‘We can’t afford to hunt’

The growing human population, rapid industrialisation, extensive mining and other factors have endangered wildlife and their habitat. Now, conserving the animals and preserving their habitat have become imperative. For this daunting task, participation of people is a must and this can be possible through proper awareness. Anu P James, who came to Khasi Hills last year, talks to
Sunday Shillong about conservation, hunting, why it is important to save the wildlife and her experiences.

On hunting and hunting during lockdown…
The wildlife crime cases we commonly encounter include hunting and poaching animals, illegal entry into wildlife sanctuary, illegal possession of wildlife articles including trophies, meat, poisoning, trapping and netting of aquatic species inside wildlife sanctuary etc.
During the lockdown period we have seen more wildlife crime on one hand and on the other hand increased wildlife rescues. We have seen that during this period people have ventured out more into the forests and many reports have come about the hunting and poaching. We have also come across several photos/videos related to wildlife crime being circulated on social media during this period, of which some of these were taken out of place, context and time, like some old videos and those taking place elsewhere. These are in fact cases of fake news spread for sensationalism.
We have booked cases with respect to hunting and poaching of Sambar Deer, Civet Cat, Barking deer, Himalayan black bear, illegal entry into forest with fire arms, fishing inside the wildlife sanctuary etc during the lockdown period.
As per The Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, animals are listed into different Schedules; from Schedules I to VI with varied degree of protection. Hunting and poaching of animals, including possession of animal articles included in any schedules of the Act attract punishment. Among these animals belonging to the Schedule I or Part II of Schedule II are accorded the highest degree of protection and any offence with respect to these animals attract maximum punishment of imprisonment for a term not less than three years but may extent to seven years and also with fine up to twenty five thousand rupees.
Some of the animals found in our state which are included in the highest protection category includes Clouded Leopard, Elephant, Capped Langur, Pangolin, Gaur, Golden Cat, Giant squirrel, Leopard, Leopard cat, Slow loris, Civet Cat, Himalayan Black Bear, Common Fox, Jackal, Otters, Serow, Monitor Lizard, Pythons, Cobras, Hawks, Horn bills, Hill Myna, Vultures, Grey Jungle fowl etc. Other protected animals in our area include barking deer, sambar deer, porcupines, birds like owls, cranes, parakeets, pigeons, doves, starlings, wood peckers, frogs, turtles, tortoises and various butterflies and moths. This is just an indicative list and not an exhaustive list.

How to stop hunting?
The law with respect to wildlife is very clear. So, as a matter of fact, no animals listed in the Schedules of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 shall be subjected to attempt to hunting. On detection of any cases of hunting, the Forest Department books the cases and law takes its own course as per punishments prescribed in the Act.
The second part is spreading awareness. For this, we have been always conducting awareness programmers involving the community members and village headman, spreading awareness through various channels like FM radio, newspapers, distribution of posters, pamphlets etc and celebrating special occasions like Wildlife Week, World Environment Day, World Sparrow Day, World Wetland Day etc with school children to create awareness about our forests and wildlife and ways to collectively protect and preserve our rich natural heritage.
Finally, common citizens of the State have to cooperate in preventing wildlife crime by deterring others from attempting to do so and informing the department about occurrence of such crime in their vicinity.

How does a layman know which animal to rescue?
When it comes to rescue, it is very important to apply the basic understanding and let common sense prevail as there is no hard and fast rule. Each case of rescue can be different. So, for clarity, the following are the cases that actually require rescue of wild animals:
Those animals that are injured and require special care for survival, if they are found outside the forest and other wildlife habitats.
Those animals, which are orphaned and are too young to survive on their own, and
Those animals, which have strayed into human dominated habitats and which are dangerous for humans or for animals themselves, at times.
Wildlife rescue does not include removing animals, including young ones, from forest areas/natural habitats. For instance we have seen a number of cases where “rescues” of young leopard cat kittens have come up. Here, we have to understand the animal behavior. Leopard cats have been found to give birth near the human habitations as they feel safer. So, it is perfectly normal to find them near our homes. These kittens should not be rescued unless they are orphaned. Also, we are increasingly seeing “rescue” of turtles and tortoises. These amphibians are naturally found in our habitat including the forests, the agricultural lands, the paddy field, in our rivers and streams, that is practically everywhere. So, if they “stray” in and come into our homes it is not surprising. We just need to put them back in the natural safe areas nearby.Removing birds and their young ones from their nests is also not permitted and doesn’t constitute a rescue. Many birds like owls are also found to build their nests near human habitations, for instance we have “rescued” many barn owls.

The very name of the “barn owl” comes from its habit of nesting in barns, so actually all these birds can peacefully co-exist with us humans and there is no need to uproot them from their natural habitats which actually they share with us.

