As India continues the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, its impact is seen on the wildlife in western Rajasthan. The state has witnessed a rise in poaching of wildlife, including the chinkara (Indian gazelle) and peacock, the national bird.
Forest officials and activists working on wildlife conservation in the region told Mongabay-India last month, that there could be multiple reasons behind this spate – primarily, a surge in demand for meat and loss of daily wages.
Rajasthan declared lockdown on March 21 – even before the central government’s announcement of a pan-India lockdown that started from March 25. The total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 crossed 5,800 as of May 20. Mokhram Dharnia, activist and president of Jeev Raksha Sanstha, a nongovernmental organisation working for the protection of wildlife, said that there have been at least 30 cases of poaching in the districts of western Rajasthan during this period.
There has definitely been a sharp rise in poaching cases during this lockdown period. Eight to ten cases have been in Nagaur itself; another six in Jodhpur. There have been similar reports from Jaisalmer. Altogether, in western Rajasthan the cases would tally around 30 within this period,” Dharnia told Mongabay-India.
Wildlife biologist and conservationist Sumit Dookia, who is working on GIB (Great Indian Bustard) conservation with the local community near Jaisalmer, agreed. “From the reports, I have read and from the inputs, I get from the local community of this area, I can say that there must have been more than 30 cases of poaching from the five districts alone – Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Pali, and Nagaur – in this (lockdown) period,” Dookia told Mongabay-India.
In the first week of April 2020, four people, suspected to be involved in the poaching of three chinkaras, were arrested by the Rajasthan forest department. The forest department had touted it as a major breakthrough in investigations around poaching and trafficking of other wildlife, like the supply of spiny-tailed lizards to southern India from this region.
The chinkara, which is also the state animal of Rajasthan, is just one of the many animals widely hunted in the state. Blackbuck, the grey francolin, blue bull, monitor lizard, hare, and other animals that are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 have also been targetted by illegal hunters, most of whom are armed with guns and knives. Peacocks have also been poached in large numbers.
In Jodhpur, forest ranger Ashok Panwar, for instance, said, “I have three areas under me, where my flying squad and I patrol, and we have had cases of chinkara poaching, but also of other animals and birds like peacocks and grey francolin.” There have been at least six such cases registered in Jodhpur alone over this past one month, of which “three cases were registered in the past 36 hours.” One of these cases was in Bawri, where chinkara had a gun bullet wound. Another poaching case was of peacocks.
According to Panwar, in other times, they usually register “12-13 cases in a year”.
In Churu, Mokhram Dharnia informed, there has been a case in which 25 peacocks were found killed. In Nagaur, five peacocks were killed. A group of 22 peacocks and 15 grey francolins were found dead in the Lohiya village of Bikaner district. The peacocks were found to have been fed poison-laced grains. A motorcycle and a vial of the chemical used to poison the birds were found near the site.
“Leaving poison-laced grains for peacocks to feed on is one of the common ways of hunting them,” said Ramniwas Bishnoi, one of the founding members of the Bishnoi Tiger Force that works on the conservation of the environment and wildlife. The Bishnoi community, which reveres wildlife, has been known to act as vigilantes against hunting and, as acknowledged by the Rajasthan forest department, tip-off officials on such attempts.
One of the reasons for the spike in poaching of wildlife, said Ramniwas Bishnoi, is the surge in demand for meat in the general populace during the lockdown. “One may question, what is the use of a poisoned peacock? But some of the poachers who were caught in the past have admitted that with the quantity of poison they use, it doesn’t spread into the body for 12 hours. Soon after the birds are dead, they take out the food canal of the bird, and after cleaning its pit, sell it for meat,” Bishnoi explained.
Meanwhile, Dharnia added that “every part of the peacock is sold for a different purpose.”
A forest department official, who did not wish to be named, said that poachers have admitted to selling blackbuck meat at a price “lower than the current price of Rs. 800 per kilogram of mutton.”