Born free, but...

...doomed to extinction all over the world, large carnivores may yet be saved following urgent companies in Asian countries and eksewhere, against using their body parts for medication

 
By Philip Carter
Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

Born free, but...

Bear necessities: fast becomin (Credit: Jim Mepham)THE plight of large carnivores worldwide has come to a sorry pass. In India, a country having the largest remaining tiger population of the world, according to recent estimates, poaching poses the danger of decimating the population within five years. In North America, large carnivores generally survive in appreciable numbers only in isolated or protected areas of the Rocky mountains or farther north. Requiring huge areas of undivided wilderness, the challenge of conserving these animals, in the face of growing pressure from agriculture and other developmental activities,- is a serious issue.

But if we hasten to tackle the problems, we may still find time to save the carnivores. In tune with the excellent work -done by India's Project Tiger, efforts and resources should be directed for assisting embryonic environmental movements in those Asian countries where bear. and tiger parts are used in the name of medication.

in western Canada, there have been some encouraging developments recently with the return of the wolf to areas in. which it had become locally extinct. Despite a phase when a large percentage of wolves were shot or poisoned around the Rocky Mountain's foothills, which are used for cattle ranching, many local ranchers are not opposed to the return of a certain number of wolves.

Elsewhere in Canada, intense logging by multinational companies (mNc) parallels the problems faced by many developing countries. Locals and native tribes do not gain from this activity. On the other hand, large carnivores like grizzly bears, which are sensitive to human activity, often suffer in these circumstances.

Developmental activities in the Bow river valley which cradles the park town of Banff National Park, a World Heritage Site situated in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta province, Canada, have been opposed by environmental groups. "Grizzly bear population levels in the mountains are not at historical levels," said bear biologist Stephen Herrero, "Some of the best-habitats, for example in the Bow Valley, have been alienated."

Many bears have retreated to adjacent valleys. The Ghost river wilderness area to the north of Banff has become one such refuge for the bears, who like wolves, require huge areas of contiguous wilderness to survive. And this has been jeopardised by expansions of golf and ski courses.

While India's Project Tiger has been credited with saving the big cat from extinction, with 19 tiger reserves created in India since its inception, poaching still threatens to undo the work achieved. Speaking in New Delhi in March 1995, Peter Jackson, chairperson, World Conservation Union Cat Specialist Group, said, "India has become a killing ground for tigers. Undercover in@vestigations by members' and associates of the Cat Specialist Group and TRAFFIC-International have been involved in the seizure of bones, skins and claws ', which could account for around 100 tigers poached im the, past two years."

According to Herrero, bear poaching has spiraled dramatically in the us. "It is linked to the price of its gall bladders, a traditional Asian medicine," he said, -It's in very high demand and in extreme cases, in affluent countries like Japan and South Korea, it's comparable to heroin in its driied form." Similarly in Taiwan, powdered tiger bones have a street value of up to us $500 per 100 gm. The Grey Omd's fables
A unique pro-wilderness campaign was undertaken in Canada in the '30s. Archie Belaney, an English grammar school product who became fascinated by stories about North American Indian tribes as a child, came to Canada around 1906. He lived with Canadian natives, learnt their languages and became a skilled hunter and trapper. Deeply troubled by the destruction of the Canadian wilderness, he began writing articles on conservation under the assumed Ojibway tribal name of 'Grey Owl'. His identity was divulged only after his death in 1938. Originally, he intended to save the beaver from extinction, but later, his message included the need for preserving the entire wilderness.

The desperate situation facing the world's carnivores demands that lessons should be learnt from such past campaigns. Jackson, however, is pessimistic about the possibility of a successful campaign against using tiger-based medicinal products, especially Chinese medicines. "Frankly, I do not see any possibility of weaning tens of millions of people away from their traditional beliefs," he says, "Certainly, within the time left for the tiger, how does one reach them? Despite campaigns against smoking and stressing its effects on health, there are still millions of smokers."

But over recent years in Japan, the Greenpeace branch in Tokyo has been the local centre for unprecedented environmental acitivism. The bilingual staff there have been working on issues of international concern like the trans- portation and use of plutonium and conservation of whales, which have been quite effective. The International Whaling Convention (IWC) meeting held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1992, was marked by strong protests against whaling. In May 1994, the Japanese government contended that it would not with- draw from the IWC if a resolution banning whaling in Antarctica was adopted. Although the government has maintained its argument against an Antarctic whaling ball since then, local protests have shaken its stand more than often.

In the 1995 Tiger Convention in New Delhi, the main tiger-consuming nations of China, South Korea and Taiwan stayed away, fearing international condemnation. It is expected that an emergency campaign directed at the local population can only reverse the situation.

Most of the central Canadian prairie, until the advent of Europeans, sheltered huge herds of bison and carnivores like the grizzly bear and wolf. Now the bisons are gone from the plains country, as are the wolves and bears, as some two thirds of the land has been grabbed for cultivation.

A combination of government control programmes, local ranchers shooting wolves and sport hunting eliminated about 38 of an estimated 50 wolves in the area the Winter of 1994-95. However, according to Parks Canada spokesperson Kevin Van Tighem, "The large majority of the wolves were killed by registered trappers or licensed sport fiuntcrs, ot by r~nchers." Van Tighem is presently working to organise a compensation programme for ranchers who have lost their cattle to carnivores.

Rancher Larry Sears, who operates a ranch of about 3,000 ha with about 600 cattle in Alberta, says a compensation programme will have only limited benefits. Over a year, according to Sears, some 30 cattle were either killed or mutilated by wolves, with a much higher number that just disappeared - naturally suspected to: have fallen prey to wolves. "If we address the problem hot spots and get rid of the problem wolves, then we can live with the remainder," he said.

Such conflicts, and the way in which they are resolved, often hold the key to a carnivore's survival in ah area. In the case of the Indian lion, it survives in Gir in the state of Gujarat,riot only due to protection by the nowabs of Junagadh, but also because the locals were prima-' rily cattle-keepers and not cultivators.

MNcs are a possible major threat to the wilderness. With Canada's growing foreign debt, MNCS have put enormous pressure on' local governments to exploit its national resources. For instance, in north Alberta, the Japanese companies Mitsubishi and Daishowa have bagged the licence to log a forest area of approximately 120,000 sq km.

The Alberts-Pacific pulp mill, owned by Mitsubishi Honshu, was sub- ject to an environmental review, which con!:luded that the effluents flowing into the Athabasca river system in Alberta was too high. Refusing to accept this report, the Alberta provincial goverJlment commissioned a Scandi- navian enVtronmental consulting firm to conduct another review -d1is time with an assessment favourable to the mill's development.

According to Paul Paquet, a renowned wolf biologist, wolves in par- ticular are very sensitive to logging. He cites th~ example of the Oldman river watershed in southern Alberta, where a long-dwelling wolf pack disappeared when logging began. There is also a lack of baseline scientific information about the boreal forest ecosystem in Alberta's remote north, which makes it hard to assess the effects of logging on large carnivores.

A heartening example against the backdrop of all this chaos is Ihat of the Lubicon Cree natives in north-central Alberta, who have seen much of their land being denuded by Daishowa. They organised an international boycott of Daishowa's products spurring a court challenge by the company whose busi- ness was affected badly.

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