In Indian mythology, Goddess Durga is depicted riding the lion or the tiger. The chosen ride of Goddess Lakshmi is the owl, and the most revered of all gods is Ganesha, the elephant god. Since ancient times, the association of these animals with the gods and goddesses we worship has been as important as the deities themselves, being bestowed with equal respect and reverence. And yet, what were to be worshipped in idol form are beginning to see the darker side of the humans in the real world.
The tiger might be the goddess’s chosen ride, but is still being killed on a whim. Lions may be worshipped as protectors but we have failed to keep them safe in their last bastion. The elephant might be the most pious and auspicious of all animals, but we have managed to end their lives this year in the most inauspicious ways. The year 2018 has been one of pro-environment plans, government pushes for renewable energy sources, and making significant changes to age-old policies, but it has also been a year of mishaps, natural catastrophes and human errors that have left many a wildlife with an even riskier future than before. As we look back at the events that shaped the environment and affected the wildlife of the country this year, the lessons learnt the hard way are in abundance.
The year began with the grim statistics of 40 leopards dying in the country in the very first month, with more than a third killed by poachers. By July, this number had gone up to 303 and by the end of the year, there will be an estimated 445 leopard deaths as per the Wildlife Protection Society of India. It is often thought that India has for decades been so busy protecting its tigers that the other big cats like leopards have suffered. This neglect, however, was somewhat amended this year when along with the tiger census in July, leopard census was also carried out, for the first time, throughout the country. With an estimated record of 14,000 of these spotted cats, conservationists think the numbers are healthy even if the
human-leopard interaction has increased over the last few years.
What needs to be done now with even more fervour is educating communities living close to the leopard population to handle these interactions in a peaceful manner. A study in January by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Duke University, and the Centre for Wildlife Studies in India found that communities living near wildlife reserves showed a high tolerance for wildlife. This is despite them having experienced losses in crops and livestock as a result of interaction with wildlife like nilgai, jackal and wild pig, as well as larger carnivores such as leopard and wolves. Understanding these attitudes towards wildlife is critical to informing park management policies and practices.
For tiger lovers, 2018 might be sourly remembered as the year when Avni, the tigress — officially known as T1 to the Maharashtra forest department, and pinned with at least 13 human deaths — was officially killed. As soon as the news of the tigress’s death broke, outrage ensued with the general public and ministers, like Maneka Gandhi, objecting to the way the tiger was killed and the possible flouting of norms when it could have been tranquilised and captured instead.
While the results of the autopsy are still not out, the incident only brings to the fore a bigger challenge India faces at present. With a growing number of tigers, the contact with humans is also increasing and there are no clear indications if steps are being planned to minimise them. On the contrary, in July, a report said that of the 1,697 road, railway and irrigation projects planned, 399 of them — worth 1.3 lakh crores — are coming up in tiger landscapes, including the border road widening project between Nepal and India.
Uttar Pradesh is planning to axe a minimum of 50,000 trees in the near future in prime tiger habitats like Dudhwa tiger reserve for this project. If this happens, it will not only mean further fragmentation of the tiger’s home, but also an increase in human-animal conflicts with retaliatory killing of the big cats becoming a norm rather than an anomaly. Already, incidents such as a tiger mauled by a tractor in Dudhwa and one speared in West Bengal earlier this year prove that the people are agitated. Surprisingly, even an effort of furthering the tiger population by translocating one from Madhya Pradesh to Odisha turned into a conservation story gone wrong when Sundari, the relocated tigress, began killing humans. Experts believe the Odisha officials did not follow protocols needed for such a critical translocation leading the tigress to look for easy prey. And now her fate too seems to be sealed behind the bars.
The most tragic deaths of 2018 were of the Asiatic lions in Gir. By the time the officials could pinpoint the mass deaths to the lethal canine distemper virus, 23 lions had died. The tragedy reignited the debate of creating another safe habitat for the last lions of India all living presently in a single abode in Gujarat, though the Supreme Court had asked in 2013 to shift some of them to Kuno in Madhya Pradesh.
This year, India made several central level policy changes and amendments that could have a long-term impact on the environment and wildlife. This included the draft to amend the 30-year-old forest policy to focus more on climate change mitigation and India’s goal of creating more carbon sink of three billion tonnes by 2030 through additional green cover. However, many believe that this draft is bereft of knowledge-driven solutions with no clear differentiations made between a natural forest and a plantation. The environment ministry also announced plans to double the protected areas of the country from the present 729 over the next few years.
What also made international news is India’s plan to develop the country’s first 1,000 megawatt (MW) commercial offshore wind farm. By 2022, India wants to install at least 5,000 MW of offshore wind capacity. However, the place selected for the wind farm is the eco-sensitive zone of Gulf of Khambat in Gujarat which is a known hub for migratory species of birds. Wind farms are also becoming a challenge for the critically endangered great Indian bustards, whose numbers are continuing to plummet despite repeated warnings and proposals on paper to conserve and protect them. The most shocking revelation has been that now only one male bustard exists in Gujarat. If breeding centres or stricter protection policies come, that will have to happen in 2019. For now, the birds are fast moving towards extinction.
Road, railways and powerlines brought untimely death to our ‘national heritage animal’ across the country. From a speeding train killing five elephants in Assam in February to seven electrocuted in Odisha this October, the creators of forest lands seem to be getting more and more tangled in the web of human infrastructure and losing their lives.
Even in the prime forest belt of Nagarahole-Bandipur-Mudumalai-Wayanad, the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways has endorsed plans to build elevated corridors through the Bandipur National Park in Karnataka despite agencies advising against such measures. Needless to say, the ecological impact of such a move has not been fully assessed but is sure to make life even more difficult for tigers, elephants, leopards and other animals living in the area.
On a more positive note, Kaziranga National Park in Assam now has 2,413 rhinos and the rare Indus river dolphin has been spotted again in River Beas of Punjab. India vowed to abolish single-use plastic by 2022 and now has the nation’s first genetic bank set up in Hyderabad for wildlife conservation. Scientists discovered new species of horned frogs in Northeast India, as well as a moth and two new butterfly species.
Kerala experienced the worst flood of the century this year, that left over 500 people dead. The United Nations in its Post Disaster Need Assessment (PDNA) report released in December mentioned extreme rainfall, immediate runoff, low flood storage capacity in reservoirs, poor drainage capacity of canals and sea outlets and high spring tides as the main reasons for the disaster. Many environmentalists pointed to how degradation of the Western Ghats could be one poignant reason for a devastation of this scale.
While things could have been much worse in Kerala or for the lions of Gujarat and the leopards and elephants across India, 2018 was dotted with constant reminders from Mother Nature of the troublesome waters she is navigating through while we as a country obsess over more infrastructure and more development at the cost of our environment.
It would be wise to heed these warnings as we start the year 2019 with a clean slate.