Local Hunting and Conservation of Large Mammals

Hunted Chital deer
Sanjay Gubbi
Hunting by local communities is among the most widespread threats to Indian wildlife, yet, the understanding of its nature, extent, and impacts on wildlife has been poor.

Hunting wildlife for the pot and for commercial sale is far more widespread than most people realize, and is leading to an ‘empty forest’ syndrome in many parts of the country.  M.D. Madhusudan and K. Ullas Karanth conducted a fascinating study on local hunting around two wildlife reserves in Karnataka. These are the results of their study, excerpted from their original scientific paper published in Ambio in 2002.

  • Mammals that weigh over one kilo are the most prone to hunting by humans.
  • Their meat and by-products – hide, horn, and bone – make large mammals attractive targets. On the other hand, these mammals are vulnerable to extinction—they naturally require large home ranges and bulky diets, have slow rates of growth and maturation, small litter sizes, long life-spans, and are found in low densities.
  • Excessive hunting could well push vulnerable populations over the brink.

There are two distinct types of hunting in India:

  • The first, market hunting, refers to the well-organized hunting of selected species for ivory, rhino-horn, tiger-bone, bear-bile, shahtoosh, etc.
  • The second, local hunting, is a loosely organized activity, prevalent everywhere. It is driven by local tradition, sport, or demand for wild meat. Local hunting is a big threat to Indian wildlife, since it targets a wider variety of species, and is carried out by far greater numbers of people.

Study area

The surveys were conducted during 1996–97 in and around two National Parks in Karnataka: Kudremukh and Nagarahole

Kudremukh study areas: Kudremukh National Park is surrounded by at least 88 villages (population > 2,80,000 in the 1990s), with another 98 small hamlets (population unknown) located within the Park. In addition, the Malleshwara mining township (population c. 4,000) is also located within the Park. In Kudremukh, the study focused on getting information on the intensity of hunting, and describing patterns of hunting like prey-choice and hunting techniques used. Since all hunting in India is forbidden under law, the study was probing an illicit activity, and one that people were not comfortable discussing. Hence, the authors carried out a pilot survey in the region before launching the actual study. Based on this survey, they chose three widely separated villages bordering the forests, which they believed would be easier to gather and verify information on hunting. The population of these villages, taken together was c. 9000.

Nagarahole study areas: The Park stretches across the districts of Kodagu and Mysore, and is dominated by moist and dry deciduous forests, and supports a rich assemblage of large herbivores and their predators. Based on decades of experience in the Park area, the authors identified two moist forest patches for the study – Arkeri and Nalkeri – each about 70 sq km in area, but differing with respect to pressures of hunting. Hunting pressure was consistently higher in Arkeri owing to the fact that, until 1995, it lacked wildlife protection staff with the exclusive responsibility of controlling hunting. Arkeri also offered better access to local meat markets, maintaining the higher levels of hunting there.

Methodology In Kudremukh, the interviewees were given two sets of questions:

  • The first set of questions pertained to the large mammal fauna of the area. Besides gathering information on the presence–absence of various large mammals, the respondents were also asked about their impressions of changes in the populations of these species over the last decade.
  • The second set of questions essentially surveyed hunting practices of each individual hunter. These included details on the species they had hunted the most, common hunting techniques and practices, and motivations for hunting. In addition, information was also gathered on the ethnicity, education, and economic profile of the interviewees (including land-ownership, annual income, monetary losses in conflict with wildlife).

In Nagarahole, the authors carried out systematic line transect surveys simultaneously in Nalkeri and Arkeri to estimate the abundance of nine species of diurnal mammals: Indian giant squirrel, bonnet macaque, common langur, barking deer, wild pig, chital, sambar, gaur, and Asian elephant. They also interviewed local hunters and neutral informants and forest department staff to assess hunting patterns and enforcement capabilities, respectively.



  • At least 26 species of mammals were hunted in Kudremukh. On average, a hunter had hunted 18 species of mammals during his lifetime. The chevrotain (mouse deer) was the most-hunted mammal (78%), followed by the common langur (60%) and the Indian giant squirrel (50%).
  • Hunting was common both by day (74% of hunters) and night (89%), and a variety of hunting techniques were documented. Locally crafted, muzzle-loading guns were the most popular means of hunting (94% of hunters), while 45% of hunters reported using snares to hunt ungulates, primarily pigs, near crop land. Although all hunters did not own guns, 97% of them had either borrowed or lent guns.
  • The hunters interviewed represented diverse ethnic communities. Yet, most hunters (68%) hunted for the pot, while 48% also cited the thrill of sport as a reason for hunting. Eighty-eight percent of the hunters regarded wildmeat as a non-essential item in their diet. Nearly all of them had access to alternative sources of animal protein: 98% of hunters raised cattle for milk, while 93% raised poultry.
  • While most hunting is for the pot and most wildmeat is consumed locally, hunters are increasingly catering to fast-growing markets for wildmeat in nearby urban centers. For instance, meat from an adult wild pig sells at around Rs. 2500  (in the early 90s when the survey was conducted) which is approximately 50% of the average annual per capita income of the hunters.
  • About 80% of hunters reported crop losses from wildlife depredation. The reported annual loss incurred due to wildlife depredation averaged at Rs. 950 (in the early 90s when the survey was conducted), which, assuming a family size of 5, worked out to 24% of annual per capita income.
  • Although literacy levels in Dakshina Kannada are high, about 18% of hunters interviewed were unaware of the legal restrictions on hunting. Virtually all sites recorded violation of religious taboos. Hunting was seen among Brahmins and Jains, both groups that shun violence against animals and are considered strictly vegetarian, Muslims who hunted the tabooed wild pig, and Hindus who hunted the venerated bonnet macaque even within sacred forests.
  • The ‘empty forest’ syndrome suggests direct persecution of large mammals through hunting. The statements of the hunters in the region also support such an inference: 75% of all hunters identified hunting as the single most important factor responsible for the depressed abundance of large mammals in this area.
  • There is an absence of large mammals even where vast stretches of relatively intact habitat exist, and other anthropogenic pressures like extraction of non-timber forest produce and cattle-grazing are minimal.
  • None of the 62 hunters interviewed reported encounters with enforcement staff when on hunts, and none was ever apprehended or prosecuted.


