For Conservation to Work, We Need to Rescue Crocodiles From Animal Rights

We can't base decisions on the ideology of a vocal minority that espouses a narrow, urban-centric view of conservation.

This is the second of a two-part essay on the conservation of saltwater crocodiles in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Read the first part here.

Imagine reading the following report:

To sensitise people to nature, urban conservationists have devised a programme called ‘Cuddle a crocodile’. This programme takes youngsters from their urban homes to remote areas so youth can commune with these reptiles. They wade and swim in the creeks until they encounter crocs and when they do, they try to get to know them. After all, each one has a different personality. Perhaps one will turn out to be friendly. So far, several people have gone missing and a few limbs have been lost, although no animals were harmed in this production.

This scheme doesn’t exist. But to hear many animal rights activists speak about the crocodile conflict in the Andamans, it might seem that we are only a step or two away from it.

Crocodile conflict has emerged as a major issue in the Andaman Islands, with several locals and a few tourists attacked and killed in the last few years. There have been debates and meetings about possible solutions. Some want the animals delisted from Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act so they can be killed. Others want to build enormous ‘rehabilitation’ facilities to house ‘rescued’ crocodiles. Even others want the crocodiles to be left alone so they can die of old age, while humans are moved, fenced out, etc.

Are these views rooted in conservation approaches or in animal rights paradigms? And are the two compatible?

Rights and wrongs

Animal rights is the idea that non-human animals are entitled to the possession of their lives, i.e. each individual matters. However, conservation is defined as an ‘ethic of resource use, allocation and protection’ with a focus on the natural world, fisheries and biodiversity. The sustenance of biological diversity and nature as a whole is implied, as well as different approaches. Many scholars have pointed out that the two paradigms are different in their philosophy, actions and consequences.

The animal rights movement has resulted in many anomalies in our conservation and management policies. Spotted deer, among the most abundant deer in the country, are an invasive species on the Andaman Islands. However, they feature on Schedule 3 of the Act and can’t be culled, despite the damage they have caused to native flora and fauna. This is absurd.

There are, however, a few states that have declared nilgai, wild boar or macaques as vermin or agricultural pests so they may be culled as required. Animal rights groups have protested this, perhaps unaware of the damage and distress they cause to the people living alongside these animals. The stress caused by sharing space with species like elephants has been shown to have a range of impacts on people. In addition to deaths, its effects are chronic and debilitating. This can’t be understood unless one experiences it over the long-term.

It appears, from their arguments, that animal rights groups consider the occasional death of a nameless, faceless individual in some far flung place in the Andamans banal. Is it that uncivil human trespassers are better off dead. In such contexts, the frequently demanded alternative to conflict is to move people out, order them to reduce interactions with crocodiles or even live with conflict because, after all, just a few people are killed each year. However, there are a range of human rights issues and a host of psychological, economic, historical and socio-cultural concerns associated with such arguments.

First, Paul Slovic has shown, perceptions of risk are integral to the decisions that people make. Dread and the feeling of a lack of control in extreme events can often induce societies to eliminate more animals than they would under more inclusive management arrangements. Second, apart from other adverse impacts, relocation further alienates people from nature in the long run, and narrows our cultural connections with wildlife. Third, given local communities in the Andamans were induced to settle in the islands by the Centre, we are again imposing costs on the marginalised and vulnerable who have fewer livelihood options than people on the mainland.

This is distributive justice. Why is it that our many urban habits that have far greater impact on the planet are acceptable whereas people living off the land with lower lifestyle footprints bear disproportionate costs?

Rescuing crocodiles from rights

Those trying to find ‘compassionate’ ways of resolving the problem have suggested that rescue and rehabilitation centres be established for crocodiles. It’s not entirely clear what ‘rehabilitating’ a crocodile would entail, unless it is for the exercise outlined earlier. Rescue centres for salties would be expensive and expansive. Even with tiny enclosures, such a centre would need to house hundreds of crocodiles in a short period and feed them for their entire lives. Salties, unlike mugger crocodiles, are not easy to house together. Either individually or in groups, these crocodiles will have little space. It could work as a short-term measure but what happens when the hotel is booked out? Or when you don’t like your fellow lodger?

It is also more cruel to confine one of the world’s largest reptiles and terrestrial predators in a small cell, with no hope of amnesty. It has been shown that salties are highly stressed in crowded conditions.

The crocodile specialist group carries out regular status assessments and provides guidance for conservation and management. Among other measures, they support the sustainable use of crocodiles. If a form of use, consumptive or non-consumptive, supports the conservation of a species, then the goal is served. Arguments against such use are rooted in animal rights, not in conservation.

Indigenous communities in the Nicobar Islands have a long tradition of hunting crocodiles – and as aboriginal tribes, they are allowed to. The Nicobars host a healthy population of crocodiles, despite the fact that they are consumed occasionally. The communities also remove large problem animals that are too big to ignore. It would be sanctimonious to deny them the right to pursue their entwined subsistence-and-cultural traditions. There are lessons for the Andamans here. Notably, they don’t involve large-scale culling.

One option, given the success of sustainable use and ranching programmes around world, would be to create schemes involving settler communities. A locally managed use-programme could help control populations and add small-scale incomes and cultural elements in the mix to bolster tourism. More importantly, this would make the crocodiles more valuable for the communities. It seems petty to deny them the opportunity to benefit economically from one of the few resources that are available to them.

There is a growing call for sustainable use, especially for subsistence, as the voices of the once marginalised grow to counter the urban clamour for protection. Alaska has long allowed and supported the rights of the native Inuit to hunt caribou. In a recent meeting of Pacific Islanders, local communities suggested that the subsistence hunting of green turtles to preserve their culture and to control populations resume. Only when wildlife is treated as a resource with benefits for all stakeholders, and not just as the government’s property, will we be able to get wider support for conservation.

We can’t base decisions on the ideology of a vocal minority that espouses a narrow, urban-centric view of conservation. Its proponents are usually wildlife enthusiasts and animal lovers working around protected areas and seldom paying the price of a dangerous predator living in their backyard. We must reiterate the need to find ways to work together across cultural and economic barriers to make conservation work for everyone.

Kartik Shanker works with ATREE, Dakshin Foundation and Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. M. Muralidharan works with Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore.