The government’s move to allow “vermin” to be killed is a flawed and unreasonable decision when these animals have co-existed with local people for decades
By Prof Amita Singh
Recent notifications of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MEFCC) to declare some wildlife animals as vermin and allow their hunting are an example of inexperienced damage management. The government defends itself by citing distress calls from the fields as a cue to these notifications. In one of the most overpopulated countries, which is high on both corruption and institutional defiance, one should be relatively more cautious in differentiating between the price and the value of any object or living thing before taking the extreme step of declaring and eliminating a species of nature as vermin.
It was expected that the present government which claims to have given a voice to the believers of Hinduism within which Shiva (Pashupatinath or the god of animals) occupies a larger space, would give more fillip to environmental and animal conservation policies beyond the well intentioned but un-enforced initiatives taken by the previous incumbents Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan. Sadly, “Pashupatinath” is confined to cosmetics of civility which concealed what Bertrand Russell mentioned as those layers of violence and killing which man carried from its pre-historic existence as a wild hunter.
Through four recent notifications starting December 24, 2014, the central government has declared macaques (Macaca mulatta), Nilgai (Boslaphus tragocandus) and wild pigs (Sus scrofa) listed at serial number 17-A of Part 1 of the Schedule II to the Wildlife Protection Act, to be vermin for inclusion in Schedule V of the said Act and so could be hunted. The government draws this power from Section 62 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 (WLPA), which empowers it to declare by notification wild animals other than under Schedule 1 and Part II of Schedule II to be vermin for a specified area and period. The office memorandum of MEFCC in Section 4(3) of its advisory in the context of human wildlife conflict (HWLC) proclaims that “no such proposal is seen received in the ministry” till 2014.
Interestingly, immediately after this advisory, one sees a barrage of notifications coming out of the MEFCC between December 1, 2014, and May 24, 2016. For some 70 years after independence, these animals have co-existed with local people. Has their psyche changed suddenly or like everywhere else, has the arrogance and intolerance of men got an upper hand? But institutions of governance are not expected to tame this erroneous human behavior, especially in India, where co-existence is the key to existence.
The decision is also flawed on another ground. It is not based on its own internal findings. A 2014 MEFCC advisory in the context of HWLC had suggested the following key government initiatives to precede any recourse to Section 62 of the WLPA:
- Treatment of forests outside protected areas
- Regulating human habitations along the forest fringes facing HWLC
- States to institute HWLC Management Strategies (HWLCMS) on priority, formulate HWLC Management Plans (HWLCMP) for identified conflict zones for primarily initial mitigation and quick response action. (This was suggested to inculcate confidence in local communities in the forest administration staff)
- Enhancement and enforcement of information and knowledge on wildlife through research and at times, by population management strategies (this cannot be necessarily understood only as “killing” or that the species be declared a “vermin”)
- Section 6 of the advisory envisages that any such proposal must be based on ground-level assessment of the gravity of the situation and must be supported by “any study, consultative expert opinion, survey etc”.
Joint director Shiv Pal Singh led this team of experts but this crucial document was not looked at before the drastic step of advocating killing. There is also a very stringent warning which comes through the Section 11(1) of the WLPA 1972 which authorizes the Chief Wildlife Warden to “permit hunting of any wild animal specified in Schedule 1 if it becomes dangerous to human life… only (as a last resort) when it cannot be captured, tranquillized or translocated”. It is difficult to believe how a few of these benign animals who come in search of food because their food habitats have been completely annihilated by some kind of lobbies could not coexist or be treated with softer options suggested above in the WLPA.
When the Indira Gandhi International Airport was being constructed in 2005-6, the Wildlife SOS, an NGO, relocated more than 30-40 Nilgais to other habitats in full consideration of their family bonds and habitat requirements. But the question is not that. The government would probably not even need to relocate them as the same argument has repeatedly failed in case of dogs when expanding cities shoved bulldozers over their habitats. The WLPA has adequate provisions to take corrective measures as Section 4(3) of the advisory suggests.
