Hunting on opposite sides of the earth
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1998:
JODPUR, India; ANCHORAGE, Alaska;
MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota; DENVER, Colorado––
A U.S. federal indictment issued on October 23 in
Anchorage, Alaska, charged Jon S. “Buck” McNeely,
producer and host of the nationally syndicated TV show
“The Outdoorsman with Buck McNeely,” with illegally
using three aircraft to poach caribou.
Also charged were hunting guide James M.
Fejes of Anchorage, Fejes’ assistants Blaine A. Morgan
and William M. Vollendorf, and hunting client Michael
Doyle, of Minnesota.
The case was little noted by national media.
Neither was there much notice––or fuss ––when
in August U.S. Attorney Tom Monaghan of Omaha,
Nebraska, rescinded fines of $250 apiece which had been
paid by former Minnesota Vikings football coach Bud
Grant and two companions after they were caught last
March illegally hunting geese over a baited field.
Monaghan accepted the claim of guide Barry Bales that he
alone was responsible for the baiting.
Poaching is so frequent in the U.S. that of the
16.3 million Americans who hunt, according to National
Sporting Goods Association and U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service data, barely 14 million buy licenses. Ohio wardens,
recording the activities of all hunters they see in the
field, have discovered year after year that approximately
10% are violating a wildlife conservation law at the time.
Many of the biggest recent poaching busts have
come only after the alleged offenders boasted of their
deeds for years via both print and electronic media.
Hunting guide Samuel Sickels, for instance, of Nucla,
Colorado, recruited clients by sending them videos of his
illegal kills, including one in which 20 people aboard 16
snowmobiles chased and killed a puma. Texas hunting
writer Brandon Ray described poaching trophy bears and
pumas with Sickels in at least three publications before
turning government witness.
Sickels pleaded guilty on September 15 in St.
George, Utah, to three of 38 charges filed against him in
five jurisdictions for alleged wanton destruction of
wildlife, illegal taking of wildlife, and unlawful use of
wildlife for financial gain. Other charges are reportedly
pending. Yet the Sickels prosecutions have still drawn
less attention than Ray’s tales of dispatching a nearrecord-sized
puma by archery on one Sickels-guided hunt.
Bishnois bring charges
The Bishnois people of rural Rajasthan, protectors
of wildlife since 1542, think poaching is out of hand
in India, too, but unlike in the U.S., where illegal hunting
is typically seen only as a theft of “game” from other
hunters, the Bishnois see it as sacrilege.
On October 12, ten days of escalating Bishnois
protest secured poaching charges against five of India’s
biggest film stars, including Salman Khan, described by
Neelesh Miskra of Associated Press as “the heart throb of
Indian women for almost a decade…a Sylvester Stallonetype
macho romantic who fights for love in gutwrenching
Khan was held without bail for allegedly shoot
ing two blackbucks and a chinkara. Both are
deer-like members of the antelope family.
Also arrested, as alleged accomplices,
but released on bail, were Saif Ali
Khan, and the actresses Sonali Bendre,
Neelam Kothari, and Tabu, who does not use
Warrants were later issued for another
four alleged accomplices, believed to have
promoted hunting guised as wildlife observation
“All were involved,” Rajasthan
forestry official Alka Kala said, “but the judge
found it was Salman who pulled the trigger.”
More than 100 witnesses testified
against the film stars, including the stars’ cook
and the driver of a vehicle which made a fast
getaway with one dead blackbuck, while
Bishnois confiscated and buried the remains of
the other blackbuck and the chinkara.
“The police have also recovered
photographs of the hunting expedition which
were allegedly taken from a camera owned by
Salman Khan, found in his hotel room,”
Prakash Bhandari of The Times of India wrote.
Salman Khan was eventually
charged with three separate crimes: allegedly
poaching two chinkaras who were eaten by a
film crew on September 26-27; allegedly
killing the two blackbucks on October 1; and
allegedly possessing illegal firearms.
