On the evening of 1 December 2022, Meghana, a 22-year-old student of the Government First Grade College in T Narasipura was killed by a leopard.
Following the incident, the BJP government in Karnataka led by Chief Minister Basavraj Bommai announced a compensation of Rs 15 lakh to the families of all who were killed by the big cats. In addition, the forest department in Mysuru also issued a shoot at sight order to kill the leopard, which caused havoc in the area.
This incident is indeed a recent one but definitely not one of its kind. Karnataka is witnessing a number human-wildlife conflicts, particularly those involving elephants and leopards. While conservationists attribute the conflict to shrinking boundaries of forests, the Karnataka government plans to introduce a multi-fold approach to tackle the conflict.
Here, The Quint traces the recent cases of human-wildlife conflict, checks what mitigation measures are being undertaken by the forest department, and examines if these policy implementations are yielding the right results.
Big Cat Havoc
Manjula Totageru and Basavanneva Kulkarni, two women from Govankoppa, located a few kilometres away from Belgavi, are agricultural workers.
On 31 January 2022, the two labourers began their day early to work on a Bengal gram farm. Little did they know that on the same afternoon, a leopard would pounce on them and injure them severely. This was the first time that leopard attacks made news this year.
But the big cats have attacked animals even earlier. The first in 2022, was in Davangere, where a 55-year-old Kamala Naik was dragged away by a leopard from a maize field, where she succumbed to her injuries in August.
In an interaction with The Quint, wildlife activist and former member of State Board for Wildlife in Karnataka, Joseph Hoover said:
"Excluding the presence of 40 leopards in Bannerghatta National Park, there are over 30 leopards in and around Bengaluru city, taking the population of this big cat to nearly 2,500 across the state. This means that national parks and reserve forests are not enough for these wild cats. As a result, they venture out to the fringe areas of the forest in search of prey."
In August 2022, 11 schools were closed in Karnataka due to big cat menace. In Chamarajanagar, a 65-year-old Govindaiah was killed by a leopard near Hanur range in the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary on 23 September 2022.
As per a report by the New Indian Express, the leopard, apart from killing the cattle, also ate body parts of the killed man's body – the first ever incident of leopard turning a maneater in Karnataka.
Livestock are not new preys for leopard venturing into fringe areas of forests. Four cows, several sheep, and dogs were also mauled by leopards in Chikkamagaluru and Udupi in August and September. Recently, a leopard created mayhem by attacking villagers and a biker in Mysuru's Kanaka Nagara, before being captured by forest officers.
In Bengaluru too, officials from the forest department alerted commuters and people living near Bannerghatta and Mysuru Road, after a few residents spotted leopards in Turahalli, Kengeri, Kumbalgodu and other areas nearby. The forest officials also came across a carcass of a deer confirming the presence of the big cat on 1 December 2022.
Speaking to The Quint, a forest official from Kaggalipura range in Bengaluru said, "As of now, we are of the opinion that there is just one leopard venturing near Kengeri and Turahalli. However, according to the residents there are more than three big cats in the vicinity. We are making all efforts to track them and ensure safety of both animals and people."
No End to Jumbo Trouble?
According to the data by complied by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Karnataka witnessed 152 deaths due to elephant attacks in the last three years.
Ever since minister Bhupender Yadav presented these figures in the Lok Sabha in July, there have been four more deaths caused due to tuskers.
This year’s first ever report of elephant attack came from Kodagu, where a daily age labourer who suffered from physical challenges was trampled by a lone elephant, while his friend survived by climbing a tree on 5 January 2022. Since then nine people have died under various attacks of elephants.
The recent one being the death of a 45-year-old woman, identified as Shobha Gowda who was trampled to death by an elephant in Mudigere.
According to the forest department, Hassan, Chikkamangaluru, Kodagu, and Mysuru have been the four districts in Karnataka where elephant attacks were the most reported in 2022.
According to expert Surendra Varma, elephant herds tend to be disturbed by growing human intrusion into wildlife corridors. Speaking to The Quint, Lokesh Gowda, a farmer from Sakleshpura, said:
"There have been a total of five deaths of people in Sakleshpura due to elephants. All of these deaths occurred in and around coffee estates. This was because elephants, which started venturing into coffee estates for food during the peak of COVID-19 pandemic and due to the decreased human activity, have not entirely returned to the forests."
Experts also believe, elephants which predominantly eat bamboo and fruits from other trees have started entering villages in search of sugarcane, ragi, and other millet farms. This is a result of bamboo and other fruit bearing trees having dried up in the forests.
Suffering elephant attacks, farmers and plantation owners have been protesting in Hassan and Sakleshpura seeking help from the government. Some agriculturists have threatened to dig 25-feet-deep trenches to keep jumbos away from damaging their crop.
Bommai Government Brings In New Measures, Experts Wary of Consequences
In the wake of human-wildlife conflict in Karnataka, the forest department, as per the direction of Basavaraj Bommai government, has come out with three major initiatives to tackle the issue.
Setting up of task forces in Hassan, Chikkamagaluru, Mysuru, and Kodagu to control human-elephant conflict.
Proposals to farmers on cropping pattern to reduce human-animal conflict.
Publishing of a certified manual for snake rescue in order to mitigate growing human-snake conflict.
In an interaction with The Quint, Jawaid Akhtar, chief secretary of the Forest, Ecology and Environment Department said, "The task force is established to ensure more radio collaring of elephants, patrol jumbo infested areas for surveillance, send alerts to farmers via SMS about movement of elephants. The task force will also fence vulnerable areas as identified by the department and also carry out shifting of elephants from one reserve area to the other to avoid over herding. They will also keep a check on musth (an aggressive behaviour accompanied by steep rise in hormones among male elephants)."
While some welcomed the move by the government, experts like Joseph Hoover have criticised the policies adopted by the forest department, and have raised questions about the elephant task force.
In his interaction with The Quint, he said,
"Setting up of task force is not really enough. We need long-term measures to save forests, and as a result save our wildlife. Instead of radio collaring animals and relaying messages to farmers, the forest officials must ensure removal of encroachments, prohibit any sort of industrial or urban activities near the fringe areas, and lastly evict illegal home-stay and luxury resorts that bother wildlife and the environment."
When asked what effective or specialised policy would be adopted to control the entry of leopard into urban spaces, the forest department replied, " A special team has been formed to catch leopards which have left the forests."