On January 13, a 51-year-old farmer from Kerala's Wayanad district was attacked by a tiger just outside his house.Thomas, the victim, was rushed to the hospital with a serious leg injury. However, he suffered a heart attack, reportedly triggered by the injury, and passed away on the way to the hospital.

The Kerala government has announced a relief of Rs 10 lakh, a job to one member of the family, and also ordered the caging of the animal. But locals say that this tragedy could have been avoided had the forest officials taken more caution, as they had already complained about sighting the animal's footprints two days earlier.

The incident has once again triggered the debate around human-animal conflict. According to data shared by the state's Chief Wildlife Warden in response to an RTI application, in the last five years, there have been 105 deaths due to elephant attacks, 640 deaths due to other animals, 1040 people have been injured, 621 people's farm lands have been destroyed and 966 complaints have been filed in the forest department and a total loss of over Rs 3 crores.

Statistics indicate that there is a steady rise in the number of such conflicts in the last few years, not just in Kerala, but across the country. A statement, issued on January 15, by the All Indian Kisan Sabha (AIKS) said that in Maharashtra, there were 54 deaths in 2017 due to tiger and leopard attacks and in 2020, it had increased to 88.

Whereas,more than 300 deaths due to elephant attacks are reported each year, across the country. On an average, more than 1000 people are killed by wild animals every year, the AIKS stated. In Kashmir, the human-animal conflict has resulted in over 250 deaths and 2,950 injuries from 2006 to 2022.

According to the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Human-Wildlife Conflict & Coexistence Specialist Group’s definition,these are “struggles that emerge when the presence or behaviour of wildlife poses an actual or perceived, direct and recurring threat to human interests or needs, leading to disagreements between groups of people and negative impacts on people and/or wildlife”.

India is home to the world’s largest rural population. It is also home to the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Communities that live close to populations of animals such as Asian elephants, Bengal tigers and other species often come in conflict with them and suffer physical and material damage.

A 2019 report by Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, titled ‘Human-Elephant conflict: A review of current management strategies and future directions’ suggested that "India’s cost of human–elephant conflict is estimated at 1 million hectares of destroyed crops, 10,000 to 15,000 damaged properties, 400 human deaths, and 100 dead elephants per year."

These crop losses are also due to other ‘non-charismatic’ species like pigs. Although communities living close to wild flora and fauna do benefit from the proximity, repeated conflicts and damage to human life and property can cause them to become hostile.

In many cases, they often retaliate. As some of these species are already endangered, local hostility can lead to local eradication and even global extinction.

Apart from physical injury, people, especially farmers have also been facing huge economic losses. Mathew, a small-scale businessman, who also owns a small farm in Thekkady, Kerala said, "We have been facing conflict with boars and pigs. They come out of the forests and destroy our farms. We have a lot of cardamom plantations. At night, they step out, destroy everything and go back into the forests before dawn. There have been no fences put up yet. There has been a huge spike in such incidents in the last two or three years."

If a sanctuary or national park is well managed and poaching has been curtailed, it's possible that the number of animals will go up. Mathew explains, "Forest officials say that the number of these animals have more than doubled in recent years. That is one of the reasons they come out into human habitats.

“People have been complaining and the forest department has said they will put up electrical fences, but nothing has been done so far. There are deer too, they eat plantains, tapioca, all our plants. The people are really suffering as they have to sit with their hands tied and watch their toil go in vain."

The All India Kisan Sabha has also demanded that the most affected forest fringe areas should be identified, revenue villages and farm land should be protected by erecting wire mesh fencing of 4-metre height along with trenches or elephant walls.

"The average cost of fencing will be Rs. 45 lakh per kilometre, this work can be undertaken as the material cost under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS). Commercial plantations within the forest cover should be put under clear felling in a phased manner and replanted with natural species of wild plants so that the forest can provide feed and fodder to wild life."

M Vijaykumar, President of the Kerala Wing of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) said, "The issue has always been there, but it has increased now throughout the state. Some of the most affected regions are Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, Idukki, Trichur, Palakkad and Wayanad.

