Addressing human-wildlife conflict (HWC) in Odisha

By Jyotiraj Patra

Today is World Wildlife Day – a day to remind ourselves of the important role of forest and marine ecosystems and wildlife in sustaining critical ecosystem services and supporting the livelihoods of communities dependent on these natural resources. This year’s theme of ‘Forests and livelihoods: sustaining people and planet’ aims to highlight the urgency to improve protection, conservation and restoration of our forest ecosystems and ensure livelihood security of forest-dependent communities.

Lives and livelihoods of many of these forest-dependent communities are impacted due to rising incidences of human-wildlife conflict (HWC). Most of the these HWC occurs in and around wildlife habitats and other protected areas.

Odisha, with more than 33.15% of its geographic area under forest cover and a coastline of 480 km with important marine wildlife habitats, has of late been witnessing a surge in HWC incidences.

In his recent response to an assembly question on the rising incidence of human-animal conflict in the state, Odisha’s Environment and Forest Minister confirmed more than 689 people and 836 animals, including 360 elephants, lost lives between 2015 to 2020. He also highlighted the government’s initiative like Gaja Bandhus  (Friends of the Elephants), solar fencing, radio collars, digging of trenches and plantation drives.

While these are useful measures to reduce and mitigate HWC, a more nuanced understanding of the issue, in particular the interplay among the underlying socio-political, cultural, economic and environmental drivers, is critical for the design of longer-term and more inclusive HWC solutions.

This is all the more essential as more and more wildlife is threatened due to habitat degradation linked to urbanization, industrialization and other climate change-induced impacts such as wildfires, droughts and floods. Quite often human-wildlife discussions end up being part of the traditional environment-development binary. Inadequate state compensation for, and rehabilitation of, communities and families affected due to HWC further contributes to the discord between wildlife conservation groups and those advocating for the rights of the affected and displaced. For example, last week the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) asked the state’s chief secretary to complete the rehabilitation and resettlement of five revenue villages displaced due to tiger and wildlife conservation projects in Satkaosia in Angul district in three months’ time.

Communities living in and around such wildlife habitats and protected areas, most of who belong to various forest dwelling indigenous groups, are the most affected. There is an urgent need to address this complex HWC issue in a biodiverse rich state like Odisha, which has also embarked on an ambitious economic development and industrialization path.

The following multi-pronged 5C approach is proposed to understand and address the growing HWC situation in Odisha:

