A fine balance

A fine balance

It cannot be stressed enough that of the total geographical area present in India, less than five per cent is protected for wildlife. There is adequate reason for us to worry, not just because of this low percentage, but also due to uncertainties that cloud the existence of the remaining fraction.

Nevertheless, India’s forests still support an impressive diversity and number of
animals. Ecologically speaking, one of the reasons for this is because there still exist reasonably large swathes of forest landscapes, potentially with necessary inter-
connections allowing animal movement.

Such movement of animals among populations is crucial for their persistence. This is especially true for wide ranging mammals like the elephant and the tiger. These animals travel large distances, chasing favourable conditions and to access greater resources, including food and water. Over the long term, these movements prevent risks of inbreeding, and therefore maintain the genetic viability of wildlife populations, and also serve as a mechanism to deal with climate change.

Securing these animal movement pathways is almost unanimously accepted as a key need for wildlife conservation in India, and indeed, throughout the world.

The beginning

The traditional concept of securing movement routes generally hinges on identifying existing forests - typically narrow strips of remnant habitat (termed ‘wildlife
corridors’) that physically connect two Protected Areas. This definitely was a good starting point. With corridors being secured, animals would have some movement pathways.

Moreover, forests outside the protected area network also received due focus.

However, the concept and its utility for future wildlife conservation have their limitations. The corridor conservation approach begins with identifying ‘structural connectivities’ between two forests and ignores non-forested animal movement pathways. Animals do not exclusively use these corridors for movement; they use any areas they find suitable – even plantations, farmlands or towns and cities.

‘Corridors’ are but one of the many routes that animals use for their movement. Focusing our limited resources exclusively into securing corridors would therefore be imprudent. The corridor approach additionally brought with it an impression of exclusivity. The future of conservation depends significantly on participation by a wide range of stakeholders including the larger general Indian population.

The new thinking

A new research paper authored by scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – India Program in collaboration with the University of Florida, Yale University and Wildlife Trust of India offers solutions. The research titled ‘From dispersal constraints to landscape connectivity: Lessons from species distribution modelling’ was published in the international peer-reviewed journal Ecography last month.

“The novel approach outlined (in the paper) has important implications for practical conservation and connectivity research worldwide,” says Dr K Ullas Karanth, Director for Science – Asia, WCS.

The authors Dr Divya Vasudev, Dr Robert J Fletcher, Dr Varun Goswami and Ms Meghana Krishnadas address gaps in current connectivity conservation, using existing scientific knowledge, tools and approaches. They advocate identification of ‘functional connectivities’ with evidence of use by animals for movement, taking into account the complexities of the natural world.  

“Animals often explore and use routes where they perceive least threats or constraints to their movement. These areas may or may not fall within designated wildlife corridors,” explains Dr Vasudev, Senior Research Fellow at WCS India Program. “What we need is to better understand what allows animals to move and what hinders them. Conservation strategies that emerge from this understanding will be more effective and more sustaining.”

Accordingly, the researchers advocate studying animal dispersal behaviour to identify these preferred movement routes. The study entails understanding whereabouts of the animals to learn which routes the animals’ take. It stresses on understanding the hindrances (physical, biological or anthropogenic constraints) these routes present, as well as features those that facilitate movement.

“We look at animal distribution and ask: Why are the animals where they are? More often than not, their occurrence coincides with areas of minimal threat, or resource constraint. We apply this basic concept to identify which areas are most amenable to animal movement between forests,” adds Dr Goswami, also with the WCS India Program.

Identifying these ‘functional connectivities’ (accounting for current and future land-use patterns) through rigorous studies on animal dispersal behaviour is the first aspect of this new philosophy in connectivity conservation. The second, to devise strategies to preserve (or improve) the prioritised ‘connectivities’, the authors advocate a more inclusive and realistic exercise. The strategies will account human-dominated areas in conservation planning, and engage people living within them; it will require enhancing their understanding and their tolerance towards animals.

The new thinking will have its share of challenges. It will involve changes at policy level, at the grassroots and acceptance by the conservation fraternity itself. Most of all, it will require us to bring about a change in attitude towards wildlife, collectively as a nation. The father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi said that the greatness of a country is measured by the way it treats its animals. Renowned conservationist Dr M K Ranjitsinh recently stated that ‘conservation is tantamount to patriotism’. We should individually take stock of where we stand.

“Tolerance towards wildlife, though fast eroding, highlight India’s unique and wonderous position as a country where a booming human population lives along with tigers, elephants and innumerable other wildlife,” says Dr Vasudev.

For our future, we will have to revisit our past. People’s aspiration for growth and development will obviously continue to be the priority. Yet, development for people and survival of wildlife need not be antagonistic.

As science continues to enhance our understanding, all we would need to do is act on this knowledge, embedding our traditional values, to ensure overall welfare of all of India’s denizens – her people and her animals.

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