However, the real story behind this decision is this. Within this period when these co-existing animals were being eliminated, the MEFCC was clogged with proposals from mining lobbies, change of land use commercial establishments, stone crushers, hydro-electric projects, sand-bajri and boulder projects. Many proposals for boundary alterations were cleared around Wildlife Sanctuaries (WLS) such as Kolleru and Coringa WLS (AP), Kaimur WLS (Bihar), Buxa Tiger Reserve, Mulund WLS (W), Mukundra Hills (Durrah) in Rajasthan, Hastinapur WLS (UP), Majathal WLS (Mandi, HP), Jakhol Sankri WLS (Thane, Maharashtra), Panna Tiger Reserve (MP), Baisipalli WLS (Odisha), Mussoorie WLS and Muskdeer WLS in Kedarnath.
Many rivers too are being affected, including Noon, Gulati and Ramgarh rivers which is also likely to affect the Kedarnath WLS and the Nanda Devi National Park by destroying some hectares of already depleted forest cover in this fragile zone vulnerable to landslides and floods. The activities on land are also affecting marine sanctuaries. The Narayan Sarovar and Pulicat Bird Sanctuary in the Ponneri taluk of Thiruvallur in Tamil Nadu, Son Gharial Sanctuary (MP) and even the Bhitarkanika Sanctuary of the rare Olive Ridley Turtles are going to witness more village settlements through government pattas (documents). It is a well-established argument that an “animal protects the forest from human greed”. Greedy humans first try to eliminate the animals in their rush to grab cash.
In current times, many untrained youngsters in the media flow with the popularity of a theme. Events at JNU in recent times have visibly exposed the thirst of the media to sensationalize and create leaders out of demons. I always had the opportunity to work at the ground-level with some of the most sensitive and consistent young journalists with vision, but that is not the general situation. Newspapers have churned out news to support culling without even sparing time to read the wisdom of past experience in sustainable damage control. They have even quoted policy decisions from the US on killing without reference and context. Of the many states which have their plan in place for managing HWLC, I will quote a few relevant sections from Ontario’s Plan:
- Amend the strategy to include a recognition of the intrinsic value of wildlife in a social, cultural and spiritual context as opposed to the current approach which identifies only the problems with wildlife that result in direct impact to humans (Ontario’s Draft Human Wildlife Conflict Strategy, September 29, 2006)
- Remove value-laden statements that are made in the absence of scientific evidence or on biased information such as the claim that “overabundant species” reduce biodiversity
- Increase the availability of compensation to agricultural communities impacted by wildlife to reflect the $33 million costs in crop damage and wildlife predation and assist in the development of an agricultural wildlife impact prevention program
- Conduct a realistic economic analysis of deer (animal) impacts to agriculture; acknowledge that $7.5 million spent by farmers to prevent wildlife conflicts is a positive start but hardly a significant investment, averaging at $125.56 per farm in Ontario
- Provide definitions for such terminology as “abundant populations”
- Provide statistical information for the claim that increased hunting opportunities for abundant wildlife populations, such as deer, have resolved human-wildlife conflicts, not just provided temporary relief (through killing)
- Address the concern that the increases in fertility and reproductive rate observed in hunted verses non-hunted deer populations may mean that hunting actually stimulates population growth rather than curtailing it
- Provide scientific data documenting the claim that “abundant” species can have a profound and negative impact on the environment and on the biodiversity of sensitive and unique areas.
Most American documents have treated sweeping arguments such as “abundant populations harming agriculture and posing threat to peoples’ lives and livelihood” as flawed, unreasonable and unsubstantiated.
The last but also the most important issue is that there is a suspicion that the listing of some animals for killing will lead to the rise of subsidiary meat alternatives especially as beef availability drops. The meat industry will introduce culinary innovations to the voracious human food industry. Australia’s culling of kangaroos which began to control populations and agricultural terrains is now almost an industrial scale slaughter for the mass market of people and their pets, plus the ever-expanding export trade. Emu that we admired as a flightless bird is already a mass consumption industry to compensate for chicken.
Thus, culling is giving away from the backend what is refused in public by the government, ie, “beef”. I can only suggest the minister in charge of this most precious ministry read Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Selfish Giant” which teaches us the indispensability of co-existence for our own existence.
The writer is from the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance and is head of Disaster Research Centre, Member Secretary of Institutional Ethics Review Board, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi