In February, last year, when Mohammad Arif applied mustard oil paste and tied a splint to the leg of an injured Sarus Crane, little did he know that the bird would become family.
There's no way the farmer could have also imagined, back then, that a year later he would be torn away from the bird (or the bird from him) and booked under various sections of the Wildlife Protection Act. All for attempting to protect wildlife, and unwittingly winning its trust?
“It would stay in the jungle when it wanted. Then, in the evenings it would come to my house and eat with me. I never held it captive," Arif too had told the press.
The bird was not holed in, not shackled, not shut away. It never flew away despite being kept in the open, media reports have noted.
But now, the Sarus Crane has been placed in a zoo, after it struggled to survive in the wild, and it is reportedly refusing to eat. Arif suggests that the bird should be offered dal, chawal and cooked food, and shown his photograph.
"If the Sarus Crane sees my photo, it will start eating automatically," he told India Today.
Meanwhile, Arif has been booked under Sections 2, 9, 29, 51 and 52 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (as amended). He has also been asked to appear before the authorities on 2 April to record his statement.
The Case Against Arif
Sarus Crane falls under Schedule I of the amended act.
A reading of this Act, along with its latest amendment, indicates that, if convicted, Arif can be penalised with imprisonment for a term of three to seven years, and also with fine which shall not be less than twenty-five thousand rupees.
This is because Section 51 (which prescribes penalties under the Act) says:
Any person who contravenes with any provision of this Act (except under Chapter VA, which carries its own separate prohibitions)...or any rule or order made thereunder or who commits a breach of any of the conditions of any licence or permit granted under this Act, shall be guilty of an offence against this Act.
Further, where the offence committed is in relation to any animal specified in Schedule I…such offence shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three years but may extend to seven years and also with fine which shall not be less than ten thousand (twenty five thousand, post the amendment) rupees.
And what are the offences Arif is alleged to have been guilty of?
Hunting (under section 9); which, in its definition includes capturing, coursing, snaring, trapping, driving or baiting
Destruction, etc., in a sanctuary prohibited without a permit (under section 29), which includes removal of wild life from a sanctuary or destruction or damage or diversion of the habitat of any wild animal by any act whatsoever, except under a permit granted by the Chief Wild Life Warden
Attempts and abatement, in the contravention of, any of the provisions of this Act or of any rule or order made thereunder
But 'The Sarus Crane Was Free': What Experts Say
However, experts have recalled the video in which the bird could be seen flying, out of its own volition, behind Arif's bike – a video that went viral as testament to the possibility of an unyielding human-animal bond.
They have thus questioned how despite the legal-speak, could Arif really be accused of holding the bird captive?
"The Sarus Crane was free. It was not captive. It was evidently following the person wherever it went," Debadityo Sinha, an ecologist specialising in environment laws said in conversation with The Quint.
Sinha further said that the video, in fact, reminded him of the beautiful visual of Prime Minister Narendra Modi feeding a pea fowl (which too is another species listed under Schedule I).
"Now these kind of instances exist everywhere. There are people who live near forests, and elephants and other wild animals visit their gardens. So if those who are staying there don’t have a problem, and they are not hurting them, why should anyone else have a problem?" he added.
Sinha also pointed out that the Sarus is a bird that has been accepted by many farmers in India.
"They are mostly found in farms and paddy fields. Just because an animal has been listed in Schedule I, it does not mean that it’s a forest dwelling animal."
For instance, a pea fowl can be found everywhere, from the side of a road to homes occupied by the human civilisation.
"The natural habitat of the sarus crane in India is agricultural fields, and they prefer that and they are living along with people," the ecologist added.
Other experts have also pointed out that there is a scientific explanation for the relationship that the crane had forged with Arif.
“Such birds show a high preponderance to imprint on humans when they are kept in close proximity as young birds, or before they have found mates of their own,” K.S. Gopi Sundar, the global co-chair of the IUCN Stork told IANS.
“Once such imprinting happens, it is not a good idea to release it into the wild since that bird will seek human companionship frequently.”
What About Now?
According to Sundar, moving the bird out of its own human’s protection, can put it in harm's way.
“Since other humans may not have the same willingness to include the crane into their lives. Additionally, cranes coming into human settlements in places like Uttar Pradesh will face more dangerous threats like dogs... electricity wires, and so on.”
Besides, Sinha expressed concern over the manner in which the authorities have taken the crane out of its habitat, seemingly 'captured' it; then transferred the animal to some other place; then relocated it to a zoo.
"Hunting does not just entail killing an animal, it is also used to refer to capturing of an animal," he explained.
"And the wildlife protection act is very clear, to hunt/capture an animal (under section 11), even a forest-ranger first requires permission from chief wild life warden. And to grant permission, the warden has to be satisfied that the animal has become dangerous to human life or is disabled or diseased beyond recovery. In this case none of the above appear to apply. "
"Section 12 says you can capture an animal for special purposes, but it is only for scientific management, and for that too written permission and stated reasons are required."
"And in this case, from what I am aware, there is no clear justification," Sinha observed.
“Also the captivity is never a good thing for a wild born animal," K.S. Gopi Sundar, on his part, pointed out.
The 'Intent' of the Legislation
Debadityo Sinha also noted that: "even if Arif has committed an offence, he may not have been aware of that."
And while lack of awareness is not a defence under the law, a mitigating factor, at best; the intent of the legislation should at least be acknowledged.
Besides, hunting entails “capturing, coursing, snaring, trapping, driving or baiting”, which involve using a particular animal for personal benefits, and not for conservation.
“But there is no element of trading, commercialisation, or earning profit involved in Arif’s case, so his act can never come under the purview of hunting,” Delhi-based lawyer Harshit Anand noted.
Essentially, the focus of the Wildlife Protection Act is conservation of wild-life. That is what Arif did.
“The Act cannot be weaponised to punish acts of good faith.”Advocate Harshit Anand
In all likelihood, Arif saved the crane's life by nursing it back to health. Then, when the crane refused to leave, he fed it and kept it from harm. Even now, despite all else, he is suggesting ways to make sure the bird eats well, the bird survives, the bird is 'protected' and 'conserved'. Should a good deed such as this one not go unpunished?
(With inputs from India Today, The Indian Express, IANS, Delhi Times.)