Redeeming Our Pledge for Wildlife Conservation
By Rakesh Shukla
This article was originally published in the print edition of Central Chronicle of Bhopal on September 30, 2010. The full article is being reproduced here with the author’s permission.
One of the most ambitious conservation schemes of its own kind in the world, Project Tiger initially recorded tremendous success with amazingly perceptible results in first stabilizing and later increasing tiger populations in the tiger reserve areas. The general restoration of ecological damage, the strengthening of protection, and improvement of infrastructures were commendably carried out in these wildlife ecosystems. The national and international community also heaved a sigh of relief that the tiger in this county was now back from a very critical brink and would ultimately reach a safer status, specially in the tiger reserve areas. There are now 41 tiger reserves in 17 states of the country, with a total area of 40,969 sq.km, which is only around 1.15% of the total geographic area of our country.
Amid this applause and complacence of the mid-Eighties, the bad news started trickling in that some of these tiger bastions were not so safe after all, and general forest areas, which harbored about 50% of the country’s total population with, of course, a lesser degree of protection and already overburdened staff, were also in serious trouble. This new grave threat with multiple dimensions arose from a very complex socio-economic and demographic order prevalent in the country. And conservation in several tiger reserves was now interfaced with increased poaching, encroachment, illicit grazing, infrastructural weaknesses, and other flaws. Expectedly, managed forests also did not fare well. In a nutshell, the worried conservationists pressed the panic button for the tiger’s plight, and since then tiger conservation has made a checkered history in India. More recently, these threats snowballed into several conservational fiascos, raising a vehement “foul” from the watchdogs. Despite the above problems, Madhya Pradesh is unarguably still the best state in India and in the forefront of wildlife conservation with so much experience and some internationally renowned wildlife protected areas.
Let us admit at the outset that wildlife conservation is not rocketry. While science does have to play some direct and complementary role in the effective management of wildlife protected areas, the basic issues having an ultimate bearing on successful wildlife conservation are so earthy and plain as to be within reach, provided there is no mix-up with fanciful designs and personal itches, and priorities are perfectly in order. Other programmes can be taken up gradually once protected areas are safe and systematically/ ecologically restored to our satisfaction. Besides, as management gurus say, we also have to remain alert throughout to ensure that IMPORTANT works are not being constantly neglected for URGENT ones.
A tremendous biotic pressure surrounds our protected areas, and only strict enforcement of various Acts, effective protection strategies and the gathering of reliable intelligence throughout the year can protect them for posterity. Besides many forest villages inside these protected areas with a huge human and cattle population, a sea of biotic pressure just outside the protected area is also proverbially waiting to engulf them. Needless to add, basking in the glories of the past and complacency on the part of the wildlife managers may prove appallingly costly as far as wildlife conservation is concerned.
Protection has to be and must be the top priority in wildlife protected areas. While I am at the risk of being accused of sounding absurd and pompous, I hasten to add that it is high time to critically evaluate whether protection has the much required synergy and pro-activism under pragmatic strategies throughout the year, as times demand today. The antonym of protection, call it non-protection, slackness or even over-complacency, in a protected area, is a deadly silent invader. It tends to remain unnoticed amid general euphoria of being high on the past reputation and diverted attention of the staff to ostensibly more urgent and time-bound activities. And when the invader gets noticed, it is generally too late to reverse conservation fiascos. It can also be ensured that the assessment of protection also finds a specific and dignified place in the Annual Confidential Report of field officers. While it contains all the details of an officer’s performance in development works, it may be lacking totally in the assessment of his efforts in the protection of wildlife protected area. Needless to add, the protection component is regarded as demanding, unpretentious, and requires a lot of commitment on the part of the front-line staff. Unless it is frequently encouraged and regularly reviewed, it begins to lose the required intensity and passion. Stringent protection and its resultant perceptible benefits are the actual pride of any wildlife protected area, and the entire management commands tremendous respect from all quarters. Some of it may also be in the guise of protests, opposition and even complaints!
Research and monitoring should also form another important focal point in the management of protected areas. Let us not forget that Guy Mountfort and his friends, instrumental in persuading the Govt. of India to launch Project Tiger in India, were professional researchers and explorers. There is no doubt that a continuously growing body of knowledge, however insignificant it may seem to many at first, is in the interest of wildlife protected areas, and small seminal beginnings in select areas of field biology and ecology can immensely help the managers in keeping them informed about and updated on various ecological changes in a particular wildlife ecosystem. Systematic inventorying and monitoring are known to have saved many a serious embarrassments in global conservation history. Regular collection of seemingly simple ecological data and its comprehensible analysis has profound power to foresee things in a wildlife ecosystem.
Management of buffers, including ecological corridors is another important concern in effective wildlife management. In our country, protected areas are being managed as islands in a huge sea of humanity. Let us not be in any doubt. Most protected areas are rather small and fragile due to severe biotic pressure. Serious nibbling effects can easily be seen on the periphery of even the best of PAs. Wildlife conservation is now inconceivable without support from the local people living in and around our protected area islands. They are actually the firsts who have to make sacrifices for conservation. They must be given the best packages/ offers/ incentives in return for their support and sacrifice for conservation and ecosystem services. Besides, mindless and the most eco-unfriendly constructions and utter disregard for conservation on which tourism depends for its lucrative business, are also taking their toll. Concrete jungles have virtually laid siege around several prominent protected areas, blocking free and natural movements of wild animals and creating many resultant problems, including fragmentation.
Lastly, only protected area-friendly tourism should be allowed inside our protected areas. Our prime wildlife habitats lie in the tourism zone. Prominent protected areas can hire resource persons from premier institutes to dispassionately ascertain vehicular/ visitor carrying capacity for these parks. Let us be very firm about our protected areas as being prone to fragility beyond a certain limit. Besides, we also need to provide excellent interpretation facilities/ diversions just outside the protected areas for tourists to reduce this pressure from inside. There should not be any comparison between heritage forts, palaces, stone monuments of mass tourism and a nature reserve. While the latest technology can repair, restore and replace damaged masonries and peeled-off paints successfully, we shall never be able to restore a damaged ecosystem. We should never be shy of not being able to earn big moneys through excessive wildlife tourism. Preserving such areas of immense natural heritage for posterity is itself a much more formidable and commendable task, and a great service to the nation.