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'We're Farmers but We Can't Farm': Behind the Human-Wildlife Conflict in Wayanad

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

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After a day of reporting in Vadakkanad – a village surrounded by forests in Kerala's Wayanad district – Devasya Puttanal kindly offered to accompany me to the nearest bus stop at Naalam Mile (4th Mile).

The road ahead was empty and there was no sound but that of crickets. Fifty-two-year-old Devasya, who has lived all his life in Vadakkanad and knows the ins and outs of the forests, suddenly turned to me and asked:

"Can you hear the sound of leaves rustling in the woods? It could be wild elephants."

I quickly followed him to a two-storeyed forest check-post nearby. And there they were. Two fully grown elephants and a calf walking towards us.

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

Wild elephants spotted at Vadakkanad village in Wayanad. 

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

My hands were shaking as I held my phone, but Devasya was composed. He instinctively made a rumbling noise that drove the elephants back into the forest. 

"See? This is our life here. Now you have seen it live."

Wayanad, known for its lush green hills and picturesque resorts, shot to political prominence in 2019 after Congress leader Rahul Gandhi chose this constituency as his backup seat in the Lok Sabha elections. He won by a whopping margin of 4.5 lakh votes.

But as Gandhi returns to contest from Wayanad to face the Left Democratic Front's (LDF's) Annie Raja and the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) K Surendran in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, a singular issue has emerged as a flashpoint in the polls: human-wildlife conflict.

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Of Deaths and Protests

This year alone, three people lost their lives in elephant attacks in Wayanad.

  • On 16 February, 50-year-old Vellachalil Paul, a member of the Kuruva Island Forest Protection Committee, was killed by a wild elephant in the Kuruva area.

  • Less than a week before that, a 47-year-old farmer named Ajeesh was killed in an attack by a radio-collared elephant, Belur Makhna.

  • On 30 January, a 65-year-old tribal worker, N Lakshmanan, was trampled to death by an elephant.

The deaths have resulted in protests across the district.

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

A shop sporting the posters of major political parties, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in Wayanad.

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

At least 149 people have been killed in wild animal attacks in the district since 2014, as per a report by Mongabay. In 2022-23 alone, 27 people were killed in elephant attacks, the report stated.

The people who bear the everyday brunt of wild animal attacks are, undoubtedly, farmers and tribal workers. With wild animals destroying their crops, the farmers in Wayanad are caught in debt traps and are even forced to quit farming. Meanwhile, tribal workers – who depend on the forest, their livestock, and farm-related work for survival – are in search of new livelihood owing to the frequent attacks.

The Story of Vadakkanad

Vadakkanad village, which consists of three wards, is located about 7 km from the Sultan Bathery town in Wayanad. Situated in the middle of the forest, this village has quite literally been at the centre of human-wildlife conflict for years, with wild animals claiming at least eight lives and acres of crops in the past 10 years, as per locals.

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

Vadakkanad village.

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

"My family has been farming here since my grandfather's time. Back then, there were not many attacks by wild animals, but now, it's different. We're afraid to even go out after 6 pm," KP Chandran, a farmer, told The Quint.

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

KP Chandran, a farmer.

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

The 61-year-old has an eight-acre farm, where he used to grow paddy, areca palm, coffee, pepper, beans, and other vegetables. "Everything we needed for our home, we produced it here. But now, we are forced to buy food from outside despite having so much land. Do you know how hurtful that is to a farmer?"

Chandran – who has been working in farms since he was nine – recently planted beans on half an acre of land. "I installed nets as high as an elephant to protect the crop. But wild animals jumped through it and destroyed it all."

He told The Quint he stopped growing paddy altogether because "all wild animals, including peacocks, monkeys, deer, boars, and elephants, tend to destroy it."

Chandran had even installed fencing around his farm to keep wild animals away, which cost him Rs 2 lakh about two years ago. "In a year, it was destroyed 2-3 times. Each time I spent Rs 20,000-30,000 to fix it. I don't have money to fix it again," he told The Quint.

