Though direct killing of wildlife was largely for venison and trophies, the reasons for unnatural deaths of wild species have changed over time. However, hunting remains one of the primary causes of mortalities. Several other reasons have emerged as the market and economy progressed, threatening wildlife survival. One could categorise causes of mortality into two broad themes; direct and indirect. The fatality due to unnatural reasons varies from region to region, and at times even temporally.
Anatomy of unnatural deaths
Hunting, casualties due to speeding vehicles or trains, and retaliatory killing by people are perhaps the three main causes of direct mortality. Hunting is a nationwide phenomenon. Wildlife Protection Society of India, an organisation that works on wildlife trade related issues, documents 318 seizures and poaching incidents of leopards during the past two years, depicting the scale of poaching for trade. The country has only about 1200 tuskers of breeding age as per the 2010 report of the Elephant Task Force (ETF), again illustrating the severity of commercial poaching.
There are high numbers of elephant deaths due to trains in Assam, West Bengal and Uttarakhand. While speeding vehicles kill innumerable mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians on most highways that pass through protected areas, Dandeli in Karnataka and Wayanad in Kerala are classic examples.
In Kaziranga National Park, Assam several animals are killed by vehicles during monsoons when the Brahmaputra floods force animals to higher elevations. During their pursuit of crossing NH-37, high mortalities of wildlife occur. Linked to this is the spurt in rhino poaching when they move out of the safe zones of the national park during the monsoons. Both these examples depict temporal peaks in unnatural deaths.
Another cause of grave concern is the retaliatory killing due to conflict with farmers and livestock owners. In India annually about 100 elephants are exterminated in retaliatory actions by people as per the ETF report. Tens of leopards meet catastrophic fate due to conflict. However, the impact caused by conflict on livelihoods is bound to bring in animosity of affected people.
While the causes of direct mortality may be small, the roots of indirect threats are numerous and vary in nature. The key ecological reasons of this cause include total loss of habitat (due to agriculture, river valley projects, highways, mining), degradation of habitats (due to forest fires, extraction of forest products, pollution), introduction of invasive species and diseases. The relationship between mortalities due to indirect threats is fairly complex. Andaman crake, a bird from the Andaman Islands, is threatened by introduced predators such as rats, and sea turtle eggs and hatchlings are devoured by feral dogs.
The public response
The way public responds to unnatural deaths of wildlife greatly vary. Images of an elephant family killed in a rail accident in Jalpaiguri district in September 2010 raised public outcry. I and a senior forest official were able to convince the court to close vehicular traffic at night on the highways passing through Bandipur due to some impactful images of wildlife killed in road accidents.
Unnatural deaths due to poaching or vehicle mortalities brings in public sympathy and support in some instances. However, disappearance of species due to indirect perils is largely unnoticed and building sustained backing against this is not easy. The pressure of demographic and economic expansion is severe than ever before.
Despite strong policies, lack of implementation due to interventions, both political and economic, has been a serious limitation in wildlife conservation. Nevertheless, several conservation victories in the country have brought in optimism. There is neither one size fits all nor a magic wand to save species. With committed political leadership, dynamic bureaucracy, importantly civil society organisations and individuals, who care and work rationally with Governments and social leaders, the unnatural deaths and disappearance of wildlife can be reduced to tolerable limits.
(The writer is a wildlife biologist working in the Western Ghats.)