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Nature Needs Half – Leave Me Alone

Nature Needs Half – Leave Me Alone

Author: Harvey Locke

India’s opportunity: to lead the world in recognising that Nature Needs Half

A sloth bear scratches its back against a tree bark in the Kanha Tiger Reserve, one of India’s best-managed wildlife reserves. Photo: Mayank Mishra.

There is no major culture on Earth that has a deeper understanding of the basic relationship between people and Nature than that of India. The four lions on Ashoka’s capital are its national secular symbol. The country’s most popular religious symbol is Ganesh who has the head of an elephant and the body of a human. India’s Constitution says it is a fundamental duty of every citizen to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures. For thousands of years, Nature has been a dominant theme in the sculpture, paintings, gardens and architecture of the Indian sub-continent, whether they be the work of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists or someone else.

India has succeeded in keeping wild almost all its inconvenient species including lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos and gharials. Only the cheetah is gone. There is a network of first class national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in place. Even though India is home to the world`s densest human population, it is one of the greatest destinations on Earth to experience the magic of wild Nature. To use the phrase often attributed to Mughal Emperor Akbar: “if there is paradise on Earth, ‘tis here, ‘tis here”.

Leave wild Nature alone

This celebration of India`s relationship with wild Nature need not prevent a frank acknowledgement of its challenges. We live in a strange time. We know that our relationship with the natural world is out of balance, that the climate is changing, that many of those inconvenient species are near extinction and that rivers people rely on for drinking water and the air they breathe are being fouled by the way we live. India is much less wild and much more crowded than it was a century ago. These are universal problems. And there are chronic tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir that could ignite a terrible war with global implications.

While these things are all true they need not be the future. All over the world, we have continued to do more of the same thing that created our troubles, largely because we have not known what else to do. These activities have been good for near-term economic returns but we know they are increasingly causing us harm. We have been paralysed for want of a clear solution. Now there is a way out of this dilemma that addresses a big part of the climate change problem and that can reverse the destruction of Nature and promote peace. It is to recognise the findings of conservation science, the principle of inter-species fairness and our co-dependent relationship with Nature by recognising that we should protect at least half of the world in an interconnected way in order for all life to thrive. Put another way, we need to leave more of wild Nature alone.

Conservation studies across a wide variety of ecosystems all over the world have shown that if we want to protect all native species and natural processes we should protect at least half of any given system with a series of interconnected conservation reserves. This would help ensure the genetic well-being of all species (including the wide-ranging ones like tigers and elephants), allow the landscape to be resilient so it can absorb and renew with natural processes like fire and flooding, and adapt to the rapid climate change that is already upon us. It can also help prevent climate change that is dangerous to humans.

Climate change is caused by the conversion to gas of carbon previously stored in the ground as coal, oil or gas, in the oceans as limestone or in the living layers of the Earth such as forests, mangroves, grasslands and soil. All living beings (including us) are made of carbon and the present physical destructionof the natural world accounts for 20 per cent of all global emissions of carbon dioxide. On an annual basis this destruction of wild Nature is responsible for more climate change emissions than the combined effect of all the cars in the world.

The armed forces of India and Pakistan have been at war over the Siachen glacier – the highest battlefield in the world – for decades. Demands for the creation of a Siachen Peace Park, if heeded, could help resolve this long-pending international conflict while protecting Himalayan glaciers that are critical to the water security of the sub-continent. Photo Courtesy: Lt Nawang Kapadia Collection.

Stop destroying our rivers

The fastest way we can prevent extinction is to stop destroying wild Nature. Similarly, the fastest way we can make a big impact on climate change is to stop destroying wild Nature. Indeed the reason we care about climate change is not because of the abstract concern of parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. It is because of what the greenhouse effect caused by that CO2 will do to the natural systems here on Earth on which we depend for our lives. If the sea level continues to rise dramatically there will be a human catastrophe in Bangladesh and a refugee crisis unlike anything the world has ever seen. If rivers continue to dry up through abuse and overuse or the Himalayan glaciers disappear, we may have to abandon whole regions for want of drinking water. This is not an overblown fear – a few hundred years ago, lack of water led to the abandonment of the beautiful Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri near Agra but this time there will be nowhere else to go.

The single best thing we can do is to leave rivers from their estuaries to their headwaters intact as corridors for life, water supply and adaptation to climate change. They are the backbone and key to resilience of the entire landscape. We should be getting rid of dams on rivers, not talking of damming more of them for misnamed green energy. Our goal should be to make peace with Nature.  To do that we need to shift our thinking to include Nature’s needs as well as our own.

