The woman was standing in the middle of her green peas field. I don’t know how to describe the expression on her face. Was it sadness, or anger…? Or helplessness? Or was it resignation that goes beyond emotion? I asked her what had happened. She simply said, ‘Last night, bharal ate up half my crop’. Hers was one of the few score fields that form a green mosaic around Kibber, a village high up in the trans-Himalaya. Green peas is one of the few crops that grow in this harsh, arid land – the peas are delicious, there are no pests that attack the crop thanks to the elevation perhaps, and the villagers depend on it for money to see them through the rest of the year. Five months post winter are devoted to growing the crop – the men help with the physically more intensive work like ploughing, but the womenfolk are in the fields all day every day: seeding, manuring, weeding, irrigating in the scorching sun and freezing wind. Kibber is in a landscape that is also home to wonderful wildlife – blue sheep (also known as bharal) roam the rangelands around the village, there are wolves and snow leopards too. The wolves and snow leopards eat up livestock sometimes, and blue sheep like green peas. The woman I met had lost her crop the previous year – there hadn’t been enough water, and the peas had failed. This year, she had worked extra hard to make up for shortage of money, but now, her only source of income was gone again, overnight.
There are similar stories of loss, anguish and desperation from other parts of the country too. In Valparai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, elephants are known to trample fields, break into buildings, especially shops and places where food is stored. Sometimes, people have lost their lives. Hassan in Karnataka is probably a more extreme case of the same problem. The eastern state of Odisha faces elephant conflict too. Stories of loss that people have to tell are heartrending, their ire seems justified*. ‘A scientist or forester may perceive conflict as a few acres of paddy trampled and a few bags of rice lost… But a farmer may perceive the same incident as a total calamity. Not only would he count the grain he lost, he may also count the days he wilted under the sun to raise the crop… So, what may, to a scientist or forester, be a routine conflict incident with a certain material and monetary loss, may completely miss the human stories that drive farmers to such desperation where they may consider shooting, poisoning or electrocution [of the animals] as proportionate responses’, says M D Madhusudan in an interview. But stories of retaliation against wildlife and of forceful removal of wildlife from the site of conflict are equally painful**.
Maybe it is loss of habitat that is at the root of the problem, given large scale expansion of agricultural lands, roads and railways that cut through forests, dams that submerge them. Maybe crops and livestock herds are just easy food for wild animals. Maybe it is people’s fault after all that there is conflict. Perhaps better planning of development is a way towards mitigating the conflict problem: there have been recommendations to set up zones that prioritize wild animals such as elephants or humans as a potential path towards addressing conflict. Maybe official empathy towards people and locally adapted schemes are a big part of the solution: there are insurance schemes and early warning measures that have helped in mitigating conflict, at least to an extent. Maybe more sound knowledge of the animals and their behaviour would help… But is conflict an ecological issue? Or is it a socio-political one? Is it a combination of both? Or is the root of the problem something else?
**The story of the elephants of Hassan here.