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