The difference of views on the killing of wild animals between a former and a sitting Environment Minister of the ruling party — one in favour, the other against — has hit the front pages. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change recently permitted three States, Uttarakhand, Bihar, and Himachal Pradesh, to declare earlier protected wild animal species as “vermin” under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, thereby allowing private shooters and others >to kill these species with few safeguards and no risk of prosecution .
Two States, Maharashtra and Telangana, issued similar orders. The species — nilgai antelope in Bihar and Maharashtra, the rhesus macaque in Himachal Pradesh, and wild pig in all States except Himachal Pradesh — were listed for culling because the animals, whose populations are allegedly increasing, damage crops.
This decision raises questions about which Minister is right and whether it is right to kill wildlife that damage crops. More pertinent is whether the problem has been framed and assessed correctly, and culling the appropriate solution in the first place.
In parts of India, wildlife species such as wild pig, elephants, macaques, and nilgai occasionally damage crops or property. No reliable estimates of economic loss nationwide are available, but a number — almost certainly an underestimate of real and opportunity costs to farmers and property owners — of Rs.200 to Rs.400 crore has been quoted in media reports. This appears minuscule in relation to the government’s willingness to spend on, say, a statue for Sardar Patel (Rs.3,000 crore) or on grandiose river-linking projects, but economic losses can be serious and crippling for individual poor farmers and deserve urgent attention.
Effective conflict management
Field research by wildlife scientists in diverse landscape contexts, on different wildlife species and kinds of human-wildlife interactions, including “conflicts”, suggests multiple solutions. Culling (killing) or removal of “conflict” wildlife, often labelled “problem animals”, is one among a suite of possible interventions recommended by conservation scientists and managers. Unfortunately, removal through capture or killing may not prevent recurrence of conflicts and may even exacerbate them.
Himachal Pradesh, for instance, killed hundreds of rhesus macaques in 2007 (with conflicts recurring within two years), sterilised over 96,000 macaques since 2007 (while conflicts continued to increase), yet now proposes more of the same. This is despite the State’s own data and recent estimates by scientists from Mysore University and the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History reporting that macaque populations are in overall decline and only eight forest divisions (out of 44) record sharp increase. In 2014, Karnataka carried out a brutal and costly exercise, capturing 22 elephants in Hassan Forest Division, translocating five to another forest, and consigning 17 to captivity. Subsequently, during 2015-16, researchers recorded in the division over 200 crop damage incidents and 3 human deaths, including one in Alur range earlier this year. As risks to people and crop damage continue, the local communities remain disempowered and ill-prepared to avoid or reduce conflicts.
A better approach to conflict management requires integration of scientific evidence, ecology and behaviour of particular species, and landscape and socio-economic context. Without this, the response of State authorities, often based on political compulsions and public perception, even if legitimate, may end up being inappropriate and confused in relation to the problem.
On June 9, the Inspector General Wildlife issued a worse-than-muddled clarification. In a note trying to explain why wildlife species causing crop damage were listed for culling, the only factoid presented is that over 500 people were killed by animals across India last year. Human injuries and deaths due to wildlife is a serious issue, but recent studies show that a large proportion are a result of accidental encounters with species such as elephants and bears. Government figures report that around 400 human deaths a year are due to elephants. Conflating such human deaths with crop damage by very different wild animals implies connecting an extreme response such as killing nilgai in Bihar through an unjustified comparison with human deaths due to other wild animals nationwide.
Applying proactive measures
If human safety was the chief concern — as it perhaps should be — it is more appropriate to first adopt measures to reduce human injuries and fatalities due to wildlife. Effective measures for this include deploying animal early warning systems, providing timely public information on presence and movements of species such as elephants to local people to facilitate precautionary measures, and attending to health and safety needs that reduce the risk of wildlife encounters. Housing improvements and provision of amenities such as lighting, indoor toilets, and rural public bus services help reduce accidental human deaths. Improving livestock corrals can reduce livestock losses and carnivore incursion into villages, while better garbage disposal and avoiding deliberate or accidental feeding of animals reduces risks associated with wild animals like monkeys.
Crop damage by wildlife may occur when animals enter crop fields because of habitat alteration and fragmentation (by mining or infrastructure projects, for example), because crops are edible, or because the fields lie along movement routes to forest patches or water sources. Research reveals that a small proportion of villages in the landscape may be conflict “hotspots” and, additionally, peripheral fields may be more vulnerable than central ones. Such site-specific scientific information helps design targeted mitigation with participation of affected people. This includes supporting local communities to install — and, more important, maintain on a sustained basis — bio-fencing and power fencing around vulnerable areas.
Crop insurance for wildlife damage, which the Environment Ministry recently recommended be included in the National Crop/Agricultural Insurance Programme, also deserves trial. An insurance approach recognises wildlife as a part of the shared countryside and as a risk to be offset rather than viewing wildlife as antagonists belonging to the State that one wishes away. Conservationists today also use modern technology such as mobile phones for SMS alerts, customised apps, automated wildlife detection and warning systems, and participatory measures for wildlife tracking and rapid response to monitor and reduce conflicts, save crops, property, and human lives.
Broadly, these are categorised as proactive measures to reduce negative human-wildlife interactions, in contrast to the traditional reactive measures such as killing, removal, or compensation carried out after conflicts occur. Identification of appropriate proactive measures, including where and when and how they should be deployed, requires prior scientific research on conflict patterns in specific landscapes and locations. Without this, culling becomes a mere public relations exercise meant to assuage farmers who have lost faith in the authorities’ ability to forestall or recompense losses.
Blaming a “problem animal” may be easier than to carrying out concerted efforts to deal with what are actually “problem locations”. Focussing efforts on removal of individual animals detracts from needed investments in location and amenities, leaving local people no better off in standards of living or ability to cope with or respond to future interactions with wildlife. When shooters from other States kill wildlife with high-powered rifles and leave, they also leave local people and forest staff no better prepared, trained, or empowered to deal with likely future wildlife intrusions.
Merely removing “problem animals” will not make “problem locations” disappear. Servicing human needs, enhancing local amenities, and adopting science-based and sustained interventions will provide more lasting solutions. A moratorium on culling will thus help redirect attention to where it is really needed and be in the best long-term interests of people and wildlife.