Here’s my problem with the culling debate

The need of the hour is good practical science and wildlife scientists who can help find solutions


A file photo of rhesus macaque monkeys. Photo: AFP
A file photo of rhesus macaque monkeys. Photo: AFP

For the past 10 days, the culling of ‘problem’ animals and two central ministers sparring on the subject has dominated the news. Union minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi locked horns with environment minister Prakash Javadekar over permissions given by his ministry to Himachal Pradesh to kill rhesus macaques and to Bihar to eliminate nilgais, or blue bulls, that were in conflict with humans.

Much has been written for and against the subject of culling of wild animals. But here is my problem with the arguments on both sides.

First, not one person has come forward to provide any solutions. Fact is, every year, hundreds of thousands of farmers across the country are at the mercy of crop-raiding animals from nilgai to wild boar to rhesus monkeys with little recourse to any protective measures that work. Thousands of acres of agricultural fields are damaged or destroyed; manpower is deployed to be on ‘crop watch’ through the night and lakhs of rupees spent to keep the animals out.

Secondly, and naively, the problem of crop raiding by nilgai, macaques and wild boar has been blamed on deforestation, when the two are unrelated.

The real problem for these above-mentioned species is that India’s wildlife laws focus on animals that live in protected areas with little protection for species found outside. This myopic view of ecology takes away the complex processes by which species make their way across different landscapes, quite often human-dominated ones.

So, the problem of conflict has always been real; it just hasn’t occupied centre stage because of the ‘tolerant attitude’ of the farming community towards wild animals that seems to be changing.

The third problem is that while the animal welfare lobby has been quick to cry foul, there has been an ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community. This is where the wildlife scientists must step up to the challenge. The truth is that most wildlife biologists would rather spend their time doing pure science, that is studying species deep in the forest and learning new aspects of their behaviour. There is no charm in ‘managing’ human-animal problems. It’s also true that since most of the animals listed are not endangered, most conservation biologists have little or no concern in saving them.

The good news is that this trend is changing. Ananda Kumar, a biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, through a simple and timely warning system like a cellphone alert, has been able to reduce deaths occurring due to human-elephant conflict in the town of Valparai in Tamil Nadu.

Vidya Athreya has worked with leopards living in human-dominated landscapes in Maharashtra and developed a detailed protocol on capture and release. Her research, in fact, showed that the policy of removing leopards was contributing to conflict.

Is it right for us to express uneasiness with the Hindutva agenda of saving the cow, but draw on the same sentiments when referring to the need for saving the nilgai? Many animal activists have used the religious connotation of the antelope’s name as a strategy to save it from being killed.

It would serve us well to learn from the examples of other countries around the world struggling with similar issues. Take the UK, for instance, where more than 50,000 badgers are to be culled as part of the government’s efforts to protect cattle against tuberculosis. And yet, when asked, the British government has little or no evidence to show that the badger culls have helped reduce incidence of bovine tuberculosis.

Again, if we look at Cape Town in South Africa, baboons, much like the rhesus monkeys, have been wreaking havoc, getting into people’s homes and attacking children, and there is again a policy that allows for their widespread culling. The first point of learning is that there is a strict protocol laid down to decide whether an animal should be culled or not. Here, primatologist Paula Pebsworth’s research shows that culling of high-ranking males was actually counter-productive as it was these males who could keep the population in check.

In the case of Australia, where culling is used commonly as a management strategy, it has worked because the landscape is an island, so other species cannot move in.

These are important lessons for India to examine and study before introducing culling as a wildlife management policy.

The need of the hour is good practical science and wildlife scientists who can help find solutions. In a country of jugaad, surely there must be hundreds of innovations possible to address these problems of large-scale human-wildlife conflict? Let’s discuss those solutions.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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