Biplab Hazra’s award winning photo sheds light on the reality of life for animals who fall victim to human encroachment on their habitat.
“The heat from the fire scorches their delicate skin as the elephant mother and calf attempt to flee the mob. In the lead, the mother’s expansive ears are angled forward as she ignores the crowd of jeering men. Behind her, her calf screams in confusion and fear as the fire licks at her feet. Flaming tar balls and crackers fly through the air to a soundtrack of human laughter and shouts.”
This award-winning photograph, entitled ‘Hell is here’, was taken by Biplab Hazra, a wildlife photographer from West Bengal state. The disturbing scene depicts an adult elephant and its calf fleeing a mob that is hurling flaming projectiles to ward them away from human settlements.
“For these smart, gentle, social animals who have roamed the sub-continent for centuries, hell is now and here“, concludes the accompanying caption. This image is the harsh reality of human-wildlife conflict.
As the number of people in developing nations continues to climb, natural habitats are shrinking. The living space and food which was once ample to support both people and wildlife is declining, leaving both to fight over resources.
Habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to animal existence, whether through deforestation and degradation from logging or agriculture, or clearance of habitat to build roads, housing or shopping centres. Animals with large ranges are being driven closer and closer to human dwellings, and the sharing of habitat between people and bears, big cats, elephants and other large species precipitates potentially deadly situations. Other animals that pose no threat to human life can be at best a nuisance and at worse a nightmare, trampling fences, attacking livestock or stealing food, and as a result are often poisoned or shot.
Human-wildlife conflict is particularly prevalent in India, which is home to around 30,000 elephants, or 70% of the world’s total. India is experiencing a 1.2% annual increase in population, and already has 1.3 billion people. While population growth in the country is slowing, it is still a prevalent issue in a nation hosting 17% of all people on earth.
Earlier this year a bear strayed into a town in Balangir district, mauling 9 people and causing panic as officials scrambled to trap it. The incident renewed debate on the large scale deforestation that has occurred in the country, which forest officials and environmentalists blamed for the rise in conflicts with wildlife. At the time sources in the forest department attributed human-animal conflict in the state to the deaths of 454 people and 2,261 animals, including 388 elephants, in the past 6 years. Incidents involving elephants prove particularly deadly, with elephants being responsible for 362 of the human deaths in the region.
Across the African continent, many nations have an equally complicated relationship with lions. According to Lion Alert, recent data from Kenya suggests that 17 of 18 radio-collared lions in Laikipia were killed in retaliation for the lions raiding livestock. Despite legal protection in some areas, the killing of lions is ongoing and persistent, and prosecution is rare. “The lion is perceived by local communities as having negative economic value” reads a report from the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, “because area-specific lion conservation measures have often been developed without consultation and active participation of local communities, their needs and capacities have not been taken into account, and there is a resulting lack of support for lion conservation”.
Even developed nations like the US are not immune. Agricultural development and population growth have increased interactions between people and wolves, bears and other ‘undesirable’ species. Coyotes frequently kill chickens, livestock and even pets. Raccoons, while not a threat to life, rifle through bins in search of food and are generally a pest.
Though the UK lacks larger predatory species, fragmentation of forest habitat and a booming population of deer have led to 400 people being injured each year in deer-vehicle collisions. And many of us are all-too-familiar with scavenging urbanised foxes, an inevitability as we continue to encroach on fox habitat.
Localised or even global extinction of these persecuted species is a real ongoing threat. Where large species are targeted, such as big cats and elephants, there is also a concern that removal of these animals from the ecosystem will result in trophic cascades. A trophic cascade occurs where the removal of predators in a food web results in a change in abundance or behaviour of their prey – which is precisely how the UK ended up with a deer overpopulation problem.
Although culling is frequently considered to be the only solution, there are a number of viable management techniques which are being developed to help to solve these conflicts without violence. Ranchers and farmers in India and Africa attempt to tackle the issue by installing electric fencing, or even placing beehives around the perimeter of croplands.
Environmental organisations and governments are also helping to relieve the burden of financial loss by offering monetary compensation for lost crops or livestock as a result of a wild animal. The NGO Born Free is helping farmers in Sri Lanka to grow elephant-resistant crops such as ginger, turmeric and black pepper, which are less palatable to elephants and therefore less vulnerable to damage.
Traditional approaches to resolving incidents of human-wildlife conflict typically address physical loss but ignore social, cultural and emotional trauma caused by these incidents. Outreach and public relations with the people on the front lines of wildlife conflict will be crucial to secure the future of these already-threatened species. But with the onward march of population growth and continuing development of animal habitat, it’s unlikely that this global problem will be resolved anytime soon.
Feature image credit: Biplab Hazra