A hidden threat

IMG-20150703-WA0002The year 2015 has been a term full of new amendments. In particular, those that have been lavishly bestowed upon our environment and wildlife – swift, double backing, overhauling changes, unsparing in approach, and providing band-aid solutions for persisting problems.

Topping the list is the Karnataka Tree Preservation Act, 1976 and the latest proposal to declare certain wildlife vermin – both meriting much deliberation and criticism. This is also the right time to ask a few questions – Are we resorting to short-term resolutions? What are its consequences? Are we endorsing ad hoc practices? Why aren’t science-based assessments adopted by policymakers to make informed decisions? And of course, why are we making the same mistakes again and again?

Made in haste

There are several examples – case histories of devastating impacts of such make-shift solutions. A case in point is the recent amendment to the Karnataka Tree Preservation Act – 1976, which allows felling of certain varieties of trees without permits from the Forest Department. The Bill authorizes cutting of over 20 species of trees including mango, balanji, areca nut, coffee, guava, and hebbevu among others.

Introduced despite many disagreements, the Bill resulted in felling of over 80,000 trees in just two months in three districts alone, including Kodagu. It’s also ironic that the Act permits felling of native species and protects exotic species. “Coorg has over 700 species of wild mangoes. When the bill was passed, thousands of trees were chopped. Riversides are being replaced by bruised dwarfed trunks of massive old mango trees. Several hundred species of wild mangoes from dense forests, woodlands, riverbanks of Western Ghats are now making their way to saw mills and plywood mills. This move by the government is destroying the ecosystem completely,” explains Thamoo Poovaiah, a member of Wildlife First. After this carnage, the State Government had to back-track and the High Court ordered an interim stay on the felling of mango trees after a petition was filed. But unfortunately, stay on the order has been relaxed on two other species, namely pink cedar and wild-curry trees. The future of this threatened ecosystem desperately clings on to the decisions taken by the (misinformed) government. And till then, old and young trees, hosting thousands of birds and bees will be persistently hacked and land destroyed for a quick buck in the State.

Coming back to policies that encourage planting and protection of exotic species…There have been several such “unecological errors” committed in the past. For example, the planting of eucalyptus trees in grasslands of the Nilgiris. First introduced in the Nilgiri Hills by the British in 1843, a native of Australia and Tasmania, eucalyptus today stays put on millions of hectares (ha) in India. Over 1,000,000 ha of eucalyptus plantations were established by State Forest Departments and Forest Development Corporations in the country. Replacing rich grasslands with exotic species, the enthusiastic government underestimated its long-term ecological impacts. Fortunately, someone did take cue… In March 2014, the Madurai bench of the Madras high court banned eucalyptus, and proposed its removal from the Western Ghats. “Grasslands are rich biodiversity reserves, replacing them with crops like eucalyptus has been a very costly price forests had to pay in the past,” says Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF) research scientist, Surendra Varma.

The vermin label

So, what is vermin? If you look it up, a wild animal is termed “vermin” if it’s believed to be harmful to crops, farm animals, or game, or which carry disease, e.g. rodents. This year, the environment minister, Prakash Javadekar declared, “In areas where farmers are facing huge problems due to animals, there is a procedure to declare them as ‘vermin’ like blue bull and wild boar for a particular period of time. We will give States permission to declare such animals as vermin.” Once the State provides a list of “nuisance animals”, farmers are allowed to hunt the animals for a limited period of time. There are provisions for such an amendment, of course – the Section 62 of the wildlife Act empowers the Centre to declare any wild animal, apart from rare and endangered species, to be classified as vermin, for a specified period of time. The first targets – Blue bulls, wild boars and monkeys.

Let’s look around. Have such myopic solutions to complex issues such as man-wildlife interactions been successful? It’s not the first time wild boars and blue bulls have made it to the list in India – permissions were issued in states like Punjab, Kerala and Tamil Nadu a few years ago. Farmers in Kerala even received Rs 500 for killing a wild boar. But did this move solve the problem? NO! In fact it led to disappearance of many species from surrounding forests and increased poaching of even threatened species. And human-wildlife conflicts continued…

Across the world, high densities of ungulates are a concern. Many countries have opted to regulate its population size through hunting. Allowing hunting of species as a population control measure has sometimes threatened the species by almost wiping out its population – like in the case of grizzlies and gray wolf. In Africa, species considered a threat to communities are deliberately killed, to reduce the population, or even locally exterminated. But most often, the solution has never helped either humans or wildlife. “Every species is important. Eradicating certain species from a region can have far fetching consequences, upsetting the ecosystem. It leads to dramatic changes to populations of several other species in the area. Not to forget the changes to the very landscape when small or large herbivores are targeted,” explains Varma, who believes encouraging co-existence by positively changing the attitudes of the affected communities through education, and proper compensation plays a critical role. He further explains, “A crop that attracts ungulates is most often grown on fringes of forests. For example, a wild boar enjoys diversity in food. Today, many farmers grow tubers. There is no regulated harvesting. When tubers are grown, wild boars are sure to pay a visit.”

Dismissing such a move as a threat, former member, NBWL, Praveen Bhargav says, “The proposal to allow hunting of some species by shifting them to Schedule V is fraught with danger. This may even lead to demands for moving elephants to Schedule V.  This retrograde proposal must be dropped forthwith.”

Are we still going to opt for hit and miss methods, putting at risk population densities of several wildlife species and the country’s rich biodiversity? Are we forgetting that overpopulation of certain species is not limited to wildlife? Or the fact that most species today have lost its habitat owing to us humans? Hunting as a solution has been overruled by several countries which had impatiently adopted the practice. Also, unscientific policies promoting deforestation are being rebuffed. The same countries today are opting for non-lethal and long lasting solutions. So, why are we heading in the opposite direction???

The article was published in the Deccan Herald

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