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Indian Wildlife: Hits & misses post the ‘anthropause’

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Indian Wildlife: Hits & misses post the ‘anthropause’

The year 2022 has some incredible achievements to its credit. But some wildlife species, like the Great Indian Bustard, are still at risk...

Indian Wildlife: Hits & misses post the ‘anthropause’

Talking Point

YEAR-ENDER: The year 2022 has some incredible achievements to its credit. But some wildlife species, like the Great Indian Bustard, are still at risk. The problem of the destruction of natural habitats still remains unsolved. The outcomes of global meets and conferences on protecting biodiversity should percolate right down to the masses and awareness programmes should be designed as a springboard for action

Dr Sonika Kushwaha, Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society, Jhansi-U.P.

After the ‘anthropause’, which was a period of slowdown in human activities during Covid-19, the year 2022 has been incredible to Indian wildlife in a number of ways.  India re-introduced cheetahs after their extinction in 1952, the first World Peacock Day was celebrated dedicating it to our national bird and the Ramsar sites reached 64 in number after the inclusion of 10 more this year. Winning of TX2 Award for doubling the population of wild tigers and back-to-fieldwork for bird surveys after the Covid pandemic are just a few of the incredible achievements that would not have been possible without the support of nature lovers. But not every species “won” and some were at risk as well.

The year 2022 started with the winning of TX2 Award for doubling the population of wild tigers since 2010 by Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR) located on the Western Ghats in India. The awards celebrated the upcoming launch of the 2022 Lunar Year of the Tiger.  Apart from the STR, the Bardia National Park in Nepal won this year’s TX2 award for doubling the population of wild tigers. The awards are presented by the Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS), Fauna and Flora International (FFI), Global Tiger Forum (GTF), IUCN’s Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme (ITHCP), Panthera, UNDP, The Lion’s Share, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and WWF.

Ravi Singh, secretary-general and chief executive officer, WWF India, said: “The TX2 awards celebrate the remarkable contributions made by government bodies, NGOs, and local communities to strengthen tiger conservation. To honour a recently notified tiger reserve like Sathyamangalam with the award is a step forward to inspire others to work towards preserving this magnificent species and its habitats.”  

Once again, India is now home to the majestic presence of the cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal. Yes, the Government of India has reintroduced eight cheetahs, under the ‘Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India’. Eight cheetahs were released into Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park (KNP) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 17 this year. A team from Namibia’s Cheetah Conservation Foundation travelled with eight cheetahs (five males and three females) from South Africa. Namibia has agreed to send 50 cheetahs to India over the next five years. However, there are different views from nature lovers regarding cheetah re-introduction.

India has designated 10 more wetlands as Ramsar sites, taking the total tally of Ramsar Sites in India to 64. The Ramsar sites in India now cover a total area of 12,50,361 ha. The six Ramsar Sites included from Tamil Nadu are Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary, Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve, Vembannur Wetland Complex, Vellode Bird Sanctuary, Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary and Udhayamarthandapuram Bird Sanctuary. Odisa, Goa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh have one each: the Satkosia Gorge, Nanda Lake, Ranganathituu BS and Sirpur wetland respectively.

Participation in ongoing community science projects surged this year, as did annual birding events like the vulture count, Kanha bird survey, Ratapani bird survey, Satpura Bird Survey and many more. This year Bird Count India also announced several new birding events like –Tokhu Emoung Bird Count in Nagaland. This was the first bird documentation event in Nagaland. It was a good initiative to celebrate our birds. Then the first-ever Himalayan Bird Count, focusing on the avian population of the Himalayan region was held on May 14. This year, the birders in the countries and states of the Himalayan region joined hands to celebrate a day out by watching birds in the Himalayas. Much of the Himalayas is impacted by global climate change and the monitoring data that was generated would be a baseline to compare year after year. The countries that participated include Bhutan (Partner: Royal Society for Protection of Nature, Bhutan), Nepal (Partner: Bird Conservation Nepal) and India. The Indian states/regions included Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, North Bengal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. To celebrate Endemic Bird Day on May 14, 2022, a total of 1,078 e-birders went out to look for endemic (and other) species on this day and uploaded 4,139 bird lists! In all, 835 species were recorded on this single day, of which 151 are endemic to South Asia.  More than 117 new e-birders in India participated in these events which are 28% more than last year.

In 2022, India celebrates 75 years of Independence and 50 years of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. A book, ‘Wildlife India @ 50’ written by Manoj Kumar Misra, a former member of the Indian Forest Service, critiques five decades of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA), with short, personal experiences by administrators, foresters, conservationists, activists and journalists that include a stellar list from renowned conservationist and tireless forester HS Panwar to wildlife reporter Usha Rai. A lot has since happened on the wildlife front, a lot more could have been achieved. ‘Wildlife India @ 50’ captures India’s 50-year-long wildlife journey through the eyes and experiences of a diverse set of authors who themselves played a part in it. It is a must-read for conservationists and nature lovers.

