Editorial: Wildlife Worries

The numbers might be healthy, but what about wildlife’s health

Deers stumble into villages along the edge of forests, diseased and suffering from open sores. Sometimes, dogs set upon the sick animal and bring her down and at other times people try to care for the animal and make its final hours as comfortable as possible. Elsewhere, farmers are reporting raids by wild boars even in North Sikkim. Even the wilds along Tsomgo now have wild boar populations competing with the wildlife there for the scare resources. Parts of West and South Sikkim have been grappling with increased incidence of wild boar raids for a while now and these packs are clearly now expanding to new terrains. Both incidents are playing out due to half-cock policy interventions. It is “proper” to ban hunting, but even the half-educated know that forest dwellers and traditional hunting are allowed even when a strict hunting ban is in place. Not so in Sikkim. What should actually have been a strictly enforced ban on recreational hunting has instead banned this traditional activity altogether from Sikkim. Traditional hunting, apart from providing the much-needed protein supplement for communities living along forest belts, also played the important role of culling the sick and the weak from animal herds before they infected the rest. Accept it, no matter how good a hunter someone is, they are only good enough to bring down the weakest of the pack. Rural pragmatism also ensured that such hunting was also regulated and almost honorable in the manner it was carried out and had worked a fine arrangement to maintain the balance. But then Gangtok banned it for all of Sikkim (except the privileged for whom the laws don’t apply equally). What this has resulted in is an unbalanced growth. And nature does not like that. Also, in the case of wild boars, it is not just farms that are being dug up, but even bigger, but solitary, animals like the bears being chased out of their traditional haunts. Okay, this last one is speculative, but it is not as far out as some might argue. The point being made is that while it is wonderful that Sikkim’s wildlife population is supposedly growing, it is important now to find out whether it is also healthier and whether some informed decisions need to be made to ensure that better health returns to the wildlife. About hunting… Has anyone ever heard of anyone reasonably well-heeled ever get picked up for poaching in Sikkim. And yes, since even traditional hunting practices are no longer allowed in Sikkim, all hunting is poaching irrespective of those with big caliber guns and searchlights on their vehicles might say. For far too long, Sikkim has heard of only lay villagers getting rounded up for wildlife offences and the only confiscations have been primitive guns and even more primitive traps. Hunting by the well-connected was an open secret and conveniently ignored much to Sikkim’s disadvantage. And now, a legislation has been passed which allows people to kill wildlife if it strays into private land holdings. Yes, trespassing animals can now be shot or poisoned. It is another matter that no one has bothered to address the trespass into forest lands which has erased the buffer zones which separated wildlife from humans here. And now, let’s return to the wildlife and even turn the initial observation on its head. Even though few people like to admit it, with hardly any predators around, and given the fact that nearly 50% of the land in Sikkim is officially recorded as being under forest cover, the wildlife density, or at least its visibility, is not half teeming as the laws and maps would lead one to believe. The biodiversity hotspot that Sikkim is introduced as, should manifest itself in more obvious displays, one would expect. While the loss of contiguous forest belts to human encroachment could have resulted in some depletion in wildlife numbers, it is unfortunate that even areas where wildlife was abundant even till recent times, have fewer animals left. These numbers, as mentioned earlier, should have multiplied given the anti-hunting laws and absence of predators. It is also possible that the animals have been driven deeper into the forests, but even that needs to be authenticated because Sikkim is a very small state and the forests here run only so deep before they start touching a habitation on the other side. By a lay thumb rule, sightings should have been much more frequent. And, to end with the argument this piece began with - let us have a proper wildlife census commissioned for Sikkim and along with it, also a proper, scientific study on how well the wildlife is keeping.