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Recategorised animals, more Union govt oversight — amendments wildlife protection bill brings

Passed by Lok Sabha, Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Bill, 2021, seeks to make law suitable to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

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New Delhi: The Lok Sabha passed the Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Bill, 2021, this week, following a lengthy discussion where opposition leaders voiced their concerns over the proposed law but also commended certain provisions.

The bill seeks to amend the Wildlife Protection Act, framed in 1972, to suit the requirements of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which India is a signatory.

CITES is a multilateral treaty designed to regulate the trade of wildlife and to protect endangered species. The convention requires countries to regulate the trade of all listed specimens through permits.

The changes proposed by the Union administration include introducing central government-appointed management and scientific authorities, which would permit and guide the trade of specimens of CITES-listed species. They also include a provision to control invasive alien species, and reduction in the number of schedules (categories of plants and animals, in order of protection) to four, from six in the present Act.

Several opposition leaders commended these additions, but echoed some of the concerns raised by a House panel that examined the bill and submitted its recommendations in April this year. The bill passed by the Lok Sabha is a modified version of what was introduced last year.

Pradyut Bordoloi of the Congress said some of the amendments, such as restrictions on renewing the arms licence of anyone living within 10 kilometres of a sanctuary, were necessary.

However, A. Raja of the DMK said “some major structural changes are being brought to the system by bringing in management and scientific authorities”.

“Isn’t it your duty to bring in the role of the state government at least in the name of the district forest officer? These changes are being brought in to satisfy the requirements of the international convention, but what about the state’s contribution?” he asked.

Several MPs also took issue with the change in the number of schedules. In the Wildlife Protection Act, there are six schedules — four for animals, in which the species in the first two schedules are given the most protection, one schedule for vermin, and one for plants.

The bill proposes replacing this with four schedules: Schedule 1 for animals accorded the highest protection, Schedule 2 for animals accorded protection, but to a lesser degree, Schedule 3 for plants, and Schedule 4 for specimens listed under the CITES agreement (of both animals and plants).

“Under the proposed amendments, the striped hyena and Indian fox, which come in the second schedule, could also be considered vermin. This reclassification has been done without any scientific study,” said Kuruva Gorantla Madha of the YSR Congress.

Faizal P.P. Mohammed of the NCP added that the bill should introduce criteria to determine vermin so that endangered species are not adversely affected.

In his reply, Bhupender Yadav, Minister for Environment, assured the MPs that the classification of vermin would happen carefully.

“We even issued guidelines in 2021 which give the chief wildlife warden the authority to make a decision (regarding the classification of vermin),” he said.

Also read: How the cheetah, hunting ally of Mughals & ‘vermin’ for British Raj, went extinct in India

What the bill changes

In April, the Jairam Ramesh-led standing committee said that reducing the number of schedules was a “welcome” move, but that several animals were missing from the revised schedules, and recommended that the list of protected animals be extended.

The Wildlife Protection Act prohibits the sale and transfer of captive elephants without the permission of the chief wildlife warden or another authorised officer. The committee had also taken issue with the bill’s proposal to allow the transport of live elephants by “certified” private owners who had taken permission from the state government.

“Nothing should be done to even give an impression that private ownership of elephants and trade in them is going to be encouraged,” the committee had said, adding that it was important “to strike a careful balance to ensure that age-old traditions are not interfered with”.

The version of the bill passed Tuesday, which was revised after the committee’s observations, includes a larger selection of animals — particularly in Schedule 1 — enjoying maximum protection, but allows for the transfer of captive elephants.

The bill states the central government will “prescribe” the “terms and conditions” through which the transfer of elephants can take place.

“This is a very regressive and dangerous move,” said Agatha Sangma of the NCP, adding that it would allow for commercial trade of live elephants.

Aparupa Poddar of the Trinamool Congress said the bill has “excessive delegation and unrestricted power of the central government. If the central government will do everything, what is the role of states?”

Yadav responded by saying the clause had no effect on the protection offered to elephants.

“Regarding the transport of elephants, we are only introducing regulation for their transport, but their protection and cultural importance will remain the same,” he told Parliament.

The revised version of the bill also retains a definition of alien invasive species that experts say is ecologically incorrect.

The bill defines invasive alien species — an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in an environment where it is not native — as “a species of animal or plant which is not native to India and whose introduction or spread may threaten or adversely impact wildlife or its habitat”.

In its report, the joint committee had pointed out that “species could be alien and invasive as far as a particular ecosystem within the country is concerned. Invasive alien species may not be just restricted to those from outside India”.

According to Debadityo Sinha, Senior Resident Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, the bill offers clarity about protecting sanctuaries, but there are still gaps to be filled.

“At the moment, zoos cannot freely trade animals, but the current bill exempts trade for conservation breeding centres. There is scope for this to be exploited, and so there should be a clear definition for what a conservation breeding centre is,” he said.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: Turning deathtraps into shrines, how Ladakh’s pashmina goatherds learnt to live with wolves

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