We speak to forest officers in Kerala and other states to understand the extent of snaring. In different parts of the country, people use various kinds of snares.

Pregnant elephants killing not the first Cruel practice of snaring rampant in forestsPhoto courtesy Killy Aneesh/Facebook
news Wildlife Thursday, June 04, 2020 - 16:22

The killing of a pregnant elephant in Kerala’s forests, after she most likely bit into a fruit stuffed with chemical explosives, has sparked collective outrage in the country. It also has, once again, shifted the spotlight to ‘snaring’ - an old practice in India’s forest ranges and one that kills dozens of wild animals every year.  

Set up to hunt down small animals, snares have been termed the ‘silent killers’ of India’s forests. Much has also been written about wire-traps, made using clutch cables of bikes or construction wires, which have killed several big cats over the years in India. In 2019, a Times of India report noted that 24 tigers and 110 leopards have quietly choked to death in our forests over the last eight years, after getting caught in wire snares possibly set up for wild boar or deer.

But on Monday, when the elephant’s killing in the Palakkad forest range was reported, explosive snares in the form of firecrackers and pressure-based country bombs came into focus.

TNM spoke to three experts to understand more about these snares.  

“These are made using gunpowder or other chemical explosives and glass shards. They are tightly packed to build pressure and then camouflaged with either fruit, chicken intestines, jaggery or other food eaten by wild boars” a Kerala forest department official who wished to be unnamed confirmed to TNM. The official added that these crude bombs are pressure based, explaining why it burst inside the elephant’s mouth, ripping her tongue and breaking her jaw.

According to forest department officials investigating the case, such snares known as ‘panni padakam’ (pig crackers) in Malayalam are commonly used to hunt down wild boars, usually for their meat. In other cases, farmers who wish to ward off wild boar attacks on their land also set up similar traps, although illegal. 

“There is also the practice of spreading poison over fruit and placing them for the animals to eat. However, what is commonly used are fruit stuffed with explosives,” many officials added.  

While the snares are usually set up for small game, it is not uncommon for  bigger animals, such as wild cats or elephants, to accidentally bite into them and injure themselves. In April 2020, a wild elephant death was reported in the forests of Punalur in Kollam division, says Surendra Kumar IFS, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden of Kerala. “It was unfortunate because the elephant had started away from its herd and died right in front of me during a routine check. When we examined it, we found injury marks in its mouth and suspect that an explosive could have caused the death,” Surendra Kumar told Mirror Now. 

Speaking to TNM, the Range officer of Pathanapuram range in Punalur, Kollam, where the wild elephant was found said that the 10-year-old animal was female.

There was an injury in her mouth and hence, there is a suspicion that the cause of death could have been due to an explosive, he stated. “We have registered an unnatural death case and have sent the wound samples for clinical analysis, only after which conclusive evidence can be given.” (Though a few reports mentioned that the animal was pregnant, the officer confirmed that this was not true.)

Also read: Two tigers die after consuming poisoned boar in Tamil Nadu

Similar cases have been reported in the neighbouring Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu, where these snare explosives have a different name. “Vedi kai (explosive fruit) they call it, as it is stuffed with gun powder and other chemicals that burst,” says N Sadiq Ali, an elephant conservationist and Founder of Wildlife and Nature Conservation Trust in Tamil Nadu. During the winter months in the Nilgiris, residents also set up snares to hunt rabbits for meat, but this common practice can sometimes turn into a death trap for bigger animals, adds D Guruswamy, District Forest Officer of Nilgiri Division.

Explaining how snaring is done, Sadiq says most times these explosive snares are deviously placed on the walking trail of the animal, so that it picks it up and chews on it.

And when the cracker or bomb explodes in the animal’s mouth, the glass shards in it can pierce deep into the muscles or intestines and even settle there, reducing the animal’s chances of survival. 

“Usually these traps are set for rabbits, barking deer or Indian muntjac and wild boars. But we see leopards, tigers and sloth bears accidentally falling prey to these snares and dying a gory death,” he says.  

