Desperate neighbours: endangered wildlife and the rural poor

An important highway cuts through the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in southern India. It is a busy road, mainly carrying holiday makers and vegetable-laden trucks from Mysore and Bangalore to destinations in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Yet, despite the activity, travellers report an astonishing variety of wildlife crossing the highway or by the roadside.

But if you take a morning drive along this road between the months of April and November, one particular species of domestic animal may dominate your sightings. Cattle. Thousands of withered but hardy native cattle are driven into the Reserve illegally each day during the monsoon season. At this time, outside the Reserve, nearly all land is under cultivation, and there is almost nowhere else the region’s 100,000 cattle can graze.

Thousands of cattle graze inside Bandipur Tiger Reserve, degrading forests and severely affecting wildlife.

Cattle grazing inside wildlife reserves is a well-known conservation problem. Over eighty percent of India’s wildlife sanctuaries and national parks are grazed by livestock, posing a range of problems for wildlife. Livestock reduce the availability of forage for wild grazers and severely affect forest regeneration. They may also harbour diseases that can be transmitted to their wild relatives. In Bandipur itself, research has shown that cattle graze over one-third of the Reserve’s 880 square kilometres, rendering it virtually unavailable to wildlife. Without adequate forage to sustain them, species like the gaur, chital and elephants are forced to move out of areas used by cattle and look elsewhere for food.

But Bandipur Tiger Reserve is definitely among the better-protected reserves of the country. The Reserve management takes threats like livestock grazing seriously and has invested in crores of rupees into digging cattle-proof trenches along the Reserve’s 200-kilometre northern boundary. The ground staff regularly patrol the border as well and do what they can to enforce the law against livestock grazing. Clearly then, cattle owners here are taking a big risk by driving their animals into the forest to graze. If caught, their livestock could be impounded and they could be fined. These impoverished farmers simply cannot afford such fines. Yet, what makes them take such risks for livestock that neither yield much milk nor haul the plough?

The answer lies in heaps along the same road. Five kilometres before reaching the Reserve boundary, the highway squeezes through a jumble of shops in the dusty village of Hangala. Piled high between the shops and houses, lie large mounds of cattle dung. Each morning, Hangala’s industrious cattle march off into Bandipur and return in the evening, bearing a bellyful of the forest. Overnight, in their stalls, they deposit it as the dung they are kept for.

Ah, you say. To a predominantly agricultural community, cow dung must be a very valuable input for farming. But wait at the village a while longer, and you will see trucks lumbering into the village, filling their holds with dung and driving away. Surely, people are not simply giving away such valuable manure?

Of course, they aren’t. They are selling the dung at premium prices to coffee and ginger growers in the neighbouring regions of Kodagu, Wayanad and Nilgiris. The dung in Hangala is not a mere by-product of the livestock. It is in fact the very reason Hangala risks living on the fringes of the law. In a cash-strapped economy where the average farming family struggles against many odds to make a cash income of Rs. 16,000 to 18,000 annually, the few thousand rupees they make additionally from selling dung has come as a godsend. And villagers have to invest little to produce it, besides keep the cattle and turn them loose to graze in the forest.

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Agricultural areas fringing the forest, seen from the hills of Bandipur

This is not the story of Hangala alone. It is also the story of dozens of other villages in the dryland agricultural tract that flanks Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Agricultural activity here begins at the end of the dry season in March-April. Farmers till and fertilise their land with the arrival of the pre-monsoon showers, and sow their crop as the monsoon breaks. This means, right at the start of the cropping season, a farmer needs to have invested considerable amounts of cash into agriculture to cover labour, fertiliser and seeds. But seldom do farmers have the necessary capital. Almost invariably then, they finance their agriculture by borrowing from local moneylenders at interest rates ranging from 40 percent to a staggering 340 percent annually!

But before a farmer gets from sowing to harvest, he is forced to play a grim game of dice with a series of hazards. The first is the ever-unpredictable monsoon. While some wealthier farmers sink their own bore-wells, most farmers can do little besides praying to the rain gods.

The second and often more serious hazard is from crop-raiding wildlife. From the time the seeds germinate until the harvest is finally made, farmers spend night after night on rickety tree-top lookouts, struggling to stay awake, waiting, watching and chasing away wild pigs and elephants that come for the crops. They invest time erecting thorn fences, and spend hard-sourced cash on flashlights, batteries, and firecrackers. Those unable to guard their own fields must pay someone else to do so. And yet, despite these efforts, farmers lose an average of 15-20 percent of their crop to wildlife; the unlucky ones farming along the forest’s edge lose even more. Driven to desperation, farmers retaliate by killing elephants that come into farmland.

So serious are their losses, particularly when compounded by the volatile prices for farm produce, that it is not at all uncommon for a farmer, at the end of an arduous farming season, to have no food on his plate, but also to have slid deeper into debt.

