Hunting, like prostitution, is one of India's worst-kept secrets. Everyone knows it's illegal. And everyone knows it's going on. In the Northeast, hunting is prevalent amongst both tribals and the Army. And in Kerala's Periyar Tiger Reserve, rampant poaching of tuskers has dramatically skewed the sex ratio, with one male elephant for 101 females.
These are amongst a series of startling findings thrown up by a research paper on hunting by three scientists - Nandini Velho, research associate at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore and a doctoral student at Australia's James Cook University ; Krithi Karanth, assistant director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore; and William F Laurance, an eminent tropical scientist at James Cook University.
The scientists plunged into a meta-analysis of 143 studies on hunting in India in a bid to give shape to the shadowy world that plagues the country's wildlife.
Their study shows that hunting was reported in 23 of the 28 states and 7 Union Territories, with 114 species of mammals reportedly hunted in the country.
Besides pushing animals to extinction, hunting also changes the way they behave. For instance, encounter rates (the chance of spotting an animal or signs of it) of daytime animals declined where guns were used to hunt them during the day. Likewise, encounter rates ofnocturnal animals reduced where guns were used at night.
While much has been written about tiger conservation, Velho cites the plight of other mammals. For instance, the widespread use of traps for otters has led to their extinction in several areas. Its skin, says Velho, is prized in Europe.
According to wildlife conservationist Belinda Wright, the last 18 months have seen an increase in hunting for meat,with a spike in demand in towns around protected areas. Wright says the trend has much to do with economics. Highly priced domestic meat has spawned a market for wild meat, which is found to be cheaper.
While hunting happens across the country, the methods vary. "Hunters in Uttaranchal used guns (42%) and snares (48%) in roughly equal frequency; in Himachal Pradesh hunters used exclusively guns. In Karnataka, most hunters (94%) used home-made muzzle-loading guns although use of snares was also reported," says the study. Velho says certain communities such as the Nishi tribe in Arunachal Pradesh have banned the use of locally made trap scalled Komiya,which have often caused injuries to people, too. "The fine for laying these traps is one mithun (a bison-like animal). They do, however, allow hunting with guns," adds Velho, who has worked extensively in Arunachal, where hunting is deeply embedded in the local culture. "Even the belts used for clothes are made of animal skin."
Tribals aren't the only ones hunting in the Northeast. "Army forces posted on India's northern borders in the Indo-Myanmar /eastern Himalayan region are also reported to engage actively in hunting," says the report. "Many Army officers wear musk (a perfume extracted from the musk deer)," says Velho. Government officers, too, are involved in hunting. "A lot of the killings carried out by locals are either sold or gifted to officers," she adds.
The report says hunting is particularly widespread in Arunachal, which lies within the India-Myanmar and eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspots. As many as 94 mammal species are reportedly hunted in these two regions. "This figure is considerably higher than the 33 species reported to be hunted across the Western Ghats, the 22 hunted species recorded in the western Himalayas, and zero hunted species reported from the Nicobar Islands," says the study. This may be due to the fact that the eastern Himalayas are home to more species than the Western Ghats, says Velho.
Environmentalist Uttara Mendiratta, a consultant with Freeland Foundation says hunting in the Northeast gets a boost because the Southeast Asian market for wildlife trade is close at hand. "After hunting an animal in Northeast India, it's very easy to cut across the border to Myanmar where there is a ready market. It is not the same in the Western Ghats where it is harder to sell wildlife in an open market," says Mendiratta, who has been involved in underground operations in China and Tibet to study the illegal animal market. While Tibet was once a large market for illegal animal products from India, there has been a marked drop in demand after the Dalai Lama forbade the use of such products amongst Tibetans . His is amongst several initiatives to curb hunting. In the Northeast, locals from tribes known for their hunting prowess have been roped in for wildlife conservation.