“The problem is that animals are disturbed, not getting sufficient food inside the forest. So we need to address the issue of animals. The forest department is taking some measures, but that is not enough. The animals happen to be violent, attack the people and agriculture."

Shekar Dattatri, a renowned wildlife filmmaker, however, said that lack of food is just one of the issues. "A lot of lay people think there is no fodder in the jungle and that's why animals like elephants are going out, so they plant inside the jungle. If you do that, you are destroying the natural ecosystem that other animals depend on. An adult elephant needs about 200 kilograms of fodder every day.

“If they go out and feed on fodder at the right time, say when the paddy is ripe, they can fill their stomachs in a short time, come back to the forest and rest. Otherwise they have to forage for almost 18 hours. Also, human crops tend to be more tasty and nutritious. They don't know the difference between forest and cultivation.

“They see something attractive and tastier, they eat it. So we have to analyse everything, who is raiding, how many elephants are raiding and what can be done about it.

Research based on a report titled 'Human casualties are the dominant cost of human–wildlife conflict in India’ indicates that in India, the elephant is responsible for significantly more casualties than any other species. The tiger and the leopard are the next deadliest animals.

This means that in case of a negative encounter, the elephant is more likely to cause a fatal injury to a human, followed by the tiger and then the leopard.

The report stated, "This ranking based on their conflict severity index (death) is consistent with the ranking based on their respective absolute counts of human deaths. The sloth bear is an exception with the highest conflict severity index (injury) of 60, almost 3 times higher than that of the elephant and 15 times higher than that of the pig, despite the latter two causing the most human injuries in our sample. This implies that although encounters with the bear are rare, the probability of human injury when an encounter occurs is much higher than for other species."

Since the reasons why different species behave in a certain manner are different, it is not helpful to come up with blanket solutions. Shekar explains, “Different species, different behaviour and different motives, so we cannot lump all human animal conflict together. A lot of these problems are also site-specific, whether the conflicts are inside the jungle or outside, in what is predominantly farmland.

“If it is happening inside the jungle, then the best way to minimise or eliminate conflict is to rehabilitate the people and resettle them outside the protected area. There is no meaning in having a sanctuary or national park and still have villages and cultivation inside. Animals cannot live in cities and villages. People can live elsewhere.

“The best way is to offer voluntary and fair resettlement and handsome packages, where they can buy other land and permanently put an end to their conflicts. As long as people live inside the forests, all these stories of harmonious coexistence will just be fairy tales. They can never be reality."

When it comes to elephant conflicts in farmlands outside protected areas, experts say that it needs to be dealt with in a different way.

According to Shekar, “Knee jerk actions won't work. For instance, if you say elephants are exiting from this side of the border, so let's just fence that, they will go to some other place and attack someone else. A multi-disciplinary study on this is needed.

Very often, crop raiding by elephants is usually done by the male tuskers. They are bold and don't have any calves to take care of. They soon become very habituated to people and even get used to the sounds of crackers and drums.

Shekar added that a preventive measure in this case is usually to put up electric fencing and elephant proof trenches, "but elephants are very clever. Bull elephants can break these fences with their tusks and all other elephants will follow. Or they keep trampling the sides of the trench until it becomes a slope and then they traverse it. They are very clever animals that can't be contained so easily. So when there are persistent cases like that, it's better for the farmers to change the kind of crop they are growing.”

He added, "If they're growing paddy and sugarcane, the elephants will somehow find a way. But if they are growing cotton or chilli or something that elephants don't like as much, then the damage would be much lesser. Then the elephants would slowly learn that these crops are not worth raiding and would eventually stop."

Therefore, although it can’t be can't categorically said that these raids are due to lack of fodder, in many cases, it is because of more nutritious and attractive food outside. Conflict solution is site-specific and species specific. There is no one size fits all solution.

"Even if you go 50 km from Wayanad, the situation is different, the solutions will also be different. If all else fails, immediately compensate the farmers and make sure that it is prompt. Don't make them run from pillar to post. You have a mechanism to immediately assess the acreage of damage, quantum of loss, market value of the loss and compensate for them. If you do that, the people will be a bit more tolerant," said Shekar.

