Wildlife filmmaker and conservationist Shekar Dattatri addresses some of the common misconceptions that people have about conservation, and provides pointers on how “ordinary people” can get started in saving wildlife.
At one time or another, most conservationists have had someone come up to them and say, “I’m into conservation too! I have two dogs and a cat, and I volunteer at the Blue Cross on weekends”. Actually, wildlife conservation has nothing to do with keeping pets, being compassionate towards domestic animals or fighting for the rights of individual animals. It is about ensuring the survival of wild species and their natural habitats.
Animal welfare vs. conservation.
Although there are some similarities between animal welfare and conservation, there are distinct differences that need to be understood. While there are no hard and fast rules, here are some generalized descriptions:
- Animal welfare activist or animal lover: someone who is fond of, and is compassionate towards, all animals, and cares about every individual animal’s welfare, whether it is domestic or wild. He or she is likely to be a vegetarian, and against the killing of any animal for any reason.
- Wildlife conservationist: someone who is interested in preserving the ecological integrity of natural habitats and all the wild species that live in them. A wildlife conservationist may not necessarily “love” animals, and may even be a non-vegetarian (refusing only illegally obtained meat from a protected species).
- There are of course wildlife conservationists who are vegetarians, keep pets and feel compassionate towards all animals; but generally, they keep their sentiments towards domestic animals separate from their concern for wildlife. This is necessary, because wildlife conservation sometimes requires hard decisions that may not be acceptable to an “animal lover” or be compatible with the accepted norms of “animal welfare”.
Broadly speaking, animal welfare is about ensuring every individual animal’s right to a life free from cruelty and deprivation.
Wildlife conservation, on the other hand, does not concern itself with the welfare of domestic animals or even, in general, with the welfare of individuals of wild species. The species as a whole is considered more important than individual animals. A conservationist will accept that it may sometimes be necessary to deliberately kill individuals of a species for the sake of the conservation of the species as a whole; such as culling (killing) of a certain number of individuals of a particular species periodically to ensure that the population of the species does not exceed the carrying capacity of its available habitat (thus putting the habitat and all its wildlife in danger). Another example may be the extermination of non-native species that have been introduced into a country and have proliferated there, posing a danger to native wildlife. Such killing, even when done humanely and on the basis of scientific studies, is generally anathema to those who work in the field of animal welfare.
The difference in perception between an animal welfare advocate and a wildlife conservationist may manifest itself in many ways. Here’s a hypothetical example:
- An animal welfare activist or animal lover visiting a wildlife sanctuary may see a wounded deer and, feeling pity for it, may want the deer to be rescued and provided with veterinary care.
- A wildlife conservationist seeing the same deer will choose not to interfere with the natural processes of nature, and do nothing.
While this may seem insensitive to the animal lover, the conservationist is behaving correctly. Rescuing aged or naturally wounded wild animals and keeping them in a rescue centre is misplaced compassion and should be done only in exceptional situations; such as, if the animal in question belongs to an extremely rare species that is down to the last few individuals and is in imminent danger of extinction.
In a forest, weak, aged or wounded prey animals are an extremely important source of food for predators. A perceived act of human kindness in rescuing such an animal may result in depriving another animal of its rightful nourishment. Animals must be allowed to die of natural causes because their carcasses are a vital source of sustenance for scavengers such as vultures, jackals and hyenas, which may otherwise not be able to survive and raise their young.
While every domestic animal or captive wild animal in a zoo must be treated humanely and given medical attention in case of injuries, in a Wildlife Sanctuary or National Park, it is best to leave nature alone. Human interference and intervention should be avoided. The exception might be where a wild animal has been injured by humans – for eg., an animal caught in a trap or a snare.
Misplaced compassion sometimes manifests itself even in the management of wildlife sanctuaries and National Parks, often to the detriment of wildlife. One example is the creation or innumerable waterholes or the provision of hundreds of artificial water troughs in forests to “quench the thirst of the poor wild animals in summer”. These artificial water sources often cause animal populations, particularly that of herbivores, to rise above sustainable limits by decreasing natural mortality. When the number of herbivores exceeds the carrying capacity of the forest, their overgrazing leads to the degradation of the entire ecosystem, affecting all the creatures that live there.
Conservation – necessity or luxury?
Many people wrongly perceive conservation as a noble act of charity towards nature. In actual fact, the earth is indifferent to whether we practice conservation or not. When we destroy intricate ecosystems and kill off wildlife species that have evolved in a state of delicate interdependence over millions of years, we end up steadily diminishing the planet’s capacity to support our own existence. Nature can exist without us. Indeed, most species on earth will thrive in a world without humans; but we cannot live without nature’s myriad services. Here are a couple of simple examples:
- Studies show that without the humble honeybee, many of our food crops would not get pollinated, leading to severe food shortages and even famines.
- Without old growth forests to absorb carbon dioxide, the earth’s temperature would rise substantially, hastening climate change and its catastrophic consequences.
To put it very simply, conservation is absolutely essential for the continued survival and well being of the human race. In fact, it is the single most important endeavor that every person needs to be involved in irrespective of race, religion, ideology or nationality.
Development or environment?
Contrary to popular perception, development and wildlife conservation need not be mutually exclusive. India has enough land and resources to develop and grow its economy without destroying our last forest fragments. Development projects that pay no heed to environmental consequences will only impoverish the nation in the long run and create more hardship than good. However, development projects that do not destroy forests can help create employment opportunities for poor people who would otherwise be forced to degrade forests for their everyday survival. With a wise land use policy, one can decide where to develop and where to conserve. Presently, India’s forest cover is only 21 per cent against a national goal of 33 per cent. And even this 21 per cent is not all pristine forest. The satellite mapping resolution currently used for estimation of forest cover in India is not good enough to distinguish between biodiversity-rich natural forests and ecologically sterile artificial plantations; so the term forest cover can be quite deceptive.
India has over 650 protected areas (PAs) in the form of National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. This may seem like an impressive number, but sadly, all these put together form less than 5% per cent of India’s total land area. The need of the hour is to reduce pressure on forests and work towards regenerating degraded forests, and expanding our protected area network.
A common question that most people have is, whether someone with a 9–5 job and a family to support can still be involved meaningfully in efforts to conserve nature.
The answer is, yes, provided one is willing to make a serious commitment. What this means is a willingness to educate oneself on conservation issues and work in a sustained manner. Conservation knowledge can only be gained over time through extensive reading, field experience and regular interaction with conservation practitioners. Mere passion or unfocused enthusiasm is not of much use.
Although there is no set path or short cut to becoming an effective conservationist, here are some general guidelines and options for getting started. The rest is up to your imagination and spirit of enterprise!
- Become part of the Conservation India community and carefully read the expert opinions on the site.
- Find a grassroots conservation NGO to work with and volunteer your time and skills. Be prepared to do ‘boring’ work, as that’s what conservation is often all about. Writing letters to government, meeting officials, filing petitions and the like are par for the course.
- Try to find an experienced mentor (sorry, you’ll have to do your own homework!).
- Take up small conservation issues in your area and attempt to resolve them (read an essay on how to conduct a conservation campaign here).
- Take a course in Conservation Biology.