Earlier in July 2019, the centre’s announced a plan to dealing with the increasing man-animal conflict in the country: a sterilisation plan for four species of wild animals using immuno-contraception.
Immuno-contraception is a process where female animals are shot with chemical darts which that mobilise the animal’s immune system to prevent fertilization for a period of around two years. The four species that are planned to be part of this population management program, first approved in 2017, are elephants, wild boars, monkeys and nilgais (blue bulls). At present however, elephants have been exempted from the program as there is a Supreme Court injunction against sterilising elephants.
While human-animal conflict is a major issue, independent conservationists say that the way to address it is to restore the vanishing wildlife corridors across the country rather than introduce this sterilisation program. What is further worrying them is that fact that the government-run Wildlife Institute of India (WII), that is carrying out the program along with the National Institute of Immunology (NII), has been opaque on aspects like assessment and expected impact of the program, even when activists filed an RTI last month.
The RTI did reveal though that the program is set to start in 2019 in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Karnataka, with the pilot happening in Uttarakhand.
Activists have started an online petition, urging people to oppose the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change's immuno-contraception program without assessing the impact on biodiversity. You can access the petition here.
Focus on restoring wildlife habitats
Nimisha Agarwal, a campaigner at Jhatkaa, a non-profit opposing the move, said, “The human-wildlife conflict has been a result of loss of wildlife habitat. Instead of focusing on the conservation of their natural habitats, the government wants to eliminate animals from the wild.”
She added, “The government’s decision has come without assessing the long-term impact on biodiversity, especially sterilisation of keystone species like elephants, which have been considered nature’s guardians for centuries. We, humans, are responsible for the loss of habitat of wild animals. Let us not first take their homes and then their lives just for our convenience.”
Experts are skeptical about immune-contraception being effective, and say that it could just be optics to show that the government is doing something.
Director of Centre for Wildlife Studies and well-regarded conservationist Ullas Karanatah, said, “Capture and chemical immobilization of free-ranging wild animals, which is required for effective contraception to work, are difficult and risky operations. I do not think this will work to solve the man-animal conflict problem on the scale it is occurring. It will be just a token gesture to show that the government is doing something.”
No impact assessment?
Activists further allege the centre-run Wildlife Institute of India, which is spearheading the program, has not conducted its impact assessment. They add that WII has been unresponsive or opaque to queries made on the specifics of the project, even when asked through formal Right to Information (RTI) applications.
They say that WII officials are not revealing how an animal from the targeted species will be marked after it has been shot. They fear the same animal can be shot multiple times.
Ullas Karanatah suggests that the administration needs to look at better solutions, which also involve people – it’s the man-animal conflict after all.
“Each circumstance, context and species is different and different solutions have to be applied. They may include an array of approaches including the relocation of villages, changing of crop patterns, barriers to animal entry, scaring off or removal of endangered species. Simply bandying around buzzwords like immuno-contraception will not solve the complex problem. Contraception has even failed to control stray dog numbers in cities after spending crores of rupees,” he said.
Another noted conservation biologist Sanjay Gubbi warned the use of immuno-contraception against elephants, but felt that a trial of the same for rhesus macaque and wild pig can be carried out. Further, there is little clarity on whether the elephant population needs to be controlled in the first place, given that there is little comprehensive data on their numbers.
“The elephant is an endangered species; hence, we need to be a bit more cautious in our approach. Importantly, merely using immuno-contraceptives may not be the solution,” Sanjay said.
He added that the root of the issue – the loss, fragmentation and degradation of elephant habitats – is what also needs to be halted. In many areas, the conflict arises because of the easy availability of food and water in human habitations compared to the wild, which lure animals like elephants, that in turn causes conflicts. “The current conflict could also be due to management decisions taken years earlier. Hence the issue of habitat modification needs to be reviewed carefully,” Sanjay said.
Speaking to TNM, Soumitra Dasgupta, Inspector General of Forest (Wildlife) said the immuno-sterilisation method was chosen solely to combat the issue of increasing human-wildlife conflict. He said that the process started last year, and it will be two years before we know whether it has been effective.
“In India, since we have a different culture and traditions, we cannot cull and kill animals. We have started this program knowing that this may not have a noticeable impact today or tomorrow. But it will definitely give results in the future,” he said.
When asked about the concerns raised by activists, he declined to respond or allay their fears.
One of the four states that have been picked for this programme includes Karnataka.
The state head of the Forest Department, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Punnati Sridhar told TNM that they are willing to carry out the program in the state, but only for captive elephants and species of monkeys living in and around cities. “For captive elephants, there is a shortage of space and lack of funds. For monkeys, in urban areas, there is no other feasible way to contain man-animal conflict. The contraception works for two years and then after two years it gets reversed.”
He added, “We do not want to touch elephants in the jungle or any other animals in the wild.”