Protection spreads wider

The third National Wildlife Action Plan for 2017-2031 has just been launched by the Government of India, drawing a new roadmap for wildlife conservation in the country.

Before this, two action plans have been completed, with the first plan being put into action in 1983 and the second plan, which started in 2002, ending in 2016.The third action plan has not only recognised the impact of climate change on wildlife but also seeks to integrate actions that need to be taken for adaptation and mitigation.

The action plan has adopted a ‘landscape’ approach for conservation of all natural and wild (non-cultivated) flora and fauna that have value to the ecosystem and to mankind, irrespective of the place of their occurrence. Thus, for the first time, wildlife found in non–protected areas too will now get the same attention as those in sanctuaries and national parks.

This has not come a day too soon, for a vast majority of India’s wildlife population is found outside this protected area network, which form around 4% of the total geographical area of the country. This is where the opportunity and challenge will be found in Karnataka, as indeed throughout the country.

Karnataka has achieved fairly good success in conserving its apex wildlife, namely the tiger and the elephant, along with other associates and prey base found in its five national parks and 30 sanctuaries. Some 20% tigers and 25% of the elephant population of the country are in Karnataka.

However, the same cannot be said for other wildlife found outside these networks, where due to a constant movement of wildlife, resident animals become non-residents and vice-versa in search of food, water, new habitats, migrations along traditional corridors and new ones, etc. The moment they come out of these networks, they have virtually no protection.

Worse is the case with animals like the Indian Wolf, Black buck, Monitor lizard, Chinkara, wild boar, peacock, and countless other birds, terrestrial-aquatic wildlife, rabbits, etc., found in vast plains, ravines, and rocky barren hillocks of non-protected and urban areas which are frequented by panthers.

Animals like the Indian Wolf, Indian Fox, Stripped Hyena, Sloth Bear, Golden Jackal, Lesser Florican, Indian and Asian Civet, Indian Porcupine, Jungle Cat and many more endangered and red-listed species, including birds like peacock, Rock Eagle Owl, Indian Thick Knee and migratory birds, etc., found in these areas and which thrive on a grassy ecosystem have literally vanished as these were mostly in the non-protected areas, although many of them are classified in Schedule-1 of the Wildlife Protection Act.

Due to the severe habitat loss, the Great Indian Bustard, which used to visit the grassy blanks of Rannebennur, have not been sighted there for more than a decade. Besides, there is rampant poaching of some of the above-named animals in north and central Karnataka. These birds and animals get their food and prey base from the grass and other vegetation found in these areas.

The forest department finds its hands more than full with the challenge and responsibility of protection of its national parks and sanctuaries, with no budget, manpower and other infrastructure facilities earmarked for non-protected areas. Places like Koppal, Rannebennur, Gadag, Yelburga, Haveri, and the maidans of Belgaum, Dharwad are some of the vulnerable examples. In fact, there is no area where one or the other wildlife is not found. They are all seriously exposed to the issues of loss of habitat, prey base, illegal wildlife trade, and hunting etc. Rampant poaching is reported in all these areas.

Boosting habitat

All the species named above and many more were found in abundance in the above parts of Karnataka. They have their own unique ecological value in biodiversity conservation, gene pool preservation and dispersal of trees like Acacias, Khair and other native trees, shrubs and grasses. They also act as buffer for straying of bigger game like panthers toward urban areas which has become very common place, posing serious safety issues for human beings.

The dwindling habitat and population of these species will definitely get a boost with the said action plan now in place, which also hopes to tap corporate funding through their CSR budgets. Karnataka must utilise the above resources to revive the population of Great Indian Bustards under species recovery plans of the scheme. Incidentally, a plan was prepared in this regard in the past, which can now be revived.

Any conservation scheme should begin with population estimation and habitat identification of the wildlife found in these areas. This is easier said than done and would need a lot of time, budget and manpower. Besides, creation of awareness, strict anti-poaching steps, habitat improvement and conservation of grasslands, research, conflict mitigation and confidence building should be other areas of focus.

Fortunately, Karnataka has already taken some steps, with plans to declare some vulnerable areas as community and conserve reserves, particularly in Yelburga, Bankapura, Mudhole, Bannikoppa, etc., in drier parts, and in places like Dandeli (Hornbill reserve) in the Western Ghats. These beginnings should now be expanded and consolidated under the proposed action plan.

It may be of some inspiration to remember that once cheetahs, now extinct, roamed these areas. Let other species named above not be allowed to go the same way. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change must be congratulated for thinking of wildlife outside the usual forest areas.

(The writer is a former principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka)

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