The failure of the amended Wildlife Bill's penal provisions to distinguish between scientific research and illegal trade does not bode well for conservation biology

“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,/In the forests of the night”; for generations, William Blake’s passionate paean has nurtured collective reverence for the tiger. India started Project Tiger in 1973-1974, after it instituted its landmark Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) in 1972. Offering strict protection to plants and animals under various “Schedules,” the WPA has been the bedrock for conserving wild biodiversity, including setting the tone for Project Tiger.

Now, new amendments have been proposed to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and placed in the Rajya Sabha. With unerring and increasing wildlife poaching in India, one of the key features of the amendments is increasing penalties for violations of its provisions. In the same protectionist spirit, the WPA has a new provision proposed for wildlife research. Scientists can carry out their work under permits, but violating these provisions will mean punishment on a par with other crimes like poaching and killing wild animals. While it is in itself debatable whether increasing penalties is an effective deterrent against crime, this provision in effect collapses the distinction between commercial and science-based activity. This sits ill with an Act which has conservation at its heart, and is set to be an irrevocable deterrent to the science of conservation biology. Currently, the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Bill has now been referred to the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment & Forests.

Evolution with conservation

The WPA started as a state-run, purely protectionist approach, but with the changing needs of conservation, co-evolved slowly. For instance, the WPA was amended in 2002, and new categories for protected areas — community and conservation reserves — were introduced. In 2006, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau was instituted through another amendment. The 2013 Amendment has a stricter stand against the wildlife trade. It calls for increased penalties for poaching, so a person caught with the meat of an animal classified under Schedule I or II, its articles or trophies et cetera, is “punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to seven years and also with fine which shall not be less than one lakh rupees but which may extend to twenty-five lakh rupees.” This is clearly a means of tackling a canny, lucrative and bloody poaching trade, which decimates Schedule I animals like tigers and rhinos in India each month. But the same Amendment also states that any other offence under the Act — such as violating or “breaching” the rules of permits for scientific research — would earn the offender up to three years in jail and a fine of up to 25,000 rupees.

Conservation science in law

Is such punishment justified? In India, conservation biology is an exciting living laboratory, and one which practical conservation has benefited from. The most outstanding example is that of the tiger. Traditionally understood as an animal “burning bright in dark forests” (as William Blake’s poem illustrates), modern conservation research, camera-trap images and satellite-collaring on tigers have demonstrated that tigers inhabit and use a wide landscape matrix, over roads, railway lines, and sugarcane fields, to find areas beyond just their natal forest. Thus, conservation policy, in conjunction with the WPA, now seeks to protect forest corridors and increase connectivity between protected areas. This year, Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve was created in Rajasthan. While Mukundura does not actually have resident tigers, it is specifically meant to provide connectivity to the tigers of Ranthambhore towards new habitat. This evolution of tiger conservation — from an approach that was focused on sequestered protected areas already containing tigers, now moving towards larger landscape conservation — could not have been possible without the inputs of conservation science and researchers. This research has always been done in conjunction with forest departments, and has also been contingent on procuring permits to work in natural areas or with wild animals. There is thus nothing objectionable about the WPA 2013 Amendment referring to the same permit system. It is the suggested penalties for breaching the norms of the permit which has wildlife scientists up in arms. While some suggest this is a means of the state territorialising wildlife research, this may also curtail the very evolution of conservation.

Bio-wealth

Conservation biology as a field in science was conceived as a “crisis discipline,” a response to rising extinction rates of species and the accelerating loss and degradation of natural ecosystems. Taking the study of wildlife outside of the “biology,” “zoology” or “botany” box it was in, conservation biology sought to synergise the study and application of governance, human sociology, and traditional ecological knowledge with ecology and animal biology. Apart from being a crisis discipline then, conservation biology at its very heart is also a value-laden discipline.

This is not at cross-purposes with what the WPA attempts to achieve. Finding new areas which need state or community-led protection; finding species new to science, and thus the world, such as new frog species found recently in the Western Ghats by a team of committed researchers; and studying behavioural ecology of animals like elephants to avert human-wildlife conflict; serve not just science but also conservation and a larger public interest. The “wealth” that nature, and the study of nature, has to offer for a scientist, is at its root different from the way nature is perceived by actors engaged in trade or killing of species. It will always be prudent to establish the value and ethics-based nature of this research, but this does not need to be done through punitive measures which bracket scientists and poachers together. There has to be a necessary distinction between ethics-led scientific research and illegal commercial activity, and penalties for both also need to be separated.

The law needs to work towards prizing animals when they are alive in the wild, rather than dead and commodified. Towards this goal, conservation biology and the very spirit of science is an important actor; one that should not be isolated.

(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. The views expressed are personal. E-mail: n.sinha@bnhs.org)

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