They’re beautiful but within themselves they carry the seeds of destruction.

Spotted deer were introduced to the Andaman Islands either in the early 1900s or the 1930s. The exact date doesn’t matter, and nor does the actual number. What matters is that, in the absence of predators, they have multiplied and spread, swimming from one island to another. In each island their population has shot up, and they browse relentlessly on the seedlings of the forest trees that regenerate there. They avoid browsing on only two of the hundreds of species of trees found there. Forests of Pongamia (pongam) monocultures are taking over the coastlines, and Lagerstroemia, leafless for most of the year, is taking over the once lush rainforests of the interior. If left unchecked, the fabled forests of the Andamans will, sooner or later, be a thing of the past.

Options for control

What can be done to control the deer? Sterilisation is too expensive and chancy. Translocation is possible, but to where? Back to mainland India? Which Government will bear the cost? The logical solution is culling, but then we have to deal with the vociferous animal rights brigade. Apparently the ‘right’ of an individual animal is more important than the unique ecosystem it destroys.

After almost a decade of inaction and hoping that the problem would go away, the Andaman Administration has written to the Centre, asking this animal species be declared vermin in the islands. Now it’s the Centre's turn to avoid taking any action. Somehow the matter is too unimportant to find a place on the agenda of the National Board for Wildlife, whose members’ only preoccupation seems to be to avoid controversy and hence ensure their re-nomination onto the Board. Even declaring the deer vermin is not going to solve the problem of how it is to be removed from National Parks where shooting is banned.

The deer are only one of several problem animals. The most spectacular are the 30 or so elephants that were released on Interview Island about 50 years ago, when the logging company using them went bankrupt. They debark and knock down the trees, killing them. The deer then make sure that no regeneration takes place.

A few years ago, an offer was made by the Berlin Zoo to translocate these elephants to mainland India, provided they got a couple of young ones for the zoo. Again our brilliant environmentalists leapt into action. The elephants would feel cold, and they would miss the society of their peers! This seems to be less desirable than dying of starvation, which is what appears to be happening now. Anyway the offer, tentative as it was, has since been withdrawn.

Island invaders

Oceanic islands, in general, seem to be more susceptible to biological invasions than mainland areas, even though there is recent evidence that this might not be true. The Andamans have had more than their share. Other mammals that have turned invasive include goats and dogs. Packs of feral dogs roam the beaches everywhere in the Andamans, attacking sea turtles and eating their eggs. Feral cats may have caused major declines in the populations of nesting birds, many of which are indigenous to these islands.

Invasive species have not been confined to mammals alone. The ubiquitous Common Myna has found its way here, as it has to most Indian Ocean islands. It competes with the local birds for holes to nest in.

Then, of course, there is the House Crow, the sly grey-necked creature we see just about everywhere. In 2003, seven House Crows perched on a ship when it left Chennai and were fed by the passengers. They flew off at Port Blair and began sleeping at nights near the marina there. We had asked the Forest Department to eradicate them, but the officer in charge of the wildlife division was too scared about how “Delhi would react” to take action. Now, eight years later they have become a pest around Port Blair, numbering thousands.

The lack of any kind of checking has ensured that plant invaders have also arrived in force. The same ones found on mainland India — lantana, eupatorium, prickly pear — have made their way here as well. Expect more soon.

Biocontrol is being mooted in a big way to control plant pests in the Andamans, in the seeming quest to be ‘organic’. A lot of the species being tested as biocontrol agents are known to be invasive elsewhere. When will our folly cease?

Back to basics

At this point it might be worth going back to the basics. Any animal that is transported to an area outside its normal range is considered an introduced species. Any introduced species that causes environmental or ecological damage is termed as invasive. The science behind the control of invasives is very straightforward: eradicate whenever possible. It does not require a detailed scientific study.

A 2001 study estimated the damage done by invasives in India alone was US$ 116 billion annually (yes, I did mean billion). However, in spite of being signatory to international treaties covering this, India yet has to evolve a serious plan to control invasives. I hope we do not get too embarrassed at next year's meeting to review the progress on the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is being hosted by India.

Rauf Ali is Managing Trustee, Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy & Learning (FERAL), Pondicherry. E-mail: rauf@feralindia.org

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012