On the night of March 19, 2016, Tsewang Norbu, a villager from Matho, Ladakh chanced to look out of his window and saw, with awe – a snow leopard circling his livestock pen. After several unsuccessful attempts to break in, however, the snow leopard walked away. A few hours later, Norbu heard a commotion and realized that the snow leopard had attacked, not his, but his neighbour’s livestock pen and made off with a calf!

Norbu’s special predator-proof corral protected his livestock from snow leopards that night. But can it also protect snow leopards themselves?

Shy and elusive by nature, snow leopards typically keep away from human habitation, confining themselves to the rugged slopes of the mountains in the Himalayas. But with increasing human activity in the region, this shy animal’s habitat has been rapidly shrinking. The boundaries between snow leopard habitat and human habitation are rapidly disappearing. It’s no wonder then that snow leopard predation on livestock such as yaks, cows, dzos, sheep and goats, has become more frequent in the past few years in Ladakh.

© WWF-India

This is bad news for both herders and snow leopards. High up in the Himalayas, where food and water resources are scarce, survival is an everyday battle for local communities. With agriculture possible only for a short period of four months in these cold desert regions, people depend heavily on raising livestock for their livelihood. So when livestock fall prey to a prowling snow leopard, villagers often retaliate by killing the snow leopard.

Special predator-proof corrals to secure livestock.

For communities that live on the fringes of National Parks, Protected Areas and other forests, nature is both lifesaver and snare. Almost 50% of India’s population is dependent on forest resources for their livelihood. For centuries, such communities have lived in harmony with nature, revering the forest for its gifts and respecting its limits. Interactions between humans and wild animals have been positive in this country. Our endeavour should be to maintain such relations and mitigate negativity.

In recent times, however, the relationship between humans and wildlife has begun to fray, with tigers wandering into forest-fringe villages, elephants tramping into plantations, lions caught in headlights…

A tusker determined to break an electric fence set up around a dumpyard in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu.

Somewhere in the Sundarbans, Asit Mondal’s voice rings clear over the humming of the crickets and the soft, steady sound of the river in the distance. The children of Tipligheri sit huddled around him under the bright light of the solar lamp post as Asit narrates his story in a practiced tone.

“It happened 9 years ago, not very far from here. We were returning home after a day of fishing, three others and I, just as the sun was dipping below the trees. 

And then in a flash of orange and black he was upon me - claws and teeth and wild fury. It was my bare, skinny arms against his claws of steel. 

But I fought on, punching and kicking till he had had enough. He left in shame, unable to defeat even a feeble fisherman like me. But he left me this…”

Asit lifts his shirt to reveal the remnants of a deep gash running through his torso. The children gasp, as they do every time they hear the story. Asit Mondal may be a hero in the eyes of the children of his village, but the attack has left him with little else. He has since been unable to work and faces serious health problems. 

Around 12 incidences of tigers straying into settlements are recorded in the Sundarbans every year, a result of the expansion of settlements that then spill onto tiger habitats. These lead to the tigers attacking cattle, sometimes humans, and in humans retaliating against the tigers.  

Worrisome as this is, these instances of “human-wildlife interaction” can become rarer – when governments, organizations and local communities come together to help keep the peace. 

In the Sundarbans, WWF-India has worked with a range of partners to install more than 128 solar street lights in villages along the forest edge. These bright lights, powered by clean, sustainable sources, perform the dual purpose of discouraging tigers and other wildlife from entering the villages, as well as providing functional benefits to people who do not enjoy the privilege of a reliable source of electricity. Not a single tiger straying incident has been reported from the areas where these lights have been installed. 

Meanwhile, high up in Ladakh, Tsewang Norbu no longer fears snow leopard attacks on his livestock. He is among the many villagers in Matho who, in September 2015, took possession of one of the special predator-proof corral, constructed and handed over to members of the local community by WWF-India and the Department of Wildlife Protection, Jammu & Kashmir. Smartly designed and constructed by WWF-India’s field team in consultation with local communities, the corrals are not only structured to be predator-proof but are also gradually reducing villagers’ resentment towards the predator and making local communities more optimistic. The villagers now own and maintain these specially designed enclosures that provide full protection to their livestock from snow leopards. 

In the case of tiger attacks on livestock, in landscapes across India, the Indian government provides compensation to cattle owners who become victims of tiger attacks, but the process is long and tedious. The Interim Relief Scheme administered by WWF-India, since 2008 helps quell initial rising feelings of revenge by providing immediate monetary relief to victims within the next 72 hours.  The Interim Relief Scheme has had a success rate of 100% in the regions that it has been implemented – with no retaliatory killings reported in Kaziranga National Park and Jim Corbett National Park. 

But when incidents of human-wildlife interaction occur, leaving roughly a million hectares of crops damaged and laid to waste, affecting some 500,000 families every year,  a solution of mammoth proportions is required.  

In Sonitpur, Assam, a curious crowd gathers around a young man in the village, growing every minute. The people in the crowd watch keenly as he mixes an odd concoction of ingredients.  A little cow dung, some rice husk, chili and tobacco - all these go into a large pot and are mixed thoroughly. The man, a project officer at WWF-India, is demonstrating to villagers the technique that can help them protect their crop and belongings. He will later mould this mixture into bricks, which will be sun dried for about four days and finally burnt to release a strong odor. This strange recipe will help keep elephants away from their crop!   

