Minister's decision on wild animals sparks controversy

The Times of India News Service

MUMBAI: Maharashtra forest minister Surupsinh Naik has sent shockwaves through local environmental and wildlife conservation circles with his unilateral decision on Thursday to allow the killing of wild boar and nilgai which were suspected of damaging crops in the state.

Naik, who was unavailable for comment, is said to have taken this decision during a hastily-convened Maharashtra State Wildlife Advisory Board meeting on Thursday afternoon. This, despite stiff opposition from all the NGO-representative members of the board, including Debi Goenka of the Bombay Environment Action Group, Bittu Sahgal, conservationist, Jagdish Punetha of the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) India, Mahindra Kothari of WWF-Bombay and Kishore Rithe of the Amravati Conservation Society.

It may be recalled that these and other conservationists had suggested six months ago to the state government that it should commission the Bombay Natural History Society to undertake a field project to study this problem and come up with ecologically suitable options to reduce its intensity. However, the government had not bothered to act on their advice. ``Instead, it has now chosen to take this regressive step,'' said one activist.

At the fiery meeting, these board members insisted that the chief wildlife warden be asked instead to exercise his powers under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 to destroy specific animals only after establishing beyond doubt that they were the ones causing the damage. However, our views were water off a duck's back,'' Bittu Sahgal told this newspaper.

The man-animal conflict is a very serious issue, which cannot possibly be eliminated in toto. It is a critical matter for farmers who lose their valuable crops, sometimes overnight,'' remarked Sahgal and Punetha. Significantly, the notice and agenda for the controversial item reached members only about 24 hours before the scheduled time of the meeting, which the forest minister stated was called because we have promised our MLAs that we will issue favourable orders to allow the killing of animals that destroy the crops of poor farmers who are suffering.''

Faced with stiff opposition from all the NGO members, chief wildlife warden B Mazumdar called the meeting to an abrupt close, stating that ``a 1993 gazette notification empowers the state government to take unilateral action, without consulting the Centre, said one member.

The conservationists persisted, impressing upon the minister and the chief wildlife warden that their ill-advised step would lead to a largescale slaughter of prey species. This would only aggravate the man-animal conflict as carnivores such as tigers, leopards, wolves and jackals deprived of food would turn to domestic livestock for survival.

However, the minister responded by saying that they had received several demands to allow the shooting of wolves but were only giving permission to shoot wild boar and nilgai,'' said Debi Goenka. Forest secretary Nand Lal insisted that farmers will have to take permission from the DFO before killing animals. However, I must point out that the forest department is unable even to prevent routine poaching and has no mechanisms whatsoever to check the abuse that is bound to follow this decision, he emphasised.