Win a few, lose a few

Win a few, lose a few

The year 2013 began on a promising note. Scientists working with the Wildlife Conservation Society announced that the global tiger population was increasing due to special efforts taken by three particular countries – India, Russia and Thailand.

They found the highest tiger population in India at Nagarhole and Bandipur national parks in Karnataka, with the credit given to strict anti-poaching measures, constant patrolling, surveillance, voluntary relocation and scientific monitoring. The study also warned that the tiger population in both locations had increased to such a large extent that the two parks were now saturated. 

Fast forward to December 2013 and the true implication of the scientific observation became visible. A tiger’s turning man-eater did not just bring the growing man-animal conflict to the fore, but also gave a big jolt to all the activities centered on conserving these fast-disappearing wild cats. 

From Uttarakhand’s disastrous floods, unaccountable wildlife fatalities to surprising effects of global warming, looking back, if the year that is about to end has prominently showcased something, it is the aftermaths of the unnatural changes brought by man on earth.

Counting the losses

There have been 74 tiger deaths this year in India with 37 due to poaching and seizures. If hunting as a sport was always condemned, its modern avatar is even deadlier. Modern day hunters are not killing animals to defend themselves or for recreational purposes, but to slaughter them into parts and earn millions from each piece. Illegal wildlife trade is a multimillion dollar criminal business today, analogous to trade in drugs and arms. 

From mega species like the tigers to small ones like the turtles, not one animal has been spared from the bloody fangs of poachers. But if a singular species has suffered the most brutality, it is the rhinoceros.

In the last decade, rhino poaching in South Africa increased 3,000 per cent and it is certain that by the year end, there would be 1,000 rhinos dead in the country. 

India lost on an average four rhinos every month this year, with most of them left to die from their wounds after poachers hastily cut off their horns. 

Besides Kaziranga and Manas, even Orang National Park in Assam witnessed illegal killings for the first time with three rhinos now dead in the hands of poachers. 

Tech tragic

Tragically, it also surfaced that technology is aiding the criminals more than the protectors. Wildlife Crime Control Bureau found nearly 200 websites trading in wildlife after a random online study. In Madhya Pradesh, an accidental glitch in the tracking of wild tigers through their GPS-tagged collars revealed that the tagging was being used by poachers too for their ulterior motives. 

On a positive note, all tigers of India are soon to get a unique identity card, based on the hundreds of camera-trap images and other information available about them. 

This will significantly improve tracking and identification of the royal beast and discourage poachers from killing them in the long run.

If India’s national animal had a difficult year, it was no less challenging for India’s national heritage animal, the elephant. The biggest threat to jumbos this year turned out to be the Indian railways. As recently as November 2013, a passenger train hit a herd of 40 elephants, killing seven instantly. Post the tragic death of 28 elephants this way, the Supreme Court has finally asked the railways to lower the speed of all trains plying especially through elephant corridors, and introduce appropriate warning measures.

Another worrying scenario emerging this year has been the frequent crop raids by elephant herds. With forests turning to farms, more and more pachyderms are invading farmlands on the fringes of the forest, in lure of an easy meal.

 Fear is rapidly turning to anger and the strenuous relation needs urgent attention as well as planned solutions. What might help is an innovative idea recently revealed by Vivek Thuppil, an animal behaviourist at the University of California–Davis. He and his team believe that jumbos raiding farms may be deterred by using a tiger’s roar to distract them. Only time will tell though if such a solution can be applied for peacefully resolving the conflict.  

Nature strikes back

In 2013, the biggest tragedy and learning lesson for the nation has been the natural calamity Uttarakhand witnessed. On 16th and 17th June, the hill state of India was pounded by landslides and torrential rains. What followed was a gory story of devastation with thousands of lives facing nature’s wrath. Could this tragedy have been averted? Many experts believe yes, if the need to blast rocks, uproot trees, and put unscientific anthropogenic pressure on the fragile Himalayan ecosystem was much lesser. 

As Uttarakhand fumbles to stand back on its feet, predictions for the future of the planet, especially its flora and fauna, continue to be grim with global warming making its presence felt even more. In January this year, researchers found aquatic creatures to be shrinking 10 times faster than terrestrial species due to climate change, the reason being less availability of oxygen in water than on land.

Another study later in the year found mammals in general were shrinking all around the globe. Closer home, two separate studies conducted by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), found the Sunderbans ecosystem to be rapidly changing due to human-led developments and global temperature rise. They fear the mangrove forests are losing as much as 200 m of coastline annually. Meanwhile, Birdlife International’s projections show that at least 45% and possibly up to 88% of 370 species of Asian birds will experience decline in suitable climate, leading to the local extinction of these birds. With 15 bird species of India already marked ‘in-danger’ as per the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species, it may not be a big surprise to find many other names in the list, if climate change warnings are not taken seriously.  

Better tomorrow

The biggest boost to conservation in 2013 has been India’s decision to ban shark finning. Sharks are to the marine ecosystem what tigers or lions are to the terrestrial ecosystem. Sadly, almost 100 million sharks die every year as their fins are turned into soups and India was till recently the second largest exporter of shark fin in the world. With the ban, the country has definitely taken a positive step forward.  

Another apex predator’s future safeguarded this year is that of the Asiatic lion. Palpur Kuno is finally set to get 12 lions in the first phase of a conservation project involving translocation of Asiatic lions from Gir in Gujarat to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. The last lions of Asia now have a second home and a better chance of survival.

In a ground breaking news, a group of scientists announced the successful completion of the full genome sequencing of the tiger. The data collected from the tiger genome will now form the basis of all future genetic studies related to conservation of the species. 

What also made headlines this year were the spout of discoveries and re-discoveries of species that were thought to be extinct. Jeypore Gecko was spotted again after 135 years in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. The attractive and critically endangered gooty tarantula, last seen in 1899, was seen again. Arunachal Pradesh once again proved the richness of its biodiversity with a new species of rhododendron and a new species of fish discovered in the state. The Tibetan Brimstone butterfly too was spotted in Arunachal, first time in the Indian sub-continent, and only the second time in the world.

If these newly discovered species tell us something, it is the fact that our country’s bountiful natural treasures are waiting to be seen, pampered and appreciated. Our actions are not affecting us alone, but the fate and the future of these species too. Let us welcome 2014 keeping in mind that the human world and the natural world are not separate entities. 

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