A recent Government of India report claimed that over 400 people are killed annually in India due to encounters with elephants. In retaliation, close to 100 elephants are killed. As human population expands, more forest land is being converted for agriculture, rail and road development and for human settlements. 

As a result, large herds of elephants have no choice but to move out of the forests due to the close proximity of villages, and walk right into these settlements or onto railroad tracks. Elephants looking for food sometimes visit farmers’ fields and damage their crops – affecting the farmers’ livelihoods. 

Solar fence around farms in Kalakandi, Kerala to help secure livelihoods and protect elephants.

Unlike livestock, though, crops and plantations cannot be locked away from elephants attracted to them. The solution lies in keeping the elephants away from fields and plantations – but elephants are not easily bested. Camera trap footage has shown elephants overcoming the clumsiness of four feet to carefully step on and hold down wire fencing to get to crops.  

Elephant Proof Trenches that were dug to keep the elephants out too became ineffective after a while – the elephants soon figured out how to get around them.  A young elephant would get inside the trench and help nudge the herd across. When everyone had safely crossed over, they would drag the young one out! 

Individual farmers have their own system of protecting their crop fields by setting up their own electric fence. This, however, with cost of installation and electricity is difficult for small or marginal farmers to afford, some of whom even resort to using illegal power fences which can be lethal to elephants, other animals and even human beings.  

Some farmers stand guard in their fields themselves, but surely cannot hope to stay up the entire night after a hard day’s work.  Solar fencing systems may be a potential solution to this problem, with sustainable solar electricity, costing nothing, but the cost of installing a fence is high – about INR 2.5 lakh to 3 lakh per kilometer. With help from WWF-India, however, a low-cost version of a solar fence has been installed over approximately 70 km in 77 villages of Sonitpur district, Assam. This consists of a single wire with bamboo posts and a low cost (locally developed) energiser, bringing the cost down to INR 40,000 per kilometer.  

One such 6.5 km long single strand power fence was erected in collaboration with the forest department and the local community in Buroi and Bholaguri area under Sonitpur East Division - the fence was so effective that there has been no crop damage in the area after installation. This stands in contrast to the 200 hectares of paddy crop damaged in 2014 by raiding elephants! These effective solar fences, though they require no additional power, still require some maintenance and care periodically. 

Now imagine the next level in sustainable fencing - what could be better than a fence that grows on its own, requires farmers to pay little money for it and protects their crops from elephants too? 

In Sessa Tea Estate owned by Apeejay Tea in Assam, WWF-India is trying to grow just such a fence – by going on a bamboo planting spree. 

Bambusabambos(the species of bamboo used) is a thorny, thick and sturdy plant that, when grown along the boundary of cultivated land, can act as a tough, living-fence against visiting wild elephants. As a plant native to Assam, this bamboo species grows easily and thrives well in the region’s weather, making it a low maintenance fence material. 

Through WWF-India’s initiative to develop bio-fences with bamboo, and similar native species, in Sessa, Ghoirallie, Borjuli and Dhulapadung Tea Estates, a number of locals have been employed and engaged in bamboo production and fence installation. This is a long term solution since bamboo fences don’t require regular maintenance and are sturdier than their electric counterparts. 

Meanwhile, in UparKachariBokagaon village, Assam, where elephants often visit, a group of men has volunteered to play welcome party – but one with a difference. At the sound or sight of approaching wild elephants, this group sets out on kunki(trained, captive) elephants armed with flashlights and firecrackers - not to greet the wild elephants, but to gently drive them away from the village without causing any harm to crop or elephant. 

This is the Anti-Depradation Squad (ADS), consisting of students, forests guards, villagers and local community members. When executed systematically and carefully, three to four kunkis can push back a herd of 70-80 elephants quite easily. By driving away the animals from human inhabited regions to forested areas, the ADS groups help protect not only the villagers’ lives and property but the giant animals they’re trying to keep away. 

The peaceful Squad has had help - they have been trained by WWF-India experts in maintaining records of elephant herds, their type and movement. Regular workshops ensure lessons in animal behaviour and psychology which help the squad to foresee and manage possible conflicts.  

The trained kunki elephants have been found to be very useful in locating and approaching wild elephants even through difficult terrain like swamps, usually not accessible by vehicle. During such elephant drive operations in Assam, no humans or elephants – wild or domestic – have been injured or killed and more than 90% elephant drives were successful in pushing the wild elephant back into the forest. 

Demonstration of burning of chilli tobacco concoction technique to villagers.

As of now, around 100 Anti-Depredation Squads are active in Sonitpur district, Assam, protecting around 500 hectares, and benefitting approximately 150,000 individuals across 100 villages in the state. 

A future where humans live in harmony with wildlife is possible, as these stories show. It is only through inclusive strategies, however, involving the full scope of society - governments, communities, organizations and students – that we can hope to achieve this. 

Apart from field-based solutions, those that promote community-based natural resource management and provide incentives for wildlife-friendly initiatives can promise peaceful co-existence on the planet. 

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