Rethinking The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve

Rethinking the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve​

As wild animals adapt to a rapidly changing environment, humans need to understand the effects of our influence on this transformation.

There is this constant narrative over human wildlife conflict which only keeps increasing and never gets solved. There must be some reasons for this narrative. Could it be that wildlife habitat is shrinking, causing them to stray into human habitation in search of food and water? Could it be because of the change in the relationship between humans and wildlife? Could it be because of how humans have changed the way we use resources? Could it be because of certain policies in place? In my experience, there is not just one reason for the issue at hand but a combination of many plausible explanations. That is why in today’s notion of ‘conservation’ there is a need for everyone, and not just governments and non-governmental organizations, to get involved at different levels to address this complex issue.
If you spend enough time in the Nilgiris, you will hear folklore which describes the interconnection of life forms through song and dance. The way of life was based on events in nature which people used as indicators to adapt to, creating a very strong bond between humans and nature. In fact, most of these indicative events in nature were observed through changes in phenology of plants and behaviour in animals. This required humans to observe their natural surroundings as it is and adapt to the changes accordingly. For example, after the winter frost leaves the grassland dry, some pastoral communities in the Nilgiris set fire to the grasses in April. This leaves behind a residue of salt, nourishing the soil for the growth of new grass after the monsoon. This salt is also very nutritious for the buffaloes, who graze in the valley in the months between summer and monsoon, while the grasslands in the upper elevation regenerate. The Todas that tend to the buffaloes actually celebrate this cycle with salt-pouring festivals. That’s how these communities have lived in forests for generations, passing on time capsules in the form of traditional knowledge.
Over time, these traditional knowledge systems eroded as forests started to be administered by various governing bodies. What was once common property or communal lands, governed by unwritten rules of communities, were taken over by the British and by the Indian government after independence. People were then displaced from these forests and the concepts of ‘Protective Areas’ and ‘Reserve Forests’ were created to protect wildlife. Once this happened, the bond between forest dwelling communities and the forests was broken, leaving them with no choice but to depend on the State like every other citizen and lose their ability to adapt to changes in the environment. The forests, which were once home to many species including humans, were turned into revenue generating machines to fuel the country’s hunger for growth and development. All the wildlife in the forests also became the State’s property and came under the administration of the Forest Department.
The pride of the Nilgiris is its diverse ecosystems, which have been and continue to be turned into monocrop plantations supporting little or no biodiversity. If the food chain in the forest is broken, animals are bound to stray into human habitations. Also, creating separate spaces for humans and wildlife changed the relationship between them, altering their dependency on each other, as people stopped looking at animal behaviour for signs of change. Protected areas were presumably created with the assumption that all species prefer similar landscapes and won’t move to other areas. For example, elephants move through different landscapes throughout the year, creating the need for elephant corridors. If these corridors are not considered when development plans are made, conflicts are bound to arise between elephants and humans. It is the same with agricultural practices in and around protected areas: if crops that attract wildlife are grown, a crop raid is more likely. Some communities that live close to the forests plan their crop cycles based on the availability of water and grow crops that wildlife around the area do not prefer.
In the upper Nilgiris, elephants now prefer carrots and beetroots and keep returning to raid only those fields, especially in the hot summer months when they also come for water. So Bikkapathymund, a Toda hamlet, started growing broccoli and garlic in the summer as alternatives because elephants do not prefer those crops. They resume growing carrots and beetroots in the monsoon as elephants do not come up the hills then. This is an example that these communities have paid close attention to the cycles in nature and have planned their livelihoods around it.
But this kind of agriculture works only when communities grow for their immediate consumption and not to cater to the market. Once markets enter, money dictates what is grown and how the land is used. Sadly, there is no room to consider the long-term impact of market-driven agricultural practices such as how it affects the soil, water availability and effects on wildlife. When negative interactions occur between humans and wildlife over crop loss, attempts to address the conflict are mostly short term as they do not address the larger issue at hand – the increased conversion of forests into agricultural lands. For example, how does compensation given to farmers for crop loss resolve raids from happening in the future? Farmers then resort to fencing their land, at their own expense, only to see them destroyed frequently by animals. Another common attempt to keep wildlife away is to use fireworks. This works in most cases as a temporary and drastic measure as it startles and frightens animals away. How can we advocate for animals when farmers are incurring huge losses from wildlife crop raids? This is the dilemma people in the field face as both sides are losing a never-ending battle.
When we try to alter an ecosystem to suit our needs, we are only delaying its negative impact. In the current development model, decisions are ostensibly made with responses and feedback from the environment ignored which creates new problems and amplifies existing ones. These centralized decisions are often passed and implemented by the government in a haphazard manner. The promise of modernity which has shifted the aspirations of people who live among wildlife, coupled with the state’s policies are changing the way land is used. Patches of forests in the Nilgiris have been converted to plantations and agricultural lands, further fragmenting forest cover, forcing animals to cut through these converted lands to access resources. ​However, the alarming rate at which these lands are now being converted into built-up areas as small towns expand is something to worry about. Open spaces allow for wildlife to move and access food and water. When these spaces are replaced with fenced off buildings, natural routes are blocked and wild animals are bound to run into humans as they search for new routes. Animals are always adapting to changes in the environment; so much so that there is a constant lag in our tracking and understanding of these changes. We humans fail to acknowledge or ignore these changes and try to modify and control the environment around us to feed our growing needs.
There is a need for a systemic change in which the needs of the economy are not prioritized over the environment. After all, the economy functions because of the resources the environment has to offer. Once we stop waging war against nature and start paying attention to its feedbacks, we will learn to adapt to the changes happening and accordingly reinvent the way we live and relate to other species. It has happened in the past and can happen again.
(Nayantara Lakshman is a Subject Coordinator for Biodiversity Management & Restoration at Keystone Foundation, an organization working on conservation and eco-development initiatives in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve in South India.)