Sunday, December 23, 2012

If animals could speak, perhaps they would gripe

India has some of the toughest and promising wildlife laws in the world that have been the cornerstone of species and habitat preservation. There are historical evidences of wildlife conservation in the country. However several of independent India’s pioneering and new generation wildlife acts and policies were enacted under the patronage of Indira Gandhi during the formative years (70s and 80s) of modern wildlife preservation. The significant of them was The Wildlife Protection Act that primarily provided protection against hunting which was the biggest cause of concern at that time. Even our national animal, the tiger, could be hunted and ‘shikar safaris’ were a main attraction for Europeans to visit India. There were even rewards for ‘eradication’ of tiger, wild dog, Himalayan black bear, jackal and others.

Though direct killing of wildlife was largely for venison and trophies, the reasons for unnatural deaths of wild species have changed over time. However hunting remains as one of the primary causes of mortalities. Several other reasons have emerged as the market and economy progressed threatening wildlife survival. One could categorize causes of mortality into two broad themes; direct and indirect. The fatality due to unnatural reasons varies from region to region, and at times even temporally.

The anatomy of unnatural deaths
Hunting, casualties due to speeding vehicles or trains, and retaliatory killing by people are perhaps the three main causes of direct mortality. Hunting is a nationwide phenomenon. WPSI, an organization that works on wildlife trade related issues, documents 318 seizures and poaching incidences of leopards during the past two years depicting the scale of poaching for trade. The country has only about 1200 tuskers of breeding age as per the 2010 report of the Elephant Task Force (ETF), again illustrating the severity of commercial poaching.

Hunting remains as one of primary causes of unnatural deaths of wildlife

There are high numbers of elephant deaths due to trains in Assam, West Bengal and Uttarakhand. While speeding vehicles kill innumerable mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians on most highways that pass through protected areas. Dandeli in Karnataka and Waynad in Kerala are classic examples.

In Kaziranga National Park, Assam several animals are killed by vehicles during monsoons when the Bramhaputra floods force animals to higher elevations. During their pursuit of crossing NH-37 high mortalities of wildlife occur. Linked to this is the spurt in rhino poaching when they move out of the safe zones of the national park during the monsoons. Both these examples depict temporal peaks in unnatural deaths. 

Another cause of grave concern is the retaliatory killing due to conflict with farmers and livestock owners. In India annually about 100 elephants are exterminated in retaliatory actions by people as per the ETF report. Tens of leopards meet catastrophic fate due to conflict. However the impact caused by conflict on livelihoods is bound to bring in animosity of affected people. 

An injured leopard hit by a vehicle lies on the road while onlookers curiously watch

While the causes of direct mortality may be small, the roots of indirect threats are numerous and vary in nature. The key ecological reasons of this cause include total loss of habitat (due to agriculture, river valley projects, highways, mining) degradation of habitats (due to forest fires, extraction of forest products, pollution), introduction of invasive species and diseases. The relationship between mortalities due to indirect threats is fairly complex. While vulture numbers declined by consuming carcass of livestock that were injected with the anti-inflammatory drugs Diclofenac and Ketoprofane, Andaman crake a bird from the Andaman Islands is threatened by introduced predators such as rats, and sea turtle eggs and hatchlings are devoured by feral dogs.  

The public response
The way public responds to unnatural deaths of wildlife greatly vary. Images of an elephant family killed in a rail accident in Jalpaiguri district in September 2010 raised public outcry. I and a senior forest official were able to convince the court to close vehicular traffic at night on the highways passing through Bandipur due to some impactful images of wildlife killed in road accidents.

People interested in wildlife conservation have several avenues and can significantly contribute to the cause. The starting point is to understand the underlying causes. Hence interacting and working with experienced organizations and individuals will be critical. Photographers could document conservation threats, individuals with computer and GIS skills could be extremely helpful, some people prefer to help in field research activities, individuals with writing skills can also provide the vital communication support, graphic designers can help develop public information campaign material, the opportunities are endless.

Over the years we have developed a network of volunteers who now successfully carryout field conservation and outreach activities in and around several protected areas. Vanya, Aranya Wildlife Trust, Vana Jaagruthi, Wildlife Matters are all small volunteer groups who significantly contribute to the cause in various ways.   The opportunities are unlimited but one has to be prepared for some backbreaking work to bring in expected outcomes.

