India’s Conservation Challenges

Visionary conservationist - Ullas Karanth
Shekar Dattatri

“I think there is still reason for hope”

Wildlife conservation at crossroads

An interview with Dr. K. Ullas Karanth

Dr Ullas Karanth, a Senior Scientist with the international NGO, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), is a world-renowned wildlife biologist.  In a wide-ranging interview with wildlife and conservation filmmaker, Shekar Dattatri, he outlines the basic problems that beset wildlife conservation in India’s human dominated landscape, and shares his views on preserving these last wild places.

(This is an updated version of an interview that was first published under the title ‘Not much time left’ in the Deccan Herald in February 2002).

India’s rich wildlife heritage is facing several threats. Just how serious is the problem?

India is renowned as the land of the tiger and the elephant; many of our gods are depicted riding peacocks or tigers. But sadly, the equation that existed between people and wildlife centuries ago has vanished, and our Protected areas, which comprise a mere 4% of India’s landscape, are now mere islands amidst a sea of people, with tremendous demands and pressures being put on them.

The most serious problem that I see today is the neglect and collapse of basic wildlife protection capacity during the last decade.  This “mission-drift” has resulted from several causes: lack of political will, deterioration in the quality of forest administration, and the influence of international conservation paradigms that blindly promote “sustainable use” as a solution, while failing to recognize the overexploited status of the forest resources targeted for such use.

What, in your opinion, are the most urgent threats to wildlife?

By far the most urgent threat is the pressure from illegal hunting or poaching. We still have substantial amounts of forests left in some areas, particularly in the huge swathes of the tribal belts of Central and North East India, but they are “empty forests”. The wildlife in them has mostly been killed off, eaten or sold. The killers come in a variety of forms: they may be local people hunting for the pot, using snares or guns, or they may be the lowest link in a mafia that is involved in the massive international illegal trade in wildlife that is today almost as big as the drug trade.

In addition, during the past decade, reckless development in the form of new highways, mines, dams and even so-called ecotourism have emerged as major indirect threats to wildlife habitats both inside nature reserves, as well as outside them. There are powerful lobbies pushing these projects..

As a biologist, can you tell us about the impact of poaching?

The most severe impact of poaching is that it depresses wildlife populations. Many species get hunted down to levels below which their populations are not viable. Poaching also has secondary impacts. If herbivores such as deer, gaur, and wild pig are killed without respite, a tigress, which needs to make about 50 or 60 kills a year to survive, won’t be able to raise her cubs. The third thing is, when we take species out of a wildlife community, we are not even sure what the ultimate impact will be. You may be taking out a species of civet or a species of bird that is crucial for pollinating a tree or dispersing its seeds. So, rampant poaching is dismantling, at random, a very intricate piece of machinery that nature has built over millions of years, the consequences of which we do not even fully comprehend today.

What’s the modus operandi of poachers in our forests?

There is a common misconception that a poacher is always someone who shoots animals with a gun. In actual fact, poaching takes place in very many different ways. Poachers are often harmless and humble looking local people operating quietly in the forest. A very common technique is to set snares on trails used by animals… these are simple snares made of telephone wire or motorcycle clutch cables, which can kill a deer or even a tiger. ‘Deadfall traps’ are set, ‘jaw traps’ are set…..some of these are extremely cruel. But one thing is common to all these forms of silent poaching -  they are very hard to detect. You can hear a gun shot, and try to corner the poacher; but a silently set snare, a poisoned carcass or a deadfall trap is a different matter. You may not even know such poaching is going on, but it’s going on all over the country in our forests on a massive scale.

Can we convince local people to stop poaching through awareness programmes and education?

Sometimes a view is held that if you educate local people, they will take care of wildlife. I think this is a simplistic view. A lot of killing of wildlife takes place because there are hardened criminal elements involved; there is a profitable trade involved. These are people who are not going to listen to lectures and go away as converted conservationists. They are relentless and will continue to operate.  The only thing that works with them – like it does for rhino poachers in Kaziranga – is strong enforcement.

Patrolling, anti-poaching camps, and well-armed guards willing to take on the poachers….all these are needed, besides education programs.  In such situations it’s almost like a trench war between poachers and wildlife protection staff.  So, while education is helpful in the long run, it does not do away with the need for serious and strong enforcement. Guns and guards are necessary to fight poachers. Who should oversee such protection, whether it should be the State Government, Central Government or some local body are all questions for us to debate – but the need for protecting nature against criminals cannot be denied.

What about the issue of people living in our wildlife reserves?

One of the dilemmas that India is facing in trying to save tigers, elephants, lion-tailed macaques and such other highly endangered wildlife species is the problem that there are human settlements inside many of our protected areas. Unlike in the heartland of rain forests in Africa or Amazonia, in our case we are not talking of very primitive cultures that are simply living off the land at very low densities of 4-5 people per 100 Sq Km. We are talking of entire villages of people with aspirations for improving their economic status, who are carrying on agriculture and raising livestock to generate cash incomes.

Essentially, these communities desire all the services that you and I have access to, such as hospitals, schools, roads, communication and employment opportunities. If you were to deliver all these social services and economic development to the heart of our protected area system, we are certainly going to lose them. To me, the solution is very clear – the services and economic development that these people are demanding must be provided to them – in a very attractive package outside the protected area system; on landscapes that are adjacent to parks or maybe even away from them.

A lot of non-timber forest products (NTFP) such as honey, fruits, nuts, bark and deer antlers are collected from our forests by local people. Does this have any negative impacts?

