How to improve India’s record in biodiversity
The great Indian bustard was named an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1994 and then as critically endangered in 2011.
Besides a few blackbucks and raptors, the grasslands are largely undisturbed, at least to the naked eye. Visitors’ ability to spot wildlife may not necessarily be a good barometer of healthy fauna populations in a protected area (PA), but at this sanctuary it might well be the case. Only five of the sanctuary’s flagship species, the great Indian bustard or Ardeotis nigriceps, are left in the region, a fifth of the population a decade ago, and a tenth of the population two-and-a-half decades back.
There isn’t one bird to be seen when we drive through the sanctuary. The bustards come to the sanctuary mostly during the summer and monsoon breeding seasons, between March and August. A bird, which can be as tall as 4 ft and weigh up to 15 kg, the Indian bustard is found in arid and semi-arid landscapes and, according to some estimates, less than 200-250 of them are left in India, more than half of which are in Rajasthan, where it is the state bird, and the rest in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. There were as many as 1,260 in 1969. “I saw 22 birds together in 2004,” says Shivkumar More, a member of the field staff at the sanctuary.
Trees Drove the Bustard Away The great Indian bustard was named an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1994 and then as critically endangered in 2011. It is also on Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which means it is among the species enjoying the highest protection.
Among the primary reasons for its decline in the area is the increasing shift in land use from dryland crops like jowar (sorghum) and toor dal (pigeon pea), which the bird feeds on, to water-intensive crops like grapes, whose fields are usually fenced, making it inaccessible to bustards.
Other reasons could be the forest department’s attempt to grow trees — when the bustard needs wide, open grasslands — and the declining population of blackbucks, whose grazing is crucial to the health of grasslands. Bilal Habib, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), says a key impediment to the movement of blackbucks are trenches around the sanctuary, which are built to prevent the entry of cattle for grazing.
“Till now very little was known about where the bustards went when they were not at Nannaj,” says Habib. Last April, transmitters were fitted on two bustards, one of which has since died. Habib, who is part of the Maharashtra government project, says the other bird has travelled as far as Latur, about 200 km north. Research on the habitats at the sanctuary and its wildlife has so far been scant.
These are symptomatic of the failings of India’s PAs, so called because they have legal provisions backing them and limit human activities inside their boundaries. India has 730 of them, including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, conservation and community reserves. A national park is more restricted than a wildlife sanctuary, and community and conservation reserves are buffer zones of PAs or corridors between PAs.
These PAs, not including marine ones, account for nearly 5% of India’s land area. National parks and wildlife sanctuaries comprise the core areas of tiger reserves. Globally, 15.4% of the terrestrial and inland water area is covered under PAs, compared with the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Target of 17% by 2020, and 3.4% of the global ocean area is under PAs, compared to the 2020 target of 10%. The Best, the Worst Though the number of protected areas in India has risen 25% since 2000, their management is nothing to write home about. Proof of that can be found in a study by WII looking at the management effectiveness of 125 wildlife sanctuaries and national parks across the country between 2006 and 2014. The study slotted the PAs in four rating categories; only 18 figured in the top category and about half of them were in the secondlowest category (see Protected Areas Could be Better Managed).
Given the falling numbers of Indian bustards and other birds like Indian coursers, it did not come as a shock when the Nannaj sanctuary was ranked the lowest among the seven PAs evaluated by WII in Maharashtra.
Lion’s Share for Tigers PAs are the centrepiece of the government’s biodiversity conservation efforts. Naturally, the draft of the third National Wildlife Action Plan, for 2017-31, begins by talking about the need to strengthen the existing PAs as well as expanding the PA network. Even within protected areas, tiger reserves — now 48 — get what many believe is disproportionate financial support. For instance, in this year’s Budget, Project Tiger was allocated Rs 295 crore, three times the figure for the development of wildlife habitats; Project Elephant got Rs 25 crore.
Ravi Chellam, a wildlife conservationist, says PAs are only a part of conservation efforts, given that most of India’s biodiversity is outside these areas. “The average size of protected areas in India is less than 300 sq km, which by itself can’t hold any significantly large populations of large mammals. “They need space. You can cram people into multistorey apartments, but you can’t do that with animals,” says Chellam.
