Imagine waking up to an ever-shrinking bed. Over time, little by little, your cozy king-size bed has shrunk to a narrow bench. And you have no choice: Either fit into the new conditions, or fall off and perish.
This scenario holds for our incredible megadiverse country. As swathes of contiguous natural forests get sliced and diced for development projects, it’s a race against time for species to adapt to shrinking spaces. Species that can’t; especially slow breeding ones (with specific habitat requirements) are slowly fading away. For example, grassland specialists like the Great Indian Bustard. Once found across the Savanna ecosystem (dry grasslands and scrublands) in peninsular India, the number has dwindled to around 100 birds, with the majority of the population now found in one corner of Rajasthan. And even common birds embedded in our folklore like the Sarus Crane, are getting squeezed out as wetland habitats vanish across its range in the Gangetic plains. Assam’s state bird, the enigmatic White-winged Duck, a forest-dwelling species inhabiting small forested wetlands, pools and swamps inside the undisturbed primary forest, is similarly living on the edge of extinction.
In case you are wondering about the status of mammals or reptiles, then we haven’t looked beyond our charismatic species, to say the least. For there is a paucity of ecological data even on large carnivores like Indian Wolves, Striped Hyenas, or omnivores like bears. The list is a long-winding one and even the population status or trends of threatened species in the Wildlife Protection Act hasn’t been updated for years. Nor are they in sync with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list — the go-to reference point on wild flora and fauna.
As wild habitats shrink, it has drawn wildlife closer to negative interactions with human habitations. Even celebrated and charismatic species, like the tiger or elephant, live in hostile environments today, in human-dominated landscapes. Not a month passes where news headlines scream of a tiger or a leopard or elephants in conflict with people living adjoining forest patches. Even gruesome visuals of bloodthirsty mobs lynching leopards, tigers or fishing cats and setting them ablaze are becoming commonplace. And lest we forget, in 2020, the gruesome death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala after it ate a pineapple loaded with firecrackers.
Urban India is so obsessed with tiger or elephant numbers that they have ignored fine print. Even not in public conscience is that a large section of our elephant and tiger population resides outside tiger reserves and national parks. For example, the Kerwa-Kaliasot forest patch adjoining Bhopal is home to at least 11 tigers, now popularly referred to as ‘Bhopali’ tigers.
While there is tremendous euphoria when tiger numbers go up, not a tear is shed for forests diverted for mining and other development, little is the realisation in the society today that tigers, elephants and other wildlife have very little space to exist. In March this year, the Lok Sabha was apprised that in the financial year of 2020-21 around 31 lakh trees were cut down for the construction and development of public infrastructure projects in India. Whereas, according to the Global Forest Watch 42,800 hectare of primary forest were lost in (2020-21). Further, in the last two decades (2001-21), India lost 376 kilo hectare (kha) of humid primary forest. Today, humans and livestock outweigh wild mammals and birds by ten-fold on earth. In a densely populated country like India, you can now visualise the tussle for space.
While Project Tiger hogs all the attention as the most successful wildlife conservation project in the world, the title rightfully belongs to Project Crocodile, which started two years after Project Tiger in 1975 and boosted the population of gharials, estuarine and mugger crocodiles. Since the 1990s, with the exponential rise in crocodile numbers, the project was wisely put on the back burner. For more crocodiles in the water, beyond a certain carrying capacity, would have certainly led to negative interactions with humans.
As long as wilderness (forest and related natural ecosystems) is perceived as dark, dangerous places or wastelands by the urban populace and policymakers, there is little hope for biodiversity or natural heritage. Our skewed perception that all wildlife belongs to national parks or wildlife sanctuaries is a sad reflection of our knowledge of natural heritage and also reflects the erosion of value systems in society. As if free-ranging tigers, migrating elephants, and the mega-diversity of wildlife will follow our orders and won’t cross the boundaries we set on paper. As more and more wildlands disappear, wildlife will cross paths with humans with greater intensity. And the consequences of these interactions are not particularly happy ones, even if the animal is worshipped as a deity. Least to mention the emergence of zoonotic diseases.
Inviolate spaces for wildlife are necessary in a human-dominated world and national parks or wildlife sanctuaries can only function as nurseries. For new generations of wildlife (like tigers and elephants) to disperse and link up with other populations to carry on nature’s ecological functions we have to concede space.
In May, India declared its 52nd tiger reserve. A well-thought-out plan to secure more habitat for dispersing tigers. However, the lesser-known fact is that most tiger reserves are islands surrounded by villages and agricultural fields. Most are too small to hold a viable population of tigers or elephants. A healthy viable tiger population (80-100 tigers) requires a minimum of 800-1,000 sq km of undisturbed forest habitat and a good prey base. Only around 50 per cent of India’s 52 tiger reserves have 800 plus sq km of critical tiger habitat. Further, there are human imprints everywhere — small and large villages, tea/ coffee estates, roads, railway lines, oil pipelines and transmission towers.
However, it never occurred to us that tiger reserves which get the bulk of the conservation money, protection and attention are nurseries or breeding grounds for species — both for the tiger and the deer (and the elephant). And new generations will need areas to disperse and propagate.
The idea of forest corridors as links between source wildlife populations has gained prominence with the publication of Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors of India, in 2005 (second edition in 2017). However, these are contested spaces as humans and wildlife depend on the same resource.
I write this from central India where in recent years, elephants from neighbouring Sanjay National Park, bordering Chhattisgarh, have moved into Bandhavgarh (and also Kanha), an extremely popular tiger reserve destination among our urban elite. But the seasonal movement of the growing elephant population in and around the reserve gives sleepless nights to villages located both at the periphery and inside the tiger reserve. Out of the 126 villages that are on the forest fringes, 60 are directly affected by elephants that come in for agricultural produce destroying livelihoods, property, causing injuries and loss of life. Further, there are at least six villages, with around 2,000 people living within one range inside the core zone of Bandhavgarh. Unless we can provide a safe passage for animals, things will only go from bad to worse.
In rural India, living with elephants or large carnivores like tigers is easier said than done. Camera-wielding tourists or ‘influencers’ who flock here over extended weekend excursions return unaware of the conservation challenges the nation grapples with.
The writer is an author, artist and wildlife conservationist associated with the Wildlife Trust of India. He tweets at @protectwildlife. Views expressed are personal.