Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Human-wildlife conflict and mental health issues

In rural Chhattisgarh, I met a young farmer who was mourning the loss of his mother. She had been trampled in the dead of night by a crop-raiding elephant. And yet, ironically, this farmer starts his day by offering prayers to the elephant god Ganesha, known locally as Gajah.

While conservationists and social scientists have extolled the ‘tolerance’ of locals who live with wildlife, academic research has not focused enough on the mental health of people who are the victims of human-wildlife conflict. Given that incidents of human-wildlife conflict occur in such large numbers across India, its impact on the mental well-being of victims has largely been peripheral to the conservation discourse.

A paper by psychiatrist and medical anthropologist Sushrut Jadhav with wildlife biologist Maan Barua, The elephant vanishes: impact of human-elephant conflict on people’s well-being, published in 2012, attempts a much-needed cross-pollination of two disciplines to address this issue. It acquires relevance given the high incidence of conflict involving large mammals such as elephants or even predators like tigers in states like Assam, Odisha and West Bengal.

Jadhav and Barua’s paper argues that “the cultural premise and service delivery of mental health, particularly in low-income countries, is largely confined to biomedical formulations of suffering". And that “integrated approaches to human-wildlife conflict linking ecology, culture, and the clinic, though vital for examining health impacts of human-elephant conflict, are scant".

The paper presents case studies of individuals in rural Assam who have lost a family member to human-elephant conflict and how it changed their lives and affected their mental well-being. Although the financial losses from such conflicts are well documented, hidden health consequences remain under-researched. One of the case studies in this paper describes the mental trauma a 26-year-old tribal wage worker faced due to his house getting burnt down during a night raid by elephants.

The four case studies outline how the conflict magnifies pre-existing financial problems or untreated mental disorders. In some cases, they may even generate new psychiatric morbidities or impact maternal health.

Modern western medicine, particularly in the sphere of mental health, has been fixated with the classification of disorders as per DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) or ICD (International Classification of Disease) norms. So how do you give a cultural or local relevance to a problem like human-elephant conflict in the realm of mental illness? After all, how many communities in the developed world are traumatized by elephants raiding their homes, or losing a parent to a wild animal encounter? And even if such incidents occur, do they take place with a frequency that qualifies them as serious mental health issues that need redress?

If you look at the instances of human-wildlife conflict, there is enough data to show that across India, a large section of rural and peri-urban communities face this on a daily basis. What has never adequately been addressed is its impact on the human psyche. While an agency like a forest department may step in to provide monetary compensation, or the media may highlight the problem (which again may create problems of its own), what is the mental turmoil that an individual goes through?

Jadhav and Barua’s study was conducted in Assam, where as many as 19 of the 27 districts are affected by conflict. While Assam takes pride in its biodiversity, it is also a state where incidents of human-elephant conflict are on the rise. Perhaps a similar study maybe needed in other ‘hotbeds’ of conflict such as North Bengal or the Sunderbans. Both experts emphasize the need for a sustained interaction between conservationists and public health professionals as a way forward.

Acknowledging these oft-neglected issues certainly makes the task of the biologist tougher—trying to conserve species in human-dominated landscapes with social factors like caste and inequality thrown in. But perhaps focusing on the hidden impacts of conflict will not only lead to empathy but also better wildlife conservation in the long run.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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