Jayasudha, 38, counts it as a blessing that she was not home on the night of December 11, 2020. It was then that a bear with two cubs entered her home in Indira Nagar, a residential colony in Kotagiri town of Nilgiris district, Tamil Nadu, and took away with some ration. “My daughters and I did not come back for a week until my husband fixed the broken door. We were gripped by fear,” she added.
In another incident, a bear entered 54-year-old Ramar’s home when his family of five were sleeping. “We shouted, which deterred it from venturing further in,” said his 26-year-old son Ranjith. Four more houses and a few shops were broken into before the residents chased the bears away. The forest department set traps for the bears, and soon enough, they were caught in the nearby Milidhane village and relocated to Upper Bhavani, in the western catchments of the Nilgiris district.
Such close encounters with the wildlife is not new to Indira Nagar residents. Wedged between endless tea plantations and Longwood Shola, a reserve forest, this colony of about 750 residents gets frequent visits from a number of wild animals. On March 18, 2022, a gaur grazing on a slope slipped and fell through the roof of 67-year-old Doraisami’s house. “We had newly built the house and had not had a chance to live in it comfortably,” he said. Doraisami’s wife, Veeramani, said that there are many gaurs in the area. “Bears also come, which is scary because they kill people. Nobody sleeps peacefully here (in the colony),” she added.
Residents of Ambedkar Nagar, another colony of about 150 people located south of Longwood Shola, have similar stories to narrate. Ramajayam, a youth from the colony, told Mongabay-India that the residents live under constant threat of being attacked by wild animals since the colony is on the fringes of the forest. “There are no boundaries or fences that separate our colony from the forest,” he added. “When we complained, we were told to take care of ourselves. Our movements are restricted due to this. There are no playgrounds; children play near the forest, which increases their risk of being attacked by animals.
Biosphere Reserves Reduce Space Between Humans And Animals
A land-locked district in the Western Ghats region, Nilgiris with an area of 2,545 square kilometres (sq. km.) has a forest area of about 1,731 sq. km. Interspersed with vast tea plantations and agricultural lands, this forest area is highly fragmented. The district falls within the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, the first biosphere reserve in the country with an area of 5,520 square kilometres. Biosphere reserves, as described by UNESCO, are “learning areas for sustainable development.” Modelled in such a way as to promote human-animal coexistence, it is divided into a core area, which is a strictly protected area for wildlife; surrounded by a buffer zone, and a transition area where the boundaries between humans and animals become progressively thin.
Animals do not understand boundaries. Several push and pull factors are bringing them closer to human habitation. While forest degradation, agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, and climate change are some of the factors pushing the animals out of forests, they are pulled towards human-dominated landscapes by easy access to food like crops, fruiting trees, food waste, and livestock.
Many cases of close interactions between humans and wildlife are being reported from towns in the upper plateau of Nilgiris such as Ooty, Coonoor, and Kotagiri. In November 2022, a tiger seen with its kill near Ooty Golf Course was widely reported. Sightings of the rare and elusive mammal Nilgiri Marten, endemic to the Western Ghats, were also reported from towns such as Ooty and Coonoor. Herds of gaurs grazing in the tea plantations are a common sight here and now, animals like bears, leopards, porcupines, wild dogs, and jungle cats are increasingly seen in residential areas. Rajesh Kumar, wildlife veterinarian, Mudumalai National Park, said that in these towns, solid waste that is indiscriminately discarded is easy food for animals, while abandoned buildings provide shelter.
Open Dump Sites Attract Wild Animals To Towns
A commonly heard grouse of the Kotagiri residents is the lack of a solid waste management system. There are several open dump sites near these residential layouts. Wild animals are attracted by food waste and are often seen lingering around or rummaging through the waste. “We do not have a designated space for waste disposal, so we dispose it near the forest,” said Ramajayam. “A lot of wild boars come to eat that.”
Sreedevi, a resident of Krishna Pudur, a colony of largely sanitation workers, concurred. “We dump waste in the stream,” she said. A stream that passes through the colony, a source of drinking water, is seen filled with plastic and other waste. Residents also demand toilets. “Women have to openly defecate before sunrise or after sunset for privacy. There are snakes everywhere. A porcupine almost attacked a woman,” informed another resident, Kannagi. Unofficial records sourced from the non-profit Keystone Foundation that works on mitigating human-wildlife conflict (HWC) in Kotagiri said that only around 30 percent of the households here have toilets.
“We get a case a month on an average and it is mostly gaur or wild boar,” said Dr. Anbu Murugan, assistant surgeon at Kotagiri taluk government hospital, when asked about the frequency of medical cases the hospital gets by way of negative interactions with animals. “I’m treating two cases of forearm fracture from gaur attacks — a woman tea worker and a man who accidentally got in the middle of a herd of gaurs.”
Kannigadevi Colony, a residential colony of a little over 500 people, is a landmark in Kotagiri town for a legacy landfill. It is to this colony that all the waste from the town goes. A narrow road that barely fits a car, lined with severed heads of chickens and feathers, leads us to the landfill. Raptors, crows, and herons are seen hovering over it and the air is thick with the smell of rotting waste. Residents say that the stench gets unbearable during rain. “This landfill has been there even before the colony came up 40 years ago, said Thangadurai, a resident. “Earlier, there was very little waste. But now, with the increasing population, the waste is also increasing.” Census records from 2011 show that the population in the Nilgiris has increased by almost 20 percent since 1981.
In 2011, torrential rains brought a portion of the landfill down, burying a family of three alive. The incident increased the demand to relocate the landfill. “Bears have started coming, as the smell of waste attracts them,” Thangadurai said. “We’ve asked them (authorities) to move it but they haven’t done anything.”.
The residents informed us that an anganwadi (child care centre) in the colony has been shut down due to frequent bear visits to the colony. Snakes like Russell’s vipers, previously not found in the highlands, are also being spotted in the Nilgiris, which experts believe could be due to a warming climate. Nilgiris District Forest Officer (DFO) Gowtham S. told Mongabay-India that open waste dumping sites are an issue and the department has taken notice of it and are in the process of finding a solution.
Animals Pay A Price Negotiating Space With Humans
Wild animals, meanwhile, seem to be getting more comfortable with human presence. Getting adapted to rapidly expanding human habitations, however, does not always work in their favour. Wild animals get killed or get hurt falling into open wells or being caught in snares. Kumar, the wildlife veterinarian, said that animal deaths from poisoning are also common. Post-mortems of certain animals have revealed plastic, cloths, and nylon ropes in their gut.
Despite increasing incidents of conflict with humans, Kotagiri does not have a wildlife veterinarian to call for action when a wild animal is in danger. A local veterinarian, who is not trained to handle wild animals, is often summoned to handle minor injuries. In cases of major injuries or cases that involve Schedule 1 species, a wildlife veterinarian from Mudumalai or Coimbatore, which are over 70 kilometres away, is brought. “Precious time is lost in saving the animal,” said conservation photographer Chandrasekar Das, who works with Keystone Foundation in animal rescue and human-wildlife conflict (HWC) mitigation. He recalled a case where a leopard caught in a snare was dead by the time the vet arrived from Mudumalai almost six hours after the incident.