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Wildlife: On Last Priority?

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Wildlife: On Last Priority?

Wildlife: On Last Priority?

Wildlife: On Last Priority?

Ever increasing illegal acts against the wild are a major cause of concern. From poaching and ‘trapping’ to intentionally or unintentionally created conflicts, the human invasion into wild territories is getting grimmer. The Kerala elephant ‘murder’ has only been a case in point, shocking the Nation into debating the reasons for ever-increasing extremely brutal crimes being committed against wild animals and the need to find a middle path …

Saumya Misra

The slow, painful death of a pregnant elephant that reportedly ate an ammunition/explosives stuffed pineapple has put Kerala to shame and humanity to question. The police reports say the incident occurred on May 27 when the elephant ate a firecracker-filled pineapple that was originally intended as a snare to catch wild boar. Her post-mortem was conducted at the Mannarkkad Forest Division. It revealed that the animal died as a result of drowning, followed by inhalation of water leading to lung failure which has been identified as the immediate cause of death of the elephant. “Major and incapacitating wounds and injuries in oral cavity caused localised sepsis and have most likely occurred following an explosive blast in the mouth. This resulted in excruciating pain and distress in the region and prevented the animal from taking food and water for nearly two weeks. Severe debility and weakness in turn resulted in the final collapse in water that led to drowning,” the preliminary report stated.

The incident came to light after a forest officer in northern Kerala’s Malappuram district narrated the details of the horrific death on social media. The wild elephant had left the forest, meandering into a nearby village in search of food. As she walked on the streets, she was offered the cracker-laden pineapple by locals. “She trusted everyone. When the pineapple she ate exploded, she must have been shocked not thinking about herself, but about the child she was going to give birth to in 18 to 20 months,” forest officer Mohan Krishnan, who was part of the Rapid Response Team to rescue the elephant, wrote on Facebook. So powerful was the cracker explosion in her mouth that her tongue and mouth were badly injured. The elephant walked around in the village, in searing pain and in hunger. She was unable to eat anything because of her injuries. “She didn't harm a single human being even when she ran in searing pain in the streets of the village. She didn't crush a single home. This is why I said, she is full of goodness,” Krishnan wrote in an emotional note in Malayalam, along with photos of the elephant. The elephant eventually walked up to the Velliyar River and stood there. Photos showed the elephant standing in the river with her mouth and trunk in water, perhaps for some relief from the unbearable pain. The forest officer said she must have done this to avoid flies and other insects on her injuries. The forest officials brought two captive elephants to lead her out of the river. “But I think she had a sixth sense. She didn’t let us do anything,” Mohan Krishnan wrote. After hours of attempts by the officials to rescue the elephant, she died at 4 pm on May 27, standing in water. So powerful was the cracker explosion in her mouth that her tongue and mouth were badly injured. The elephant was taken back inside the forest in a truck, where the forest officials cremated her. “She needs to be given the farewell she deserves. For that, we took her inside the forest in a lorry. She lay there on firewood, in the land she played and grew up. The doctor who did her post-mortem told me that she was not alone. I could sense his sadness though the expression on his face was not visible due to his mask. We cremated her in a pyre there. We bowed before her and paid our last respects,” the forest officer said. The prime accused are still at large.

Sumanth Bindumadhav, wildlife campaign manager for HSI/India said “Regrettably in India, human conflict with wild animals such as wild boars and elephants is a common problem, and often these animals can be maimed or killed by local communities experiencing crop damage and other issues. We don’t yet know if the firecracker-pineapple was maliciously fed to the elephant, or if it was a tragic accident, but whether the intended victim was a boar or an elephant, tragic incidents like this demonstrate the urgent need for better and humane ways to manage wildlife. Community education coupled with the introduction of crop insurance schemes would also safeguard the interests of people as well as the welfare of animals.”

