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How conservation can be a paying proposition

Praveen Bose  |  Bangalore 

Mysore Doreswamy Madhusudan

Man-animal conflicts can be resolved if those affected become stakeholders in conservation, says wildlife biologist Madhusudan, who recently won a “Green Oscar”.

For the cynics, the term “sustainable conservation” has increasingly come to mean planting a few token trees in return for cutting down swathes of forests for the vast industrial projects that India’s rapidly growing economy demands. And if the shrinking forest cover aggravates man-animal conflicts in which the animal comes off the worst, that’s considered “collateral damage”.

Madhusudan, 37, co-founder and director, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), has worked on a model to show why such confrontation need not be destructive. Far from advocating the “pretty creatures” approach that has often alienated local communities, the wildlife biologist and ecologist promotes a scientific approach to inclusive conservation, in this case to prevent farmers from poisoning or using other brutal ways to kill wild elephants that destroy their crops in south India.

Recently, recognition for the common-sense insights he has brought to conservation in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve came in the form of the Whitley Fund For Nature (WFN) award.

Often called the “Green Oscars”, the WFN award aims to source and fund work rooted in “good science” that emphasises the benefits of habitats to local communities.

Madhusudan has conducted his research on balancing the needs of people and wildlife, including elephant and tigers, in the world’s most densely-populated biodiversity hotspot, the Western Ghats. Most of NCF’s work is conducted in areas close to wildlife sanctuaries where conflict resolution is, literally, a life-and-death affair. This is the situation in the 220 sq km Valparai plateau in the Anamalai hills. Lying within the Anamalai-Parambikulam Elephant Reserve (which contains the second largest Asian elephant population of around 1,500 elephants in 5,700 sq km), the plateau landscape is dominated by tea, coffee, cardamom and eucalyptus plantations interspersed with rain forests that form the annual migratory paths for wild elephants.

NCF’s solution for dealing with man-animal conflict, developed after six years of study, is a model of practicality. Madhusudan, who has the discovery of the Arunachal Macaque to his credit, does not expect farmers to develop a love for the elephants that destroy their crops. As he pointed out, “The people who poison elephants are normal people.” Instead, he has made farmers stakeholders in the conservation effort.

This essentially involves providing crop protection for a small fee. The reasoning works like this. Farmers often lose 10 to 20 per cent of their crop to wild animals. What makes them “irrational” is the cost of capital that goes into raising crops — given the absence of formal, institutionalised credit, most raise money at extortionate rates of 60 to 300 per cent from local money-lenders. With such heavy investments, even a small crop loss tends to get magnified.

The value proposition offers farmers is a chance to eliminate (not reduce) losses by contributing towards the fences that keep elephants and other assorted wildlife out of their fields. As Madhusudan pointed out, “There is a market for protection.”

Since the cost for constructing the fence — a rudimentary barrier of barbed wire and hedges — is relatively high, the initial investment is raised through grants and contributions from conservation buffs and like-minded people — the £30,000 grant from the Whitley Award donated by HSBC Bank will go towards this.

Farmers pay towards maintaining it with being the service provider. The fee is roughly Rs 40 per acre per month.

“Ours is not an activism model,” Madhusudan insisted. What he wants to achieve is conservation with accommodation — accommodating the needs of the animals while meeting the needs of people living within the range of the animals. “Three million people depend on forests for their livelihood in India and they have been doing so for thousands of years,” he said.

The standard approach to wildlife-related crop losses is to write it off as a local government responsibility. The trouble is that government intervention can be non-existent or inadequate. Besides, once compensation becomes a government issue, no one is really responsible for conservation. Madhusudan’s approach is simple and bottom-up: “We must work with farmers, understand their needs and ask them for solutions.”