Animal culling and the charisma quotient | Daily News

Animal culling and the charisma quotient

Elephants, a huge tourist attraction. Picture by Malan Karunarathne
Elephants, a huge tourist attraction. Picture by Malan Karunarathne

Killing of monkeys, grizzled giant squirrels and peacocks and some other non-charismatic animal species has been permitted by the Minister of Agriculture, as such common ostensibly jungle-dwelling species are a menace to crops. Some may ask why elephants are not culled in that case as elephant populations doubtless cause damage to crops and to homes etc. as well?

An elephant cull of course would be abhorrent, as these large animals are charismatic species and are tourism draws. Of course it ought to be said more importantly that elephant populations are dwindling while monkey populations in Sri Lanka are not.

This is an absolute fact, and it would be unthinkable to do so much as dream of culling elephants. But whether there is no official cull or not, illegal liquidation of elephants — amounting to culling — is taking place despite the fact that there are laws against the practice.

In Africa, elephant culling is still permitted and encouraged in some regions to minimize the human-elephant conflict and ensure that there is an even-handed conservation of species in the national parks for instance. Overpopulation of elephants results in the mass deaths of other animals of starvation, which is extremely cruel to these other species.


Of course while it seems odd that humans decide everything, it does come to that in matters of animal conservation because there is always a battle for habitats, and human encroachment of elephant habitats or habitats of other animals is something that cannot be wished away or ignored either.

But is culling a decision to be taken lightly? Absolutely not. The mass extermination of sparrows in some countries by decree of the Executive caused famines, but the edicts to kill were passed because it was thought that sparrows are pests that destroy crops. But the decimation of the sparrow population meant that various invasive insect species had a field day. Crops failed due to this, and widespread famine killed tens of millions. Therefore the decisions to cull have to be taken carefully.

Of course there is no edict that has been passed that makes it compulsory to kill monkeys and peacocks, as in the compulsory killing of sparrows ordered in some countries once upon a time. The new ministerial decision simply is that there is no legal bar anymore until further notice, to the killing of peacocks and monkeys, and a few other species.

Many would say that the decision was overdue because peacocks now roam urban spaces and are seen in towns very close to the big cities. There are very frequent sightings in suburban areas such as Mt. Lavinia, Ratmalana, Rajagiriya etc.


But the question may be asked whether there would be laws passed to allow the killing of charismatic animals such as elephants if the need arises? There would be some who would go to the extent of arguing that there is no census of peacocks, but yet peacock killing is now allowed, whereas there is a census of elephants and the numbers of pachyderms has been deemed to be fast dwindling.

The issues are extremely difficult to reconcile with, in terms of human sympathy, and human proclivity to preserve certain species due to perceived advantage to humans themselves, etc. The charismatic animals generally get a reprieve, not merely because they are charismatic, but also due to the fact that they are tourist draws, which of course is in turn due to the fact that they are charismatic.

But notwithstanding all of this, in Kruger National Park in South Africa for instance, elephant culling was allowed annually under certain controlled circumstances because other species had to be protected from the pachyderms, and these were not humans. But then came the human practice of hunting down elephants for the ivory trade, and elephant populations started declining drastically.

But other charismatic species in Africa such as rhinoceros are still culled in certain areas, as rhinos have become invasive in some regions causing varied animal species populations to come down.

Though relocations and other solutions such as controlled sterilization of animals have been sought, these were quickly found to be inadequate, and permits to cull were issued.

In this context of course it is a little surprising to learn of the somewhat shocked reaction to the ministerial announcement that peacock and monkey hunting would no longer be considered illegal. Conservation is the aim, but the other question raised about a census is not necessarily silly.

Of course a census of monkeys and peacocks is silly in practice, but it’s not a census but an approximate idea of the numbers through scientific means that’s imperative. Though humans would absolve themselves of any culpability, the fact is that with regard to charismatic-animals and non-charismatic wildlife, human encroachment is a factor.

It’s just that when it comes to charismatic animals there is a greater desire to hold humans to account, sometimes to the extent of being insensitive to the needs and the tribulations of villagers who have to constantly contend with marauding elephants.

This is not to suggest that elephants culling or a permit to kill elephants is the answer — no, of course not. But the problem is that some animals are more sacred than others so to speak.


In this country the dwindling elephant population and the dwindling leopard population is obvious, and the question of issuing permits for culling is out of the question fortunately. But when it comes to conservation issues, there may come a day when even the culling of elephants would be deemed justifiable, who knows?

At the moment the very suggestion is reprehensible, but it is not so with regard to permits to kill monkeys and peacocks which as hinted earlier, suggests that animal-charisma has something to do with these matters.

Even in controlled environments such as parks one species may start dominating, which means that humans usually take the decisions on whether to cull or whether to introduce foreign species to maintain some sort of biological control. For instance in some national parks in Africa, wolves were introduced to control the rampant population of deer which was a hindrance to some other animals, charismatics such as elephants included.

Aren’t peacocks classed as charismatic animals especially with some religious significance as well, in certain regions of this country? They are, but peacocks can go from being considered charismatic birds to a common nuisance, and do not therefore have the ironclad support of certain types of conservationists.

It would be a great day when human beings do not have to take the decisions regarding matters such as culling or not culling, and decisions with regard to translocation etc. because it does not bode well to have humans playing god. But then the fact that we are the dominant species is not to be taken lightly, and with great power comes great responsibility.

Culls of any sort are not pleasant, and sometimes elephants that have been culled by helicopter i.e by massing them in one place through the means of hovering helicopters, and then shooting them, have left elephant populations traumatized. The practice of issuing permits for the killing of peacocks and monkeys may leave the populations of these animals traumatized too.

There doesn’t seem to be a gentle way of doing these things, and the modus operandi that can be targeted at best is ‘to eschew cruelty’. However, what is imperative is that there is more attention directed at how peacock and monkey invasions of towns etc. could be controlled and how crop damage could be minimized?

The current modus operandi seems to be to have the research focussed on the charismatic animals, which means that all other wildlife is forgotten until of course temporarily it is deemed that permits are required to liquidate them as they have become a nuisance, and a hindrance to crops.

It just doesn’t seem the way to treat wildlife, charismatic or not, never mind that peacocks are in that vast twilight zone of the in-between when humans cannot decide categorically if they are indeed charismatic or not. A little more care in the preservation in the long run of these species is called for, even if sometimes permits to kill can be deemed a requirement in precisely that cause.


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