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As the human race developed, so did its desires. It went from savage to civilized, from small tribal groups to big towns and cities. Agriculture required lands that led to clearance of the forest lands. The establishment of towns and cities required clearance of large forest areas as well. At first, it did not seem to be a grave issue.
But with time, the desires of humans took big jumps and turned into greed. The fast pace of development without paying any heed to the environment became the norm. More and more forest areas were getting cleared to establish more civilizations. We know it to be true that when anything gets done beyond the limits, it can cause adverse effects. And greed doesn’t know any limits or boundaries.
Over the years, the environment has suffered at the hands of humans and their greed. But these effects have not been felt with the same intensity as they should be. This is because that these effects did not affect individuals on a personal level. Thus, the havoc wreaked on the environment by the human race was not felt or seen. As a result, steps to be taken for the protection of forests and wildlife have suffered a setback. The British Indian government had introduced a few Acts for the protection of wild birds and animals. Though, it was only after independence that wildlife became a priority issue.
Why was the act introduced?
Our legislators understood the importance of wildlife. They were able to see the impact human development had on it. They could foresee the situation that was going to arise if the destruction was allowed to continue.
Our country had seen a significant rise in the cases of hunting and killing of wildlife. The royals had always enjoyed hunting wild animals for sports and entertainment. Skins of dangerous wild animals such as that of tigers were used as decorative mats or wall hangings. They also made for a good gifting option. The obsession with animal skin, later on, took the shape of trading. Such markets also had a place for elephant tusks and other body parts of wild animals. The British added to the existing problem.
Rich British men would come to India and take part in hunts. They would hire local hunters who would hunt on their behalf and injure the animal to overpower it. The last bullet was shot by the Englishman. Photographs with carcasses were a huge hit. The more the dead bodies, the braver the Englishman could prove himself to be.
All these things led to a problematic situation for wildlife in India. Similar struggles were seen in other countries as well where wildlife destruction was reaching the zenith. Thus, in 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment took place in Stockholm, Sweden. It is also known as the Stockholm Conference.
The Stockholm Conference was one of the major conferences held by the UN on environmental issues. It gave birth to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). India was an attendee along with the other Member States. This conference proved to be a turning point for international environmental laws. It also played a major role in influencing the environment laws of India. Before this conference, no major laws were in place for the protection of wildlife. It was only after this conference that the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972 came into being. It was passed on the 21st of August 1972 and was implemented on the 9th of September 1972.
WPA is one of the major Acts in India that changed the face of environmental laws. This is because it covers both the flora and the fauna of the wild. It covers most of the issues and provides for punishments. This Act laid down the importance of wildlife in the eyes of the State.
Its salient features
The major features of WPA are as follows:
- It aims to protect all wildlife that is listed within the Act and includes birds, animals, and plants.
- It provides for the regulation of illegal trades in wildlife and wildlife products.
- It prohibits hunting of endangered species.
- It provides for the establishment of protected areas. It provides for five types of protected areas for wildlife:
- National Parks,
- Wild Life Sanctuaries,
- Tiger Reserves,
- Community Resources and
- Conservation Reserves
- The WPA is divided into six schedules.
- Schedule I to IV provide for protection to listed animals and punishments.
- Schedules I and II cover endangered species such as cheetah, musk deer, rhinoceros, and Tibetan gazelle among others. The species listed in these two schedules have absolute protection. Any infringement invites harsh punishments.
- Schedules III and IV are similar to that of I and II. These species are not in danger of extinction. The punishment is of a lower degree than that incurred on the infringement of the first two schedules.
- Animals included in Schedules I to IV can be killed according to the provisions of section 11 of WPA.
- Schedule V specifies those species of animals that are okay to hunt. Animals listed in this Schedule are common crows, fruit bats, mice, and rats.
- Schedule VI of the Act lays down provisions for such plant species whose cultivation is prohibited. There are a total of six such plant species including pitcher plant and kuth among others.
- It also provides for the constitution of the following four important bodies. These bodies play a key role in the protection of the wildlife by proper implementation of the laws provided in the Act.
- National Board for Wildlife
It is not an implementing body but an advisory body, chaired by the Prime Minister of India. It is an apex reviewing body for all wildlife-related issues. The main function of this Board is to promote wildlife conservation. Any alteration in the boundaries of National Parks or Wildlife Sanctuaries cannot be done without the Board’s approval. The advisory body at the State level is the State Board for Wildlife.
- Central Zoo Authority
It is a statutory body that regulates the functioning of zoological parks in India. It evaluates and assesses zoos for the maintenance of a minimum standard of upkeep and health of the animals. It also gives monetary and technical support to these zoological parks. One of its primary functions is to recognize zoos. No zoo can operate without getting recognition from the Authority.
- National Tiger Conservation Authority
Tigers are one of the endangered species in India. This Authority was thus constituted for working towards the protection of tigers in India. It approves a State’s Tiger Conservation Plan. It is a supervisory body and performs other functions as specified in the Act.
- Wildlife Crime Control Bureau
It is a statutory and multi-disciplinary body. It aims to combat and curtail wildlife-related crime in India. It collects any information related to wildlife crime and passes it on to the respective authorities.
Progress made under the Act
The enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act has played a significant role in the protection of wildlife. A lot of progress has been made in this area. Had it not been implemented, the scenario of the wildlife of our country would have been very different.
The Act underwent many amendments over the years. The first amendment laid provisions for the translocation of wild animals for “scientific management and introduction of alternative habitat.”
