Given the relentless pace at which wildlife habitat is being devoured by the march of development, some government agencies, non-governmental organizations and individuals have been trying to push back—by buying land and letting nature reclaim it.
The past decade has seen a conscious effort to secure wildlife habitats to protect forests.
A recent exercise involved the purchase of 26 acres along the Thirunelli-Kudrakote wildlife corridor in the Wayanad district of Kerala that comes under the watch of the non-profit Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). In the past few months, camera traps have recorded three tigers crossing the corridor.
The land was purchased by WTI with the help of the World Land Trust (WTL), IUCN-Netherlands and the Elephant Family to restore the degraded habitat and protect wildlife along the stretch. The 38 families in four villages in the area were relocated to an alternative site. The exercise cost in excess of Rs.2 crore.
Corridors between two sanctuaries (protected areas) are absolutely critical to wildlife for species dispersal, allowing exchange of individuals between populations and preventing inbreeding, among other ecosystem linkages. The land bought by WTI is gradually being handed over to the Kerala forest department for incorporating it as part of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Thirunelli-Kudrakote corridor connects the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary (18,100 hectares) bordering Karnataka and Kerala, with the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (11,000 hectares) and the Wayanad north division (21,400 hectares) in Kerala. The stretch is part of a larger swathe of about 12,000 sq. km, with an elephant population of more than 6,300. This by itself constitutes one-third of India’s endangered Asian elephant population, which keeps moving up and down the corridor for food and social bonding.
Buying land back from the villagers has not only secured the corridor for the safe passage of elephants and other wild animals, but also helped reduce human-elephant conflict in the area.
“The people are able to harvest and are spared sleepless nights guarding their crop and houses from elephants,” said Sandeep Tiwari, deputy director, WTI. “The initiatives have also helped in improving the lives of these families as they now have access to education and healthcare centres and opening up employment opportunities.”
How much forest is cut down for development needs? The government’s 11th Plan (2007-12) was particularly severe in terms of loss of forest cover, according to a report by research and activist group Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Land was diverted for development projects with scant consideration for wildlife, water and rural communities, it said.
The CSE study looked at five key sectors—thermal power, hydropower, cement, iron and steel, and mining—that have impacted forests. The report said 8,284 projects were granted forest clearance and 197,907.61 hectares of forest land diverted between 2007 and 2011. In the past three decades, 815,534.48 hectares of forest have been cleared for 23,404 projects (see graphic).
India is urbanizing rapidly, and there is heavy pressure on land and natural resources as the population increases. According to a study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham), the number of towns has grown from 5,161 to 7,935 in the decade ended 2011, and this may near 10,000 by 2030. Demographic projections show that by then, the proportion of people in urban areas may swell to more than double that in rural areas.
The loss of forest habitat is a reason for declining wildlife populations across the planet. In this scenario, buying land to secure wildlife habitats has given conservationists a method to arrest habitat loss. As renowned conservation biologist Richard Cowling said: “Conservation is 10% science and 90% negotiation.”
Acquiring land for conservation is not new. In the book Buying Nature, authors Sally K. Fairfax, Lauren Gwin, Mary Ann King, Leigh Raymond and Laura A. Watt document the process of land acquisition as a conservation strategy in the US in the last 200 years.
One such current initiative is the American Prairie Reserve, a collaborative effort involving conservation agencies such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the National Geographic Society that aims to acquire land in north-eastern Montana in the US to create a seamless protected area.
“Imagine a grassland reserve of three million acres—a wildlife spectacle that rivals the Serengeti and an awe-inspiring place for you and your children to explore,” says the American Prairie Reserve website. “Imagine helping to build a national treasure.”
Eric Dinerstein, lead scientist and vice-president, conservation science, WWF, said: “By 2022, I dream of 10,000 bison thundering across 1,000,000 acres with wolves in hot pursuit.”
Back in India, between 2001 and 2003, WTI managed to secure the Kollegal or Edayarhalli–Doddasampige elephant corridor for about Rs.70 lakh. The elephant range to the east of the Biligirirangan Hills had been divided by a long strip of cultivation that cut off the Biligiriranga Swamy Temple (BRT) Wildlife Sanctuary from the forests of the Kollegal division. A narrow corridor now exists between the villages of Kurubaradoddi and Aandipalya along the Kollegal-Satyamangalam highway.
