Walking through the cardamom plants at night, Scaria Alexander Njavallil is aware of an intimidating presence in his 600- acre plantation at Nedumkandam in Idukki. Every few yards, the earth has been gouged out and the cardamom plants freshly dishevelled with their roots lying scattered on the ground. At the base of the large trees that stand in between are the long-raking scratches where a sounder of wild boars have burrowed the topsoil, looking for something beneath.
Mr. Njavallil admits that it can be a little unnerving to suddenly come upon a wild boar. “They are twice the size of a dog and can charge hard while also retreating fast to secret parts of the plantation,’‘ he says.
A licensed shooter, he obtained a special permission from the Forest Range Office at Kumily to shoot wild boars a year ago and has been patrolling the plantation on most nights except on rainy days. But to no avail.
A recent decision by the State government to permit hunting of wild boars using entrapment, however, has come as a major relief. Ahead of the monsoon, he is rushing with a plan to lay traps on the routes through which these nomadic, nocturnal animals are entering the location.
Wild boar population
For farmers on the forest fringes, the problem is not only the wild boars’ raid for food but that their population is increasing exponentially. The encounters between them and these animals are numerous of late. But more and more, they are drawn deeper into human settlements -- even up to Alappuzha which has no forests.
“Of all the larger animals, none reproduces as quickly and abundantly as the wild boar. It’s an infestation machine,” points out Fr. Sebastian Kochupurakkal, general convener of the High Range Samrakshana Samithi.
This very fact, according to him, makes the hunting of wild boars too expensive and too hard to be worthwhile. “Even if you transfer the power to shoot the animal to local bodies, the shortage of licensed shooters will come in the way of its effective implementation. The government, on its part, is not willing to issue new gun licences either,’‘ he adds.
Largely popular, though, the decision has not gone down very well with many and has upset heads of local bodies for entirely different reasons. “The order may be beneficial to the farmers, but at the same time the local bodies are required to be extra cautious to make sure that it’s not misused. Since the crop raids happen at night, there is no system in place to differentiate between hunting for meat and that for preventing crop raids,” points out the president of a local body, an affiliate of the ruling Left Democratic Front.
Who will bear the cost?
As to who will bear the actual cost of culling, which may vary depending on the animal’s location and the number of attempts, is also a question that begs an answer, he says.
But those like T.J. Shine, president of the Santhanpara grama panchayat in Idukki see real promise in the government programme. “We have already begun compiling a panel of shooters through the local police station. In the absence of sufficient number of private persons, we will seek the help of the police and the Forest department in shooting the animal,’‘ he says.
While the farmers prefer mass eradication strategies instead of selective culling, politicians just want the problem to go away. The uncertainty in estimating wild boar numbers, however, has led experts to warn that culling may not be effective without scientific research and that there could be a danger of these animals being over-culled. The politics and public opinion, however, just seek to sink this view.
A research paper published by P.O. Nameer, professor of wildlife at the College of Forestry under Kerala Agricultural University, has listed down the ecological significance of these foraging beasts. They include aeration of the soil that allows seeds to germinate, facilitating percolation of rainwater deep into the soil, accelerating the litter decomposition in the forest ecosystem, suppressing of weed growth, seed dispersal, among others.
“Culling is an accepted wildlife management practice globally but what we miss here is a scientific assessment of the wild boar population to rely on. The Forest department got almost seven years since the reversal of a similar decision by the previous United Democratic Front government. But they did nothing to assess the actual wild boar population and instead spend time on surveying more charismatic animals such as tigers,’‘ points out another wildlife scientist.
T.V. Sajeev, Senior Principal Scientist, Department of Forest Entomolgy with the Kerala Forest Research Institute, too objects to the practice of ad hoc culling that is not based on scientific estimates. “There is no doubt that the wild boar population has expanded much beyond the forest boundaries, but we have yet to ascertain if it’s a spillover of the excess population or migration or a combination of both,’‘ he says.
If it is a spillover, there is no problem in resorting to culling, but if it is migration, what is required is translocation of these animals to their original habitat. A preliminary observation, unfortunately, points to a dwindling population of wild boars inside forests – a possible sign of their migration to human settlements.
“These wild boars seem to have replaced the feral pigs which were commonly sighted across the State during the previous decades. The reasons can be different: from poor waste management to lack of predatory pressure and the undergrowth in abandoned plantations,’‘ explains Mr. Sajeev.
The latest government order that seeks to make the local body heads honorary wildlife wardens, according to him, is a right step towards democratising the management of the State’s forests. “This comes at a time when our Forest department still refuses to shake off its colonial legacy and be responsive to those living on the fringes, who are actually significant stakeholders in forest management. Let this be the beginning of a movement to decolonise the Forest department,” he maintains.