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