Additional charges were brought
against Salman Khan’s father, screenwriter
Salim Khan, after a police search of the family
farm in Panvel discovered a blackbuck, two
chinkaras, and a peacock who were allegedly
held captive without the proper permits. The
police were embarrassed, however, when the
blackbuck died from an overdose of tranquilizer
while in their custody.
The Delhi-based Wildlife Protection
Society of India was reportedly pursuing a
related case against a sixth entertainment figure,
comedian Satish Shah, for allegedly
bootlegging the weapons to Mumbai, where
they were recovered by police.
“We are trying to find a Bishnoi
lawyer to represent us,” Ashok Kumar of the
Wildlife Protection Society told Radhika
Sachdev of The Times of India.
“According to Kumar,” Sachdev
wrote, “the conviction rate for wildlife offenses
is poor because forest officers who investigate
these cases are often unable to build
watertight cases against influential poachers.”
Two handicaps to successful prosecutions
are that present conservation policies
allocate only $13.50 per case for legal fees,
and another $13.50 for informants. Madhya
Pradesh chief conservator of forests has asked
that these amounts be multiplied tenfold. The
low fees reportedly encourage bribes, though
Indian media rarely directly identify instances
where bribery is suspected.
Sachdev did indicate doubts about
one case in which “a film star was charged a
few years ago in Karnataka state for killing a
leopard at the Dendeli National Park. He was
acquitted because of lack of evidence.”
Indian minister for social justice and
empowerment Maneka Gandhi described a still
more flagrant series of invocations of the
“influential persons act,” in which, while
serving as minister of forests in a previous
government, she sought prosecution of a film
star for allegedly shooting birds at Sultanpur.
Instead, he was released on a promise of good
behavior––but was arrested later for allegedly
shooting two panthers at Madumalai in Tamal
Nadu. Charges are now pending, Maneka
said. However, some wildlife officials apparently
tried to exonerate the film star by claiming
the panthers actually died of overeating. A
veterinarian was suspended for filing an inaccurate
report, Maneka told Kalpana Jain of
The Times of India, but no action resulted
against his superiors.
On October 15, The Times of India
revealed that in August 1998 authorities
accused Salman Khan, members of a film
crew, and “some Army and Air Force officers”
of shooting chinkaras, hyenas, and
foxes near Bhirandiyara village in the vicinity
of the Kutch Desert Sanctuary. The complaint
apparently moved from one bureaucrat’s desk
to another for more than two months without
action being taken.
The Khan case encouraged other
crackdowns against alleged poachers––whose
alleged offenses, routine in the U.S., seemed
to shock and surprise the Indian public.
In Vadadara, Ahmedabad, for
instance, seven people were arrested on
October 10, including five Rajpipla
Sindhiwada residents who allegedly bought
two fawns from a pair of butchers, and the
butchers themselves, who are believed to have
poached the fawns’ mothers in the
In Khadaripur village, Kolar, four
alleged deer poachers were arrested by forestry
officials on October 25, in reportedly the first
such case ever brought before the local court.
In Mumbai, the animal welfare
group Ahimsa announced a “Hunt the
Poachers” campaign. Ahimsa reportedly asked
that the Film Producers and Directors
Association, the Indian Film Federation, and
film director Sooraj Barjatiya, Salman Khan’s
most recent employer, “boycott the film personalities
involved in the poaching incident.”
Media also seized the opportunity to
expose poaching in Madya Pradesh, Bijar,
and Orissa, where the Wildlife Society of
Orissa demanded that a special prosecutor be
appointed to bring offenders to justice.
WSO secretary Biswjit Mohanty told
Kalpana Jain of The Times of India t h a t
“Although 24 leopard skins and seven crocodile
skins were seized during the past three
years, and an ivory poacher was arrested in
1991, none of the accused have yet been
Central government minister for
environment and forests Suresh P. Prabhu told
Jain that an interministerial bureau to deal with
wildlife crimes is soon to be formed.