According to Guruswamy, in February 2020, a young tiger aged 12-16 months in the Nilgiris was trapped in a snare, but was rescued unhurt. A similar case of a leopard was reported in the Nilgiris Forest Division in November 2019. However, the animal was not lucky enough to survive. 

 “I have personally come across three cases of Nilgiri Gaurs (Indian Bison) whose front jaws and mouths were damaged after they accidentally bit into vedi kai,” Sadiq adds.  

In Uttarakhand’s forests, a similar incident of a crude bomb explosion killing a striped hyena was reported this year. IFS officer Akash Kumar Verma tweeted that despite trying, the forest department could not save the hyena whose ‘jaw was severed’. 

“Wildlife often succumb painfully to such crude bombs crypted with food. The hyena was treated for three days for serious burns and a broken mandible (lower jawbone), kept on a liquid diet, comfortable bedding, etc- but its fate was sealed. In a sense, we were easing its pain as it inched towards death.

Not just cruel, also an offence 

Following reports of the elephant's death, several social media users have argued that the elephant was not intentionally fed the explosive snare, and that ‘it is common practice’ by farmers who wish to protect their cultivated lands from wild boar attacks.

However, according to forest department officials in Kerala, snaring is an offence considered equivalent to hunting under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. “Regardless of whether an animal was trapped/injured or dead, placing a snare in an attempt to trap animals is an offence under the law,” the officials stated.  

Further, if the trapped animal came under Schedule 1 or part 2 of Schedule 2 of the Wildlife Protection Act, the accused could attract a punishment of up to seven years. 

“The forest department has taken several measures to ensure wild boars or other animals do not spoil cultivated lands. Most of the private land adjoining forests have been fenced by the department, we have dug trenches in areas where wild boar attacks are common. In Pathanamthitta’s Ranni forest division, special orders were also passed to allow forest department officials to gun down wild boars, if it is established that the animal was attacking cultivated land and border settlements,” the officials say. 

 Uttarakhand too permits its residents, especially people living in the periphery of forests to gun down wild boars to secure their standing crop from its menace. This was done four years ago after the Department of Forests and the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change notified the wild boar as ‘vermin’ for a year. Although the state’s forest department had suggested notifying Nilgai (blue bull) too as vermin, the union ministry refused this proposal, according to reports. Several environmental conservations labelled the move as unscientific, the notification allowed the state’s people to cull wild boars (except inside forest areas) without securing prior permission and without attracting punishment.  

At the same, the forest department in various states has been undertaking extensive measures to detect and diffuse or dismantle snares in the forest areas.  

In February 2017, the Karnataka Forest Department launched a drive, after two back-to-back tiger deaths, in which 121 snares were eliminated within 24 hours around the Nagarhole National Park boundary in Mysuru.  

“We have more number of wire snares in this part of Karnataka. While they are set to trap wild boars, occasionally carnivorous animals too get entangled in these snares. Deliberate electrocution deaths of animals (using fences) have also been reported a few times. In the fringe areas of the park and around an 8 km radius, Karnataka forest department officials undertake snare combing operations everywhere fortnight. Sometimes they rope in NGO volunteers to help, when there is a shortage of staff,” former Nagarhole National Park Director HC Kantharaju told TNM.  

Nagarhole National Park and Tiger Reserve is spread out across 642 square kilometers of forest land in Kodagu and Mysuru districts. Kantharaju adds that while shooting of animals is common in the fringe areas of the Kodagu side of the national park, hardly any crude bomb or firecracker deaths and injuries of animals were reported here. 

In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, forest departments conduct weekly patrolling for combing out snares.

“We have around 3500 frontline officers patrolling 11,500 square kilometres of forests in Kerala. Out of these, 2600 are deep forest officers who detect snares and eliminate them. There is a shortage of staff on the frontlines and that also contributes to such incidents. But sometimes, it is just plain difficult to identify snares - especially the ones hidden inside fruit and other items,” they add.

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