ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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'Problem Animals' Are Not the Real Problem

The government proposal on culling treats only the symptom; the problem is of a declining animal habitat.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is planning to allow the hunting of animals which it deems as vermin. In December last year, the ministry had issued a circular that proposed legalising hunting of “problem animals.” Going by the Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s recent statements, implementing this circular seems to be one of the more enthusiastic pursuits of an otherwise somnolent ministry. In his most recent statement on the issue, Javadekar said that the ministry will go ahead with the hunting permission as soon as it gets a response from the states.

The minister has hinted that blue bulls (nilgais) and wild boars would be the likely targets of this vermin extermination programme. The animals are currently slotted under Schedule III of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Hunting them attracts a fine, but the offence is not deemed as serious as, say, hunting a blackbuck—an endangered species. Javadekar has cited Section 62 of the act in support of his plan. The section allows the centre to declare animals, other than rare and endangered species, as vermin.

The environment ministry’s plans are likely to bring cheer to a large number of farmers in north and central India, whose crops are ravaged every year by nilgais and wild boars. Crop depredation is a serious problem in the country. A 2011 study by scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India noted that nilgai menace is the most acute in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh.

Viewed in this light, the environment ministry’s proposal promises to root out a long-standing problem. It has drawn flak, unsurprisingly, from animal lovers and a section of conservationists. Some of the criticism has referred to the traditional tolerance—reverence too—of farming communities for herbivores, even when these animals damaged crops. Farmers, it is said, accepted the damage as a part of life. Such criticism, however well-intentioned, seems to be blinkered towards an important difference between what was then and what is now. Studies have shown the gravity of the human–animal conflict. For instance, in 2002, a now oft-cited study by H S Pabla, a senior forest officer in Madhya Pradesh, showed that the state was losing more than Rs 600 crore every year to crop depredation by wild boars, chitals and nilgais. A 2003 study by scientists from Haryana Agricultural University showed that more than 50% of the standing crop in Rohtak, Jhajjar, Bhiwani, Sirsa and Mahendragarh districts was ravaged by nilgais. It is no surprise, therefore, that the people who once venerated the nilgai want it exterminated.

How did things come to such a pass? This is where both the environment ministry and its critics have got it wrong. Both have identified a symptom as the problem. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, accorded protection to animals. At the same time, animal habitats have continued to shrink. Development projects, industrialisation and agricultural expansion hacked away at forests, bringing wild animals in close proximity to agricultural settlements. Animals that could adapt to this human-altered scenario multiplied. But they also became ecological dislocates. The nilgai and the wild boar are prime examples.

Culling such problem creatures seems at best treating the symptom. Grave as it is, crop depredation by nilgais and wild boars is part of a problem of much more serious proportions. The two animals are not the only crop raiders. Monkeys are a menace in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. In many parts of the North East, Odisha and Maharashtra, agriculturists fear elephants. Rhinos are a scourge in many parts of Assam.
Also, human–animal conflict is not just about crop damage. In Uttarakhand and Maharashtra, leopards are known to take away livestock. They attack and kill humans too. Last year, a leopard in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, was labelled a man-eater after it had killed 12 people. In Assam a few weeks ago, people killed a leopard after the animal had attacked them.

Every animal is different in the way it relates to humans and it would be wrong to reduce all human–animal conflicts to one reason. But the fact that such conflict has reached unprecedented levels is a symptom of an ecological upheaval; a sign that animals face an acute habitat crisis. It also shows protecting animals in fragmented reserves can go woefully wrong, when at the same time large chunks of forests are being destroyed.

The environment ministry’s proposals to cull problem animals must be seen in tandem with its minister’s enthusiasm to siphon off large tracts of forests for industry. Overabundance of some animals is a serious problem. But dealing with these ecological dislocates requires a vision that a minister, who equates forest diversion with reforestation, seems incapable of. That is why one must treat Javadekar’s plans to cull problem animals with scepticism.

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