Koppal, one of the richest districts of Karnataka in terms of both fauna and agricultural prosperity, slowly slides into tumultuous times as farmers lock horn with wild animals.
The frail carcass of a blackbuck lying on the ground, while blood seeps out and draws vein like patterns on the dust. Its’ lower jaw missing. The poor creature was fated to bite down a food bomb (locally manufactured bombs put inside fruits), blasting apart the mouth.
Koppal, one of the districts in Karnataka is home to grasslands known as Yeri. They house a wide variety of species, both herbivores, and carnivores. Blackbucks, striped hyenas, sloth bears, leopards, civet cats, rusty-spotted cats, jungle cats, foxes, and wolves thrive in this environment.
Koppal is also known for its plains along with the predominant black cotton soil, for providing a rich and thriving ground for agriculture to flourish. 90per cent of Koppal’s population earns a livelihood through farming at some point in a financial year according to data by Koppal Statistical Department. Along with the black soil, one might come across a unique and beautiful landscape of red soil, called Masari by locals.
So Koppal not only consists of vast grasslands sheltering some of the most endangered and elusive wildlife of India, but it also provides a lush ground for agriculture, setting up the stage for men and animals to co-exist in the same habitat.
Big Problems, Small Lies
Manjunath Parameshappa, a farmer from Mudhol village in Yelburga taluk stands guard at his crop every day from 6 a.m-7 p.m diligently. Otherwise, langurs and blackbucks eat growing crops. “We use all types of techniques like bursting crackers, making noise, fencing and shouting in groups, but all of it goes in vain, as they flee for a few hours and arrive again,” said Manjunath.
Manjunath is not the only one. There are several other farmers growing impatient with each passing day and resorting to violent means to solve this unfortunate problem. A few farmers from the same village devised the devious food bomb. The food bomb had claimed the lives of six blackbucks, according to Yelburga police station records. The local police then stepped in and announced that if any animal carcass is found with their jaws blasted, the farmer on whose land the carcass would be found will be arrested, irrespective of whether he did it or not. Since October 2019, there has not been any report of the usage of food bombs anymore.
This problem is not only there in Mudhol, but also in parts of Gadag and Yelburga taluk. Back in 2018, there were reports of seven to nine blackbuck carcasses being found on the outskirts of Yelburga taluk, all of them with brutal burn marks. The only wildlife photographer of Yelburga Taluk, Sadik S. said, ”Media failed to properly cover this important issue. Neither did the follow-up on the post mortem reports of the dead blackbucks happen, nor did they manage to report on the hundreds of dead carcasses being found daily after that event.”
Yashpal Kshirasagar, Deputy Conservator of Forest (DCF), Koppal had said back then that five more carcasses were retrieved by forest officers from Alwandi, the previous month. “We suspect that the animals could have died because of lightning. There were burn marks too,” added the DCF. But Sadik S. differs in his opinion regarding the cause of death. “Farmers have started using heavy doses of pesticides on the border crops to poison the animals eating them, after the recent banning of food bombs”, said Sadik.
As the number of blackbucks decreased, carnivores like the Indian wolf and striped hyenas were forced to either hunt for food from human settlements or migrate to other places from their natural habitats, informed Sadik S.
The Battle Against Oblivion
“Man is also an animal, but we tend to forget that at times. We tend to see ourselves as a kind of superior species and we bring forth the wrath of our advanced technology at the first sign of nuisance from an oblivious animal just trying to live its own life,” said Mr Sujith Shetty, a wildlife warden of Koppal.
Mr Shetty’s job is to be the bridge between people facing problems due to wildlife encroachment and the Wildlife Department in Koppal. He understands the entire scope of the problem faced by residents/farmers and helps the wildlife department come up with suitable solutions. What makes him suitable for this job is his love for wildlife and the vast knowledge base he has developed over the years on ‘man and animal coexistence’.
Mr Shetty during his spare time holds wildlife awareness programmes for children and teenagers. He says that children do not have a rigid mind set like grown ups, and are capable of thinking outside the norms taught to them by their immediate society and question them.
“Pigs dig holes in the ground which helps farmer store water during rainfall. But we kill the pigs and waste money on employing people to dig the same holes in the ground for us. Similarly Blackbuck faeces is a much better fertilizer than most of the man made manures,” said Mr Shetty while emphasizing on the lack of awareness on the need for wildlife protection.
Things weren’t always violent and aggressive between men and animals in Koppal. Back in 2017, there were reports about the peaceful harmony existing amongst farmers/shepherds and wildlife in Koppal. “One-third of our flock is for god (losses through disease), one third is for us, and one-third is for wolves,” said Durganna, a shepherd who lost many of his cattle to wolves. “If there is a good crop, we don’t mind if blackbuck eats from our fields. There is enough for them and for us,” said Yamanur Saab, a groundnut farmer from Sanganhal.
But the absence of awareness may not be the only reason for this conflict. Improper and careless government planning acted as a catalyst to the whole situation.
Creakings of a Faulty Machinery
Better techniques of irrigation and innovative technology led to an agriculture boom in Koppal since 2018. According to Prahlad Kumar, Development Officer of Yelburga Panchayat, a new program to direct water from Alamatti dam into the agricultural fields was started in February 2018. “Our main issue was irrigation, but once it was addressed properly, agriculture in the district picked up pace.” This program was launched under Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana(PMKSY) scheme.
As farmers expanded their production a lot of forest area was encroached and converted to agricultural land carelessly. There was a total increase of 37sq km of farmland in Yelburga and Mudhol itself in the financial year 2018-19 according to the Agricultural Department, Koppal. Ironically there has been a 30 sq km decrease in forest cover according to data from the Forest Department, Koppal.
A grassland is a biome of grasses and shrub trees, which increases the water table, prevents soil erosion, and supports livestock and other biodiversity.
Wildlife Activist Mr Inderjeet Ghorpade highlights the problem, “In our country, grasslands are considered wastelands, and are therefore given away to setup industries. we don’t understand that grasslands , arid regions, and lakes are as important as forests (or croplands).”
The Rumble Continues
In August 2018, due to the plea of Inderjeet Ghorpade and his group of wildlife activists group Deccan Conservation Foundation, the state government declared 83.9 sq km of wildlife crammed land as reserved forest. The land was handed over to the Forest Department of Koppal to protect its natural habitat. But Inderjeet Ghorpade is of the opinion that this effort was not enough to protect the animals. “Only 83.9 sq km of land was considered as a reserve forest out of the total 237.1 sq km of dense forest coverage. It is simply not enough to protect every animal. On top of that, the Koppal Forest Department is severely undermanned and short of cash.”
Koppal Forest Department has a total of 12 employees working in the department according to Mr Irshad, another wildlife warden of the district. But the department refused to show the list of employees working for it. The Softcopy team only found two officers working in the department when they visited the site.
“If we want to conserve these shared spaces(between men and animals), providing an incentive to the people here to protect and conserve the wildlife would ideally be the first step. This requires novel techniques and schemes which unfortunately make a weak case in the face of economic development. The second thing that needs to be taken care of is the poaching and hunting of blackbucks. With no regulation in place, the blackbucks have been gradually disappearing”, said Iravatee Majgaonkar, scientist at WCS India who is collaborating with Deccan Conservation Foundation (DCF), and researching on the wolves in the area for the past one and half year.
Currently Inderjeet Ghorpade and DCF are shooting a 12 part series wildlife documentary named- The Deccan. It is to showcase the rich fauna of Koppal district