Ghazala Shahabuddin is Associate Professor, School of Human Ecology, B.R. Ambedkar University, Delhi After her PhD in conservation biology from Duke University in 1998, she has worked and published extensively on habitat fragmentation, sustainable forest management, the human impact on biodiversity, and conservation-induced displacement.
Dr Shahabuddin was a Fellow at the Council for Social Development in New Delhi and a Research Associate with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s India Program from 2003 to 2007. She has also been a consultant with the World Bank on global tiger conservation issues. She has co-edited (with Mahesh Rangarajan) Making Conservation Work: Securing Biodiversity in this New Century (2007).
India faces an ecological crisis of crippling proportions. The overexploitation of the country’s forests and wetlands is eating away at vital ecological processes. Rapid and unplanned economic development threatens to fragment and devour what little wildlife habitat survives. Plant and animal species are joining the ranks of the critically endangered faster than ever before.
India’s dominant conservation paradigm is one of control and exclusion, where animals and ecosystems are sought to be protected by guns, guards fences. This book argues that environmental justice and improved governance have to be as much a part of the conservation agenda as sound ecological science and practice. It surveys alternative approaches to conservation which attempt to reconcile social equity with biodiversity goals.
Using the Sariska Tiger Reserve as an anchor, the author analyses the historical, socio –political and biological contexts of nature conservation in the country in an effort to identify the causes of India’s ecological crisis. She provides detailed data to demonstrate that a broad-based participatory approach to conservation is necessary if we are to see India’s extraordinary wildlife survive into the next century.
The product of years of travels and research in remote places, this book combines rigour, logic, and passion. It will alert every reader to the danger that the wildlife and ecosystems we hope to preserve may have been ravaged beyond repair by the time we accept the need for change in our conservation strategies.
Forests of the Living Dead
A crisp December morning. I was in Sitamata, one of India's little-known wildlife sanctuaries. Situated in the state of Rajasthan, Sitamata was established in 1979, and, at more than 422 sq. km, is much larger than the average Indian Protected Area (PA). It encompasses undulating country with permanent springs, cliffs, and thick riverine forest stretches. Dry tropical forests flourish here, protected from the extreme weather of the Thar desert by the ancient range of the Aravalli mountains. Sitamata is extremely interesting biologically: several peninsular animal and plant species-including the Indian giant flying squirrel, the grey junglefowl, and natural teak- reach their north-western distributional limits here.
My trip here had been arranged by Dr Justus Joshua of the Foundation for Ecological Security, who was making an inventory of the sanctuary's flora and fauna. Mapping biodiversity patterns and understanding their relationship with human use is the first step towards developing a scientific management plan, a task he was carrying out together with the Rajasthan Forest Department.
Exploring a new area is always interesting and full of surprises. Travelling with the research team, I was intrigued by the vegetation, which was dominated by very short-statured teak trees. Whereas this tree normally reaches 10 to 15 metres in this part of the country, hardly any reached even 4 metres here. In fact, there were very few large trees, and even the ones that seemed to exist occurred only in patches. The understorey, which under normal circumstances should have comprised native saplings and shrubs of varying height, was dominated by Lantana camara, an exotic invasive species from South America which snuffs out other plants. The monotony of the teak stands, coupled with the visibly low regeneration of the already sparse native trees, told me the whole story: there had been diverse forest here in the past, but it was gone now and the future held declining bio- logical diversity.
Ecologists are often derided for speculating on possible causes. But that is what I will do in the absence of a detailed history of this region. Discussions with forest personnel revealed that there had been a phase of commercial clear-felling of teak trees in the 1960s, much before the sanctuary was established. This period of clear-felling is likely to have been followed by a phase of chronic disturbance caused by fire, lop- ping, and grazing by local villagers. It is possible that such repeated disturbances prevented tree saplings and re-sprouting trees in the logged areas to grow to their natural height. Adverse changes in soil and micro-climate, which are inevitable after logging, may have further constrained the establishment of new saplings. With repeated expo-sure to cattle-grazing and extremes of temperature, forest soil tends to get compacted, hard, and dry, and is therefore far less conducive to seed germination and plant growth. A senior forest officer told us that there had been teak-planting in the past to enrich the forest stands for this commercially valuable species. This is likely to have led to a further de- cline in other tree species in parts of the sanctuary.
I also found it interesting that ungulates such as nilgai, sambar, and chital, common in peninsular India's forests, were missing here despite the larger-than-average size of the sanctuary. The only wild ungulate that occurs here, the four-horned antelope, exists, according to Joshua, at extremely low densities. This is only to be expected, given the insufficient forage in the forest: herbivores need tree saplings, edible shrubs, and grasses. It was not surprising to find that predators such as tigers and wild dogs disappeared long ago from Sitamata, and even leopard signs are now uncommon. A once-common omnivore of the area, the sloth bear, has become extinct as well-as it has from much of the Aravallis. A recent history reveals that Siramata had a low herbivore density even as far back as 1994, when it was studied as a possible second home for the Asiatic lion-it was rejected on that account (Divya-bhanusinh 2005). Joshua had, however, found evidence of rare small cats, such as the rusty spotted cat, and other endemic species such as the Indian star tortoise and the Aravalli spurfowl in the better- protected parts of the sanctuary. On a walk along a patch of thick riverine forest, hiding away in less accessible valleys, we were rewarded by the rare sight of the grey-headed canary flycatcher, the stork-billed kingfisher, and the crested serpent eagle. These bird species are known to live only in forests along perennial streams in the Aravallis.
