pp. 346-351 in
Bioethics in Asia
Editors: Norio Fujiki and Darryl R. J. Macer, Ph.D.
Eubios Ethics Institute
Copyright 2000, Eubios Ethics Institute
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P5. Interface Between Faunal Biodiversity and Cultural Heritage in South West Bengal, India
Kailash C. Malhotra and Ketaki Das.
Indian Statistical Institute, 203, B.T. ROAD, Calcutta 700 035, India
Since the late 1980s a number of studies have focussed on the extent of harvesting and use of floral biodiversity by forest dwelling communities (e.g. Malhotra and Deb 1992; Panayotou and Ashton 1992; Plotkin and Famalore 1992) and the estimation of their economic value (Malhotra et al. 1991; Appasamy 1993; Chopra 1993; Gunatilke et al. 1993). Recently Deb and Malhotra (1997) in an exploratory study examined the social organization of a few tribes from the point of view of conservation of biodiversity. However, strikingly similar systematic studies in respect of wild fauna are totally lacking. To fill in this gap, we undertook a comprehensive study in Midnapore district of West Bengal in 1995-96.
The main objectives of the study were: to prepare an inventory of faunal species in the region; to document abundance and temporal changes in individual faunal species; and to study various dimensions of interface between faunal species and the local forest dwelling communities. Although detailed results of the study will be reported elsewhere, in this paper we report some of the main findings of the study.
2. Materials and Methods
South Western districts of West Bengal were once characterized by large tracts of luxuriant dry deciduous forest, interspersed with small settlements of hunter-gatherers. Soon after the Permanent Settlement of 1793, large areas of forests were brought under cultivation by Zamindars (landlords). Destruction of the region's forest escalated in the 1840's to supply timber for railways (Deb and Malhotra 1993). Following the 1865 Forest Act, all forests came under state monopabitants of the region. By late 1960's most of the region was totally deforested. However, with the emergence of Joint Forest Management (JFM) in the 1980s, in vast tracts, biodiversity has been restituted (Malhotra et al. 1992).
At the time the field surveys for the present study were conducted (1995-'96), the region presented two types of forest landscape: vast areas once totally denuded of forest but are now regenerating, and small area where the forests remained well preserved. In view of the above situation, therefore, in our study - design 10 villages each (total 20 villages) were studied from both types of the forest. For indepth study 369 households (HHs) out of 1506 HHs i.e., 24.5% were selected using stratified sampling principles, maximising capturing of heterogeneities in respect of ethnicity and socio-economic status of the HHs. The data were collected using anthropological, ecological and taxonomic approaches.
The communities inhabiting surveyed villages were: Kora, Lodha, Santhal, Bhumij, Kheria and Mato. The geographical location of the 20 villages are shown in Figure 1 and the names of the villages alongwith their forest range affiliation and distribution of the HHs studied are presented in Table 1. The traditional occupation and linguistic affiliation of the communities studied are given in Table 2.
3.1 Species Diversity
In Table 3 are given the number of faunal species found in the studied area. It is noticed that the number of species in the well preserved forest villages is substantially higher (n = 170) compared to the numbers in the regenerating forests (n = 124). In the well preserved forest, interestingly the number of mammalian and avian species is significantly higher compared to the regenerating forests.
Table 1: Profile of the sampled villages
Range Village Type of Village* Total Households Number Sampled
I. Regenerating Forests
JHARGRAM Dakhinsol M 52 10
Kendui M 110 20
Krishnanagar T 45 20
Lalbazar M 10 4
Rajadihi M 45 10
Jaralata M 41 3
Giria M 42 20
JAMBONI Khatkura M 163 22
Kendua M 99 40
Mohanpur T 62 20
Total 2 10 669 169
II. Relatively Well Preserved Forest
BANSPAHARI Lagadori T 25 15
Birgi M 119 20
Tamajhuri M 81 10
Banslata T 104 25
Joram M 77 34
BELPAHARI Barighati T 39 20
Kurchiboni M 120 10
Sahari M 85 20
Sarisabasa M 106 31
Chirugara M 81 15
Total 2 10 837 200
ALL 4 20 1506 369
*T = entirely tribal village; M = mixed tribal and non-tribal village.
Table 2: Traditional occupation and linguistic affiliation of communities studied
(All communities listed in this table besides main occupation also use forest products)
Ethnic Groups Linguistic Family Traditional Occupation
Kora Dravidian Agriculture
Lodha/Kheria Dravidian Hunter-gatherer
Munda Austro-Asiatic Agriculture
Santal Dravidian Agriculture and Hunter-gatherer
Mahato Indo-Aryan Agriculture
Table 3: Inventory of faunal species found in the studied area
It may be noted that this inventory is rather incomplete as the method used was largely based on the
knowledge of the local people.