Bishnois vs. WWF
The Khan case drew notoriety comparable
to that of the Bill Clinton/Monica
Lewinsky affair in the U.S., not only because
of the prominence of the accused but also
because it directly pits traditional Indian values,
as upheld by some of the poorest of the
poor, against decadant modernity represented
by some of the richest of the rich.
A further tension is that the Khan
surname tends to indicate descent from the
Islamic rulers who conquered and dominated
Rajasthan for more than 700 years with frequent
bloody displays of hunting prowess and
animal sacrifice. The Bishnois assumed their
roles as protectors of wildlife in nonviolent
resistance to the excesses they saw after the
consolidation of the Mogul Empire in 1526.
The Hindu, however, which is the
leading Hindu newspaper in India, on October
16 prominently identified Salman
Khan––despite his surname––as a Hindu.
The fundamental issue for the future
of Indian wildlife is the conflict the Khan case
exemplifies between the “sustainable development”
visions of the World Wildlife Fund,
which have dominated conservation in India
and Africa since WWF was founded in 1961,
and the lifestyle of the Bishnois, strict vegetarians
who have practiced their own form of
sustainable coexistence with wildlife for more
than 500 years.
WWF might not welcome the notoriety
associated with the Khan case, yet there is
no doubt who his friends are. “Salman Khan
and [fellow actor and suspect] Saif Ali Khan
reportedly took shelter at the Umaid Bhaven
Palace of the erstwhile Maharaja of Jodhpur,
Gaj Singh,” wrote Radika Sachdev of T h e
Times of India. “The former Maharja,”
Sachdev noted, “is the chairman of the World
Wildlife Fund-India’s Rajasthan committee.”
The World Wildlife Fund-India’s
1999 calendar depicted Salman Khan and 11
other stars uttering greetings with environmental
themes. Salman Khan’s greeting urged
people to bicycle or walk.
WWF-India state director M.S.
Kothari said the calendar would be withdrawn,
and would omit Khan in future printings.
But WWF disciple and former
Karanatka state chief conservator of forests S.
Parameswarappa unabashedly told M.
Gautham Machaiah of The Times of India that
the government should deal with poaching by
following the WWF prescription of legalizing
sport hunting, as most nations have, and selling
permits to hunt rare species to the highest
bidders. The receipts, he argued, could be
used to propagate wildlife and fight poaching.
Legal hunting is the foundation of
the WWF “sustainable development” strategy.
Begun by British trophy hunter Peter Scott,
with substantial help from hunting pals Prince
Philip of England and Prince Bernhardt of The
Netherlands, WWF initially promoted only
“conservation,” to make sure “game” species
remained plentifully available to hunters after
former British colonies gained independence.
The watchwords became “sustainable development”
instead in the early 1980s, as the idea
that true conservation should include protection
from hunting as well as poaching gained
momentum. The economic ideology of the
U.S. presidential administration of Ronald
Reagan and then British prime minister
Margaret Thatcher suggested to the WWF
strategists that anti-hunting views might best
be countered with the argument that wildlife
should “pay for itself,” as if animals––like
humans––should enjoy security only upon
payment of some form of tax.
Balking only at legalizing hunting,
India embraced “sustainable development,” in
theory, shortly after the 1984 assassination of
prime minister Indira Gandhi. Villagers in
ever-growing numbers were allowed to make
economic use of wildlife reserves, as in
Africa, both squeezing the habitat and escalating
conflicts between animals and humans.
Not coincidentally, the confluence––also
as in Africa––brought sharply
increased poaching, and growing demands for
hunting to deal with alleged “surplus” wildlife.
The numbers of leopards and tigers left in
India are believed to be near the recorded
lows. Yet fatal leopard and tiger attacks on
humans are reportedly up.
“Due to a decline in the number of
wild herbivores, both because of rampant
poaching and ecological degradation, the big
cats turn to humans, who make the easiest targets,”
Wildlife Institute of India scientist
Sathya Kumar told R.P. Nailwal of The Times
of India last June.