Wildlife rescue is an ongoing activity of the wildlife department. As we have more interface with the animals, there can be cases where we find injured, orphaned or animals that have strayed into “our” private spaces. We have always been doing this activity of rescuing the needed animals, taking care of them and then releasing back to the wild when they are fit enough. But now we have seen more such rescues being reported by media circles. One negative trend we are observing in the rescue front is that at least in some cases the rescuers are demanding rewards and is asking us straight “when are our pictures coming in newspapers/media”? This kind of trend needs to be discouraged at all cost.In the pretext of getting “name and fame” there have been cases where we have observed people taking out animals from the forests, birds from their own nests and bringing to us in the name of “rescue”. This is totally illegal and in fact is a crime amounting to hunting itself. So, it is always desirable that if any one finds any animal needing rescue to contact the wildlife department immediately and minimize human contact except in exceptional circumstances of course. We should rescue animals out of our love and duty towards wildlife as enshrined in the Fundamental Duties of the Constitution of India under Article 50 A (g) and shouldn’t be for reward or fame which defeats the whole purpose.

Between 1 and 10, how would you rate the awareness level here?
This is a difficult question to answer. We cannot tell that people are unaware completely that hunting and killing of wild animals is a crime. May be, they are unaware of what animals are in which schedules or the kind of punishment. Also, if someone says “we do not know which animal to kill”, then I would say, that is not logical also. You should not kill any animal, unless it is declared a “vermin” specifically permitted by the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state under exceptional circumstances.Also going into forest with firearms and telling that they went for herbal collection, does that too sound logical enough?
As I understand, hunting has been a part of our culture, especially in the North Eastern states and at least people still feel it’s as an activity to exhibit valor or a sense of achievement. What else does the pictures making rounds in social media of people exhibiting with their kills and posing with fire arms indicate? For me, it is a displaced sense of “false” achievement. Hunting is no more feasible as was earlier practiced, prior to the year 1972, before the enactment of the Wild Life (Protection) Act.
Now, the population of all the wild animals have drastically fallen be, it the elephants, the deer, the Hoolock Gibbons, the slow loris and even the birds. I have also seen during my field trips all across the state that shooting birds with catapult is still the main past time of our children. But the sad fact is that, we cannot no more afford it. If still these atrocities continue against our wildlife, we won’t be left with any.
Our Hoolocks, elephants and the deer will only remain a part of our folklores and will become a part of history and we will have to tell our kids the stories that such and such animals existed. This is not an exaggeration, but a fact seeing the pace of destruction of our forests and natural habitats.

How was your experience?
I would say I am very much at home in Meghalaya as in my state of Kerala. Meghalaya is a beautiful land blessed with rich natural resources, tremendous biodiversity and warm kind-hearted people. In my limited experience, I was fortunate to work along with the community in the rich primary forests and beautiful landscapes of the Nokrek National Park and the greater Nokrek Biosphere Reserve as ACF, East and West Garo Hills Wildlife Division, Tura. In Khasi Hills, we have the Nongkhyllem Wildlife Sanctuary which again is rich forest and a good wildlife habitat. Unlike in the mainland India, here in our state the land belongs to the community, so any conservation activity can only be a success when the community is empowered and takes ownership. So it is basically working with the community and facilitating them to protect our natural resources collectively. Though we have many cases of hunting and poaching, the majority of the people still has that connection with nature and has been protecting the forests. Meghalaya is a state having one of the highest numbers of sacred groves and community reserves and our people have themselves been protecting these forests from time immemorial. So the opportunities are there in spite of the innumerable challenges. These challenges are the ones that motivate us to perform our duty of protecting the wildlife and its habitats. I look forward on working with the community for conservation.

On challenges and strategy…
On the challenges front, if I were to list, it will be numerous. Some of the main challenges are fragmentation of wildlife habitats with human population pressure, degradation in quality of forests, Loss of habitat to mining and other resource extraction, illegal wildlife trade, shortening Jhum cycles and expansion of Jhum Areas, reducing tolerance level towards wild animals etc. With respect to infrastructure and presence of forest personnel we don’t have presence everywhere.
Due to prevailing land tenure system, only 5.10 per cent of geographical area of the state comes directly under the control of the State Forest Department in the form of Reserve Forests, Protected Forests, National Parks , Wildlife Sanctuaries and Parks and Garden and rest of the forest areas belong to communities, clan and private people and District Councils. So, any strategy of conservation has to have the participation of the people from all segments.
When it comes to wildlife conservation we have to conserve the habitat of animals. If we lose our prime forests and other wildlife habitats permanently, there can be even no chance of recovery of wildlife population and many animals might be pushed to permanent extinction itself. Irrespective of the all complexities, we need to ensure landscape level management and ensure that there is proper interlinking of habitats so that the gene flow of animals is not compromised. For this, there is a requirement to enrich and recover some of the very fragmented habitats and step up the level of protection.Also, being ever vigilant and being on our guard 24 x 7 is the part and parcel of our duty. We are strengthening our protection on field by patrolling the Wildlife Sanctuary and the sensitive wildlife habitats. Side by side, we are creating awareness among the people about the importance of forests and wildlife and their own important role in protection.

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