‘The virus from China’: Why we should not ignore India to be the cause of a future pandemic

Hamma Singh

The pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus has been one of the most eye-opening events to happen. It has affected the world in various ways from the change in healthcare industry, a huge blow to the economy, unintended rejuvenation of the environment and decline in pollution. Even though there has been active and extensive research on the origin of such viruses, this is not just a random occurrence of nature. 

Viruses like the COVID-19 are zoonotic in nature, i.e., they originate from animals and jump to humans thereby resulting in illnesses and deaths. But the larger issue is the underlying cause of such viruses which, just like in the novel coronavirus is due to an increase in contact between wildlife, livestock and humans from habitat encroachment and illegal trade, thus resulting in strikingly large numbers of similar viruses. With weak wildlife conservation policies, an even weaker implementation, and a thriving illegal trade in wildlife, India can easily be the next hotspot for the origin of such a virus. Therefore, an emerging need arises to improve environment protection and put an end to wildlife trade.

Why is it a cause of concern?

Illegal wildlife trade has been flourishing for years with millions of people involved in a chain of hunting and trading of various kinds of animals for medicines, food, fashion, etc. For eg., China has one of the largest wildlife markets in the world as consumption and sale of wildlife has always been a huge contributor to the economy and holds deep cultural values. Unfortunately, China continues its wildlife markets and trade, promoting policies even with the risks involved.

Wildlife conservation needs more importance today because studies have indicated that 60 percent of Emerging Infectious Diseases such as HIV, Ebola, SARS and COVID-19 are zoonotic in nature wherein approximately 72 per cent of these originate in wildlife.   

The lockdown during the pandemic resulted in an astonishing decline in pollution and rejuvenation of the environment. But it was a time of vulnerability for India’s wildlife. Firstly, the fear of wild animals rose drastically as it is believed that the coronavirus jumped from bats to humans. Secondly, conservation work turned even more challenging for wildlife conservationists due to lockdown restrictions. Thirdly, wildlife poaching exorbitantly increased due to lack of patrolling by forest personnel  and the forceful resorting of locals to poach due to the loss of livelihood and food shortages during the lockdown. Lastly, the maintenance of wildlife habitats has declined rapidly due to a fall in funds from donations and  fees from visitors visiting zoos and parks. 

Current Scenario – rising issues

The more ways animals and humans interact with each other, the more there is a possibility of a future zoonotic disease. Accordingly, India has multifold issues in wildlife conservation which clearly indicate the lack of protection and the increase in vulnerability and methods of exploitation.

  • Weak protection of forests: 

The Indian Forest Act, 1927 is the primary law governing protection of forest areas in addition to the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972. Some of these areas hold valuable and rare wildlife species and ecological resources but are highly prone to human-wildlife conflict and poaching. From the policy perspective, various loopholes exist due to which the exploitation of forests and wildlife has become easier. For example, Protected Areas under the WPA receive a higher level of protection compared to Territorial Forests which do not require any checks or recommendations for any activity to take place in them unlike the former which requires the recommendation of the National and State Boards of Wildlife. Moreover, most departments do not intervene in wildlife protection issues inside Territorial Forests like the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NCTA) does.    

Clearance spree during lockdown: Another staggering issue is the rapid clearances given by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) during the lockdown period for utilizing sensitive ecological areas for development and infrastructure projects. For eg., in April 2020, the standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) recommended that an additional 41 hectares of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve rainforest in Assam be used for open cast coal mining. Fortunately, due to rampant protests the recommendation was not approved. Protests had also kicked off against the proposal by the Tamil Nadu Government to allow commercial activities in Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary. This sanctuary is known to already deal with issues regarding pollutants released by factories situated in the vicinity which are damaging the surface and groundwater of the area. During the same time period, the Etalin hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh came under limelight as the environment ministry was considering giving forest clearances in the Dibang Valley. The draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 published by the MoEFCC was the most popular cause taken up by thousands of citizens which increases the number of projects in ecological areas and worse of all has removed various activities from the purview of public consultation

  • Increased poaching and trade: 

Along with poaching, human-animal interaction escalated as many wild animals moved closer to human settlements around forest areas during the lockdown period. Many people also entered buffer zones for forest resources or just for fun. Many exotic species are not protected under the WPA, making trade even easier and convenient without any punishment or penalties involved. 

Recently, the MoEFCC issued an advisory to standardize the process of importing live exotic animals which includes a proper procedure and the identification of such animals under CITES. But the advisory doesn’t address issues such as domestic trade and the spreading of zoonotic diseases from such exotic species of animals.

  • Human animal conflict: 

This is another nation-wide issue which has increased in frequency over the years. A common occurrence throughout India is when locals use various means to keep off wildlife as they believe that they pose a threat to people’s livelihood and safety. There is no definite law or policy to avoid such encounters. While most wildlife are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, animal offenders are apprehended under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960 where the offence is non-cognizable and bailable, or under Sections 428 and 429 of the IPC with imprisonment of less than seven years. 

  • Wildlife Markets: 

India has its own set of wildlife markets that sell wild meat and live wildlife. These markets act as an axis point between humans and animals for transmission of diseases due to poor regulations and unsanitary conditions. Most metro cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata as well as smaller towns in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have open wildlife markets, thereby increasing the chances of zoonotic diseases throughout India. 

The most prominent issue in these laws is the non-seriousness of the offence due to their nature of assigning animals a certain monetary value which can easily be paid off, thereby avoiding any sort of punishment. 

What can be done?

Identifying, regulating and curbing wildlife markets in India can help reduce the interaction between consumers and illegal traders. There is a need for a higher level of control in areas around international borders which make up for a large part of animals trafficked illegally. Charging of wildlife smugglers and traders under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (PMLA), which empowers authorities to freeze their assets and finances can help in breaking down organized trafficking networks which happened in the Suraj Pal Case of 2017.

Protecting habitats by preventing deforestation and land conversion, managing food production sustainably, etc., would help reduce interaction and also help address climate change and loss of biodiversity. Creating more sanctuaries would help to restore and protect natural habitat and prevent crop-raiding. Emphasis should be given to systematic resource management, increasing recruitment of wildlife protection workers, creating rescue teams and emergency medical task forces, community driven conservation efforts to contribute as well as to sensitize locals. 

Reforms in legislation are required in problem areas including the defining of exotic species, updating penalties and punishments as well as controlling import. Guaranteeing rights to animals such as personhood and fundamental rights would also increase legal protection. A Cultural and attitude shift from a feeling of superiority towards respect and equality would in turn reduce interaction and conflict. Economic intervention programs are also required to prevent the poor from participating in poaching and trade.

Conclusion

The pandemic has awoken the world to the neglect and exploitation of nature caused by humanity. As India is already a potential hotspot for the next pandemic, its development projects and policies need to be crafted and carried out from the perspective of environmental health. Along with domestic changes, international cooperation can help in curbing this worldwide trafficking and trade of wildlife. Lastly, a change in wildlife protection can only be brought about by change in the perspective of the community.

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