Officials told Times of India reporter
Law Kumar Mishra that 2,500 blackbucks
were poached at the Karera National Park near
Bhopal alone during 1996 and 1997.
Officially, the blackbuck population was
down to 1,600 by June 1998; unofficially, the
count was as low as 200. The problem,
Mishra wrote, was twofold: “Farmers are
encouraging killing of blackbucks as their
farms are being damaged by wildlife,” and,
“Villagers, apprehending their displacement
due to the expansion of the national park, have
apparently started a campaign to liquidate the
population of blackbucks to prevent the
authorities from acquiring their farms. They
invited poachers from Jhansi and Gwalior to
The conflicts, in short, are similar
to those that have suburban residents and farmers
throughout much of the U.S. clamoring for
more deer and goose hunting, to remove perceived
public nuisances, and have resulted in
poachers who see themselves as defending
their property rights illegally killing many of
the wolves who were recently reintroduced to
the vicinities of Yellowstone National Park
and Apache National Forest, in Arizona. The
difference is that in the U.S., the burgeoning
deer and goose populations have resulted from
40 years of vigorous effort by wildlife management
agencies to propagate the species preferred
by hunters, undertaken after their major
wild predators were themselves hunted to the
verge of extinction.
The WWF-influenced Wildlife
Advisory Board of Rajasthan, a branch of the
Rajasthan Forest Department, predictably
responded to the reports of declining blackbuck,
spotted deer, sambhar, and chinkara
populations by suggesting “partial privatization
of wilderness,” to encourage game farming.
Some of the animals would be released
into sanctuaries, to feed wild carnivores,
while the operations would presumably pay for
themselves through the sale of meat
Floating the proposal via The Times
of India was Wildlife Advisory Board member
Harsh Vardhan, the honorary secretary of
“Vardhan also expressed his concern
over the loss of traditional knowledge and
expertise in the villages in hunting, trapping,
and snaring,” said the anonymous Times of
India account, hinting that Vardhan perhaps
sees poaching as well as wildlife as an aspect
of India worth preserving.
As Khan informally appealed his
prosecution to Gopinath Munde, a prominent
member of the Indian government,
5,000 Bishoi marched in Mumbai on
November 4 to keep the case alive.
Valmik Thapar, executive
director of the Ranthambore Foundation,
described the Bishnois in his 1997 book
Land of the Tiger as “members of a sect
which believes in complete nonviolence to
all living organisms. They are the primary
reason,” Thapar wrote, “that desert
wildlife still exists on the subcontinent.
The women of the community have been
known to breastfeed black buck fawns and
save insect life,” as is documented by
photographs published recently by the
Animal Welfare Board of India, “while
many of the men have died in their efforts
to counter armed poaching gangs,”
including a youth who was killed in one
celebrated 1996 case when he tried to stop
two armed poachers by himself. No one
has been charged with the murder.
An average of eight Rajasthan
forestry personnel per year are killed and
30 are crippled for life in confrontations
with poachers, according to Nature Club
of Rajasthan founder Suraj Ziddi. Many
and perhaps most are Bishnois.
“Bishnoi is an offshoot of
Jainism,” Thapar continued, “which
teaches that all nature’s creations have a
right to life. This belief reached its apotheosis
in 1778 when 294 men and 69
women laid down their lives to protect the
khejri tree. A senior officer of Jodhpur
state arrived to cut down the trees, which
were needed for burning lime. The first to
challenge him was a woman, who hugged
one of the trees and was promptly decapitated.
Her three daughters followed suit
and were also axed. Many others followed.
This mass slaughter led to a royal
order that prohibited the cutting of any
tree in a Bishnoi village.”
Concluded Thapar, “It is
remarkable how desert wildlife thrives
around Bishnoi settlements,” which are
typically located in habitat so harsh that it
has resisted almost all other humans.