India's wildlife losses in 2023 reveal our staggering indifference

Over 12 per cent of mammalian species face extinction. More than 40% of honey bees have disappeared in the last 25 years, and 50% of 867 bird species are at great risk

The tiger in Atkona village surrounded by a circus
The tiger in Atkona village surrounded by a circus
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Rashme Sehgal

A tiger strayed into Atkona village near the Pilibhit tiger sanctuary in the early hours of 26 December 2023. Thousands of villagers gathered around to catch a glimpse of the tiger, who had parked himself on the wall of the village gurdwara. It was obvious from the ham-handed manner in which the workers of the Forest Department tranquilised the tiger and conducted the rescue operation that the poor animal was injured in the process, while video recordings revealed the extent to which it was disorientated by the noise and unruliness of the crowd of spectators.

This is but the latest example of how shoddily we treat our precious wildlife. Children are taught about the tiger being our national animal, with pride of place in our identity, etc. Its place on the ground, however, is given scant regard.

According to statistics compiled by the Wildlife Protection Society of India, we have lost 202 tigers between 1 January and 24 December 2023 — a huge jump from the 143 tiger deaths in 2022. The majority of tiger deaths in 2023 occurred because of poaching.

The most heart-rending news, though, was of six tiger cubs who died of starvation in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve while two adult tigers in the same reserve were poisoned, probably by poachers. These eight deaths took place in the span of one month, between 16 August and 19 September, as per details presented to the Rajya Sabha by environment and forest minister Bhupender Yadav in the winter session of Parliament.

Ironically, 2023 was the 50th year of Project Tiger. The golden jubilee was commemorated in April with much fanfare by prime minister Modi. But 2023 was a terrible year, and not only for the tiger: we lost 544 leopards.

According to latest official data, Gir has around 420 male lions (photo: Wikipedia)
According to latest official data, Gir has around 420 male lions (photo: Wikipedia)

The lions of Gujarat fared no better. The Gujarat government informed the state assembly in March 2023 that the Gir Sanctuary had lost 240 lions, including 128 cubs in two years (the period ending 31 December 2022). While the forest department is yet to formally release the statistics for 2023, junior environment minister Ashwini Choubey admitted in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha in December that a total of 397 lions, including 182 cubs, died in Gujarat between 2019 and 2021. According to the latest available official figures, there are around 674 lions, including around 250 females, in the Gir forests.

As for the 20 cheetahs that were translocated from south Africa to the Kuno National Park in Sheopur, Madhya Pradesh, six adults and three cubs died in 2023. On Christmas Day, a cheetah that had strayed into Rajasthan’s Baran district had to be tranquilised and brought back to the Park.

Project Cheetah was initiated ostensibly (and ostentatiously) intended to help revive our dwindling grasslands. But for that, we need hundreds of square kilometres of land, which are simply not available. This ground reality did not stop the government from spending crores of rupees on this vanity project, diverting scarce monetary resources and manpower from other key wildlife programmes. The irony of ironies is that another 30 cheetahs are likely to be brought to India from Africa over the next two years.

PM Narendra Modi looks down on a cheetah in Kuno (photo: kunonationalpark.org)
PM Narendra Modi looks down on a cheetah in Kuno (photo: kunonationalpark.org)

And what of the elephants? The last census on wild elephants, which took place in 2017, indicated that India had just 27,000 pachyderms across 23 states. This is a surprisingly low number considering over 60 per cent of the Asian elephant population is supposed to be in India.

Considered a cultural icon and supposedly revered, elephants are being hit by habitat loss and death by electrocution, accelerated by human-animal conflict. Instead of expanding forest cover, the Uttarakhand government has taken the unprecedented step of denotifying the Shivalik Elephant Reserve — the state’s only elephant reserve.

The majority of elephants in this state — which had one of the highest elephant densities in India — are now having to crisscross tarmac teeming with traffic in order to move from one section of the forest to another. This has become a regular feature in the crucial Kansaro–Barkot elephant corridor.

In 2022, minister Bhupender Yadav had informed the Lok Sabha that over 500 elephants had died due to train accidents, electrocution, poaching and poisoning over five years. In 2023, the nationwide death toll was estimated to be around 100, with Uttarakhand alone accounting for 25 per cent.

According to statistics put together by the Living Planet Report 2022, in the last 50 years, loss of habitat, climate change and poaching are some of the major causes for a drop of 69 per cent in world wildlife populations. (India has seen a 55 per cent loss over the last half-century.) This biennial report is published by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and though it does not have India-specific data, WWF India representatives have warned that India remains extremely vulnerable to massive biodiversity loss.

The last wild elephants census in 2017 showed that India had just 27,000 of them across 23 states
The last wild elephants census in 2017 showed that India had just 27,000 of them across 23 states

Over 12 per cent of wild mammalian species face extinction. More than 40 per cent of honey bees have disappeared in the last 25 years, and 50 per cent of 867 bird species are at great risk.

It is difficult to measure the loss of bird life. One indicator is that the birds of our childhood — the sparrows, the swallows, the parrots and the Indian robin — can barely be seen in our cityscapes anymore. A magnificent creature like the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) could well disappear from the face of our planet, and our government would be solely responsible for not initiating steps to counter it.

Around 100 Great Indian Bustards still survive in the Desert National Park in Rajasthan, while a handful can be found in the grasslands of Gujarat. As per available data, only four females remain in the Kutch area, while no male bustards have been reported in Kutch since 2018.

The alarming decrease of these birds has been attributed to their frequent collisions with power lines. Dr Sutirtha Dutta, a scientist and expert on this subject with the Wildlife Institute of India, points out that most of the 18 deaths per annum occur because these birds, which have eyes on the sides of their heads, end up colliding with live wires.

The Supreme Court had, two years ago, ordered that all power lines in GIB habitat be placed underground, but the Central Electricity Authority has argued that putting these high-voltage lines underground is an expensive business — it would be cheaper to relocate the birds to another area.

Only about 100 Great Indian Bustards still survive in the Desert National Park in Rajasthan
Only about 100 Great Indian Bustards still survive in the Desert National Park in Rajasthan

Relocating them would be their death knell, says Dr M.K. Ranjitsinh, lead petitioner in filing the PIL in the Supreme Court. He points out that there are 17 power companies with a stronghold in the GIB’s critical habitat; their combined profit was Rs 29,000 crore in 2022. Surely part of their profits and CSR funds could be utilised to save the birds.

The Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has been reduced to little more than a letter box issuing one directive or another in favour of large corporates. This at a time when environmentalists are grievously concerned about India’s river systems, which are no longer free flowing, with 205 species of aquatic animals now on the endangered list.

While no one denies that habitat loss, poaching and climate change continues to drive the decline in wildlife populations, in India we are losing our wildlife largely owing to the indifference of the central authorities whose job it is to protect them.

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