Wildlife conservation in India: Are we really serious?     

Conservation is like a game of chess. You play even when you know you may lose. We cannot sit back and watch the natural world die an unnatural death because of some human follies

Wildlife conservation in India: Are we really serious?      

Vivek Menon

Fifteen years after a Board meeting in Gir in 2005, the WTI Board of Trustees returned to Gujarat for its 66th meeting in 2020.

The location was chosen in 2005 as we had just launched the whale shark campaign in the state. Gujarat was chosen in 2020 due to two reasons: the whale shark conservation project had made a global impact and the CMS COP13 scheduled the following week in Gandhinagar was an apt platform to celebrate our success with members of the Board and the global community.

In its 21st year of operation, WTI can rightfully claim to have left a handprint in each state of India. Be it through long-term projects that we undertake in key geographies or rapid short-term interventions through local partners, the organisation has lived up to its ethos of being conservation action oriented.

At last count, WTI has saved close to 43,000 faunal lives, protected almost 3 lakh acres of natural habitat that includes coral reefs and mangroves, saved three populations of species from local extinction, helped create seven new protected areas, provided more than 5400 beneficiaries with green livelihoods, trained over 18,000 forest guards in India, helped the enforcement authorities in conducting over 225 seizures to curb illegal wildlife trade and sensitised more than 25 lakh children on wildlife conservation.

Founded on 16th November 1998 with an aim to conserve wildlife, WTI with its four members on Board and three employees has since grown to one of India’s best conservation organisations with over 150 staff and a Governing Board of 10 trustees.

The 150 professionals on staff come from equally diverse backgrounds – conservation biologists, scientists, veterinarians, managers, lawyers, finance experts, and communication professionals – all drawn to work for the common cause of wildlife. So do the ten trustees on board – their decades of experience from the fields of conservation, corporate, media, education and management are drawn into the melting pot of the excellent governance, wisdom and direction that they impart to this organisation that has just hit the threshold of a leap into the next decade.

Not enough is done for India’s wilds and conservationists have an extensive wish-list of what should be done. But taking the middle path and keeping expectations realistic, this is a crucial time to plan on what can be done with what we have.

Where populations dictate politics and progress, it becomes incumbent for policy to lean towards a developmental path. We can strike a good balance only if some political will works in favour of saving nature.

Conservation is like a game of chess. You play even when you know you may lose. We cannot sit back and watch the natural world die an unnatural death because of some human follies. Organisations like WTI exist because there is so much to do.

Take for example Gujarat, where we spent the greater part of February. One would think there is very little life in this arid landscape of the Rann of Kutch except for occasional camps of the Agariya community who work the salt pans.

Wait till you see the flamingos that paint the land pink, or the thousands of demoiselle cranes that rend the air with their calls, the raptors, night jars and owls. A haven for birders, this land has only one male Great Indian Bustard left.

Collisions with power lines is one of the biggest threats to these critically endangered birds. The 13th Conference of Parties of the CMS held in Gandhinagar accepted India’s proposal to include the Great Indian Bustard, Bengal Florican and Asian Elephant in Appendix 1. While this will not help the solitary male in Gujarat or the last three females remaining in Andhra Pradesh, the protected status should drive some resolutions and concerted action to delaying the extinction of this species.

Moving into the next decade, we will see more rapid local and global extinctions. WTI is working since a decade to save Chhattisgarh’s state animal the wild buffalo. When only seven buffaloes remained in Udanti- Sitanadi Tiger Reserve, six of which were male, the only adult female was taken into a protected paddock and monitored by biologists. All her progeny were males, which necessitated cloning by NDRI in Karnal. She finally gave birth to a female last year.

Chhattisgarh’s Indravati Tiger Reserve remains out of bounds due to disturbances and little is known about the existence of buffaloes there. Not ones to give up hope, the governments of Chhattisgarh and Assam are working with our team to bring in females from Assam to augment the existing population of wild buffaloes in Chhattisgarh.

Not all is bad with India’s wildlife. We helped bring back the glory of UNESCO World Heritage Site Manas by restocking the park with rhinos rescued from Kaziranga that were hand raised and rehabilitated. They have bred and added two generations to Manas.

The communities living on the fringes of the park are sensitised enough to encourage school children take the lead in stopping the use of plastic. Eleven villagers have come forward to declare a community conservation reserve for the state animal of Bodoland – the golden langur, an endangered species. Our conservation success was pivoted by local political will and community leadership, without which any initiative would have remained just conversation.

The contiguous landscape that Manas shares with neighbouring country Bhutan has catalysed collaborative conservation across borders calling for a Peace Park integrating the Manas National Park of India and Royal Manas National Park of Bhutan.

At the side event hosted by WTI during CMS COP13 in Gandhinagar, country representatives from Bhutan and Bangladesh rooted for conservation plans beyond borders, especially for migratory species.

The Asian Elephant, India’s National Heritage Animal traverses the Indo Bhutan, Indo Bangladesh Myanmar and Indo Nepal landscapes. This great traveller that is in Schedule I of India’s Wildlife 9Protection) Act, 1972 was not listed in the CMS until the Asian Elephant Specialist Group backed by WTI exhorted the government to propose the inclusion of the Asian Elephant in Appendix I (migratory, endangered and threatened with extinction). Better late than never, a historical oversight was rectified when the CoP13 unanimously supported the Indian government’s proposal. This should accelerate the pace for securing elephant corridors across political borders and strengthen WTI’s resolve to secure Right of Passage for elephants in India.

Circling back to 2005, WTI had just released its comprehensive report ‘Right of Passage’ listing 88 elephant corridors in India. Fifteen years on, the number of elephant corridors has increased to 101. Corridors are small patches of land that elephants use to travel from one protected area to another.

Since these are not protected forests, corridors are in great danger of getting impaired. About half of these corridors need no physical securement – since elephants use these patches, they should just let these be. For others, WTI has demonstrated four methods of securement, of which buying land is the quickest but not the simplest and the one involving government intervention has proven to be the slowest that can prove dear in terms of costs of conflict and delays.

Cynics may call it an impossible dream, but this is what keeps us going. India has a lot to celebrate and that spells out as a lot to conserve.

In this game of chess, we can only play our best moves and hope to win.

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