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The catch in conservation

Ullas Karanth has many lessons to offer to make wildlife management in India more scientific

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 30 June 2017

Striped Hyenas, while well
adapted to surviving in India's
human-dominated landscapes,
need natural sites free of
anthropogenic pressures for
denning purposes (Photo: SPENCER WRIGHT)

First things first. Ullas Karanth’s latest book on conservation is not for everybody. A compilation of peer-reviewed papers, this book is essentially for academics, policymakers and wildlife specialists. Science and Conservation of Wildlife Populations dwells more on the statistical and scientific aspects of conservation, detailing the methods and tools conservationists use to pursue their research. But this is precisely what wildlife conservation needs now: a bit more science. The book thus is both a challenge and an opportunity for Indian conservationists to re-imagine their stream of work.

One chapter which I particularly liked was Many Ways of Skinning a Cat: Tools and Techniques for Studying Wild Felids. It summarises the many ways in which a modern conservationist can study cat species, all 36 varieties of them, from the tiger to the smallest wild cats. While the subject of the study is felids, the chapter provides a primer to readers into how one of the most important aspects of conservation is done: studying wild animals, chronicling their behaviour, and importantly, estimating their numbers.

The chapter lists “invasive” and “non-invasive” methods to study felids. Invasive methods involve catching the animal first and then taking down its particulars. The book argues that invasive methods—despite being critiqued today for falling short on animal welfare parameters—are still the best to collect data. It cites the example of bird studies where most data has been obtained invasively, with minimal or no harm.

Among the chapters that make for enlightening reading include Factors influencing Densities of Striped Hyenas in Arid Regions of India and Translocation as a Tool for Mitigating Conflict with Leopards in Human-Dominated Landscapes of India. Karanth finds that though the Striped Hyenas and the leopards are well adapted to survive in India’s human-dominated landscapes, these animals need natural sites free of anthropogenic pressures.

The book is highly critical of translocation, which has become a regular feature in wildlife management in India. The author proves that not only do such animals trace their way back to the place from where they were forcibly removed, but the translocation process also causes a lot of stress to the animal. Studies have found that if the animal cannot find its original home, it usually begins to attack humans.

While the book is informative, a lay reader will have a tough time understanding the technical jargons. But then, one is reading a collection of scientific papers after all. No harm in exercising your grey matter a little more to understand how field biologists go about doing their work.

`We need science in management'
ULLAS KARANTH, is the director for South Asia for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He is also a globally-renowned expert on tigers. Excerpts from an interview

What ails wildlife management in India?

A forceful driver of "habitat enrichment" has been the flow of excessive money into the wildlife sector and its consequence of attracting the worst elements in the forest department to the highest-funded Protected Areas (PAs). The entire process is unwittingly abetted by the misguided sentiments of the public and the popular media that wild animals should be tenderly cared just like domestic animals and pets. A lot of money is being pumped in it, which is a good thing. What is deficient is the application of serious wildlife science in "wildlife management" or "wildlife monitoring". The way to rectify such mismanagement is to stop the flow of excess money into over-funded PAs, starting with zero-based budgeting, which I had suggested to the National Tiger Conservation Authority several years ago. Of course, no one was interested. The second step should be to legally mandate that any "wildlife management intervention" should be based on sound and independent wildlife science, rather than on the whims and fancies of those who handle the money. For the most part, nature can take care of itself, and heavy-handed management on mass-scale is not needed at all.

What is your assessment of the skills of biologists?

There are several competent wildlife biologists across multiple institutions in India. The way to measure this, as in other fields, is through the quality and number of scientific publications. However, virtually all these wildlife scientists are blocked, harassed and their academic freedoms mindlessly curbed by the official system. Today, it is easier to get a permit to mine, run a tour operation or use a bulldozer in a wildlife area than to get research permission, even for the most qualified wildlife scientists. Wildlife research has been turned into either a government monopoly by government institutions with poor scientific records, or a play thing for unqualified quacks favoured by officials because of their servile attitude. The amount of tax-payer's money which is being wasted on such substandard wildlife research is far too much and this goes on increasing by the year.

How can we save PAs?

As long as we clearly partition and isolate our PAs—say 5 or 10 per cent of the land—I see economic development outside this green zone as not necessarily a negative factor. Obviously, there are problems with projects. But the same development process is also taking a large number of people off the land, and away from destructive activities such as hunting, forest product cultivation and forest encroachments. Education is engendering cultural attitudes more supportive of wildlife conservation.

What are your views about vermin animals?

Vermin is an outdated word that is still in our laws. More seriously, science-based wildlife conservation involves three things: preservation and recovery of endangered species, wise harvest of some species (as in fisheries) and destruction of wildlife to mitigate socially unacceptable levels of damage such as with man-eating tigers. We need to apply serious conservation science to deal with each specific situation of conflict or potential conflict.
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