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  Opinion   Columnists  27 Jul 2023  Suman Sahai | Agriculture faces a threat as man, animal conflicts begin to escalate

Suman Sahai | Agriculture faces a threat as man, animal conflicts begin to escalate

The writer, chairperson of Gene Campaign, is a scientist and development activist. She can be reached at mail@genecampaign.org.
Published : Jul 28, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Jul 28, 2023, 12:00 am IST

The culling of natural populations of fast-breeding animals like deer, boar, etc, is practiced in many countries, including most of Europe

Stories of marauding monkeys entering government offices and destroying files have appeared in the media. True or not, they have given a convenient excuse to the worthies in the government to attribute the disappearance of controversial, inconvenient files to the raiding rhesus monkeys! (Representative image)
 Stories of marauding monkeys entering government offices and destroying files have appeared in the media. True or not, they have given a convenient excuse to the worthies in the government to attribute the disappearance of controversial, inconvenient files to the raiding rhesus monkeys! (Representative image)

Apart from the vagaries of the weather which present a huge challenge to India’s agriculture and food production, animals raiding crops constitute another, not insignificant challenge. In the plains of Uttar Pradesh, large herds of the antelope called “nilgai” and abandoned cows cause massive damage to standing crops. The nilgai, because of its name that ends in “gai” (cow), is assumed by villagers to have some association with the cow. That makes it holy, and the village people will not kill it even if it rampages through their fields. Explaining that it is a kind of deer, not a cow, doesn’t seem to convince and nobody wants to take the risk of bringing upon themselves a heap of cosmic curses by taking the life of a holy animal.

Cows that have been abandoned have turned feral and also extremely aggressive. They move in large gangs and can decimate great tracts of standing crops in one visit. They charge at farmers who try to chase them away and, in several instances, have gored people seriously enough to cause death. So, farmers have started fencing their fields at great cost, a cost they can ill afford. Both the nilgai and the feral cows are not restrained by barbed wire which they break through, so in desperation, some farmers have begun to use the concertina wires used in high security areas. These wires have sharp blades along their length and when animals try to push through, they are lacerated by the blades, injuring themselves badly. This is causing a painful dilemma for farmers who do not wish to hurt animals, but have no other way of protecting their crops and livelihoods.

In mountainous regions like Uttarakhand, it is big gangs (technically called “sounders”) of wild boar (wild pigs) that do the damage. Farmers are abandoning agriculture, leaving their fields fallow because the marauding boars come at night and dig up the fields, eating whatever is planted and destroying the field bunds and boundaries. The boar are also aggressive animals and in numbers they are dangerous since they attack when confronted. The male boar, which has one or two upturned tusks, can rip open a man’s abdomen if threatened.

The other, more recent, problem in the hills are the rhesus, or the red face (and red bottom!) monkeys. These rhesus monkeys are not native to the mountain areas of Uttarakhand but have been trucked up from the plains, as one hears, where they have set up home in the shaded nooks of government buildings and where the packed lunches of employees provide rich pickings. The North and South Blocks of Raisina Hill in New Delhi, the seat of India’s government, are preferred locations.

Stories of marauding monkeys entering government offices and destroying files have appeared in the media. True or not, they have given a convenient excuse to the worthies in the government to attribute the disappearance of controversial, inconvenient files to the raiding rhesus monkeys! To rid themselves of the monkey pest, Delhi decided to collect the simians and truck them up to the hills.

These monkeys, however, are not “wild” animals. Born in cities, they are urban creatures brought up on snatched human food. No wild berries or succulent leaves for them, their food preferences tend to parathas and sandwiches when they are not being fed bananas by devout Hindus propitiating the avatar of Hanuman.

Bewildered by the unfamiliar terrain in the mountains of Uttarakhand, they do not rush to the forest, presumed by North Block babus to be their “natural” home, but gravitate to inhabited areas because that is what they are accustomed to. In the hills, they descend on orchards and agricultural fields.

When they raid orchards, they eat some fruit and destroy far more, plucking the unripe fruit and throwing it down. In fields, they will eat what they want but will have uprooted many more plants by the time they leave. They are quite destructive, our close relatives after all!

This is a partial snapshot of how the man-animal conflict plays out in rural areas, where the livelihoods of farmers comes under strain because of the damage caused by animal populations that should be better managed.

Uttarakhand did for a while declare wild boar to be “vermin” that could be killed if causing damage to crops. The ridiculous condition was that a forest official had to be informed of a wild boar attack, and then he would come to destroy the animal. This assumed that the boar would hang around till the official arrived to slaughter them. Naturally they didn’t, and the scheme did not work.

The culling of natural populations of fast-breeding animals like deer, boar, etc, is practiced in many countries, including most of Europe. This keeps the population at a manageable number such that their habitat can support. That way a man-animal conflict is avoided. This would be a solution for India if implemented sanely. Some wildlife enthusiasts would proclaim that humans have no place on this planet, whose original inhabitants were the wild animals, and the earth should revert to them.

Although I see a certain theoretical point in that argument, I am inclined towards a policy of co-existence as we are now also part of the ecosystem.

Tags: indian agriculture, crop damage, animal conservation, man-animal conflict, wildlife management