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.”
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.
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.