As India celebrated “Wildlife Week” between 2nd and 8th of October, 2020, the continuing trend of impetus being given to the UN World Wildlife Day theme of “sustaining all lives on earth” was witnessed. The theme is significant as it demonstrates how interconnected and interdependent our sustenance is, with that of the wildlife. Also, it subtly underlines a shift in the Indian wildlife conservation strategies, from being tiger centric to being more comprehensive to include various other plant and animal species.
This shift was reflected in the union budget 2020-21, where the Project Tiger received 14% lower allocation compared to the last year while Project Elephant received 17% higher allocation. Almost simultaneously, the Government announced Project Dolphin and Project Lion, to diversify such protection schemes.
Special attention is also being given to “Species Recovery Programmes” for hitherto neglected species like the Snow Leopard, Hangul, Nilgiri Tahr, Dugongs, the Asian Wild Buffalo, Nicobar Megapode, Jerdon’s Courser, etc. as well as critically endangered species like the Northern River Terrapin, Clouded Leopard, Arabian Sea Humpback Whale and the Red Panda.
Being in line with the National Wildlife Action Plan 2017-2031, the clear focus now is on holistic biodiversity conservation of all plant and animal life. However, even with this new awakening, there is a herculean task to achieve.
Climate change and global warming are threatening mass extinction and now is a critical window to stop this. In this race against time, there are numerous challenges. The illegal wildlife trade through our porous borders with China and Nepal is booming with horn, skin, scales, meat, skull bones of insects to mammals being smuggled through the borders for medicinal and ornamental purposes.
Veerappan may be dead, but elephant poaching and ivory trade continue to be a menace, specifically in southern India. There are also many takers for exotic pets like turtles, butterflies, snakes, parakeets, etc. and there are extensive international markets for the same.
Wildlife crimes are at an all-time high and the National Crime Record Bureau has registered 618 new cases of wildlife crimes in 2019 alone. However, what is disheartening is the low conviction rate of 2% of such crimes. As wildlife crimes often happen at borders, the cooperation of paramilitary officials, customs, coast guards along with forest department officials is the key. Due to lack of proper training and coordination, several accused walk free.
Furthermore, these accused exploit the loopholes in the Wildlife Act to wriggle out. The state is required to prove the crime beyond reasonable doubt putting a huge onus on them, which is not supplemented by a proper collection of evidence. Furthermore, the accused often uses the “Self-Defence” excuse to escape a penalty.
Moreover, the man-animal conflict has become very pronounced, leading to many untimely animal deaths. The unfortunate death of the pregnant elephant in Kerala this year after consuming a cracker filled fruit is a case in point. Elephants often see themselves at loggerheads with plantation owners and agriculturists, as they venture out into human domains due to their shrinking habitats. The high tension wires and sagging power cables are also responsible for electrocuting unsuspecting and innocent animals, specifically elephants.
Separately, monkeys have become a menace in various cities and towns as they move towards settlements in search of easy food and water. Different state governments have been dealing with them in different ways from translocating to sterilisation to now treating them as vermin and allowing them to be culled down.
The Government has realised the above-mentioned ground issues and is in the process of resolving each of them. For instance, a committee has been constituted to amend the Wildlife Act, which has recently submitted its report.
Furthermore, the Biodiversity Act is increasingly used to supplement other statutes to bring perpetrators to books. The Government has also issued an advisory stating that all exotic pet trade registrations need to be made in the wildlife warden and the customs officials are not being burdened with the full onus in such cases.