World Wildlife in Peril

World Wildlife in Peril

By Asha Ramachandran & Vinit Wahi

World Wildlife Day (WWD) is observed under the theme “Safeguarding key species for ecosystem restoration” But it is ironic that enough damage has been done to the wildlife already including in the most important Himalayan region. Unfortunately there is no sign of the evil abating by all international reports and the ground realities.

Monitored wildlife populations — including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish — have seen a 69-per cent drop between 1970 and 2018, according to the latest Living Planet Report, released by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) this month only. Stating that there has been “an average 69% decline in monitored wildlife populations over the 48-year period” up to 2018, the report stated: “Latin America and the Caribbean regions have seen the largest decline of monitored wildlife populations globally, with an average decline of 94% between  1970 and 2018. It is followed by Africa (66%) while Asia Pacific (55%).” These findings are more or less in the pattern of the earlier International Union for Conservation of Nature
(IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. 

This says over 8,400 species of wild fauna  and  flora are critically endangered, while close to 30,000 more are understood to be endangered or vulnerable. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science- Policy Platform on Biodiversity and   Ecosystem    Services‘ Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services also found that a quarter of species on Earth already face the threat of extinction, and that global ecosystems had declined by an average of nearly half, relative to their earliest estimated states. Continued loss of species, habitats and ecosystems also threatens all life on Earth including even human beings. People everywhere rely on wildlife and biodiversity- based resources to meet needs, from food, to fuel, medicines, housing, and clothing. Millions of people also rely on nature as the source of their livelihoods and economic opportunities.

Even as we celebrated World Animals Day along with WWD, it is rather sardonic that they are being treated just as animals and not even as living beings. And this can be gauged from the fact that over 5500 species of amphibians, mammals, reptiles and birds are openly bought and sold to meet the ‘inhuman’ humans not only for food but also luxury items and pets.

According to scientists’ analysis of global wildlife trade, some 5580 terrestrial vertebrate species are traded- a number that is alarmingly about 50 per cent higher than earlier estimates over the years. A study published in the US research journal Science last month says South America, Central and Southeast Africa, Southeast Asia and more disturbingly, the Himalayas are the hubs of this trade which   is   only    flourishing. To cap it all, using global databases maintained by conservation science agencies, the researchers have also identified up to 3000 additional species that could well be at risk of future commoditization based on their similarities with currently traded species. Seen purely in the context of India, the situation is rather grim as

there are at least ten animal species that one can still spot here before they go extinct for one reason or the other. Some of them are Asiatic Lions, Bengal Tigers, Snow Leopards, One horned  Rhinos   and   Nilgiri   Tahr to name a few. This is despite the fact that the number of some of these animals like tigers, lions and rhinos are rising for the time.

When Law is an Ass

The main Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 of India was thought to be game-changing legislation. But it has failed at least in Eastern Himalayas and other tribal areas as it was enforced uniformly across the country where hunting is prevalent from ages. But at the same time hunting in these areas is seasonal, sustainable and very limited.

East India alone is home to around 145 tribal communities and is rich in biodiversity. While hunting is part of the culture in this region, it is largely subsistence hunting. In other words, people consume what they hunt and certainly not for pleasure or game unlike in some other parts of the country. And usually, hunting in the wild, or forests, is community driven, where the prey is shared by the entire village. This is more or less practiced in all tribal communities of India including in Western and Northern Himalayas. Again, wild meat is not a daily practice. It is usually When Law is an Ass an important offering at festivals, weddings and to honour their ancestors. Their diet primarily consists of locally grown vegetables, fruits and grains. Hunting is only during the off-farming season that hunter groups venture into the forest for a few days before winter.

Generally, it is called “mela sikar”. The North East tribal communities have also in place strict regulations for hunting that are controlled by village elders. They depend upon their knowledge of the local biodiversity to efficiently manage the natural resources. This tradition has managed to effectively preserve the rich biodiversity of the region over the ages.

But without going through the ground realities conservationists consider hunting to be the main cause for decimation of wild animals and birds. In fact, this was the bedrock on which the WLPA 1972 banned all forms of hunting across the country.
Conservation biologist Anirban Datta-Roy describes in his study the key role of the customary elders who enforce strict regulations on various aspects of hunting, trapping, and other forms of natural resource extraction. They also act on cues from their natural surroundings, modifying their hunting and fishing activities if it appeared to be impacting their resource availability. “Such an elaborate system of natural resource management and human-nature relationship,” says Datta- Roy, “contradicts the image of the reckless hunter that appears in popular perception.”

The story of hunting in the North East is much more complex than the simple act of killing a leopard or other wild animal for cash or barter, writes Ambika Aiyadurai, an anthropologist at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, in a study. Set against this backdrop, she writes is the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which executed a generic writ against hunting of scheduled wildlife (those animals listed under this Act). In some cases, she notes, there is very little awareness that this Act exists. “In most cases, enforcement of the letter and spirit of this Act is not practically possible as several members of resident communities find hunting to be culturally acceptable,” she concludes.

Another serious loophole lies in a 2020 wildlife law called the Voluntary Disclosure Scheme of the Ministry. Ostensibly this act too aimed at protecting wildlife and controlling the growing market of exotic animals in India. This law allowed Indians to declare the possession of exotic wild species without any documentation before March 15, 2021. But whether they are kept as pets or used as food is a different matter as, experts say, the voluntary disclosure clause may have allowed the owners of exotic species to declare animals which mostly have been acquired illegally.

It’s an open secret that smugglers in the wet markets of neighbouring South East (SE) Asian countries and the massive wet meat market in Wuhan in China are using the North East and adjoining North Bengal as an active transit route to supply endangered wildlife to mainland India. The forest department has often seized and rescued endangered Gibbons, Chimpanzees, Orangutans and even Kangaroos species recently. According to Home Ministry’s available data Indian security agencies have arrested nearly 4,000 people, 1175 people in three years ending 2019 along the Bangladesh border alone with regard to smuggling into the country exotic animals and birds. 

But these figures don’t justify the whole picture because for every contraband seized there are tens of consignments whi pass by undetected into India as there is no law governing the possession, trade and breeding of exotic animals. Unfortunately, improved infrastructure, including
better connectivity by road and a thriving market across the border in China and Southeast Asia have given rise to poaching for trade, which is quite different from subsistence hunting.

Even in the heart of the national capital there is a widespread market of wild animals and birds. You name it, you will get it at a price. The entire market is running in the name of selling exotic species like love birds under the very nose of wildlife authorities including police. Similar open markets are there in most towns big or small on the same pretext with the connivance of police.

Experts of this field say despite being a signatory to the CITES or Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora since 1976, India is still to extend robust legal protection to exotic animals including those listed in the CITES appendices. About 35000 species are protected under CITES. Researchers pointed out that the sea routes connected to the SE Asian nations are also being used to cater to the growing demand of exotic wildlife.

Few Success Stories

This year’s report has tracked 32,000 species populations of 5,230 species, with 838 species and over 11,000 new populations added. There has been a significant increase in the number of fish species (481) that have been added to the Living Planet Report. Projects like the recent cheetah translocation are therefore good in preservation of species, and India has seen success. Similar success stories are there for Project Tiger, or (projects for) the one-horned rhino and lions,” WWF India secretary-general Ravi Singh said. “There is an umbrella effect on all other species living in that habitat due to conservation of these species.” Besides the Government, local people and NGOs have also come up with ways to save wildlife like the Bishnois in Rajasthan protecting Black Bucks.

Source: Himalayan News Chronicle