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Kochi: India enacted its Wild Life (Protection) Act, or WLPA, 50 years ago as its principal law to protect and conserve its wildlife. In December 2021, the Union environment ministry announced a plan to amend this Act in ways “welcome” and “positive” as well as in others that experts say could remove protections for scores of animal, bird, plant and insect species and endangering yet others, while rolling out unscientific or populist measures in the country.
The WLPA prohibits people from hunting wildlife, provides legal safeguards for different species based on their threat status, regulates trade and commerce in wild species, imposes penalties for wildlife-related crimes and specifies the terms to declare protected areas.
The Act has been amended several times, in 1982, 1986, 1991, 1993, 2002, 2006 and 2013.
The proposed amendment is likely the most expansive so far in scope: it covers more areas of legislation, from trade in wild species to permitting filmmaking in protected areas and controlling the spread of invasive species.
First, the good news.
The Bill increases penalties for wildlife crimes. For example, offences that attracted a fine of Rs 25,000 now attract Rs 1 lakh. There’s a new and separate chapter on regulating species involved in international trade according to the CITES treaty.
Specifically, the Bill prohibits possessing, trading and breeding species without prior permissions from CITES authorities.
India became party to CITES in 1976, but activities that help the country abide by CITES’s provisions were worked into the WLPA only in the 2013 amendment. So the Mumbai-based Wildlife Conservation Trust called the proposed Bill a “promising first step” but also one that needed tweaks for more seamless implementation.
The Bill also recognises threats that invasive alien species pose. These species aren’t native to the country; when they’re introduced to an ecosystem that hasn’t evolved to deal with this life-form, they can quickly degrade it to their advantage. An infamous example is the weed called mesquite.
Many expert teams that wrote to the Standing Committee on the Bill have called this a “welcome” and “appreciated” change.
However, the addition is imperfect: the Bill doesn’t include regional invasive species – some of which may be native to the country but invasive in some parts. For example, the spotted deer, or chital, is native to India but is invasive in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
“The invasive species definition should include two categories – Invasive Alien Species and Invasive Native Species – to restrict the spread of Indian species with known invasive properties within their range and beyond,” research fellow Deepa Padmar, of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, wrote in her assessment.
Now, the bad news.
As it stands, the WLPA contains six Schedules, or lists, at the end of the Act that describe the protections or management actions applicable to different species (the basis for classification isn’t included).
For example, Schedule I species enjoy the highest protection, such as tigers and great Indian bustards. And wildlife crimes associated with these species attract the highest penalties. Schedule V, on the other hand, lists species classified as ‘vermin’. The Act doesn’t define what vermin are but says that this includes animals that can be hunted. And according to the WLPA, the Centre can, by notification, declare any wild animal other than those specified in Schedule I, and some in Schedule II, as ‘vermin’.
The proposed amendment could change this. The amendment Bill has no separate Schedule for species the Act classifies as ‘vermin’, so the Centre can directly notify such species and open them up to be hunted – including some of the species currently in Schedule II.
According to comments the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy sent to the Standing Committee, this change could potentially affect at least 41 species of mammals, 864 birds, 17 reptiles and amphibians and 58 insects. And this is one of ecologists’ and legal experts’ main concerns.
Schedule II includes species that are relatively common but whose populations are declining. One of them, for example, is the striped hyena, listed as being ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN Red List.
The Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, and the Biodiversity Collaborative wrote in a letter to the Standing Committee that it’s troubling that the Bill continues the idea of ‘vermin’, and its colonial roots. Legal researchers Malavika Parthasarathy and Apoorva wrote in The Wire Science in 2020 that the concept of ‘vermin’ also violates Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection before the law and extends the right of life to animals.
Yet if the Bill is passed, ‘vermin’ will prevail, more dangerous this time because the label – and the corresponding threat of being hunted – could be applied to many more species.
ATREE also wrote that there should be a transparent and accountable process, based on ecological and social evidence, to identify such species and specify the duration and area in which they can be hunted – and these species need to be regularly monitored lest they’re over-hunted.
The Bill also proposes changes to the Schedules. Foremost, it reduces the number of Schedules from six to four, to “rationalise” the lists. But the two main substitute Schedules – replete with spelling mistakes in species names – that will specify the protected species are incomplete. Many species that are currently in the Act are simply missing, with no rationale for why they have been removed.
