To be on the wild side

To be on the wild side

Along with our manifold infrastructure and economic growth, how responsible have we been towards safeguarding the wildlife?

Highways through wildlife habitats impede movement of animals. Photo by T Gunasekaran

Yet another Wildlife Week has arrived. It’s time again to look back and reflect on what has transpired for wildlife and their habitats. Has the country progressed in a positive direction in terms of protecting its non-human life forms?

Though the overall intention and interest in wildlife seem to be good, a few concerns continue to limit wildlife conservation efforts in the country. The ill-planned development of infrastructure in wildlife habitats, human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and a few other emerging threats endanger the achievements of the past few decades.

Extinction threat

Some species, apart from the limelight-hogging tiger, have received attention for the wrong reasons - the critically endangered great Indian bustard being a popular example. This emblematic bird of semi-arid grasslands has lost ground in most parts of its range largely due to the loss of its preferred habitat for agricultural practices and industrial development. It seems to be losing further ground with its population estimated to be less than 250 mature adult individuals. In Karnataka, it went extinct from Ranebennur Wildlife Sanctuary, a Protected Area (PA) that was notified exclusively to save this species, and now it’s virtually extinct from the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary in Maharashtra. This bird is now fluttering for survival in a few small patches of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh.

If India is to lose this species, it will be one of the first known extinctions from the country in this century. It will be a pity that a species that was once suggested to be declared as the national bird of India would go down the path of no return. It is fortunate that the country decided in favour of the peafowl, or else what a shame it would have been that we couldn’t even save our national bird!

Let’s talk about another species – the Manipur dancing deer, also called sangai. If you didn’t know that there were deer that could dance, it’s not your fault! The Manipur dancing deer, with its dainty gait, is lesser known in the country and could go extinct before it becomes a popular wildlife icon. In India, it’s found in the world’s only floating national park: the Keibul Lamjao National Park in Manipur. This deer that survives on the floating meadows of the lake have also lost their habitat to agricultural expansion, human settlements, pollution, and most importantly, the construction of Ithai barrage.

Though other subspecies of the dancing deer are found in Cambodia, China, Laos and Myanmar, it has already lost ground in Thailand and Vietnam, and the Indian subspecies’ numbers are less than 100 breeding adult individuals.

These two are examples in addition to the several other species about which very little is known. If we talk about amphibians and fishes, there are many more species that are still awaiting discovery. We could lose them even before Finding Nemo!

The case in point from the examples of near-extinction highlights our limited capability to protect wildlife that survives only in specialised habitats. Unlike the tiger or the elephant that persist in habitats varying from rainforests to dry woodlands, the great Indian bustard or the Manipur dancing deer do not have that luxury, hence require specific approaches of conservation. As a management tool, we tend to follow the one-size-fits-all concept.

Th Great Indian Bustard 

Infrastructure dinosaur

The nation is marching ahead like a Spinosaurus with infrastructure development. This is a positive sign of economic development, but we seemed to have failed to consider wildlife habitats while planning and implementing these projects.

The four-laning of NH-7 between Seoni in Madhya Pradesh and Nagpur in Maharashtra cuts across critical wildlife habitats. Despite opposition, court battles, orders from the green tribunal, and other possible democratic avenues, the Ministry of Roads and Transport constructed the highway in a wildlife-unfriendly manner. The effects of such ill-planning are now unfolding. A tiger trying to cross this newly upgraded highway was killed by a speeding vehicle. Such unnatural mortalities can have a grave impact on the local population of the national animal. But not all impacts are as obvious as wildlife-vehicle collisions. The impacts of fragmentation and the isolation of wildlife populations will never be ‘seen’, and quietly eats up the populations. This wrong siting of infrastructure is taking a toll on several species and landscapes.

The ministry tried similar arm-twisting in the case of night closure of highways passing through Bandipur Tiger Reserve, forcing the administration in Karnataka to concur to its views much against several expert committee opinions and reports of government officials. Luckily, the Government of Karnataka went with public sentiments and stood firm on its ground to not open the highways for vehicular traffic at night times.

Railway lines have been responsible for the deaths of tens of elephants, and the trend is now expanding to tigers, leopards, gaur and several other species. Nearly 20 elephants, our national heritage animal, are killed in India every year due to train accidents.

The highest accidents take place in Odisha, West Bengal, Assam, and Uttarakhand. In Gujarat, it’s reported that 10 lions were killed by trains between the years 2013 and 2015 - that’s a large number for a species that fought back from near-extinction to about 500 numbers today.

Nonetheless, the cause of greatest concern is the undemocratic manner in which the NH-7 project was undertaken, and the blatant violation and misrepresentation in the Bandipur night closure issue. This is not how a federal, democratic system should be working. It’s breaking the fabric and spirit of democracy. Merely greenwashing rail or road projects with unscientific flyovers and underpasses will not mitigate problems of wildlife posed by infrastructure projects. Many infrastructure projects are cleared without scrutiny, or in violation of the law. Worse is that laws are amended to suit projects so that they can bypass mandatory regulations. Despite the evidence, new projects are planned in areas where wildlife conservation should get priority. There can certainly be alternatives to these plans if there was a willingness to consider the impacts on wildlife. While it’s understandable that the nation needs development, we cannot ignore our wildlife. Making government policies inclusive of both is an obligation. There needs to be zoning of landscapes where priority would be either for infrastructure development or for wildlife conservation. Trying to squeeze both at all places is neither sustainable nor wise.

