“Responding casually.” That’s what Kerala Forest Minister AK Saseendran told South First he was doing when he was asked if the state government would approach the Supreme Court to kill tigers in Wayanad that posed a threat to human lives, and he replied in the affirmative.
Hours after his bizarre testament that the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government was planning to approach the apex court seeking permission to gun down such tigers, he clarified that no court or authority could permit the culling of protected animals like tigers.
In an exclusive interview with South First, Saseendran said he was responding casually to a question on whether the government would approach the Supreme Court seeking permission to cull marauding tigers in Wayanad.
He admitted that his response had landed him in the middle of an unwanted controversy.
It started after he was quoted in a newspaper interview as saying that this was an “expression of interest” made in the background of violent agitation by farmers of the hilly district against man-animal conflict and the resulting loss of lives.
The problem and the controversy
“I responded, saying all options would be probed and farmers would be protected from tiger attacks. The reporter might have interpreted my answer as disclosing a government move,” said the Minister, who is a member of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
“No government or authority can demand a cull of tigers except those proven to be man-eaters. Even if we approach the Supreme Court with such a request, the court will not allow it. Nobody can permit the culling of protected animals,” he added.
The tiger is the national animal of India, and it is placed in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act or WPA.
As per the National Tiger Conservation Authority guidelines, the killing of aberrant tigers is permitted only as a last resort.
On Wednesday, Kerala editions of the New Indian Express carried a front-page interview with the minister, titled “Saseendran’s plan to end conflicts: Culling Tigers”.
Despite repeated questions from South First, Saseendran was not ready to state that the newspaper twisted his statement or quoted him out of context.
“The pressure on me to solve the human-animal conflict in Wayanad is high. People there are angry and even treat the forest officials as enemies. I stood with the farmers and made a statement reflecting their sentiments. But I know no tiger or elephant can be gunned down,” said Saseendran.
However, the minister said the number of tigers in Wayanad had increased alarmingly, and there must be some measures to address that issue.
So, what’s the solution?
Asked whether he had any concrete solution to the issue, Saseendran said he was exploring all options.
“After the New Indian Express conducted my interview, many international journalists — including a BBC correspondent — contacted me. I had language limitations and didn’t know what they understood from the conversation,” he said candidly.
“Culling is not practical. Other options, like relocation, involve comparatively fewer legal formalities. I have directed the department officials to probe such possibilities,” he said.
The minister, who told South First on Tuesday that his department was planning to approach the Supreme Court seeking permission for conducting immuno-contraception on tigers and elephants, said on Wednesday that sterilisation would be possible only on minor animals like monkeys in the Indian context.
Backtracking from his earlier statement, the minister agreed that immuno-contraception had not been used on tigers anywhere in the world so far.
“We got information that the Supreme Court would consider a case on immuno-contraception involving the West Bengal government on 23 January. It’s unlikely that the Supreme Court will allow it on tigers,” said Saseendran.
“In the case of elephants, too, there is an existing ban on immuno-contraception. We can do nothing against the law of the land,” he added.
He has also said some experts contacted by the department also opined against sterilising tigers.
Asked why he was making comments bypassing the Wildlife (Protection) Act, Saseendran said he was acting out of compulsion as the pressure from farmers of Wayanad was high.
He also agreed that killing a man-eater and culling all the tigers were different things.
He also conceded that capturing and sterilising a fully-grown tiger would be too difficult and risky.
Exploring other avenues
In the meantime, Saseendran said the department was actively considering the possibility of shifting a sizeable portion of tigers in Wayanad to the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady and the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in Palakkad.
“There was a high-level meeting presided over by me in Wayanad the other day in the backdrop of an aged tiger killing a farmer. Farmers’ representatives raised different demands, including culling and sterilisation,” he recalled.
“When someone told me about the immuno-contraception practised in some African countries, I said we would study such options. When they said there was a pending case in the Supreme Court over the issue, I said the department would implead. My intention was not to bypass the law but to somehow assuage the agitating farmers,” said the minister.
Related: Kerala Opposition demands compensation for tiger attack victim
“So far, our efforts have failed before the tigers which roam around in Wayanad. Trenches were dug and walls were built. Long fencings were also. All failed. The people there are becoming restless. We must avoid the situation in which people go inside the forests and gun down the animals,” said Saseendran.
“People are accusing us of inaction. So, we are probing all options within the available legal framework,” he added.
The minister also said finding a solution to the tiger issue in Wayanad would not be easy.
Meanwhile, conservationists have started questioning Saseendran’s claim that there are about 180 tigers in Wayanad forests. They say Wayanad has hardly 50 tigers.