The simple phrase “prevention is better than cure” says a lot. Following the philosophy, the Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society took the initiative for the national bird and celebrated the first World Peacock Day on November 15 this year. The thought was readily supported by the Tourism and Wildlife Society of India, Jaipur-Rajasthan, IRE-Jungle-Narsinghgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Manav Organization, Lalitpur-Uttar Pradesh, Wild-CER, Nagpur-Maharashtra together with World Pheasant Association, United Kingdom and joined by a number of organizations and educational institutions in India. The theme for the first World Peacock Day was “Let the beauty survive”. To commemorate this historic day, various events like Nukkad Natak, rangoli, mehendi, poster making, quiz, peacock survey, awareness through lectures, power point presentations and documentary “Sarang” on Indian peacocks were organized across India. A pledge on peacock was also prepared which was taken by students from different educational institutes. The organizers organized the event on November 15 in different parts of India to mark this day as a historic event dedicated to the Indian peacock that was declared the National Bird of India in 1963 but even after 59 long years there is no seriousness about its protection. The celebration of the first World Peacock Day (WPD) conveyed the message of conservation of the national bird and also marked a day of celebration to appreciate the unsurpassable and incomparable beauty of the peacocks which have been taken for granted for decades. This will assist in maintaining the culturally, historically, religiously and ecologically important bird that is the pride of India.

The other side of the coin

However, like most years, 2022 was also a “mixed bag” of good and bad. The cattle suffered from the lumpy virus for almost three months. The data presented by the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying confirmed that the lumpy skin disease had spread across 251 districts in 15 states and affected over 20 lakh animals from July to September. According to the figures, a maximum number of 13.99 lakh cattle were reported to have been infected in Rajasthan, followed by Punjab (1.74 lakh) and Gujarat (1.66 lakh). The highest number of deaths caused by lumpy skin disease was also from Rajasthan, where 64,311 animals died till the last week of September. Rajasthan was followed by Punjab with 17,721 cattle deaths. The records showed that 1.66 crore cattle had been vaccinated against the disease.

On December 8 this year, the Rajya Sabha passed the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2022 to amend the Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972, by a voice vote. It seeks to give effect to India’s obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which requires countries to control the trade of all listed specimens through permits. With this motive, a new chapter VB titled ‘Regulation of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora as per Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’ has been added. This long title of the Act has been amended to include aspects of the conservation and management of species covered by the Act. “In the long title of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 (hereinafter referred to as the principal Act), for the words ‘protection of wild animals, birds and plants’ the words ‘conservation, protection and management of wild life’ shall be substituted,” the Bill reads.

The Bill seeks improved supervision of protected areas with the provision of certain permitted activities like grazing, movement of livestock, and genuine use of drinking and household water by local communities. It also proposes to downsize and modify the schedules that identify wildlife species for clarity, as well as to provide better care of seized live animals and the clearance of seized wildlife parts and products. Furthermore, it seeks to give consent for the transfer or transport of live elephants by persons with proper and valid ownership certificates in accordance with conditions prescribed by the Central government. A new provision, Section 43(2) reads: “Provided that the transfer or transport of a captive elephant for a religious or any other purpose by a person having a valid certificate of ownership shall be subject to such terms and conditions as may be prescribed by the Central Government.” However, this has received criticism for the reason of uncertainties that often come during the protection and trade of elephants.

The year 2022 also raised concern for the Great Indian Bustard. Author Manoj Kumar Misra also writes that one of the saddest stories of the Indian conservation movement is the slow disappearance of the state bird of Rajasthan, the Great Indian Bustard (GIB). It is one of the largest and heaviest flying birds of India. It is on the verge of extinction because of killer power lines in its home territory in Rajasthan which has the only viable population of GIB in the world. Orans or the sacred groves of Rajasthan are spaces where the GIBs have been safe and protected. For the conservation of any species, the involvement of local people is the key to success. We may suggest and implement a number of conservational methods but if the people are unaware, the results would be negative. Ex-situ conservation was also started for GIB. But the problem of the destruction of natural habitats still remains unsolved. Where will the captivity-bred GIB be released? A Supreme Court (SC) bench headed by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud asked the Union government on December 1, 2022, if a ‘Project Bustard’ could be launched on the lines of ‘Project Tiger’.

Harsh Vardhan, Honorary Secretary of Tourism and Wildlife Society of India, Jaipur said: “The nation is agog about migratory birds during winter.” He shared how a Great Knot (Calidris tenuirostris) reached Kerala, flying over a 9,000 km distance from Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Russia in November 2022. It was sighted by PP Sreenivasan, Kalesh Sadasivan and Samkumar PB, at the Chavakkad beach in Thrissur. It was satellite tagged by Dmitry Dorofeev, whom the Kerala experts contacted. The Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Centre has established that Egyptian Vultures are also ‘migratory’. Tagged in Kazakhstan on July 21, 2022, the bird was observed at Jorbeed, near Bikaner, on September 30. Vardhan is of the opinion that human society owes its survival to biodiversity caused by birds. However, priority is always accorded to the big cats, be it tigers or the recently re-introduced cheetahs. He stated that most conservation initiatives rested with private sources in India. The irony was that authorities seldom supported their work.

