Wild is a free ‘game’ here
In past 32 yrs, Indians killed 65% wild animals for food, 35% for illegal trade while around 1,300 wild animals have been electrocuted across India due to deliberate and accidental electrocution between 2010 and 2020…
Arunima Sen Gupta
Scientists working at the forensic laboratory of Wildlife Institute of India (WII) have found that majority of wildlife killings in India in past 32 years took place just “to fulfill people's gastronomic desires”. Ever since 1987, WII received around 3,700 samples. Tissue culture and DNA analysis show that 65% of wild animals were killed for food and the remaining 35% was for illegal trading, said senior WII scientist Dr SK Gupta. Meanwhile, around 1,300 wild animals had been electrocuted across India due to deliberate and accidental electrocution between 2010 and 2020, reveals a data compiled by NGO Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). The report was shared during an edition of Maharashtra Forest Department’s wildlife week discussions. The numbers included over 500 elephants, 220 flamingos, 150 leopards and 46 tigers among other animals across the country.
Most forensic cases have surfaced from Madhya Pradesh (1,029) followed by Uttarakhand (675), Uttar Pradesh (343) and Haryana (252), Maharashtra (210) and Chhattisgarh (190). Of all the samples received for analysis at India’s premiere wildlife forensic laboratory, majority of samples belonged to wild boars, spotted deer, sambar and nilgai. “Indians relish different cuisines and meat makes for some of the most sumptuous delicacies and hence, these illegal killings took place probably. Hunting down the animal for leisure and then consuming it for taste is an old phenomenon in this country, which needs to be stopped now,” said Dr Gupta. Unfortunately, the Andaman wild boar (sus scrofa andamanensis), which is found in the Jarawa reserve forest area and falls under highly protected category, has been widely hunted by the indigenous tribesmen of the Andamans since it is their main source of protein. The animal is protected under ‘schedule 1’ of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 due to its scarce population and unique features.
According to wildlife scientists, the large-scale killing of Andaman wild boar also indicates that the tribal population is interacting with common people on the island, where this exchange of meat is happening. “In mainland (India), the wild boar has been declared vermin in some states, but in the Andamans, killing it is a very big crime and entails severe legal actions and punishment. But a decent number of samples received from the Andamans indicate a possible syndicate between tribals and poachers. Otherwise, killing wild boars in the well-guarded forest of Andamans which are laced with tribes is a difficult task,” Gupta said. Statistics indicate that the wildlife forensic cases in the country are constantly rising. In the past five years, WII has recorded a surge in number of cases with 2018 recording the highest number of such cases. “In 2018, there were 286 cases, while in 2017, there were 196 cases. In 2016, there were 193 cases, and in 2015, there were 165 cases. In 2014, 205 cases were recorded. This year since January, 165 cases have already been investigated by the scientists,” said a research fellow at WII’s forensic lab division.
Meanwhile, in Maharashtra, while there haven’t been any cases of elephant electrocution, WPSI members said 18 leopards, 16 tigers and 11 bears were major animals to be electrocuted, over a decade. Other animals included bison, deer, flamingos, monkeys, and wild boar. Overall, 74 wild animals had been killed by electrocution in Maharashtra (2010-2020). States such as Odisha, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand had all witnessed high animal electrocution deaths over the past decade. Maharashtra and Gujarat had witnessed most cases involving leopards and flamingos. “Animal electrocution continues to be a major issue but it has been tackled to some extent in Maharashtra,” said Nitin Desai, director (central India), WPSI adding, “Complete electrification in rural areas turning out to be a bane for wildlife because people are tapping 11 kilovolt overhead lines that are crisscrossing through forests and using those high tension wires to kill wild animals by laying uninsulated wires traps. Any animal coming in contact with those wires, get zapped and die instantly.” Desai explained that the modus operandi for deliberate electrocution or poaching was for cheap meat. “The economic angle is simple. Goat meat is Rs 500-600 a kilogram, poultry is tasteless for hardcore meat-eaters. In that background, poachers offering wild animal meat for Rs 80-100 a kilo, which also delivers home would easily find a lot of customers, and develop into a lucrative illegal business inside and along the periphery of forest areas,” he said adding, “The other issue is the fear of crop damage. Farmers use illegal power fences and set up uninsulated wire perimeters around their farm, and electrify them using their legal meter connections. Soft footed animals like tigers, bears, and leopards face instant death after coming in contact with them.”
