Wildlife & Biodiversity

Beyond protected areas: This new book explores how India's conservation scene turned inclusionary

‘At the Feet of Living Things’ journals experiences of ecologists who practise a collaborative and socio-ecologically sensitive approach to conservation

By Tiasa Adhya
Published: Saturday 04 March 2023
Beyond protected areas
Illustration: Yogendra Anand Illustration: Yogendra Anand

Till the late 1990s, students of nature mostly worked inside protected areas and seldom interacted with the societies and cultures that existed in the larger landscape. They were guided by the prevailing conservation notions that species would be adequately protected if there were protected areas, and that local people and their practices were a threat to wildlife.

However, only about five per cent of India’s land is protected, which is not enough to sustain wild animals in the long run. Science reveals that wildlife have always travelled through and/or stayed in human-used spaces. Moreover, the past two decades also witnessed the devastating impacts of neoliberal economic policies on nature.

It soon became clear that to conserve species, one would need to look beyond protected areas and work with different types of stakeholders — local communities, the forest department, development sectors, policymakers, private companies and nature enthusiasts from all walks of life.

This presented a challenging proposition to students of nature who were not fully trained to don the hat of a multitasker. They had to learn on the job. At the Feet of Living Things is the accumulated experience of ecologists from Mysuru-based public charitable trust Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), who have adopted this conservation approach over the past 25 years. The approach sheds its previously conventional, exclusionary, elitist skin and is emerging as collaborative, constructive and socio-ecologically sensitive.

The book has three chapters on snow leopard conservation from the conflict-prone trans-Himalayan landscape. Here, a herder may lose his life’s savings in a matter of hours if a snow leopard enters his corral and kills 30-40 sheep at a time.

Assuming that the attacks were happening due to a dearth of wild prey, researchers worked with the local community to set aside an area where only wild herbivores would graze, not livestock. This revived wild herbivore populations. Consequently, snow leopard populations also increased and attacks on livestock continued, even though snow leopards were feeding less on livestock than before.

To facilitate coexistence, NCF predator-proofed livestock enclosures, helped herders file for compensation claims and introduced an innovative livestock insurance scheme. They foregrounded the importance of conserving entire landscapes and worked with the stakeholders to internalise conservation as a common societal goal.

In the Anamalai landscape of Western Ghats, researchers found that most elephant-caused human deaths were, in fact, accidents. To mitigate this, they set up an extensive volunteer network to track elephant movement and established a system to forewarn people of the animals’ presence in the area.

They emphasised shifting to centralised and secure food storage houses, in place of the multiple, unprotected storages that elephants could easily rummage. This reduced human mortality and property damage substantially.

However, inclusive and participatory conservation has also found barriers, such as hardened minds that refuse to reconcile differences. Aparajita Dutta narrates her experience of trying to reconcile mistrust and hatred between the Lisu tribe and the forest department in a remote and relatively unexplored tropical forest of Arunachal Pradesh. But despite eight years of her work, a stalemate exists. Namdapha’s wildlife continues to remain unprotected, unmonitored and the Lisu continue to be demonised.

Nature’s resilience and ability to regenerate, however, provides strong motivations to continue the elephantine journey that conservation is. In this respect, Rohan Arthur’s chapter on the coral reefs in Lakshadweep is a must-read.

For we must meet Pavona clavus—an impossibly large coral that is a reef by itself and has stood underwater for millions of years, fighting a silent and inspiring battle against climate change—a great, great, great grandparent almost, to whom Rohan introduces his students, to learn resilience and perseverance from.

What is heartening is that nature can teach patience, love and care to anyone who is willing to learn. Do read the chapters on eBird and SeasonWatch to learn how one can become a student of nature through one’s observations.

These observations might just seed future conservation ideas. For instance, the seed of a fig tree nestled in a civet’s scat in the middle of a rainforest in the Western Ghats sparked an idea.

T R Shankar Raman and Divya Mudappa started collecting such seeds from scats of seed-dispersing wildlife and from ripe fruits fallen under trees, and nursed them till they became saplings — a learning that would help them restore rainforest patches in the plantation-dominated Valparai landscape.

Anindya Sinha’s chapter, again, is inspired by observations. It is a rich qualitative description of primate societies that are trying to adapt to urbanisation, followed by riveting scientific discussions explaining the observations. The chapter represents a departure from the statistics-heavy quantitative analyses that excessively dominates the field of ecology.

Further, it pushes readers to think “what bearings do our lives, and our often-unfeeling actions have on the lifeworlds of animals and how can our understanding of these shared lifeworlds contribute to a recasting of our own environmental perspectives, prejudices and practices?”

This was first published in the February 16-28, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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