Dispensing with a problem is not the same as solving it. India's Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) would do well to note that. In the wake of severe losses by farmers due to crop depredation by wildlife across India, the MoEFCC allowed the culling of crop-raiding wildlife by invoking Section 62 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WPA). This provision allows for some animals protected under the WPA to be declared as vermin for a specified period of time. Shockingly, the memorandum is mum on encouraging states to hold consultations with wildlife experts and explore non-invasive mitigation techniques before declaring a species as vermin.
[The government] has conveniently forgotten that other imperilled species like tigers and elephants may end up as collateral damage in the hunt for vermin...
So far, the death knell has been sounded for rhesus macaques in Himachal Pradesh, nilgai and wild boar in Bihar and wild boar in Uttarakhand. Sanctioning a licence to kill presents immense scope to use (and eventually misuse) the provisions under Section 62 of the WPA. Retracting protection to animals under the WPA presents the danger of large-scale uncontrolled killings of animals without the "threat" of accountability. Anyone can kill any number of animals listed as vermin under the WPA, using any weapon including a gun, sword or stick, even resorting to cruder methods like wire traps, snares and poisoning, without attracting any penalty. In their haste to invoke this rarely used provision of the WPA, the MoEFCC has conveniently forgotten that other imperilled species like tigers and elephants may end up as collateral damage in the hunt for vermin, resulting in a rise in incidents such as the death of the Baghin Nala tigress in Pench from a poisoned waterhole.
Photo Credit: By Rushil Fernandes (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
These "vermin," whether living or dead, cease to remain the property of the Government of India and hence, there can be no checks on the sale or use of their parts, whether for food or other commercial purposes. Therefore, one can trade in live animals as well as meat and other articles derived from them, so long as they are sourced from areas where they have been declared as vermin. Technically, one could even lure animals from outside the specified areas using oral bait, get them to enter the notified zone, kill them for sport or meat or trophy and still get away scot free. Has no one considered the possibility that a poacher can kill a chital or sambhar and pass off the meat as that of a nilgai? Are there provisions in place to distinguish the meat of one animal from another? And what of the additional burden on an overworked, understaffed Forest Department? Do they have the bandwidth and the means to deal with this additional responsibility?
Herbivores like nilgai and wild boar occupy the bottom rung of the ecological pyramid. If their numbers plummet, the prey base for predators dwindles...
A glimpse into the subcontinent's natural history tells us that the persecution of species like blackbuck and dholes as pests resulted in the decimation of their populations as well as local extinction in some cases. Herbivores like nilgai and wild boar are the primary consumers in any ecosystem and hence, occupy the bottom rung of the ecological pyramid. If their numbers plummet, the prey base for predators dwindles, ultimately threatening their survival.
Photo Credit: By Peter Maas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Let there be no doubt that the government is well aware of the foolhardiness of its latest endeavour. The original advisory from the MoEFCC asking states for proposals on the declaration of vermin, note that the Wildlife Institute of India as well as the recommendations of the TSR Subramaniam Committee have made it amply clear that "culling serves no purpose." Even the Ministry of Agriculture, whose mandate does not include wildlife, has issued an advisory in which it states explicitly that declaring them as vermin "may not serve the purpose" and instead, suggested a multi-faceted approach which includes other mitigation measures such as fencing, use of chemical repellents, use of external stimuli etc to fend off nilgai populations from agricultural areas. The same was noted in a brainstorming session to control nilgai populations held by the government in 2009.
It would appear then that this myopic approach to a complex problem, with equally complex consequences, is a front for the government's ineptitude to deal with this situation. If rapacious animals have become the bane of our farmers' existence, it is because the unbridled expansion of industrialization and agriculture into wildlife habitats continues with the collective blessings of a nation obsessed with economic growth, at the cost of the environment. Therefore, animals enter human-dominated landscapes in search for food resulting in a competition for resources leading to conflict, which in the case of herbivores results in huge monetary losses. As India's economy is primarily agrarian, crop depredation eats into a large chunk of the country's revenue. Moreover, one cannot ignore the plight of the farmer who has lost his annual income to hungry animals, irrespective of their status on the WPA. Therefore, the government compensates those farmers who have recorded crop losses from herbivores. But predictably, much of that money gets swallowed in the quagmire of red tape and bureaucracy, leaving the farmer with a pittance. In such cases, there is no love lost between the farmer and the herbivores that raid his fields.
This myopic approach to a complex problem, with equally complex consequences, is a front for the government's ineptitude to deal with this situation.
It must be noted that the MoEFCC already has an action plan that lists responses as well as mitigation measures applicable in various instances of human-wildlife conflict, which must be explored before the prospect of culling is decided upon. These include specific guidelines for herbivore conflict such as maintenance of weed-free foraging grounds along forest edges, erecting barriers like solar and electric fences, growing unpalatable crops in agricultural areas bordering forests, use of non-destructive methods to scare animals away from crop lands, etc. It also lists the possibility of providing insurance against standing crops as well as for injury/loss of life in the case of humans. Meanwhile, advances are being made across the globe to enable scientific population management measures of over-abundant species through remotely injectable medicines that have shown no side effects.
The ball is now in our court to push the government to bring these techniques and technology to our country.
Also see on HuffPost: