Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Conservation: bane or boon for India?

Rakesh Lohumi

The increasing conflict between the animal world and humans is evident from the frequent leopard attacks and ever-growing monkey menace, which is emerging as a major issue in the hill state with the villagers embarking on a course of agitation demanding remedial measures. Things have come to such a pass that the farmers who are suffering huge losses due to damage being caused to crops by wild animals year after year are demanding scientific culling of selected species.

Prowling leopards have been, indeed, giving sleepless nights to villagers, while wild boars, monkeys, blue bulls, sambars and other animals have been destroying crops. The environmentalists see the shrinking and fragmentation of forests due to increasing human activities, which have destroyed the natural wild life habitats, as the main reason behind the increasing animal-human conflict. The species like leopards and monkeys have been over the years rendered as ‘ecological dislocates’ with the destruction of their habitat. The big cats have been making frequent forays into human settlements, and taking a heavy toll on human beings and the livestock.

The villagers, however, increasingly feel that the problem has become intractable because certain species have been provided ‘over protection’ under the laws like the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and the Wild Life Protection Act. They held a huge rally in front of the office of the Chief Wild Life Warden early this week to press their demand for an integrated plan to deal with the problem including measures like translocation, mass sterilisation and scientific culling of troublesome wild animals.

Mr Kuldeep Tanwar, President of the State Gyan Vigyan Samiti, which is spearheading the campaign, asserts that the farmers appreciated the need to protect wild life but things have been taken too far and a stage has reached where they were at the receiving end. Every year crops worth over Rs 400 crore were being destroyed and prowling leopards and bear were targeting human beings and livestock with unfailing regularity. The gravity of the situation could be judged from the fact that 2319 out of the total 3,200 panchyats in the state have been affected by the problem.

The population of monkeys has increased from 60,000 to 3,17,000 over the past two decades and there were also 55,600 langurs to add to the misery of the farmers. There has been a sharp increase in the numbers of leopards, which has swelled from a meagre 120 in 1984 to over 1000.

Besides shrinking green cover, the problem has been aggravated due to wrong afforestation policy, under which commercial species like pine, which cannot support wild life were planted on a large scale for decades. The samiti wants that suitable species which provide food for wild animals and even coarse food grain crops be planted in open spaces to keep the wild animal stay put in forests.

Other measures include translocation of monkeys and other animals into deep forests and their mass sterilisation. However, these measures will take a long time and to provide immediate relief, ban on export of monkeys should be lifted and selected species in specified areas be declared vermin for a specified period of time. Further a task force must be set up to carry out scientific culling of undesirable animals in such areas.

One may or may not agree with the demands of farmers but one thing is amply clear that effective measures are needed to ensure peaceful co-existence of humans and animals. Otherwise, villagers could resort to killing of animals on the sly and there have already been several such cases involving leopard, which is among highly protected species. Killing it is an offence under the Wild Life Act, punishable with a minimum of three years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10,000. Yet the leopards are not by any account an over protected species. They have been at the receiving end. Villagers have killed as many as 59 leopards by putting up traps and snares over the past eight years.

The problem has the potential of blowing into a major political issue. In fact, the Forest Minister, Mr Ram Lal Thakur, has been a victim of the monkey menace during his earlier term. He lost the assembly election as per the villagers because of the canards spread by his rivals that monkeys trapped from urban areas like Shimla were released in villages by the Forest Department. He sure has reasons to take the campaign seriously.


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