The forest here had obviously suffered from intense commercial use in the past. Today, it bears the additional brunt of the numerous villages and towns located around it whose people extract whatever they need from it. Over a walk of2 km I saw numerous tree stumps, some cut very recently. Tendu trees, whose leaves are collected for the manufacture of country cigarettes (bidis) allover India, presented a particularly pathetic sight. They had been reduced to stumps because of repeated lopping and firing practices that encourage new leaf growth. I could see livestock grazing on the fringes of the sanctuary as well as around the small hamlets located inside its boundaries. The forest around each of the villages was degraded too, with only stunted teak saplings, harvested trees, and Lantana bushes. Along the highways I could see evidence of log extraction, obviously illegal, which the local forest functionaries seemed powerless to stop.
The sanctuary appeared to be run abysmally. Forest protection levels seemed very low. During the three days I spent inside the sanctuary I saw only a few guards at the entry gates, never patrolling inside. There were no facilities for tourists despite the considerable revenue- earning potential of the sanctuary. The local villagers seemed poor, underemployed, and lacking any facilities for education or health-care. There had been no initiative by the sanctuary managers to employ local people in forest protection duties or other remunerative activities. Many of the villagers here are descendants of those who moved to the sanctuary after being displaced from the submergence zone of a dam in nearby Gujarat. Although they now live close to the state high- way that connects them to nearby towns, they lack the skills for any substantial form of employment. Only daily wage labour supplements their income from subsistence agriculture in their rain-fed fields.
Wildlife sanctuaries were established in India with the aim of protecting all rypes of living organisms as well as the ecological and evolutionary processes that guarantee their long-term survival. However, it is obvious that Sitamata has become just a 'paper park' with high potential but limited actual value for biodiversity conservation. Its forests have failed to protect the range of flora and fauna that they originally harboured. Its trees have to do without fruit-eaters, such as the sloth bear and cheetal, which are responsible for seed dispersal and germination. Big cats cannot survive here as their prey-base does not come anywhere near the densities required. Even the rather more generalist herbivores, such as sambar, cannot find the plant diversity that they need. The serene-looking green canopy hides a dysfunctional forest ecosystem that can no longer shelter the diversity of tropical life that it is meant to.
It is apparent that the Indian government does not have this vulnerable patch of forest on its priority list. It is not a tiger reserve, nor is it visited by high-profile tourists-as are tiger reserves such as Corbett in Uttarakhand and Periyar in Kerala, for instance. Less than a hundred kilometres from Sitamata is the historic city of Udaipur, which has just woken up to shopping malls, world-class highways, and heritage tourism. But Sitamata, a treasure chest of biological values, lies for- gotten and degraded, virtually wiped out from bureaucratic memory.
As an ecologist I have worked in numerous Indian wild places that are managed for conservation, both by the government as well as local communities. My experience tells me that Sitamata is not unique. Indian forests, whether inside PAs or outside, no longer support the range of biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and ecological functions that they were created and mandated to protect. The condition of the Sita- mata Wildlife Sanctuary is more or less the same as that of countless stretches of 'forest land' all over the country. Forests of varying canopy cover show up in the satellite imagery produced by remote-sensing agencies, and estimates of forest area in the country are now more accurate. However, no one really knows how much of this forest is still ecologically functional and how much of it has joined the ranks of the living dead’, as Sitamata apparently has.
Recent scientific studies point to widespread habitat degradation inside areas set aside for biodiversity conservation in India. For instance, intensive surveys of carnivorous mammals and prey species in the Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh show that their densities have greatly reduced in recent times. The tiger has disappeared from the lowland rainforest areas of the reserve, where it was once reported (Datta et al. 2008). At the Bhadra Tiger Reserve in Karnataka between 8 and 10 per cent of reserve area was found de- graded by biomass extraction activities (K. Karanth et al. 2005). Studies in the Pin Valley National Park in the Indian Himalaya indicate that there may be competition for pastures between domestic goats/sheep and the wild ibex (Bagchi et al. 2004). Vegetation and threat studies in the Biligirirangan Hills Temple Sanctuary in Karnataka show that roads, plantations, grazing, wood collection, and other human activities have affected the sanctuary. If the diversity of native tree species is considered an indicator, a considerable portion of the sanctuary is degraded (Barve et al. 2005). Long-term studies in the same sanctuary report the reduced regeneration of some extracted non-timber forest products (NTFP) species and changes in tree composition because of long-term use (Murali et al. 1996, Ganeshaiah et al. 1998, Shankar et al. 1998a). One can go for miles in vast areas of reserved forests in any state of the country without finding healthy tree regeneration or a diverse understorey.
