‘A compulsory prison term could follow a minor violation such as trespassing’

The tenuous relationship between Forest Departments in States and the research community has been put to the test again with new amendments proposed to the Wildlife Protection Act (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA), some of which scientists see as an impediment to their research.

While the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2013, tabled in the Rajya Sabha earlier this month aims to tighten WLPA provisions that protect wildlife and punish poaching and wildlife trade, conservationists including Praveen Bhargav, the former member, National Board for Wildlife, are concerned that researchers will have to face disproportionate penalties for relatively minor violations.

“For instance, Section 51A (1) of the Bill, if approved, will imply a compulsory prison term of up to three years for relatively minor research permit violations. These could be submitting a research report late or trespassing,” Mr. Bhargav told The Hindu. In a letter to Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, Mr. Bhargav on August 20 suggested that violations of permit conditions remain a compoundable offence, not a crime that mandates compulsory imprisonment.

Section 51A (1) of the Bill now reads: “…the breach of any of the terms and conditions of any licence or permit granted… shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and also with fine which may extend to twenty five thousand rupees.”

M.D. Madhusudan, senior scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore says, “Unfortunately, these conditions often reflect the power vested in an official to say yes or no, rather than their encouragement of research. It is unreasonable to equate lapses in meeting such administrative conditions to the violation of the WLPA itself.” Another amendment, which bans all forms of animal traps – an attempt to clamp down on wildlife poaching – has wildlife biologist Ajith Kumar concerned that it will “make criminals out of farmers” who routinely use rat traps to keep their produce from pests.

Section 9A.(1) states that “no person shall manufacture, sell, purchase, keep, transport or use any animal trap except with prior permission in writing of the Chief Wild Life Warden given for educational and scientific purposes.” But Dr. Kumar says that it is an impossible expectation to have farmers get the Wildlife Wardens permission for every trap they own.

While snare traps and leg-hold traps are used by wildlife poachers, “we cannot have a sledgehammer approach that extends the ban to all traps,” says Dr. Kumar of Wildlife Conservation Society-India.

A blanket ban isn’t necessarily going to stop wildlife poachers on their tracks, either, he adds. “Poachers are inventive, they use things like clutch cables to fashion traps out of, something that can not get them arrested.”

There are, however, a few clauses in the amendment that he believes will help researchers free themselves of the subjective discretionary powers of State Chief WildLife Wardens. 12A. (1) for instance, states that “the Chief Wildlife Warden, shall on an application, grant a permit, by an order in writing to any person, to conduct scientific research.”

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