Wildlife on the run
Among the several reasons for hunting wildlife, that SANJAY GUBBI lists, monetary benefits come first. They also point to the fact that conservation strategies are flawed, he adds.
A tiger killed in a snare set for catching smaller prey.
IN a sample survey the results were from 201 parks from 16 tropical countries on three continents in over 85 per cent of the parks, poaching was found to be on top of the list of problems.
How is it here in India? In our land, wildlife has been traditionally hunted over the ages, perhaps because it was in an age when the forest cover was vast, the human population low and wildlife existed in extremely good densities. "Even social taboos, religious sentiments and hunting ethics controlled the harvest of wild fauna. Most importantly, hunting was more for subsistence and not for commercial interests," says Dr. K. Ullas Karanth of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), who has worked extensively on wildlife conservation and studied its problems in our country. Sadly, that delicate fabric of myth, legend and religious beliefs has now come apart.
Trophy hunting, which began in the 19th Century, was widespread in the early 20th Century. The British brought into the subcontinent fire arms, motor vehicles and flashlights which were extensively used while hunting. Our erstwhile royalty also joined the English in a spirit of misplaced camaraderie to wantonly wipe out our natural heritage. As social and cultural taboos broke down and commercial interests became dominant, patterns of wildlife harvesting drastically changed, endangering the very source itself.
Hunting is a problem faced by many protected areas worldwide. Hunting for the pot either for self-consumption or to cater to the burgeoning urban market that fetches money seems to be the most widespread motive. The next reason is for commercially valuable by-products like horns, antlers, pelt, bones, feathers and casques. Sport hunting is also prevalent in many parts of our country while retaliatory hunting is carried out against crop raiding ungulates or cattle lifting predators.
High meat yielding large bodied ungulates and primates are the principal targets of poachers. Spotted deer, sambar, barking deer, chevrotian (mouse deer), wild pig, gaur (Indian bison), bonnet macaque and langur are the most preferred species. Even birds like pigeons, hornbills and smaller mammals like giant squirrels, flying squirrels, civets, and even fish are not spared. Animals like tigers, rhinos and elephants are hunted for the high mercantile value they attract in the international markets.
A hunter is often type cast as a gun wielding, jeep laden poacher. The scenario is very different though. Many local forest dwellers and people inhabiting areas abutting forests utilise their traditional skills combined with their knowledge of the interiors of the forests to hunt and set traps for our threatened wildlife. Local tribals who are poor and who are often landless and socially oppressed, are used as prized guides by outsiders to hunt. There are also instances where urban dwellers hunt wildlife either for meat or for just for the "thrilling" experience. Wildlife that has high economic value is basically hunted by professional organised poaching gangs.
Techniques employed for hunting are also as varied as the animals that are poached. As Dr. Karanth observed, "Hunting on foot at night using locally crafted muzzle-loading guns is one of the most popular means because it is more efficient, though not most conspicuous which is a risky proposition."
Water holes, fruiting trees and croplands bordering forests are favourite spots for stalking wildlife. Snares using telephone wires and automobile clutch cables are set on forest paths regularly used by animals. Often large, critically endangered animals like tigers and leopards also get caught and die in snares.
Using of lime on fruiting trees is one more common method employed to hunt birds. Baited explosives are used to hunt pigs while dynamiting is the most popular method employed to poach fish. Traditional methods of using beating and hunting dogs are also engaged to corner and hunt muntjacs, wild boars and blacknaped hares. Poisoned water placed in broken earthern pots is another popular method. Large carnivores that threaten livestock are poisoned. High voltage live electric wires connected to fences to eliminate crop-raiding ungulates like elephants and pigs is yet another method.
Jaw traps are laid to hunt large carnivores like tigers which have high value in the international bone and skin trade market. This method is more prevalent in North India. Recent incidents at the Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka, revealed the presence of these North Indian poachers who had set jaw traps for tigers. This was the first incident of its kind in South India. It was surprising that even the local forest official initially denied the incident.
A question that needs to be answered by wildlife biologists and conservationists is: what is the impact of hunting? It is ruinous. Several species could be stamped out; the hunting of herbivores would directly affect carnivores that are dependent on them. Even if small populations persist in an area, they could be "ecologically extinct", that is they no longer fulfil their ecological role in the forest, which affects the forest composition.
