Analysis: A Licence To Eliminate Our Precious Wildlife?

Analysis: A Licence To Eliminate Our Precious Wildlife?

In the light of the plummeting wildlife numbers, the proposal in the Kerala Assembly to control the reproduction of wild animals borders on the ludicrous

Rashme SehgalUpdated: Friday, February 23, 2024, 11:12 PM IST
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Elephant movements are tied closely to rainfall patterns as they move in search of food and water | Representative Pic/Pixabay

The Kerala Assembly has recently passed a unanimous resolution moved by the forest minister demanding the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 be amended to grant wildlife wardens permission to use lethal force to kill wild animals that are posing a threat to human life. It is also demanding that scientific measures be introduced to control wildlife population. A reduction of wildlife population, another phrase for its gradual elimination, will alone help remove the threat of wildlife, it says.

There is no doubt that animal-human animal conflict is on the rise; two men were trampled to death this February by elephants, taking the toll to 57 of people who have lost their lives in man-animal conflict in Kerala during the last four years. But are 22,000 wild elephants, 8000 sloth bears and 2700 tigers spread out across the country responsible for accelerating this conflict, or is the heart of this problem India’s burgeoning population which has reached 1.4 billion and continues to grow?

Politicians across the board should be made to understand just how shoddily we treat our precious wildlife. The Wildlife Protection Society of India released statistics to show that we have lost 202 tigers between January 1 and December 24, 2023 — a huge jump from the 143 tiger deaths in 2022 with most of these deaths having occurred because of poaching. And this happened on the golden jubilee year of Project Tiger. The fate of leopards is worse. More than 400 leopards are killed in India every year, the majority by poachers.

Gujarat, home to the Gir lions, lost 240 lions including 128 cubs between 2019 and 2021 according to a written reply in the Rajya Sabha given by the then junior environment minister Ashwini Choubey. Similarly, the last census on wild elephants in 2017 showed that there were just 27,000 elephants left in the country. In 2023, the nationwide death toll of elephants was estimated to be around 100 with Uttarakhand accounting for 25% of these deaths according to government stats.

Politicians across the board should realise that human-animal conflict has got accelerated due to human beings encroaching into forest cover with their age-old corridors getting destroyed or fragmented. Elephant movements are tied closely to rainfall patterns as they move in search of food and water. Up to the mid-twentieth century, elephants, to cite one example in north India, would move from Paonta Sahib to Haridwar right up to Nepal. This corridor, like most others, has been blocked because of human encroachment for agricultural and housing purposes and because of wasteful infrastructure projects in the name of development.

Wasteful because to cite on example, a herd of elephants are known to be stuck in the Timli area of Shivalik hills near Paonta Sahib and have been unable to move from there for the last three years because of the large number of roads that have or are in the process of being built in these forested tracks and because of the illegal occupation of forest land for human settlements. Forest officials acknowledge this problem but point out that translocation of a herd of elephants is a gigantic task with many logistical problems associated with it and so they have chosen to follow the path of least resistance — allow status quo to be maintained.

The Shivalik belt, once home to over 3000 elephants, is, according to elephant specialist Dr A Christy Williams, a member of the Asian Elephant Specialist group studying elephants in and around the Rajaji National Park, presently home to less than 1000 pachyderms.

Needless to say politicians are primarily responsible for this steady encroachment on forest land. A key elephant corridor between Raipur and Bhopalpani on the outskirts of Dehra Dun comprising of marshy wetland with the Song river flowing close by, has been earmarked for the construction of a new Vidhan Sabha Secretariat for the state government. The city of Dehra Dun already has one functioning Vidhan Sabha located practically in the centre of the city.

This has not deterred chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami for pushing for a second building and his officials have already handed over a compensatory cheque of Rs 7 crore towards the land transfer to the Forest Department. Another Rs 15.37 crore will be paid to the Forest Department for the elephant corridor which will get destroyed. The crucial question environmentalists ask is, what use is this money going to be for animals whose crucial life-sustaining corridors, forests and drinking water sources are being systematically eliminated?

India has suffered major biodiversity loss in the last five decades made worse by a sharp decimation of our wildlife. Statistics released by the Living Planet Report 2022 emphasised that loss of habitat, climate change and poaching saw India face a 55% of wildlife loss in these 50 years.

This bio-diversity loss and loss of habitat is going to get further accelerated with the increasing number of infrastructure projects being constructed in out wildlife sanctuaries. Increasing levels of eco-tourism is also responsible for restricting animal movement.

The present push to release more funds for compensatory afforestation or plantations that will compensate for the loss of forests being cut down in the name of development is only going to accelerate man-animal conflict. These plantations destroy the natural forest ecosystem which provides food for the animals forcing elephants and wild boar, to cite two examples, to turn to agricultural produce for their main source of food.

Surely our foresters are aware of this and yet the central government has increased funding for compensatory afforestation from Rs 2,900 crore in 2009-12 to Rs 51,000 crore in 2019-22. Much of these funds, Ministry of Environment and Forest records show, have remained unutilised.

Many other laws have been passed that further dilute environmental safeguards. Speedy environmental clearances have seen a sharp increase in wildlife, forest, environmental and coastal zone clearances for infrastructural and industrial project. The average time required to receive such clearance has been shortened from 600 days before 2014 to 162 days in 2017.

In the light of the plummeting wildlife numbers, the proposal in the Kerala Assembly to control the reproduction of wild animals borders on the ludicrous. How exactly are they going to capture, sterilise and then release male elephants, wild boars, hyenas, tigers and leopards? Members of the Assembly need to be informed that in Kerala alone, the wild elephant population has declined from 5,706 in 2017 to 2,386 in 2023. The tiger population in Wayanad is known to have come down from 120 in 2018 to 84 in 2023.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests needs to initiate strong mitigation measures to ensure that our forests remain pristine and their buffer zones around wild life reserves and sanctuaries do not get diluted.

If corrective measures are not taken on a war footing, farmers and the public at large will continue to resort to retaliatory killings of animals whether it be poisoning, electrocution or encouraging local poachers to kill them. If animals are driven out of protected spaces, they will forage in human settlements and agricultural fields in search of food. Conservation measures the world over have paid off because increasingly, governments and the public realise how important coexistence with the animal kingdom is.

Not only are they symbols of great cultural and religious importance, but they are critical for our survival. Each animal plays a crucial part in our ecosystem and the extinction of these keystone species could well mean the end of the road for all of us.

Rashme Sehgal is an author and an independent journalist

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