Will we let our wildlife vanish under our watch?

What is killing them is not just the poacher or the hunter, but our collective apathy


Prerna Singh Bindra | July 5, 2014

We have spent a good part of two days traversing vast tracts of the Thar, mainly in the desert national park in Rajasthan. Most would assume this to be a desert, with all that it implies – arid, lifeless, barren. What an enormous misconception! The desert is a live, vibrant ecosystem; and as we meandered through the landscape we had many wild encounters including with the elusive desert cat, a fox with its young, a committee of endangered vultures, the rare cream-coloured desert courser, a pair of lagar falcons… but we have still not met, in spite of every effort, our ‘target’ species’, the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB).

We have all but given up hope, and are back at our station, when a forest guard on patrol communicates the presence of four GIBs, and we hasten – cautiously – towards the location. We can see them from a distance: tiny, hazy dots that assume the stately shape of India’s heaviest flying bird, and one that missed being a national bird by a whisker, owing largely to the wisdom of some babu who worried that ‘Bustard’ may be misspelt! There are nine of them, all males, most busily pecking, while two circle each other, feathers fluffed in what appears to be the territorial ‘I am the boss’ display. We station our vehicle far, at a comfortable distance, so as not to disturb their peace, and spend precious hours just watching these rare birds. The experience is magical, if bittersweet. For the GIBs before us represent about a tenth of the entire population in the world.

Were we, I thought, looking at a species without a future? In all likelihood, yes, with their population estimated to be about 100, half of which would be here in the desert national park, followed by Kutch in Gujarat with perhaps 30. A few relics remain in what were once their strongholds: Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, while they have been locally extinct in Madhya Pradesh for some years. GIBs are still being occasionally hunted, even in the desert national park, as was evidenced by a hunting incident in broad daylight near the Sundansri enclosure in December 2012. The most serious threat, however, is the loss of habitat: about 95 percent of the GIB habitat –grasslands and scrub forests – have been lost to agriculture, industry, infrastructure projects, expanding urbanisation and other developmental activities. The problem is that grassland – the mainstay of bustard species – is easily the most endangered, ill-managed, misunderstood and undervalued ecosystem in the country – even though they support some of our most threatened wildlife. Well-intentioned schemes such as the Indira Gandhi canal in the Thar and canals in other habitats of the GIB such as Rollapadu in Andhra Pradesh have placed the xeric biodiversity of the region under threat, to the point of extinction of some species.

Sadly, the GIB is not the only creature at death’s door. Two other bustard species, the lesser and the Bengal florican, are on the red list, with about a 1,000 and 500 respectively remaining – and declining rapidly. Kashmir’s state emblem, the hangul or the Kashmir stag, suffers a similar fate with around 150 of this handsome endemic deer surviving in its only habitat, the beautiful and beleaguered Dachigam national park. In the rivers of northern India, the gharial awaits an untimely death. While its range once extended across the Gangetic river system in the Indian subcontinent, its population has declined dramatically, by almost 80 percent in just the last 15 years with less than 200 breeding adults surviving today.

In India’s oceans, the dugong, a calm, placid animal that is also called the sea-cow for its diet of sea-grass, is fighting a losing battle. Despite the fact that Andaman and Nicobar is its best stronghold, barely 50 dugongs swim in the waters here, hammered as they are by the twin threats of hunting and habitat destruction, with massive projects planned along the sea coast, particularly in its other ranges off the Gujarat and Tamil Nadu coast.

I remember my visit to the Udanti-Sitanadi tiger reserve in Chhattisgarh to search for the state animal, the majestic and endangered wild buffalo, the ancestor of the domestic buffalo. To my immense sorrow we were informed that the park had a mere seven, all males. The lone female wild buffalo, of uncertain and largely dubious ancestry, was Asha, part of a conservation breeding programme in a last-ditch effort to save the wild strain of this dying and very valuable species. While poaching and habitat fragmentation and loss have cost this animal dear, another serious threat to the wild buffalo is hybridisation with its common domestic cousin.

To protect these, and other equally endangered wildlife, the ministry of environment and forests has a species recovery programme, covering 16 species. However, more than seven years on, the project has failed its purpose, with most of the species covered showing little signs of recovery – and a few like the GIB, hangul and floricans declining further, and may well become extinct in the near future.
The programme lacks adequate manpower, the recovery plans themselves are largely tardy, with no mechanism to monitor implementation and the funding minuscule. Even when the funds flow, its judicious spend is an issue. For example, the much-needed conservation breeding programme for the hangul is a non-starter, and a joke – if it wasn’t so tragic. The day the facility was inaugurated, the fawn in the enclosure was killed by a leopard, a telling statement of the lacklustre approach. 

That said, all the funds in the world would not save a species unless backed by commitment in word and deed. What is killing our wildlife is not just the poacher or the hunter, but our collective apathy.

The government has failed to back the species recovery programme with funding, staff and more importantly commitment. The same indifference plagues the states, which have largely lacked the drive, and the vision to conserve even their state emblems. Of course, there are exceptions, and in some cases successes, such as the Asiatic Lion in Gujarat which has seen a remarkable recovery, as well as the greater one-horned rhino in Assam. The state might be currently floundering as the poaching of rhinos has peaked, but there is no denying the tremendous effort over the years that pulled them back from the brink.

The way forward to save our wildlife is clear: strict vigilance and protection, identifying, and conserving crucial habitats and protected areas, as well as working in partnership with communities in the greater landscapes. Yet, even as we have a ‘species recovery programme’, their habitat is being hammered. For instance, dams, barrages, thermal power plants, industries are sucking up the water of the Chambal – the gharial’s only hope – rendering the river dry, and stilling its flow, making it virtually inhabitable for the gharial and the Gangetic dolphin. The last abode of the hangul has a flourishing sheep breeding farm, trout hatchery and an influx of shepherds and cattle right within a national park, while limestone mining and cement factories pillage the buffer outside.

Most of the last refuges of our endangered wildlife must be inviolate, with no compromises, while in the larger landscape, major changes in land use need to be regulated, and have essential wildlife ‘filters’. It is equally important to take on board local communities, and win their support. It is crucial for states to take decisive, and urgent action to protect the species, and their habitats, backed by adequate funding, and other support from the centre, and assisted by experts. There is a need to review the species list to cover other vulnerable wildlife to revive all these gravely critically endangered species.

Another immediate must-do is to ensure that protected areas and habitats are manned by sufficient, well-equipped, trained and motivated staff. Each species will call for specific measures – particularly in the case of aquatic or marine species like dolphins and dugongs, but the underlying principle remains the same: a safe, undisturbed habitat, and strict protection.

While we rue government inaction, I wouldn’t lay the blame squarely at its door. Governments take their cues from the public, and the truth is we are simply not bothered, that under our watch, creatures that have been on the planet for thousands of years will die out. Allowed to go extinct.

So, will we let our magnificent wildlife vanish under our watch? I like to think, and hope, not. But the time to turn the tide is now, if they are to have a future.

indra is trustee, ‘Bagh’, member, State Board for Wildlife, Uttarakhand, and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife.)



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