The problem of diminishing wildlife habitats
The biggest threat to wildlife conservation is inadequate habitat. Some people realize this, but it’s not in our face like the photo of a dead rhino bleeding, with its horn chopped off, and hence the major concern is on poaching instead of the larger threat of habitat destruction. More rhinos are born than are killed by poachers.
Conservation efforts are paying off, with sightings of tigers in most parks having gone up dramatically. The effort on rhino conservation in Kaziranga has been phenomenal. From being practically extinct, we now have over 2,500 rhinos. Normally one should say “Wow”; however, Kaziranga cannot support these growing numbers due to the lack of habitat.
Similarly, a limited habitat with the growing population of tigers is leading to territorial fights, causing more tiger deaths and also increasing man-animal conflict as tigers are forced out of protected areas. Each tiger needs to establish its own territory, and some tigers have been known to migrate over 200km. Wildlife conservation organizations are studying how corridors can be created to link habitats for tigers so that they can establish new territories.
Overpopulation of tigers in tiger reserves, rhinos in Kaziranga and lions in Gir, compounded by the reduction of habitat, especially for rhinos in Kaziranga, is alarming. The silting of grasslands, and woodlands gradually spreading into grasslands, needs to be urgently addressed as grasslands are needed for the rhinos. The practice of jhumming (burning grass to remove small trees, and to provide softer green shoots for rhinos) needs to be supplemented with other solutions.
One answer lies in relocating rhinos from Kaziranga to other areas where they exist or existed earlier, such as Manas, Orang, Jaldapara, Dudhwa etc. Interestingly, rhinos once thrived throughout the Indo-Gangetic plain. They are shown in Indus Valley civilization and Harappan drawings, and there are also references to rhino skins being used for bowstrings by the Moghuls.
Experts have opined that there is a need to initially identify suitable habitats with grasslands and water bodies, and then develop a national plan for the relocation, with an administrative set up and manpower to secure and manage such areas effectively. Subsequently, pilots could be conducted and, based on the learnings, there could be larger relocations. As forests are a state subject, coordination would be important. Fortunately, huge tracts of pristine forests still exist, and these can be converted into national parks.
It is reported that the cost of translocating just one rhino from Kaziranga to Manas, an existing rhino sanctuary, would be approximately Rs8 lakh, and the cost of relocating one tiger is approximately Rs10 lakh. Ongoing organizational, administrative and monitoring costs would be an addition. It is believed that over the next five years, large numbers would need to be relocated. Attempts at relocation have been made and continue, but the numbers required are daunting, as also the funding requirements.
Tigers are very tough to relocate as they cause conflict in the new areas—with tigers in residence and peripheral villages. Rhinos are easier to relocate. However, both are in danger of being poached when left without being monitored. There is a need for all stakeholders to get together to ensure successful relocation.
Karbi Anglong, which borders Kaziranga in Assam and has more than double the area, was declared a protected area in 2000, when authorities realized that animals crossing the road from Kaziranga into Karbi Anlong were no longer protected. The administrative set up for ensuring protection to animals in Karbi Anglong is still wanting, and animals are poached more easily there. Moreover, despite a Supreme Court order instructing the forest department to remove unauthorized construction inside the designated reserve areas, we see only scattered demolitions mainly on the Kaziranga side but very few on the Karbi Anglong side. Fortunately, we have large areas like Karbi Anlong where habitats can be increased with effective administration.
Can roads and rail tracks be realigned to skirt the periphery of parks rather than cutting through them? Where this is not possible, both over and under passes for animals could be constructed to connect the two sides. Internationally it has been seen through camera traps that over a period of time, animals use these passes, thus increasing their habitat and preventing accidents.
The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, established sanctuaries, national parks, and tiger reserves numbering over 660 till 2015. This Act and Project Tiger have not only benefited tigers but also conserved the biodiversity of the forests and all the species residing in those parks. By creating national reserve forests, we have also protected water bodies and rivers that are part of these areas.
Interventions require proper studies and adequate time for evaluation through pilots, as there could be unintended consequences—e.g. sometimes flyovers on highways have altered the discharge routes for water, resulting in flooding. Ecological processes take centuries to evolve. Numerous “highlands” are being planned to provide animals safety above flood levels in Kaziranga. Though highlands sound logical, some experts question the requirement, as some animals die in the floods but the majority survive because of well-honed natural instincts. There is also a fear that on highlands, animals may remain marooned and not be able to survive till water levels recede.
An example of initiatives without proper studies and research having unintended negative results was the offer by some parks of a bounty of Rs50 for every wild dog killed till the early 1980s. The idea was to preserve prey like spotted deer for tigers. However, this meant there were no wild dogs to force the spotted deer from the open spaces back into the forest, where tigers found it easier to prey on them. Since the bounty was renounced, it has been noticed that spotted deer are now much more evenly spread through the forest. Most parks have an uphill task of addressing threats from weeds which are also affecting habitats—wild rose and water hyacinth in Kaziranga, hedge blossom or besharam as it is locally known in Satpura and lantana in several parks.
The good news is that solutions exist to increase habitat and conserve our wildlife.
Naina Lal Kidwai is chairperson, FICCI Sustainability, Energy and Water Council and Rashid K Kidwai is coordinator, India Sanitation Coalition.