Vermin, snares & legal loopholes

The killing has, once again, shifted the spotlight to ‘snaring’ - an old practice in India’s forest ranges and one that kills dozens of wild animals every year. Set up to hunt down small animals, snares have been termed the ‘silent killers’ of India’s forests. Much has also been written about wire-traps, made using clutch cables of bikes or construction wires, which have killed several big cats over the years in India. A 2019 report noted that 24 tigers and 110 leopards had quietly choked to death in our forests over the past eight years, after getting caught in wire snares possibly set up for wild boar or deer. But, when the elephant’s killing in the Palakkad forest range was reported, explosive snares in the form of firecrackers and pressure-based country bombs came into focus. These are made using gunpowder or other chemical explosives and glass shards. They are tightly packed to build pressure and then camouflaged with fruit, chicken intestines, jaggery or other food eaten by wild boars. There is also the practice of spreading poison over fruit and placing them for the animals to eat. While the snares are usually set up for small game, it is not uncommon for bigger animals, such as wild cats or elephants, to accidentally bite into them and injure themselves. In April 2020, a wild elephant death was reported in the forests of Punalur in Kollam division, said Surendra Kumar IFS, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden of Kerala. “It was unfortunate because the elephant (10-year-old female) had started away from its herd and died right in front of me during a routine check. When we examined it, we found injury marks in its mouth and suspect that an explosive could have caused the death,” Kumar informed. Three persons have been arrested in the killing of the young female wild elephant in Kollam district, while search is on to trace two prime accused in connection with the death of the pregnant pachyderm in Palakkad. Similar cases have been reported in the neighbouring Nilgiri district in Tamil Nadu. According to D Guruswamy, District Forest Officer of Nilgiri Division, in February 2020, a young tiger aged 12-16 months in the Nilgiris was trapped in a snare, but was rescued unhurt. A similar case of a leopard was reported in the Nilgiris Forest Division in November 2019. However, the animal was not lucky enough to survive. In Uttarakhand’s forests, a similar incident of a crude bomb explosion killing a striped hyena was reported this year. IFS officer Akash Kumar Verma tweeted that despite trying, the forest department could not save the hyena whose ‘jaw was severed’. “Wildlife often succumbs painfully to such crude bombs crypted with food. The hyena was treated for three days for serious burns and a broken mandible (lower jawbone), kept on a liquid diet, comfortable bedding, etc- but its fate was sealed. In a sense, we were easing its pain as it inched towards death,” he informed.

Snaring is an offence considered equivalent to hunting under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. “Regardless of whether an animal was trapped/injured or dead, placing a snare in an attempt to trap animals is an offence under the law,” says retired IFS Anuj K S. Further, if the trapped animal came under Schedule 1 or part 2 of Schedule 2 of the Wildlife Protection Act, the accused could attract a punishment of up to seven years. Though the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act applies to all animals, the vermin exception to animals protected under the Indian Wildlife Act keeps a culture of violent and often brutal killing of animals alive. The practice of using fruit with crackers and light ammunition to kill wild boar in Kerala and other parts of India (there are reports from Maharashtra as well) is very common. The ‘militant tactics’ are legal as long as they are inflicted upon animals declared vermin, marginal or economically useless. We need to resolve the issue of “vermin” animals versus farmer crops through policy change, reform and a deep investment in humane methods. As long as people are legally free to kill animals as vermin by installing pineapple bomb snares, or shooting them like they do nilgai in Rajasthan, Haryana and even UP, other protected species like elephant will die horrific deaths. Hence, we need to challenge and amend our ways of handling the ‘vermin’ situation with humane policy changes.

In one voice…

“It is known the world over that wild life crime is second only to illegal arms and the drug trade and in terms of turnover it has huge potential for the dishonest. The vested interests and mafia are behind it. The human beings are primarily responsible for the dwindling flora and fauna in the country. In matters of investigation, wild life crimes do not have the top priority that the investigating agencies should give them. There should be a central agency like the CBI to investigate any crime that is above Rs 10 lakh. The ramifications of wild life crimes, apart from being inter-state, are international. You would have known that there are so many cases vigorously pursued in India, Nepal and elsewhere, like Sri Lanka because the gangs were common and there was a common denominator. But those were very purposeful investigations by the CBI. Such investigations are very rare. Belinda Wright pursued wild life crimes and invested heavily on lawyers not only in India but Nepal as well and she was a game changer. We need more people like her to pursue cases vigorously. Conviction of Sansar Chand was a great moment for the law enforcing agencies but we have not seen the repeat of such convictions. Intolerance is actually greed. In my childhood, about 50 years ago, I saw turtles, partridges, peacocks and bears but all seem to be lost now. Fresh water dolphins seem to have disappeared. It is because of greed. People pay exorbitantly for exotic breeds. Go to Nakhas or any old city market of Lucknow and you can get any pedigree of birds. What is the forest department doing? If you and I know, I think the forest department should also know who the poachers are. Free for all shikaar that comes at a price should be totally banned and wherever this takes place, the forest department officials should be taken to task. The conviction rate is minimal. There is such delay in investigation, prosecution and trial that the conviction rate is abysmally low at less than 20%,” says former DGP (UP) Dr Vikram Singh.