Faunal Texas Regenerating Forests Preserved Forest
No. of species No. of species
Mammals 17 27
Birds 62 92
Reptiles 16 16
Amphibians 4 4
Fishes 10 9
Insects 11 16
Other Invertebrates 4 6
Total 124 107
3.2 Dimensions of interface between faunal species and local communities.
In order to capture the range of relationships the local communities have with the wild fauna, two types of methodologies were adopted. In the first, all sampled HHs were interviewed in depth to quantify the animals they hunted, either for personal use and/or commercial purposes during last 12 months. This gave a reasonable estimate regarding the species hunted and their quantities. In the second method, based on literature survey, and the knowledge gathered in the field over years, a detailed check list was prepared in terms of the possible ways in which animals depict relationship with humans. The list included social, cultural and religious features. We were pleasantly surprised to observe that the animals indeed are so intimately related to almost all aspects of the life of the local communities. Details of such relationships are summarized in Table 4. We present here some of the relationships observed.
Table 4: Number of different animal species associated with the lives of the local communities
(Numbers of different wild faunal species)
No. Associated With... Regenerating Forests Preserved Forests
Kora Lodha Mahato Santal Bhumij Kheria Mahato Munda Santal
1. Name of the region 1 - - - - - - 1 -
2. Group identification - - - - - - - - 1
3. Personal names 4 - 6 - - - 3 4 6
4. Clan names 12 4 - 2 3 2 - 3 2
5. Origin of tribe 1 - - 1 1 - - - -
6. Food (humans) 77 104 12 101 18 157 8 89 92
7. Trade & barter 6 9 3 9 9 3 4 6 -
8. Folklore 10 2 3 5 - - - - -
9. Song 6 - 3 5 3 - - 3 -
10. Charm 2 2 1 3 1 - - 1 -
11. Omen 6 5 7 8 5 - 4 6 -
12. Medicine 13 11 6 7 6 8 13 9 11
13. Cause of some disease - - - - - - - 1 -
14. Magico-religious 3 2 2 4 1 4 - 3 3
15. worship & festivals 7 7 3 3 4 6 4 5 4
16. Votives offered 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2
17. Forcasting 5 10 3 6 6 4 5 10 -
18. Musical instruments 4 5 6 6 3 4 2 6 6
19. Hunting 3 3 - 6 - - - - -
20. Personal decoration 1 - 1 1 - - - - 1
21. Paintings/carving/ decoration 1 2 - 4 - - - - 3
22. Dance 7 6 11 6 - - - - -
23. Entertainment 2 1 2 1 - 1 1 - 2
24. House construction 1 1 - 1 - - - - 1
25. Ear/Nose piercing ceremony - - - - - - - 1 -
26. Wild animal training 4 3 - 3 - 3 - 3 4
27. Rites de passage 1 8 3 3 - - 1 3 3
28. Bait for hunting 6 6 5 7 4 6 2 6 3
29. Indicator of scavenging - - - 3 - - - - -
The local communities hunt a wide variety of animals (see Table 5) that include mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes and invertebrates. The animals hunted in preserved forest areas (90/170, 53%) is significantly higher compared to the regenerating forests (31/124, 24%); these differences are partly explained by the abundance and richness of species in the preserved forest. Of different texas, in both the forest types, the birds and mammals account for the bulk of the animals hunted (about 90%). Same pattern is confirmed when we examined the number of animals hunted: of 7235 animals hunted, 4514 are birds, 1780 are mammals and the rest of the texas amount to only 941.
Significant inter-ethnic variation is observed in terms of animals hunted (Table 6). Among the communities living in the regenerating forest, the tribals Lodha, Santhal and Kora hunt significantly larger quantities, compared to non-tribal Mahato (agriculturists). In the preserved forest area, it is highly noteworthy that the Mahatos hunt negligible quantities compared to the other communities. There is some indication of species preference between the communities. Thus, while Lodha and Kheria depict preference for birds and reptiles, Santal and Munda prefer mammals. A majority of the hunted animals are consumed at home; Lodhas, however, sell a significant number of animals, birds in particular, in the nearby markets.
Table 5: Animal species hunted by local communities
Faunal Texas Number of Species Hunted in... Regenerating Forests Preserved Forest
Mammals 11 19
Birds 17 63
Reptiles 2 6
Amphibians 1 1
Fishes* 1 1
Insects 0 0
Other Invertebrates 1 1
TOTAL 32 90
* In fact almost all the local communities do fishing, but we were unable to record the names
of the various fishes, that is why we have mentioned only 1 species.
