The recent decision to cull wild animals in some Indian states will be welcomed by many and condemned by a few. To question the ethics of the decision is a futile exercise, for the simple reason that animals like macaques, wild boar and nilgai have caused so much damage to crops that farmers and orchardists are finding agriculture an unrewarding profession. Entire villages in Uttarakhand have been abandoned because of this problem. No government can stand by and watch as such a scenario unfolds, so the expedient step has been taken to allow farmers to protect their crops.
Mismanagement of forests
We have come to this pass due to complete mismanagement of forests and wildlife in independent India. We do not have a formal definition for the word, forest, as used in official circles because no one has been able to point out that planting forests is an oxymoron. Once that is clear, it is easy to see that a forest should be defined as a community of self-regenerating, indigenous flora supporting an appropriately diverse faunal community and fed by sub-surface water systems dependent on the soil structure, vegetation cover and local climate.
From this definition, it is again easy to see that the lack of management of forests is directly responsible for much of the present water crisis on the subcontinent, and the perception by international bodies that such mismanagement will continue has led to the prediction of water wars in our country during our lifetimes.
One way of evading management is to issue blanket bans. In the present case, the blanket ban on hunting led to the gradual decline of interest in forests by the educated classes and the populations of animals that were once monitored by shikaris were forgotten.
Remember, it was generations of shikaris like Jim Corbett, the Champion family, EP Gee, Salim Ali, and numerous others who had a finger on the pulse of Indian wildlife. When the need was felt, they began what is today the wildlife conservation movement. However, political expediency and bureaucratic apathy led to grazing pressure far beyond the carrying capacity of the land, resulting in barren commons and degraded forests today.
When regular forest fires and unsustainable grazing practices wiped out the food sources for wild animals, driving them to local extinction, there was no one to raise an alarm because no one was monitoring them. The Indian Forest Service had moved out of the forests and into urban offices.
The only palpable expression of the extinction of forest flora and fauna was the shifting by highly adaptable omnivores like macaques and wild boar from forests to cultivation. This was portrayed as a man-animal conflict rather than what it actually is: the conversion of our forests from rich storehouses of bio-diversity to green deserts by a potent combination of mismanagement, political expediency and ignorance.
Culling not the solution
Culling wild animals that have come to depend on agriculture for sustenance is only a short-term measure. Populations of mammals in nature are governed by the availability of food. If the agriculture in a given area can sustain, say 500 macaques, then shooting 200 of them is not going to have a lasting effect. The structure of macaque families, as well as sounders of wild boar, centre around an alpha male, who has a harem of as many females as he can protect from other males. Each macaque female gives birth to one young one annually, while pigs are known to be highly fecund. Producing the 200 that were shot should take perhaps a year, or at the most two years. They will not leave cultivated areas regardless of how many are shot for the simple reason that there is nowhere left to go. The forests are barren, and protected areas, where examples of good jungles still exist, are already home to as many of the species as the area can support.
The long-term measures to reduce the pressure of wild animals on cultivation involve restoring our forests and wildlands or, rather, permitting our forests, wildlands and sub-surface water systems to restore themselves. We are faced with the need to take radical decisions, define new goals and galvanise ourselves into action on a war footing, for it is only by acting now that we can prevent the water wars looming on the horizon.
Wars are won by proper preparation. In the challenges to come, the state forest departments will be the frontline, just as the Indian Army is the frontline in conventional wars. A top heavy, ill trained and ill prepared force will certainly not be successful, so we shall have to address these factors.
The targets being addressed have to change – conserving the tiger has to come down from the top slot, and the top three slots occupied by water, water and water. The services of pristine jungles have to be calculated in terms of water, with carbon sinking, oxygen generation, wildlife, recreation and other ecosystem services taking subservient positions.
We must remember that the problems faced by our rivers and jungles are peculiar to the subcontinent, for nowhere else on earth is there such a concentration of cattle dependent on natural vegetation, a similar concentration of humans with the need for two or three hot meals a day even among the poorest sections of society, a carefully orchestrated breakdown of social controls so that the corrupt are lauded and the honest ridiculed, and a sense of dispossession carefully nurtured among the citizens of our country.
We will have to focus on water now and for the next half century at least. We cannot afford the luxury of following shifting funding priorities like western countries, which create catch words like the ozone hole (is it not a threat anymore?), the greenhouse effect (we should have been boiling by now) with the latest, of course, being pollinators, while being in the middle of the third mass extinction is held in reserve like an ace up the sleeve in case funds for climate change research are cut off.
We shall have to steer clear of the declaration of blanket bans and focus on suitable management practices; ensure that policy decisions are based on reliable scientific data; train a competent pool of officers and staff; educate our public properly so that hard decisions do not result in hysteria; cull the corrupt from positions of power and raise the state forest departments on par with the Army in terms of being above interference by covetous political parties and political considerations. Only then will they be able to manage our landscapes in such a manner that by 2050, when water wars have been predicted on the subcontinent, we will be reaching a state of long term water security instead.