When we think of landscape only in terms of human use and our territorial sovereignty we create conflict between groups. War is destructive to all life. Where there is friction over landscape like the Siachen Glacier in Kashmir there is a solution:  the antagonists could agree to jointly protect the disputed part of Kashmir’s natural values through a Peace Park. This has been done along the border of Canada and the USA at Waterton Glacier and among the countries of the Greater Limpopo region of Southern Africa. Let both India and Pakistan agree that preserving the headwaters of the rivers of the Indian sub-continent and the wild Nature present there is in their shared national interests and together declare a great Peace Park. Kashmir is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful regions and the story of a Peace Park to solve a deep problem between the great powers of the Indian sub-continent could have a world-changing impact.

Even beyond the liberating idea of a Peace Park for the disputed area of Kashmir there exist at least three great opportunities on the Indian sub-continent where it is now possible to think and act on a large scale for the future of life in a way that transcends human boundaries: across the Himalaya, along the Western Ghats, and around the Deccan Plateau. Though I am not familiar enough with the latter to be specific, I can speak of the mountainous regions.

Spread across the three states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala in south India, the Nilgiris or blue mountains constitute one of the planet’s most vital biodiversity hotspots. Photo: Harvey Locke.

Mighty mountains

The Himalaya, from the glaciated heights to the foothills forests and grasslands of the Terai, could be managed through an interconnected series of conservation reserves that work laterally and vertically and protect half of the landscape. This would help ensure the health of the headwaters of the north half of the sub-continent as well as the survival of species that depend on wild clean rivers like the gharial and dolphin, those that need tall grasslands such as one-horned rhinos, those that depend on rhododendron forests such as the monals, Blood Pheasants and musk deer, and those that need the wilderness of the high mountains such as snow leopards and Lammergeiers. A series of well-managed, interconnected Protected Areas that span from low to high elevations and connect across different parts of similar ecosystems could do the job.  An example would be corridors connecting the grasslands and foothills forests of Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand to Chitwan National Park in Nepal and Kaziranga National Park in Assam and another corridor from Corbett into the Himalaya.

Some hopeful large-scale conservation activities in the Himalayan region have already begun. The Terai Arc initiative led by WWF and the Government of Nepal early this century began the effort to create an interconnected series of Protected Areas for tigers, one-horned rhinos and elephants while working with newly-established local communities. This is a tantalising beginning to what could be a unifying vision for the conservation of life in the highest mountains on Earth. Even more inspiring is the accomplishment of the Kingdom of Bhutan’s Biodiversity Action Plan of 2009, which has consolidated the creation of an interconnected series of Protected Areas that now cover 51.32 per cent of the country. Bhutan has led the way by recognising that Nature needs at least half of the Himalaya and has acted accordingly.

The biodiverse Western Ghats

The Western Ghats are another of the world’s great mountain ranges, not because of their height, but because of their extraordinary biological productivity. In any global-scale assessment of places to save to ensure the survival of wild Nature, the Western Ghats jump out as a priority. In the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve along the borders of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, there is a complex of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries that make up one of the world’s great aggregations of Protected Areas.Again these are important not because they are particularly large by global standards but because they are exceptionally rich in terms of trees, plants and animals, they vary in elevation, and occur in three jurisdictions. A wildlife safari in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is as exciting as a safari in Africa, a boat trip in the Galapagos of Ecuador, or wildlife watching in Yellowstone National Park, USA.

Protecting the Nilgiri Hills region alone would result in “islanding” it, and would not ensure its survival. Its tigers and elephants need to be connected to other populations spread along the length of the Western Ghats. The inherent north-south orientation and varied elevations of this mountain range give Nature a fighting chance to adapt to climate change. These rain-trapping mountains are also the source of the rivers that are the lifeblood of the southern part of the Indian sub-continent. The Western Ghats are thus ideally suited to an interconnected series of Protected Areas that cover half the landscape, analogous to the Yellowstone to Yukon regions in the Rocky Mountain region of western North America that connects the great national parks of Canada and the United States.

The Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel of 2011, prepared at the request of the Indian Ministry of the Environment and Forests, is a comprehensive study of the region. It recommends that the entire Western Ghats be considered an Ecologically Sensitive Area with three different sub-categories of Ecologically Sensitive Zones and maintaining (but not expanding) the existing system of national  parks and wildlife sanctuaries. The first category (ESZ1) would ban all mining, forest clearing and big dams in areas that have equivalent to or higher natural values than existing parks and sanctuaries. The next two (ESZ2 and ESZ3) would allow increasing intensification of extractive activities. All these new areas would be set up under a new kind of management regime proposed in the report to be called the Western Ghats Ecology Authority.