When will such an imbalance get balanced?

The interesting study undertaken by the Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society during this period takes account of the rock-solid cliffs of the Bundelkhand region that come to life with the songs of more than 108 bird species. The cliffs are important because they serve as safe sites for breeding birds and cannot be approached by predators easily. However, they do not have international recognition and are mostly unprotected. The sites are rich in raptor species, including vultures, owls, kites and eagles. Rocky cliffs are biologically rich in terms of the number and variety of species they support. This high species diversity is attributable to the existence of a large number of ecological niches. The work indicates that cliffs harbour a multitude of rare, endemic and critically endangered avian species and contribute substantially to regional biodiversity. In 2022, there were initiatives at a large platform as well as at the local level. The sensitive and responsible people did their bit for conservation. Dr Ashish Tripathi, general secretary of OCEAN, Etawah in Uttar Pradesh carried out a number of workshops and awareness programmes on snake identification and snake bite in a number of districts in Uttar Pradesh. His lectures on identifying poisonous and non-poisonous snakes and the dos and don’ts when bitten by a snake have created awareness among the school and college students. Dr Tripathi, UP Coordinator of Mission Snake Bite, Death Free India needs more responsible people in his team so that both the humans and the snakes’ benefit from this much-needed knowledge.

Punit, from Narsinghgarh, a beautiful place full of natural beauty in Madhya Pradesh, who is the president of IRE-Jungle and also runs a school, is all dedicated to serving Mother Nature. He has his own nursery where he grows saplings from seeds collected by family, friends and volunteers. Punit distributes them free of cost and is determined to re-grow forests in his area. Another interesting concept taken by Punit is “Plant Rescue”. Any plant growing in an unexpected place and liable to get destroyed sooner or later is collected by the IRE-Jungle team and re-located in the nursery to be later planted in convenient places. These include mostly the Ficus species like the peepal that grows anywhere from old houses, walls and even along the drains. Not only this, his students are lucky enough to benefit from educational outreach programmes in the laps of nature with regular bird-watching activities, collecting seeds, learning about the jungle eco-system and celebrating the Green Calendar days. More and more schools and colleges are coming up with the concept of eco-clubs that carry out activities with nature, in nature and for nature. The eco-friendly activities promote the reuse and recycling of things as well as learning from natural materials. The young generation is the best resource to protect the natural resources that we have exhausted without a thought.

Praver Mourya, State Co-coordinator from Bird Count India said many species were affected by the reduction in traffic and activity during the lockdown. An increase in bird activity and numbers was observed during the lockdown in many cities across India. However, it will be difficult to determine whether this was due to wildlife returning to urban habitats in the absence of human activity, or as a result of people paying more attention to nature and birds. Praver said that after the lockdown started, travelling trips decreased, d Due to which there was an increase in bird watching in or around the house. Birding emerged as a new leisure for nature lovers. Earlier, people were more attracted to see different types of birds, but during this time people spent more time with common birds and tried to understand their behaviour better. It brought people closer to nature and made us realize that we co-exist with wildlife. He said after the pandemic, when the situation became normal, instead of going to crowded tourist spots, people turned to forests, which led to a rapid increase in wildlife tourism. Praver believes that we should now try to make our cities friendlier towards our wildlife. At the same time, everyone should understand their responsibility towards nature and contribute to its conservation with a dedicated spirit. If we succeed in making our urban habitats eco-friendly, it will not only be good for the environment but also for human health.

The Covid-19 pandemic gave Homo Sapiens an unpredicted message of their vulnerability. The anthropause made us ponder on the inconsiderate assumption that we can continue to be the dictators of nature, taking the natural world for granted, exploiting all the resources lavishly and unsustainably, without facing any punishment. We have realized the consequences and know how nature can bring the human-dominated world to its knees. The global plans are failing because we do not include the people who are living with nature. There are global meets and conferences with more than 190 governments getting together to strike a landmark agreement to guide global actions on biodiversity. But do these plans reach the common people? Do the local communities know about the conservational plans? Do the policymakers know the grassroots-level problems? When we talk about the threats to wildlife, land-use change still appears to be the biggest current menace to nature, destroying or fragmenting the natural habitats of many plant and animal species on land, in freshwater and in the sea. Let us ensure the protection of the small green patches, the brownfields, and the water bodies around us to ensure the survival of our native flora and fauna. Thus, awareness programmes should be designed as a springboard for action, to provide food for thought and to act as a catalyst for transformational change. They should inspire people to be part of the changes.

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