How can wildlife be conserved in India? At first appearance, simply eliminating all pressures on wildlife should be enough. But, is this at all realistic?
Two important forces – subsistence and commerce – drive India’s wildlife declines. Take any wildlife habitat. To the local user, its subsistence potential reigns paramount. To the entrepreneur, its development potential. To the conservationist, its intrinsic ecological potential. All are important, and none can be trifled with.
However, here I proceed under the premise that our goal is to conserve wildlife. The question then is—in conserving wildlife, is it possible to also satisfy the goals of subsistence and commerce?
The nexus between commerce and subsistence
Today, providing clear distinctions of commerce and subsistence is not always possible. Close linkages have emerged between many subsistence and commercial activities; blurring the contrast. Distant commercial interests commission and drive many apparently subsistence activities. To quote a few established cases:
- In Masinagudi village of Tamil Nadu thousands of cattle return every evening from the nearby Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary where they go in to graze. Dung collected overnight from their stalls is sent off in lorry-loads to fertilize gardens in faraway Coimbatore and Bangalore.
- Around parts of Nagarahole; even the small local markets for wild meat tend to aggravate local hunting pressures on wildlife.
- In the Great Himalayan National Park, local people pit the alpine pastures of Gumtadav with their extensive digging while collecting aromatic and medicinal plants for market contractors.
- In most parts of Nagaland, including protected areas, bushmeat has gone way beyond ‘for the pot’ to beyond subsistence to commercial with significant premiums paid for wild animals like civets, porcupines and small cats
- In nearby Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, over the last decade, subsistence agro-pastoralist communities have increased their stocking rate of the yak three-fold in response to demands from nearby markets.
Thus, nearly all local communities today act out threats authored by the relentless forces of global (and regional) markets.
We must not labour under naive notions that subsistence activity is no threat to wildlife, or recognize such activity as completely pardonable. To make matters worse, these disconcerting accounts come from areas where wildlife enjoys express protection under law. Such protected areas, however, constitute only a small fraction of the nation’s entire wildlife habitat. Outside these areas, protection to wildlife is virtually non-existent and the assault on them proceeds on a massive scale.
At this point, I believe that the term ‘wildlife’ needs a more rigorous definition—one that specifically includes species that are extremely sensitive and vulnerable to human pressures.
- First are large-bodied species of birds and mammals. Their life-history traits – occurrence at intrinsically low densities, large area requirements, slow rates of reproduction, and small litter sizes – render them highly vulnerable to all forms of human pressure. Many of these large-bodied species, such as large carnivores and elephants, invariably come into serious conflict – and lose – wherever their distribution overlaps human habitation. Indeed, beyond the oft-cited example of the Bishnois of Rajasthan, there are virtually no examples of the peaceful coexistence of large, potentially dangerous wildlife with high density human populations.
- Next, there are specialists like the rhinoceros, lion-tailed macaque and the great pied hornbill, which are exclusively dependent on a narrow range of habitats and or on select resources found within them. They invariably flounder under regimes of intense human use. Indeed, a comparison of their populations in areas facing human use, and those that do not, are apt to show major differences.
- Finally, there are endemics—species with highly restricted geographical distributions such as the Nilgiri tahr and grizzled giant squirrel. Often, their restricted distributions are a consequence of their specialized needs, and losses in anyone of their ranges means a compromise on the survival of an entire species.
In a context of high human density and fragile wildlife species, to realize either the subsistence or the commercial potential of wildlife habitats fully, necessarily implies forfeiting the goal of their conservation.
This is not to suggest that, as a rule, wildlife is impossible to conserve where human subsistence goals are allowed to be met. Conservation is indeed possible in such regimes under two caveats:
- One, that population densities of local communities are exceedingly low and use is low intensity, and,
- Two, that we employ a definition of wildlife that is more pliant by including common, widespread and ecologically robust species.
The direction ahead
Given, on the one hand, the rigid conservation needs of certain wildlife, and on the other, a bitter experience with enforcing inviolate areas, what is the direction conservation in India needs to take?
Even to consider that underfed, ill-housed, illiterate peoples visit much damage upon the remnants of our wildlife habitats, generates a deep crisis of conscience. However, to ask that an area be maintained inviolate is not to reject human subsistence needs.
To me, it does not appear that we are past all possibilities to maintain more areas as inviolate. Relocations of human communities are bound to be both painful and unsuccessful if they are executed as they were earlier—merely as schemes to purge wildlife habitats of people. However, in many places today, local communities themselves desire access to basic amenities like housing, healthcare and education, and are prepared to move to the peripheries of wildlife reserves to obtain them. It is absurd to reject such opportunities.
- With such communities, well-planned participatory relocations are feasible provided there are genuine goals for the social development of these communities, once they move out. Prompt and fair compensation must be made for animal depredations. There has to be a firm link between the concern for wildlife and the neutralization of the opportunity costs to local communities.
- It remains absolutely essential that social disincentives must accompany all economic incentives to keep wildlife habitats inviolate. To administer these social disincentives (penalties, imprisonment, and so on), a regulatory authority at some level of government is essential.
- Finally, double standards must go. Inviolate areas must be out-of-bounds for commercial exploitation as much as they will be for subsistence uses..
Alongside these efforts to forge long-term alliances with local communities and generate greater local support for conservation, we need to address the realities of the hour. Our inescapable responsibility right now is to ensure that the wildlife that remains survives long enough to be conserved under strategies that are humane, just and democratic. And that means the continuation of preservationist measures to prevent poaching and the heedless biomass pressures on wildlife habitats. These must not be regarded as intrigues against human communities, but as reflections of the enormous constraints we must work under in conserving fragile wildlife.
One does wish that there were easier ways of conserving wildlife in the human-dominated Indian landscape. But, there aren’t. If we are serious about it though, it is time we got real and made some tough decisions.