Creating ESZ1 areas is proposed instead of creating or expanding existing Protected Areas. The report perceives rigidity and insensitivity to local people in the existing nationally administered parks and sanctuaries and so suggests they not be used further.  While this reflects an unnecessarily limited view of the flexibility possible with Protected Areas under international norms ( IUCN Guidelines), undervalues the enormous evidence that Protected Areas work extremely well to protect wild Nature (especially inconvenient species), and reflects a bias towards local control, the report`s ultimate conclusion is broadly consistent with other international studies. It recommends that Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 areas combined with Protected Areas should cover about 60 per cent of the Western Ghats in a way that creates an interconnected system for the movement of animals throughout the mountains. In other words, Nature needs at least half of the Western Ghats.

Beyond the science, for anyone whose soul is touched by the wonders of wild Nature, the Western Ghats are astonishing. Here is an extensive tropical mountain range that is full of birds and bugs and large mammals. It is the healthy presence of these animals with big teeth, big tusks, big horns and big antlers that sets these mountains apart from most other biologically rich mountains in the tropics; that there persists a place on this Earth with thousands of elephants, over five hundred tigers, large numbers of gaur, sambar, leopard and even tahr is inspiring enough. When these attributes are combined with forests containing 988 tree species, unique high elevation grassland and forested gullies known as sholas, weird and wonderful creatures like Malabar giant squirrels, a raft of endemic species, and wildernesses like Silent Valley in the most crowded country on Earth, these mountains exceed the passionate nature lover’s wildest imagination. Simply put, the Western Ghats are a global treasure.

An Indian Roller perches on an elephant sculpture, symbolising India’s ancient and continuing relationship with nature which is depicted freely in mythology, ancient art, literature, folklore, and religion. Photo: Harvey Locke.

Connect with Nature

Please permit a personal note from a man from far away. It is my good fortune to live in Banff, a beautiful national park in the Canadian Rockies in the heart of the Yellowstone Yukon corridor. I have been involved in various ways in large landscape conservation efforts all over the world.  Over the last 30 years, I have visited the Indian sub-continent several times from the Himalaya across the Deccan Plateau to the Western Ghats. An encounter with a wild tiger in the Bandhavgarh National Park eight years ago made me realise I need to work for wild Nature everywhere, not just at home. I have been touched by the magic of your country and your society’s deep cultural connection to Nature. So I have a bold proposition for you.  Please take a leadership role in the Nature Needs Half movement.

Perhaps only a civilisation of such deep cultural accomplishment and with such deep ties to Nature as yours could lead the world forward today. The Mahabarata anticipated conservation biology and our modern understanding of the interdependence of man and Nature by several thousand years: “O Sanjaya! The Pandavas are the tigers. Do not cut down the forest with its tigers. Do not banish the tigers from the forest. Without the forest the tiger is killed. Without the tiger the forest is cut down.  Therefore the tiger protects the forest and the forest sustains the tiger”.  This depth of understanding is also found in the fifth of the seven pillar edicts of Emperor Ashoka, who was the first to unify India “Twenty six years after my coronation various animals were declared to be protected: parrots… ruddy geese, wild ducks… bats… boneless fish and all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible” and he created forest, tiger and elephant reserves. When comparing Western civilisation’s utilitarian attitude towards Nature with that of India, Rabindrath Tagore wrote one hundred years ago: “India intuitively felt that the essential fact of this world has a vital meaning for us; we have to be fully alive to it and establish a conscious relation with it, not merely impelled by scientific curiosity or greed of material advantage, but realising in the spirit of sympathy, with a large feeling of joy and peace.”

I imagine a world where every civilisation understands our fundamental connection to Nature and takes it as a duty of every citizen to ensure that Nature thrives along with us. Such a world would accept the findings of conservation science and the Indian point of view as an opportunity to get our collective house in order. I believe that India has a leadership role to play in humanity’s reconciliation with wild Nature by protecting at least half of the natural world starting in the Western Ghats, the Himalaya and the Deccan Plateau. One of the oldest civilisations on Earth could thus give hope to despairing humanity that a bright future is indeed possible in the 21st century.

