A few months ago, the Union environment ministry asked states to submit proposals if they wanted to declare as vermin certain wildlife species that were causing harm to crops, property or human life. Declaring theses species as vermin would allow state and forest authorities to kill these animals without attracting penal provisions under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

Subsequently, three states were given permission to designate as vermin species that were proving to be a nuisance to humans. These were wild pigs in Uttarakhand, nilgais and wild pigs in Bihar and rhesus macaques in Himachal Pradesh.

A species can be declared vermin under Section 62 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Once this happens, the species moves to Schedule 5 of the Act and loses protection under the law.

The recent mass killing of nilgais in Bihar and the spat between Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi and Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar over the culling have not only highlighted the issue, but also raised further questions.

Javadekar clarified that the culling was being permitted for a reason. The Indian Express quoted him as saying: “I will not react on who said what. But as per the law, we must help the farmers whose crops get ruined. The state government sends us a proposal and only then we initiate a step for a specific region and for a specific period of time keeping the scientific facts in mind.”

Little research on the subject

But the question here is: are the farmers asking for culling?

While the intensity and nature of this conflict varies from landscape to landscape, the bottomline is that famers are indeed suffering from damage caused by wildlife. However, farmers want a solution to the problem, and haven’t specifically asked for culling. As no other alternatives have been put forth, culling seems to be the easiest, or the only, option.

India’s decision makers and influencers (including conservationists and researchers) have failed to come up with a policy to address this man-animal conflict in the long run or suggest models that could be tried out in the short term.

Conservation organisations have been largely silent too.

Is that because they are unwilling to take a stand on a topic as pressing and complicated as this, or have other priorities?

A member of the Bihar State Wildlife Board once said how the state government had written to large conservation organisations for assistance on the subject a couple of years ago. Each of these organisations, which receive a major chunk of their funding for the conservation of tigers and other species, had either expressed their inability to act, or did not reply on the issue of herbivores proving to be a nuisance to farmers, which has resulted in the culling of large number of tiger prey today.

The lack of research on the topic is stark. This research is essential as it feeds policy and helps shape future actions, as opposed to research that results in publications or fuels academic debates at conferences.

Enter the hunter

Then, is this move to cull certain species driven by the hunter lobby?

How can people – who are happy to pose with guns, who travel across the country to hunt animals – proclaim to be conservationists?

That they are well connected with those in power is apparent from the fact that some of these hunters have been invited from as far as Hyderabad to Shivpuri – the Madhya Pradesh district with one of the highest gun licenses in the country. In Maharashtra, where culling is allowed in select districts, the killings by this group was stopped after the chief wildlife warden publicly expressed his disagreement and displeasure in the manner in which they were taking place.

In Telangana, where hunting has been permitted across the state, a list of people sanctioned to shoot is in place, and the forest department staff have been directed to assist them with regard to their stay in forest guest houses and local transport. Most of these people are members of the Indian Rifles Association, and at least one is an accused in a hunting case in the state.

By permitting culling, are we saying that wildlife needs to be confined to protected areas and reserve forests?

The problem is that our protected areas have themselves not been drawn based on conservation needs, and large chunks of our reserve forests have been either degraded or severely damaged by development infrastructure, or have simply disappeared. In addition to this, we continue to lose our common lands to market forces and make major changes to our cropping patterns – both of which further shrink the available habitat for wildlife in village lands.

Human actions have thus ensured that carnivores like jackals and wolves that were not uncommon near villages even two decades ago are missing today. We now want to use the pretext of their absence (lack of natural population control measures) to remove the herbivores from these landscapes.

Scientific culling?

What is the process to be followed before a species is declared vermin?

Can a state send a request to the Centre based on the few applications it receives, or is it mandatory for the state to first carry out surveys and consultations to understand the ground situation? Should the state try out mitigation measures before writing to the Centre asking for species to be declared vermin?

Replies to Right to Information applications on the topic have revealed that most states have neither conducted any surveys prior to sending culling requests to the Centre, nor do they have in place a strategy to address the human-wildlife conflict.

So, when does this culling stop?

In context of the recent nilgai killings in Bihar, is there a threshold after which we say that the numbers are at an acceptable level? But for this, we first need to be aware of the numbers (close approximations) of these species in different landscapes.

The situation is complex and one that warrants time and attention from multiple stakeholders. It has been in the making for long and there are no solutions available that could be placed in bullet points – if they were, we would not be reading this today. This could be the last opportunity we have to move beyond our comfort zones and get our act together for landscape-based wildlife conservation. Else, this could also be the first step to reducing our protected areas to glorified zoos.