Protecting the endangered

Protected Areas in India have failed to reach the goal of preserving the endangered species

By Ajith Kumar
Published: Sunday 15 April 2001

-- (Credit: anju sharma / cse)Nearly 500 Protected Areas (PAS) in India cover about five per cent of the country's land area. One of the goals of this impressive protected area network isor should beto ensure that it encloses viable populations of all species that are known to occur in India. It is impossible to evaluate whether the network meets this goal because of several reasons. Population sizes of most living organisms are very poorly known. Besidesthe number of species known to exist in India is so enormous that it is impossible to make such an evaluation. And even if such an evaluation is done it reveals shocking lacunae in our protected area network.

What I propose to examine is the extent to which endangered mammalsreptiles and amphibians in India are represented in at least one protected area.

The data for this come from Conservation Assessment and Management Plan (CAMP) workshops on each of the above taxa held in order to make a rapid assessment of the conservation status of species. This was assessed on the basis of the revised World Conservation Union (IUCN) criteria which categorises species as extinctcritically endangeredendangeredvulnerablelow riskdata deficient and not evaluated.

More than 90 per cent of the extant species were taken up for assessment. Among those assesseddata deficient species were highest in mammals (26.3 per cent). Among species on which sufficient data were availablethreatened species were greater among amphibians and reptiles (60.1 and 56.6 per cent respectively) than mammals (43.4 per cent). Thusit appears that the lower vertebrates are under greater extinction risk than mammals.

Amphibians and reptiles show very high species richness and endemism with Western Ghats and northeast Indiaboth being two major centres of their distribution. This might be because of the natural drainage and altitude of these areas in the case of amphibians and reptiles respectively. A major reason for greater extinction risk among these two taxa was decline in habitat quality caused by degradation.

It is interesting to examine to what extent the endangered amphibians and reptiles are covered by India's protected area network. Only about 32 per cent of them and 40 per cent of the mammals are known to occur in at least one protected area. The remaining species are not definitely known to occur in our protected area network. This assessment ishoweverseverely constrained by imprecise records.

The conservation of large herbivores and predators has been the major criterion in the selection of areas for inclusion in the protected area network. Even though of considerable value in itselfthe conservation of the large prey-predator community was also assumed to ensure the conservation of the lower organisms. Howeverthe major centres of distribution of the large prey-predators occur in very low densities in the tropical rain forest where species richness and endemism are highest among the herpetofauna and small mammals. Thusa protected area network designed by and large for large prey-predators are unlikely to adequately cover other taxa among which species richnessendemism and extinction risk are highest.

Even when the importance of habitats such as tropical rain forest is recognisedthe goal was to incorporate large areas at a few localities into the protected area network. This approach assumes that like the large mammalsmost of the other organisms of that region would be represented in a few large protected areas. For exampleit is assumed that most amphibians that occur in the Western Ghats would do so in a single large protected areaas in the case of most mammals.

It is now clear that this is far from true. The very high species richness of amphibians and reptiles in the Western Ghats is due to a high turnover of species from one locality to another.

It is a matter of great concern that the protected area network may be far from reaching one of its major goalsthat of harbouring all endangered species. It is important to reassess our strategy to ensure their protection.

Ajith Kumar works with the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural HistoryCoimbatore

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