The 1991 Amendment Act prohibited the hunting of all wild animals and birds except vermin. But, hunting in exceptional circumstances was allowed.
Central Zoo Authority was introduced in the 1993 Amendment Act. It played a significant role in regulating and evaluating zoos across the country. This Authority also played a major role in the conservation of wildlife. In 2015, it introduced artificial breeding of the great Indian Bustard to boost its population.
Through this Act, India was able to save, or at least prevent many species from getting extinct. The 2006 amendment strengthened the tiger conservation movement by providing for the constitution of the National Tiger Conservation Authority and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau.
India is home to around 70% of the world’s population of tigers. It was due to the efforts under this Act, that the dwindling population of tigers is saved. According to the census report of 2019, India showed a significant increase in its tiger population. With the help of Project Tiger, there was about a 33% increase in the tiger count.
One of the very important developments that took place was when the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau provided for the establishment of a centralized wildlife crime data bank. It was also awarded the Asia Wildlife Enforcement Award by the UNEP for its role in combating trans-border environmental crimes. The Bureau has also been successful in conducting many operations some of which are as mentioned below:
- Operation Soft Gold (2018)
This operation aimed to protect the Tibetan Antelope from hunting. These animals were often ignored by enforcement agencies. This operation thus aimed at bringing the focus on the. These animals were mostly killed for their skin which was used to make a certain kind of shawl named Shahtoosh.
- Operation Wildnet (2017)
This operation led to the introduction of technology-based tracking of illegal trades. The e-commerce platforms were being used for illegal trades. This operation thus worked by tracking such illegal offers and sales.
- Operation Thunderbird (2017)
This was an international operation that was not concentrated on a single species. It took into its ambit multiple species and their illegal trade.
- Operation Save Kurma (2016)
This operation was specifically conducted for control of the illegal trade routes which were used to trade live turtles and tortoises.
The Wildlife Institute situated in Dehradun proposed a Cheetah Reintroduction Project a few years back. It hit a roadblock which forced the National Tiger Conservation Authority to move to the Court. The Hon’ble Supreme Court has recently cleared the way for this project. Cheetahs went extinct in India around 70 years ago. Under this project, the cheetahs will be brought from Namibia.
As we all know, the judiciary performs the role of keeping a check on the proper implementation of the law. It also plays a role in clarifying the position of law. The judiciary has been active in establishing the position of law regarding wildlife and its protection. Some of the landmark cases related to the Wildlife Protection Act are described below:
- The Blackbuck case (2018)
It is an ongoing case that is known to most of the Indians as it involves many famous Bollywood actors including Salman Khan. He was convicted under section 51 of WPA for the killing of a blackbuck.
- Indian Handicrafts Emporium & Others v Union of India & Others (AIR 2003 SC 3240)
The petitioners challenged the order of prohibition of the ivory trade. The Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that the elephants were being greatly harmed for the extraction of ivory. The Court held that the prohibition was essential for the maintenance of public and social interest. It was reasonable and essential as elephants are an important part of the ecosystem.
- R. Simon & Others v Union of India (AIR 1997 Del 301)
The petitioners challenged the ban on the trade of products derived from certain animals provided under the WPA. They claimed that Article 19(1) (g) of the Constitution granted the citizens the right to carry on any profession or trade. The petitioners also challenged the worth and importance of these animals. The Delhi High Court held that animals are essential for the environment. The exploitation of animals would result in damage and imbalance of the ecosystem. It further held that the right to trade is not absolute. It can be restricted based on reasonable grounds under Article 19(6) of the Constitution. Thus, the prohibition of trade in animal articles was held as valid.
- Tarun Bharat Sangh, Alwar v Union of India [1993 SCR (3) 21]
This case related to illegal mining in an area that was declared as a Tiger Reserve. The Apex Court had appointed a committee to check the same. The Court then canceled the license of the respondents as the mining activity was fund to be illegal. The Court canceled all the 215 mining licenses involved.
- Trilok Bahadur v. State of Arunachal Pradesh (1979 CR. L.J 1409, Gauhati High Court)
In this case, the question of self-defense was brought up. A guard was on his duty when he saw a tiger approaching towards him. He shot two fires in the air but instead of running away, the tiger started coming near him. The guard seeing no other option shot the tiger and killed him. The Court held that in such circumstances, the ferocity of the animals is to be considered. Tigers are for sure very ferocious animals. Thus, the guard was allowed the defense of Section 11(2) of the Wildlife Protection Act.
This Act has played a major role in the protection of wildlife. It has given many successful projects over the years, brought in rules and regulations as well as created awareness. This Act grew with time through several amendments and stayed aligned with the needs of that time. But, there are still many changes that are necessary for the better functioning of the system. Setting up of special courts for speedy trials can go a long way. It will not only allow the Courts of law to focus specifically on the issue of wildlife but will also decrease the burden upon the general Courts.
There is still a lack of priority when it comes to cases related to wildlife and the environment. As has been beautifully stated by Steve Irwin, “If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched. Share my wildlife with me. Because humans want to save the things they love.” Awareness is the need of the hour to bring everyone together. It is not only the duty of the government to work for the protection of our wildlife. It is also the duty of every individual. We can achieve a lot if the people, governments, and Courts come together and work for the wildlife and its protection.
Author: Varsha Kumari Mishra from Law College Dehradun, Uttaranchal University.
Editor: Shalu Bhati from Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.