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Saturday, March 8, 2014
*This is the second of a two-part series on the human-animal conflict in the Andaman group of islands in India.
- Midway through Wildlife Week in India, celebrations have been marred by news that 29.8 kilogrammes of ivory, worth 336,800 dollars, had been seized on the Andaman Trunk Road.
“Chances are that the feral elephants in Northern Andamans fell prey to poachers,” Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle in Port Blair, told IPS.
Though they are a highly protected species under India’s Wildlife Protection Act, elephants on the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI), which lie at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, are deprived of all protection, reflecting a serious lack of political will for wildlife conservation.
Now, spotted deer introduced by the British as a source of protein in the Islanders’ diet, and feral elephants introduced for logging, are in danger of being culled because they are considered an ‘invasive species’.
The issue has generated hot debate across the country, with scientists, conservationists and researchers deeply divided over how to tackle the problem.
Chief Wildlife Warden for the Forest Department, Dr. Shashikumar, told IPS, “There is no credible estimate of the size of the cheetal (spotted deer) population on the Islands. Today, about 86 of the 130 elephants that were shipped to the Islands for logging are domesticated and are mainly in the custody of the Forest Department and Corporation.”
When logging stopped, 40 of the elephants were abandoned by their captors on Interview Island, located 925 kilometres south-east of Kolkata, and 10 elephants were dumped in the jungles of North Andamans, 20 nautical miles southwest of the Myanmar Coco Islands.
According to a recent study by the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning (FERAL), a Pondicherry-based NGO, “The presence of introduced herbivores has led to the local disappearance of a few species and is likely to affect species richness over large parts of the island chain, if not controlled.”
“Forest Department sources have maintained that cheetal are causing habitat damage. However, the type of damage being caused and the likely consequences on the forest (ecosystem) have not been quantified,” according to the FERAL study.
This argument that invasive creatures are decimating the fragile island ecosystem has found support among people like Dr. K. Sivakumar, scientist in Endangered Species Management at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, who told IPS, “It is neither recommended nor feasible to introduce any kind of birth control programmes for cheetal in the Andamans. Elimination is the only option.”He also dismissed the idea of relocating the deer, claiming they are far too sensitive to survive capture and relocation.
On the other hand, “Trying a birth control programme for elephants, as they are a smaller population, is recommended,” Sivakumar explained.
“Animal welfare advisors must also offer solutions. No budgets are made available for removal of cheetal in a humane manner, or for that matter feral dogs in the Andamans, which threaten to wipe out endangered species,” Bittu Sahgal, editor of the Sanctuary Asia Magazine in Mumbai, told IPS.
Culling sets dangerous precedents: elephants and cheetal are both listed as endangered animals under the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) of 1972; they enjoy legal protection from hunting in most parts of India.
But Shashikumar explained to IPS that WPA regulations do not protect ‘invasive species’ in the Islands, and cheetal are often hunted by the local communities. “As and when hunting cases are detected action has been taken,” he said, adding that poachers exploit the lax laws, wantonly killing deer.
The lack of legal protection for elephants on the Islands possibly explains the cache of ivory seized in the Andamans earlier this week.
“The Wildlife (Protection) Act does not include the term ‘culling’. Only the Federal Government has the power to declare a wild animal ‘vermin’ for a specified area, through a notification valid for a specified period only,” said Praveen Bhargav, a Wildlife First trustee.
Conservationists around India are strongly against culling.
“Culling is the most disgusting and detrimental way to contain wild animals. (Instead), the elephants can be brought back to the mainland as soon as rescue centres are put up. The deer should be left in place. It is easy to introduce some form of birth control or see which predators were native to the islands before being wiped out,” wildlife activist and Member of Parliament, Maneka Gandhi, told IPS in New Delhi.
“Although expensive, given the small population of elephants it is logistically feasible to capture and translocate elephants to the mainland but there might be a certain level of injury during translocation,” said Sivakumar.
Humans must account for introducing species, and ensure their survival. If it was possible to ship the animals to the Islands in the first place, then shipping them back should be logically plausible, conservationists argue.