He said he had taken farm loans, but due to the frequent crop loss, "I have had to borrow money from moneylenders to pay off the bank's interest."

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

Chandran's land, patches of which are left unused. 

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

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Eighty-year-old Kalyani also has a few acres of land – but it has been unused for years.

"My land is just lying vacant. I am not doing any farming. Because of all the wild animals, what will we get by farming? I have given up. I get 4 kg of rice as ration, I live with that."
Kalyani

She lost her husband and son years ago, and both her daughters are married. She lives alone in an unfinished concrete house with one room and no bathroom.

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

Kalyani lives alone in an unfinished concrete house with one room and no bathroom.

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

She recalled to The Quint that one night, as she was sleeping, a wild elephant wandered into her yard in search of food and toppled a jackfruit tree next to her house. Scared that her house would crumble, she mustered the courage to make a run for it to her neighbour's home. 

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

80-year-old Kalyani in her dilapidated home. 

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

"I have not been able to sleep since that night a few months ago. If I have to pee at night, I just hold it in or relieve myself in a bucket. I don't dare go outside at night." 

Kalyani said she and her family lived in a thatched hut for years. After her husband's death, she built this house with Rs 18,000. "I didn't have enough money to complete it. I have been applying for a house [under a government scheme]. But local leaders tell me the government doesn't have enough funds to build me a house and a bathroom."

"We paid money for this land. I am 80 years old, where will I go now? I just want to die here," she told The Quint.

Chandran shared a similar sentiment. "We have thought about moving elsewhere, but there is no value for this land, thanks to the wild animals. So, how will we sell it and buy new land? Can we beg and live on the road?"

Devasya, on the other hand, sold his one-acre land years ago.

"I had about 25 coconut trees and about 400 areca palm trees on that land. One night, three wild elephants entered my field and destroyed everything but four coconut trees. That incident wounded my heart so much that I sold off the land for very little money."

He told The Quint that acres of land in Vadakkanad is left unused "because of this crisis."

"This is not just an issue in Vadakkanad. Because of human-animal conflict, there are several areas where farmers are abandoning their farms. They're also abandoning it because they're not able to get profits," District Forest Officer (DFO, North Wayanad) Martin Lowel told The Quint.

He added: "We do have an RKDP scheme [Rebuild Kerala Development Programme], wherein the Forest Department can take over the land of non-tribals for a compensation package."

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

Devasya (left) and Chandran. 

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

Devasya – who has had several close encounters with wild elephants and tigers – is currently involved in social work and is part of the Karshaka Prathirodha Samithi, which fights for the rights of farmers and tribal communities in Wayanad. 

He alleged that Vadakkanad is home to several tribal families, and they, too, are hit by this crisis. "All governments talk about tribal rights. But they don't do much for them. Tribals are the most affected by wild animals. They have to travel through forests for livelihood and these animals attack them. The public rarely knows about these incidents," Devasya alleged.

Speaking to The Quint, Suresh, a 35-year-old tribal worker from Vadakkanad, said that owing to a decline in farming in Vadakkanad, tribals like him, who depend on agricultural labour, are struggling to find work in the village.

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

Suresh (left) with another tribal worker named Hariyan.

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

"Earlier, there used to be a lot of paddy fields here. We used to do all the work in the fields. Now, we are not getting any work. I have to go to Sultan Bathery in search of daily wage jobs," he told The Quint.

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

A dried-up field in Vadakkanad.

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

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What Do the Farmers Want?

"The population of animals in the forest has increased. And as wild animals are not getting enough food and water in the forest, they're wandering into our lands," Devasya explained to The Quint.

"Another reason why wild animals are entering our territory is because governments have destroyed all the natural forests. They have cut down naturally occurring bamboos and planted commercial trees like teak, she-oak, eucalyptus, and a foreign species called senna. Animals are not able to stay inside the forest because of this."

Trees like teak consume a lot of soil nutrients and moisture, making it difficult for other plant species to survive around it, which, in turn, is affecting the natural habitats of animals.

