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In Wayanad, a densely forested district in the state of Kerala, in South India, human-animal conflict is on the rise, with frequent reports of tigers preying on cattle, bears causing havoc, and elephants damaging property. Public sentiment is increasingly hostile toward the Forest Department, accusing them of prioritizing animal protection over human welfare due to the strict enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 in the state. Incidents with leopards, tigers, and elephants have been reported in the early months of 2024. One recent situation involves a 20-year-old elephant called Belur Makhna, who crossed into Wayanad from Karnataka, the adjoining state, and trampled a tractor driver, Panachiyil Ajeesh, to death. Some reports indicated that individuals were pelting the elephant with stones, prompting the elephant to charge at them. But it is not only humans who are harmed in these conflicts. On February 3, a 30-year-old elephant named Thanneer Komban, so-called for his affinity for breaking water pipes to drink cool water, died under suspicious circumstances following his capture and relocation after he entered a human settlement in Mananthavady. Concerns have arisen that the Karnataka Forest Department might be intentionally relocating their elephants to the Kerala border, leading to increased encounters with humans.

On February 17, a protest organized by an all-party action council in Pulpally, also in north Wayanad, turned violent when government officials and representatives didn’t promise in writing to meet the protesters’ demands. The protesters hurled stones and shouted at the police and the officials present, including legislators. Additionally, the protesters transported the carcass of a bull reportedly killed in a tiger attack near Pulpally that morning to the demonstration site, placing the body and a wreath on the hood of a Forest Department vehicle. How can we decode this collective resentment? Is it targeted toward the Forest Department’s perceived de-prioritization of human interests, or is it toward the animals who pose a threat to human safety? If this anger is fueled by a sentiment of deception, assuming that “deception” refers to a calculated but hidden tactical action, then are animals unwittingly granted murderous intentions?

Anthropological research into human-animal conflict has centered on conservation efforts, tracing their roots to colonial times, examining their repercussions on marginalized communities, and analyzing the development of antagonistic sentiments toward wildlife. Conservation scientists and ecologists often describe the sentiments as “negative attitudes,” including fear, resentment, and anger toward wild animals. The accompanying sense of powerlessness and low tolerance may culminate in retaliatory killings of wildlife as a means of addressing or venting the frustrations arising from human-animal conflict. Negative attitudes can also lead to the stigmatization of certain animal species, further exacerbating conflict and hindering conservation efforts. They can strain relationships between local communities and conservation organizations and the Forest Department, impeding collaborative efforts to find sustainable solutions to human-animal conflicts.

Though I have been conducting fieldwork in Wayanad since 2019, I have observed an emerging sentiment of perceived deception among the public more acutely in the last two or three years. Expectations of deception have taken on myriad forms, though primarily stemmed from the lack of transparency from the Forest Department, coupled with the belief that the department and wildlife authorities were colluding to mislead the public about the true “facts” about wildlife. In India, the management, conservation, and protection of forests and wildlife fall under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department, operating at both the national and state levels. The historical interactions between department authorities and local communities have contributed to a lack of trust or skepticism toward official narratives. The department’s unwillingness to share information about tigers or elephants led to conspiracy theories about hidden agendas or manipulative tactics.

There was a widespread belief that both elephant and tiger populations had increased, accompanied by an expansion of forest cover, ultimately favoring wildlife over human interests. A portion of the population believes that state and forest authorities have lied to the public about animals being endangered at all. Another popular belief is that the Forest Department was lackadaisical about these attacks to encourage people to leave, which would result in an increase in forest cover. In short, deception came to life through prevailing societal beliefs and social understandings in Wayanad. Expectations of deception emerge as an affective response, based on the beliefs and social understandings in Wayanad that government agencies and wildlife authorities may engage in acts of concealment, misinformation, or manipulation regarding the management, outcomes, or causes of human-animal conflict.

When I first visited a site in Choorimala where a calf had been killed by a tiger, I expected the scene to resemble a gathering after a person’s death. The calf’s body lay exposed near the cattle shed, and everyone took pictures. Various parties, including media, forest officers, the farmer’s relatives, and party officials gradually arrived to investigate the incident and converse with the farmer to learn the details. The farmer recounted the same narrative to different individuals, who speculated on why the tiger might have chosen that particular location. Soon, people began offering explanations for the specific cattle killed and the increasing human-animal conflicts in Wayanad. These explanations were similar to those offered in structured live debates organized by local news channels on human-animal conflict, as they often presented rehearsed and complex views on the subject rather than addressing a particular incident. The debates often featured local activists urging the government to heed the pleas of the public living in fear.

