Strategy:  The agriculture ministry has begun preparing a long-term holistic approach to manage human wildlife conflict in the country.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Bhutan trained agriculture, livestock and wildlife conservation officials on an emerging concept in the field of human wildlife conflict management yesterday.

The Human Wildlife Safe System Approach is the new and interdisciplinary holistic approach.

“This approach recognises the human dimensions of human-wildlife conflict; to rapidly mitigate urgent wildlife problems and to also prepare strategies that will ensure safety of human and their assets, wildlife habitats and wildlife itself in longer term,” a WWF expert, Ashley Brooks (PhD) said.

He said while the issue would not disappear for a long time, the new system could help in managing the issue on a broad level.

The human wildlife conflict strategy developed in 2008 expired in 2013 following which most of the works carried out were ad hoc, agriculture officials said.

“The programmes that we’ve are reactive meaning, we look for solutions only when problems emerge,” National Plant Protection Centre official, Sangay Dorji said.

This is the first activity of a WWF project to improve Human-Wildlife conflict management and food security with a grant of Nu 8.83 million.

The project will install 65km of electric fencing in human wildlife conflict hotspots as an interim prevention strategy in six gewogs in Mongar, Wangdue, Trongsa and Zhemgang.

The ministry and respective dzongkhag officials will conduct rapid assessments of the human wildlife conflict situation in the dzongkhags and their gewogs. The assessments will be complete on May 14.

“By the end of the year, we’re expecting to revise the strategy and have it ready,” Sangay Dorji, who is also the WWF project’s coordinator, said.

NPPC officials said numerous mitigation measures such as sound and light repellent and electric fencing have been tried in the field with some success.

The new approach is being tested as the success rate of electric fencing, the most effective measure for human wildlife conflict so far, is confronted with questions of sustainability and long-term effectiveness.

Some communities despite having by-laws have not maintained the fence and left them idle.

There are reports that electric fencing is displacing the problem to nearby communities. Some villages in Samtenling, Sarpang experienced more wildlife conflicts after the two neighbouring communities fenced their fields.

“So problem is only shifted from one community to another but the problems remain,” a forest official said.

Moreover, the fencing is meant to protect the livelihoods alone and does not address the issues for the wildlife. Officials said electric fencing all the fields has implications in terms of cost and safety issues.

There is a need to study why the wild animals are ravaging crops and also on the population of the wildlife to learn the reasons for them to do so.

“Different areas and species could have different reasons to invade agriculture land,” a WWF India official said.

For instance, in Western Ghats, India the elephants despite having a huge protected area fed on crops because it was easy. However, in Assam and West Bengal they lost more than 80 percent of their habitat which compelled them look for food in the farmers’ fields.

The new system will look into all these issues form both human livelihoods and wildlife aspects. WWF’s Safe System management is a holistic approach that involves making the system – people, wildlife, livestock and habitat – safe.

Since its legalisation in 2013, almost all gewogs have installed electric fencing. Officials said about 650km of electric fencing have been installed since then which protected more than 6,472 acres of agriculture land benefiting over 3,015 households.

The forest and park services department has installed 154.04km of electric fencing at a cost of Nu 17.913M as new activity with funds mobilised through the International Development Agency and the World Bank.

Agriculture department’s records from July 2013 to June 2015 show wild animals ravaged 8,058 acres of fields across the country causing a crop loss of 7,542MT, of which 1,725MT was paddy.

Of that, more than 172 truckloads were paddy, 107 were potato and 20 were vegetables, among others, considering a truck carries 10 metric tonnes (MT).

Most of the vulnerable farming communities are either close to protected areas such as parks and biological corridors or in reserved forests.

“Finding the balance between economic development and conservation has become therefore a critical challenge,” an official said.

Officials said the loss of crops and livestock in poor rural areas can have a devastating impact to households, while the retaliatory killing of wildlife has become a challenge to long-term conservation and maintenance of national biodiversity.

Finding a long term solution to this critical issue would help more than 60 percent of the Bhutanese population directly relying on livestock and crop production for livelihoods coexist with the rich and highly bio-diverse habitats.

Chief agriculture officer Chimi Rinzin said, “The government realising the gravity of the problem has brought it to the centre stage and made it one of the four major thrust areas of the 11th Plan.”

According to RNR statistics 2015, average production of paddy maize were over 76,621MT and 74,370MT annually with an average yield of 1,524kg and 1,224kg an acre respectively. The annual average potato production was 46,695MT with an average yield of 3,595kg an acre.

Average landholding of the farmers in the country is 3.4 acres as of 2013. Only about eight percent of the country’s total land is fit for cultivation.

Agriculture department’s director general Nim Dorji during the ministry’s midterm review meeting last year proposed the government mainstream the electric fencing system into the local development plan as a priority activity.

The team from WWF and NPPC will leave to train dzongkhag officials conduct the rapid assessment and on the system this week.

Tshering Palden