The Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Bill 2022, who was adopted by Rajya Sabha Thursday invited scrutiny on two major issues: the exemption granted to allow the transfer of elephants into captivity and the broad powers given to the Center to declare the species as vermin. Lok Sabha approved the bill in August.
The giant enigma
The legal dilemma over the status of the elephant – both an endangered wildlife species and a prized domestic animal – has long persisted.
In 1897 the Elephant Preservation Act made it illegal to kill or capture wild elephants except in self-defence or to protect property and crops, or under a license issued by the District Collector.
In 1927, the Indian Forest Act listed elephant as ‘livestock’, prescribing the highest fine of Rs 10 for each seized jumbo – in comparison, a cow attracted a fine of Re 1 and a camel Rs 2.
The Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLPA), 1972, identified the elephant, along with the ox, camel, donkey, horse and mule, as a “vehicle”. Receiving the highest legal protection in 1977, the elephant is the only WLPA Schedule I animal that can still be legally owned – by inheritance or gift.
Go back in time
In 2003, Section 3 of the WLPA prohibited the trade in all captive wildlife species and any (non-commercial) transfer across state lines without the permission of the relevant chief wildlife custodian.
The WLPA (Amendment) Bill 2021 proposed an exception to Section 43: “This section does not apply to the transfer or transportation of a live elephant by a person having a certificate of ownership, where that person has obtained the prior permission of the State Government on compliance with such conditions as may be prescribed by the Central Government”.
Along with animal conservation and welfare groups, the Parliamentary Standing Committee led by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh opposed the blanket exemption and recommended that it be limited to temple elephants kept for religious purposes.
Under pressure, the government amended the exemption, but drafted the amended clause vaguely to allow “the transfer or transportation of an elephant in captivity for religious or other purposes by a person having a certificate of valid ownership…subject to such terms and conditions as may be prescribed by the Central Government”. (added emphasis)
Loophole or relief
Critics point out that the commercial transfer ban has only driven the trade in live elephants underground, as traders have turned to dressing trade deals as acts of gift to circumvent the 2003 amendment The broad scope of ‘any other purpose’ in the current amendment, they say, will strengthen elephant traders, put wild populations at greater risk of capture and defeats the very purpose of the WLPA.
A contrary view is that the 2003 amendment did not benefit captive elephants who suffer when their owners do not bear the expense of their upkeep, especially in the post-Covid scenario, and allowed such owners to legally transfer their elephants to those who want and are able. caring for animals is a welcome step.
The Vermin Conflict
Damage due to crop depredation by wild animals has never been calculated. But for thousands of farmers around the many protected forests, it’s the biggest challenge to livelihoods, let alone the occasional threat to life.
Since 1972, the WLPA has identified a few species – fruit bats, common crows and rats – as vermin or pests that spread disease or destroy crops and are not protected by law. Killing animals outside of this list was permitted in two circumstances:
*Under Section 62 of the WLPA, on sufficient grounds, any species other than those enjoying the highest legal protection (such as tiger and elephant but not wild boar or nilgai) may be declared vermin in a certain place for a certain time.
*Under Section 11 of the WLPA, the Chief Wildlife Warden may authorize the killing of an animal, regardless of its status in the Appendices, if it becomes “dangerous to human life” .
State governments made decisions under Section 62 until 1991, when an amendment gave these powers to the Center. The purpose was apparently to restrict the possibility of eliminating large numbers of animals to the species level as vermin. Under Article 11, states could only issue cull permits locally and for a few animals.
Scanning and Selective
In recent years, however, the Center has begun to use its Section 62 powers to issue sweeping orders declaring species vermin even at the state level, often without any credible scientific assessment.
For example, Nilgais were declared as vermin in 20 districts of Bihar for a year in 2015. The Center cited “large-scale destruction of agriculture” as the reason for declaring monkeys (rhesus macaque) as vermin in shimla town in 2019.
The issue has since entered the realm of central state policy. Since last year, Kerala’s requests to declare wild boars as vermin have been repeatedly rejected by the Ministry of Environment.
This is why the House was split on the issue, with Kerala members pointing to the growing number of wild boar attacks in the state, and others seeking a more tempered approach to declaring a species a vermin.
Kill or not
Wildlife targets crops either because there is not enough food in the forests or because the fields offer more nutritious alternatives like sugar cane or corn.
In the first scenario, preventing their access to non-forest foods through electric fences, etc. can starve them and reduce the population over time. Also, locally used devices such as electric fences divert animals to the neighboring village and only shift the conflict. Used extensively, it turns forests into fenced zoos without enough food.
In the second scenario, measures such as the creation of buffer zones so that crops are not located at the forest edge, or the promotion of non-edible crops, can discourage but not eliminate conflicts. Effective compensation schemes work where damages are reasonable. Elsewhere, the only option is to reduce the number of common crop pests.
The lack of a legal option has not stopped farmers from secretly hunting “problematic” animals. Such unregulated killing encourages a practice that often extends to poaching of non-harmful, rare and endangered species.
Sweep orders that enable large-scale species-level slaughter also promote the same easy-trigger culture. There is no alternative to a site-specific, time-bound approach based on scientific assessment.