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Making sense of wildlife conservation in India

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.

Making sense of wildlife conservation in India

The world manages wildlife in accordance with the economic adage: use it or lose it! If not hunting, let us use photographic tourism as a tool for conservation and development...

Making sense of wildlife conservation in India

Thinking Point

Dr H.S. Pabla, IFS (Retd.), Former Chief Wildlife Warden, Madhya Pradesh

I grew up in Punjab but have spent my professional life in Madhya Pradesh. Sikh peasantry was the principal constituent of Akali Dal, which is still a dominant political party in Punjab. The Akalis used to solicit Sikh support by proclaiming that Sikh Panth (Sikh religion) was in danger and all their political speeches used to be full of these statements. Once I saw a cartoon in a Hindi newspaper in which a child asked his grandfather, "Dadaji, what is this 'Sikh Panth'?" Pat came the reply from the old man: "That which is always in danger!" Almost on the same lines, I have been hearing that forests and wildlife are in danger ever since I joined the Indian Forest Service in 1977. I am not sure whether the Akalis were correct, but there is no doubt that our forests and wild animals are in danger of decline, some even of extinction. The danger has been increasing ever since.

Man, Vs the rest

Wild animals are in danger because they are pitted against a very powerful adversary, the Homo sapiens. All organisms, plants, or animals need a bit of the planet to stand on and other organisms to eat. Animals have to compete with humans and against one another, for a share of the planet and its resources. Even plants grow only if other plants die and release tied-up space, carbon, and minerals for the new crop. Unless one crop is harvested, new crops cannot be grown. Man is the most powerful and most intelligent creature on Earth and has usurped almost the whole of the Earth for himself. The latter is especially true of densely populated countries like India. Man has acquired the power to use other creatures for his benefit or to destroy them if they come in the way of his well-being. If any species has to live on this earth, it needs human support. Either it has to become useful to man or, at least, humans have to have a notion that it may become useful someday in the future. But an animal, that is dangerous and harmful to man, has no chance of surviving human animosity only on the basis of a vague hope that it (or its genes) may become useful to man someday in the future. Our big, wild mammals are in the same category. Most organisms are disappearing from the Earth because we are not ready to give them a share in this planet. We continue to convert their part of the planet into our croplands, habitations, industries, roads, reservoirs, etc. Along with the well-known, there are numerous invisible and insignificant species that are not directly relevant to our lives today. They do no harm to us. We do not even recognise them. Their world is shrinking just because we humans continue to expand our footprint.

Animals destroy human lives and livelihoods

The second category of perishing organisms includes those animals that are dangerous and harmful alive but their bodies are useful to man. In a survey of human-wildlife conflict in 25 states, Thomassen et al. (2011)1 found that wild animals killed 888 people and injured 7381 in two years spanning 2006-07 and 2007-08. They also killed 14144 heads of livestock and damaged the crops of 80956 farmers. In turn, along with destroying their habitat, we kill them to reduce our losses and/or use (or sell) their bodies for food, medicines, garments, or just for pomp. Thus, they are the victims of a triple whammy! Our tigers, deer, leopards, bears, elephants, etc. are in this category. Further, millions of birds and tortoises are plucked from their habitats for the global pet trade, killing a large number in the process of capture and transportation.

Why save dangerous animals?

How will these animals survive under such circumstances? We all know and admit that we are endangering our own existence by destroying our forests. But, the disappearance of the dangerous animals will also result in a similar calamity is not clear to everyone. Not even to me, despite spending 42 years in their service! Millions of people, who have not yet been brainwashed by the media or modern environmental education, do not think that a reduction in the populations of tigers, elephants, deer, bears, etc., or even their extinction will cause any loss or inconvenience to them. Nor will it make the life of other organisms any more difficult as we are taught in ecology. Especially because human beings can perform the ecological functions of these species, such as eating other animals and manipulating vegetation, themselves, and profit from it. On the other hand, millions will be able to sleep comfortably if these animals are not around. Perhaps, we will remember them for a few centuries and will then forget them altogether. After all, how many miss dinosaurs today?

