A scientific study carried out in the Western Ghats shows that deforestation increases human-elephant conflict. The study conducted in Bhadra Tiger Reserve in the north and the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in the south and spanned over 47,000 km2 across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala States. This area hosts one of the highest densities and abundance of wild Asian elephants in the world. One can see more than 6000 elephants in Nilgiri Biosphere which is one of the endangered ecological hotspots in the world.
The study conducted by wildlife biologists Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, Sanjay Gubbi, H. C. Poornesha and Priya Davidar and also published in the in the journal “Tropical Conservation Science” using maps from the 1960s and satellite imagery, compared past forest cover to the recent agricultural mosaics for a period of 44 years and found a severe loss of elephant habitat.
According to the study data shows that between the years 1960 and 2004 a total of 4,023 km2 of forests and 2,738 km2 of scrub amounting to 6,761 km2 (1,67,0679 acres) of elephant habitat have been lost to agriculture, infrastructure development, and other activities. The lost elephant habitat is nearly equivalent to ten times the current size of Bengaluru city.
“In the same region, the agricultural mosaic increased by 7,123 km2 of which 88% was outside protected areas (6,266 km2) while 12% (857 km2) was inside protected areas which was largely in the state of Kerala and in Gudalur region of Tamil Nadu. The annual deforestation rate was estimated at 0.85% per year”, the study reveals.
The authors further used records of conflict incidences and correlated the incidents with the intensity of deforestation. The results showed that human-elephant conflict incidents occurred at locations where deforestation rate was high and such incidents did not occur at random. The districts of Kodagu and Hassan witness some of the highest human-elephant conflict incidences in the country. A total of 64 people have died in Kodagu and Hassan due to elephant conflict in the last 10 years.
“Elephants have continued to survive in this deforested area possibly relying only in small refugia of forests thus leading to a situation where isolated elephant populations are struggling with the land transformation. Elephants come in frequent contact with humans in areas where their habitat vanishes which is a recipe for disaster”, the study points to the disaster.
In its interesting revelations the study points out that this deforestation severed the elephant habitat link between Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and the Bhadra Tiger Reserve and most notably in Hassan and Kodagu districts. The deforestation in the two districts mostly occurred in areas that existed in private lands.
The study emphasizes the importance of proactively reducing deforestation, loss, and fragmentation of elephant habitats to reduce the loss of human lives and livelihoods, and at the same time negative attitudes towards wildlife. Development can be achieved with conservation for the benefit of humans and wildlife. “But requires an optimization of the landscape organization by zoning of activities, in other words, by allowing the right economic activity at the right place. The study also highlights the importance of protected areas in reducing deforestation, as the highest loss of elephant habitats was outside protected areas” the study suggests .
The study also found that the number of incidences was highest within four-kilometer of the protected area boundary. The study suggests the idea of zonation which is particularly appropriate in this case: Also better land use planning, awareness and adequate activities within this zone can help reduce impact for both people and animals.