Sad song of the Jungle

Ignorance, intolerance, forest degradation and poaching have had a serious impact on our wildlife. What does that mean? An overview seeks answers

Photo Courtesy: Social media
Photo Courtesy: Social media

Biswadeep Ghosh

Make believe you're in a jungle movie

Watch the baby elephants go by

The beat is groovy It's a brand new dance you ought to try

Come to the jungle and see the animal attraction Baby elephants in action walk...

Baby Elephant Walk, a Pat Boone song

The lyrics could have mentioned tigers, leopards, rhinos or any other wild animal instead of, or along with, elephants. The words conjure a pretty picture of the forest, where animals roam freely with their heads held high. Not for a moment does it seem that the everyday worries of animals include human-wildlife conflict and poaching.

There is, indeed, no such threat - in films, storybooks and dreams. India’s wealth of flora and fauna is enviable. The nation has a forest cover of around 708,273 sq km, in other words, 21.54% of its total area. It has 110 national parks, which are International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) category II protected areas.

India enacted the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972, which provides for the protection of birds, animals and plants. The government has also taken other initiatives for the protection of wildlife, such as Project Tiger, Project Elephant and the Crocodile Conservation Project.

The lion is the king, but the tiger is a grand big cat in its own right. Recent data reveals that tigers continue to get killed because of factors such as poaching, territorial fight and human-tiger conflict. In spite of conservation efforts, 51 tigers reportedly died between January and 29th May 2019. India, in comparison, had lost 102 tigers last year.

In 2019, a tigress was mowed down by a train in Chelama forest near the town of Nandyal in Andhra Pradesh. Starvation killed a tiger who had walked from Ratapani tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh to Lunawada in Gujarat. Another tiger was electrocuted by a live wire trap near a water source in Majhgawan range of Satna district of MP. Three villagers, who were subsequently arrested, had allegedly laid the trap for game meat.

Poaching and infighting led to several other deaths. Ten tigers lost their lives every month between January and May, which is shocking statistics. The animal, which has been listed as endangered in the ICUN Red List, needs better cover for sure.

India is home to two sub-species of the tiger: Northern Indochinese tiger and Royal Bengal tiger. Tiger population in the country has reportedly been on the increase since 2006. Although this is a healthy sign, there is a desperate need for bigger protected areas and tiger reserves for the animal.

Tiger deaths as a result of poaching make headlines from time to time. In response to a Right to Information (RTI) request early this year, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) informed that 423 tigers had been killed between 2008 and 2018 because of poaching.

The Bureau added Madhya Pradesh had witnessed the maximum number of tiger killings because of poaching (71) during the stated period. That was followed by 46 each in Maharashtra and Karnataka, and 42 each in Chhattisgarh and Assam. Uttarakhand saw 35 such killings. The WCCB also informed that six tiger killings had taken place in Delhi since 2008. The eternal threat of poaching looms large. The tiger continues to become a victim, shocking conservationists, wildlife activists and animal lovers alike.

Wildlife activists have often pointed towards unplanned infrastructural developments in forests. Industrial and agricultural growth inside forests has also contributed to human-wildlife conflict.

Trafficking and poaching of wildlife, which includes that for tiger skin and its body parts, has a direct link with the poor quality of security personnel on duty. Not only are these guards badly paid, but they are also inadequately armed and don’t have modern tracking tools. Such shortcomings give power to poachers, who go about indulging in their misdeeds and make a fortune out of it.

LEOPARD IN A TRAP: The elegant leopard is fascinating to watch when it is hunting for prey. The Indian leopard story isn’t heartening, however. According to non-profit organisation Wildlife Protection The Indian leopard story isn’t heartening, however. According to non-profit organisation Wildlife Protection Society of India's (WPSI) data, 218 leopards died in India in the first four months of 2019. Poached, trapped in borewells, run over by trains and other vehicles, beaten and shot, the plight of the leopard is a concern for both animal lovers and conservationists.

Leopards are becoming increasingly vulnerable because of a much-discussed reason affecting wild animals in general. The forest area is getting increasingly fragmented by roads and railways' network. Such changes force the leopard to wander out of their protected zones.

Human-leopard conflicts led to 18 leopard deaths in the first four months of 2019. The average has been higher than last year when 35 leopards lost their lives in such conflicts in 12 months. WPSI data reveals that 2.3% of leopard deaths in the first four months of 2019 happened because of electrocution, which is significantly higher than 1.2% last year.

The leopard is listed as a vulnerable species in the IUCN Red List. Policies need to be implemented for the conservation of these animals, which get killed in their habitat and also when they stray into human territory. It is a neglected big cat clamouring for urgent attention from everybody who matters.

The one-horned rhino is a majestic animal once present across the western Indian border across India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, according to a Ministry of Environment report. "By 1905, the population in India was down to less than 100 rhinos. Due to conservation efforts, the numbers increased to 600 by 1975 and the current number is more than 2600," the report stated.

An RTI filed by environment activist Ranjan Tomar showed that 102 one-horned rhinos were killed between 2008 and 2018. As many as 209 poachers were arrested in connection with these deaths. WCCB provided the data for the response.

Rhino poaching takes place because of the animal's horn, which has medicinal values in Asian medicine although there is no proof to corroborate its impact. Around 93% of rhinos can be found in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, and an even distribution of these animals across a wider area is an urgent need.

