The assault on India's protected areas and endangered wildlife

ALERT member Priya Davidar, a leading Indian ecologist, tells us about growing threats to India's protected areas and the imperiled wildlife they harbor:

Shrinking refuges for Asian Elephants.

Shrinking refuges for Asian Elephants.

Terrestrial protected areas constitute less than 4.9 percent of the geographical area of India and harbor many endangered species.  These reserves suffer severe fragmentation and a variety of diffuse human-related disturbances.

For example, the survival of the Asian elephant and the Bengal tiger in India hangs by a thread because they are increasingly confined to small isolated protected areas. 

Given the precarious conditions of such emblematic and endangered species, environmental clearances in protected areas -- such as permissions to disrupt parks for new mining or infrastructure projects -- are a serious affair. 

Such environmental clearances have to be approved by a statutory body, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife.

Unfortunately, in the name of 'development', pressures on the last remaining wild refuges are growing. 

India's One-horned Rhinoceros is just clinging to survival.

India's One-horned Rhinoceros is just clinging to survival.

India's conservative national government has reconstituted the National Board for Wildlife -- by conveniently choosing experts who are rapidly approving projects in crucial wildlife habitats, including five tiger reserves.

Among the controversial clearances is the proposed expansion of National Highway 7 through one of the vital corridors between Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserves.

By degrading the corridor, this highway will reduce dispersal of the tiger and consequently its long-term viability in one of the finest tiger habitats in the world.

Bengal Tiger in the wild

Bengal Tiger in the wild

Another contentious decision was the approval of the 52 kilometer-long Sevoke-Rongpo railway line in North Bengal.  This railway has killed over 40 elephants between 2004 and 2012. 

The new National Board for Wildlife also cleared a proposal to construct a road through Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, which will doom India's only nesting ground for flamingoes. 

Notably, the previous Board had unanimously rejected the proposal, after a site inspection conducted by an expert committee.

Another astonishing clearance was given for a major dam in Zemithang Valley, in the biologically crucial region of Arunachal Pradesh.  This is one of two essential wintering grounds for the black-necked crane, a highly vulnerable species.

Black-necked cranes

Black-necked cranes

Everywhere one looks, protected areas seem to be under assault. 

India's current government seems determined to advance 'development' at all costs.  But will diminishing the nation's critical wildlife areas -- which have already suffered greatly -- bring the kind of development that India really needs?


Is China finally cracking down on its deadly trade in illegal ivory?

Dr Alice Hughes, an Associate Professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in southern China, has been tracking discussions in China about the country's massive trade in ivory -- a trade that has led to an epic slaughter of elephants across Africa and AsiaShe shares with us her views of recent developments there.

Mass slaughter of elephants in Kenya.

Mass slaughter of elephants in Kenya.

The history of the Chinese Ivory trade is not what might be expected by outsiders. 

In 2002 the ivory trade in China was virtually nonexistent.  However, Chinese government regulations put in place that year classed ivory trade and craft as “intangible cultural heritage”, which came to threaten the future of elephants globally.

Over the past decade, ivory prices have risen by nearly 800 percent -- and have tripled in just the last few years.  Demand in China has boomed, fed by small annual releases of seized stock and a weak licensing system -- with around 60% of licensed traders found to be in violation of the law. 

Beyond that, there are an estimated five illicit traders for every licensed trader -- leading to a profound lack of transparency that has essentially prevented trade reporting and law enforcement.

That the Chinese government announced on May 28 to “phase out” the ivory trade in China is a good omen -- with the government symbolically crushing over 600 kilograms of seized ivory in Beijing. 

But what this means in reality depends entirely on which measures to limit the domestic ivory trade will actually be implemented.

The government's announcement to halt ivory imports earlier in the year (26 February) added little to existing policies.  And for the recently announced phase-out to have a real impact will require banning all legal trade in ivory, and strict enforcement.  This is likely to be unpopular with China's growing middle class and senior officials.

Since the announcement on May 28, changes within customs and international trade procedures have commenced.  But there have been no clear statements of plans to deal with China's domestic trade.

Until China takes strong internal measures to reduce domestic supply and demand -- and develops better strategies to police its porous borders for illegal ivory -- the fate of the world's wild elephants will remain precarious.


ALERT launches campaign to save imperiled Thai forest

ALERT is helping to spearhead an international campaign to oppose the Thailand government’s plan to dramatically enlarge a roadway through one of its most important natural areas. 

Big roads mean big impacts on wildlife  (photo © WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong)

Big roads mean big impacts on wildlife (photo © WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong)

A press release from ALERT is being distributed today to over 800 media outlets worldwide.

A two-lane road, called Highway 304, cuts through the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai (DPKY) Forest Complex, a World Heritage Site in central Thailand renowned for its outstanding biodiversity.  Now the Thai government wants to enlarge it into a much larger, four-lane highway.

From an environmental perspective, this project is truly dangerous.

The DPKY area is a hotspot for nature — the largest tract of surviving forest in central Thailand and a globally famous tourist destination.  It sustains a wealth of wildlife including Asian elephants, Gaur, Dhole, Leopards, several species of hornbills and gibbons, and over 2,500 plant species.

ALERT scientists fear that a greatly enlarged highway will fragment the park’s wildlife populations, increase road kill of animals from fast-moving vehicles, and make it easier for illegal loggers and poachers to invade the park.

Unfortunately, plans to enlarge the highway were fast-tracked by the current Thai government, and there was minimal opportunity for expert opinion or public comment

Opposition to the road project has been led by a Thai environmental group known as the Stop Global Warming Association -- but that group and Thai conservationists direly need international publicity and support.

The United Nations could declare the area a World Heritage Site in Danger if the government doesn’t show a stronger commitment to protecting this globally unique ecosystem.

Many believe the plan to expand Highway 304 should never have been proposed in the first place.  Enlarging the highway could irreparably damage one of Thailand’s most vital ecosystems — and that would be a global tragedy.

China acknowledges role in global elephant slaughter

The last few years have been devastating for elephants, with a global slaughter being fueled by a burgeoning demand for ivory. China, which accounts for much of this demand, is finally beginning to acknowledge its role and take steps to limit trade in ivory products.

Time to stop the slaughter--forest elephant shot in Gabon (photo by Ralph Buij).

Time to stop the slaughter--forest elephant shot in Gabon (photo by Ralph Buij).

In this week's issue of Science, Shiyang Huang and Qiang Weng highlight the burgeoning trade in illegal ivory in China, and detail the government's efforts to combat this black market

The good news is that, despite their belated response, Chinese authorities seem to be taking the threat seriously--recently confiscating and destroying 6 tonnes of ivory. In China, a decisive government action like this could potentially send a strong signal to illegal traders that the days of open trade in 'blood ivory' are coming to an end.

These are just the first steps, as the demand for ivory in China is huge.  Let's hope the Chinese government continues to show leadership on this high-profile international issue.