Being proactive in wildlife protection

Being proactive in wildlife protection
The religious head at Saalur Mutt in Malai Mahadeshwara Hills said, “Wild pigs eat up our farmers’ crops, how do we control them?” “I appreciate you; what you are doing is good for the society, we will surely support this campaign. But the elephants and monkeys do not allow vegetables to come up on our land. Please tell me what to do about this?” said a pastor. These were the stoic responses of two religious heads whom we had approached requesting  their support for wildlife conservation.

It’s a situation in many areas of the country to which we have no appropriate answers. The gazettement of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 helped many wildlife species to rebound in the country. This also helped several initiatives in Karnataka and brought in positive conservation results. Protected Ares (PAs) were notified, wildlife habitats rejuvenated, and wildlife numbers bounced back due to the strict protection accorded by the Forest Department. Due to these and many other reasons, conflict started popping up as a severe problem.

In Karnataka, during the last seven years, 288 people have lost their lives due to elephants, tigers and leopards leading to an increased animosity of people towards wildlife. Some may argue that many people die in road accidents in the state. But a traffic fatality does not impinge on public consciousness so sharply as a leopard or a tiger kill. Support for wildlife conservation from the communities or from policy makers is at its fragile end. With this background, it is indispensable that human-wildlife conflict is brought down to tolerable limits.

Conservation efforts
Several forests from Kodagu state, Madras and Bombay provinces were annexed to Karnataka during the reorganisation of states. Parts of the current Nagarhole National Park, Talacauvery, Bramhagiri and Pushpagiri wildlife sanctuaries, Biligiriranga Hills, Male Mahadeshwara Hills and large parts of Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary became part of our state. A key strategy in wildlife conservation is setting up of PAs. Except for Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, all other PAs were gazetted post-1970s. The largest expansion of PAs in the country in the post-1970s was undertaken in Karnataka, with the PA area increasing from 3.8 to 5.2% of the state’s geographical area. From a single PA prior to independence, today Karnataka has 29 wildlife sanctuaries, five national parks, eight conservation reserves and one community conservation reserve helping several wildlife species.

In the past, PAs were notified in the interest of large mammals. However, Karnataka has taken the unique step of gazetting areas to protect the diverse wildlife species, both large and small. As a result, today, nine PAs have been established for otters, four-horned antelopes, chinkaras, vultures, lion-tailed macaques and other wildlife species.

Notification of a PA is followed up with afforestation, digging of waterholes and various other developmental works. However, management is species-dependent. For instance, wolves prefer grasslands and taking up afforestation activities in areas designated to protect wolves is unnecessary. Similarly, there are species that have evolved with very little water requirement, and providing surface water in such areas can lead to local extinction of habitat specialist species.

Ranebennur Wildlife Sanctuary was notified for conserving the great Indian bustard and the wolf. Today there is no bustard, and the existence of wolf is doubtful in this area. Similarly, there are no signs of wolves in Melukote Wildlife Sanctuary that was established to preserve the wolves. Leopards seem to have taken over the space of wolves in Maidenahalli Conservation Reserve (Jayamangali Blackbuck Conservation Reserve). Perhaps one of the key factors for this local extinction is the afforestation activity taken up due to the wrong presumption that grasslands are wastelands, and need green cover. As a result, we seem to have stumbled in saving habitat specialist species.

These days, in our overenthusiasm, we are also notifying areas that have less ecological significance. If we push to declare areas with commonly found wildlife species, there would be little support when the need to preserve ecologically significant and threatened habitats such as Myristica swamps or species such as the wolf is to be taken up. Mere notifying does not lead to perseveration of the species; appropriate management actions are imperative.

The frontline staff of the Forest Department play a pivotal role in wildlife conservation. Though we have achieved positive results in wildlife conservation, not much has progressed to improve their conditions. Government’s support is essential to improve their conditions, or else it would be a challenge to find people who take up positions in this extremely tough profession. Recently, we documented chinkara, an antelope species, from Tumakuru district, and honey badger from the Cauvery-MM Hills landscape. In addition, the Forest Department recorded the chinkara in Bagalkot district. Furthermore, many new species of amphibians, fish and plants have been recorded by scientists in different parts of the state.

Gain some, lose some
Amidst all the conservation success, we have lost a few species. Cheetah, that was found in parts of Chamarajanagara, Mysuru, Ballari and Chikkaballapura, was lost even before the reorganisation of the states. D N Neelakanta Rao, the Wildlife Preservation Officer of the Mysore Maharaja, had documented Nilghai in Bandipur in 1940, but the species doesn’t exist in the state anymore. The extinction of Malabar civet is almost certain, while the state is no more home to the Nilgiri tahr that was supposed to have existed in the Bramhagiri hills in Kodagu. These are the species that are documented to have gone extinct from Karnataka. However, some species may have quietly moved away to obscurity without being noticed.

Some species have disappeared from their former home ranges. Tigers have vanished from areas that were earlier recorded in our gazetteer including Arsikere in Hassan district, Devarayanadurga in Tumakuru, and  Chamundibetta and K R Nagar in Mysuru due to habitat loss and poaching. Elephants have lost ground in Sharavathi and Shettihalli areas.

The Nilgiri langur that was extensively found in Kodagu is now restricted to small pockets in Bramahagiri Wildlife Sanctuary due to extensive poaching. River Cauvery hosts Cauvery giant catfish, hump-backed mahseer, Nilgiri barb, korhi barb and aruli barb that are either endangered or critically endangered. Scientists opine that the introduction of blue-finned mahseer for sport fishing has led to the near extinction of humpbacked mahseer in the state.

Wildlife and their habitats are a natural heritage of the state and need equal attention as our language and culture. We need a master plan for wildlife conservation for the coming decades that’s based on ecological criteria and evaluated regularly. Or else, the mistakes we committed in the past could be repeated.
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