In the North-East, with financial support from WLT, which pioneered the buy-an-acre concept of acquiring land for conservation, WTI is working with the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council (GHADC), the Meghalaya state forest department and the local community to secure wildlife corridors and the restore wildlife habitat.
As much as “4,150 acres have been secured with notification of 10 Village Reserve Forests,” said WTI’s Tiwari.
WWF-India is keen to follow the model, but rocketing land prices are a stumbling block.
“We are looking across various landscapes to acquire land and hand it over to the forest department,” said Ravi Singh, WWF-India’s secretary general. “Whatever we are doing to get forest land back is being done discreetly as any overt signs may send the land prices spiralling.”
Land for Project Tiger
Project Tiger, the government’s flagship conservation programme that turns 40 years old this month, has secured 2% of the country’s geographical area as tiger reserves. The area under the project gets the highest legal protection under the Wildlife Act. The central government’s programme not only secures the existence of the tiger, but also a gamut of species that thrives in those areas.
Launched in April 1973 in nine reserves across an area of approximately 14,000 sq. km, the project has expanded, especially in the past decade, from 25 tiger reserves in 2001 to 43 now. Project Tiger has secured an area of 66,274.68 sq. km across 17 states in the country.
Under the project, the central government provides 100% monetary assistance to states for strengthening protection; creating basic infrastructure for management; habitat development and restoration; water resources; eco-development programmes; village relocation; use of information technology (IT) in crime detection; monitoring of tiger populations; and carrying out estimations of tigers, co-predators and prey animals among others.
Apart from government and non-government initiatives, a few individuals too have acquired land adjoining wildlife sanctuaries across the country and then allowed natural forest regrowth to take place as part of conservation. Most of them refused to speak on record.
One of them is Romulus Whitaker, popularly known as the Snake Man of India for his specialization in reptiles.
Whitaker set up the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) in Karnataka as a field station for the study of rainforest ecology in 2005 on a four-acre plot surrounded by forests. The land was bought with money willed to him by his mother, Doris Norden Chattopadhyaya.
Agumbe is a village in the Western Ghats in Shimoga where, in 1971, Whitaker spotted his first king cobra. He’d always wanted to set up a research base in the area.
In 2005, Whitaker also received the prestigious Whitley Fund for Nature award, which helped him set up basic infrastructure and convert an old farmhouse into a full-fledged forest research base.
“During the setting up of the field station, we had visits from leopards as well as a couple of king cobras, which to us ‘certified’ the place as the ideal field station,” he recalled.
Today, ARRS has 10 acres of land thanks to additional acquisitions and recently came under the administration of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, which Whitaker set up in the 1980s to study reptiles.
Wildernest, in the Chorla Ghat area of Goa, has secured 450 acres and is perhaps one of the largest private reserve corridors for forests across two sanctuaries as well as two states—between the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa and Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka. The Wildernest team runs two independent research stations like ARRS, one in the Chorla ghats and the other at Kuveshi near Castle Rock.
The Sai Sanctuary located in the Western Ghats is another example of a private forest reserve. It’s home to large carnivores such as tigers and leopards, along with elephants and 300 species of birds.
From the initial purchase of 55 acres of private forested lands in 1991, the reserve managed by the Sai Sanctuary Trust has grown to more than 300 acres and today offers a buffer to the National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries along its borders—Brahmagiri, Nagarhole and Bandipur.
Securing land, especially degraded forests and leaving them for nature to reclaim, is a sustainable model to restore forests and protect biodiversity. But it’s an uphill task with land costs surging the moment there’s a hint of demand. Also, in a burgeoning economy in which development is the buzzword, it can be a struggle to find the right balance between conservation and economic growth imperatives.
India has a long history of sacred groves, community-protected forests of varying sizes across the country—part of the heritage of any land that’s been continuously populated across the millennia. In some instances, the fauna and flora of these groves are under the protection of the communities that inhabit the area, as with the Bishnois and the black buck.
But these groves are being rapidly eroded due to rapid urbanization as roads get built, dams are set up, and infrastructure development takes place in the interior, further squeezing species habitats.
Although these groves are of religious importance—dedicated to folk deities and tree spirits, where hunting and logging are strictly prohibited—they aren’t recognized under any legislation in India.
According to ‘Cultural and Ecological Dimensions of Sacred Groves in India’ by K.C. Malhotra, Y. Gokhale and S. Chatterjee, the estimated number of sacred groves in the country ranges from 100,000 to 150,000.