A tribal elder in southern India, a Bollywood actor, a young villager. One uses an ingenious piece of bent wire, the second a high-powered rifle, and the last, a jaw trap. The first makes a meal of his catch, the second carries home the antlers as trophy and the third sells the skin and bones to a trader.
Hunting is perhaps one of the oldest ways humans have interacted with wildlife. Over time, as we honed this ancient skill, we systematically drove several animals to extinction. Mastodons, woolly mammoths and moas (giant, flightless birds that lived in New Zealand until the 15th century), were all given the final shove by human hunters, unaided by guns or gunpowder. With modern weapons in hand, we did even better. Passenger pigeons, whose massive flocks once darkened American skies, were shot by the thousands in the presumption that they could never become extinct. But they did.
Closer home, animals like the wolf and tiger teeter on the brink. Their once vast ranges are now mere fragments but still, neither they nor their prey are safe from poison, snare or shotgun. Even without killing the last individual, hunting can reduce animal numbers to a point where extinction becomes inevitable. Such pervasive hunting has taken a heavy toll on wildlife, leaving behind silent, empty forests.
The modern bullet has replaced the ancient arrow in many parts of the world, but continues to be shot for much the same reasons. In some of India’s remote regions, people still depend on wild meat for protein. In many tribal rituals of the northeast, offerings of wild meat are as much de rigueur as coconuts in a south Indian temple. In parts of northwestern India, a boy gains entry into manhood when he has killed his first animal. A bludgeoned leopard could save a villager many sleepless nights and a few goats. But there are newer trends as well: growing global markets for animal body parts have driven hunting to unprecedented levels.
It is no surprise then that hunting remains widespread across India despite stringent laws. When those laws came into force in 1972, an activity with complex social and cultural roots became illegal almost overnight. People then had two choices: give up hunting or pursue it clandestinely. In some places, the law combined with new forms of recreation to draw people away from hunting, but neither has been able to stop it completely. In many places in south India, the widespread availability of affordable farmed meat, notably broiler chicken, has greatly reduced the hunting of wildlife for the pot. But even in such places, wildlife continue to be threatened by strong cultural preferences for wild meat.
Although we know the problem has social, economic and cultural roots, we still treat its eradication entirely as a law-enforcement exercise. Further, this task is placed in the hands of ill-equipped, poorly-motivated and sometimes corrupt forest department personnel who don’t always make the best guardians of the law.
While the law surely needs strong enforcement, it also needs solid public support on the ground. Such support can be created only when the socioeconomic roots of hunting are addressed in a culturally sensitive manner. Kaziranga National Park, for instance, may enforce the law by shooting suspected poachers at sight. In contrast, Namdapha Tiger Reserve has won support for the same law by addressing a traditional hunting community’s needs in education, healthcare and livelihood. The difference in their approach may hold the key to eliminating hunting: the simplicity of a single solution is seductive, but context-specific solutions built on an understanding of local ecology and society perhaps stand a better chance.
– M D Madhusudan and Pavithra Sankaran. An edited version of this article appeared in the Times of India, 30 April 2010.