On July 1, a minke whale died. It wasn’t due to natural causes or a predatory fight in the ocean. It was at the hands of Japanese whalers. The country has resumed commercial whaling after 30 years, having left the International Whaling Commission on June 30. Its plan is to catch 227 whales for meat by this year-end.
Last month had brought some news that was music to the ears of animal lovers and activists, literally; but that, too, was not without its share of baggage. The Guardian reported on June 20 that marine biologists, for the first time ever, had recorded singing by the north Pacific right whale, one of the rarest whales on Earth.
The reason they are so rare is because poachers have brought them to the brink of extinction. Their slow pace, a result of their enormous weight, makes them an easy target.
In May, there was outrage on social media after pictures of the annual whale hunting tradition of Faroe Islands, an island off the coast of Denmark, went viral; the islanders had slaughtered 800 humpback whales to uphold the decades-old ritual, claiming that this massacre was “a natural way of life” for them.
A 2014 report from the World Wildlife Fund had said almost 40% of the marine population has been lost over the last 40 years. Five years on, the situation doesn’t seem to be encouraging—1 million plant and animal species are at risk due to human activities, a UN report has warned.
Denmark isn’t alone when it comes to traditions that threaten the very existence of a species. Several countries have continued to engage in such practices in the name of religion and rituals. And poachers on the hunt compound the crisis.
For god’s sake?
In West Africa, there is a tradition of sacrificing farm animals such as chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys, cows, and even dogs to “make amends for evil acts and reverse the negative consequences of sin or curse. A similar tradition exists in the Brazilian folk religion, the only difference being even wild animals are up for grabs, endangering rare wildlife.
Southern Nepal’s Gadhimai Festival used to cause global outrage every five years over the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of animals—an estimated 500,000 buffaloes, goats, chickens, and other animals used to be decapitated. A recent PETA report, however, has confirmed that the practice has finally been banned.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation has reported that almost every week two breeds of domestic animals are lost forever. The report covers around 6,500 cattle breeds in 170 countries, which include domesticated mammals and birds.
In the Japanese town of Taiji, the annual dolphin hunt is defended on the basis of tradition and culture and justified on the basis that dolphins aren’t endangered. This is a cause for concern in India as well—there has been a decline in the dolphin population, from 207 to 154 as of 2018.
Also, along the Western Ghats, Asiatic Elephants face a big threat. Current reports show a decrease of 10% in their population in the wild. Around the globe, their numbers have dipped from 51,000 to 42,000, as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In Western countries, factory farming has been on the rise, which gives the impression that there’s no cruelty towards animals. However, rules and standards are routinely violated in slaughterhouses. Agriculture in the West has become so industrialised that animals are treated as inanimate items on a production line, where speed and profit are the priority.
The avian crisis
In parts of Italy, Egypt, France, Syria, Libya, and Cyprus, a BirdLife International report states, roughly 25 million migratory birds, including chaffinch, thrush, robin, and quail, are illegally killed every year through trapping, positioning, smearing, or applying glue to branches to prevent them from flying.
The Red List Index reveals that, over the last 30 years, the status of the world’s bird species has deteriorated, with more slipping closer to extinction. This is happening in both temperate and tropical regions and in a variety of habitats, such as farmlands, forests, and wetlands.
Eminent Indian ornithologist Zafar Futehally says there has been a lot of change in the physical environment in our country. Habitat fragmentation and chemical contamination have proved hazardous for those that have a short range and a short lifespan, like Jerdon’s courser, notes Down To Earth. This has also affected aquatic birds, which used to be protected in Odisha’s Chilika Lake; lack of government sanctions and attention has led to a decline of almost 600,000 birds with many species extinct.
Meanwhile, in Malta, the spring shoot targets migratory European turtle doves on their way back to breeding grounds, severely impacting the population of this much-loved and endangered bird.
While there are laws in place in some countries to protect songbirds, in others, governments and authorities have turned a blind eye. In fact, those in power may be hunters themselves or know hunters, so widespread is the practice. This is what’s happening in Australia and Scotland as well.
Law and the lack of it
The question that arises then is whether in this day and age there are sufficient laws in place to ban such practices around the world.
In India, the Supreme Court itself ruled that there can be no ban on the sacrifice of animals in religious practices as these are customs that need to be respected. What then is the point of setting up the Animal Welfare Board of India, which operates under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, to report any acts of animal cruelty in the country in the name of tradition or poaching?
The scale of poaching in India has been on the rise over the past few years, despite legislations, such as the Wildlife Protection Act, in place; lack of financial support and attention from politicians towards these issues has made the laws ineffective.
The leopard population in India also is under threat—the spotted cats are poacher prey for their teeth and skin. In fact, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) has confirmed that they are endangered.
Setting up of reserves has not helped either, due to the existence of poachers within these premises themselves. One example of this is the Sariska Tiger Reserve, a national park in Rajasthan. The reserve housed 2,226 tigers, but poaching activities there brought the number down to a measly 48.
Conservation efforts in India
Finally, last year, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) launched a scheme to protect tigers in the wild. It added four new anti-poaching awareness vans to its fleet, bringing the total to seven. The purpose of these vans is to travel to remote areas in central India and spread the message of conservation through public discussions and film screenings.
The organisation has ensured that conservation efforts are bifurcated in conventional ways, such as site visits and building awareness. Meanwhile, some unconventional methods include animal-human conflict management, publications to know more about the field of endangered species, and holding dialogues with various heads of states across the country.
The Forest Watch is another NGO and a cell in the WPSI that seeks to protect wildlife in the country. It is an undercover anti-poaching unit based in Delhi. The team is dedicated to stopping and, ultimately, ending illegal poaching and illegal trade of bears and bear cubs in India. The unit works closely with the forest department and police in various states.
Similar efforts have also helped to increase the leopard population—the latest census shows their numbers have risen to 2,500 in Karnataka.
Wildlife conservation organisations have mainly been working towards saving animals by ensuring that their natural habitats are protected. The depletion of the Sunderban Delta had dwindled the tiger population tremendously. However, WWF India has been working to rectify that by protecting mangroves and ensuring tree plantation in the area.
The Indian and Nepalese governments have also taken up conservation efforts for the one-horned rhinoceros, another victim of poaching activities—the World Wildlife Fund has confirmed its number to be only 2,000 in the wild in 2019. In 2017, rangers at the Kaziranga National Park took the decision to shoot any poachers on site.
Why it matters
The main limitations in saving endangered animals are the costs involved and the space required, but these need to be surmounted if we are to protect our ecosystem. If the human-animal cycle is broken, it can adversely impact food chains and affect survival too.
For example, bees may seem small and insignificant, but they have a huge role to play in our ecosystem. They are pollinators, i.e. they are responsible for the reproduction of plants. Without bees, many plant species will go extinct, upsetting the entire food chain.
According to The Conversation, “IPBES [Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services] aims to arm policymakers with the tools to address the relationships between biodiversity and human well-being. It synthesises evidence on the state of biodiversity, ecosystems and natures’ contributions to people on a global scale.”
UN’s Sustainable Development Goals include environment protection; in fact, one of the 17 development goals specifically focuses on marine and terrestrial life. However, conservation efforts will continue to be a waste of time, energy, and money if endangered species continue to be slaughtered like this, whether at the altar of God or by greedy poachers.
As Union Minister and animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi rightly said: “We are so close to the red line, we may wake up tomorrow and discover there is nothing left to save.”
Amrita Deshmukh is a Writing Analyst at Qrius.
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