Vermin or victim?

Culling wild animals by declaring them vermin is not the long-term solution to human-animal conflict; sterilising them might be a better idea

June 17, 2016 03:39 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 10:56 pm IST - Chennai

India’s wild animals run the risk of ending up on a government approved “kill list” if State governments insist that they are 'vermin' or nuisance animals, attacking crops, property or people as such.

With the Supreme Court admitting a petition challenging the Environment Ministry’s notification for culling of wild animals identified as ‘vermin’, The Hindu decided to seek the opinion of wildlife experts to understand the dynamics behind the ongoing man-animal conflict and plausible solutions to it.

But first, the background.

The Centre approved the culling of wild animals such as nilgai and wild boar in Bihar and rhesus monkey in Himachal Pradesh by declaring them 'vermin', under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, in December 2015, following requests from the respective States as they cause harm to the resident population.

Wildlife activists, Union Minister Maneka Gandhi, and other concerned groups criticised the government for allowing such a move. States such as Maharashtra and Goa had also submitted complaints regarding peacocks, India’s national bird, and West Bengal apparently requested that the elephant be declared 'vermin'.

What the law says

As per Section 62 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, States can send a list of wild animals to the Centre requesting it to declare them vermin for selective slaughter. The Central Government may by notification, declare any wild animal other than those specified in Schedule I and part 11 of Schedule H of the law to be vermin for any area for a given period of time. As long as the notification is in force such wild animal shall be included in Schedule V of the law, depriving them of any protection under that law.

Picture shows wild boar grazing at Mudumalai Tiger reserve and a jungle mynah looking for insects. Photo: M. Sathyamoorthy

Have endangered species been declared vermin?

“No,” clarifies R.P. Thomas, a joint director in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. “We have not approved the culling of any endangered species like the elephant,” he told The Hindu , when contacted.

A few days ago, the Environment Ministry had released an official statement clarifying that it has not given any permission to kill deer, peacock or elephant. Five States have submitted the proposal for culling wild animals, of which permission for scientific management for a limited time for a specific area was given in Uttarakhand (wild boar), Bihar (nilgai) and Himachal Pradesh (rhesus monkey). The proposals of Maharashtra (peacock) and Gujarat (nilgai) are still being examined, the statement said. The nilgai, wild boar and rhesus monkeys are abundant in population and figure in the IUCN Conservation list's ‘least concern’ category.

Need to understand population dynamics

But does that mean that we can allow these animals to be killed? “Of course not,” says Sukumar Raman, a member of the National Board for Wildlife. He told The Hindu that the population of animals such as nilgai, blackbuck and elephants had shot up over the last several years, which led to increasing conflict. However, culling may not offer a meaningful solution.

“The time has arrived for a nation-wide policy framework to manage human-wildlife conflict,” he said, adding, “Scientific management of wild animals should necessarily involve population control. But a lot more research has to go into this before you can reproductively control the population of wild animals. The earlier we start the better.”

Any scientific management policy for wildlife must be adapted to the population dynamics of the wild animal and be region specific. Not all animals that come across as populated and create nuisance for humans, may be in need of culling, experts note.

Drastic decline in monkey population

As Mewa Singh, renowned primatologist and distinguished professor in the University of Mysore notes, even though bonnet macaques or the “south Indian monkey” are believed to be highly populated in Karnataka and created nuisance for tourists in cities like Mysuru, a recent study he conducted along with his colleagues had shown that the population of bonnet macaques had declined by 60 per cent between 1989 and 2009.

“So unless we study the long-term population dynamics of wild animals, we cannot decide whether culling could solve the problem of conflict. The problem might be something completely different than population rise,” Prof. Singh said. The reason why monkey population was observed to be declining and increasingly attacking humans for food in Karnataka, for instance, was that fruit-bearing trees in Karnataka’s cities were found to be disappearing.

A bonnet macaque eating a jackfruit at the Bengaluru city railway station. Felling of fruit bearing trees in the city have affected the population of the animal. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

In Himachal Pradesh too, where the rhesus macaques had been declared vermin, Mr. Singh said that no efforts had been made to understand the population dynamics of the animal. “There are some five sterilisation units available for wild animals in the State but no population management effort has been made by the forest department,” Mr. Singh said.

In the end, opinion among experts is unanimous that scientific monitoring of wild animals must be extended outside the reserved forest area and if necessary, animal census be conducted outside protected areas to understand why certain species are entering into greater conflict with humans.

Why the animal isn’t the problem…

If you still think that the animal is the problem, then here is a list of reasons scientists’ offer as to why we are facing this situation today:

Habitat loss: Deforestation and lowered green cover in cities has been driving animals into crop fields and human dwellings in search of food.

Fall in predator population: Fall in population of predators such as tigers and leopards leads to a consequential rise in population of herbivores such as nilgai and deer.

Drought: If natural calamities such as drought affect human beings, so is the case with animals in the forest. Drought dries up availability of food for foraging driving wild animals into nearby crop fields and human dwellings in search of food.

Humans feeding animals: Last but not the least, if you are a tourist offering a banana to a monkey you saw at the temple, you sure cannot complain when a troop of monkeys comes chasing after you asking for more…

Langurs in Mysuru are addicted to fast food fed by tourists visiting Bandipur zoo. Photo: M.A.Sriram

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