India is a megadiverse nation, home to over 45,000 plant species and more than 91,000 animal species. Accounting for almost 8 percent of all species recorded worldwide, there is an indispensable need to conserve especially those that face natural or anthropogenic threats. Thus, five decades ago, India meticulously drafted the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, making it the principal law to protect the wildlife of the country. It was enacted to consolidate the laws pertaining to the array of ecological and environmental resources. The Act not just safeguards wild species, but imposes penalties for any crimes associated with illegal wildlife trade and commerce. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, WLPA is the chief law that concerns any and all wildlife-related matters in India.
Over time, the Act has been amended a total of seven times in the years 1982, 1986, 1991, 1993, 2002, 2006, and 2013. Each time, the draft became stronger and more efficient, a suitable bedrock for the conservation of wildlife. Recently, in December 2021, the Union Environment Ministry announced a plan to amend this Act again, by proposing a bill. The Wildlife (Protection) Act Amendment Bill, 2021 puts forward several changes to the original Act. While the Bill had been drafted with good intention to strengthen wildlife protection and conservation efforts in India, there are concerns over the ambiguity of certain provisions in the amendment.
Throughout this article, we’ll bring to the fore some major changes that the Amendment Bill proposes.
1. Taxonomic ambiguity
In the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the inclusion of numerous wild species was done by specifying their respective groups such as “Holothurians,” “Viperidae,” etc. The Bill, however, enlists individual species with their scientific as well as common names. Although one may consider it to be a cut above, it has its own setbacks.
Each day, new species are being discovered, especially when it comes to lower taxonomic groups like invertebrates, amphibians, and reptiles. A name-wise catalog would exclude these new species and even those that still have confusing taxonomic classification. Misspelled and incorrect scientific or common names further add to the issue.
2. Streamlining Schedules
The number of Schedules has now been reduced from six to four. Categorisation has been made as follows:
- Schedule I specifies animals that receive the highest level of protection of all. It includes mammals (131), birds (112), reptiles (43), amphibians (1), fishes (26), insects (63), crabs (3), corals (388), molluscs (10), and holothurians (32). For instance, tigers (Panthera tigris), Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), etc. receive the highest protection under Schedule I.
- Schedule II mentions those animal species that receive a lesser level of protection and also includes animals those have highest protection in part 2 of schedule 2 same as schedule 1 animals. It includes mammals (41), birds (864), reptiles (12), amphibians (5), insects (58), molluscs (14), and sponges (10). Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena), Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta) are listed under this Schedule.
- Schedule III protects plants by specifying 18 plant species along with their respective Family and distribution range. To name a few, Pitcher plant, Neel kurinji, and Turmeric tree are included in this category.
- Schedule IV specifies the entire list of species that are included in the various Appendices of CITES.
This streamlining, as stated, has no clear criteria or basis of inclusion (or exclusion) of an animal from a particular Schedule. The rationale utilised to categorise these species must be scientific and consultative in nature. Lack of a distinct basis has caused the elimination of numerous species that are Endangered or endemic. This not only exposes a large fraction of India’s diversity to threats but leaves them in a situation with no legal protection.
According to an analysis, at least 446 avian species are now missing from the amended Schedules. Nicobar Imperial Pigeon, for instance, is an endemic bird found in the Nicobar Islands. The Amendment Bill, unfortunately, excludes the island’s pride from the four Schedules, leaving it vulnerable to developmental activities that may take place in the future. Moreover, many groups of invertebrates have been completely ruled out from all the Schedules such as moths, spiders, odonates, etc. The list of protected plant species also seems to be quite arbitrary. Which ultimately exposes endless plant species to natural or man-made risks.
3. Invasive Species
The Amendment Bill introduces the term ‘invasive alien species’ which refers to species that are non-native to India, whose introduction or spread may threaten or adversely impact wildlife or its habitat. Unfortunately, the mentioned definition does not align with those accepted on a wider level by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) or the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It is important that the Bill also regulates ‘invasive native species’ which are Indian species with known invasive properties. The definition of invasive species cannot be restricted to animals non-native to India, as within India also there are species that can be called invasive in different demographics or regions.
For instance, Chital deer (Axis axis) is native to the Indian mainland but would become invasive if introduced to the Indian islands. It is of utmost importance to clearly define that a species may become invasive when introduced in a non-native ecosystem. The range of an invasive species is beyond a mere geographical demarcation and depends on the ecosystem that it is a part of. Numerous species that are native to a region may pose threats to the flora and fauna beyond their native or regional range.
The WP Act does not define the term ‘vermin’. In simple language, the animals who have become a threat to the property, life, and crops are called vermin. Section 62 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, allows the Centre to declare any wild animal to be ‘vermin’, apart from those listed in the Act’s Schedule I and part II of Schedule II.
The list of animals as vermin are listed in Schedule V of the WP Act. This schedule V is set out to be deleted and now there will be no specific schedule for vermin species. Through Clause 38 of the amendment bill, it is now open to the Centre to identify and declare such problematic species for any area as Vermin. These animals will now be open to being hunted. It is unfortunate to know that there are no specific principles the Centre uses to determine whether a particular species can be declared ‘vermin’. The decision to declare any species as vermin heavily rests upon the State government’s request.
