No less than 200 wild animals, which includes snakes, mongooses, pigs, foxes, birds, rare jungle cats, wild boars, monitor lizards, owlets, Asian koels and rufous treepies were killed this month in a forest that straddles West Midnapore and Jhargram districts. Hundreds of hunters armed with spears, slingshots, bows, arrows, axes and knives raid the forests of Junglemahal to kill animals in the wild in a barbaric display of cruelty.
Earlier, the tribes lived in small groups and hunted for their livelihood. Besides Santhals and Chendra there are 27 other tribes who follows a tradition to hunt and gather during new moon (Purnima) and offered cooked meat to the goddess Kali for ‘foloharini Kali puja’ and ‘buddha purnima’.
Explaining their tradition, primary school teacher of the area, Prabir Mandi who is from Santhal community reasoned why the tradition should not be completely banned. He says, “Some of the tribals are developed while some are still developing. They are happy cultivating their lands and celebrating life. The festivals are a medium to teach the tribal about life and behavioral sciences. Hence is should not be banned completely. Shikar Utsav is a tradition and a lot of ritual are followed after this Utsav, it does not get concluded with hunting. If you’ve observed carefully, you can see the women are not allowed to take part in it.“
In recent times, these tribal hunters have increased in numbers. They travel in groups by train, sometimes hire vehicles to congregate in forest and non-forest areas. NGOs as well as the state forest department reported that groups of people from neighboring Jhargram in West Midnapore joined this year’s Shikar Utsav.
Soumodip Mukherjee, President of Bonyo, an NGO working towards wildlife crime control, has confirmed that not everyone taking part in the festival is from the Adivasi community. Bonyo took up the work of coordination between police, forest department and Railway Police Force. “These hunters use religion and culture as an excuse to go hunting. The activity is not at all need driven. They do not depend on wild meat for food and existence. In-fact, the hunting is not restricted to local tribes only, hunters from long distances travel to reach the hunting destinations,” says Mukherjee.
While forest officials stood guard at the road leading and pleading with the tribals that killing of animals and birds would destroy the ecological balance, the community members insisted that the hunting festival was is an integral part of their culture.
Chief Conservator of Forests, Central Circle, Dr. S Kulandaivel who has worked over 16 years in South Bengal terrain says, “We are not against tribal festivals, we are against killing.” The forest department have conducted 11 meetings at different levels to educate the tribal people. Some NGOs are strongly working at grassroot level to minimize hunting. “We all know, the law alone is not the solution. Following the law will make the initiative successful. Some tribal leaders instigate others for their own vested interests,” said Dr. Kulandaivel.
“Food security is not the matter. We are implementing schemes like MNREGA to create water bodies, irrigation canals, borewells and development of lands. We are employing them in conservation work of forests. Through hunting the tribals do not meet even one percent of their food basket. It is clearly for fun and show off,” added Dr. Kulandaivel
Very pertinently has the Human and Environment Alliance League (HEAL) contended that “there is nothing tribal about these festivals. Clad in denims and T-shirts, the intoxicated men are out for a day of pure recreational hunting”.
Hearing a PIL filed by HEAL, Calcutta High Court had in April 2019 prohibited hunting wildlife in the garb of rituals in various districts of south Bengal. The court has also directed the wildlife authorities to work in collaboration with the district administration and the police to ensure that hunting festivals are not held.
It is generally perceived that the objectives of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or forest rights Act, clash. However, both prohibit traditional hunting by tribal (or any) communities.