Problem of the excess?

Post implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which brought in strict regulation against the killing of wild animals, many species started to rebound in various parts of the country. Though historically, individuals of certain species such as tigers, leopards, elephants were considered problem animals, elephants and wild pigs were largely the villains of conflict with the humans. However, in the recent past, more species like macaques, peafowl, bears, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, Asiatic lions, blue bull and blackbuck have made it to the list of animals that are in conflict with farmers and livestock herders. Areas around Tadoba-Andhari, Nagarahole, Bandipur, Corbett, Ranthambhore, and a few others have enrolled into the human-tiger conflict map of the country along with Sunderbans, where historically death came quietly from behind for many people.

With the possibility of a local increase in numbers of a few wildlife species due to enhanced protection and other reasons, conflict seems to be on an upward trend. While the government and some civil societies constantly struggle to mitigate or bring conflict to tolerable limits, we need to address the key causes that lead to conflict, or else this daily battle on the front will lead to (the) monstrous animosity that will be detrimental to the species we are trying to conserve.

This conflict-reduction is also related to holding on to the habitats of wild animals. Hence, the issue of wrong siting of infrastructure, loss of habitat, and human-wildlife conflict are all closely linked.

While the country prepares documents for economic development, employment generation, health, tourism, sports, and many other facets, we lack a similar exercise for wildlife conservation. We have not set a quantitative goal for our conservation activities. Countries like Sweden evaluate both ecological and social-carrying capacities of their carnivore populations based on which management plans are drawn to mitigate conflict. However, they also effectively implement as per plans, which could be the weak link in countries like India. Hence, both planning and implementation need to be on a strong footing.

New threat of poaching

Though poaching for trade has been an age-old problem in the country and elsewhere, a new set of wildlife species have been added to this list, threatening their survival.

The lesser-known, scaly, ant-eating mammal — the pangolin — has been on the hit list of poachers. Its scale protects it against natural predators, but not against poachers. The Southeast Asian market is literally eating pangolins out of existence. This triggered that all eight species of pangolins be uplisted as critically endangered or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that manages the database on species worldwide.

Of the two species found in India, the Indian pangolin is categorised as endangered, and the Chinese pangolin as critically endangered.

Based on a conservative estimate by WWF-India, close to 6,000 pangolins were poached in the country during 2009-2017, and it’s an underestimate and the actual numbers could be far higher as per the same report.So the dynamics and the target species change based on the market that needs close monitoring and countermeasures.

Road ahead

The last resort for most social cause struggles is the judiciary. The courts have given a couple of important judgments, including the one on the illegal development of tourism facilities adjoining Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and Nilgiri North Division in Tamil Nadu. This ensured the bringing down of tens of illegal resorts and fences that blocked the movement of wildlife. Likewise, a concrete wall blocking elephants and other wildlife movements, built by an oil refinery in Assam, was asked to be broken down by the National Green Tribunal.

A similar fight continues regarding the closure of highways at night times for vehicular traffic through Bandipur Tiger Reserve. While the case has been won in the High Court of Karnataka, we still wait for a judgment from the Supreme Court.

In our fight over the last nine years, the court has never asked the restrictions to be vacated and continues till date. This provides us with the hope that the outcome would be similar.

All these may sound like small, isolated examples of conservation victories, but the fact is that they act as a beacon for other organisations, individuals, and courts to work on similar issues. They provide a basis and strong ground not to repeat such mistakes in other areas where similar conflicts arise. Similarly, in the government, setting precedence and demonstrating examples is the key. Once the precedence is set, future work for conservation could be based on previous examples.

Policy initiatives

The country brought out its National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-31) with several new ideas. It includes the institutionalising review of PAs and past relocation activities, identifying gaps in ecosystems that are under-represented in the PA network system, recognising the need for landscape approach for wildlife conservation, an action plan for mitigating human-wildlife conflict, aquatic ecosystem conservation, and other ideas. Unfortunately, the plan recommends a series of studies but lacks concrete suggestions.

History may not forgive us if we left a nation with only species that are elastic and survive with or without human support.

For instance, the previous National Wildlife Action Plan mandated that all roads and railway lines should bypass PAs and ecologically important areas. Such concrete directives were very useful as a government policy, which is missing in the current one. Though we need to stop preaching a doom and gloom message, with recent policy initiatives, the government’s stand does not augur confidence for the future of wildlife conservation in the country.

History may not forgive us if we left a nation with only species that are elastic and survive with or without human support. Can we develop and grow in a manner that decreases our footprint for now and for the future? As a nation, can we afford to have infinite growth on this finite planet?