T.R. Shankar Raman, a senior scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Bengaluru, told The Wire Science that at least 446 bird species in India, including many endangered species, and hundreds of other plant and animal species that deserve protection through Schedules I to III are absent from the amended Schedules.
“We are very concerned that there is no clear process or criteria for the notification of species as protected species in Schedules I to III, or as ‘vermin’, or invasive alien species,” Raman wrote in an email. “Scientific inputs and wide consultations should guide the listing (or delisting) of species – it should not be arbitrarily done through notification by the Centre.”
Authorities could use the absence of species from a Schedule in the Act to push through ‘development’ projects without having to tiptoe around the species’ habitats. This is especially true for Schedule I species, Raman said.
For example, the Nicobar imperial pigeon is endemic to the Nicobar islands – and is one of the 446 bird species left out of the proposed Bill, according to NCF. As a Schedule IV species, killing this bird – for any reason, even by accident – is illegal under the current Act. The proposed Bill however excludes it from the Schedules entirely, leaving it vulnerable to the mega-project the Centre has planned for the islands.
Toothless state boards
The second big problem is that the Bill will render the existing ‘State Boards for Wildlife’ defunct, the Delhi-based Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) wrote in its assessment.
The State Boards of Wildlife currently manage the conservation and protection of wildlife at the state level. The state chief minister sits atop the board and is supported by 20+ members, including of the state legislature, NGOs, conservationists and representatives of the state forest departments and tribal welfare.
Instead, if the Bill is passed, it will set up a ‘Standing Committee’ of the State Board of Wildlife – headed by the respective state forest minister and 10 members nominated by the minister. The Standing Committee will thus be able to function with just two members – the minister and an appointed member – if need be.
Effectively, state governments will have complete control of conservation policy and over which project proposals that require the use of ‘wild areas’ are approved.
“At present the [current] State Boards, by virtue of their composition, are still able to speak in the interest of wildlife,” LIFE’s comment read. “This will no longer be the case once the Standing Committee of the State Board is constituted.”
This way of doing things is reminiscent of the state of affairs in Uttarakhand. The state is working on expanding Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport, as part of which it denotified a forested patch of the Shivalik Elephant Reserve. The move prompted widespread protests in the state. But when the Union environment ministry intervened in 2020 and asked the state government to consider alternative land for the airport, state forest officials elected to ignore the advice and continue with their plans.
To further ease the process of ‘opening’ up forested land in the state for ‘development’ work, the Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board constituted a ‘standing committee’ in June 2020. One of the committee’s members was the CEO of the Uttarakhand tourism development board.
Commercial trade in live elephants
Currently, through Sections 40 and 43, the WLPA allows people to acquire and transfer live, captive elephants only with prior approval from the state’s chief wildlife warden – and as long as it doesn’t involve commercial transactions (i.e. selling elephants).
In its third major problem, the new proposed Bill frees elephants from these Sections. As LIFE put it, the commercial sale and purchase of this endangered species will no longer be prohibited under the Act.
“As pointed out by other conservationists, this clause is prone to abuse and can severely impact elephant populations by legitimising live trade of elephants, reviving a now-dying illegal trade in wild-caught elephants, and thus negating years of successful conservation efforts,” Varun Goswami, a senior scientist and director of Conservation Initiatives (CI), a trust that works on wildlife and habitat conservation in the northeast, said in CI’s letter to the Standing Committee.
Several expert teams also said the Bill presents a good opportunity to decentralise research by making the WLPA more enabling for wildlife research. This has been a long-standing demand of the research community, as The Wire Science reported recently.
Currently, the WLPA gives permits for research as an exemption to prohibition on hunting (under Sections 9 and 12), scientists and legal experts at the Wildlife Conservation Society-India said.
“This view causes research work involving wild animals to be seen as ‘hunting’, which is an offence with penal consequences,” their letter to the Standing Committee read.
So the Bill needs to address research activities per se and not as an exception to hunting.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee chaired by Rajya Sabha member and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh is set to consider the Bill and the expert inputs, although a date hasn’t been set.