NEEDED: A WAKE UP CALL

  • 14/03/2000

NEEDED: A WAKE UP CALL Clearly, human pressure over the centuries have influenced the way in which several present-day ecosystems have shaped up. Suddenly lifting this pressure can alter the dynamics of these ecosystems, which may actually go against the objectives of conservation. Therefore, to manage a np , it is very important to first study the human-nature interactions in that ecosystem and the nature of the ecological dynamics it has created. Only after a good scientific study should a decision be taken about what human pressures need to be reduced and which ones need to be maintained to conserve the ecosystem. More importantly, a good socio-ecological study should be conducted to understand the dependence of communities living inside and on the fringes of a protected forest.

Two types of studies will provide a sound scientific basis for effective management of protected forests, providing an ecologically-sound place for the local communities.The current ham-handed attitude is unscientific and counterproductive. "A protection strategy which alienates local communities is unjust to them and disrespectful of their fundamental rights, as also short-sighted for wildlife conservation," states Ashish Kothari, founding member of the Pune-based environmental action group Kalpavriksh, in People and Protected Areas.

India is falling into the spell of animal projects - Project Tiger, Project Elephant, you name it - and programmes that are based on a Northern model that may not entirely suit its conservation needs. And as local communities increasingly get blamed for destroying forests, mindless developmental activities are being permitted in protected forests, and are emerging as a major threat to earnest conservation efforts.

A railway line, an irrigation dam, mining - all these can be seen when one enters the Son Chirya Sanctuary in the Gwalior district of Madhya Pradesh. The sanctuary is home to the highly endangered Great Indian Bustard. A housing plan, which will consume one-third of the sanctuary area, is also waiting approval from the ministry of urban development. Take the case of the Shoopaneshwar sanctuary in Gujarat, where people were prevented from extracting small amounts of bamboo. All the while, truck-loads of bamboo regularly rumble out of the sanctuary to feed a paper mill nearby, right under the benevolent gaze of the authorities.

"Major developmental activities are undertaken without adequate study and care to minimise impacts," states Karanth. Numerous studies reveal that protected areas are not as 'pristine' as they are believed to be; developmental and resource-use activities are going on in a majority of these. "This commercialisation of resources hidden in the forests have displaced poachers as the prime threat to tigers, elephants and all the species that share their habitat," laments Bittu Sahgal of Sanctuary Asia.

And in places where protection of forests has caused an increase in the number of endangered species, there is a problem of plenty. Due to lack of space, these protected species start attacking human beings, becoming a nuisance to the surrounding human settlements and provoking their anger. There are many cases where furious villagers have retaliated by attacking or killing these ferocious animals. "These are what scientists forewarned anyway," says Daniels.

A problem of plenty
There are allegations that several villagers fall prey to tigers in the Sunderbans of West Bengal, which are strongly denied by P K Sen, director of Project Tiger at the mef . "There are no such cases, and if it happens, it is only a case of cattle lifting. Besides, insurance companies pay compensation for human deaths," he claims. Similar cases have been reported by the villagers in Lower Periyar of Idukki district, Kerala. Wild elephants trampled down hutments and buildings in Midnapore village in West Bengal, as in Ranchi, Bihar, and some villages in Andhra Pradesh. But this problem has more to do with mismanagement of protected forests and elephant corridors. But not too many seem to be interested in studying this matter of life and death (see box: Solution: good science ).

"Our ability to deal with depleting species is easier than dealing with increasing species because there are no laws to deal with locally-abundant species and the current law prohibits culling," says V B Mathur, a wildlife scientist at wii. "There are social and ethical problems involved in it, that is why everyone keeps quiet about the issue," Mathur explains. The numbers of bluebulls and blackbuck have shot up in some states, particularly in Rajasthan. V D Sharma, former chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan, complains that there are around 100,000 bluebulls in the region, and such overabundant species - or problem species - cause huge crop damage. Says Mathur, "Under proper scientific management, such species need to be harvested or culled." It is well-known that trophy hunting is practised in Africa and other parts of the world, and the money thus accrued is utilised for conservation. If culling is not permitted then the authorities should soon suggest better alternatives.