Who says that it would have been great if we had Tyrannosaurus rex around today? Although the common man does not have a voice, he is certainly confused about why we are trying to save animals that kill people and livestock, and devastate their lives in many other ways. After all, why are we dying to save these wild animals? India is a poor country. We are short of everything, particularly land. We have denied access to local people to millions of hectares of forests for increasing wild animals. Hundreds of crores are spent on protecting wild animals, knowing fully well that rural people will suffer more if we have more wild animals around them. Generally, we justify saving tigers by saying that this will also save our forests and other animals as tiger is a kind of umbrella species. We need forests for many reasons. Therefore, if we have to save forests, we must save tigers. Even I have been saying and doing the same. However, it is debatable whether we have been able to save any forests in the name of tigers. This is because the forests of the tiger reserves were already better than other forests when they were made tiger reserves. If we provide the same level of protection to any other forest, the result will be the same, tigers or not. If forests are indispensable to us, why do we need tigers and bears to justify saving them? Why do we not save our forests simply for the sake of preserving our aquifers, soil productivity, crop pollinators, biodiversity (other than marauding animals) and for tackling climate change, air pollution, etc.? These services are much more critical to human survival than producing tigers and elephants? This question has been bugging me all my life. If we want to save tigers, don't we have any other argument in their favour? Saving wild animals as a religious and moral duty is all right but if they devastate human lives and livelihoods, the reasons for their conservation have to be much stronger. So, how does the world do it?

The way the world does it

If we look at the world, only two types of countries are successful in the conservation of their wildlife. The first category is countries like the USA, Australia, Canada, etc. with low human populations and vast lands. Human beings and animals rarely come in contact or conflict with each other as they live in separate areas. If an animal strays out of the forest and does any harm, it is immediately killed or captured. In addition, hunting and wildlife tourism support many jobs and businesses. Wildlife is proliferating in these countries. Even millions of licensed hunters are unable to exterminate their wildlife. Their forests are also improving instead of shrinking. Although these countries had exterminated some species earlier, they are now successful in bringing some of them back (e.g. wolf and grizzly bear in the USA). The second category consists of those countries where wild animals are an important part of their economies in the form of tourism. Tourism can be for photography or hunting. Rural communities protect wild animals as they bring tourism jobs and incomes. Most of the African countries and Pakistan fall in this category. Wildlife is seen and used as a natural resource in these countries to create jobs and businesses through wildlife hunting, trade, and tourism. People are generally free to kill animals that enter farms or homes.

Our way

India has also been largely successful in saving her wildlife. But we are an enigma and do not fall into either of the above categories. We suffer depredations from wild animals without profiting from them in any way. Those who profit from wildlife here do so despite the government wanting them not to, by banning hunting and stifling tourism. Also, wildlife habitats obstruct the spread of economic infrastructure. We are still keen to preserve our wild animals. "It happens only in India", as the song goes! However, this situation is not sustainable. Quite soon, we will get fed up and shall start feeling defeated. The signs of new circumstances are in front of us. The government is trying to change all those laws and policies that come in the way of creating jobs and wealth. Our wildlife protection policies are going to be the principal victims of this new orientation. Remember the TSR Subramanian Committee? An important minister recently told Parliament that the country could not afford the cost of conserving tigers if we had to build flyovers on all roads passing through tiger habitats, as demanded by tiger lovers. How do we save our wildlife in the face of fast-deteriorating support for conservation?

And for the way we do it?

We can divide Indians into three categories based on their relationship with wild animals. In simple terms, these categories are, the sufferers, the benefiters, and the lovers of wildlife. Rural people, particularly farmers, suffer the losses caused by wild animals. Benefiters are those whose jobs and businesses are dependent on wildlife, such as the tourism industry, wildlife writers, photographers, and filmmakers. Including the NGOs that champion wildlife causes. This category also includes poachers who eat or sell wild animals or their parts. Wildlife lovers are primarily the urban elite who romanticise wildlife based on television shows and coffee table books. Some wildlife lovers may also profit from their love but they do not suffer any losses at all. They are far out of harm's way.

