ALERT member Priya Davidar takes aim at experts who are claiming that wildlife populations -- such as elephants, tigers, rhinos, and lions -- are now increasing in India.
In a novel by Voltaire, Candide, the young hero, is mentored by Dr Pangloss, an incessant optimist. Pangloss's mantra was: “All is best in the best of all possible worlds”.
In an article in the Hindustan Times, Dr. Raman Sukumar from the Indian Institute of Science came out with a Planglossian view of Indian nature conservation:
“We have observed a sharp increase in the number of elephants — from 15,000 in 1982 to 30,000 in 2016. Even the population of tigers, rhinoceros and lions is on the rise. However, considering severe climate change, the government needs a landscaping approach for wildlife rather than a protected area approach”.
It is clear to all conservationists that the “rise” of the population of tigers, rhinos, and lions is an extremely fragile trend (for example, see ALERT reports here, here, here, and here), especially when there are myriad infrastructure projects imperiling India's protected areas.
Big Questions about Elephants
But what about the “sharp increase” in the elephant population?
Nobody really knew what the Asian elephant population in India was in 1982. As late as 2004, leading elephant researchers Stephen Blake and Simon Hedges were saying “It is not possible to estimate the total elephant population of India or to compare population numbers among sites. Totals cited for India should therefore be regarded as educated guesses.”
My personal observations lead me to believe that there were more elephants in the 1980s than exist today and their habitat was definitely bigger and better connected.
In 2003, Dr. Sukumar made a “guesstimate” that there were 28,580 elephants in India. However, if the population had indeed doubled from 15,000 elephants in 1982 to 30,000 elephants in 2016, then the population should have been around 23,000 elephants in 2003.
Whether the 2003 “guesstimate” was an overestimation, or whether the suggested population growth rate of around 2 percent per year is an overestimation, we play with huge uncertainties that make sweeping statements dangerous.
In a model used by Dr. Sukumar in the 1980s and later, it was assumed that elephant populations had reached their maximum numbers in different Indian reserves -- the reserves were effectively saturated with elephants and could sustain no more individuals. But if this were so, then the only way the Indian elephant population could have doubled is if their available habitat had doubled.
And that simply hasn't happened. In the last few decades, the status of Indian protected areas has changed, but there was certainly no significant increase in elephant habitat.
Indeed, human pressures on India's environments have increased sharply in recent decades. The human population doubled between 1981 and 2011 and the country’s Gross Domestic Product has quadrupled since the 1970s. Both trends have accelerated the conversion of ecosystems for agriculture and the loss of native forests.
In recent years, the number of conflicts between elephants and people has clearly increased. Some have argued that this means we must now have more elephants -- and that elephants should therefore be culled, rather than protected.
But there is a far more likely explanation. There are a lot more humans now, and they are increasingly encroaching into elephant habitats. A 2003 study concluded that “many of India’s elephants occur in highly fragmented habitats, in close proximity to sizeable human populations, and in areas with well-developed transportation networks”.
And this state of affairs is only getting worse over time because of unabated human population growth and growing development pressures.
Protected Areas are Crucial
We agree with Dr. Sukumar that a landscape approach to conservation is needed, but it has to be grounded within a protected-area framework to improve the long-term viability of our endangered megafauna. Even in the best possible scenario, a landscape approach in itself has not worked in India, and a real-life demonstration is badly needed.
Dr. Sukumar's suggestion of a “landscape approach for wildlife rather than a protected-area approach” would enable protected areas to be dismantled, replacing them with a dubious and unproven scheme -- a scheme that might seal the fate of several of India’s most endangered species, including the Asian elephant and tiger.
I believe excessive optimism is dangerous. On the contrary, we must recognize the serious scientific uncertainties we are facing -- and therefore take a precautionary approach to ensure the long-term survival of our iconic wildlife.