On 13 April, a 42-day forest department search operation to catch a tiger in Lalgarh, Jhargram, in West Bengal ended in shock and disappointment. The tiger was found speared to death next to its partially eaten kill, a wild boar. This was around the time when these areas of south Bengal were in the midst of a month-long “Shikar Utsav" (hunting festival). This year, the “Shikar Utsav" is said to have been held from 30 March-3 May.

Forest officials tried different techniques to track the tiger—from drones to live traps to tranquillizing teams— as it roamed a 30 sq. km swathe of forest stretching across Jhargram, West Midnapore and Bankura. But local hunters got to it first, making a mockery of wildlife protection laws.

A number of verified photographs and videos depicting the gruesome hunts have been circulating in the media since last month. The videos show hundreds of men from tribal and non-tribal communities, in denim pants, T-shirts and golf caps, in drunken revelry, hunting birds and animals in large groups with lances, axes, knives, bows and arrows.

While environmental laws forbid the killing of wild animals, the Lalgarh tiger, as it’s now referred to, put the spotlight on the ritualistic mass hunting in districts like West Midnapore, East Midnapore, Jhargram, Howrah, Purulia, Bankura and Birbhum, and the helplessness of the forest department.

Every year, such hunting occurs on a mass scale over 45 days. Sometimes, the dates are chosen randomly by tribal communities, according to Human & Environment Alliance League (HEAL), a local NGO working on wildlife conservation. NGOs like HEAL and Spoar (Society for Protecting Ophiofauna & Animal Rights) are dreading the next round of hunting, scheduled during Falharini Kali Pujo, in East and West Midnapore, Howrah, Birbhum, Bankura and Jhargram.

In an order on Thursday, the Calcutta High Court directed the superintendent of police and district magistrates of Howrah and East Midnapore, and the railway department to assist the forest department and take immediate steps to stop ‘Shikar Utsav’ during Falharini Kali Pujo from 12-16 May.

Hunting happens throughout the year in rural Bengal in the name of tradition, exposing the helplessness of the government, though critics would have you believe this is due to vote-bank politics. The Lalgarh tiger is a classic example. “Traditional or ritualistic hunting of wildlife is prohibited under Indian law. Ironically, these criminal offences occurring in plain sight of authorities are excused in the name of tradition," says Meghna Banerjee, a Kolkata-based lawyer and environmental campaigner. The “Shikar Utsav" has divided civil society, with one group championing tradition and forest hunting rights.

It is generally perceived that the objectives of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or forest rights Act, clash. However, both prohibit traditional hunting by tribal (or any) communities.

Members of tribal communities, and their supporters, question the intent of environmental laws forced upon them by city people and so-called “animal lovers" who are not attuned to their way of life and livelihood. They see these as impediments in their centuries-old tribal customs and traditions.

In older times, Adivasi hunter-gatherers lived in small groups and hunted for subsistence, a world completely removed from the present. Today, hunters in numbers ranging from 3,000-10,000 travel in groups by train or hire vehicles to congregate in forest and non-forest areas during these festivals. NGOs as well as the state forest department report that groups of people from neighbouring Jharkhand and Odisha joined this year’s Shikar Utsav. Sources said not everyone was from the Adivasi community.

Many of the species that are hunted are protected under Schedule I and II of the Wildlife (Protection) Act. These include monitor lizards, the jungle cat, fishing cat, Indian palm civet, Indian grey mongoose, golden jackal, Indian wolf, common rat snake, and numerous species of birds.

An ancient custom seems to have morphed into a bloodthirsty sport, a periodic massacre of wildlife. Shocking incidents of skinning and cooking game meat on railway platforms, even kills being transported in trains for trade, have been documented over the last two years. All this could culminate, one day, in the local extinction of many species of endangered fauna.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

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