The Indian media, across the nation, is loaded with unfortunate news of animal cruelty and mismanagement of our vast wildlife and biodiversity resources. No doubt, India has done some exemplary works in the areas of conservation that reflects in the form of better numbers of Asiatic lions, tigers, elephants, rhinoceros and other endangered species; yet, much needs to be done.
I am sure that the images and news of giant pachyderms dying regularly due to electrocutions, trapped in artificial water bodies adjacent to forested areas, rail accidents, poisoning and direct confrontations with resident communities living adjoining forested areas hurts the sentiments of many of us.
The truth is huge money and resources have been drained without achieving any desirable results in wildlife conversation. The nation’s wildlife map has several examples in this regard - the unfortunate and savage killings of leopards, bears, herbivores, snakes accidentally venturing into human habitations, repeated and regular poaching of the rhinos in West Bengal and Assam, elephant deaths across Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Assam and occasionally from Southern Indian states, serious poaching threats in sensitive ecosystems like the Sundarbans and Senchal forests in West Bengal, Kajiranga in Assam, and in the vast and under explored forests of the north-east Indian states to mention only a handful.
The hard earned success of conservation through decades of sincere efforts by both central and state governments is thus being wasted instead of being consolidated for greater achievements. India has the largest concentrations of Asiatic lions, Asiatic elephants, one-horned Indian rhinoceros, Bengal tigers, South Asian sub species of leopards and several other endangered and critically endangered species of flora and fauna.
This is the only nation with five major predatory cat species, namely lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards and clouded leopards. No other nation in the world has such a unique diversity; yet, India is lagging behind significantly in terms of successful conservation efforts. One of the most important reasons for this is the lack of a timely, well structured, modern, dynamic and comprehensive National Forest, Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Policy. Owing to this, the states and union territories, all having varying standards of wildlife conservation successes and failures, have made overall impacts on the conservation of forests, wildlife and biodiversity of this mega-biodiverse nation.
Recently, the West Bengal state government has made an excellent decision in expanding the rhino, bison and elephant habitats across densely forested North Bengal beyond Jaldapara and Gorumara sanctuaries. This is important for long term sustainability of an ecosystem and animal sub-populations for better foraging, breeding, health, genetics and habitat enrichment.
The stubborn attitude of the Gujarat government in concentrating a highly vulnerable Asiatic lion population in the overcrowded Gir forest, and the rhinos in Kajiranga sanctuary by the Assam government, are classic examples of childish regional politics endangering precious wildlife resources of the nation. In the event of an epidemic or an outbreak or even a natural calamity, the entire populations of the species will be lost forever beyond any hope of recovery.
Furthermore, some irresponsible state governments are stretching the carrying capacity of these traditional habitats to their ultimate threshold levels endangering wildlife due to easy poaching access and making them vulnerable to possible unavoidable natural calamities, over exploitation and diseases due to rising human population in the settlements around the protected areas making them susceptible to severe human-animal conflicts in the not so distant future.
Nagaland has transformed from a traditional hunter-gatherer state into a true conservator by protecting migrating species of raptors across the state, becoming an international conservation model state. But how many other Indian states and union territories have adopted this successful conservation model is an important question to ask.
The Gujarat state government has been meticulously hiding reports of lions venturing frequently out of the forests into rural and semi-urban settlements in search of food from their overcrowded habitats; and the Assam and West Bengal governments are under reporting both rhino poaching and pachyderm-railway accidents to stay clean of public outcry.
Other state governments and union territories also have their own unfortunate stories that regularly escape the eye of a powerful media. Bushmeat is a delicacy in several remote parts of northern, eastern and north eastern India. Animals are regularly being hunted by communities living in densely forested belts as it the only source of their daily sustenance. Wild animals, both dead and alive, are sold in several rural markets across the nation without any stringent action by the governments to reduce this unacceptable practice.
No attempts in restricting grazing of cattle and livestock in the protected areas are observed across the nation. This is extremely dangerous since close proximity to domesticated animals makes the wildlife species extremely vulnerable to communicable diseases to which they may have very little natural immunity and could completely decimate wild population stocks. Had there been a national policy on conservation, many of these states would have worked towards proper conservation of such endangered species enforced by the laws of the nation.
An international wildlife exchange program between India and Iran for Asiatic lions and Asiatic cheetahs, respectively, was scraped by both the governments due to non-cooperation of the Gujarat state government to hand breeding pairs of Asiatic lions to Iran to remain in the global map as the only natural habitat for Asiatic lions. Is this not a childish and retrogressive outlook from modern conservation perspective? The Gujarat government is against establishing alternative lion habitats both within the state and outside; while they have no answer for several deaths of the endangered lions venturing outside protected areas and occasionally falling and dying in numerous water holes constructed by villagers around the sanctuary and being killed in highway accidents.
(The author is a Canada and India based freelance journalist specializing in global geo-political, strategic and foreign policy issues, science & technology and environment & conservation related themes.)