In 2017, Maharashtra recorded 21 tiger deaths, highest in a decade and second highest in India. Of the 21, six tigers were electrocuted either purposely or through accidental electrocution, making this a serious concern for the forest department to deal with. Cases had been reported from Chandrapur, Nagpur, Wardha, and Bhramapuri, including the death of iconic tiger Jai’s son Srinivas in Nagbhid range in April. A committee set up by the forest department in July 2017 called the Working Group on Electrocution comprising the Maharashtra chief wildlife warden, regional director of the Maharashtra State Electricity Development Corporation Ltd. (MSEDCL), a scientist from Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and Desai studied tiger movement and possible solutions to the electrocution issue in the Vidarbha landscape. The group has identified over 1,000 villages where these fences have been set up. Interventions led to the installation of solar fences across 556 villages in Vidarbha and 150 villages across central Maharashtra and Konkan, replacing high-intensity electric fences.
“Since 2017, the committee through stakeholders has conducted several workshops wherein the MSEDCL officers and forest field staff have been exposed to issues related to electrocution. Exchange of ideas, contacts and suggestions highlighted the seriousness involved with this whole issue, said Nitin Kakodkar, principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife), Maharashtra adding that now a group (including forest and MSEDCL) of officials work specifically with electrocution related issues in Vidarbha where alerts and anonymous tip-offs are immediately responded to on-site. “This has led to better coordination among all groups but one can never be complacent about this issue since it continues to be a looming threat,” said Kakodkar. In October 2016, the Union environment ministry issued guidelines detailing safe practices to avoid animal deaths due to electrocution by power transmission lines directing electricity distribution companies to preferably use air bunching of cables (ABC) - overhead ones or use underground cables as much as possible. Every case of animal electrocution reported is being taken with utmost seriousness by us,” said Avinash Sahare, superintending engineer (Nagpur), MSEDCL. “Along with the forest department, we have jointly surveyed core and peripheral forest areas where locations have been identified where ABC can be implemented. We are working on ways to ensure cables are tied together in such a manner that they cannot be tampered with.” Desai said ABC was a costly proposition but other measures included solar fencing, joint patrolling, and identifying sensitive sections where incidents have taken place repeatedly as hot spots. “There has been a positive decline in cases in Maharashtra from 2018-20 but the risk lingers,” he said.
The Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) landscape in Vidarbha alone has witnessed 16 deaths in 2017 and 11 in 2018 due to animals being electrocuted by live wires in farms adjacent to forest patches with the majority of the cases in buffer areas. “As of now, ABC is being implemented in the Tadoba landscape, and based on the feasibility, we will extend to other places,” said Kakodkar. A senior forest official requesting anonymity said, “Since executing ABC is costly, the committee looking into electrocution needs to come up with a strategy to fund expenditure on this technique equally for MSEDCL, forest department and the district bodies for effective and timely implementation.”
Efforts Taken So Far To Curb Electric Fencing
- Removing illegal fences, hooks and power supply lines coming from high tension wires in the vicinity
- Joint patrolling with MSEDCL officials during the day and night to check areas prone to electrocution and issue notices, booking villagers who have flouted electricity norms
- Awareness drives across villages about how these fences can be fatal for all animals and how it needs to be done only when necessary
- With the help of the forest department, WPSI launched a scheme where cash rewards will be presented to villagers who alert the committee about illegal fences and similar violations