Defining the costs of living near wildlife

How Indian rural communities have learned to coexist with surrounding wildlife

According to Gulati, some of these wildlife reserves are the last known habitats for prominent animals like the Bengal tiger. (Juan Cabrejo/The Omega)

Last week, UBC environmental economics professor Sumeet Gulati spoke at TRU on his preliminary research of the direct monetary costs of agricultural villages living near wildlife reserves dispersed throughout India and how it has led to conflict with native species. The study focused on collecting data on human injury and death, livestock depredation and total crop damage respective of different animals.

“The 5196 households that we surveyed had a high level of conflict, 73 per cent said they had a conflict with an animal over the last one year,” he said. “This conflict could just be a pig coming in and eating some of their crops or even a peacock coming into some of the crops. It doesn’t have to be a leopard coming in and attacking them (the villagers), but it could also be that.”

With the ever-growing Indian population of 1.339 billion people (2017), Gulati notes how impressive it is to see small conservation areas remaining to exist.

“These reserves, if you’ve ever experienced them, you’ll see they’re almost always surrounded by villages or rural communities in agriculture and they are the last bits of wilderness preserved in the growingly densely populated country,” he said. “If you go to India you’ll be surprised how these little wilderness bits even stay as they are given the population pressure.”

According to Gulati, some of these incredibly biodiverse reserves are the last known habitats for prominent animals like the Bengal tiger or the Asian elephant, among many others. Research seems to suggest that the everlasting struggle between wildlife and humanity is the primary cause of animal extinction.

“Conflict between wildlife and humans has been known and seems intuitive, as researchers prove it as well, to be responsible for the extirpation and extinction of many species across the world,” he said. “This is an important thing to look at because if we care about the existence of these species, managing conflict is important.”

Regarding human injury and death, Gulati’s research showed that the sloth bear was the most aggressive creature in the region when encountered, the one animal that stuck out above the rest. Contextually, Gulati suspects this is mostly due to the locals entering the forest looking for firewood or food and casually encountering one along the way.

“More often than not human injury and death doesn’t happen at the farm, it usually happens in the forest, but it’s not often reported as such,” he said. “32 per cent of the time someone had a conflict with a sloth bear, they got injured.”

Curiously, the most damage inducing animals to the local villagers financially were the herbivores by a significant margin. Gulati’s findings revealed that the crop damage caused wild boars, nilgai and elephants, is much more expensive than of the livestock damage caused by carnivores like leopards or tigers.