Red Earth Environment

Before we blame forest-dwellers for ‘poaching’ during the pandemic, we must recognise our own hypocrisy

Chenchu tribesmen with bows and arrows and their hunting dog in the Nallamala forest in Prakasam district, Andhra Pradesh   | Photo Credit: Kommuri Srinivas

A photograph of a young man, presumably tribal, or a returning migrant, or both, with the carcasses of two hares slung over his shoulder, was recently emblazoned on the cover of a report by a reputed wildlife NGO. The report — based on nothing more than a cursory look at social media posts — claimed that the rates of poaching in India had doubled during the COVID-19-induced national lockdown. Within days, it was widely broadcast by media both in India and abroad. If only research were so easy and its results so simple.

Indeed, the social and economic impacts of a crisis like the current pandemic and lockdown are more than likely to escalate hunting and harvesting of natural resources, including wildlife. But for many rural communities, the village commons and forests yield the only easily available source of protein. And a dubious mix of bad science, elitist ideology and social media has demonised these most marginalised people.

The pandemic has brought renewed focus on our relationship with nature, especially the negative aspects of human-wildlife interactions. Conservationists have been quick to join the blame game. Those with links to bats, pangolins and other wildlife — hunters, ‘poachers’, wet market operators, meat eaters — have all been implicated. In the midst of the challenges posed by COVID-19, there has also been an outbreak of agenda-driven campaigns about the environment that tend to further marginalise the poor and those different from the mainstream.

Men of the Chenchu tribe in Andhra Pradesh out hunting

Men of the Chenchu tribe in Andhra Pradesh out hunting   | Photo Credit: V. RAJU

Customary rights

The problem begins in part with the history of conservation in our country. Thanks to lobbying by elite conservationists, India adopted a series of exclusionary legislations, such as the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which banned hunting and many forms of forest use. Overnight, such blanket protection criminalised traditional hunting practised over centuries. For the Soligas, for instance, who practised shifting cultivation, collected minor forest produce and hunted small game in the Biligiriranga Hills, the establishment of the BR Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in the 1970s meant relocation and a ban on hunting and forest produce collection. Only more recently did the Forest Rights Act, 2006, restore some customary rights to the community.

Even in spaces outside the purview of protectionist legislation, for example, in parts of the Northeast and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, hunting has been condemned by an urban public disconnected from the realities of resource use. Recently, a video titled ‘Shocker from Nagaland’ was circulated widely on social media, showing a ‘lockdown festival’ where villagers feasted on hunted meat in Zunheboto district. Accompanying it were debates on the ‘abhorrent’ bat-eating or dog-eating habits of Naga communities — and about meat-eating in general. One is reminded of the recent film Axone, which highlights the travails and stigma that people from the Northeast experience in just cooking their traditional dishes when they live in other parts of the country. This targeting of culinary choices and cultural norms is often symptomatic of wider processes of racial targeting and marginalisation.

So far, the response from several conservation groups to COVID-19 has primarily been a call for reducing contact at the human-wildlife interface. A lot of conservation PR has sensationalised links with emerging infectious diseases and called for immediate bans on hunting, meat-eating, and wildlife trade. Much of this is strongly ideological and reflects differences in fundamental values. Such claims neglect the broader contexts and root causes of disease emergence and spillover, raising concerns about equity. And this could have significant ramifications on the ground — loss of livelihoods, of food security and rights.

A Nyishi tribesman on the lookout for game in Arunachal Pradesh

A Nyishi tribesman on the lookout for game in Arunachal Pradesh   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Conservation refugees

When we look back at India’s conservation history, we see that on the one hand we are happy to ride roughshod over traditional systems, move people out of forests on a whim, relocate them callously and sever their ties to land and culture, which likely had inbuilt checks and balances for using wildlife. On the other hand, when distress return migrations occur, as in the case of the current pandemic, there is widespread concern about the imminent decimation of wildlife. During the lockdown, there was apprehension from tiger conservationists that poaching of prey would escalate and affect tiger numbers, with little acknowledgement that poorly thought-out tiger conservation had perhaps itself created a large number of conservation refugees in the first place.

Consequently, the incidents of hunting and poaching by forest communities and fringe-dwellers during the lockdown are highlighted as the primary drivers of forest denudation, while there has been a glaring lack of deliberation on the many fast-tracked environmental clearances given during this period for dams, highways and mining projects, whose environmental impact will be vastly more damaging.

Misconceptions about pandemics also abound. For example, there have been claims that zoonotic diseases are caused only by eating meat. But in several southern States, each year, unknown to most of us, the Kyasanur Forest Disease (KFD) or monkey fever — a tick-borne viral haemorrhagic fever with significantly higher rates of human mortality than COVID-19 — wreaks silent havoc, and has been linked to large-scale deforestation. First reported from Shimoga district in Karnataka in the late 1950s, KFD has now spread to other States (Kerala, Maharashtra and Goa) despite the best efforts of health officials. The disease is especially prone to spread within forest-plantation mosaics.

Men with the carcass of a porcupine arrested in Sirpur, Telangana

Men with the carcass of a porcupine arrested in Sirpur, Telangana   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Complicated truths

There are parallels with Ebola in Africa, where the conversion of smallholder oil palm agroforest units into industrial plantations helped concentrate bat populations and bring them closer to habitations. Once ridiculed as sensationalism, the agroeconomic impetus behind ‘neoliberal Ebola’ is now well accepted and has been used as a framework for understanding disease dynamics and land use in the context of other pathogens such as the KFD virus. KFD, Ebola and many such zoonoses, therefore, show that the picture is much more complicated. Habitat alteration, including conversion of forests to plantation, and other forms of market-oriented deforestation play a significant role in increasing human contact with zoonotic diseases.

What is at play is prejudice combined with an inability to look at the ultimate drivers and causes of deforestation. Instead of training our guns on ‘poachers’ and forest-dwellers, we have to deal with our own hypocrisy. Most of us, with our urban lifestyles and demands, are a far greater threat to the environment: whether it is apples or chocolate flown from halfway across the world, or rice and soy grown on land where they should not be. Fast fashion, global travel, new gadgets, and not to mention, ecotourism — the go-to solution of a certain section of conservationists — all add to the problem. A recent study by researchers at the University of Sydney attributes 30% of global threats to species from international trade in everyday items such as coffee, tea, sugar, textiles and other manufactured goods. However, this finds little mention in these polarising narratives.

Viruses have been on the prowl for millennia. Many have affected humans, resulting in small-scale infectious disease ‘events’. However, for any one of these events to become a pandemic, a set of additional conditions is necessary. That is what COVID-19 and the Spanish flu had — significant catalysts in the form of human mobility and globalised economic activity. While consumption cutbacks and sustainable practices are indeed important, we cannot ignore the risks arising from increased global and regional connectivity.

A young boy with a bird he caught near Kolleru Lake in Andhra Pradesh

A young boy with a bird he caught near Kolleru Lake in Andhra Pradesh   | Photo Credit: T. APPALA NAIDU

As a group, conservationists are known for their proclivity to scapegoat tribal communities and the rural poor for the destruction of forests and wildlife, while ignoring other issues that stare them in the face. Both low-level hunting and meat-eating are often the product of necessity and of cultural choices. Though challenging, they can be inclusively managed and regulated to protect habitats and species. By far, the greater challenge is to curb the large-scale diversion of forests for industrial use that is occurring with such impunity. In the war against disease and deforestation, let’s make sure we fight the right adversaries.

Kartik Shanker is faculty at the Indian Institute of Science. Both writers are trustees of Dakshin Foundation, Bengaluru. The views expressed here are personal.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 8:49:07 PM |

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