The debate about the environment minister's decision to relax the regulations on culling wild animals if they harm crops and pose a threat to humans is being followed keenly in an unexpected quarter: by aspiring hunters.
Users of online discussion forums for gun enthusiasts in India have over the years been sharing tips about culling notices in various states. With the Central government asking states to loosen norms for culling protected animals and laying the field open for entire species of animals in certain areas to be killed without any restriction, these forums are on the watch.
“Good news for Biharlites..” says the topic of one such thread in forum Gun Geek posted by user Gudda in December 2015 that links to an image of a Hindi article about the state allowing nilgai to be culled.
Gudda, who identifies as being from Allahabad, said:
Let’s go to Bihar all those who are fond of hunting..”
A user from Patna replied:
“Best of luck. Just for general knowledge nilgay if not dead at first shot they attack the shooter with everything they got.
Another thread from August 2015 has a copy of a government resolution from Maharashtra detailing the process to apply for licences to kill crop raiders. The key point, points out user BigCal, is that if the decision is not conveyed in 24 hours, permission is as good as given.
Yet another thread from 2014 praises self-styled Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, perhaps the best known hunter of today, who is now at the centre of a controversy in Bihar for shooting 250 nilgai at the invitation of the government to cull them.
These users are not doing anything illegal by discussing various state rules that can be used to continue hunting. What these discussions show is that despite the ban on hunting in 1972, the practice is still alive and thriving today.
The Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 banned the hunting of any animal mentioned in certain schedules of the act. There are a few exceptions to this. If the Chief Wildlife Warden of a state finds that a particular wild animal has become a threat to human life or property, the warden may allow any person to hunt that animal. A person may also kill or wound a wild animal in self-defence.
“Killing animals is a shauk [pleasure] for them,” said Sarjan Bhagat, principal chief conservator of forests in Maharashtra. “It’s like shikar used to be before it was banned.”
Hunting or culling?
The role of hunters came into the spotlight after visuals emerged of Khan shooting nilgai in Bihar at the invitation of the state government. He killed up to 250.
The central government had in 2015 asked states to submit requests to temporarily declare species protected under the Wildlife Protection Act as vermin in certain areas, thereby removing restrictions on killing them. The Bihar government had put in a request for nilgai.
The provisions under the Wildlife Protection Act that permit culling are rigid enough to deter most people who request licences to shoot wild animals. Permission to kill is only given after there has been proven damage to crops, Bhagat said, and only if the state has not already handed out compensation to affected farmers. Maharashtra, he added, has the highest compensation rate in the country.
Once animals are classified as vermin, villagers can kill them without asking the department for permission. They are also no longer required to deposit the carcasses with the department and the method of killing is not regulated. They can be poisoned or shot or hustled into trenches and disposed of in any way.
In Uttarakhand, fewer than ten people had asked for permission to kill wild pigs in 2016, according to DVS Khati, the state’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests as well as its Chief Wildlife Warden. In Maharashtra, Bhagat said, local farmers found it difficult to apply for licences.
“If they were able to get guns and licences to kill, local farmers would do this themselves,” Bhagat said. “But they find this difficult and nor can they afford to engage licence holders. That is why they ask us to handle the problem. But as a department, we are here to protect not kill animals.”
Hunters step in
This is where hunters come in. States engage hunters to kill individual animals who might come into conflict with humans.
Khan, a relative of the erstwhile Nizams of Hyderabad, comes from a family of hunters who have closely worked with British and Indian governments to control the populations of wild animals. This is not the first time that a state has called in Khan to cull animals. Bihar called him in for nilgai in 2013. He shot 5,000 feral pigs in Madhya Pradesh in 2014, for a fee of Rs 215 per animal. In 2014, Himachal Pradesh called him in to shoot a man-eating tiger, even though he was not employed by the state’s forest department. He shot two leopards as well, allegedly in self-defence, though leopards are also protected animals.
In February, Maharashtra hired a sharpshooter for the first time ever, when it called Khan in to tackle their wild boar problem. He killed 53.
Khan, said Bhagat, performed this service for the department free of cost, unlike in Madhya Pradesh where he got a fee for each animal killed.
But even officials in Maharashtra acknowledge that they are not clear about the efficiency of culling.
“This is the first time a sharpshooter has been hired in Maharashtra,” said Bhagat. “He killed 40 to 50 boars at once so the local population will be reduced. We still have to ascertain how effective it will be over a period of time.”
Activists continue to battle the Centre and various states on whether culling of formerly protected wild animals should be allowed to reduce their population outside forest areas in order to minimise human-animal conflict.
There are other solutions. One such is sterilisation programmes. Since 2006, the forest department in Himachal Pradesh has been working to sterilise monkeys, reaching up to one lakh of the simians, according to a Himachal official no longer with the wildlife department. Even sterilisation, however, has its limitations, he said.
“Monkeys live in social groups with troop sizes between 20 and 40,” he said. “You can’t catch all of them at one time and when the troop is disturbed, it goes haywire. This is the biggest impediment.”
He was uncertain about whether the sterilisation had had any impact, but said that it was not addressing the real root of the issue.
“For urban areas at least, waste management is very poor,” he said. “So long as free food is available to the monkeys, they won’t go back to the forest. It is not culling or treating as vermin or sterilisation that can be solutions. It has to be our solid waste management programmes.”
Most solutions, pointed out Dr RVS Rawat, retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in Uttarakhand, are long term, whereas farmers are eager for immediate solutions.
During his tenure as conservator, Rawat said, he had tried to identify alternative solutions to the problem of monkeys venturing into human terrains. His solution involved identifying and planting species of plants that bore fruit attractive to monkeys.
“Once animals leave the forest for any reason, the farmer has to face the brunt,” he said. “We have to maintain the food chain supply in forests. I identified 46 species the monkeys could use, but if I plant them now, they will put fruit only in five to seven years. It is not an immediate solution.”