India has proposed to slap stiffer penalties to curb wildlife crime and illicit trade, but experts said these would still be insufficient deterrents.
The environment ministry, in a draft amendment of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, has proposed that fines for offences against critical or most endangered species be hiked 20 times. Illegal trade in these species and offences in national parks and sanctuaries would entail a fine of at least Rs25 lakh. An offence in a tiger sanctuary would carry a maximum penalty of Rs50 lakh the first time and Rs75 lakh for repeat offenders. Jail terms would be hiked to five-seven years, from three-seven years.
Conservationists say higher fines and jail terms are not the right way to rein in wildlife crime.
“The whole thrust of the changes has been to increase penalty provision. But in real life, there is an inverse relationship between increase in penalty and conviction rate,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environment lawyer. “At present, offences against endangered tigers already invite a three-year sentence. Has it worked?”
He added that in the 30 years of the Act, no one has been convicted for seven years. Actor Salman Khan, who was convicted of hunting black buck, a critical species, got away with a Rs5,000 fine.
“A deterrent works only when there is awareness, which is quite low. It is not the severity, but the certainty of the punishment which matters, which is a deterrent,” Dutta said.
Samir Sinha, head of TRAFFIC, a non-profit body that monitors wildlife trade, also said penalties alone would not deter crimes.
“After all these years of experience, my sense is that higher penalty should also be combined with higher probability of people getting caught. Unless delivery mechanism is strengthened, this won’t be effective. Wildlife trade has to be made less lucrative,” he said.
Tribal rights activists are disconcerted by the proposed amendments for a different reason.
“The penalties are extremely high and so is the potential for abuse. A large number of tribals are slapped with false and petty cases every year,” said Shankar Gopalakrishnan, secretary, Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a tribal rights activist group. “Without recognizing that and without any reference to the Forest Rights Act in the amendments, it doesn’t bode well.”
One of the ministry’s amendments to the law seeks to broaden research in conservation sciences. It proposes that the government promote independent scientific research and frame comprehensive rules and procedures for it.
“Indian wildlife research is not where it should be because of the forest department, which controls all permits and research. This is definitely very positive,” said Raghu Chundawat, a wildlife scientist.
“The forest department’s role should be limited to (the) Act and not on what kind of research should be done,” he said. “This is not private property.”