Dipankar Ghose, director, species and landscape programme, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, India, says reserved forests, which are not PAs, do not have a wildlife management plan: “Unless they are buffer areas of tiger reserves, they do not get funding for wildlife management.” Since PAs are only administrative boundaries and wildlife have to move in and out of them freely, reserved forests are as important to conservation efforts as PAs, which is central to the landscape conservation approach. For instance, the Ramnagar forest division, which adjoins the Corbett Tiger Reserve, has a tiger density of 15 per 100 sq km, higher than some tiger reserves — Corbett has nearly 18 — but it does not enjoy the same legal protection or financial backing.
While non-PAs are in dire straits, most PAs themselves are not considerably better off. “Most protected areas are created on the basis of one or two large mammals or birds. They tend to disprivilege small species,” says Ashish Kothari, cofounder of environmental action group Kalpavriksh. Statistics bear him out. According to the Zoological Society of London, between 1970 and 2010, populations of birds and mammals in PAs worldwide increased by 57% and 10%, respectively, but amphibians and reptiles declined 74%.
Animals + People Habib says adaptive management is essential to PAs. Abi Tamim Vanak, a fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, agrees: “Grasslands are a natural ecosystem but we don’t recognise them as natural habitats.” It took a while for officials at the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary in Nannaj to realise that planting trees there was antithetical to their efforts to save bustards. Sunil Limaye, the chief conservator of forests (for wildlife) in Pune, under whose jurisdiction the sanctuary falls, says the forest department is now clearing trees in patches in the sanctuary.
The other area where the sanctuary management has learned its lessons is the area under its control. The sanctuary, when it was notified in 1979, was spread over an area of more than 7,800 sq km. Eight years later, the area rose to 8,500 sq km, which included private land on which there were several restrictions, including their sale. “The wisdom then was to declare a sanctuary wherever the great Indian bustard went. But that antagonised the villagers who are crucial to conservation,” says Limaye. Last year, the Maharashtra government decided that some private parcels of land should be acquired and the total area of the sanctuary should be limited to under 370 sq km. “We believe the locals will now cooperate more with us,” says Limaye.
While the fortress approach to conservation — which rests on the idea that ecosystems can be protected only in isolation from humans — has become outdated, many believe conservation in India, which accounts for 8% of the world’s biodiversity, is still exclusionist. “You don’t assume human activity has a negative influence (on biodiversity). There is a history of communities managing forests where there have been conservation attempts,” says Kothari.
Under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, indigenous communities get to manage forest resources and also use their knowledge to protect the biodiversity of the region. If the implementation of the landmark legislation has been underwhelming as a whole, within PAs it is even worse, with people in very few PAs having got their community forest rights.
“You can’t separate wildlife and people in India. It is often said that local people are a disturbance (to wildlife), but after relocating local communities we are willing to allow petrol and diesel vehicles, which are polluting, and give highpaying tourists access to protected areas,” says Chellam, who took charge in January as executive director of Greenpeace India.
Elitist Tag The director of a tiger reserve, requesting anonymity, says, till recently, conservation in India unfortunately had an elitist tag: “These causes were picked up by people belonging to a certain social class and people who ended up facing the aftereffects of the project were left out of the debate.” Countries like Australia, Nepal and some in Latin America have had successes with engaging indigenous communities in conservation.
The other problem with the management of PAs is the qualification, or the lack thereof, of those running them. “In the US, they have the National Park Service and the (US Fish and) Wildlife Service, while here wildlife is a subset of the forest department,” says Vanak. The director of the tiger reserve quoted earlier, however, believes there is no alternative to the forest department for managing wildlife and that the department officials are adequately trained to do so.
“Many wildlife managers have lost the feel for the resource they are managing. Civil engineering dominates wildlife management budgets and actions. They should not keep building more and more roads and bridges and watchtowers and rest houses in our PAs,” says Chellam. Economic development is inextricably linked to conservation in a country like India. Environmental activists were recently up in arms over the Maharashtra forest department’s decision to reportedly set aside 58 hectares of forest land, a fifth of it in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, for a rail line for the Delhi Mumbai Freight Corridor project. Ghose believes India should look to other countries to find solutions to such problems: “Malaysia has built elevated highways through wildlife corridors. It does increase the cost of the project, but it is to protect natural capital, which is irreplaceable.”
While PAs are certainly crucial to protecting certain endangered species and to forestall the adverse impact of development on ecologically sensitive areas, they cannot be managed in isolation from the considerably larger habitats outside. Moreover, expanding the PA network may not be of much use if the existing ones do not serve the purpose for which they were created.