Home Reviews Book review: Urgent need for conservation action to save India’s habitats

Book review: Urgent need for conservation action to save India’s habitats

by Literary Insider
photo: The Hindu

THE very first photograph in the book has you hooked. Soaring trees in a lush forest, dappled light and a sense of peace and well-being, an image from a dream. The caption lends further weight to the visual: “Occupying just 2.4% of the earth’s total land area and harbouring 7% of the world’s flora and 6.5% of the world’s fauna, India ranks among the world’s 17 most mega-diverse countries and has ecosystems representing practically every biome of the world.”

With such an engaging opening, one is ready to plunge headlong into Saving India’s Wilderness: Challenges and Solutions. The book, edited by Asad R. Rahmani and Kedar G. Gore, is a compilation of 25 essays. It has two introductory pieces—one by Dilip Khatau, founder and chairman of The Corbett Foundation, and the other by Ravi Singh, secretary general and CEO of the World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF-India).

The articles have been penned by conservationists with decades of dedicated work in their specialised fields. They include Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh, Dr Renee Borges, Dr Ullas Karanth, Dr Bivash Pandav, Vivek Menon, Dr Deepak Apte, Dr Naveen Panday, Dr Alice Bacon, Aparajita Datta, Isaac Kehimkar, Dr Varad Giri, Prof. Claudio Sillero, Dr Anish Andheria, Dr Bibhab Talukdar, Dr Sanjay Shukla, Prerna Bindra, Devesh Gadhavi and Ashok Mahindra.

Threatened ecosystems

Saving India’s Wilderness is a comprehensive, thought-provoking volume, simultaneously heartening and disheartening, dealing with the various crises facing India’s wilderness. Attention is drawn to threatened ecosystems such as the grasslands of the Terai, the wetlands and the Western Ghats, to threatened species such as the lesser florican, the sloth bear, the dugong, corals, butterflies, turtles and, of course, the tiger and the Asian elephant, and issues such as attrition of land and safe corridors to facilitate movement of animals, construction of railway lines and highways through sanctuaries, marine pollution, destructive fishing, and human encroachment into animal habitats.

This book is not only a confirmation of all that is known and feared about the state of India’s wildlife and wilderness, but it also shines a light on the solid, scientific foundations laid by conservationists. There is no dearth of well-planned conservation strategies. There is only an absence of political support and will. All that is required to put conservation plans into action is a green signal from the government and support in terms of policies, funds and security for those working in the field.

The book primarily focusses on the need for urgent action. Here is what some of the experts have stated in their essays on the state of India’s wilderness.

Dr Asad R. Rahmani, former Director of the Bombay Natural History Society, is an expert on bustards. In his article titled “The enigmatic lesser florican”, he draws attention to habitat loss. “Due to apathy and lack of appropriate government policies grasslands remain to be the most neglected ecosystems in India….The tragedy of our country is that we give importance only to forest—all other habitats such as wetlands, grasslands, mudflats, mangroves, alpine meadows, desert, etc. are neglected. Some of the most threatened species of birds, mammals, reptiles and plants are found in these habitats. Despite having the largest livestock population in the world, we still do not have a National Grazing Policy. We have ‘Wasteland Development Board’, but no ‘Grassland Development Board’. As long as we have this myopic vision, the grassland or wetland-dependant species will keep on disappearing.”

In his essay “Wetlands or wastelands?”, Kedar Gore, a biodiversity conservationist and currently head of The Corbett Foundation, bears out Rahmani’s point. He writes: “We equate wetlands with wasteland; a place to let off sewage, effluents, construction waste….” He reminds us that “wetlands are essentially for human health and prosperity. More than 660 million people rely on fishing and aquaculture for a living. Despite all the jobs and other vital benefits that wetlands provide, 64% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900. It is estimated that by 2025, 35% of people will directly face declining water supplies.”

In Renee Borges’ article on “Saving the Western Ghats: Moth vs squirrel” makes the point that while biodiversity flourishes it can be wiped out easily. He writes: “The Western Ghats harbour around 7,400 species of flowering plants, 1,800 species of non-flowering plants, 130 mammals, 500 birds, 180 amphibians and 290 freshwater fish species out of which 325 species are globally threatened. It is likely that many undiscovered species live in the Western Ghats.”

