I wrote this piece in my GreenTalk column that used to be published in the Deccan Herald, Bangalore's leading news paper in 2003. The 'Vanishing Wildlife' I wrote about is vanishing even faster today.
Virtually nowhere in India is our wildlife truly safe. Our national parks and sanctuaries provide some very welcome respite for wild animals, however, recent moves by the Indian Cabinet to dismember forest in India and to silence the voice of wildlife experts and officials who object, bodes ill for the future of endangered species.
Pesticides from tea estates continue to pour into wetlands and national parks such as Kaziranga. Poaching is on the rise. Illegal tree felling continues apace. Nevertheless, this state can take pride in the fact that against all odds it managed to protect the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga. Efforts are now on to restore a measure of its former glory to Manas, where Bodo students have joined hands with Project Tiger to protect this World Heritage Site. Ironically, it was an agitation by the same organisation, more than a decade ago, that resulted in the deaths of almost all of Manas' rhinos and a large number of elephants.
The Orang Sanctuary, set aside for rhinos is in a terrible state as well. Encroachers, encouraged by politicians, have occupied vital grasslands and have killed most of the vulnerable rhinos. Pobitara fares no better. The newly declared Nameri Tiger Reserve is being whittled away at its edges by encroachers and more than 20 elephants were poisoned here by villagers. The Adjutant Stork holds on to a precarious existence in Assam's dwindling wetlands.
SP Shahi, the late Chief Wildlife Warden of Bihar would have been heartbroken to see how badly his Palamau Tiger Reserve is doing. Once the pride of Bihar, this crucial tiger habitat is under virtual siege from timber and katha mafias, who pay protection money to armed insurgents. Project Tiger staff are ill-equipped to handle this problem and the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee, has requested the Bombay Natural History Society to undertake a survey to suggest ways in which control can be regained. Meanwhile, World Bank-financed projects continue to threaten tiger and elephant corridors in the Hazaribagh forests, despite recent claims by the Bank that it would hold back such destructive loans.
For decades, this State has defined a state-of-the-art attitude to wildlife conservation. Bandipur was one of the first tiger reserves to be declared so. In Nagarahole, sensible habitat management practices resulted in increasing numbers of elephants. In Bhadra, far-thinking managers resisted pressure from paper mills and preferred to leave flowered bamboo on the forest floor. Tigers, elephants and all manner of wild animals - predators and prey - responded with enhanced populations. In Kudremukh, despite strong pressure from the Prime Minister's Office, the Chief Wildlife Warden supported a move to stop all mining by KIOCL, a stand that was supported by the Supreme Court. Wildlife groups are now asking the State to continue with its good work by declaring Bhimgad a Sanctuary, which would result in protection for tigers, elephants and one of the last-living populations of Wroughton's freetailed bats. Business interests seeking profits from limestone deposits and lucrative contracts from dam projects are working overtime to prevent such moves.
Reefwatch Marine Conservation reports that fears of widespread damage to corals at the hands of El Nino have proven to be unfounded. After an initial period of bleaching, life has returned to the reefs and sharks, mantas and sting ray numbers have risen. While some tourism facilities have displayed great sensitivity to the marine environment, plans by the island administration to increase the number of tourists and to construct new houses and buildings could still damage these fragile islands.
This is still India's tiger stronghold and possibly harbours around 20 per cent of all the wild tigers found in the world. Kanha and Bandhavgarh continue to occupy pride of place on the tiger map, however, many other wildlife havens such as Pench and Panna have begun to flourish with renewed protection. How long this happy situation will prevail is under some doubt as industrial hawks continue to do the rounds in Bhopal, seeking mining leases, contracts for highways and dams and, of late, transmission lines to carry power out of Bina to all corners of the state.
According to the Amravati Nature Conservation Society, a lack of application on the part of the Forest Department has given rise to more intensive poaching in the Satpura tiger habitats stretching between the Melghat and Kanha Tiger Reserves. Hard topping of roads in Melghat has enhanced access to the core areas. Villagers from inside tiger reserves are now petitioning the authorities to be shifted out and this would free up vital habitats for wildlife. Tadoba's fortunes continue to rise with tiger numbers rising. The Bombay Environment Action Group has won vital victories to safeguard the Sanjay Gandhi National Park at Borivli and nature seems to have responded by ‘sending' two wild tigers to take up residence in the adjoining Tungareshwar reserved forest, which is now proposed to be declared a sanctuary.
With the declaration of Uttaranchal, the State now has just under 300 tigers and wildlife officials are working hard to protect habitats such as Dudhwa, to secure their future. Moves are afoot to have reserved forests in Uttar Pradesh adjoining Corbett declared as protected, but these are being resisted by road builders. Delhibird, a North-Indian bird network points out that protecting grassland and wetland bird habitats in UP could prove to be beneficial to the State both in terms of tourism and water and soil conservation.
With Corbett and Rajaji, the stars in the State's firmament, this State is already ranked high up on the wildlife and tourism agenda of the nation. The Indian Army is keen to help protect the connecting corridor between Uttaranchal and UP to benefit elephants and tigers. The controversial Tehri Dam continues to plague the State's wildlife habitats by demanding the right to pass transmission lines through forests. Encroachment into forests is causing leopards to be displaced and this in turn is leading to human-animal conflicts.
National Wildlife Week 2003 is likely to be a turning point for nature conservation in India. Protecting wild rivers and ecosystems is in the national interest. But do the politicians, bureaucrats and contractors, who seem to hold sway over national policy, realise this?
Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org