India needs to shed its blinkers and recognise that the widespread hunting and trapping of species not on the mainstream protection radar is being grossly ignored

Last month, a video set in Nagaland went viral. It traced villagers in Nagaland fastening nets on the banks of a reservoir. Trapped in them were small, indignant, shrieking birds; falcons that had flown in from Siberia. Amur falcons, insectivorous birds of prey, stop at Nagaland’s Doyang reservoir each year on their way from Siberia to southern Africa. They spend a few days in Nagaland to fatten up for their transoceanic journey to Africa. This year, an estimated one lakh Amur Falcons were trapped and killed by villagers for the commercial meat trade. Both the trade and the appetite for the Amur falcon seem to be growing: while some birds were transported in trucks for sale in places far from the trapping spot, others were discarded, simply because too many had been caught.

Year after year, India speaks out at international fora about its culture of tolerance, particularly at meetings for wild species conservation. Being a diplomatic norm, platitudes of this sort are not surprising. There is merit too, in this argument: the same philosophies have led India to saying a blanket no to hunting of animals on the mainland, as per law. The country has also said no to policies of “sustainable wild animal use,” which other countries with meat eating histories have adopted: with quotas on hunting, or (theoretically) controlled bushmeat/wildmeat consumption. But there is reason to believe that we are ignoring a burning problem in our midst — the widespread hunting and trapping, especially of species that do not figure on the mainstream protection radar. Our policymakers are uncomfortably close to believing that the land of “tolerance,” does not in fact hunt its animals.

Indiscriminate

The word hunting evokes several connotations. The activity of stalking an intended victim, the wait for the prey, and the allure of the strength of the hunter-predator have held central, forceful value in many civilisations. The Mughal emperors hunted to showcase their pomp and their strength, and the British hunted man-eating tigers, or problem animals, in India and other countries to exercise a tightly orchestrated symbol of control and power. As an independent nation with a gleaming set of environmental laws, we have declared these symbols as an anachronism.

It is argued that trapping is different from hunting. Trapping animals in nets and snares suggests a certain opportunism, and with unerring certainty, a ‘by-catch’ (a term used most regularly for fishing) of non-target species. Depending on the way you look at it, trapping with the intention to eat whatever gets caught is a source of bushmeat; trapping with the intention of poaching a target species invariably leads to the ensnaring of non-target species: like deer being caught in snares meant for tigers. We have had a corporeal, intense focus on the poaching of charismatic species (the tiger, leopard, lion, snow leopard, elephant) which are trapped for a lucrative and well-funded poaching trade. What we seem to have lost, both as spectators as well as enforcement direction, is a focus on common or widespread species which are being trapped and killed all over India, and indiscriminately.

In 2010, the Munia, a small colourful melodious finch, was found to be sold for as little as Rs.150 for 100 birds by investigators from poaching watchdog TRAFFIC India. That is a value of less than Rs.2 for each bird — one that is endemic to India, threatened, and found in increasingly fragmented landscapes. Nesting in bushes and shrub, the Munia, much like the House Sparrow, is losing habitat all over the country, which is it’s only natural range. The fact that it is sold for nearly nothing, and perceived as “common,” demonstrates the ease with which it is caught. Similar investigations reveal that it is birds that don’t have to be displayed that are increasingly being found in the meat trade. These are birds that are concealed, kept in half-dead conditions, and then sold for a pittance: reducing the risk of detection. This also means that a boggling number of small birds are in this meat trade — victims of trapping, trapping of any and every species that gets caught. Up to 450 species are in this illegal trade, with birds being the single genus most widely traded illegally among all the hunted species. The Francolin, wading birds, Pintail, Shoveler and Sandpiper are other birds, still plentiful, which disappear in this way.

Peaks in winter

The trade peaks in winter, where meat-eating is at a premium. This coincides with the migratory season, and as in the case of the Amur Falcon, has meant a calibrated, site-specific effort to kill. In the late 1960s, Garrett Hardin, an ecologist, coined the term, “the tragedy of the commons.” He was referring to how people, users of resources, tend to overuse and exploit “commons”: like meadows, even if they knew that doing so would deplete the resource for all its users. The term has been used most often in contemporary times to refer to the overexploitation, intense and continuous, of the sea and marine resources.

I would go a step further in saying that what is happening to our birds, and the killing of these birds, is the tragedy of the common species. Few species are common any more, but it does follow nearly often that the common species gets disregarded, overlooked or otherwise not valued as exciting, simply because there are so many individuals of that species.

The anthropogenic allee affect is a theory that suggests that with human-induced rarity of a resource (like poaching or trapping), human attempts to extract that resource (i.e. more trapping) increase even as resource availability goes down. This explains why items that are so rare are always higher priced, corresponding to their high demand. It further explains why the increased price (the belief in desire stemming from rarity) causes even more exploitative measures towards extraction of the commodity. This has been the sad course of human desire — resources like gold, illegal wildlife contraband — like ivory, to pink diamonds, to unblemished natural pearls, are all down to a few sources, deemed even more precious due to their uncommonness.

The tragedy of the common species is that these species, with low economic values in their illicit trade, are escaping the radar of enforcement. Conversely, they are escaping the radar of enforcement as the anthropogenic allee affect has not set in so far, and subsequently these species are not considered rare enough to bother worrying about.

Common species do not stay common forever. Such is the case of the house sparrow and the Gyps vulture, both of which are vanishing all over their range in India, and the now extinct Passenger pigeon, once crowding skies in the United States. This year, one lakh less Amur Falcons will reach their destination in southern Africa. At this point, we don’t have to start debating hierarchies of protection afresh. Instead, we must act on keeping the common, common.

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