Parliament passes Wildlife Bill: Questions remain about elephants, wildlife

The Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill 2022, which was passed by Rajya Sabha on Thursday, has invited control on two major issues: the exemption made to allow the transfer of captive elephants, and the sweeping authority given to the Center to declare species as vermin. Lok Sabha approved the bill in August.

The jumbo quiz

The legal dilemma over the status of the elephant – both an endangered wild species and a prized domestic animal – has long persisted.

In 1897 the Elephant Preservation Act prohibited the killing or capture of wild elephants except in self-defence or to protect property and crops, or under a permit issued by the district collector.

In 1927, the Indian Forest Act listed the elephant as ‘cattle’, and prescribed the highest fine of Rs 10 for each seized jumbo – in comparison, a cow attracted a fine of Re 1, and a camel of Rs 2.

The Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLPA), 1972, identified the elephant, along with the bull, camel, donkey, horse and mule, as a “vehicle”. Given the highest legal protection in 1977, the elephant is the only animal in WLPA’s Schedule-I that can still be legally owned – by way of inheritance or gift.

Turn back the clock

In 2003, Article 3 of the WLPA prohibited trade in all captured wildlife and any (non-commercial) transboundary transfer without the consent of the relevant chief wildlife warden.

The WLPA (Amendment) Bill 2021 proposed an exception to section 43: ‚ÄúThis section does not apply to the transfer or transportation of a live elephant by a person holding a certificate of ownership, where such person has prior consent received from the State Government on the fulfillment of such conditions as prescribed by the Government.”

Along with conservation and animal welfare groups, the Parliamentary Standing Committee headed by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh objected to the blanket exemption, recommending that it be limited to temple elephants kept for religious purposes.

Under pressure, the government amended the exemption, but worded the amended clause vaguely to allow the “transfer or transport of a captive elephant for a religious or other purpose by a person holding a valid certificate of ownership … subject to such conditions and conditions, if possible, are prescribed by the Government”.emphasis added)

Loophole or relief

Critics point out that the commercial transfer ban only drove the live elephant trade underground, as traders switched to commercial deals or gift deeds to circumvent the 2003 amendment. The broad scope of “any other purpose” in the current amendment, they say, will empower elephant traffickers, put wild populations at greater risk of capture and defeat the purpose of WLPA.

A objection is that the 2003 amendment has not benefited captive elephants who suffer if their owners do not bear the expenses of their maintenance, especially in the post-Covid scenario, and allowing such owners to legally transfer their elephants bringing to those who want and can take care of the animals is a welcome step.

Conflict of vermin

The damage due to crop depression by wild animals has never been calculated. But for lakhs of farmers around the many protected forests, it is the biggest challenge to existence, not to mention the occasional threat to life.

Since 1972, the WLPA has identified a few species – fruit bats, common crows and rats – as vermin or nuisance animals that spread disease or destroy crops and are not protected under the Act. The killing of animals outside this list was permitted under two conditions:

  • Under Section 62 of WLPA, given sufficient reasons, any species other than those having the highest legal protection (such as tiger and elephant, but not wild boar or nilgai) can be declared as a vermin in a particular place for a particular time become

  • Under Section 11 of WLPA, the chief wildlife officer can authorize the killing of an animal, regardless of its status in the schedules, if it becomes “dangerous to human life”.

The state governments took the decisions under section 62 until 1991 when an amendment handed these powers over to the Centre. The aim was probably to limit the possibility of eliminating a large number of animals at species level as vermin. Under Section 11, states could issue only locally and for a few animals.

Sweeping and selective

However, in recent years, the Center has started using its powers under Section 62 to issue sweeping orders declaring species as vermin at even state levels, often without a credible scientific assessment.

For example, nilgais were declared vermin in 20 districts in Bihar for a year in 2015. Shimla municipality in 2019.

The issue has since entered the realm of centre-state politics. Since last year, Kerala’s requests to declare wild perch as vermin have been repeatedly rejected by the Environment Ministry.

That is why the House was divided on the issue, with members from Kerala highlighting the increasing number of wild boar attacks in the state, and others seeking a more tempered approach in declaring a species as a vermin.

To hit or not

Wildlife is focused on crops, either because there is not enough food in forests or because fields offer more food alternatives, such as sugar cane or corn.

In the first scenario, stopping their access to non-forest foods through electric fences, etc. In addition, used locally, devices such as electric fencing move animals to the next village and simply move conflict. Widely used, it turns forests into fenced zoos without enough food.

In the second scenario, measures such as creating buffer zones so that crops are not on the edge of the forest, or promoting non-edible crops, can discourage but not eliminate conflict. Effective compensation schemes work where the damage is reasonable. Elsewhere, the only option is to reduce the number of common crop raiders.

The lack of a legal option has not stopped farmers from secretly hunting ‘problem’ animals. Such unregulated culling encourages a practice that often extends to poaching of non-pest, rare and endangered species.

Sweeping orders that allow large-scale culling at the species level also promote the same trigger-happy culture. There is no alternative to a site-specific, time-bound approach based on scientific evaluation.

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