- The hunting festival was organized to celebrate Jyeshtha Amavasya, or night of the new moon, according to a statement by a Kolkata-based organization and Sanctuary Asia magazine.
- Thousands of men ventured into the forests in West Bengal’s East Midnapore district between June 3 and June 6 and allegedly killed animals such as the Bengal monitor lizard, water monitor lizard, golden monitor lizard, and the fishing cat, species that are listed under India’s Schedule I of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972.
- Police and railway officials offered little help, conservationists say, and the hunters assaulted some of their team members.
Last month, on World Environment Day, local hunters killed an estimated 5,000 wild animals in West Bengal in India, conservationists allege. The hunting festival was organized to celebrate Jyeshtha Amavasya, or night of the new moon, according to a statement by a Kolkata-based organisation and Sanctuary Asia magazine.
Thousands of men ventured into the forests in West Bengal’s East Midnapore district between June 3 and June 6, and allegedly killed animals such as the Bengal monitor lizard, water monitor lizard, golden monitor lizard, and the fishing cat. These species are listed under India’s Schedule I of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, which grants them the highest degree of protection by the Indian state. The hunters also killed or collected numerous other mammals, birds and reptiles, including the golden jackal, common palm civet, rat snake, bronzeback tree snake, Indian pitta, painted stork and the black-hooded oriole.
A team from Kolkata’s People United for Better Living in Calcutta (PUBLIC) uncovered the massive scale of the hunting festival following a tip off. When the PUBIC team arrived in East Midnapore district, they found around 10,000 men thronging railway stations along the Howrah-Kharagpur line, many openly carrying their hunting equipment — knives, axes, bows, arrows and slingshots. Several men had their hauls on display on the railway platforms.
“Hunting is primarily done by tribal communities and is fairly common in districts of South Bengal,” Meghna Banerjee of PUBLIC told Mongabay. “Hunters use the railways as a convenient transit system to move from one district to another and spread out to hunt.”
The PUBLIC team did manage to intercept some hunting parties with the help of the Forest Department. They also successfully released some of the live animals back into the wild. But in some railway stations, the situation was chaotic.
The Panskura railway station, for example, was littered with the bodies of live and dead wild animals, the team found. A large crowd of hunters had gathered on a single platform. Many men were drinking alcohol, and skinning and cooking their hunt right on the platform. The police, however, refused to make arrests, issue warnings or seize the animals, according to the statement, and the PUBLIC team had to leave the platform for fear of their safety.
“Police was unwilling to cooperate,” Banerjee said. “They did not even assist the West Bengal Forest Department officials to seize any animal or arrest anyone. Assistance of police is crucial since the forest officials outside non-forest areas do not have fire arms.”
Railway officials, too, refused to help, Banerjee added. And the hunters assaulted the team members, including Banerjee.
“At the Panskura railway station, when we were trying to rescue some of the live animals from the hunters, two railway officials with firearms came and accused us of causing trouble,” she added. “When we showed them the hunted animals and said that RPF [Railway Protection Force] is supposed to take action when criminal offences occur within the railway premises, they said that ‘we will take action when the police tells us. Go and get order from the thana [police station]’. When the hunters saw the attitude of the railway officials, they were emboldened and immediately started getting more hostile towards our team. My friend was hit with an axe on his hand (it was blunt, so there was no serious injury). I was pushed from behind and groped by the hunters assembled on the platform.”
This hunting festival is not an isolated event. During other festivals held on April 16, April 30, May 17 and May 21, more than 10,000 hunters are reported to have killed innumerable wildlife in state forests, the statement alleges.
However, despite hunting animals in huge numbers, the tribal communities seem clueless about the impact of their hunting on wildlife populations, Banerjee said. Moreover, many people are not aware of the laws regarding hunting.
“A few tribal hunters mentioned that if hunting is prohibited by law, then the government should indicate that in prominent places so that the tribals may know that such hunting is not allowed (more like an announcement of hunting ban by district authorities) and they would not assemble,” Banerjee said.
The current scale of hunting is no longer sustainable and fuels wildlife trafficking, conservationists say. The PUBLIC team, for example, observed that many hunters chose not to kill monitor lizards because a lizard skin sells for a higher price if the animal is kept alive.
“Traditionally, hunting was once an integral part of many Indian tribal cultures,” Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia, said in a statement. “However, given the scale of the East Midnapore wildlife massacre and the anthropogenic pressures already exerted on the forests of the country, it is no longer sustainable. Further, when hunting fuels the illegal wildlife trade and is done for the sake of commerce, it can no longer be justified by an argument of ‘sustenance’.”
To curb such hunting events in the future, increased awareness of the impacts of hunting is essential among the tribal populations, Banerjee said. The PUBLIC team also wants the railways to take better action.
“Railways are duty bound to take steps to stop transit of hunters and not allow their premises for commission of offences,” Banerjee said. “Congregation of so many hunters on platforms also poses a security risk for passengers, especially women. So people carrying weapons should not be allowed to board. Hunters should not be allowed to board trains with dead/live animals. Railways should not allow platforms to be used for display or killing/cooking of hunted wildlife and should take immediate action. Hoardings should be put up at stations indicating that carrying weapons/ wild animals is prohibited”