The explanations and speculations about animal killings in India revealed that wildlife was unwelcome. The explanations not only make immediate sense of the violent incident but also predict what the government is going to do, or not do. I first got a taste of the portentous nature of these explanations when an onlooker, a distant neighbor who had arrived to commiserate, offered his theory: “The government is going to do nothing. Why don’t they shoot the tiger? They have an understanding with the Karnataka government. When there is an issue here, they will drop the tiger in Karnataka and when there is an issue there, they drop him back. The tigers get free trips while the people suffer.” These theories are based on some truth, as tigers are caught and relocated as the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) protocol stipulates that a tiger can be shot only after it has been confirmed to have killed a human.

In their appeal to truth, these theories bear similarities to rumors. According to Veena Das, rumors lack a signature, yet they render the imaginary real and can contribute to actual violence, erasing the humanity and subjectivity of the Other. The violence thus generated “becomes so embedded in the fabric of the social that it becomes indistinguishable from the social.” This expectation of deception also functions as a call to action and occasionally for violence. The most common demand when tigers and elephants enter human-dominated areas is for their relocation, but when cattle or a human is killed, the public demands that the wild animal be shot. This fear and panic are fueled by the expectation of deception and exacerbated by unverified WhatsApp messages and undated videos depicting animal encounters.

To allay this perceived deception, organizations like the Kerala Independent Farmers Association (KIFA) employed several tactics. They installed their own camera traps and sought the assistance of experts to identify tigers captured on camera, cross-referencing these images with the NTCA repository. In the event of a cattle kill, KIFA leaders provided locals with the mobile numbers of the chief wildlife warden. Although they claimed to oppose the killing of wild animals, their approach, which highlighted human suffering overlooked by the government, suggested a need for stricter measures against wildlife. KIFA members juxtaposed the Kerala Forest Department’s perceived weak actions with those of Western nations unafraid to practice culling. In response to the department’s alleged deception, KIFA positioned themselves as advocates for farmers, as reflected in their slogan: kaattil mathi kaattu neethi (let the law of the jungle remain in the jungle).

Human-animal conflict is unsettling due to its unpredictability and its breakdown of the boundaries between “civilization” and “wilderness”—one does not expect to see a bear running through town. How else can one make sense of a wild animal suddenly in their midst? How do they explain the intense fear? By attributing deception to the government, the surreal suddenly takes shape. The expectation of deception becomes a means to process reality and aspire to a comprehensive understanding of events involving animals. The belief that the state is deceiving them allows the public to construct a reality in which the state apparatus is in control, thereby excluding animals and deferring the question of animal intentionality. Thus, we do not have to think of questions like, Did the elephant attack because it was angry? Did humans provoke the elephant in some way?

At the same time, since the Forest Department is tasked with protecting wild animals and conservation, the transposition pits the vulnerable public against the dangerous animal and the deceptive department, effectively conflating the Forest Department with the wildlife. This underscores the inefficacy of governments and departments while reinforcing the public’s inclination to have wildlife confined to forested areas. In other words, the unsettling question of whether animals intended to harm humans or if the animals were provoked or angry is postponed or transformed, as addressing such questions only intensifies uncertainties surrounding every human-animal conflict. Such questions would force us to confront animal intentions and to take seriously why and how we have transformed shared human-animal landscapes in the Anthropocene.

Deception has long been intertwined with human-animal relations, particularly in the context of hunting. In order to successfully hunt animals for food or other resources, humans have historically employed various deceptive tactics, camouflaging themselves to blend into the environment, imitating animal calls to lure prey closer, and setting traps or snares disguised to appear innocuous to unsuspecting animals. Animals have also been known to employ deceptive tactics in their interactions with humans, even though these are usually seen as adaptive strategies that enhance their survival and reproductive success in their respective environments. Could it be that we do not want to think animals can deceive us? Is that why we expect the government to deceive us? This expectation of deception is a prophecy. As human-animal conflicts continue to increase in Wayanad, each encounter muddies reality and erodes trust. Animals are assigned blame, but it is the Forest Department that is rendered capable of deception.

Authors

Susan Haris

Susan Haris is a consultant sociologist at WTI and a research affiliate at the Hume Centre for Ecology and Wildlife Biology. She is the cofounder of the Indian Animal Studies Collective (https://indiananimalstudiescollective.com).

Cite as

Haris, Susan. 2024. “Familiar Danger: Human-Animal Conflict and the Expectation of Deception in Wayanad, Kerala.” Anthropology News website, April 30, 2024.

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