All of us are acutely aware of the hunting of megafauna connected with the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade. Many of us also know of the problem of hunting that persists in the North-Eastern states of India. But very few of us pay attention to the indiscriminate killing of thousands of protected wildlife in rural Bengal, under the garb of “ritualistic hunting”.
Ritualistic hunting is possibly one of the biggest killers of wildlife in South-western West Bengal, a region that forms the habitat of a number of globally threatened species, including elephant, pangolin, fishing cat, hyena and wolf, to name a few. The problem is most acute in the south-western districts of Purulia, Jhargram, Bankura, and West Medinipur – parts of which are a continuation of the Chotanagpur plateau. It used to be a major problem in East Medinipur and Howrah in South Bengal but has been largely contained there over the past two years. Murshidabad in Central Bengal also sees sporadic hunting. These districts have fragmented patches of deciduous forests, inland wetlands and scrublands, interspersed with agricultural lands and human settlement. While hunting has been traditionally prevalent in pockets of rural Bengal and Central India, over the last ten years, with better mobility through roads and trains and better phone connectivity, hunters can now reach far off places – locations with more wildlife. As a result, the biodiversity of this region has been witnessing a sharp decline.
Tribal communities of south-western West Bengal and parts of Central India hunt wild animals almost all the
year round. However, certain days that generally coincide with some cultural, ritualistic or religious events,
are celebrated as “hunting festivals”. The hunt dates mostly coincide with a full moon. Most of the major hunts
take place between January and June of every year. On these days, hunters’ groups from different communities congregate
in large numbers in specific spots to hunt wild animals. These locations are not necessarily restricted to their local
forest patches, with the hunters often travelling long distances to reach hunt destinations. Spanning across more than
45 days in a year, “the hunting festivals” of South Bengal attract anywhere between 50,000-60,000 hunters every year.
The number of hunters on each occasion may range from 1000-15,000.
Armed with bows and arrows, axes, spades, swords, knives, hammers, sling shots, nets, traps and other sharp weapons, hunters’ groups flock to various hunt locations and set out to kill every wild animal they can find. At times, they are accompanied by hunting dogs. What follows is the brutal slaughter of thousands of mammals, birds and reptiles, all protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WPA 1972). Species killed during these “hunt fests” include fishing cats, monitor lizards, pangolins, jungle cats, porcupines, jackals, Bengal foxes, wolves, wild boars, civets, and birds like pittas, owls, barbets, coucals, francolins, bitterns, and jacanas, to name just a few. Even a tiger that had appeared in Lalgarh in Jhargram in 2018 was hunted down by tribal hunters. Each hunter aspires to bag at least one wild animal. In fact, younger hunters compete with each other to kill as many animals as possible. Before the Calcutta High Court placed an embargo on ritualistic hunting over the last two years, hunters used to kill wild animals openly, without fear of any action or resistance from the authorities. One can only imagine the havoc that such killings wreak on the local wildlife populations.
Such narratives provided great insight into the way people understand and perceive bears in the landscape.
They exhibited the extent of people’s familiarity with bears and indicated that people believed that they have knowledge
about the bear’s behavior, daily routines and residence. This belief could create a sense of predictability about the
bear and therefore help people in functioning from day to day without constant high levels of anxiety about being in
danger, as they co-exist with the bear.
One of the interviewees narrated that the bear came about because a newlywed woman who turned herself through magic into a bear to reveal her magical skills to her husband, was unable to turn herself back into human form and therefore wanders around in the shape of a bear. Across the community, the anatomy of the bear was often considered comparable to the anatomy of the human beings. Many interviewees observed the similarity in many different body parts of the humans and bears, one of them also exclaimed at the similarity of internal organs after he witnessed a postmortem of a bear. Interestingly in this landscape, the pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ was used to refer to bears instead of the pronoun ‘it’. These factors can be used to deduce that the bears in this landscape are anthropomorphized to a substantial extent. Though anthropomorphism is generally looked down upon in the academic world, it is increasingly being recognized, especially in zoos, as a factor that contributes to the engagement of people in other animals.
Another interviewee attributed the actions of the bear to its hormonal bodily condition and suggested that the attacks of bears on humans were acts of sensual fulfillment such as hugging and kissing. In conjunction, there was also a prevalent myth in the landscape about bears kidnapping human beings. In such ways the people of Bodganahalli are not only granting the bear a self, a history and life cycle, but are also granting it needs/ sexual needs that it has the urge to fulfill. Though not ‘scientifically accurate’, these stories reveal a willingness to think about a circumstance from the vantage point of another being. They also portray the bears as having agency and choosing to act as they do rather than as passive, instinct-driven creatures who are permanently doomed to behave in a specific way. Ascribing agency to the animal perhaps allows for the active negotiation of space between human and non-human species and establish shared spaces that can accommodate humans and other animals.