It is well recognized that timber felling damages forests. But even if you take away dead trees or fallen trees that are full of nest holes and cavities, a lot of species get affected. For the wildlife community that uses it, even a dead tree is a very useful resource. And, there are the so-called Minor Forest Products (MFP) or Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP).  These could be the bark of some species of trees, the fruit of some others or the seed from a third one, or they may simply be products like cane and bamboo. All these products are now being exploited, not for subsistence consumption by a few forest dwellers in remote areas, but to supply organized industries that are catering to a huge and growing urban middleclass. Take for instance the honey collected from the forest – it gets labeled and exported as a premium product and ends up on a middle class dining table. The same thing happens with Phyllanthus or gooseberry fruits; the bark of many trees like Cinnamon and Machilus goes to feed big industry; the bark of the latter, for instance, are used for manufacturing incense sticks. Debarking these trees actually kills them.

The variety, and rates at which these products are being exploited have serious implications for the survival of wildlife. Some items like Phyllanthus or Myristica fruits are food for wildlife. They are often consumed in times of greatest nutritional stress. Depriving wildlife species of this nutrition at critical times will have adverse effects on their health and numbers in unimaginable ways.

The other thing about NTFP is that the method of exploitation itself is often very dangerous to wildlife and forests. Many of the extractive methods involve destroying the tree or the plant; others involve heavy usage that affects regeneration. Many minor forest product collection methods are cruel – for example, the use of fire is a common method to collect various kinds of fruits and nuts; fire is commonly associated with minor forest product collection or honey collection. So, the impact of these very innocuous sounding collection activities is quite hard on wildlife and natural habitats.

But isn’t fire a part of forest ecology? Doesn’t it promote regeneration and improve the habitat?

Fire in a large, natural landscape has a lot of complex effects, some of which are definitely positive. But what we are talking about in relation to our tiny protected areas is very different. As I mentioned earlier, our protected areas form less than 4% of our land area; there are no longer any large wild landscapes left to mediate the long-term impacts of fires. We are talking of tiny protected areas being repeatedly subjected to annual fires caused by humans. These are not lightning induced natural fires as in the case of North American forests. These are mostly man-made fires caused by graziers, minor forest product collectors, hunters or careless people. These repeated fires mostly have a severe and negative effect on wildlife. What such repeated arson does, is gradually remove the kinds of trees or understorey plants that are not able to withstand repeated fires, and replace them with hard, thick barked, often inedible plants.

Secondly, fire has a tremendous impact on ground nesting birds, reptiles or even young ones of larger animals like deer and tiger. So, the effect of fire is largely a negative one and we need to treat it as such. However, you cannot generalize too much, since we need location specific research to understand the effects of forest fires and for that matter a lot of other things…

What about habitat management practices?  Are they necessary?

No. For the most part there is no need to “manage” wildlife habitats beyond protecting them from human impacts. If there is any need, it should emerge from careful scientific studies. Unfortunately, the increased funding for conservation is leading to massive, needless and intrusive management of habitats: needless roads, check dams, and aggressive vegetation manipulations are now the order of the day, simply because a lot of money can be spent on these activities.  These are destroying the last remnants of natural habitat in our best-protected wildlife habitats.  A needless tragedy.

What is the role of science and research in this complex enterprise that we call conservation?

Nature has been battered by us, humans, over thousands of years, ever since we invented agriculture and animal husbandry. We have compounded these traditional pressures through modern commerce, industry and cultural changes, and even through “eco-tourism” and “habitat management”. Nature is now like a patient in an intensive care unit, thanks to our own actions.

We need to study and understand how things work in nature if we are to evolve a rational solution to conservation problems. Unfortunately, a predominant section of the environmental community constantly proposes conservation solutions that are based on wishful thinking and political correctness, rather than on real data or hard science. These “conservationists” are acting like a doctor prescribing cures without even studying the patient’s problems. Without hard, research-based, data-driven wildlife science, we cannot see through this fog of ideology or arrive at real conservation solutions. And we don’t have too much time left before the last remaining wild places disappear off the face of this country.

So, given all this, do you still see a future for Wildlife?

Our protected areas are tiny islands; they are like ice cubes melting in the sun. The pressure is on, and we need to be very clear and say ” hands off from exploitation ” at least in these protected areas.  This country has a history of thousands of years. Obviously there are a lot of social injustices that have gone on over this vast landscape. But by sacrificing this 4% land in protected areas, will we be able to make a dent on these long standing social problems? If the problem is something we have not been able to solve on 96% of the land, I am convinced that it cannot be solved by sacrificing this 4% of the land that is now in wildlife protected areas, to meet some temporary social need. For the same reason, to a country that is endowed with such intelligence and resources, it will not involve any major social sacrifice to protect these remnant natural landscapes.

We need to view our protected areas very differently.  If the Taj Mahal, for instance, is dynamited and broken up into pieces, and the stones are used to build a housing colony in Agra, we would all undoubtedly call that stupid. Even then, the Taj Mahal can be rebuilt, if we have its design and plan. But once we destroy these intricate ecological webs there is no bringing them back.

People are rational beings.  I believe that once they understand this stark truth, they will modify their behaviour.  Therefore I do not see the future of wildlife in India as too bleak…..there are rays of hope: individuals and conservation groups, government officials, businessmen and local communities who are beginning to understand the above realities and are trying to generate pragmatic solutions at specific locations.  So, I think there is still reason for hope.

About the author

Read more
Shekar Dattatri is a Chennai-based wildlife and conservation filmmaker.


Older Comments
  1. I agree with what Sir Ullhas has to say about the wildlife land in India. Time will definitely changes the attitude of people and their thinking about environment. I wish that time should come soon before the disaster.

  2. Thank you for this power packed informative interview.
    Its a must read for amateur conservationists,like myself.