“Everyone accepts that detection of wildlife crime in India is very low. Prosecution is also very poor. This is because the frontline staff is not frequently taking up cases against hunters and poachers. Lack of expertise on the part of the forest department is one of the reasons. The second reason is consideration by the judiciary. Nowadays with increasing awareness, the judiciary is taking such cases very seriously.  Earlier, people said 'what if an animal has been killed?' Even police never took such cases seriously.  A wildlife crime case is a complaint case, in three stages. The first stage is the pre-charge stage. In the next, the magistrate examines the case. If he finds it fit, he frames charges. Then he calls witnesses and records statements. After that the trial begins. All this takes pretty long and the judiciary is already overburdened.  Intolerance of humans is the fallout of ignorance. We don’t like to accept that we have encroached on the territory of wild life. Many times we feel they are encroaching on our habitat,” says H V Girisha, IFS, Regional Deputy Director (North Region), WCCB, New Delhi.

“Sincere investigation with proper evidences leads to conviction. If we have not collected enough evidence, a criminal goes unpunished. Therefore, better investigation is needed. Moreover, in wildlife crimes, rather than going for compounding an offence we should go for judicial custody & this should be highlighted in all newspapers and TV channels or those wishing to do so get demoralized,” says Chief Conservator of Forests, JFM, UP (Nodal officer in UP for SDG 15), Deepak Kumar.

Senior police official and presently the SP of Barabanki, Dr Aravind Chaturvedi, who has played a very significant role in busting some interstate and international wildlife smugglers’ gangs, also believes poor rate of conviction is the cause of fearlessly operating wildlife mafia. “Punishment under the law is very minimal — seven years at the maximum. Whether you kill one scheduled animal or many, you get to serve only seven years in jail- that too if you get convicted, which is again very rare. We also have to understand this: There are two types of conflicts—natural and created. The rate of natural conflicts is extremely low. Actually created conflicts result in wild animal slaughters. The guilty gets away on the vermin culling excuse or man-eater excuse. Different states have different rules to deal with vemin issue and none really outline the measures ‘not’ to adopt in the manner of culling. Hence, a trap laid for a tusker can be claimed to have meant for wild boar. Here the law and investigation adopt importance. A guilty has to be proved a convict through proper proof gathering. After the Supreme Court’s intervention, the government made provisions that even the police could investigate wildlife crimes and take accused into custody. Earlier, the police were only booking the case, i.e. lodging FIR, and the investigation was being done by the forest department’s SDO level officials who were mostly unaware of the provisions under the law and even lacked interest and expertise. They didn’t – and still don’t- go all out in collecting proper evidence needed to book the culprits. Allahabad’s tiger murder case is the only case till date in UP wherein rigorous investigations led to the conviction of all 16 accused seven years back. The prime accused was Shakeel Hasan Qureshi.”

The fact that those investigating a wildlife offence may not be suitably competent is agreed upon by former IFS official who retired as PCCF, UP, Dr Rupak De: “Mostly because of ignorance on part of the staff who are very few in number, poorly equipped to deal with such things and huge multitude of wildlife crime types, the rate of conviction is so poor. The cases involving mega and charismatic species are usually attended to quite rigorously and end up in convictions. What gets ignored: Poaching, capture of birds, turtles, insects, butterflies, pangolin, turtle, snakes, mongoose etc. The cases involving mega species or important humans are usually well reported. You can include ignorance of journalists for poor reportage. Intolerance increases because of ever increasing need and greed of humans.”

Anuj Kumar Saxena, who recently retired as DFO, Bulandshahr, also maintains that the strength of frontline staff is very poor, hence they are not able to either challenge or investigate wildlife crimes. But, he also points out: “The tribals are never in conflict with Nature, they learn to co-exist. How many times have you heard of a tiger attacking a tribal or a tribal killing a maneater in self defence? It is because they respect the wildlife and its territory and never trespass. They know it is the beast who is the master of the jungle! However, it is the ‘urbanised rural’ civilization on the forest fringes that cause all trouble. By urbanized, I mean those who undertake agricultural activities in forest areas. They are all encroachers. Every year, they encroach further into the jungle territory by cutting some trees and expanding their fields. Now, an animal would not know how to demarcate human habitat. It would only be moving about in its territory. What humans may call ‘animal intrusion’ is actually an intrusion of the human beings into wildlife. Then, if there is a rape or murder, the victim’s family follows up the case. But, who would see to it that an animal’s murderer has actually been convicted and sentenced?”