But Mathur and Johnsingh are stepping on several sensitive bureaucratic toes. The foresters are too busy blaming forest-dwelling communities. "The villagers suffer not due to the increase in the number of tigers but because of the destruction of the tigers' habitat by human beings," says Sen of mef. Answering a question about what should be done in case of an uncontrollable increase in the number of tigers, he has a solution that typifies the attitude of wildlife managers in India: "It is the human beings and their cattle that should be culled and not the tigers." Daniels also echoes Sen's view. Is anyone at the National Human Rights Commission listening?

The success of Project Tiger, which has become something of a sacred cow in the feel-good settings of conservation circles, needs to be assessed properly. According to Sen, the project is the "most focused among all management projects, and every scientific aspect is carefully taken into consideration when an area is declared a site for Project Tiger". The project officials have claimed that the tiger population has increased in recent years. But Johnsingh describes it as "all bogus". Raghu Chundawat, wildlife scientist at wii , says, "There is subjectivity in identification. Their own data makes it hard to believe." This obviously puts to doubt the claims made by Project Tiger officials.

In fact, in its publication The Political Wilderness: India's Tiger Crisis , even the highly conservation-oriented ngo Environmental Investigation Agency, based in the uk , states that Bengal tigers are poached at the rate of one a day in India. They pin the reason for the decline in tiger population to: "Complete lack of political will to save it."

Solutions for a small planet
Both Valmik Thapar and Ullas Karanth stress the need for the restructuring and transformation of the ifs, and say that the officers should have at least a master's-level training in wildlife ecology, including a solid background in social sciences. There are recommendations that the ranks of rangers should be reserved for tribal people, who have extensive field skills, and ex-army personnel with "jungle warfare training".

As for the wildlife scientists, there is a clear need to prioritise research to find out more about the relationship that human societies have with ecosystems. A lot of funds and resources are put in to study aspects that may not be as crucial to the need of the hour, though they may be of tremendous interest to scientists.

One welcome move has been proposed by the wii . In order to provide a proper scientific backing to wildlife management, the institute plans to form a policy research cell. This would include the scientific faculty, researchers and other eminent persons and address different issues, "some of which will be related to human-animal conflicts," according to V B Mathur of wii. "This cell will take up matters that concerns wildlife conservation policy at the highest level and work continuously," says Mathur.

However, Daniels believes that yet another wildlife department or cell is not going to make much difference. "What has the Indian Wildlife Board achieved?" he queries.

Johnsingh suggests the formation of a forum to bring together activists, conservationists and park managers together with a common agenda. "The concept of integrating the local community to wildlife management is emerging," says Mathur. The wii representatives feel there is already a change in attitude and acceptance of the fact that it is not possible to manage resources without the help of the local communities. "The issue is being focused now and local people should be made the guides," says Mathur.

However, there is very little evidence to support what wii representatives say. Conservationists feel it is a blinkered view, a co-existence plan made with terms and conditions that suit the wildlife officials and scientists. There is no serious plan to involve the people living in and around parks in the management and protection of the biodiversity - both plant and animal. Instead of being made stakeholders, they will merely be asked to obey rules.

If the present state of affairs continues, India's protected areas will become 'glorified zoos'. Instead of a cage around an animal, there will be one encompassing the park. If India's biodiversity is to be preserved, there has to be a sea change in policies. Emphasis must be given to people's participation and they must be made partners in all conservation projects.

It is time to restrict the use of the baton and the gun on the local people. Time to abandon the nature-in-its-pristine-state syndrome. Time to get out of the laboratories and search for real answers to real problems. The answers are all there; they merely need to be discovered.

Reported by Lian Chawii with inputs from Kazimuddin Ahmed

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