To measure the impact of local poaching on wildlife, a young conservation biologist from Mysore, M.D. Madhusudhan, alongwith Dr. Karanth carried out density estimation and comparison of ungulates and primates in the Nalkeri and Arkeri areas of Nagarahole. The two areas had a varied degree of protection against poaching despite being of a similar size in area. The study was revealing. The density of chital was 9.1 animals/ sq.km for Arkeri which had lower enforcement against poaching, while it was an astonishing 66.2 animals/ sq. km. for Nalkeri which was better protected. The densities of the Hanuman langur were 4.1 animals/sq.km at Arkeri and 32.6 animals/ sq.km at Nalkeri, clearly illustrating the pressure of hunting. Astonishingly, the Hanuman langur that is venerated religiously is also severely affected by poaching. This disproves the theory of some environmentalists who believe that traditions and religious sentiments have protected our wildlife.
Products made out of tiger bone.
What impact does this have on conservation? As Dr. Karanth points in his book The Way of the Tiger: "Prey depletion is one of the most serious threats to tigers, the population densities, survival rates and chance of persistence are all strongly tied to the densities of their principal prey." This elimination of the prey will immediately eliminate large carnivores like the tiger that are at the apex of the forest ecology. A tiger needs to eat about 50-60 deer-sized animals in a year for its survivals. As a thumb rule, for every 50 deer hunted in a year there will be room for one less tiger on this earth.
Local traditional hunting has led to the extinction of some species of wildlife while pushing several others to critical levels. Though overall the effects of species extinction are not fully known, population biologist Paul Ehrlich illustrates this with an excellent example: "the ecosystem is like an airplane in which we are passengers. We can go on removing the rivets that hold the plane's wings up, one by one, for quite a while. While no single rivet may determine when we will crash, ultimately one particularly rivet surely will. Each species that becomes extinct is like one more rivet pulled out from our plane. Of course, there are ethical, esthetical and historical reasons to protect our wildlife."
Some areas in North East India where vast stretches of forests exist are bereft of wildlife as they have been hunted to extinction. Such forests cannot be considered ecologically alive. A school of environmental thought argues that hunting of wildlife is for self-sustenance and needs to be allowed. We still romanticise the idea of man being a hunter-gatherer. Equations between humans and wild animals have long changed. Our wildlife densities are too low and human densities too high to promote this concept of "sustenance hunting". Studies worldwide show that where humans depend exclusively on wildlife for meat, tropical forests cannot support much more than one person per square kilometre, even under the most productive circumstances. But, human densities in some of our protected areas exceed 10 per square kilometres and the lifestyles of most local communities (except for a few tribes in the Andamans) are integrated with the market economy and modern urban styles. Sustainable use ideologues are more like a Utopian ideal than a reality.
Hunting became illegal in India in 1972. Wildlife is strictly protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 except that the laws are different in terms of stringency and are weaker in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Strict enforcement of law in protected areas that forms only three per cent of our country's land area is vital. And the law makes no distinction between the urban rich or the rural poor. This three per cent network where viable densities of large mammals are confined to cannot be sacrificed.
And how must we zealously safeguard our natural heritage?
Mechanism for strict implementation of the law needs to be given topmost precedence and on a war footing. It is imperative to have a foot patrol which is a very efficient way of controlling inconspicuous poaching activities.
Intelligence gathering needs to be beefed up. Strategically located anti-poaching camps that serve as excellent deterrents to poachers and smugglers are indispensable in all our national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Manned gates, night curfews on the movement of vehicles inside protected areas also play a vital role in preventing poaching. Strict control on the issuance of license for firearms around important protected areas needs to be implemented.
Our enforcement agencies have several handicaps. The forest department has 30 per cent protection staff vacancies. It's enforcement capability needs to be enhanced in terms of improved protection infrastructure. Patrol vehicles for mobility and efficient wireless network for swift and co-ordinated communication help in countering poaching.
Field staff are underpaid and basic amenities does not exist for most forest personnel working in remote areas of the forests. The tribulations faced by our frontline staff who are fighting to save our globally significant wildlife species needs to be addressed.
The forest department should adopt scientific management practices for wildlife protection. Biologists and researchers should disseminate the results of research to decision makers. Forest department guards and senior officials have to be trained on hunting patterns, method and ecology of hunted species if protection has to be scientifically managed. Community education can also play a pivotal role in curbing this illegal activity and curb other resource users.
No wildlife conservation strategy is complete without a strong and well-planned protection component implemented by the government.
Under the heightened consumerism sweeping the world, preservation is the key to safeguarding our wildlife for the future.
Can we sustain the name "land of the tiger" for the next generation?
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