Table 6: Number of animals (irrespective of species in a texa) hunted by different local communities.
Forest Type Mammals Birds Reptiles Amphibia Total
Kora 219 102 4 37 362
Lodha 106 204 178 - 488
Mahato 36 89 - - 125
Santal 338 102 4 - 444
Total 699 497 186 37 1419
Bhumij 53 478 34 - 565
Kheria 267 1808 300 184 2559
Mahato 10 4 - - 14
Munda 307 1160 13 84 1564
Santal 444 567 63 40 1114
Total 1081 4017 410 308 5816
Grand Total 1780 4514 596 345 7235
Note: Fish species hunted are not included in this analysis. The number of animals hunted are during 12 months prior to the time when households were interviewed.
Parts of the animals used
Collectively almost all parts of the animals are used for a variety of purposes including food, medicine, magico-religion, personal decoration. The parts of the animals used by the local communities for different purposes were (Part, Number;): Whole, 67; Flesh, 101; Skin, 13; Feather, 6; Nail, 2; Head 1; Bone 8; Fat, 15; Egg, 3; Larva, 3; Hair, 2; Shell, 1; Horn, 3; Honey, 1; Wax, 1; Teeth, 3; Blood, 2; Gall bladder, 1; Urine, 3; Stool, 1; Cocoon, 1.
An examination of Table 4 shows that besides animals being consumed as food ( or sold), they are integrated in various aspects of the culture of the local communities. Some of the observed relationships are: region /place names after animals; animals associated with community identity; groups tracing their origin from animals; personal and clan names after animals; animals associated with folklore, songs and dance; animals considered sacred and worshipped; animals used as charms/omen; animals used as medicine; animals as source of inspiration in paintings/engravings; animals associated with Rites de passage.
Table 7: Illustrative list of totemic animal species found among the local communities
Ethnic Group Clan/Subclan Totemic species
BHUMIJ Chilkbindha Kites, Geese
Hans Ducks, Geese
LODHA Mallik Salfish
Ari Turtle/Chanda fish
Pramanik Bird (robin)
MUNDA Nag Kili Snake
Horo Land tortoise
SANTAL Hawal Rat snake
Sarna Wild fowl
Turka Lumam Tassar (moth, larva & pupa)
Hansda Wild goose
KORA Besra Squirrel
Kisku Crow pheasant
Bukut Wood pecker
3.3 Conservation ethics
From the materials presented above, three broad conclusions can be drawn: (i) That the wild animals are very intimately integrated in various aspects of the life - Social, cultural, economic and religious - of the local communities; (ii) The communities do harvest animals and use them for a variety of purposes -food, medicine, ornamentation, religion, music and dance, etc; and (iii) Despite (ii) above, a rich faunal biodiversity exists in the preserved forest and is getting established even in the once totally denuded but now regenerating forests.
The consequence of (ii) one would have expected, is the depletion and/or extinction of faunal diversity in the region. However, conclusion (iii) is contrary to such an expectation. Here below we shall try to analyse this scenario in terms of the prevailing cultural practices in the region in respect of hunting of the animals. For this purpose we shall also draw upon the materials reported by Deb and Malhotra (1997).
It is named after animals. All these are totemic species and are not only accorded full protection but are worshipped and propitiated by the members of the respective clans. An illustrative list of totemic species found among the local communities is presented in Table 7. The consequences of such practices associated with totemic animal species would be the reduced pressure on populations of these species, leading to their survival in a number of dispersed localities.
In addition, there are a variety of taboos practiced by the local communities that have bearing on the persistence of a number of faunal species. For example: animals found in sacred groves and other sacred sites are not hunted; persons having names after animals do not hunt those animals; - animals associated with origin of a tribe(s) are not hunted; many individuals / HHs because of some past events abstain from hunting certain animals(s); in general pregnant animals are not hunted; and there are also seasonal restrictions in hunting certain animals.
In conclusion, we would like to stress that it is because of the elaborate rich traditional ethical values practiced by the forest dwelling communities that a rich faunal biodiversity continues to persists in the southwest region of West Bengal, and not because of the State sponsored legislations and Acts.
We thank Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, New Delhi for the generous financial support. We are grateful to Mr. Kaushik Deuti and Ms. Moumita Roy for the help in collection of the data and Dr. Debal Deb for insightful discussions on the project. We thank the officials of Forest Department, W Bengal for their help in conducting the field work. Last but not the least we express our sincere gratitude to all the villagers who participated in the study and for their warm hospitality.
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