  1. Communities: Putting communities at the heart of HWC discussions, planning and mitigation is critical. Rather than treating them as passive victims of HWC, they could be effectively engaged and employed as active participants, stewards and leaders who could add value through their knowledge of the forests and wildlife. Such active engagement of communities who bear the brunt of HWC have shown to foster positive attitude, improve trust and co-ownership of HWC management and mitigation measures initiated by state and other wildlife conservation groups. Rather than being standalone initiatives to promote more such communities-led initiatives, the role of such forest-dependent communities needs to be adequately recognized and implemented in larger forests and wildlife governance. This involves recognition of forest rights and granting co-management rights, including wildlife management, to forest dwelling communities. Odisha has pioneered the preparation of a detailed atlas to map and assess potential geographical areas which could be used to further expedite the implementation of the First Rights Act (FRA) for recognition of Community Forests Resources (CFR) rights and Individual Forest Rights (IFR). This could be an effective entry point to foster more communities-led initiatives for HWC mitigation. Last month, the Standing Committee of National Board of Wildlife (SC-NBWL) approved the advisory for management of HWC in the country. It recommended, among others, empowering of the gram panchayats and improving inter-departmental coordinated actions at local or state levels. These advisories, if implemented, could further improve communities ownership of and access to benefits from wildlife conservation initiatives.
  2. Corridors: Wildlife habitat fragmentation and destruction, mostly due to unplanned urbanization and other infrastructure development such as roads, railways and mining projects, also impacts existing corridors and restricts the movement of wildlife. According to Odisha Wildlife Organization, the state has identified 14 traditional corridors as part of the Corridor Management Plan. While landscape features are central to such corridor identification, development and restoration, these plans also need to take in to account the behavioral responses of organisms, other ecological factors such as predation, competition, and prey availability and the larger socio-economic development priorities in a given context. Most importantly, better understanding of the views, attitudes and behaviors of communities and other stakeholders are critical to analyze and integrate ‘anthropogenic resistance’ in decisions on wildlife corridors and their development. For example, recent scientific analysis highlights the needs to map such anthropogenic resistance at the individual, family, community and institutional levels and identify ways to promote Corridor of Tolerance, which not only improves positive attitude and increases acceptance of the corridors among communities but also contributes to healthy wildlife population. One such example is the African lion (Panthera leo) project in Kenya which helped dispersal and connectivity among between lion populations in a human-dominated landscapes.
  3. Capacity development: There is need for more capacity development of existing staff and other practitioners associated with the state’s wildlife conservation and management to be able to adapt and use more inter-disciplinary and other ICT-based approaches to wildlife management in general and HWC in particular. This would involve in-depth social-ecological assessment, political economy analysis, landscape mapping, climate impact analysis, design of suitable financial instruments like insurance and other economic compensation and livelihoods rehabilitation schemes, Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) and other legal analysis. Based on these, a comprehensive Odisha Human-Wildlife Conflict Mitigation Strategy and Action Plan (OHWCM-SAP), followed by species-specific Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) could be developed and operationalized in the state. More awareness-generation and outreach among communities, field functionaries and public at large needs to be improved for develop positive attitudes towards wild animals.
  4. Compensation: Timely and adequate financial compensation, followed by relocation and rehabilitation, including provisioning of adequate livelihoods and incomes sources is critical for more effective and inclusive HWC mitigation. In most of the cases, costs from human casualties and injuries outweigh those linked to other damages such as crop depredation and the existing compensation for wildlife-related human casualties in India is insufficient. For example, a recent analysis estimates a pan-India  average compensation of Rs. 191,437 and Rs.6,185 for human death  and injury respectively. In 2017, Odisha raised such compensation for deaths due to wildlife attacks to Rs. 400,000 and the government is considering to further increase the ex-gratia compensation to Rs. 500,000.  In addition to these government-funded compensation, suitable insurance schemes could be designed in line with existing agri-insurance and other micro-insurance schemes. Bundled products and community insurance schemes have been found to be effective in HWC contexts. For example, the Livelihoods Insurance from Elephants (LIFE) – a pilot insurance initiative in Sri Lanka and Kenya is currently under way and lessons from this pilot initiative could be used to design and deliver similar insurance products for communities, institutions and infrastructure at risk of HWC. Such insurance could also be used to improve and incentivize positive attitudes towards wildlife and co-existence and in term contribute to positive conservation outcomes. Known as “Payments for Enhancing Coexistence”, these are innovative approaches to tackle the dual challenge of wildlife conservation and poverty alleviation. While these ex-gratia and insurance-liked compensation are of immediate assistance, there is growing recognition to estimate and include the hidden social, economic and psychological costs for HWC-impacted families and communities. For example, field evidence suggest it’s mostly the women who are disproportionately affected in such HWC situations and this highlights the need for more gender sensitivity in HWC discussions and policy responses, including women participation and leadership in HWC mitigation plans.
  5. Collaboration: Cross-sectoral collaboration is critical to understand, assess and address this complex HWC issue in the state. As pointed out earlier, given the multi-layered nature of this issues, it is essential that the HWC policy and practices are based on robust evidence generated through more inter-disciplinary research and analysis. Given the inter-state nature of many of the existing wildlife corridors in the state, timely collaboration and coordination with communities, wildlife management authorities and other stakeholders from neighboring states is essential. As recommended by the recent SC-NBWL to further strengthen inter-departmental coordination, an innovative institutional mechanisms, under the auspices of the Odisha Wildlife Organization, could be initiated. Engagement of the private sector, including infrastructure developers and fintech companies will add more value by building multi-stakeholder consensus and collective efforts on a common issue like HWC. Dialogue and partnership forums, like the Asia Protected Areas Partnership (APAP), with active engagement of the media, can help amplify the message on HWC and contribute to more awareness and positive attitudes towards human wildlife co-existence.

It is expected that such an integrated and multi-pronged approach will be useful in tackling the ever growing and complex HWC challenges in the state of Odisha.

(The author works for an international development organization. Views expressed are personal)