An unusual image of a gaur and one-horned rhinoceros in the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary in North Bengal. Such encounters are rare and are normally triggered by the imperative of accessing limited water sources. Photo: Saugata Sen.
A Closer Look at Nature Needs Half

In 1987, the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published ‘Our Common Future’, also known as the Brundtland Report, called for tripling Earth’s Protected Areas to 12 per cent of land mass. Later, that figure was increased to 17 per cent of the Earth’s lands, and a target of 10 per cent of the oceans was added.

Global environmental destruction, and study of the planet’s ecological and evolutionary processes, have both expanded on a massive scale since the Brundtland Report was issued. Many scientific assessments in the past 20 years have concluded that nature needs at least half of a given eco-region to be protected, as well as interconnected with other Protected Areas, if it is to maintain its full range of life-supporting processes, the long-term survival of species, and resilience in the face of environmental change.

Since 2007, many scientists, including 1,500 coordinated by the Canadian Boreal Initiative, have joined the call of half for nature (both terrestrial and oceanic), and MORE than half in areas where it is needed. World-renowned biologist and nature ethicist E.O. Wilson urges, “Half the world for humanity, half for the rest of life.”

Nature Needs Half can point to concrete advances: 51 per cent of Bhutan and 46 per cent of Venezuela are legally protected; the tiny, impoverished Dominican Republic has 67 Protected Areas covering 32 percent of its territory; Quebec and Ontario have made public commitments to protect at least half of their vast northern regions; and 67 per cent of Boulder County, Colorado is legally protected.

In India, the ‘Leave Me Alone’ campaign, a joint initiative of Sanctuary Asia and Save the Tiger, draws its inspiration from the understanding that underlies Nature Needs Half – that free-roaming megafauna like the tiger need space, isolation, and protection in order to survive on a planet dominated by Homo sapiens.

Harvey Locke travelled in India recently, where he joined tens of thousands of Indians, as well as people and organisations from around the world that have endorsed the principles of the Leave Me Alone campaign: “The Leave Me Alone campaign directly supports a key component of the Nature Needs Half movement by emphasising the critical need for tigers and other big wild animals to have access to core Protected Areas distributed across the landscape where they can securely live, breed, and raise their young.”

The U.N. currently estimates that, excluding Antarctica, large areas under indigenous conservation management, and privately Protected Areas, 14 per cent of Earth’s terrestrial area is protected, with the caveat that PAs are frequently underfunded, insufficiently managed, and under pressure from extractive industries in particular. Many scientists supporting Nature Needs Half point to the hopeful fact that the area of the planet currently protected is smaller than that still considered largely intact. A 2003 study by Conservation International estimated that 39-44 per cent of the planet remains mostly wild, with very low human population densities. Thus, a critical short-term goal for Nature Needs Half is to capitalize on this reality by persuading governments to move rapidly to protect at least half of Earth’s remaining large wilderness areas, such as boreal forests in Canada and Russia, the Amazon Basin, Antarctica, and the Himalaya/Deccan Plateau/Western Ghats region in India described in this article.

Some critics of the Nature Needs Half concept express concern that establishing Protected Areas per se may not directly reduce carbon and other kinds of pollution, and that at a time when action to reverse climate change is urgently needed, a focus on protection of ecosystems and wildlife rather than on the economics of pollution is a luxury the world can ill afford. One response to this critique is that the planet needs full-scale action on ALL fronts simultaneously – the Nature Needs Half approach as well as focussed campaigns to tackle carbon and other pollution at the local, regional and global levels.

Another, implicit, critique of Nature Needs Half comes from a growing cadre of “neo-environmentalists” who believe that wild nature no longer exists, that “synthetic biology” is the future, and that the environment must be viewed essentially as a garden that humankind manages at will, picking and choosing which species to protect and which to abandon, even which species to modify through genetic manipulation, transgenesis, and other artificial processes.

Scientists endorsing Nature Needs Half say that wild nature remains, and must be protected. The science, they say, is now irrefutable – human-caused ecological destruction is proceeding at an unprecedented scale and pace. Science must respond by providing clear, accurate conservation targets to policy makers to ensure that entire ecosystems function properly. If scientists continue to acquiesce to policymakers’ demands for modest, politically attainable conservation targets, our own species’ future may be at stake.

– By Jennifer Scarlott

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 1, February 2014.


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Jennifer Scarlott

February 7, 2014, 01:52 AM
 Harvey Locke is right: India has so much to be proud of, in the beauty and extent of her natural heritage. I hope the Nature Needs Half concept can gain traction in India, in large part through the establishment of Community Nature Conservancies (CNCs).