When the interests of human beings and wildlife are at odds, sometimes nobody wins. In rural India, several million people rely on crops and livestock for income. A roaming tiger, leopard, elephant, or pig can pose a threat to their livelihood, not to mention human life.
"It's not a one-sided story," says conservation biologist Krithi K. Karanth. "If you're living in a city, it sounds romantic to have a tiger on your property. For people who live next to these animals, it's a huge burden."
A classic catch-22, protection measures and conservation policies of the last 30 years have helped to stabilize threatened species. At the same time, they have led to more conflicts in areas with high densities of people.
The conflict plays out along the "hard edges," areas where nature reserves end and villages begin. Animals might stray from the parks due to dwindling prey, competition among their species, or because sugarcane and rice are tasty.
Farmers vs. Wildlife
In a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Biological Conservation, Karanth and researchers surveyed almost 2,000 Indian households across 7,449 square kilometers (2,876 square miles). Most households relied on agriculture, and all were located within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius of five natural reserves in the Western Ghats, a mountain range running along India's west coast.
Of the surveyed households, 64 percent reported crop loss and 15 percent reported loss of livestock due to straying wildlife. About a third reported their losses to the government for compensation.
"Because of their geographic location, they are always going to be vulnerable to this kind of conflict," says Karanth, who is a 2012 National Geographic emerging explorer and who received support for the research from the National Geographic Society as the organization's 10,000th grantee.
National and international newspapers have covered irate landowners poisoning leopards and villagers surrounding tigers in mobs, but Karanth found that most households were tolerant of animals—as long as no human being was injured or killed.
In fact, people used mitigation tactics to dissuade visits from their wild neighbors. To prevent livestock loss, they kept close watch on animals, used guard dogs, and put up fencing, either solar-powered electrified fences or wood.
To prevent crop raiding, almost half of the households built platforms on stilts and then stayed up every night for three to six months to survey their fields. They used drums, bells, and firecrackers to scare raiders. Karanth heard stories of people planting a row of chilies to try to buffer their sugarcane.
The tactics lowered crop and livestock loss but couldn't prevent it in the long run, according to the study. Animals got used to harsh noises, knocked down fences, and came back when no one was looking.
"Whether you put up a fence or dig a ditch, spend time sitting up at night, or spend financial resources, almost nothing seems to be working," says Karanth.
Still, the researchers found that people on the periphery of these lush landscapes remain relatively tolerant of wildlife.
Respect for Animals
Karanth remembers visiting a woman's house in Bandipur National Park. Every year, pig raids destroyed some of the woman's crops. "Does it not make you angry?" Karanth asked her. The woman replied, "This is as much their home as it is ours."
This tolerance—often with cultural and religious roots—has allowed India to remain a home to charismatic animals struggling for survival, says Karanth. Viewing elephants, tigers, and leopards as pests or threats will only escalate the human-wildlife conflict, she says.
Instead of blindly investing in mitigation practices, Karanth recommends that measures be scientifically evaluated and monitored to find out which have long-term success. Conflict prevention, such as live monitoring interventions, could also be improved with maps that were developed during the survey that identified vulnerable villages.
Karanth believes that the Indian government should improve the filing, verification, and processing of compensation to families that report crop or livestock loss. Typically, rural households struggle to provide photos to document damages and must wait a year to receive compensation, except in cases of human death or injury, she says. As a result, many households opt out of reporting their losses.
Another idea may be to market the farms as wildlife tourism destinations. According to Karanth, "People can still live on the land, and wildlife would not be seen as a negative outcome but a positive one. Let's get people to feel pride that we still have these animals in India."