A state in western India has declared war on animal poaching by allowing forest guards to shoot hunters on sight in an effort to curb rampant attacks on tigers and other wildlife.
The government in Maharashtra says injuring or killing suspected poachers will no longer be considered a crime.
Forest guards should not be “booked for human rights violations when they have taken action against poachers,” Maharashtra Forest Minister Patangrao Kadam said on Tuesday.
The state will also send more rangers and jeeps into the forest, and will offer secret payments to informers who give tips about poachers and animal smugglers, he said.
No tiger poachers have ever been shot in Maharashtra, though cases of illegal loggers and fishermen being shot have led to charges against forest guards, according to the state’s chief wildlife warden, S.W.H. Naqvi.
However, the threat could act as a significant deterrent to wildlife criminals, conservationists said. A similar measure allowing guards to fire on poachers in Assam has helped the northeast state’s population of endangered one-horned rhinos recover.
“These poachers have lost all fear. They just go in and poach what they want because they know the risks are low,” said Divyabhanusinh Chavda, who heads the World Wildlife Fund in India and is a key member of the N ational Wildlife Board, which advises the Indian prime minister. In many of India’s reserves, guards are armed with little more than sticks.
India faces intense international scrutiny over its tiger conservation, as it holds half of the world’s estimated 3,200 tigers in dozens of wildlife reserves set up since the 1970s, when hunting was banned.
Illegal poaching remains a stubborn and serious threat, with tiger parts in particular fetching high prices on the black market because of demand driven by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners.
According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, 14 tigers have been killed by poachers in India so far this year — one more than in all of last year.
The tiger is classified as an endangered species, with its habitat shrinking more than 50 percent in the last quarter-century while its numbers have declined from an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 in the 1990s, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Eight of this year’s tiger poaching deaths in India occurred in Maharashtra, including one whose body was found last week chopped into pieces with its head and paws missing in Tadoba Tiger Reserve. Forest officials have also found traps in the reserve, where about 40 tigers live.
Naqvi said encounters between Maharashtra’s forest guards and poachers were rare because poachers generally hunt the nocturnal big cats at night. He said the state’s offer to pay informers from a new fund worth about 5 million rupees (US$90,000) would likely be more effective.
“We get very few tips, so this will really help,” he said.
However, conservationists said that poachers are rarely seen has more to do with low ranger numbers, and that increasing patrols around the clock would help.
Dozens of other animals are also targeted by hunters across India, including one-horned rhinos and male elephants prized for their tusks, and other big cats like leopards hunted or poisoned by villagers afraid of attacks on their homes or livestock.