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India has a fair record in wild cat protection, but much is desired
Author: Ravi Chellam
India is fortunate to have a diverse set of habitats, largely due to variations in terrain and climate. This is reflected in the tremendous diversity of wild plants and animals, including the large wild cats, probably the most charismatic group of animals. India has five extant species of large wild cats; Asiatic lion, Indian tiger, common leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard. We also had the Asiatic cheetah which went extinct in India around the time of Independence in 1947.
Wildlife conservation in India faces huge challenges that include a very large human population, an economy which is still largely biomass-based (at least in terms of the number of people whose livelihoods are linked to land and biomass), high levels of poverty, and fragmentation, degradation and destruction of habitats due to rapid land use changes largely driven by large-scale industrialisation and urbanisation. Despite these factors, India has actually fared quite well in conserving its large cats.
Could the current conservation status of wild cats have been better? Absolutely, especially because of the very high levels of tolerance for wild cats among communities which unfortunately has declined in the last decade or so; reasonably widespread public support for wildlife conservation and the high quality human resources we now possess in wildlife research and conservation.
Lions were fairly widely distributed in India till about the mid-19th century. With the advent of fire arms that facilitated hunting and large-scale conversion of the flatter habitats into agricultural fields and human settlements, lions suffered a catastrophic decline in their distribution as well as population size. By the late 19th century and early 20th century the lion in India was close to extinction, with various estimates putting its number at 12 to 20. The most recent official count in 2010 estimates the population to be at 411. Hence, conservation efforts in the last century have not only staved off extinction but also resulted in a significant increase in the lion population in India.
Currently, Asiatic lions are found only in and around Gir forest in Gujarat. So despite the remarkable increase in numbers Asiatic lions are still very vulnerable to extinction. Their situation is akin to having all your eggs in one basket. A disease outbreak or a major natural disaster like forest fire or cyclone or even an adverse political decision has the potential to erode conservation achievements of the past 100 years.
A scientific conservation plan for translocating a few lions to establish a second free-ranging population of lions in the country has been languishing due to the lack of political consensus and stewardship. About 25 villages have been relocated and hundreds of families resettled at enormous human and financial cost to prepare the forest of Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh as the second home for lions in India. Unfortunately, the people of Gujarat led by their politicians have been opposing the project and have refused to part with six to eight wild lions which are required to start this conservation initiative. The matter is now in the Supreme Court as a conservationist has filed a public interest petition over the delay.
Translocating lions is like buying insurance against their extinction in the wild and delaying it is tempting fate. Once a catastrophe strikes, it would be too late to take the required conservation actions.
For far too long the conservation of tigers in India has largely been driven by the obsession with tiger numbers. It was common knowledge that the methods used to estimate numbers were flawed and more importantly the estimation was not done with the required levels of sincerity. The final numbers were always manufactured to show an increasing population which was clearly at odds with ground realities and ecological principles. It took the extinction of tigers in Sariska in 2005 to shake the system, albeit only briefly, but it has reset the baseline in terms of tiger numbers, methods used to estimate tiger populations and levels of participation for non-government players. The authorities at Sariska first went into denial and it was only after several months that the extinction was accepted.
If Sariska was scandalous, what happened in Panna over several years was worse. After the usual round of denials and even targeting the whistleblower, the authorities had to admit that Panna had lost all its tigers in 2009. The widespread governmental resistance to using modern scientific methods and to allowing access to researchers and conservationists is an important facet of this problem. The majority of the wildlife management officials do not have the required training or interest to work for wildlife conservation. Their defensive attitudes only add to the problem.
Unfortunately, without dealing with the root causes for the Sariska and Panna fiascos, the managers have resorted to an easy solution, translocation of tigers from other areas. The danger of course is that the same problems which resulted in local extinction could very easily act on the re-introduced tigers, as evidenced by the unnatural death of a reintroduced tiger in Sariska.
Over a four-year period (2006-2010) tigers have disappeared from more than 10,000 sq km of tiger habitat, a 12.6 per cent decline in distribution range. These are largely habitats outside the protected area network which functioned as corridors and enabled tigers to move from one protected area to another. This means that tigers will increasingly be boxed into smaller areas and once they venture out are likely to have very low survival rates. In the long-term this can result in inbreeding and compromise the genetic diversity of tiger populations.
The key solutions are to build the capacity of the managers and field staff, based on science, field patrolling, intelligence gathering and related fields, to equip them to effectively tackle the threats; establish partnerships with research and conservation agencies to bring their expertise to bear on the management of tigers and their habitats and landscape-level planning to ensure that development projects do not fragment and destroy tiger habitats and undermine the long-term survival of tigers.
Leopards are amazing survivors due to their smaller size that enables them to survive on much smaller prey animals, ability to climb trees and tolerate a very wide set of climatic factors. Increasingly leopards are not only being targeted by poachers but are being killed by people as well, often in retaliation to conflict and more importantly due to the rapid decline in the tolerance levels of people for wild cats.
With much of the conservation attention on tigers, the status of leopards has not been monitored as closely as required. Estimating leopard numbers is not easy: they can be more elusive than tigers but then they can also survive in close proximity to human habitations. The key to survival of leopards is to provide better protection from poaching and swift and effective management responses to conflict situations, especially in human-dominated habitats.
Snow leopards have fortunately received some excellent research attention over the past 15 years and this has resulted in us having a much better understanding of their ecology. A very innovative conservation project has also been launched with very strong involvement of NGOs and this heralds a new conservation model, not restricted to protected areas.
Unfortunately, the inertia in the system and the lack of coordination between government agencies have slowed down the implementation of Project Snow Leopard. The key intervention for this species is to implement the excellent set of planned activities across their range in a collaborative manner involving local communities and NGOs.
There has been a move over the last couple of years to bring the cheetah back. On the face of it, it seems a positive conservation action but the devil is in the detail. To begin with the number of Asiatic cheetahs in the wild is so low that it is not prudent to capture them from a very small population that remains in Iran. This only leaves the option of obtaining cheetahs from Africa. But recent research has indicated that the African cheetahs are a distinct sub-species that probably diverged from their Asiatic counterparts between 32,000 to 67,000 years ago. Unfortunately, the Union Cabinet, overlooking this evidence, has sanctioned nearly Rs 4 crore for introducing African cheetahs in India. Given our poor management record and funding constraints, the sustainability of this initiative is questionable.
India has done a reasonably good job in conserving wild cats but it cannot rest on its laurels. There are numerous threats to the habitats and populations of wild cats. The current management paradigm is not based on science and managers do not have the required training and manpower to deliver on their mandate. The challenges call for an open and collaborative approach. If wild cats have to survive it is time the attitude, approach and personnel change without delay.