Why animal-human conflict is on the rise in India

Report says coexistence with wild animals in India is ‘reaching the threshold of tolerance’

Sign warning about elephants crossing
(Image credit: Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, an elephant trampled a woman to death in Mayurbhanj, eastern India, then returned during her funeral and trampled on her corpse again. The same weekend, a sloth bear mauled a man and woman to death in a forest in Madhya Pradesh state, then spent hours playing with their remains.

Both incidents have led experts to warn that animal-human conflict is on the rise in India – a vast nation that is home to 1.4 billion people, roughly 3,000 tigers, between 6,000 and 11,000 sloth bears and approximately 27,000 wild elephants.

A joint report between the UN Environment Programme and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) published in July 2021 concluded that “no country in the world would be as affected by human-animal conflict in the upcoming years as India”, said The Telegraph.

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‘Reaching the threshold of tolerance’

Entitled A future for all – the need for human-wildlife coexistence, the report warned that India’s “burgeoning human population” is “reaching the threshold of tolerance” regarding people’s coexistence with wild animals.

One area where the limits of such tolerance are constantly being tested is the Pilibhit region, near India’s border with Nepal, which has seen more than 60 tiger-related deaths in the past decade.

The tiger population is “thriving”, but coexistence between the creatures and local communities is “brittle” and “understandably shifts to public fear when people are injured or killed”, the report’s authors explained.

According to the study, tiger attacks have been known to “culminate in mob violence” and “retaliatory killing” through poisoning and other means.

Elephants ‘pushed out of protected areas’

Retaliatory killings via poisoning and electrocution have also been reported in connection with elephant attacks in India. According to statistics from the country’s Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate, reported by The Telegraph, 1,401 humans and 301 elephants were killed between 2018 and 2020 in India.

The paper added that deforestation “primarily to make way for new human settlements, industry and agriculture” has been a leading factor in the rise of elephant-human conflict, with elephants pushed out of “shrinking protected areas in the search for food”.

According to CNN, many of India’s elephants live outside of national parks and reserves, with “less and less habitat to roam in search of food” which has led to them having “increased contact with humans”.

Deforestation, which “depriv[es] species… of their natural habitat…putting them into closer proximity of towns and villages” was likely to be connected to last weekend’s sloth bear attack, said CBS News.

A rise in human-wildlife conflict in the contested region of Kashmir – where nearly 200 people have been killed by animals since 2011 – has also been linked to deforestation. “It is a man-made disaster,” Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a local environmental activist, told Al Jazeera.

“As the climate changes, the floral biodiversity gets disturbed, creating a scarcity of food in the forests which compels the wild animals to take to streets,” added Nadeem Qadri, a local environmental lawyer.

‘Deadly consequences’ of conservation

Canada’s CBC News said the success of “rigorous” conservation efforts in India – which has seen the tiger population sharply increase over the last couple of years – has also contributed to the rise in animal-human conflict in the South Asian country.

Conservation efforts in Chandrapur, central India, have led tiger numbers to double in the region in the last five years. But in 2021 the area experienced its highest total of animal-human deaths to date, with 39 people killed in predator attacks, the majority of them involving tigers.

As a result of environmental initiatives, an “uneasy coexistence” with tigers has become “a part of life” in many small villages, said the news site.

Building of ‘elephant corridors’

One of the ways in which India’s government is working to curb the rise in animal-human conflict is by creating dozens of “elephant corridors” that safely connect elephants’ natural habitats and give them less reason to stray into dangerous farmland or residential areas.

It is a “massive project”, said The Indian Express, which is being undertaken by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change as “instances of human-elephant conflict rise”.

The government also advises farmers to plant crops that elephants don’t enjoy eating, “such as chillis, lemons and ginger”, as well as to dig trenches and set up alarm systems to warn people when elephants are nearby, said CNN.

And in Kashmir, the wildlife department is on a mission to plant fruit and fodder trees within jungles to attract herbivorous animals. The hope is that this will attract the predators, giving them less reason to venture into nearby villages.

But to really put an end to these animal-human attacks, as wildlife official Rashid Naqash told Al Jazeera, the “encroachment of jungles and deforestation should be stopped on a war-footing”.

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Kate Samuelson is the newsletter editor, global. She is also a regular guest on award-winning podcast The Week Unwrapped, where she often brings stories with a women’s rights angle. Kate’s career as a journalist began on the MailOnline graduate training scheme, which involved stints as a reporter at the South West News Service’s office in Cambridge and the Liverpool Echo. She moved from MailOnline to Time magazine’s satellite office in London, where she covered current affairs and culture for both the print mag and website. Before joining The Week, Kate worked as the senior stories and content gathering specialist at the global women’s charity ActionAid UK, where she led the planning and delivery of all content gathering trips, from Bangladesh to Brazil. She is passionate about women’s rights and using her skills as a journalist to highlight underrepresented communities.

Alongside her staff roles, Kate has written for various magazines and newspapers including Stylist, Metro.co.uk, The Guardian and the i news site. She is also the founder and editor of Cheapskate London, an award-winning weekly newsletter that curates the best free events with the aim of making the capital more accessible.