Surely then, for a farmer wilting under the multiple risks that vex his agriculture, the opportunity to despatch his herd of cattle into the forests nearby and live by the dung they produce for him, means a great deal.

Bullocks watch as an elephant tusker walks into crop fields. Photo: Sanjay Gubbi

Herein lies the reason why a well-protected reserve like Bandipur, even with sincere staff, is unable keep out the thousands of cattle that graze inside its boundary. Forest guards and watchers,  drawn from the same local communities, and often facing the same predicament themselves, know all too well that farmers here are too poor to afford alternate fodder, and too needy to ignore what the forest can provide.

Yet, conservation continues to view livestock grazing within wildlife reserves simply as a failure of law enforcement. A narrow preoccupation with strict policing, regardless of the human context, has resulted in great hardships for local people, making angry neighbours. While the forest may indeed be protected from livestock grazing in this way, it is often only until the next summer when embittered villagers vent their frustrations by setting fires that destroy many more hectares of forest and affect wildlife more seriously than their cattle may perhaps have.

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A farmer stands in his jowar field, destroyed by elephants. Photo: K Murthy

Farmers and wildlife here are thus locked in disastrous embrace as they plunge down a vortex of losses. Losses from crop-raiding wildlife make farmers helplessly dependent on forest resources, rendering habitats poorer for wildlife. This, in turn, drives wildlife to seek food on farmlands where they occasionally meet their end at the hands of a desperate farmer.

Strict policing of the Reserve to keep out cattle has failed repeatedly because local farmers, utterly desperate for the fodder inside, are willing to risk life and limb for it. Such a conservation approach has only deepened the vortex of losses. Instead, would an approach that addresses the desperation of farmers and makes them less needy of the forest help break this destructive cycle?

A small experiment we started in 2007 attempted exactly this. In two neighbouring villages on the fringe of Bandipur—Maguvinahalli and Melkamanahalli—seventeen farmers who together owned 60 acres of land formed a cooperative which received conservation funding to erect and manage solar-powered electric fences around individual fields.

Fenced farmlands in Maguvinahalli outside Bandipur.

In the year after the fence came up, not a single farmer lost any crops to wildlife. But the real test for conservation lay ahead. Risks from crop-raiding wildlife were now eliminated, but would that actually alter farmers’ dependence on the forest, as the theory suggested?

As monitoring of farm activities continued, some changes in cropping were observed. All seventeen farmers had invested in borewells, thereby reducing their dependence on a fickle monsoon. Year-round availability of water allowed them to grow three crops where earlier they could barely grow one. The fenced lands were abuzz with agricultural activity throughout the year.

Strangely enough, one of the crops on the fenced land was a grass normally used as fodder. Why would farmers sacrifice valuable crop land to grow fodder when grazing was available for free in the forest?

A handful of milch cows have replaced dozens of scrub cattle.

It turned out that farmers had sold their dung cattle and replaced them with a few milch cows. With the farms under cultivation throughout the year, no longer had they or their family members the time to herd dozens of cattle into the forest. What they did have instead was the ability to set a small patch of land aside to support a handful of milch cows which yielded milk they could sell, supplementing their cash income as they had earlier done by selling dung. Soon, all farmers within the fence had stopped sending cattle into the forest.

With no external push towards breaking their dependence on the forest, farmers had taken the step themselves. Of course, their motivations had little to do with concern for wildlife, but did that matter? If the pursuit of the all-too-human goal of an improved quality of life has added benefits for wildlife, is it not time to rethink current approaches to conservation?

Undoubtedly, the challenge of scaling up such an effort to match the enormity of the problem remains. But if conservation must come as a side-effect, should we shy away from the human development activities that precipitate it? Should conservation efforts continue to see wildlife conservation and rural poverty as completely distinct and separate problems, particularly when we encounter them together? Or is rural poverty tripping us up as we march determinedly, in blinkers, towards conservation?

What India’s conservation movement has shown in the past is a strong resolve to protect our wildlife and forests against the poacher’s gun, the miner’s shovel and the logger’s saw. What we are yet to see though, is how justly and creatively this conservation movement can protect wildlife and forests against the neediness of our own people.

– Pavithra Sankaran and M D Madhusudan

An edited version of this article appeared in the Hindu Survey of the Environment 2010.

2 thoughts on “Desperate neighbours: endangered wildlife and the rural poor

  1. Great to see the result. Shows how well thought-out conservation efforts pay off in the long run better than immediate remedies. Thanks for the well written, informative story.

  2. Excellent story and coverage!

    I think this pilot project is “proof-of-concept” study so that we can implement this across variuos national parks. Also, am sure few other national parks may have similar stories(conservation ones) to share.

    Pavithra/Madhusudan
    Can I know how an individual or a corporate can help these initiatives ?

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