Conflict solutions need knowledge and science based solutions. It can even be local wisdom, developed over generations. There is no instant solution. The problem however is that in India, there is no continuity in the people who manage the forests. Just when forest officials begin to understand the situation, they get transferred and don't get a chance to implement the preventive measures.

Shekar added that another challenge is that politicians don't do anything until there is a report in the newspaper. "Then they have a knee jerk reaction and want ad hoc solutions. This won't work. You need to have a think tank in each location and constantly evolving solutions. We are 1.4 billion human beings. Our geographical landscape was not meant to have so many people with so many aspirations.

“All these forests were once domains of tigers and elephants. Now they have become isolated islands of green. If connectivity is broken between large areas of forests. Obviously, animals cannot suddenly move through their traditional migratory paths. In trying to find new places, they will encounter farmlands and villages.

“But the root cause may be that their traditional migratory paths have been destroyed. If you reestablish the corridors, maybe the elephants wouldn't raid crops. If you identify the problem, the solution may be quite simple."

Some organisations like the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Karnataka have come up with effective programmes to mitigate human-animal conflict. One such programme is called Wild Seve, an intervention programme that was started in 2015 . It uses open-source technology and leverages existing policies to facilitate ex-gratia payments. This model ensures that in regions of high conflict, both people and wildlife are benefited.

According to a report titled ‘A Novel Conservation Intervention to Monitor and Address Human-Wildlife Conflict’, as part of the programme, the team filed and tracked 13,808 claims on behalf of those affected from 19 forest ranges around the Bandipur and Nagarahole National Parks in Karnataka, India. This included 10,082 incidents of crop loss, 1,176 property damage incidents, and 1,720 incidents where crop and property loss occurred together.

One of the approaches that Wild Seve takes is to provide an immediate response to incidents of human-animal conflict and support those who are affected in gaining access to ex-gratia payment schemes."

A major challenge for the victims of human-animal conflict is the financial loss incurred. In order to change retaliatory attitudes towards the animals, victims need to be compensated appropriately and promptly. Compared to other countries, ex-gratia payments or financial compensation for human animal conflicts in India is a major policy. A majority of the states have implemented policies to address the issue.

According to the report, "In a single year (2012–2013), Indian states reported 78,656 cases of conflict and paid US $5,332,762 as ex-gratia payments (US $1 = IN 66.91). The majority of these incidents were crop loss and property damage cases (73.4%), and livestock predation (20%). Cases of human injury (6.2%) and fatality (0.4%) were also reported during this period."

The study also noted that these numbers significantly underestimate the situation as many states did not provide or keep adequate records of HWC incidents. "States also had varied ex-gratia payment policies and procedures which affected the number of cases filed. Studies also note that the effectiveness of ex-gratia payment schemes in the country is often hindered by inconsistent policies, delays in the application process, lack of transparency, high transaction costs, ineffective implementation and variable payment amounts.

“Developing innovative, adaptable and scalable solutions which help mitigate the effects of HWC, and improve management, especially for endangered conflict-prone species such as elephants, tigers, leopards, etc is essential. Direct, technology-based conservation interventions are appealing as they can transcend the prevailing culture, socio-economic and political systems and context within which HWC occurs."

Experts suggest that it is important to have a multi-level approach. For instance, at the district level and zone level authorities might know what the exact problem is because they have been observing the patterns for years.

But it is at the state and central level that one gets the resources to mitigate the problem. Forests and wildlife come under the concurrent list which means that both the state and the centre can make laws pertaining to them.

Shekar also emphasised on the importance of making decisions based on science. "We have to develop a scientific temperament. Solutions need to be data driven. Only data will allow us to see patterns and solutions become more realistic.”

Human and animal conflict is on the rise. Several states like Odisha, Jharkhand, Assam and West Bengal have reported deaths by elephants, whereas Maharashtra has seen a rise in deaths by tigers. To tackle this, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife, on January 5, approved the advisory for management of human-animal conflict.

This advisory will help state governments with inter-departmental coordinated actions and prescriptions. Rather than looking at a one-stop solution, what India needs right now is to have a multi-pronged approach to minimise the conflict.