According to animal rights activist Shakuntala: “There are two facets to wildlife crimes. Crimes need to be reported. This means people need to be aware. In my experience, awareness about Wildlife Protection Act has a very elite relevance. A very small fragment of our population knows about the Act, and why it needs to be implemented through reporting. The reason for this is that a major percent of the human population who are in close contact with wildlife are rural people, fighting to fulfill their own hunger through various means. When they come in contact with wildlife, it is always as an adversary. So, their reporting always takes a vermin angle, and treated in that way. What is needed is absolutely mass sensitisation with the rippling effect like in Beti Bachao abhiyan. When cases are reported, whether through social media, or officially, actions are definitely taken. But it depends on the complainant also to follow up. The word, fizzle, perfectly describes public enthusiasm. It is always for the time being. And it is also the attitude of pushing the responsibility from one shoulder to another. Reported and forgotten. That’s not done. Though ideally it should be: Citizens will report; officials will take action! But that is utopia. Here we need to follow up till the end.”

So, we suggest…

“The best possible solution to end man-animal conflict, rate of poaching and other wildlife crimes would be to create buffer zones. This would be like nipping problem inn the bud,” points out Anuj Kumar Saxena. “The buffer zones should be dense stretches that are not accessible to the common man, but totally managed by the forest department. Say, a 5-km stretch of land between a forest and the nearest human settlement is declared a buffer zone. The department can take up forestry activities like bee-keeping etc. The fringe farmers whose land may fall in this buffer zone should be encouraged to convert their land’s use from agricultural to forestry by paying them annual compensation equal to the income generated from that land. This way, the man will not enter this zone, the animal that strays into it is most likely not going to end up in human habitat, and also the vermin that get attracted to villages for crops or household garbage would also be deterred. This is one sure-shot way of solving the wildlife crime issue to a great extent. In 2017, I had put up a similar plan for the Namami Gange project. I had suggested the government officials to create such buffer zones along the entire stretch of the Ganga and we may curb river pollution to a great extent. Removing tanneries, diverting sewages and setting up of STPs are all time-consuming, expensive and at the mercy of human whim. I am happy to say that the government has passed a GO in favour of a 500m-stretch of buffer zone along the Ganga. The same initiative should be adopted in areas of man-animal conflict,” he claims. 

According to Dr Vikram Singh: “There is need for prompt investigation, putting up quality cases in courts, trial in fast track courts and recording statements of key witnesses under Section 164 of CrPC  so that even if they die or turn hostile they cannot damage the case. Also there should be a central data bank of all hardcore criminals like Sansar Chand which should be freely available.”

“Coexistence needs a lot of understanding and maturity in society, There is a need to understand that we have to live and let live. Many times there are retaliatory killings due to conflicts. In the case of big cats it is due to conflict with humans and in the case of herbivores and tuskers, it is due to the economic damage that they cause. So there should be a strong compensation system in place and a regulatory mechanism to ensure compensation is delivered speedily. This would address the problem to some extent. But by and large, we have to accept and let our animals live. We must develop an understanding,” maintains Girisha.   

To Dr Chaturvedi, creating awareness and mass sensitization are equally important. “The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) made national technical group of which I was also a part of. Here, we went to villages and made the villagers realise that fundamentally even animals had a right to live,” he explains. The Supreme Court in 2014, in a case titled - Animal Welfare Board of India v. Nagraja&Ors., recognized the Right to Life as enshrined under Article 21 of the COI, to extend to animals as well. However, he agrees that the law caters to only the scheduled (protected by Act) animals and the vermin end up dying a brutal death. More often than not, it is the snare to scare vermin that traps the scheduled animal.

Thus, in conclusion: Crimes against charismatic species such as elephants attract our sympathy but we should not stop at condemning those crimes alone. If we are genuinely interested in the welfare of all marginal beings, both human and non-human, we should look at the conditions under which those crimes are more likely to happen and improve them.

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