Those who suffer losses caused by wild animals try everything to reduce their losses. They regularly poison and electrocute wild animals and also help professional poachers. Other categories of people, including the government, try to save animals. Our wild animals are somehow living in the middle of this tug-of-war. However, if we are able to control the losses caused by wild animals and increase the benefits manifold, giving a big share to the victim communities, wildlife can have support across the board. If those who suffer losses also have a share in the benefits, the losses will cause less pain and anger. There are two ways of reducing losses caused by wild animals. We need to fence the forest boundaries, wherever technically possible, and permit the animals living in croplands to be hunted for a fee that can be shared with the victims. There can be several models for doing this. Where sport hunters (who pay a fee) cannot control their numbers, they have to be killed by paid shooters or trappers.

There are only two ways of profiting from wild animals: photographic or visual tourism and hunting. Although we, in India, often get scared by the mention of hunting, many countries use it as a conservation tool. An important feature of this system of hunting is that it is a part of tourism. Such hunting is not meant to provide meat to people or to reduce wildlife populations, per se. It is meant to take money out of the pockets of rich tourists and use it to support the economy of the country, particularly of the rural people. Thus, wildlife tourism is the only way to profit from wildlife sustainably.

Tourism the saviour

Second only to agriculture, tourism is the biggest creator of jobs and wealth in the world. Nearly 10% of global GDP and livelihoods are the product of the money spent by travelling people. Even more significantly, 20% of all new jobs created in the last five years were in the travel and tourism sector (WCCT 2019). In 2018, 78.5% of the money spent by travellers was by leisure travellers. It is estimated that 20-40% of leisure travellers travel to watch birds and wild animals. Thus, out of a sum of approximately USD 4475.3 billion leisure travel spending across the globe (India only USD 247 billion), nearly 30%, that is, approximately USD 1500 billion was spent by wildlife tourists (WCCT 2019)3. This is the amount earned by wildlife tourism businesses and their employees in remote areas where not many other employment opportunities exist. India got very little out of this bounty because we are just not interested in using our natural attractions, tigers et al., for national development. Therefore, wildlife and wildlife conservation continue to be seen as an impediment to national development because it earns little for the nation and costs so much. This is happening despite the government declaring that tourism would be one of the five T-s (talent, tradition, tourism, trade, and technology) that represent brand India, in 2013. Despite our restrictive wildlife tourism policies, wildlife tourism created close to 90000 jobs in Madhya Pradesh alone in 2010-11, while the potential is for much, much more.

India wants none of it

This is happening because, despite the global best practices to the contrary, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has been making policies that treat wildlife tourism as an anathema to conservation. MoEFCC believes and makes all foresters do so, that only the Taj Mahal and Khajuraho have the mandate to contribute to national welfare, not forests and tigers. Forests and tigers are meant only for future generations. Current generations deserve only unmonetisable ecosystem services.

Almost from the day of its inception in 2006, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had been issuing advisories to the states to phase out wildlife tourism from tiger reserves, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries. When the states continued to ignore these diktats, someone took the matter to the Supreme Court, after the Madhya Pradesh high court refused to stop wildlife tourism in the state. The Central Government and NTCA first supported the PIL in the courts but public pressure forced them to change their stance and admit that “many people depend on tourism for their livelihood and …stoppage of tourism may be a threat to wildlife and forests … and common citizens would be deprived of an opportunity to appreciate our natural heritage”. That was in 2012. The Supreme Court directed the states that tourism in tiger reserves shall be allowed but only in accordance with NTCA/GoI's guidelines. Despite a public admission that tourism is vital for saving wildlife, NTCA issued guidelines that have virtually strangulated wildlife tourism in the country. NTCA still thinks tourism is a threat to wildlife.

Almost every blessing in the world is double-edged. Fire, water, wind, religion, thoughts, and words, all can do tremendous damage if used indiscreetly. However, there can be no human life or culture, even existence, without them. MoEFCC and NTCA see wildlife tourism only as a negative force, out to destroy wildlife and forests. They see no positives in allowing or promoting wildlife tourism in the country. Although tourism can also have some negative impact on wildlife and its habitat, if not regulated properly, we do not have any example where tourism has caused any major ill effect on wildlife, anywhere in the world. On the other hand, there are thousands of examples where forests and wildlife are being protected only to create tourism opportunities. Whatever little ill-effects of tourism on wildlife we may see in India, they are primarily due to our wrong tourism policies.

