The year 1878 proved quite difficult for the residents of the Bombay Presidency. The deficit in rainfall in the preceding years compounded the effect of the famine that befell that year along with a bout of the plague. Since most of the southern part of India was reeling under the effects of the treacherous weather conditions, people did not have an option of migrating to other parts of the country.
The famine resulted in a steep hike in the prices of grains, vegetables, fruits, and meat. According to a report in the “Bombay Courier”, the price of milk in Poona had risen by five times between 1878 and 1880, and was no longer affordable to the natives.
An interesting reason behind the steep hike in the price of milk in Poona could be found in the reports discussing the conservation of wildlife in the Presidency. According to British officers, the indiscriminate hunting of game birds in the district was the reason why milk was unaffordable to the natives. Because many game birds were on the verge of extinction, natives and Europeans had to resort to consuming beef and mutton, thus resulting in the decimation of milch cattle. Milk had become scarce, and hence dearer.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, calls for strict regulations to preserve wild animals and game birds grew louder. In 1880, Lionel Robert Ashburner, the acting governor of the Bombay Presidency, introduced a bill that aimed to do the same. The bill which came up for discussion was called “A bill to enable government to provide for the preservation of game birds and wild animals”.
Hunting was an integral part of British life during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shikar was a sport that defined masculinity and the character of sportsmanship. The experiences of Shikar were promptly documented in journals and newspapers, and occasionally in official reports. Hunting was initially seen as an essential device in maintaining control and authority over the natives.
Later, however, the British took it upon themselves to “conserve” the wildlife in India while actively hunting for recreation and food. The colonial administrators and naturalists initially wanted to conserve wildlife for the recreational activity of hunting. With the advancement in colonial scientific forestry and the exploration of Indian flora and fauna, there emerged a genuine concern for endangered wild animals and birds.
The main idea was to regulate hunting, not eliminate it. “Game”, like timber, was increasingly seen as a resource that was not limitless. Measured to protect the elephant, vital for transport, the army, and forestry ran parallel to the game rules. By 1879, elephant killing was prohibited, except in self–defence or on private lands.
The Raj did not know how to regulate hunting, or how far it ought to meddle with the right of the native hunters. While sport hunting brought them in close contact with princes and natives, the animals they sought to protect were crop – raiders. On one hand, they saw no apprehension in the killing of the game for the meat, on the other hand, they knew that the decimation of game birds would harm the crop because most of the game birds were insectivorous.
“Pro–game” officials felt that Europeans could cooperate and ensure the survival of fauna. By the 1880s, many provinces began declaring “open” and “close” seasons for game birds and animals in the government forests. Access was regulated: senior colonial officers did not need licenses, though they too had to limit the number of animals shot to “the bag limits”. Special zones were set aside around Poona for soldiers and officers of the British army as it was felt that tracking and hunting game would hone their skills of warfare.
The specific interests of sportsmen, mainly British, but also Indian princes and aristocrats, were a powerful force in shaping policies. While wild boars were protected in some parts of the Bombay Presidency, the law curbed the netting of boars by tribes like the Pardhis. In government forests around Poona, game birds like jungle fowl and spur fowl could be shot only by license–holders in the open season.
The conflict was not between conservation and destruction. It was between protecting one species versus the other. It was a conflict between the imperial officers and the natives who earned their livelihood by hunting and whose crops were destroyed by wild animals.
Many colonial officers and naturalists believed that the destruction of the game was caused by the natives. They forgot that since the colonial rule was firmly established in the country, game meat was mostly consumed by the Europeans.
Several native tribes and groups survived by selling birds to eat. They netted or hunted birds to sell in local markets. The imperial hunters did not like the crude methods, and weapons, used by the locals to hunt the birds. They also expected the locals to adhere to the codes of European hunters who maintained formally closed and open seasons for shooting games to ensure respite during breeding.
So long as the districts of the interior were difficult to access, the indiscriminate hunting and trade of game birds were limited to places like Bombay, Poona, and Kolhapur. But as the railways opened up the districts of the interior to the enterprising traders and hunters of Bombay and Poona, game in large quantities, of all kinds, had been sent down to these cities from distant parts of Khandesh, Gujarat, and the Central Provinces. The government had received complaints that contaminated and spoiled game meat brought from Satara and Khandesh was being sold in the markets of Poona.
Poona was also facing a unique problem around the same time. Many farms were being infested with white ants. A couple of years before that, a very good crop of grains was destroyed by rats. Though the government had destroyed sixteen million rats between 1876 and 1878 in Poona, it was estimated that rats and insects destroyed crops worth two thousand sterling every year in the Poona district alone. It was believed the reintroduction of game birds would take care of the problem. To protect the game birds from hunting, the idea of a game reserve was floated.
The Poona Sarvajanik Sabha was staunchly against the creation of a game reserve around Poona. It feared that the creation of game reserves could lead to an abuse of power by government staff who would “drag innocent people before magistrates”.
When the governing council met in Poona to discuss the bill put forth by Ashburner, a clear rift between the “pious” European ideas of conservation and the interests of the natives could be seen. The foundation of the bill was that the liberty of killing game unrestrained had been so exercised as to threaten the extinction of certain species of birds and animals.
Rao Bahadur Gopalrao Hari Deshmukh and Morarjee Gokuldas stated that there was no necessity for making a Game Law that would take away the rights of the natives who survived on hunting. According to them, some native classes like Vaidoos, Wadars, Kaikadees lived on hunting all around the year. While their number was small, the Game Law would affect their livelihood adversely.
Imperial administrators, too, were worried that peasants and native hunters would be enraged if hunting were banned. The Bombay government backed off from the proposed bill. But the issue would recur as game sports affected adversely the lives of many.
The events in the 1880s surrounding the Game Bill created the foundation for conservation laws which were enacted in the twentieth century. It was passed as legislation in 1887 but was deemed “too weak” by many. Poona continued to face the wrath of insects because game birds had become extinct.