The Monster of ‘Development’
These biological changes in natural ecosystems may actually be reversible. A far more pernicious threat hangs over the fate of our forests: the voracious demands of development, the highways and dams to be built; agriculture, plantations, mining, and urbanization. Few developing nations, least of all India, appear able to withstand the on- slaught of rapidly expanding urbanization and industrial growth that can irreversibly destroy natural ecosystems. Developmental threats to natural ecosystems in India are mounting by the day. It would be instructive to take a look at a recent issue of the popular newsletter Protected Areas Update. A single issue of this in 2007 documents at least four cases of developmental threats to PAs: a proposed wind energy project in the Kudremukh National Park, a narrow-gauge railway line in the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary, height increase of the Mullaperi- yar Dam (which will affect rainforests inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve), and a hydro-electric project within the Askot Wildlife Sanctuary. Another issue of the newsletter documents a legal dispute over the diversion of forest land in the Mahatma Gandhi National Park, located in the Andaman Islands, for the laying of a water pipeline. Recent pollution threats have also been documented: such as the death of 111 gharials in the National Chambal River Sanctuary from industrial pollution; and a proposed thermal power plant which is likely to affect the Bandipur-Nagarhole forests-these form part of the largest contiguous tiger habitat in the country. A large port at Dhamra in Orissa, being built jointly by major Indian corporate groups, threatens to destroy the last remaining nesting habitat of the Olive Ridley sea turtle in India. The list is endless.
The tragedy is that the developmental juggernaut is not going to spare even some of the biologically richest and most remote areas known to mankind. The north-eastern mountain state of Arunachal Pradesh lies in one of the designated twenty-five biodiversity hotspots of the world. The endangered tropical rainforest ecosystem reaches its northernmost Indian limit here. A mind-boggling 50 per cent of Indian flowering plants, 50 per cent of India's birds, and as much as 25 per cent of India's mammal species have been recorded in Arunachal Pradesh (Datta 2007). Several mammal species have been discovered here even as recently as in the past five years by scientists from the Nature Conservation Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Yet the escalating demand for electricity in the Indian plains has encouraged plans for thirteen massive hydro-electric projects in the state. These are together expected to generate more than 40,000 megawatts of electricity but will wipe out large swathes of globally important forests, fragmenting them into unviable habitats with impoverished fauna. The state administration has brushed aside objections by experts on the unfeasibility of the project, including seismic threats to the new structures, the immeasurable ecological impact, and large-scale dispossession of tribal lands and livelihoods in the region.
The development of road infrastructure, construction, mining, industries, and commercial plantations immediately outside PAs lead to undesirable changes within them as well. Buffer zones shrink, water is polluted, forests are degraded, invasive species creep in and spread, and road-kills of animals increase. Hydrological changes and habitat fragmentation can represent a direct impact on PAs. In India, the Wildlife Protection Act includes a clause for declaring land within a 10-km radius of a PA as an ecologically sensitive zone where damaging developmental activities can be prohibited. Yet very few PA managers have actually used this provision to stop mining or urbanization in their backyards (Menon and Kohli 2003). On the, contrary, the years 2000-8 have seen an unprecedented use of power by the state machinery to protect promoters of such projects from objections by ecologists and local communities (ibid.).
What went Wrong?
India has a separate government department controlling as much as 23 per cent of the country's land area; its primary mandate is to maintain biodiversity, protect ecological functions, and incorporate vital environmental concerns into the development process. Despite India's high population density and low per capita income, PAs comprise 5.2 per cent of the country. In addition, huge forest areas are today under the joint management of local villages and the government, whereby protection and forest benefits are shared by the two parties. India, unlike most other developing countries in Asia, has a reasonably active judiciary and democratic governance that, however sporadic, allows a voice to marginalized people, and a media quick to expose environmental degradation. Above all, the Indian people have a richly recorded culture of wildlife protection and observation dating back to ancient times. Because of this, a substantial degree of tolerance exists among the common people towards the animals and plants that share their space-certainly much more so than in many developed countries. In comparison with many countries in South America, Africa, and Asia, India has far more stringent wildlife protection standards and a complex set of forest laws. Nor does the country lack biological expertise: there is a vast scientific establishment researching ecological issues. So where exactly has Indian conservation gone wrong?
This book is an attempt to try and understand the shortcomings of the varied strategies that have been adopted for biodiversity conservation by India since Independence, both in terms of policy as well as implementation. What have our policies been? How are these policies formulated and translated from the drawing board to the field? Who, really, are the players, visible and invisible, in contemporary Indian conservation?
In the first chapter I look at the case of the Sariska Tiger Reserve to understand the socio-economic and political processes that led to it becoming an 'exclusive' preserve in the early twentieth century and, more lately, its decline as a premium tiger habitat. I hope that by applying a lens to the micro-level processes involved in PA management, people-forest relations, and the resultant ecological impact, one can begin to understand where the failures lie. In most of India’s PAs, issues pertinent to people’s displacement have been central to management. The question of governmental control over biological research is also relevant to the way scientific knowledge is manufactured and then utilized for wilderness management. I attempt to convey the complexities and inadequacies of Indian policies relating to the displacement of people in the second chapter; in the policies relating to the displacement of people in the second chapter; in the third I look at biological research.
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