One heartening recent development is the deployment of 82 specially trained constables of the first batch of the Special Rhino Protection Force (SRPF) across Kaziranga National Park. This force consists of 74 men and eight women, and it underwent training before deployment for 43 weeks. The creation of this force must be seen as a significant step since this is the first time a unit of specially trained individuals has been formed to control rampant rhino poaching.

A MATTER OF IVORY: A study conducted by the Corbett National Park authority found that, between 2014 and May 2019, nine tigers, six leopards and 21 wild elephants had been found dead in the park. The surprising fact is that 60% of wild elephant deaths were due to tiger attacks. The park has 225 tigers and approximately 1100 elephants, and this development is said to be unique.

The rest of the elephant story has a familiar script though. There are cases of poaching for ivory. They die in railway accidents and because of poisoning. Forest degradation and fragmentation are major concerns, too.

Elephants are both aggressors and victims of human-elephant conflict. The entry of elephants into agricultural land is a major cause for conflict, and several preventive methods are used to control this eternal menace. Among ones in use are solar-powered electric fences, biofencing using cactus and boundary walls and barbed wire fences. Protecting crops from elephants continues to be a significant concern though, and a lot needs to be done to ensure that the problem is successfully tamed.

The gigantic animal continues to roam the forests in large numbers even today. That said, the Asian Elephant, of which the Indian elephant is one of the three subspecies, has experienced a reduction in population by more than 50% since the 1930s and 1940s. It is on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species, which cannot be interpreted as good news.

LOSS OF HUMAN LIVES: Animals suffer because of the consequences of human-wildlife conflict. Statistics of death reveal that human beings are at the receiving end, too. The Union Environment Ministry informed the Lok Sabha recently that more than 2,300 human beings had been killed by elephants while tigers had been responsible for well over 200 human deaths in the last five years. Nearly 494 human beings were killed by elephants in 2018-19, which reveals the vulnerability of people in such situations.

In specific terms, 2398 people died due to human-elephant conflict, with West Bengal experiencing as many as 403 deaths in the last five years. Tiger-human conflict, on the other hand, resulted in 224 deaths in the last five years. Here too, West Bengal saw the maximum number of deaths with 71 victims. The data also revealed that 29 human beings were killed by tigers in 2018, which is much less than 44 the year before. Although elephants were responsible for a large number of deaths, the number fell from 516 in 2017-18.

ANIMALS AND CONSERVATION: Administrators and conservationists need to be on their toes while endeavouring to ensure the safety of species such as the tiger. Says Surender Mehra, Deputy Inspector General, National Tiger Conservation Authority, NTCA has to deal with tough challenges. "In spite of that, tiger conservation in India is done in a much better manner compared to its counterparts in any other part of the world.”

NTCA looks into several issues, says he, adding, ""We address man-animal conflict, which is a global concern. The landscape is another major concern. India is a huge country with a big population, and there are times when the land available for forests lack continuity. There might be small patches of forests disrupted by agricultural land or human habitat, and the tiger may wander into such areas. We have to figure out how the situation can be tackled to ensure the welfare of the animal.”

Conservationists in India are faced with multiple challenges. Explains Dr Dipankar Ghose, Director, Species and Landscapes Programme, WWF India, “Conservationists in India have been faced with the dilemma of balancing development and conservation in recent years. India is on a development trajectory, and most industrial or agricultural growth would need land and/ or natural resources. The pressure on our natural capital is evident. So, conservationists have to provide solutions that would allow development in a sustainable way by considering biodiversity safeguards.”

Forest lands are shrinking. That being the case, how can we ensure a better future for threatened animals like tigers, leopards and rhinos? Ghose responds, "Large mammals like tigers and elephants need large connected landscapes within which they can move. Landscape integrity, therefore, needs to be maintained at any cost. Eco-friendly measures need to be put in place to mitigate the impact of linear infrastructure passing through wildlife habitats and movement corridors. Better future for these species can only be ensured if they are conserved in large landscapes, which have protected areas interconnected with corridors, where people live in harmony with wildlife.”

Human-wildlife conflict is a recurring tragedy of modern times. What measures must be taken to minimize the conflict? Ghose says, "That needs a two-pronged approach – short-term and long-term measures. As short-term measures, we need to put in place effective and time-efficient ex-gratia mechanisms for addressing the loss of life, crops and properties due to human-wildlife conflict as well as active management of conflict-causing species without compromising the well-being of people and wildlife.”

Ghose gives an instance to establish his argument. “WWF India’s Interim Relief Scheme and government ex-gratia mechanisms have been successful in reducing the retaliatory killing of carnivores. For long-term measures, root causes of conflict need to be addressed, and robust protocol needs to be in place for conflict management. The process must involve all stakeholders, ranging from local communities to district administration, state police, forest department and disaster management authority.”

TAKE CARE: Many wild animals are present in large numbers in Indian forests, while others are ‘vulnerable’ or ‘endangered’ species. Regardless of the population of the species, society needs to understand the importance of looking after them.

Co-existing in harmony is of utmost relevance. It must be understood that all animals play a major role in maintaining ecological balance.

Poaching cannot be stopped, but it can be controlled if the society resists it and kind-hearted citizens inform the authorities whenever wildlife crimes take place.

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