we have every right to be proud of the fact that in spite of our huge population and economic situation we still have some of the best forests and wildlife living alongside us, we have to get out of our high chairs and stupor and stop expecting our marginally poor to always bear the costs and consequences of keeping our forests alive.
    We have to empathise and show our support to the people who inevitably and directly share their resources with wild nature and be aware that while most often these farmers and forest dwellers “share their resources” we city and town folk invariably “extract these resources”.
    Thanks Madhu and Pavithra for reminding us that empathy and support for our farmers and forest communities are ingredients we often forget to include in our enthusiasm to save and protect our wildlife and habitats.

  2. I came across an interesting conservation effort in the book “The Adventure Capitalist” which could be an eye opener for conservationists, and if the same can be duplicated in India help our embattled farmers.
    Farmers in Africa closer to Zambezi River have found a way to this problem which is beneficial to both farmers and elephants—growing chillies. Faced with crops being destroyed by marauding elephants farmers did not know what to do until a researcher came up with the idea of growing chillies, now known as Elephant Pepper. Elephants have particularly sensitive mucous membranes and when they encounter a chilli bush they tend to simply turn tail and head off in the other direction. Realising elephant’s sensitiveness to chillies researchers encouraged farmers either to ring their farm plot with chilli bush or grow it as a crop. This unique idea of conservation has been turned into business of “green dollar” as chillies are made into sauce and exported, even to countries like India. Hope farmers in Assam and Karnataka could follow this example.

  3. So true and very sensitively put together. I have often scratched my head for long when i had the oportunity to be confronted by such issues when in valparai. The tolerance that so many rural folk have is in such contrast to our more modernist ways of handling and coping with such situations of conflict. On the other hand, with shrinking habitats, one wonders if large animals like elephants will have enough space to move around as they are wont to. But you have a point, unless “we do nothing to reduce the burdens conservation places on them, or at least to share in their costs, we will only ensure that the cultural space they make for wildlife is lost. And that loss is bound to leave us immeasurably poorer, both ecologically and culturally”.

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