8 July 2012: Kaziranga loses 573 animals to flood, apathy (Times of India)
So you have heard about the floods in Kaziranga, Assam’s world-renowned National Park. But did you know that among the animal lives it claimed were 25 hog deer attempting to cross a highway to reach the safety of higher grounds?
A national highway or a railway track running through a wildlife park is now commonplace, but where does it leave the animals, who are unfamiliar with traffic rules or with the ‘developments’ that are making inroads into their habitats, literally? A task force appointed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has recently set several guidelines for forest and wildlife conservation that might bring in the much-awaited measures.
For instance, hotels and resorts within a five kilometre radius of national parks and sanctuaries, are to be charged a minimum 10 per cent of their turnover as local conservation fee. But even as we wait for the new guidelines to come into force, let us examine the jumble of facts behind these policy overhauls. First, let us delve a little deeper into the figures. During the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012), 8,284 development projects were granted forest clearance and 2.04 lakh hectares of forest land was diverted towards these projects.
One-fourth of all forest diversion was for mining, with 181 coal mines, besides 267 thermal plants, 188 steel plants and 106 cement plants, getting environmental clearance. The pace has become particlarly strident in the past few years. In 2009, a record 87,884 hectares of forest land was given away. Whew. These figures made us wonder. Can we, the primary beneficiaries of development, overlook the rising conflicts with other species? To track the impact that this trend has had on wildlife, Gobar Times studied related media reports over the course of the last year. Reason? To make sense of what is, no doubt, a disturbing pattern.
29 January 2012: ‘NHAI violated forest clearance stipulations’ (Times of India)
TThe floods in Kaziranga may only be highlighting an issue that has waded into media attention fairly frequently over the last year in Assam. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kaziranga National Park hosts two-thirds of the world’s Great One-horned rhinoceroses, besides high densities of tigers, elephants and wild water buffaloes. Being skirted by the mighty river Brahmaputra all around, its inhabitants are all too familiar with the river’s propensity for flooding. They know what to do when the water flows in. Because it is a natural cycle. Did you know that the annual floods recharge the vast grassland and 200-odd wetlands dotting the park for the survival of both carnivores and herbivores? In 2006 and 2009, when the state experienced a drought-like situation, animals in the park, especially rhinos, starved of fresh vegetation. So the flood water is not the real villain here. Flooding causes most animals to migrate to the higher slopes and forested regions beyond the southern border of the park, particularly the Karbi Anglong area. What they are not trained to tackle is the relentless traffic on the National Highway 37 that cuts through the park. In fact, a study has found that more than 70 per cent of the drivers who travel on NH 37 violate speed regulations and pay scant attention to wildlife movement. Despite this, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) received clearance to cut down over 100 hectares of forest for expanding NH 54E, albeit under stipulations from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), through the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong elephant corridor. Is ‘development’ then holding the wrong end of the stick? Sure, commerce is important, and growing business demands new highways. But must it be to the cost of our ecosystems?
15 February 2012: Village vacated for big cats (The Hindu)
The residents of Umri, a settlement inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan's Alwar district is moved out, allowing more space for the wild animals and the existing population of tigers.
You must have been coming across such reports while browsing the papers. Did you ever sit up and wonder why tourists are considered a lesser threat to wildlife than the villagers who have always coexisted with them on the fringes of wildlife parks? And while tourism may have direct benefits for the much-touted ‘development’ in discussion, does it really work for local communities to be shifted elsewhere? Can any ecosystem thrive without the support of local stakeholders? In a host of legislations that date to pre-Independence times, include Forestry Acts, Wildlife Protection Acts and amendments to these acts, India recognises the need to conserve critical wildlife habitats, such as tiger reserves. But what about villagers, like those in Sariska, who relinquished land-ownership certificates, only to face opposition from the existing inhabitants of villages where they were allotted land, and land unsuitable for cultivation at that? Villagers living in proximity to wildlife parks and sanctuaries across the country face this unique predicament – of an overnight transformation to the status of illegal encroachers on ancestral lands. While reprieve is offered by way of land and cash bonanzas, with civic facilities like better infrastructure, power, education and health in tow, the track record of resettlement is distinct. Researchers studying the Sariska case found that the new areas where the villagers were shifted were degraded forest land with poor irrigation. In addition, sources of revenue and food from minor forest produce were now lost to the locaters, as were their livestock for lack of fodder sources in the newly settled sites. Not just that, the alarming dip in the tiger population in Sariska indicates that the tiger, that the laws are designed to protect, has become the target of resentment. Many of the forest’s core area villages were slated to be relocated to prime tiger habitats like Ajabgarh and Serawas forests. Retaliatory killings and loss of species have been the inevitable outcome. Can relocation packages then ensure sensitive long-term rebuilding of livelihoods? In coordination with forest departments, of course.
20 July 2012: SC arena for wildlife vs defence battle (Hindustan Times)
Several projects were mooted by defence forces in wildlife sanctuaries across the country. These include a Border Security Force built road through the Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, another through the Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram, a naval station at Tillanchang Sanctuary in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and a radar system at Narcondam Island sanctuary.
Also, one which has received approval, albeit conditional, from the National Board for Wildlife, a road through Galathea National Park in Nicobar Island. We have talked about highways threatening the lives of animals in otherwise protected national parks, but these lesser known forests also carry a valuable range of endangered species.
The Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary is the only nesting site for flamingoes in Asia, while Narcondam is the only home for 300 narcondam hornbills. Tillanghchang is an exclusive habitat of the nicobar megapode.
