gauhati, india

More than 1,000 people killed in India as human and wildlife habitats collide

gauhati, india
Villagers watch as a herd of wild elephants walks towards them looking for food in Kurkuria, about 45km east of Gauhati, India. Photograph: Anupam Nath/AP

Elephant and tiger territories are shrinking as India’s growing population encroaches on wild spaces causing an increase in fatalities

August 1, 2017 — A deadly conflict is under way between India’s growing population and its wildlife confined to ever-shrinking forests and grasslands. Data shows that about one person has been killed on average every day for the past three years by roaming tigers or rampaging elephants.

Statistics released this week by India’s environment ministry reveal that 1,144 people were killed between April 2014 and May 2017. That figure breaks down to 426 human deaths in 2014-15, and 446 the following year. The ministry released only a partial count for 2016-17, with 259 people killed by elephants up to February of this year, and 27 killed by tigers through May.

“Conflict is already one of the biggest conservation challenges,” said Belinda Wright, founder of the Wildlife Protection Society of India based in New Delhi. “In India it is particularly acute because of the high human population.”

India’s population of 1.3bn is still growing, and as it does it is increasingly encroaching into the country’s traditional wild spaces and animal sanctuaries, where people compete with wildlife for food and other resources. The growth of human settlements is often seen as economic development. But for some who are living on the edge of wildlife borders, this development can come at a high cost.

Of the 1,052 lives claimed by elephants in the last three years, many had simply been in the way when the pachyderms wandered out of jungles in search of vegetation and raided farmers’ crops. Wildlife experts say these conflicts have increased as elephants increasingly find their usual corridors blocked by highways, railway tracks and factories.

“The shrinking of good quality habitats and access of the animals to movement corridors are absolutely critical for India’s conservation efforts and the future of its iconic mammals,” Wright said.

guwalhati, assam, india
A leopard walks after being hit by a tranquiliser dart in a residential area in Guwahati, Assam. Photograph: Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images

The human conflict with tigers has gradually increased since the 1970s, when India launched a nationwide tiger conservation project that carved out sanctuaries in national parks and made it a crime to kill a big cat. Though methods for counting tigers have changed, census evidence suggests the number of tigers has since gone up, from about 1,800 then to 2,226 in 2014.

But the increase in tiger numbers has not been met with a proportional increase in habitat, activists say. “Tigers need space for breeding as they move across wildlife parks and sanctuaries,” Wright said.

Meanwhile, India’s elephants and tigers are also some of the most hunted animals in the country sought for their ivory tusks or bones that are sold on the black market for use in traditional Chinese medicine without any evidence that they have an effect. Elephants are also threatened by speeding trains.

guardian_64 by Associated Press in New Delhi | The Guardian