  • Estimates by the local hunters and informants indicated that hunting in Arkeri was about three times as intense as in Nalkeri. Sixteen of the 29 mammal species (weight > 1 kg) present in Nagaraholé were regularly hunted.
  • Although shotguns were the most popular method of hunting, tribal hunters also used at least 8 other traditional techniques to hunt large mammals.
  • Among the 9 large mammal species whose densities were estimated, 6 species – giant squirrel, bonnet macaque, langur, chital, wild pig and gaur – occurred at significantly lower densities in Arkeri, the heavily hunted site. The abundance of muntjac and sambar did not differ between Arkeri and Nalkeri, despite the fact that they were eagerly sought out and killed by hunters. The elephant was the only species occurring at a significantly higher density in the heavily hunted site, Arkeri
  • Factors responsible for the higher levels of hunting at Arkeri included: fewer patrolling roads and vehicles, poorer communication facilities, and an ill-equipped armoury; slack patrolling schedules, absence of permanent anti-poaching camps; and its highly-dissected boundaries, which made border patrolling in Arkeri difficult.
  • Although, as in Kudremukh, most hunters catered to local wild meat consumption, a certain segment of hunters in Arkeri operated exclusively to supply wild meat to eateries in nearby towns, and neighboring Kerala.
  • However, unlike Kudremukh, where shotgun hunting almost completely eclipsed other techniques, Nagarahole presented a far greater variety of traditional hunting techniques.
  • The giant squirrel, bonnet macaque and langur – all small-bodied arboreal mammals of diurnal habits – were vulnerable to similar hunting techniques. Traditional techniques, which are silent, in contrast to gun hunting, take a heavy toll on these arboreal species.
  • Overall, hunters at Arkeri target small and medium-sized prey, which are easy to kill using varied hunting techniques.

The study concentrated on the diurnal complement of the larger mammals hunted in the region. It did not estimate abundances of other large mammals, which were mostly nocturnal, and hence, was unable to assess hunting impacts on them. However, the impact of hunting on these species, most of which are vulnerable tree-cavity and burrow dwellers, may indeed be quite serious.

Managing Hunting in India: Sustainable Use or Preservation?

The management of natural resources worldwide has largely been driven by two divergent and influential approaches: sustainable use and preservationism. The sustainable-use approach is founded on the basic premise that extraction of a resource can be so regulated that it does not compromise either the integrity of the resource, or its ability to renew itself. In contrast, the preservationist approach argues that, under prevailing contexts of rising economic aspirations of users, and spiralling demands from commercial markets for resources, restrained extraction is an unattainable practical goal. Therefore, it advocates a complete cessation on extractive use as the only practical, clearcut, enforceable option to ensure the continued survival of a resource. In the past (1955–74), wildlife managers in India attempted to regulate hunting, and failed. If regulated hunting has not been achieved under authoritarian initiatives, neither are there examples of successful self-imposed, community-based regulation of large mammal harvest which demonstrate their sustainability with reliable data. In the absence of data, the authors believe that mere reinforcement of native conservation traditions is a naive management strategy, fraught with grave risks to large mammals. The rare Indian examples of traditional wildlife preservationism (e.g. the Bishnois of Rajasthan who protect antelopes), are completely overwhelmed by numerous examples of rampant native wildlife consumerism (tradition-driven hunting for meat, hides, horns, and other wildlife products). In conclusion, although a variety of approaches promise the continued survival of India’s large mammals, the data in this study, stripped of its ideological content, highlights one simple irrefutable fact; large mammals thrive under scrupulous protection, but continue to wilt under intense pressures of local hunting. Thus, while we look for socially acceptable, economically equitable, and morally agreeable ways of minimizing hunting pressures on large mammals, there is no escape from investing substantially in their explicit protection. First published as ‘Local hunting and the conservation of large mammals in India’ by M.D. Madhusudan and K. Ullas Karanth in Ambio, Vol. 31 No. 1, February 2002. For a more detailed understanding of the study we suggest you read the original paper.  Download the PDF here.

(Visited 825 times, 1 visits today)

About the author

Read more

M D Madhusudan is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. He studies the impacts of anthropogenic pressures on large mammals and their habitats.


Leave a Reply