We still know very little about the wild, and still less about how to protect it. But our understanding of these subjects has evolved dramatically since the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLPA) was enacted in 1972. Consequently, a series of sporadic amendments to what originally was a legislative marvel has created much confusion.
The initiative to streamline the WLPA began with Jairam Ramesh at the helm of the environment ministry. His successor Jayanthi Natarajan tabled the amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha on 5 August. It has since been referred to a standing committee, which will accept submissions from the public until 15 September.
Some amendments are pro-people. The hunting rights of the tribes in Andaman and Nicobar islands will be protected. The Bill will recognise the local community’s right to drinking and household water and won’t bar grazing or movement of livestock inside protected forests. Creation of new sanctuaries in Scheduled Areas will require consultations with the local gram sabhas.
The Bill aims to prohibit the use of animal traps. It will check import of exotic species, protect the indigenous gene pool and include a list of animals and plants to regulate international trade under CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species). Chief Wildlife Wardens will now have to grant permits to researchers, if they meet prescribed conditions, and convey such decisions in a time-bound manner.
The existing penalties under the WLPA range from 3-7 years of imprisonment or a fine of Rs 10,000-25,000 or both. The amendments reserve the strictest penalty for trading in Schedule I animals — a jail term of seven years or longer and a fine of Rs 15 lakh (double for repeat offenders).
Hunting inside or encroaching into a tiger reserve will also merit a minimum of seven years and a fine of Rs 5-30 lakh (Rs 50 lakh or more for repeat offenders). But similar offences inside a sanctuary or a national park land will attract lesser punishment — five years and a fine of Rs 5- 25 lakh (Rs 30 lakh for repeat offenders).
The punishment for hunting will be less severe than trading. Tribal hunters, often victims of their circumstances, are routinely lured by trading syndicates. So, hunting Schedule I animals will be punishable with a jail term of 5-7 years and a fine of Rs 1-25 lakh (Rs 5-50 lakh for repeat offenders). In all cases, a repeat offender will get a minimum of seven years. Trading in less-protected species will attract 3-5 years and a fine of Rs 1-3 lakh.
Another amendment seeks to punish offenders who breach any term of a licence or permit, with imprisonment of up to three years and fine of Rs 25,000. Repeat offenders will attract 3-5 years and a minimum fine of Rs 50,000. Clearly, the target here is the tourist, photographer, documentary filmmaker and researcher.
While it is necessary to rein in the unruly and unscrupulous — tourists who jump routes to chase animals, photographers who destroy rare nests, researchers who offer tours of their field sites for a fee — such offences can always be tackled under the regular provisions against trespassing, destruction, etc. On the other hand, the lopsided new clause can send a researcher or filmmaker to jail if he/she refuses to overlook something inconvenient, particularly outside the stated purpose and subject of his/her research or film.
There are quite a few grey areas in the Bill that misses three key opportunities. In Section 32 — no use of chemicals, explosives or any other substances or equipment inside sanctuaries — the amendments should explicitly add ‘polythene’ that chokes water courses and herbivores alike. The Bill may yet consider specifying stringent penalties for violation of conditions set by the National Board for Wildlife as mitigation measures while clearing development projects.
As our wilderness keeps getting rapidly fragmented, the word ‘corridor’ occurs only once in the existing WLPA. Instead of mourning the loss of connectivity wherever earthmovers roar, conservationists may push for a legal definition and provision for notifying wildlife corridors to defend a few key ones realistically.