Saturday, October 18, 2014

Man vs Wild

With nearly 46% of Sikkim’s geographical area under forest cover, and a substantial expanse of the remaining surface protected against felling and grazing, animal sightings and man-animal confrontations are bound to happen every now and then especially since human settlements around wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forest areas keep growing. Slightly over a month ago, a woman sustained grievous injuries when she was attacked by a Himalayan Black Bear in Dzongu. She had gone to save her goats grazing near the riverside when she suspected that they were being attacked by a bear. The woman was later treated at STNM Hospital for her injuries.
This last episode brings to the fore the challenge of tackling man-animal conflict in the state.
Sangay Gyatso [DFO, Wildlife, East] informs that such conflicts are more common in North Sikkim as the district has larger unbroken expanses of Reserve Forest areas and the Khangchendzonga National Park [KNP] which extends even further into Nepal providing a corridor of movement for animals. The area is the habitat for the Himalayan Black Bear and through various awareness programmes and distribution of pamphlets the KNP management committee has always asked the people living in the villages and surrounding areas not to venture out alone early in the mornings or late in the evenings as these are the times when the bears come out in search of food, stated Mr Gyatso.
For farmers in rural areas, early morning is the time when they plough their fields, take their livestock for grazing and this is the time when they are most likely to run into a bear. While there have been many ‘confrontations’ and ‘attacks’, there have been only two fatalities in the past few years. In one case that occurred early in the morning [2011-12] the victim came face to face with a bear and her cub while the other incident took place late in the evening [in 2012-13].
Wildlife experts also explain that due to comparatively mild winters and thus continuous availability of abundant food, the Black Bears of Sikkim, instead of hibernating in the winters [which some still do] stay awake since food to eat and sustain them is readily available.
The Forest Department is currently conducting a study on the habitat of black bears, their eating habits and the area it needs to move around, but as of now, there is no specific data. “Since the area is quite large and more expert advice and research needs to be done we have also invited other agencies to help in the study of the bears,” the DFO adds, informing that as of now the only data available regarding the bears are those collected through camera traps that have been put up at various locations by the department to help in the study of bears in Sikkim.
Meanwhile, compensation for loss of livestock, animal death, crop damages and injuries or death by animal attacks are being provided by the Forest Department as per government prescribed rates, but since there is no fund provided by the state, the department has to rely on the funds that are provided by the central government, which, after much persuasion by the department officials, was started in the year 2008-09. For death by animals the amount is Rs. 1.5 lakh, for grievous injuries it is Rs. 50,000 and for minor injuries it is Rs. 10,000. For animal and crop damages the rates are different, he further informed. “This money being paid is actually a form of relief and not compensation being given, as human life cannot be compensated, but people do not understand,” adds Mr. Gyatso.
“We are working on protecting animals and humans from coming into conflict but this is not always possible. We have put up solar fences in some areas near reserve forest areas which are used by wild animals as corridors to go from one place to the other, but then these cannot be done in large quantities as it can cause damage to the habitat of the animals and their movements. Foot patrolling is also conducted by forest guards and officials on a regular basis or when there are reports of animal sightings in an area, but there is still a lot of work to be done regarding this issue, till then people are advised not to venture out alone in or around forest areas to avoid human-animal conflicts from taking place", the DFO further states.
Most of the bear and other human-wildlife conflicts take place especially in the Wildlife Sanctuaries situated in South and West Districts because of their habitats and of food not being readily available and they have to come out of their surroundings in search of food. The reason being that the availability of land is stagnant and the population of humans living around the sanctuaries and reserve forest areas is also increasing, stated CS Rao [Chief Conservator of Forest, East].
The other reason is the cooking of fish and non-veg food, such as meat and meat products which attracts bears. Bears have a very heightened sense of smell, so the advice of the department is that even if people do consume such food items, they should get rid of the bones and preferably dig a small hole and bury them so that wild animals do not get attracted towards them, he adds.
