Who s to blame?

  • 14/03/2000

Who s to blame? ASAD R RAHMANI
The article "Mutually Assured Destruction" is full of rhetoric, unsubstantiated statements and a plea to give our protected areas ( pa s) to people for 'management'. The author has quoted that 4.3 per cent of the country's geographical area is under pa s, implying that this area is now out of bound for rural communities. The fact is less than one per cent is actually free from human use. Rest of these so-called pa s are over-run by people and useless cattle. Even if for arguments sake we consider that 4.3 per cent of our land is under pa system, 95.7 per cent of our land is already available to people. If we can not fulfill our biomass needs even now, what is the guarantee that the remaining per cent of our land will make us prosperous? What a pity that we do not want to leave even a small percentage of our land for wildlife.

Having worked on grassland ecosystems for almost 20 years, I find that over-grazing by useless scrub cattle is the biggest problem for maintaining original biodiversity. I agree and strongly advocate that limited grazing by livestock in community conservation areas and by wild herbivores in pa s maintain grassland biodiversity but this does not mean that we can allow hordes of useless cattle to graze every patch of grassland.

It is illogical to inter-link ban on grazing in Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan and decline in the number of Siberian Cranes. Cattle grazing was banned in 1982. If grazing was maintaining the Siberian crane population, then why did the population decline from 200 in the mid-1960s to 40 in 1980 when cattle were grazing in the park? Besides, it is wrong to say that the lives of 15,000 villagers surrounding Keoladeo were jeopardised when grazing was banned. Most of them depend on farming. And several thousands depend on tourism which is a big business in Keoladeo.

Another issue is that of gujjars in the proposed Rajaji National Park in Uttar Pradesh. Firstly, it is wrong to call them Van Gujjars. They are simple gujjars like other graziers and not Van (forest) Gujjars. Secondly, conservationists have no objection if these gujjars lead traditional nomadic lifestyle with limited number of livestock. I will have no objection if they reduce the number of their livestock. They are influenced by market forces and use all the modern facilities (which is not wrong), but still claim to "lead a traditional lifestyle".

Traditional graziers are not the problem, but increasing number of modern graziers are. Maldharis of the Gir National Reserve in Gujarat and gujjars are not as traditional and innocent as they are made out to be by some. They cannot keep lopping trees under the garb of tradition. If they want modern medical facilities, let them come out of the forest and enjoy the benefits of life.

I accept that some local communities help conservation efforts but all communities are not Bishnois. Conservation actions have to be site-specific and based on good science. I strongly recommend that we should have at least 5 per cent of our land set aside for pa systems and in these pa s only those interventions which are useful for wildlife should be allowed. These interventions should be based on long-term sound scientific knowledge.

Incidentally, the best protected areas area where the Wildlife Protection Act is comparatively better enforced, again proving that pa s have an important role to play in conserving biodiversity of India (and other countries).

Asad R Rahmani is director of the Mumbai-based Bombay Natural History Society

The proposed Rajaji National Park is the first protected area in India for which a community forestry plan has been prepared (to be tried on an experimental basis). This has made forest officials desperate... and unleash a reign of terror against the hapless Van Gujjars.

M K Ranjitsinh, former director of the Tiger Conservation Programme for World Wide Fund for Nature-India, claims that the Van Gujjars have started living in the forests only recently. In the Memoirs of Doon , first published in 1874, G R C Williams, assistant superintendent of Dehradun, has mentioned the Van Gujjars being in existence since centuries, certainly much before even the forest department came into being in India.

Institutions like the Bombay Natural History Society, Wild Life Fund-India and Wild Life Protection Society have arbitrarily declared the indigenous livestock of the Van Gujjars and the Maldharis as 'useless scrub cattle'. But Pernille Gooch of the University of Lund, Sweden, who spent over three years with the Van Gujjars and also accompanied them on their transhumance, certainly did not find them 'useless'. The buffaloes of the Van Gujjars are one of the few indigenous breeds of cattle that have survived in the country. "They are efficient in changing forest roughage into milk and they are better at walking for long hours in a rough terrain than any other breed. They also have a much higher fat content than other buffaloes," she wrote.

In 1986, researchers A Clark, H Sewill and R Watts from the University of Wye, England, undertook a study of the area and people of the proposed park with the support of the Wildlife Institute of India ( wii) . Their findings did not find favour with the institute, which had its own un-researched assumptions and, therefore, it was shelved. Among other things, the team found that animals were not disturbed by their activities. In fact, there is not a single case of killing of an animal by any member of the community to date.

I quite agree with Raghu Chandavat of the wii , who says "mostly the Wildlife Protection Act is abused in India". In my personal case, I was an invited to two meetings of the Van Gujjars, both held outside the proposed park area. I was served three notices stating that in having participated in these open meetings in the presence of the national media I had violated the Wild Life Protection Act 1972 and that I was liable to imprisonment. In fact, twice the proposed park authorities tried to terrorise my family as well.

Avdhash Kaushal is chairperson of the Dehradun-based Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra

Over the last half century, the role of science in wildlife management in India on the whole has been fairly ad hoc. There is no structure in serious terms for a regular input of scientific inputs. On a day-to-day basis, if you look at the management plan of the Corbett National Park - I name Corbett because it is the oldest national park ( np ) in India - there isn't any great input of scientific insights in a manner as one would expect in most np s abroad.

There is a lot of reference to the Northern model in the article but one of the positive points of the model is that there is a regular interaction and exchange of ideas between the scientists and wildlife officials. This does take place in India but it is quite ad hoc.

The issue, which I think is very important, is the regime of management or the techniques of control. There are research posts in all the tiger reserves, which are by and large vacant. And if they are filled, they are filled by foresters. It is very normal in India to find a doctorate in ecology without a permanent job. There is a very obvious kind of synthesis, which can and should take place, where the forest department basically specialises in protection and scientists provide scientific input.

The other issue is related to research permissions. You have foresters, who's basic skill is administering a forest area, rightly or wrongly. They are not necessarily scientists so scientific proposals are judged purely on scientific grounds even by an administrator. Besides, as a researcher you depend on the forester department for permissions. In return, there is no structure by which the findings can be directly incorporated.

It is also because in India there is an unwillingness, not only in the forest department but in general, to understand that research by nature is a professional activity, you publish it in a journal where it is refereed. What one would look forward to is a serious journal where other peers read it an referee it.

However, there is a paradox. Wildlife biologists, in terms of the general conflict between officials and the critical sections of the societies, are possibly allies. Many of them would be strongly in favour of protection. But either way, it is a very strange relationship. These two need each other but are at loggerheads.

In a country of the size of India, there cannot be one method, one way for the whole country to follow. A lot of it has to do with what your benchmark is, whether your benchmark is survival of a particular specie or human-animal co-existence.

There is an assumption in this article that either such human-animal conflicts do not exist or if they do the communities can resolve it. It may be valid in many places, but what if it isn't? What do you do if you have scientifically-grounded studies, which shows that there is a problem in a certain area and it is a question of survival of certain animal or plant specie?

Mahesh Rangarajan is a policy analyst and former fellow at the Nehru Memorial Institute, New Delhi

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