Wildlife & Biodiversity

Saseendran’s ‘tiger cull’: Kerala forest minister made a gaffe; but state’s human-wildlife conflict needs redressal

Removing invasive plants, restoring vanishing wildlife corridors and eco-restoration inside forests should be the solution to human-wildlife conflict in Kerala, rather than culling or sterilisation

By K A Shaji
Published: Saturday 21 January 2023
Sassendran’s ‘tiger cull’: Kerala forest minister made a gaffe; but state’s human-wildlife conflict needs redressal
A tiger captured in Wayanad last October. Photo: KA Shaji A tiger captured in Wayanad last October. Photo: KA Shaji

Kerala Forest Minister AK Saseendran has faced global condemnation for his statement urging a ‘tiger cull’ to reduce the escalating human-wildlife conflict in the northern district of Wayanad. But despite the flak, the state’s Left Democratic Front (LDF) is groping in the dark in the absence of any lasting solution to the vexed issue.

It all began last week when a farmer mauled by a tiger in Wayanad died. The deceased farmer’s family attributed the death to the lack of proper medical facilities in the hilly and forested district located in the Western Ghats. The family alleged that the farmer died because local hospitals lacked doctors, facilities, and ambulances.

But vested interests quickly latched onto the issue. They organised large-scale protests saying they would go inside forests and hunt tigers if the government did not initiate a cull.

Saseendran promised agitating farmers in Wayanad that the government would soon seek the Supreme Court’s permission to sterilise or cull tigers and elephants that threaten life and property.

After the global outcry in response to his statement, Saseendran has now backtracked. He says he was repeating what the locals had suggested. He added that he knew that it would be next to impossible given the legal protection accorded to wildlife in the country.

Official sources confirmed that it would be not be proper for a government to approach the apex court with such a demand. Tigers and elephants are protected by law. Nobody can demand their culling or sterilisation, officials feel.

According to sources in the LDF government, the statement by the forest minister has affected its image at the national and international levels adversely, and will, in no way, help the state to find a solution to the problem.

However, Saseendran’s earlier statement has many takers in Kerala who feel that the state’s forests are overcrowded with tigers and elephants. They have shared it on social media in a big way, saying there is no solution to the human-wildlife conflict in the state other than targeted killing.

Such people are cite fudged data to say that forest cover and the number of wild animals in Kerala has increased manifold, so they are now in conflict with farmers living on forest fringes.

They also quote eminent environmentalist Madhav Gadgil out of context, claiming he favours mass culling of wild animals. Gadgil has clarified that he never favoured mass culling. He only suggested leaving it to local panchayats to decide whether to kill a rampaging wild animal or not.

Not a simple issue 

But experts say Kerala has ‘no surplus tigers and elephants’ as is being claimed on social media. Environmental scientist O P Nameer says Wayanad hardly has 50 tigers. This, when it can support a maximum of 190.

Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is an extension of the Mudumalai, Bandipur and Nagarhole Tiger Reserves, constituting the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Tigers are itinerant across the whole region, irrespective of political boundaries. Hence, Nameer feels it would be difficult to estimate the exact number of tigers in Wayanad.

Questions are also being asked as to why the LDF government has not held any discussion with neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to evolve a joint strategy so that human-wildlife conflict can be mitigated in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

“Wayanad’s forests are not an island. They are a continuation of the forests in neighbouring states. It is foolish to say that culling tigers in Wayanad would end the human-wildlife conflict,” N Badhusha, president of Wayanad Prakrithi Samarakshana Samithy, an environmental organisation told me.

He blames invasive species of plants occupying the biosphere reserve as the primary reason for predators moving out in search of prey. “The natural food chain inside the forests has been badly affected after governments planted invasive plants. These badly affected the food requirements of the usual prey of tigers. Instead of addressing the water and food requirements of animals in the forests, the government is making irrational comments like the one on culling tigers. They know clearly that no court would accept it,” said Badusha.

Several wildlife experts, including Ullas Karanth and Praveen Bhargav, condemned the minister’s statement supporting the culling of tigers and said the number of tigers had not increased alarmingly in any part of the state or the country as projected by certain quarters.

“The proposal of the forest minister is legally not tenable. In the face of a serious human-wildlife conflict, a state’s chief wildlife warden can allow a tiger to be hunted after being satisfied that it cannot be tranquillised or translocated,” said Bhargav.

Karanth stresses the importance of paying adequate compensation when tigers enter human habitats and prey on livestock. If a tiger is found to have become a man-eater, it must be killed immediately, he said.

The minister had told the media earlier that his department was planning to approach the Supreme Court seeking permission for conducting immuno-contraception on tigers and elephants.

He later said sterilisation would be possible only on animals like monkeys in the Indian context. Backtracking from his earlier statement, the minister agreed that immuno-contraception had not been tried on tigers anywhere in the world.

According to environmental lawyer Harish Vasudevan, sterilisation will involve enormous risks and repercussions apart from conflicting approaches to the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, passed by Parliament in 1972.

“Both, Asiatic elephants and tigers are on the list of protected animals in India and no state government can initiate birth control in them by applying chemical darts. The ministerial statement was made without any scientific study or soliciting of expert opinion,” said Vasudevan.

According to him, restoring vanishing wildlife corridors and eco-restoration inside forests are the urgent steps needed to address the human-animal conflict.

“In Wayanad, habitat destruction is the major reason for human-wildlife conflict. Without addressing the larger issue of habitat loss, the state government is now playing to the gallery by simply echoing the demand to sterilise wildlife,” said a veterinarian, who preferred anonymity because of his service with the government.

“Elephants and tigers are keystone species that protect the health of each conserved area. Increased human interventions have resulted in habitat loss. Why does the government prefer easy solutions without attempting to restore the lost wildlife habitats of the state?” asks Badusha.

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K A Shaji is a journalist based in South India. He writes on environment, human rights, livelihood, caste and marginalised communities

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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