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?

 

Will tigers survive in India?

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud shares with us his views on tiger populations in India.  Once the dominant predator across much of Asia, the tiger today survives in just a tiny fraction of its former geographic range -- and with just a tiny fraction of its former numbers.

An Indian tiger  (photo by Priya Davidar)

An Indian tiger (photo by Priya Davidar)

The latest tiger census in India shows that the number of tigers has increased, by nearly one-third. 

That is good news, indeed, because India is crucial for tigers.  The country sustains about 70% of the world's tigers but with only 25% of the world's remaining tiger habit.

This excellent result could be attributed to the interest and commitment of the people of India towards their natural heritage, the protection provided by the Forest Department, the efforts of scientists, and the enormous contribution of conservation organizations.

These findings should be celebrated and emulated in richer countries who talk about eradicating wolves -- such as Canada -- or decommissioning nature reserves -- such as Australia.

The finding that tigers have evidently increased has sparked a lot of reaction.  Journalists have celebrated the fact that the tiger is “saved”.   On the basis of the good news, the pro-development Government of India has wasted little time while proposing to build four-lane highways through several tiger reserves.

But is the tiger in India really safe?  To illustrate, I made a graph with 150,000 tigers -- a plausible number -- at the dawn of the Indian Civilization.  Ignore the massacres by British trophy hunters and imagine a smooth decrease of the tiger population over the past 3,000 years.

Tiger numbers fell to an all-time low in 2006 and have increased marginally over the past decade.  What overall trend do you see?

India's catastrophic decline in tiger numbers

India's catastrophic decline in tiger numbers

The recent increase in tiger abundance -– in spite of being good news -- is effectively invisible.

I am not a proponent of “repopulating” India with tigers, but what the graph suggests is that unless the tiger population recovers to several thousand individuals, the species is still tremendously vulnerable in India.

And if this is the status of tigers in India -- which sustains seven-tenths of the global population -- how will it fare elsewhere?

We should celebrate the good news that tiger populations in India have made a marginal recovery. 

But let's not forget that the species is still staring into the abyss -- the victim of catastrophic declines and not far from global extinction.

 

Heated conservation debate over India's most critical ecosystem

The Western Ghats is India's biologically richest and arguably most imperiled ecosystem--not just a global biodiversity hotspot but considered one of the "hottest of the hotspots".

ALERT members Jean-Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar weigh in on a heated debate about the future of these imperiled forests:

A cool mist shrouds one of the hottest of the hotspots (photo by William Laurance)

A cool mist shrouds one of the hottest of the hotspots (photo by William Laurance)

Glowing reports on how well India’s forests are connected in the Western Ghats come at a time when there is active debate over laws with teeth that could potentially remove human encroachments in highly sensitive areas.  But unfortunately the media seem to be saying “all is well” in a very untimely fashion.

Reality is less rosy and the Western Ghats are replete with conservation proposals that never worked.

The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is one of these.  The reserve lies at the center of the largest populations of Asian elephants and Bengal tigers in the world.  Since its inception 30 years ago, it has remained a set of separate reserves—never managed as an integrated whole, as should be the case for Man and Biosphere reserves.  There has been no improvement in the management of biodiversity and endangered wildlife, and the contrast between wild habitats and developed areas has never been so stark. 

The next buzz is a proposal to establish Ecologically Sensitive Areas.  This idea has been bulldozed by its proponents as the scheme that will save the Western Ghats.  However, it is basically an empty blue-print that says that most of the Western Ghats should be preserved—a consensus view ever since the Western Ghats were declared a global biodiversity hotspot.

Intense land-use pressures... working with local communities is vital (photo by William Laurance)

Intense land-use pressures... working with local communities is vital (photo by William Laurance)

In India, concrete, practical solutions are proposed every day without effect.  In 1995, for example, Stephen Sumithran proposed a beautiful plan to reconnect the habitats of the endangered Nilgiri tahr that would have tripled its population in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.   This plan had no effect on the ground because it was not implemented.

Grandiose schemes in the Western Ghats have only contributed to weakening conservation efforts because they have not been grounded in reality.  Their motto seems to be “think globally, don’t act locally”.

Debate about forest conservation scheme in India

Things are heating up in India.  ALERT member Priya Davidar and her colleague Jean-Philippe Puyravaud provide this perspective on a key conservation issue there.  Their focus is a plan to reconnect fragmented rainforests in the Western Ghats--some of the most biologically important real estate in India.

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Davidar and Puyravaud's comments follow:

The BBC article How India is building Asia’s largest secure forest network (20 March 2014) asserts that since 2012, the state of Karnataka has declared nearly 2,600 square kilometers of forests as protected areas, linking a series of national parks in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot.  These forests would connect with adjoining forest areas in neighboring states.

We congratulate the Karnataka Forest Department for this initiative, but this information has not been made public in India.  Where there have been initiatives to add forests to the protected-area network, it is not at the scale indicated in the article.  Given the high price of land in India, the suggested plan would cost billions of dollars, far more than the entire budget of India's Ministry of Environment and Forests.

At present, the protected-area “network” in Karnataka is chopped up by highways, pipelines, dams, railroad tracks, and human settlements.  Wild elephants are dying there because they can't access water in the dry season.  Parks and reserves are under enormous pressure from fuelwood harvesting, cattle grazing, pollution, plant invasion, violent fires, poaching, and unmanaged tourism.  In some national parks, the tourism pressure is so high that connectivity within the protected areas themselves is threatened.

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

The BBC article comes at the same time that a proposed high-tension power line would slice through forests in the heart of the “secure forest network”, from Mysore to Kozhikode.  This project would be followed by a four-lane highway and railway line.  Funds have been sanctioned for surveys on these projects without considering alternative routes or proper environmental impact assessments.

The bottom line: Optimism about the proposed Karnataka Corridor needs to be tempered with caution.  These vital forests are far from secure and there are many challenges ahead.