Unnatural deaths due to poaching or vehicle mortalities brings in public sympathy and support in some instances. However disappearance of species due to indirect perils is largely unnoticed and building sustained backing against this is far from easy. The pressure of demographic and economic expansion is severe than ever before. Despite strong policies lack of implementation due to interventions, both political and economic, has been a serious limitation in wildlife conservation.

Nevertheless several conservation victories in the country have brought in optimism. There is neither one size fits all or a magic wand to save species. With committed political leadership, dynamic bureaucracy, importantly civil society organizations and individuals, who care and work rationally with Governments and social leaders the unnatural deaths and disappearance of wildlife can be reduced to tolerable limits. 

An edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald on 23-12-2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

The 20 percent solution

It appears that the tiger never stays out of controversy. After the uproar about tiger numbers in the country about two years ago, the topic in tiger conservation that stirred a storm across the country was the recent closure of tourism in tiger reserve core zones by the Supreme Court. The lifting of the embargo by the court after eleven weeks of closure had mixed reactions. I am sure there were celebrations in some of the high profile reserves where tourism flourished as a titanic service industry. Some moaned, though most agree that low-key tourism as an education tool is a necessity.

Interestingly the court order says “all the concerned authorities will ensure that the requirements in the aforesaid guidelines for tourism in and around the tiger reserves are complied with before tourism activities recommence”. Several of the topics discussed in the guidelines may not have been met with. So if one played the devil’s advocate, can tourism actually recommence?

Perhaps the court achieved one of the important goals it had possibly aimed at. All state Governments have now delineated and notified buffer zones. The big question is do all tiger reserves have ecologically viable buffers that meets the true goals of a buffer? The authorities insist on including villages into buffer areas but there is little lucidity to have matrix of villages that have no tiger habitat either to act as sinks or permeable corridors. Where no tiger habitat exists outside the core zones, declaration of eco-sensitive zones would be better choices than buffers. Eco-sensitive zone regulates land use patterns on the immediate vicinity of tiger reserves where the growth of development such as mines or highways cannot be friendly neighbors to tigers.

The tourism was allowed to reopen based on a set of guidelines developed and submitted to the court. The two main thrusts of the guidelines are on ecological and economics aspects of tiger tourism and a few points from the document are worth debating.

The day after the court’s order to reopen tourism, media highlighted that 20% of the core areas were to be utilized for tourism. I was surprised when the guidelines were read in detail. The much publicized regulation that only 20% of the core area is to be used for tourism does not hold water. The guideline recommends “in case the current usage exceeds 20%, the local advisory committee may decide on a timeframe for bringing down the usage to 20%”. The word ‘may’ casts a doubt if tourism is going to be restricted to 20%.

The glaring of all the violations which attract public attention and the ire of wildlife enthusiasts is the riotous behavior of safari drivers and mahouts (wherever elephants are used for viewing tigers). Most times this is what is seen and easily understood by a common man bringing aversion towards tourism. But the key issue that is out of public observation and has real impact on tiger conservation is fragmentation of habitats where tourism infrastructure blocks corridors (currently just an ecological term with no legal backing). The guidelines suggests ‘shall inter alia, include identification of corridor connectivity and important wildlife habitats and mechanisms to secure them’. I wonder if out rightly putting a condition to make corridors as a legal category under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and recommending specific solutions to defragment blocked corridors could have brought legal teeth to reduce fragmentation effects. Without such unambiguous endorsements tourism infrastructure will continue to threaten tiger preservation.

Tourism infrastructure like these that block wildlife movement are the most serious impacts of tourism. ©Jay Mazoomdar

The state Governments have been asked to frame tourism and eco-tourism (finally recognition that eco-tourism is different from tourism) strategies within six months. This is another opportunity for framing policies that can make real changes for tiger conservation. The forthcoming documents should emphasize on mitigating the problem of fragmentation and callously deal with land use even if the infrastructure is on private land. 

Similarly using ecological criteria tourism should be shifted to buffer zones, wherever such forest patches exists and have the potential for tourism, in a phased but time bound manner. This in the long haul will help both tourism and tigers. 

On the economic front it is recommended that the park entry fee be utilized for conservation purposes. The concept of tiger foundation has already been implementing this for some years now. The guidelines seems to have watered down the earlier concept of 20% of the revenues for local community upliftment and human-wildlife conflict mitigation to a new model where the conservation fees is based on category of facilities, occupancy and duration of operation. A local advisory committee has been suggested for every tiger reserve to monitor these guidelines. Hope these committees will be able to deal with the implementation as most existing committees do not even function.   

