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New wildlife action plan to decide on ‘mercy killing’ of wild animals


For the first time in history, India is considering “mercy killing” as a method of controlling the population of wild animals. This proposal is part of a draft of the new government plan that focuses on wildlife conservation.

Even as traditional habitats and migration routes for wild animals are declining, the National Wildlife Action Plan says that the population of some wild animals, such as nilgai, are increasing.

With numbers that are unsustainable for their diminishing ecosystems, some animals — including nilgai, elephants, and rhesus monkeys — have undertaken new forms of crop raiding.

These changes in environment and behaviour are leading to a rise in conflict, mostly violent, between humans and animals.

The Action Plan, which provides a roadmap on wildlife conservation from this year to 2031, mentions a variety of potential solutions. It suggests studying how to plan out human “land-use practices” that would reduce the number of such conflicts, and it recommends constituting a workforce within the state forest departments that would be devoted to addressing conflicts as they occur.

The plan also recommends the “scientific management of wildlife populations” and refers to the need to “define” and “identify the relevant procedures” for “mercy killing”.

This language is meant to signify the need to “establish a practical and legally binding protocol on the subject of mercy killing and euthanasia of wild animals based on the advice of a committee of experts drawn from the wildlife and the veterinary sciences,” said a senior official at the environment ministry.

While euthanasia denotes only the killing of animals that are already terminally ill, mercy killing involves killing animals “for reasons of space, lack of proper centers, resources and personnel,” according to the draft of the policy.

Last year, the environment ministry designated nilgai, wild boars, and rhesus monkeys as “vermin” in three states. This is the classification given to animals like rats and crows that allow for limited periods of culling under the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act.

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Mercy killing is common in a variety of places around the world. Bison in Yellowstone National Park in the United States, badgers in the United Kingdom, kangaroos in Australia, and elephants in South Africa are all culled in order to maintain a healthy and safe population size.

“In the western countries culling is done keeping in mind only the scientific management,” said one wildlife conservationist. “In India, apart from scientific management, we also have to keep in mind the socio-cultural aspect.”

In India, the religious sentiments associated with some wild animals make it challenging for the government to support the mercy killing of those species. Lord Ganesha’s association with elephants and the reverence of Hanuman as the monkey-god are cases in which there are no easy answers.

Some wildlife conservationists are also skeptical of mercy killing. “These debates over mercy killing, euthanasia and culling are not meaningful unless they are discussed with reference to our current legislation,” said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “I think the Wildlife Protection Act sets out eminently sensible rules on this issue and any new policies we have should be in accordance with these.”

Mercy killing is just one part of the plan’s larger mission to improve the conservation of wildlife.

“We tried to stress on two important aspects of conservation: preservation of genetic diversity and sustainable utilisation of species and ecosystems,” said JC Kala, chairman of the committee that drafted the plan.

“They have a direct bearing on our scientific advancements and support to millions of rural communities.”

This iteration of the National Wildlife Action Plan is the third since 1983, and it is the first one to discuss taking conservation beyond the boundaries of protected areas into the larger landscapes in which animals live.

“Concepts like ‘tiger landscapes’ and ‘elephant landscapes’ are gradually emerging,” said one of the members of the committee. “Conservation and management of species at the landscape level would help maintain and enhance genetic exchanges between metapopulations (groups of the same species living in different places).”

As the area of animal habitats shrinks, according to the report, animal populations may need to be moved in order to survive.

“Climate change would render wildlife habitats unsuitable for many plants and animals in the future,” said Kala. “But these species won’t be able to shift to more suitable places because of human settlements in between. Here comes the concept of ‘human-assisted wildlife migration’ and anticipatory planting in which we propose to relocate some species to more suitable places, which could be created to prevent them from going extinct.”

However, Climate change and human settlements are not the only things threatening animal environments. Invasive alien species are taking a heavy toll on protected areas and their native populations. The problem has become so acute that Indian conservationists are now speaking about a ‘national policy on alien species’ being a new focus for the future.


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