So while it is important to track the wildlife record of the national ‘biggies’ like Kanha and Corbett, equal attention has to be paid to their country cousins.
If you consider the Nandhaur forest, stretching from India’s border with Nepal in the north to Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, another question emerges. Does the fate of other forests hang in their nomenclatures? As a reserve forest, Nandhaur stands in a quandary. While tigers, leopards and bears have been photographed in the forest, alongside other species, their protection does not fall under the purview of the kind of stringent laws that are usually applicable to notified sanctuaries and national parks. In fact, in the last decade it has seen clearances for the setting up of a railway sleeper factory, an Indian Oil Corp. Ltd (IOC) depot; and an Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) complex. So what if these are not National Parks, these are forest resources, right?
16 July 2011: Living on the edge (Frontline)
Wild elephants, finding their migratory corridors blocked by human activity, increasingly enter villages, towns and even cities. About 150 years ago, British planters converted most of the 220 sq km surrounding Valparai plateau, part of the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu, into tea and coffee plantations. Thus destroying prime rainforests and reducing the streams and nullahs found in them to grassy swamps. Elephants move between forest patches through the tea gardens and use the swamps to rest and feed on the grass. In fact, Anamalai means Elephant Hills in the Tamil language. But there are also about 100,000 people scattered across the area and their habitations stand right on the route of the elephants, which are essentially migratory animals. The result? Frequent human-elephant conflicts, people dying and damage to property. Besides Tamil Nadu, local people have been attacked, injured and killed in all the elephant-range states in the country— Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. HEC or human-elephant conflict claims about 350 to 400 human lives and 80 to 100 elephants each year. The state governments are given financial assistance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOoEF) under the centrally sponsored Project Elephant for grants for damage to crops due to wild elephants, and also for loss of life and injury. But grants apart, the methods available for driving the pachyderms out of villages – drum-beating, fire crackers, lights and torches, using physical barriers such as stone walls, electric fencing, trenches, engaging “koonkies” or trained elephants, to drive the herds back into the forest – have the elephants, as well the people they encounter, living in a permanent state of crisis. The developments in Valparai cannot be reversed, granted. But what about focusing technology on warning systems, that could save both human and elephant lives? We might believe in survival of the fittest, but beleaguering otherwise gentle beasts who, for millennia, have coexisted with us, cannot be the best strategy for the future.
October 17, 2011: Fisherman killed by tiger in Sunderbans (Times of India)
Satyabrata Jana of Kultuli was killed by a tiger in the Gazikhali forest area within the Sajnekhali wildlife sanctuary. Since Mr. Jana was killed in the restricted areas of the forest, his family will not be eligible for the compensation that is given to victims of tiger attacks.
TThe Sunderbans have for generations captivated the popular imagination with their mysterious swamps and brave inhabitants who gather fish and honey in tiger-infested jungles. So what has changed? Believe it or not, the climate. The CSE Report, Living with Climate Change notes that the sea level in the Sunderbans has almost doubled to 10 mm in the last decade while the sea surface temperature (SST) is rising at 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade which is a touch higher than the global average. There has also been a 26 per cent rise in the frequency of cyclones hitting the area in the last 100 years. With rise in sea levels, the salinity of land has noticeably increased and, coupled with erosion, this has drastically lowered agriculture productivity in the area. “Fishing, which is an important occupation here, has also been hit with the fish migrating to cooler waters," says Aditya Ghosh of CSE. Naturally, fishermen have followed them, venturing out of traditional fishing areas, and falling prey to tigers. Tigers in the Sunderbans are agile creatures that are traditionally known to swim for miles. But it is nonetheless a territorial species that may be increasingly deprived of its territory and traditional food sources, causing them to turn to human prey. Already, Lohachara Island and New Moore Island/South Talpatti Island are said to have disappeared under the sea, while the Ghoramara Island is half submerged You might already know that the Sunderbans is the largest single block of tidal mangrove forests in the world, covering 10,000 sq km, of which 4,000 sq km are in West Bengal and the rest in Bangladesh. And that it was declared a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Site in 1997. What you might not know is this: if we are unable to protect the tiger here, chances are that the human population may not stand a better chance for survival. Because the royal swamp-walker is the primary indicator of the health of this fragile ecosystem.
whose forest is it anyway?
While we have highlighted instances that speak more of conflicts, there are heartening, albeit rare, cases, when local villages have united to protect their wild neighbours. In Assam, for instance, village defence parties took it upon themselves to keep tabs of the movement of poachers, banking on their traditional knowledge of the local terrain. As an incentive, they are provided mobile phones, torches, raincoats and hunting boots by the state government (The Telegraph, Saturday , April 28 , 2012). At times, park officials and rangers have also shown exemplary grit in the face of questionable ‘development’. Officials in Bandipur Tiger Reserve refused to construct a road in its buffer zone, sponsored by a resort at Mangala, 10 kms from Bandipur, owned by a political leader. Yet, in tackling the conflicts between humans and animals, pitched in a rivalry for resources, many questions remain to be resolved. For one, can our policies reflect the potential for a happy, and mutually beneficial co-existence? In the new guidelines, finalised on June 12 2012, the MoEF has reiterated that tourism should be phased out gradually from core areas of wildlife sanctuaries and parks. It has directed states to divert the local conservation fee they charge resorts for managing human-wildlife conflict, besides conserving forest resources, and generating livelihood for local communities. We, for one, are hopeful.