The craziest features of our current wildlife tourism policy, as enunciated in the "Comprehensive Guidelines for Tiger Conservation and tourism as provided under section 38 O (1) (c) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972" issued in 2012, are as follows:

• Visitors cannot go out of an arbitrarily determined "tourism zone" which cannot be more than 20% of the core area of a tiger reserve, or the existing area in use for tourism, whichever is lower. Satpura Tiger Reserve in MP uses only 5% of its area but cannot increase it now.

• The carrying capacity of the tourism zone, in terms of a number of safari vehicles that can be allowed in, per day, is determined on the basis of an illogical formula, deliberately meant to keep the number lowest possible (by applying arbitrary correction factors).

• Strangely, no efforts can be made to increase wildlife in the tourism zone.

• NTCA first directed that tourism should be shifted to the buffer zones of tiger reserves. Now it has issued an advisory that wildlife should not be promoted in buffer zones as it will lead to escalation of human-wildlife conflict. Thus, the tourists are expected to go where they see no wildlife.

• The violation of these guidelines is a criminal offence and park managers can go to jail for at least three years if they do not enforce these guidelines. As every tiger reserve has a local advisory committee (LAC) for tourism, under the chairmanship of the divisional commissioner, perhaps all the members of the LAC also run the risk of penal action if the guidelines are not implemented properly.

Even these guidelines were issued after several far deadlier versions were withdrawn by the government under public pressure.

Now, good wildlife tourism or ecotourism means healthy recreation for visitors, benefits to local people, and improved protection for wild animals. The best moments for visitors in the wilderness are those when there are few others around. People benefit from incomes and employment generated by tourism. Policies can be made to ensure that more and more of these benefits go to the local people. Wild animals get better protection due to the presence of visitors and an increase in official attention and care where visitors go. However, India has not used these cardinal principles in developing her wildlife tourism practices.

So, how has this policy affected wildlife tourism and wildlife in the country? Despite having such a strong position on the issue, the NTCA or MoEFCC has never collected any information on the number of tourists visiting our tiger reserves. Nor have they ever commissioned any study to show how this policy has impacted wildlife and the economy generated by tourism around tiger reserves. Thus, there is no way of knowing definitively what impact this policy has had in the seven years since its promulgation, at the national level. However, some impacts of the policy are inescapable as indicated by some local experiences. For example:

• The number of visitors coming to Madhya Pradesh's tiger reserves dropped significantly (almost half to three fourth) as soon as the guidelines became effective. This means thousands of people lost their jobs and many businesses went under. As tourism revenue significantly supports protection operations in the tiger reserves of Madhya Pradesh, the resources available for protection also went down.

• Tourism has shrunk to a small portion of the available wilderness. This has reduced visitor satisfaction as overcrowding spoils the experience. People come to forests for peace but get stuck in crowded safari drives.

• Wildlife tourism cannot grow beyond current levels as neither the size of the tourism zone nor the carrying capacity can be changed. This means our parks cannot create any more jobs or wealth than whatever little they do at present.

• Although the growth of wildlife tourism in India has been very slow since the issuance of these guidelines, the tiger population in India has bounced back. In most tiger reserves, tourists and tigers have both grown together.

Do we want the kind of wildlife management in the country that benefits only poachers, and harasses the general public? And the country is deprived of its tremendous potential to contribute to national well-being? If we are practicing such wildlife management, is it sustainable, particularly when the central assistance available for the conservation of wildlife is going down with each coming year and the states give virtually nothing more than staff salaries?

Way to go

The Prime Minister had made a strong pitch in favour of tourism and even appeared on Discovery Channel to promote wildlife tourism in the country. If MoEFCC still does not take a cue to mend its outdated and destructive approach to wildlife tourism, wildlife will continue to be seen as an impediment to economic growth. And foresters will get all the blame and bashing. The world manages wildlife in accordance with the economic adage: use it or lose it! If not hunting, let us use photographic tourism as a tool for conservation and development. Tourism that is spread thinly and widely over all beautiful landscapes, does not inconvenience animals, does not destroy wildlife habitats, and benefits local people and the country at large. Only then will the conservation of tigers and elephants make sense.

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