Of Conflict, Compensation And Coexistence : Living With Elephants In Bengal
How community dynamics and religious beliefs influence efficacy of a wildlife compensation programme.
Economic damage due to wildlife is a persistent issue often impacting already marginalised communities that share space with wildlife. Ex-gratia payment or as it is commonly called, ‘compensation’, is widely used to reduce the losses faced by communities and garner support for wildlife conservation outside protected areas. Most Indian states have a policy where any losses to crops, livestock, or property due to wildlife-caused damages are compensated according to state guidelines. However, the efficacy and accessibility of this intervention is rarely investigated leading to the schemes not achieving their desired outcome.
This study explored three basic questions: what are the major sources of crop loss? What proportion of people seek ex-gratia relief for wildlife-caused losses? And what are the main reasons for not claiming relief? The research team, comprised ecologists Aritra Kshettry, an INSPIRE Fellow with the Ministry of Science and Technology affiliated to Centre for Wildlife Studies; Priyanka Das from the Coexistence Project; Dr. Vidya Athreya from Wildlife Conservation Society-India; and social scientist, Nupur Bhave, from CP Goenka International School. The research team employed transdisciplinary research methods using quantitative as well as qualitative approaches which is rarely seen in human-wildlife studies. The study was conducted in the tea-plantation and agriculture landscape of West Bengal, India. The unique landscape has a long history of shared spaces between people and elephants, also leading to economic losses, human casualties and in rare cases, elephant mortality due to retaliation. The study found that villages within 1.5 kilometres of the forest are more likely to face crop damage due to elephants predominantly, and also by other species such as wild pigs, monkeys, and peacocks. Whereas, villages living further away from the forests were likely to face more crop losses due to pest infestation and less damage due to wildlife.
The study found that despite high crop losses due to elephants, a majority of the respondents (more than 50%) did not claim compensation or ex-gratia relief. It was also found that there were community level differences in claiming ex-gratia. Indigenous Rajbangshi community and Adivasis were less likely to claim relief than minority communities living in the area. The research team investigated the causes for this disparity and found that Rajbanshi and Adivasi communities revere the elephant as an incarnation of lord Shiva, ‘Mahakal’. Hence it appears that they were more likely to accept the crop losses due to elephants without claiming relief as it is a sign of blessing from Mahakal that signifies a promise of a better harvest in the next season.
The researchers also investigated the reasons for not claiming relief and found out four key reasons. The first was procedural failures such as delayed compensation payment process, the paperwork involved and lack of access to information. The second reason was a negative evaluation of the process and towards the agency involved in filing and disbursement of claims. The third reason was being uninformed of the procedure of filing for ex-gratia due to lack of information, especially in villages situated further away from the forests. The fourth and most important reason listed was belief in Mahakal or the elephant God.
Aritra Kshettry, the lead author of the study and says, “Based on our findings, we recommend a simplified claims process by introducing mobile app-based claims and verification. Local non-government organisations may be involved to share information with the public regarding government ex-gratia payment schemes. This will enable more people to file claims and thereby help garner more tolerance for elephants in the landscape”. The research team also recommends being cognisant of local religious beliefs in formulating compensation policies as these could have disproportionate influence on the behaviour of people which is often not considered by conservation ecologists. The research team also calls for more independent studies on government ex-gratia and compensation programmes to test their efficacy. Research is also required to help make the compensation programmes more accessible and successful in garnering local support among people for wildlife in shared landscapes.
Link to the paper: