Saturday, October 31, 2015

Camera trapping in bandit land

I walked back disappointed from the meeting room. It was February 2012, and my proposal to notify the Malai-Mahadeshwara Hills Wildlife Sanctuary (then called the Kollegal territorial division) did not find much support at the government meeting. As in any applied conservation work, it’s always a long-haul to success, sometimes even taking years. We needed to be patient.  

A tiger captured in our camera traps in Malai Mahadeshwara Wildlife Sanctuary 
The forests of Malai-Mahadeshwara Hills (MM Hills) at the confluence of the Western and Eastern Ghats are bone dry during summer. Water is extremely scarce, and unlike the lush forests of the Western Ghats, the vegetation here does not enchant visitors. Sandwiched as it is between the Biligiri-Rangaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve on the western end and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary on the eastern side, I was convinced of the potential of this landscape to host tigers and other large mammals. Though the connectivity to BRT on its western edge is through a very fragile corridor, the link could act as a path for dispersing tigers from BRT to bolster the possible resident tiger population of MM Hills.

A little-known corridor
This region supports one of the last and perhaps the finest tracts of dry tropical forests, including woodland savanna and extensive riparian forests. In these riparian forests survive one of the last remaining populations of the grizzled giant squirrel.  As per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), this rodent has been recorded in only five fragmented sites, and fewer than 500 mature individuals are supposed to survive within the country.

Also part of this dry landscape are the Satyamangalam Tiger Reserve, North Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary and a few reserved forests including North Baragur, Guttiyalattur and others in Tamil Nadu that connect MM Hills to Mudumalai and further to other tiger reserves such as Bandipur and Nagarahole. This entire chunk is perhaps one of the largest productive landscapes for tigers anywhere in the world, with over 9,000 sq km. of dry deciduous forests that can support healthy densities of large carnivores and their prey. Currently this is perhaps the only landscape other than the Terai Arc in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh that is contiguous, ecologically productive and fairly well protected from a large mammal perspective.

In 2013, there was a more favourable government setup, and we renewed our efforts to have the MM Hills declared as a Protected Area. It worked. Thanks to farsighted government officials including R. Sreedharan, Dipak Sarmah, B. K. Singh and Javed Mumtaz, an area of 906 sq. km. was finally notified as the Malai-Mahadeshwara Wildlife Sanctuary in May 2013. It was nothing short of a miracle that the entire process was completed within a span of two weeks (it helped that all the relevant data was already in the files since our homework had been done over the years)! Quick responses from Javed Mumtaz, the Deputy Conservator of Forests of the area, ensured all legal procedures and reorganisation of the area from a wildlife perspective were smoothly executed. Our earlier efforts in 2011 saw the adjoining Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary expanded from 526 to 1,027 sq. km. The entire landscape now receives higher protection, and the area is managed for the singular purpose of wildlife conservation.

Hidden treasures of the landscape
Very little research work has been done in this landscape, primarily because the infamous bandit and poacher Veerappan lorded over the area for the better part of two decades and was prone to kidnapping people for ransom. His death, coupled with the area’s notification, now offer new opportunities for wildlife research.

My interest was in trying to understand leopard occupancy over a gradient of habitats within and outside Protected Areas. MM Hills and Cauvery were part of my study area. Initial occupancy surveys strengthened my intuitive feeling that the landscape had great potential. We undertook the first-ever camera trapping exercise here and it threw up very encouraging results for both leopards and tigers. Though we are still shuffling through thousands of camera trap images, it does look like tiger densities are going to prove higher than originally anticipated.

MM Hills turned out to be one of the toughest landscapes we have worked in. While an extensive network of forest roads and easy terrain make camera trapping very straightforward in some Protected Areas, here there is almost no road network and most of the camera trapping had to be carried out on foot in highly rugged, undulating terrain. It was a physical and logistical challenge for everyone involved, but we gained enormous insights into the potential and the constraints of conservation in the landscape.

The rugged terrain of Malai Mahadeshwara Wildlife Sanctuary ©Sanjay Gubbi

Veerappan was continually the subject of discussion whenever we met people. The forest staff that guided us would narrate interesting stories, pointing to his hideouts and sites where he had carried out his signature, gruesome acts. The forest was open, but I am still amazed at the bandit’s ability to keep himself and his gang alive in this austere land for over two decades.

Our digital camera traps worked 24x7 in the same locations where Veerappan once ruled. The cameras revealed so many exquisite secrets of the MM Hills. Apart from leopards and tigers, we documented ratels the ever-elusive pangolin, the Madras tree shrew, and a bushy-tailed Indian fox, perhaps the first documentation of the species from this area.

While we camera trapped, Javed Mumtaz, the experienced officer who came up the ranks, and Vasanth Reddy, a short, steely-eyed, young forest officer managing the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, ensured that the landscape was provided with the essential infrastructure required for wildlife protection. Working closely, they ushered in several important conservation gains that I am confident will enhance the landscape in the years ahead.

From a tiger conservation perspective, it might take a while to stabilise the terrain, but provided dedicated officers continue to be put in positions of control, the area will turn into one of India’s finest tiger habitats.

Current constraints
I hasten to add that protection is going to be a Herculean task because both PAs share an interstate boundary of nearly 170 km. and are additionally separated by the Paalar and Cauvery rivers. Poaching of sambar, chital, barking deer, four-horned antelope has been tough to detect, leave alone control. Prosecution, even more so. This poses a huge threat to the wildlife of the region and the problem is compounded by the fact that granite quarries that were closed during Veerappan’s reign of terror are now likely to be opened up. On top of this we have the possibility of ‘religious tourism’ being promoted on a massive scale. As if these were not hurdles enough for a biodiversity come back, a colossal beef industry thrives in this area, based on livestock brought in from Tamil Nadu that is grazed freely in these PAs and finally taken to Kerala. The resultant plant biomass loss and poor regeneration can be imagined. This is almost exactly the same thing that continues to be inflicted on South America, where large tracts of the Amazon are converted to pasture for cows, to cater to the global beef industry.

Many of us do not have the luxury of merely wringing our hands. We must work with the cards dealt to us. The MM Hills area is connected to BRT through a very narrow corridor, possibly less than one kilometre wide, through the Doddasampige-Ediyarahalli Reserve Forests. This corridor is where the Wildlife Trust of India purchased land (from private owners) and donated it to the Forest Department of Tamil Nadu, to strengthen connectivity for wildlife.

Clearly we need more such efforts. The Hasanur Ghat road, for instance, passes right through this critical corridor and we need to ensure that the road is not widened and that alternatives, which are available, are the option of choice. Additionally, implementing mitigation and speed-checking structures on the current road are desperately needed. Our research reveals that tiger numbers are showing positive trends in the MM Hills-BRT landscape, possibly because animals dispersing from BRT are finding tentative space in the overlap between the two Protected Areas. We have already documented individuals that are common to both these PAs. There are tigers that are also common to MM Hills and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. Given this reality, the criticality of protecting and enhancing the viability of this narrow corridor cannot possibly be over-estimated.

Sustaining the landscape
MM Hills and Cauvery also act as important watersheds for Cauvery and Paalar Rivers. Several streams that flow seasonally benefit from these forests. Hoogyam, Udthorehalla and other dams that sustain small and marginal farmers of the area are drained through these forests. In addition, the Stanley Reservoir at Mettur in Tamil Nadu is also dependent on these forests for its catchment. The ecosystem services these forests provide from a fresh water perspective is invaluable.

Cauvery and MM Hills are one of the last remaining contiguous chunks of dry forests that sustain endangered species in good densities. If tiger conservation is a landscape approach, as the animal is wide-ranging and younger animals need to disperse over larger areas to establish their own turfs, forests like MM Hills and Cauvery are very critical for cushioning source populations like BRT, and possibly Satyamangalam. There can be no compromise in further loosing forest cover in these areas in the interest of both wildlife and people.  

An edited version of the article was published in Sanctuary Asia in August 2015.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

India’s wildlife protectors: can they survive?

A group of temporary frontline forest staff carryout preventive fire management activities
 India’s reputation of saving its wildlife species, especially its iconic species is commendable. This is laudable especially when species such as the tiger, Asian elephant are facing local extinction in many of its range countries. A key element to the success of tiger conservation in India, infact of most conservation-dependent species, is the frontline staff of the forest department. These barefoot soldiers toil everyday to keep wildlife habitats free from threats that could cause decline of the species they strive to protect. They help the country to keep the conservation flag flying high. However a lot needs to be addressed to improve the well being of this neglected group. Several untoward incidences in the recent times, including two personnel severely injured by a sloth bear in Bhadra Tiger Reserve, has again brought the issues related to these foot soldiers to limelight.

In India, within the frontline staff there are people who are permanently employed through the regular government service process. They are part of the administration system and receive their salaries and benefits as any government employee would. They face a plethora of complications compared to their counterparts in other government departments carrying out similar duties of protection and law enforcement. However, there is an additional group of frontline staff who are largely neglected and face a even more uphill task but slog and sweat to protect wildlife with no benefits or welfare measures except a rudimentary salary structure. These are the temporary staff, and when employed in protected areas, mostly work at anti-poaching camps (APCs). These APCs are small outposts within remote areas of the forests where their basic duty is to carryout patrolling efforts against poaching, timber smuggling and to ward off other threats to wildlife.

These temporarily employed staff (though many have worked for years and decades) are given a short break in the records during the end of the financial year to show discontinuity in their services so that they cannot legally claim to be employed on a long-term basis. They are employed on an ad-hoc basis with no official formalities and are termed as the ‘daily wage staff’. They receive a basic per day pro-rota salary and receive no benefits of salary hike, daily allowance, assured pay at the end of the month or other benefits that a regular government employee would draw.  

They sweat during hot summers dousing forest fires, walk their patrol areas facing risk from wild animals as well as from those who try to illegally benefit from forests risking their lives in the line of duty. However they have little amenities at their ‘work places’ (APCs) but wildlife benefit a lot from their labor. Not wildlife alone, but wildlife biologists, forest officials, government and the society as a whole benefits due to their industrious work. 

The government takes no any active steps to improve their benefits, as they fear that it would be applicable to all temporary staff employed in various government departments. Though the working conditions, job profile are much severer for those who work within the wildlife sections of the forest department, the government does not make any distinction based on the hardships. Although some officials have taken positive steps to enhance their working conditions they themselves are in super minority.

If this pathetic situation continues it could be hard to get these positions filled in the future. As the country heads towards an economic progress labor wages have been increasing. In some parts of the country daily wages in cash crop agricultural sector is reaching over 600 rupees a day. Despite higher wages, of course justified due to price rise, there is a severe shortage of manual labor in the agricultural sector. Coupled with higher wages, popular governmental welfare schemes such as the MGNREGA, that aims to enhance employment security for people, provisioning of highly subsidized food grains and other similar benefit policies have had both positive and negative impacts on labor availability.

Under these circumstances it could be extremely difficult to find people to be employed in wildlife protection sectors. Low wages, delayed payments, salary cuts, life in inhospitable conditions, away from families for long periods, zero health benefits all makes it less and less attractive to take up temporary employment opportunities within the forest department. If the government does not take this issue seriously there could be large-scale vacancies at the frontline protection arena in the near future. The issue of on-ground foot protection, which is one of the key aspects of defense against illegal activities, would become obsolete in wildlife conservation if issues of these staff are not addressed immediately.

Assured medical benefits, support to families during accidents, assisting children’s education, special allowance are some of the socio-economic amenities that need to be compulsorily given to these staff. Ensuring that the legally prescribed wages are paid on time directly to their bank accounts is an important step to encourage people working in these posts. Ad-hoc dismissals should also be curtailed and formal process needs to be implemented for taking them
out of their jobs. Many of these temporary staff come from tribal or socially oppressed communities hence do not poses the social skills to voice against unfair treatment meted against them. Many perhaps are even unaware of the wages they are entitled to.

The world looks at India for its conservation leadership on saving some of the endangered species. It would be well worth for the country to take similar course in enhancing the welfare of its wildlife protectors, who struggle to protect our wildlife from orchids to the mammoth elephant. Or else, the strong foundation of wildlife protection will crumble, perhaps crumble quite fast.

An edited version of the article was published in Deccan Herald on 09-10-2015

Monday, April 20, 2015

Choose your species

In India, funding for wildlife and nature conservation has been driven largely by public money through the respective government agencies. Now, a new model of conservation on public land using private funding is being promoted by the government. Funds are solicited from private and government business establishments to manage certain species and their habitats. At present, few such small-scale experiments exist, although most are on private land.

One of the species for which funding is solicited is the great Indian bustard. 

The central government had initially constituted the program ‘Assistance for development of national parks and sanctuaries’ to support activities within protected areas. Later, in 2009, this was extended to back wildlife conservation outside protected areas (PAs) and the scheme was rechristened ‘Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats (IDWH)’. This was considered necessary as some wildlife species such as the sarus crane, the endangered snow leopard and the grey wolf are predominantly found outside the borders of PAs and some others like the leopard and sloth bear are found in significant numbers even outside PAs. Similarly, some of the habitats in which these species survive, such as grasslands, river systems and lakes, are largely inside human dominated landscapes. The goal of IDWH is to recover critically endangered species and habitats outside PAs and areas of high biodiversity value as well as to protect corridors and areas adjoining PAs. Thus, for over a decade and a half, the central government has supported various conservation activities outside PAs.

IDWH funds have, so far, been spent mostly on habitat improvement activities and in developing measures to reduce human-wildlife conflict. A scientific, ecological assessment of these activities is the need of the hour as spending in some areas, at times, have been unfavorable to the species or habitats that they were intended to conserve. For instance, converting grasslands to plantations or developing water resources in areas that hold species that are facultative drinkers, such as chinkara or blackbuck, were not in tune with the ecological needs of the species.

The initial response for the current call for funding IWDH seems to be from public sector businesses with very little or no response from private business houses. In India, standard corporate social responsibility approaches mostly support health and education initiatives while large-scale wildlife conservation support with government partnership has not yet been attempted. Some states like Karnataka have tried to raise funding for specific activities from corporates with limited success. This is the first time that requests for comprehensive funding of species-specific conservation have been initiated.

Though this model is the first of its kind in India at such large scales, they are already prevalent in other parts of the world. Conservation projects run privately (by individuals, private foundations or corporations) and by civil society on both public and private lands already exist in some countries. Conservation organizations, foundations and individuals have bought land for wildlife conservation in Latin America, North America and Africa. In some instances, thousands of hectares of such privately held conservation land have been eventually donated to the government to be declared as protected areas. Some of these wild land philanthropic initiatives even include developing a mix of land uses such as socially beneficial agricultural restoration, organic farms and nature-based recreation.  They have also included the development of public-access infrastructure within them to provide immediate benefits to society.

In South Africa, many areas that hold large mammals such as elephants, lions and hippos have been declared as private reserves. Some of these private reserves are so large that they surpass some of our medium-sized protected areas such as Ranthambhore or Nagarahole National Parks in geographical area. Several of these private reserves are contiguous with other larger protected areas such as the Kruger National Park with no physical barriers like fences or moats that separate these areas, allowing wildlife to move freely between government and privately owned protected areas.
The current proposal includes addressing species-specific conservation issues through a landscape approach, capacity building, research and other activities. As an important part of this initiative, corporates should insist on frontline staff welfare (including temporary personnel), since they have been a neglected group in wildlife conservation in India.

It will also be important to ensure that certain broad, but very critical, safeguards are in place in this funding process. In order to avoid any distrust or suspicion, it should be ensured that there are no conflicting interests between funding agencies and the species and habitats that their funds support. There should be no compromise in giving wildlife, forests and/or environmental clearances, if and when any of the supporting agencies have business interests in the areas they support or elsewhere in the country.

Public resources for wildlife conservation, particularly on public lands, should continue to be a key priority for the government just like public health or primary education. These sectors possibly cannot demonstrate immediate, direct economic benefits as in the case of commercially extractive industries, but have large-scale intangible benefits to the society. Private funding could act as a supporting mechanism but a gradual, conservative approach with scientifically evaluated results for their ecological and social success should become the firm basis for their expansion.

An edited version of this article was published in Indian Express on 15th April 2015