24 Oct 2010

Decline in tiger population owed to China among others: Supreme Court

Holding that tigers are pride of India, the Supreme Court in a decision rendered recently in Sansar Chand v. State of Rajasthan has declared that the demand for tiger related products in neighbouring countries (particularly noting China) has been leading to poaching of tigers earlier roaming in Indian habitat. Dealing with the appeal filed by a person challenging the conviction under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 the Supreme Court in no uncertain terms made it clear that it would not tolerate those who engage in the destruction of wild life.

The unbridled concern of the Supreme Court is clearly evident from the following observations in the decision;
2. Shera was the symbol of the recent Commonwealth Games, but ironically Shera has been almost exterminated in our country. The Sher Khan of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’, which once abounded in India, is rarely to be seen today.
3. This case reveals how avaricious and rapacious persons have by organized crime destroyed large parts of the wild life of India and brought many animals e.g. tigers, leopards, bison, etc. almost to the brink of extinction, thereby seriously jeopardizing and destroying the ecological chain and ecological balance in our environment.
5. Before dealing with the facts of this case, we would like to comment upon the background. India, at one time, had one of the richest and most varied fauna in the world. However, over the last several decades there has been rapid decline of India’s wild animals and birds which is a cause of grave concern. Some wild animals and birds have already become extinct e.g. the cheetah and others are on the brink of extinction. Areas which were once teeming with wild life have become devoid of it, and many sanctuaries and parks are empty or almost empty of animals & birds. Thus, the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan and the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh today have no tigers. 
6. One of the main causes for this depredation of the wild life is organized poaching which yields enormous profits by exports to China and other countries.
11. Preservation of wild life is important for maintaining the ecological balance in the environment and sustaining the ecological chain. It must be understood that there is inter-linking in nature. To give an example, snakes eat frogs, frogs eat insects and insects eat other insects and vegetation. If we kill all the snakes, the result will be that number of frogs will increase and this will result in the frogs eating more of the insects and when more insects are eaten, then the insects which are the prey of other insects will increase in number to a disproportionate extent, or the vegetation will increase to a disproportionate extent. This will upset the delicate ecological balance in nature. If we kill the frogs the insects will increase and this will require more insecticides. Use of much insecticide may create health problems. To give another example, destruction of dholes (wild dogs) in Bhutan was intended to protect livestock, but this led to greater number of wild boar and to resultant crop devastation causing several cases of abandonment by humans of agricultural fields. Destruction of carnivorous animals will result in increase of herbivorous animals, and this can result in serious loss of agricultural crops and  other vegetation.
12. It must be realized that our scientific understanding of nature, and in particular of the ecological chain and the linkages therein is still very primitive, incomplete and fragmentary. Hence, it is all the more important today that we preserve the ecological balance because disturbing it may cause serious repercussions of which we may have no idea today.
13. As already stated above, the wild life in India has already been considerably destroyed. At one time there were hundreds of thousands of tigers, leopards and other wild animals, but today there are only about 1400 tigers left, according to the Wildlife Institute.
14. Until recently habitat loss was thought to be the largest threat to the future of tigers, leopards etc. However, it has now been established that illegal trade and commerce in skins and other body parts of tigers, leopards etc. has done even much greater decimation. Poaching of tigers for traditional Chinese medicine industry has been going on in India for several decades. Tigers and leopards are poached for their skins, bones and other constituent parts as these fetch high prices in countries such as China, where they are valued as symbols of power (aphrodisiacs) and ingredients of dubious traditional medicines. This illegal trade is organized and widespread and is in the hands of ruthless sophisticated operators, some of whom have top level patronage. The actual poachers are paid only a pittance, while huge profits are made by the leaders of the organized gangs who have international connection in foreign countries. Poaching of wild life is an organized international illegal activity which generates massive amount of money for the criminals. 
15. Interpol says that trade in illegal wild life products is worth  about US$ 20 billion a year, and India is now a major source  market for this trade. Most of the demand for wildlife products comes from outside the country. While at one time there were hundreds of thousands of tigers in India, today according to the survey made by the Wildlife Institute of India (an autonomous body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests), there were only 1411 tigers left in India in 2008. There are no reliable estimates of leopards as no proper census has been carried out, but the rough estimates show that the leopard too is a critically endangered species.
16. There is virtually no market for the skins or bones of tigers and leopards within India. The evidence available points out that tigers and leopards, poached in the Indian wilderness, are then smuggled across the border to meet the demand for their products in neighbouring countries such as China. When dealing with tiger and leopard poachers and traders, it is therefore important to bear in mind that one is dealing with trans-national organized crime. The accused in these cases represents a link in a larger criminal network that stretches across borders. This network starts with a poacher who in most cases is a poor tribal and a skilled hunter. Poachers kill tigers and leopards so as to supply the orders placed by a trader in a larger city centre such as Delhi. These traders are very wealthy and influential men. Once the goods reach the trader, he then arranges for them to be smuggled across the border to his counterpart in another country and so on till it reaches the end consumer. It is impossible for such a network to sustain itself without large profits and intelligent management.
35. Before we part with this case, we would like to request the Central and State Governments and their agencies to make all efforts to preserve the wild life of the country and take stringent actions against those who are violating the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, as this is necessary for maintaining the ecological balance in our country.

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