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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  It’s time to look beyond the tiger
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It’s time to look beyond the tiger

Fighting wildlife crime, other issues related to preserving India's biodiversity don't really get much of a mention

Project Tiger got `167.7 crore of the `340.06 crore allocated to wildlife preservation in the last budget. Photo: Anupam Nath/APPremium
Project Tiger got `167.7 crore of the `340.06 crore allocated to wildlife preservation in the last budget. Photo: Anupam Nath/AP

When it comes to the budget for conservation in India, the tiger gets the lion’s share, followed by the elephant trundling along in second place. Fighting wildlife crime and other critical issues related to preserving India’s biodiversity don’t really get much of a mention.

As finance ministry mandarins get down to the business of drawing up the budget for the next financial year, they might do worse than ease up a little on what seems to be an obsession with the tiger to the exclusion of all other species, although this is the 40th anniversary of Project Tiger, India’s flagship conservation programme for the national animal.

The national budget for 2012-13, which was announced in March last year, allocated 2,430 crore to the ministry of environment and forests, with 340.06 crore of this going to wildlife preservation.

Project Tiger, the Union government-sponsored scheme under the National Tiger Conservation Authority, got 167.7 crore of this, while Project Elephant got 22.58 crore. Fighting wildlife crime, which is wreaking havoc on India’s biodiversity and setting back decades of conservation efforts, got 6.3 crore. This when even insurgent groups are using wildlife crime as a means to fund their activities.

Project Tiger covers about 2% of the country’s geographical area. Is it robust enough to ensure conservation in a mega-diverse country such as India? At the recently held standing committee meeting of the National Board for Wildlife, conservationists questioned the forests ministry about the preservation of endangered species that are not within the tiger habitat. The only response seemed to be that the ministry couldn’t do much because of the lack of funds.

India’s wildlife conservation measures are largely lopsided, species-specific and biased towards megafauna, with an extraordinary fascination for the tiger. A popular theory advocated by some conservationists goes like this—If you save the tiger, you also save the forest ecosystem, as the tiger is at the apex of the food chain and is an excellent indicator of the health of other species.

Why this obsession with the tiger? “There are many species that are dying, but not many are bothered. What about species in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands or the Himalayas, where we do not have tigers? How will Project Tiger save them? What about riverine and marine species and the vast grasslands of Gujarat and Rajasthan?" asked Asad Rahmani, director, Bombay Natural History Society, and a member of the national board.

“Project Tiger is a success, but a greater support of all types of habitat protection and biodiversity conservation is needed," Rahmani said. “Remember, the tiger is only a part of biodiversity."

India is one of the 12 mega-diverse countries in the world. It is home to 7.6% of all mammalian species, 12.6% of birds, 6.2% of reptiles, and 6% of flowering plant species on the planet.

Altogether, 132 species of plants and animals from India are tagged as critically endangered in the Red List of threatened species drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The tiger is not on the list and, out of 15 critically endangered bird species in India, eight are not found in any tiger reserve.

In 1972, when the tiger was notified as the country’s national animal, replacing the Asiatic Lion, the Great Indian Bustard was all set to be nominated the national bird, but it lost out to the peacock, as the name got embroiled in arguments over pronunciation. Today, less than 250 bustards survive and the species is on the verge of extinction.

“The Great Indian Bustard was a priority species for action for which we even developed a species recovery plan (along with the Bengal Florican, the Lesser Florican, Jerdon’s Courser, the Giant Clam, the Hangul, the Bastar wild buffalo), but funds were not allocated by the government," Rahmani said.

“While focusing entirely on the tiger, we have neglected other species, even prey of the tiger such as the Hog Deer and Barasingha," said M.K. Ranjitsinh, one of the principal architects of India’s Wildlife Protection Act. “It is time we move from species-specific conservation projects to landscape conservation to sustain all species." Ranjitsinh is also the country’s first director of wildlife preservation.

But there seems to be a deep-seated inertia over this. The International Conference on Bear Research and Management held last November exposed the lack of scientific papers and studies on bear ecology in the country, although India is home to four of eight species of bears—the Himalayan Brown Bear, the Asiatic Black Bear, the Sloth Bear and the Sun Bear.

Except for the Asiatic Lion, which is found in a small pocket in Gujarat, there is hardly any population data on other carnivores, be it the leopard, the snow leopard, the lynx, the wolf, the hyena, wild dogs, jackals, foxes or other small cats.

“Funds for students and researchers to study and document species other than the tiger are difficult to obtain. Inevitably, most of them get into projects linked with the tiger. Others heavily depend on foreign funding, such as the Rufford Small Grants for Nature Conservation, to work on other species," said Vidhya Athreya, a conservation biologist who works on leopard ecology.

At the Convention on Biological Diversity at Hyderabad last September, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged $50 million (around 273 crore today) for biodiversity conservation. That compares with the annual budget of 351 crore allocated to the Special Protection Group that guards him and other VIPs.

The Indian government doesn’t consider protecting biodiversity as an investment toward the future.

That’s short-sighted. Due to various reasons—population explosion, climate change leading to habitat loss, and the lack of environmental policies—several species are on the brink of extinction. Not only does this affect the food chain, but also the livelihood and the socio-cultural fabric of those who depend on local biodiversity.

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Updated: 14 Jan 2013, 12:56 AM IST
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