Harendra Singh Bargali, in “The bear truth”, highlights a less known fact. “Wildlife research and management in India,” he writes, “is primarily focussed on protected areas and charismatic species such as tiger, elephant and one-horned rhino. There has not been much attention on bear conservation so far, resulting in the lack of information to formulate any sound conservation strategy.” This affects bears because significant populations of bears live outside protected areas. The human-bear conflict is on the rise, with bears suffering the worst of it.

This idea is further developed in the essay titled “Spreading conservation beyond Protected Area boundaries” by Raghu Chundawat and Joanna van Gruisen. Although they have written specifically about the tiger, what they say is relevant to other species, too. They write: “One of the greatest successes of tiger conservation in India is not the number, but how successfully it has managed to hold on to its geographies…. India needs to find solutions to three major conservation issues—range expansion, viability of protected populations, and connectivity [between protected areas]. For this, conservation action cannot remain within the Protected Area boundaries.”

K. Ullas Karanth, the conservation scientist known for his work on predators and prey, points out in “The science of tiger conservation” : “If current recovery efforts [of wild tigers] are to succeed, they must be backed by passionate public support for investing necessary resources.”

Infrastructure projects

Conservationists have been constantly fighting against infrastructure projects. When Kishor Rithe was on the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife, there were a slew of proposals for linear infrastructure projects. In the same period, he writes in the essay titled “Linear development and conservation: Can they coexist?”, a “steep rise on human-wildlife conflict [was recorded] probably due to habitat fragmentation…. [there were] also a large number of wild animal deaths… in accidents due to existing linear projects. This prompted us to frame guidelines in 2010 to address the probable threats associated with linear infrastructure projects.” The Wildlife Conservation Trust has found that of the 1,700 proposals for roads and other infrastructure projects, almost 400 would either go through or disrupt tiger corridors.

Officialdom’s vision is blurred when it comes to the environment. Almost all policymakers give it low priority. Pankaj Sekhsaria, in “BrahMos in the Emerald Islands”, criticises the test firing of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile by the Indian Army from Car Nicobar island. He writes:“There was some excitement and chest thumping… but for me the first question was… what was the target? Which island did this BrahMos successfully hit? What did that missile travelling faster than the speed of sound actually ‘take out’ on the ground? Could it have been a just-about-to-hatch nest of a giant leatherback turtle? Lush green mangroves and rich inter-tidal life…”

Pointing out that “nearly 100% of the Nicobars is a tribal reserve”, he asks: “Were the Nicobarese asked before the BrahMos was being tested in their island?…. What was the impact of the test on the people and the ecosystems here? How will we ever know? Do we even care?” At the online launch of the book, Sekhsaria said bluntly: “The biggest threats come from things we don’t talk about like the defence structures in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.”

Political will

In his musing “Is political will extinct in India?”, Bittu Sahgal recalls what Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wrote in 1972, a year Project Tiger was launched: “‘Wildlife conservation is not a political issue. It concerns the survival of our natural heritage. It is hard to think of an India devoid of its magnificent animals, of the hard-pressed tiger going the way of the now extinct cheetah’ ….For the past decade virtually no politician has demonstrated his or her belief in this fundamental value articulated by Indira Gandhi. Those that do privately prefer to keep silent publicly even as their more aggressive colleagues push forward an economic agenda that is not only devastating to India’s tigers but India’s people too.”

The booktries to maintain a balance between telling about the challenges and providing a sense of hope for the future.

Dilip Khatau emphasises this in his introductory piece: “Under the umbrella of tiger conservation, much has been achieved even for many other species, but there are still so many more species that occupy habitats that are different from the tiger’s forests such as the Gangetic dolphin, dugong, brown-antlered deer and countless more that still suffer from rampant poaching and illegal wildlife trade activities. Coral reefs, sea turtles, salamanders, pangolins, mongooses and lorises, to name a few. Given that India has one of the most magnificent coastlines, a staggering 7% of the world’s flora and 6.5% of the world’s fauna, The Corbett Foundation has plans to take up more work in some of these challenging landscapes in the coming years.”

The interconnectedness of all living things comes through in the book and so does the realisation that the losses are solely due to conscious, wilful behaviour of humans. The sense of impending doom is only slightly dismissed by Sehgal’s optimistic-realistic assessment of the situation. He writes: “The political will to save natural India is not extinct in India yet… but we are fast getting to that point.”

source: The Hindu

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