Movement of people [alone], especially during early hours in the morning and just before it gets dark should be avoided in these areas as this is the time when the wild animals come out in search of food, along with their young cubs. So if movement is really necessary, people should move around in groups the CCF [East] further advised. This advisory is more necessary for womenfolk than the men as they go out in search of firewood and to cut grass for their livestock and hardly make any noise during movement which can cause problems if confronted by wild animals, while men move around making much noise and are usually accompanied by friends, he adds.
Earlier, Khasmal land and Goucharan areas for grazing animals and growing fodder was available as a buffer zone for reserve forests ahead of the sanctuaries for the villagers and this minimized man-animal conflicts, but with the increase in population the buffer zone has disappeared and hence now the people directly go into forest areas, points out Usha Lachungpa [Principal Research Officer, Wildlife].
Therefore, to bring awareness amongst the villagers on the importance of rejuvenation of such buffer zones the Forest Department had constituted Joint Forest Management Committees [JFMCs] and Eco Development Committees [EDCs] for such areas and villages falling under or near the reserve forest or sanctuaries, she informs.
Meanwhile, in case wildlife population grows beyond the carrying capacity of their respective habitats and leads to more violent human-animal conflicts, the Chief Wildlife Warden can invoke certain Acts under the Forest Law where culling of certain wild animals, if necessary, can be undertaken.
But even this option cannot be effectively explored since no real study regarding the actual population of such wild animals in the forests or the carrying capacity of the forest has been conducted by the department.
Meanwhile even as the conservation efforts of the department have been lauded and which has led to an increase in the population of protected animals in the sanctuaries, Ms. Lachungpa added there is also a noticeable dearth of predators in the forests and hence Sikkim loses out on the services of these “free chowkidars” which also help in the biological control of the population of wild animals. The natural prey of leopards, wild cats and pythons for instance are peacocks, wild boars, porcupines, barking deer, monkeys, etc, all of which have grown substantially in numbers and frequently raid farms and fields.
The damage done is mostly to agriculture and horticulture products by wild animals in the villages such as potatoes at Hilley and Barsey in the West District or farms in South Sikkim. To stop this from taking place, animal repellants, planting of thorny plants and change of cropping patterns can be tried by the villagers, but while these might discourage wild boars and deers, porcupines might still get through and cause as much damage. Planting of certain non-edible plants or medical plants on the periphery to keep the animals away from fields can also be tried by the villagers, Ms. Lachungpa offers.
What is also fact is that people are taking the food of the wild animals out of the forests, a raid which will bring the wild animals out of the forests in search of food and this leads to more man-animal conflicts. The first instinct of wild animals is not to attack but to avoid human beings, but certain encounters are sudden which frighten the animals and prompt it to lash out in defence. The catching of these animals or sterilizing the main adult of a family can bring down or keep the population of the wild animals down, but this is not always possible as there would be a need to catch the animal in the wild, she informed.
“The Wildlife Division of the Forest, Environment & Wildlife Management Department [FE&WMD] has been working to reduce human-wildlife conflicts, especially in the areas surrounding the Wildlife Sanctuaries of the state and in this aspect the Wildlife Division two years ago [as a pioneer project] had put up solar panel fencing around the Kitam Wildlife Sanctuary, so that the Peacocks and wild boars would not venture out and destroy crop and cultivated areas of the villagers,” informs Nima Wangdi Tamang [Conservator of Forest, Wildlife], which he added had not fully controlled the damages but had reduced it to quite some extent. Likewise ditches had also been dug around vulnerable areas to keep the human wildlife animal conflict to a minimum, he adds.
Mr Tamang informs that the department in collaboration with WWF held a workshop on Human-Wildlife conflict on 16 September at Gyalshing in West Sikkim, which, he informed was attended by all the stakeholders, department officials and participants from neighbouring Darjeeling hills who have the same landscape including the Singhalila Wildlife Sanctuary. The workshop held discussions and work out solutions regarding the reduction of such man-animal conflicts. It is not possible to completely work out solutions regarding the issue but certain measures to reduce such conflicts need to be looked into and worked out, he adds.

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