A minimum sighting distance of 20 meters from the animal has to be maintained. A forest official quipped “who will hold the tape on the other side”. Other recommendations such as proper disposal of waste, adhering to pollution norms, use of renewable energy, are all rules that have been etched in stone under various guidelines, rules and acts.
Several tourism operators and tourists show little respect to wildlife on safaris. ©Vineith

I wonder if there is anything new in these guidelines to set things in the right direction. Unless there were time binding specific recommendations to defragment corridors the guidelines in the current state holds little on-ground benefits for the striped cat. I wonder what did this uproar and media hype achieve. Until another Ajay Dubey shakes the system the logjam will continue.

An edited version of this article is published in Deccan Herald on 30-10-2012

Friday, September 28, 2012

Obituary to tiger tourism?

Tourism should also benefit wildlife and local communities ©Bivash Pandav

 Some wildlife conservationists welcomed it as ‘the move’ to save tigers; a few called it ‘ridiculous’; the media termed it as a ‘ban’ on tiger tourism carried out in India’s 41 tiger reserves. These fragmented reactions were in response to the recent Supreme Court orders that caught extensive attention the world over. Few closely looked at the court’s order before assumptions were made. The court is perhaps not on its way to restrict public access to appreciate tigers in the wild; it is possibly a temporary holdup to achieve a conservation goal. 

I speculate that the court wants to ensure that some of the states such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Rajasthan, which hold poster boy reserves attracting tourists to spot the elusive cats but under immense pressure from tourism, to delineate buffer zones. Till 2006 no legal category as tiger reserves existed in the country’s strong wildlife legislation. An amendment to the law brought in the concept of ‘core zones’ that were to be kept inviolate, and ‘buffer zones’ encompassing multiple use forest areas. But some states ignored this part of the law and ignored delineating buffer zones. 

Returning to the current situation; the tourism industry has hit back at the ban saying that it would take away the extra sets of eyes protecting tigers from poaching, would impact local economies and the vital investments it brought to tiger conservation. However these tall claims are only partially true. In most Indian tiger reserves tourism is carried out in small parts of the reserves while larger portions are continued to be protected by the barefoot soldiers of the forest department despite the hardships they face. Tourism gains momentum only after industriousness of the forest staff brings back animals so that they are available for tourism. It is certainly not the other way round. 

Yes, tourism industry does benefit communities but in a miniscule way. I studied the benefits of such an activity in the celebrated Periyar Tiger Reserve in southern India and the study results are very strikingly different than the advertised claims. Only 0.8% of the beneficiaries of a large World Bank funded project benefited from the tourism industry as a primary source of occupation. However there is no argument that atleast a few families have been profited. 

But the indirect costs tourism has put by way of fragmenting corridors through establishment of luxury lodges with blaring wedding receptions, New Year Eve’s parties at the edges of tiger turfs, unethical safari practices and other environmental pressures, have had serious impacts on tiger conservation. 

The challenge has also been the elitist model of tourism where local people stand and watch the large benefits filched away by operators while they bear the brunt of conservation through human-wildlife conflict and reduced access to resources. The crux is that the industry has only looked at short-sighted ‘profit only’ motives by green washing using the term ‘eco-tourism’. It has failed to demonstrate the spirit of eco-tourism in its real meaning. There could be a few exceptions that exist, but surely minority in numbers. 

Some western based tour operators claiming rights over the country’s tiger pastures have little understanding of Indian protected areas which are specks of landscapes unlike in the African parks where land set aside for wildlife conservation is colossal, hence experimentations on tourism is not a luxury there.  One of the best tiger reserves in the country, Bandipur (890 sq km) home to about 80 tigers, one of the highest densities of tigers anywhere in the world, has a good model of protection, has no human habitation but is less than the size of Delhi Municipal Corporation area (1,397 sq km). We need to tourism that is complimentary of all these aspects rather than one size fits all model.  

I am confident the court would permit tourism, when the issue comes up in a few days, that is largely focused on education rather than a marathon, chaotic, mass tourism approach. Pragmatic conservationists are supportive of controlled tourism. We need tourism as an education tool. The current sensationalisation and panic about the issue should die down while the court would meet again as the newly constituted committee considers various options to be submitted to the court in a few days. 

My experience says that tourism will continue in tiger reserves; however the industry should have foreseen a situation like this and have taken up self-motivated corrective measures to avoid circumstances like these. 

An edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald on 26-09-2012