DFO Lowel told The Quint that the Forest Department is taking measures to "fell mature teak trees and replace them with indigenous species."

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

A forest area in Vadakkanad.

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

In 2018, the Vadakkanad villagers, under the banner of the Vadakkanad Grama Samrakshana Samithi, had staged an indefinite hunger strike, demanding that the government address the issue of human-wildlife conflict.

The government had then agreed to set up rail fencing around the forest, so that most big animals, especially elephants and tigers, would not stray into agricultural land. But this has still not materialised, the farmers alleged.

While measures like shock fencing and trenches were implemented in Vadakkanad, they have been ineffective against wildlife, especially elephants, the farmers told The Quint.

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

A trench dug up to keep away elephants.

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

Shock fences are ineffective against wild animals, say farmers in Vadakkanad.

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

"Our only request to the government is: don't let wild animals wander into our farms, confine them to the forest. Provide enough food and water to wild animals inside the forest. And if you set up rail fencing and cover it with nets, most animals will stay inside the forest," Chandran said.

Devasya also demanded that the government give a compensation of Rs 1 crore to the kin of people who are killed by wildlife. "Loss of crops used to be a big issue years ago. But now, governments don't even care. With wild animal attacks increasing, I fear that they will stop caring about the loss of human life too."

"Rail fencing is very expensive, and on top of that, there is a lack of availability of rails," said DFO Lowel.

"This is not an issue that will get resolved with a single preventive measure. It should have multiple structures. We may have to take up fencing and dig trenches in one place alone. Wherever there's an emergency, we are undertaking these two measures. In some areas, we do rock fencing by creating a stone wall. But again, these measures are expensive; it's not about a shortage of methodology."
Martin Lowel, DFO, North Wayanad
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'Backbone of India, but...'

"When an election comes, politicians will say, 'I will do this, I will do that.' But after the election, you won't see them," rued Chandran.

"All parties are the same. Nobody is standing with the farmer. People say that the farmer is the backbone of the country. But these are just meaningless words. Look at the Centre, they tried to suppress the farmers' protest with force!"
Chandran

While all major parties have addressed the issue of human-wildlife conflict in their manifestos and during their campaigns, the farmers said they don't trust anyone to fulfil their promises.

In February 2024, halting his Nyay Yatra, Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi visited the family of Ajeesh, who was killed by the wild elephant Belur Makhna in the district. Seeking a "solution to the conflict," he had said, as per India Today: "The [state] government should bear the expense of those injured in the latest attacks. I had called Chief Minister [Pinarayi Vijayan] to talk about this issue, but he was not available. I will call him again and inform him directly about what the residents of Wayanad are going through."

Rahul Gandhi's constituency Wayanad faces a growing human-wildlife conflict, affecting farmers and tribal people.

Rahul Gandhi's poster in Vadakkanad.

(Photo: Meenakshy Sasikumar/The Quint)

Gandhi's opponent and national CPI leader Annie Raja, however, said in an interview with TNIE that "the CPI(M)-led LDF government has done well to declare the human-animal conflict a state-specific disaster," adding that there is "no quick-fix solution."

Chandran, meanwhile, pointed out that "some politicians" consider "communalism more important than farmers' issues."

"The other day, a candidate in Wayanad announced that he would change the name of Sultan Bathery. When I first heard it, I thought he meant he was going to bring some major development if he wins. But what he meant was that he would change the town's name to Ganapathy Vattom! Sultan Bathery has been this town's name for ages. How can you change it like that?"

Chandran was referring to BJP candidate K Surendran, who is also the party's state chief, proclaiming that he would rename Sultan Bathery to Ganapathy Vattom as a priority if he came to power. He claimed the name has associations with 18th-century Mysuru ruler Tipu Sultan.

"People still commonly use the name Ganapathy Vattom. It was the British who gave the name Sultan's Battery, after Tipu Sultan. Every party in India has reclaimed old names of places. How can you say it is communal," asked Sandeep Warrier, BJP state committee member, who was on a campaign trail in Wayanad.

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