Through the ages, hunting of wild animals by humans has caused the extinction of several species of wildlife. In India too, hunting has been recognised as a major factor in past declines of wildlife and has prompted the enactment of a strong legislation—the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Yet, hunting is, even today, of widespread occurrence. Despite the serious threat it poses to wildlife, its very existence is often denied, and there have been few attempts at to understand the impact of hunting on wildlife populations.
It is useful to recognise two distinct variants of hunting in India. The first, termed ‘market hunting’, refers to the well-organised hunting of selected species for high-value products such as ivory, rhino-horn and tiger-bone. The second, termed ‘local hunting’, is a ubiquitous, loosely organised activity, driven by local tradition, sport, or demand for wild meat. Local hunting is a far more pervasive threat to Indian wildlife, since it targets a wider variety of species, and is carried out by far greater numbers of people than indulge in market hunting.
Our surveys to assess the extent and impacts of local hunting were conducted during 1996-97 in and around two wildlife reserves, in Dakshina Kannada and Kodagu districts of Karnataka State, where several species of mammals occur, many of them endangered.
In Dakshina Kannada, our study found that most hunters (68 %) hunted for the pot, while 48 % also cited the thrill of sport as a reason. Eighty-eight percent of them regarded wild meat as non-essential to their diet. Nearly all had access to alternative sources of animal protein: 98% of hunters raised cattle for milk, while 93% raised poultry. Although literacy levels here are high, 18% of hunters were unaware of the legal restrictions on hunting.
While most wild meat is consumed locally, hunters increasingly cater to fast-growing markets for wild meat in nearby urban centres. For instance, meat from an adult wild pig sells at around Rs 2500 (approximately, 50 % of the average annual per capita income of the hunters) in large towns nearby. In addition, villagers affected in crop depredation by wild animals are also likely to indulge in retaliatory hunting in neighbouring forests.
There has also been a rampant erosion of social taboos that are often believed to moderate hunting. We recorded hunting by Brahmins and Jains, both groups that shun violence against animals and are considered strictly vegetarian; Muslims hunting the tabooed wild pig; and Hindus hunting the venerated bonnet macaque even within sacred forests (naagabana).
In Dakshina Kannada, there is a telling absence of large mammals within the reserve even where vast stretches of relatively intact forest exist. This suggests a direct persecution of animals through hunting: 75 % of all hunters identified hunting as the most important reason for the low occurrence of large mammals here.
In Kodagu, we identified two ecologically-comparable moist forest sites within the reserve—Nalkeri and Arkeri—each of similar area, but differing vastly with respect to pressures of hunting.
Our interviews with hunters around Arkeri and Nalkeri confirmed the differences we had expected to see between the two sites: besides poor wildlife protection efforts in the past, other factors responsible for the higher levels of hunting at Arkeri included fewer patrolling roads and vehicles, poorer communication facilities, and an ill-equipped armoury, slack patrolling schedules, absence of permanent anti-poaching camps, and highly-dissected boundaries, which made border patrolling difficult.
Law enforcement efforts also seemed ineffective: none of the 62 hunters interviewed reported encounters with forest department staff when on hunts and none was ever apprehended. Moreover, 40% of the hunters even reported deriving assistance from staff while hunting.
Although there is a school of thought advocating the sustainable use of wild areas and wildlife, the absence of regulatory mechanisms makes this unviable in the socially and economically diverse context of India. While it is necessary to look for equitable and morally agreeable ways of minimising hunting, our study demonstrates that, for now, there explicit protection is absolutely essential for the continued survival of India’s wildlife.