The ceremonious airlifting of the long extinct cheetah, from Namibia to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, and a recent report indicting humans for being responsible for the extermination of at least 70% of the world’s wildlife, offer a disturbing backdrop to reading WildlifeIndia@50.
Edited by Manoj Kumar Misra, a former member of the Indian Forest Service, the book critiques five decades of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA), with short, personal experiences by administrators, foresters, conservationists, activists and journalists that include a stellar list from renowned conservationist and tireless forester H.S. Panwar to wildlife reporter Usha Rai.
In the last five decades, the law has gone through several enabling amendments, but its implementation has been found wanting. The book is divided into two parts, the first section reflects on the successes and failures of the WLPA; the second part is anecdotal with stakeholders sharing their stories, and there are two chapters on the future of wildlife and the WLPA in India.
If the difficulty of implementing the law is one area of focus, the book also looks at other issues including the need for “inviolate habitats”, why some man-animal conflicts are intractable, illegal wildlife trade, conservation challenges, and the saving of species like tigers, lions, elephants, crocodiles and the great Indian bustard.
Indira Gandhi’s deep interest in wildlife had led to the legislation in the first place, the provisions of which were essentially aimed at regulating hunting. Over the decades, however, the National Board for Wildlife under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister has made the law exhaustive, but the political commitment to uphold its provisions have waned. While many contributors are disillusioned that forests and wildlife continue to shrink, others contend that the glorious legacy of the National Board for Wildlife stands tattered. Far from serving its primary objective — to be “ever vigilant in the cause of free-loving fellow citizens i.e., wild animals and birds” — the provisions of the legislation have been twisted to grant rights to violate wildlife habitats. The frenetic pace with which such permissions have been granted by the Standing Committee, constituted by the Board, means that the area under 990 Protected Areas is likely to shrink from the present 5.2% of the country’s geographical area, which is already below the world average of 9.3%.
The essential take-away from the commemorative volume is that good intentions are not necessarily paved with expected outcomes. Being a forester, Misra deserves credit for collating contributions from those engaged in the pursuit of protecting wildlife and its habitats.
Ironically, multiple enabling amendments to the WLPA, and subsequent species-specific conservation initiatives, have broadly succeeded in putting wildlife under existential stress. Nothing could be more shocking than the fact that the institutions created by the law to protect wildlife have often proved to be counter-productive. The provisions of the Act have been so conveniently misinterpreted that these end up becoming de facto provisions. As a result, it is a progressive law that lacks corresponding order.
The idea behind the volume, claims the editor, is to inform, entertain, and enlighten. It does all these, and more. Sample this: a rare albino sloth bear was relocated to the zoo as a Chief Minister of a State wanted the unique animal to be seen by the public at large. What purpose does an animal serve if no one gets to see it was the logic. Legal provisions were suitably compromised to honour his fancy, and the unlucky animal landed in the zoo to the joy of viewers. Nowhere does the law proclaim that wild animals are government property, but the idea has remained ingrained in the minds of powers that be.
The question that begs an answer is: has the WLPA with its half a dozen amendments been objectively understood by those who are supposed to uphold it? The volume under reference provides enough evidence that officers, judges and lawyers are still grappling to make a sense of its provisions. Had that not been so, a court would not have acquitted a magician for illegally possessing an ajgar because in its wisdom an ajgar is too young to be a python (a Schedule I species under the WLPA). While the law does not draw any distinction on the age of the animal to be protected, the court observed that only after attaining the age of maturity does an ajgar become a python. Since the ajgar is not mentioned in any of the schedules — only the python is — it was said that the magicians had not committed any offence. It is rightly said that a law is only as good as it is understood.
What does the future hold?
Conservationist and writer Neha Sinha says the proposed WLPA amendment bill of 2021 can benefit from attention to climate change and creating a climate-conscious policy for wildlife. In her essay, ‘Looking into the Crystal Ball: WLPA 2072’, she writes that planning for the future can help India achieve some conservation goals. “The last 50 years have shown us what we can gain (and lose) for unspeaking but ever-present Nature. The next 50 years will be even tougher than the last half-century.” To give just one example from her WLPA of the future, Sinha says the idea of [animal] population estimations should go beyond species like the tigers and co-predators. In future, animals at the centre of the conflict should be counted, and their needs accounted for.”
The volume makes for interesting, amusing, and sometimes shocking, reading, highlighting the fact that the power of citizens to question the decision of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife is legally out of question. It leaves the reader to hunt for answers.
Wildlife India@50; Edited by Manoj Kumar Misra, Rupa, ₹995.
The reviewer is an independent writer, researcher and academic.