This makes numerous important species vulnerable to being announced as troublesome, thereby posing a negative impact on them. Once declared a vermin, the animal shall receive no legal protection and can be subjected to killing and trade. Many are concerned that the decision has no scientific basis whatsoever. A well-considered scientific and transparent process of evaluating and listing animals as vermin would allow a smoother implementation. Animals like Civets species, Bengal Fox, Striped Hyena, Asiatic Jackal, Andaman Wild Pig to name a few – belonging to Part 1 of Schedule II – can now be hunted in the name of being problematic.
In fact, the Amendment must specify the threats posed by feral populations of several species. Competing directly with wildlife, replacing the top carnivores, and hunting numerous ungulate species, feral dog populations severely impact the ecosystem. These incidents often take place in and around protected areas, thus exposing the wildlife to a rather novel threat. Moreover, wild species are even vulnerable to infectious diseases like rabies and canine distemper. Livestock and feral animals should be included in the Bill as problematic animals.
5. Live Elephants
The Bill exempts elephants from Section 43 (1) of the WPA which prohibits the commercial transfer of captive animal, animal article, trophy, or uncured trophy by the person holding ownership certificate, and Section 43 (2) which mandates reporting of interstate transport of animal or animal article by the holder of the ownership certificate to the Chief Wildlife Warden or authorised officer.
The Amendment, by adding a new subsection (4), states that the aforementioned Section (43) shall not apply to the transfer or transportation of any live elephant by a person having a certificate of ownership, where such person has obtained prior permission from the State government on fulfillment of such conditions as may be prescribed by the Central Government. This amendment is unclear as to the meaning of ‘prior permission of State government’ and which State government such permission must be obtained from – whether from the originating State or the State to which transfer or transport has occurred.
Despite receiving the highest level of protection in Schedule I, the Bill suggests making an exception for Asiatic Elephants. Clause 27 of the Bill proposes to permit the transfer or transport of the magnificent giants in case a person has possession of the ownership certificate. Moreover, the term “Live Elephant” has not been defined anywhere in the Act. Without a proper definition, it could mean wild elephants, poached elephants, captive elephants, and elephants bred in captivity. Thus a definition of this term is very necessary and urgently required.
While a general trade in wild animals is prohibited, a mere exception for the case of “live elephants” is a volte-face and could reverse the efforts put forth in the last five decades for elephant conservation. The proposed amendment could effectively allow the commercial sale and purchase of live elephants. The legal sanctity would pose a serious impact on the captive as well as wild populations of elephants throughout the country.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is responsible for the regulation of the trade of wild animals and plants. With an aim to reduce the threat to species survival, it was drafted at an IUCN meeting in 1963. India is a party to the CITES since 1976, which legally binds the nation to implement the principles set forth for governing wildlife trade. According to the Amendment Bill, a major addition to the regulation of international wildlife trade is made in Chapter VB.
The designation of a Management and Scientific Authorities aims to implement the provisions of the Convention and put the commitment in effect. The Authority will put the measures in action to enforce the global guidelines across India. Responsibilities such as the power of entry, search, arrest, and detention in case of illegal activity related to wildlife have been granted to the Management Authority. The Authority shall also grant permits and certificates for the trade of species listed under Schedule IV. Scientific Authorities are expected to engage in scientific research to advise and support the Management Authority while monitoring the trade of species.
7. Standing Committee of State Board for Wildlife
It is now proposed to establish a ‘standing committee’ of the State board for wildlife, to be headed by the forest minister, effectively rendering the SBWL defunct. This was the case with the National Board for Wildlife with its Standing committee doing most of the functions and the National Board for Wildlife has not met even once in the period 2014 to 2020.
The Amendment Bill instead proposes the establishment of a Standing Committee of the State Board for Wildlife. Similar to the structure and functioning of the NBWL, these committees will be responsible for monitoring on a more grassroots level. It is important that the State board for wildlife should not be rendered defunct and instead, regular meetings should be held, possibly thrice a year.
Clause 32 of the Amendment Bill seeks to enhance the minimum fine for the various offences. For instance, offences related to hunting of animals would result in the punishment with imprisonment for a term of minimum years, extending up to seven years, and a fine for not less than ten thousand rupees. This proposed amount however enhances the minimum fine for such an offence to twenty-five thousand rupees. The significant increase in penalties for breach of the Act ensures stricter punishment and a reduction in the number of wildlife-related crimes.
The principal legislation that governs conservation throughout the nation requires a thoughtful and inclusive approach. Inputs by researchers, conservationists, politicians, as well as locals are crucial when it comes to outlining the chief guidelines for Indian wildlife. The Amendment Bill presents a perfect opportunity to redefine the conservation of wildlife across the country, which has evidently been a long-standing demand of the concerned communities. In the light of India’s conservation history, the draft undoubtedly indicates good and positive intentions. However, the concerns highlighted in the iconic piece of legislation seek careful consideration. A large lobby of environmentalists has weighed in the aforementioned flags. Once deliberated over, they would only corroborate and brace the true spirit of the iconic Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.