India’s wildlife culls: Are all wild animals potential ‘vermin’?
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India’s wildlife culls: Are all wild animals potential ‘vermin’?

THERE is a battle going on in India between farmers and ecologists. Those dying on the frontlines are wild animals — boars, nilgai antelopes, monkeys… any animal considered “vermin” by state governments and approved for culling by India’s environment ministry. Even peacocks, often used as a symbol for the country, are being considered by the state of Goa for classification as vermin.

Where’s the science?

I recently wrote about humans’ complex relationship with one large wild animal — the elephant. I highlighted cases in South Asia, particularly in India, where elephants are sacred and beloved, but at the same time in direct competition with people for food and land.

When property and human lives are at stake, passions run high, usually to the detriment of the animal. As I pointed out, elephants kill an estimated 300 people per year in India. But how many elephants do people kill?

What will be the costs to the state of biodiversity where these animals are culled? The problem seems to be that it is the agriculture industry, not biologists, which is calling the shots.

Naturally, as humans encroach more and more into the habitats of large wild animals, there will be problems. However, most of these problems are encountered by the wildlife, not the farmers. On a global scale, it is estimated that some 565 species of mammals may become extinct over the next 50 years due to agriculture encroachment into their habitats.

Sreedhar Ramamurthi, an earth scientist and management trustee at New Delhi-based non-profit Environics Trust, is quoted in Quartz regarding the issue of culling:

This is a ridiculous way of dealing with wildlife. There have been no scientific studies to understand their population growth or on how they are a hindrance to farmers or human life.

Well-known politician, environmentalist and current Minister of Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, also expressed dismay at the current moves towards animal culling in India, saying, “I don’t understand this lust for killing.”

Leniency for man-eaters?

The recent deaths of three people from a lion — or lions — near Gir Sanctuary in the western state of Gujarat has resulted in the “arrest” of 18 lions. Yet in this case, the “guilty” lion will not be killed, but instead sentenced to life in a zoo.

At the same time, news of an estimated 100 lion pregnancies in the same sanctuary has been heralded as good news in an article by the Indian Express. This would significantly increase the number of lions in the sanctuary, which has a current population estimated to be 523 individuals. However, another article in the same publication quotes the former chief wildlife warden of Gujarat, who states that Gir cannot supports such a large population of lions:

A lion pride requires, on an average, 40-50 sq km of area as its territory. Gir can accommodate only 270 lions. Therefore, new prides have made their homes outside the protected forest. We had floated the idea of developing the region as a Greater Gir Area.

—Govind Patel, ex chief wildlife warden for Gujarat and ex National Board for Wildlife member

Elbow room, free will and an uncertain future

Clearly, space is a problem. The human population of India is still growing steadily and is projected to overtake China as the most populous country in the world by 2030. While urbanization and industrialization accelerate, agriculture expansion is resulting in deforestation and all that comes along with it, such as shrinking wildlife habitats and climate change.

Studies show that human actions can trigger “cascading effects” resulting in biodiversity loss and a host of other problems. While I’d never argue that animal lives are more important than human lives, what we do to the environment inevitably affects us as a species. So, yes, listen to the farmers, but do not ignore the experts.

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