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Prioritised long-term strategies needed for forest mgmt

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.

Prioritised long-term strategies needed for forest mgmt

One of the major management interventions that we adopt in our PAs is the construction of the check-dams and the waterholes...

Prioritised long-term strategies needed for forest mgmt

Selfless Souls


PO Nameer, Ph.D., Professor of Wildlife Science, Kerala Agricultural University, South India. His basic training is in Forest Ecology and Ornithology but works extensively on mammals, including bats. His current work includes biodiversity documentation of the Western Ghats, the study of the impact of climate change on the different taxa, citizen science, etc. He has authored the first-ever checklist on Indian Mammals and co-authored the first-ever Bird Atlas for any of the Indian states


Q: Where should one draw the line when it comes to forest, especially protected area, management?

One of the major drawbacks in our forest or protected area management is that very little science is used when management prescriptions are made. There are few long-term strategies when it comes to the management of our natural resources. Though we have working plans and management plans, which have been prepared as per national guidelines, through a consultative process involving various stakeholders, when it comes to the actual implementation the priorities change. There could be various reasons that a manager could be attributing to the shift in the priority of the management in the area under one jurisdiction but is a reality. Many of our assessments indicate that the geographical area of the forests in the country is on the rise. There are flaws in the methodology that we use to arrive at this estimation, where the areas under the tree plantations are also accounted for while estimating the extent of the forests. More importantly, though the forest boundaries may remain intact, the forest quality is on the decline. This a major concern that we should be addressing seriously if we want to ensure the long-term conservation of our forests.

Q: In what all respects is a decline in water bodies in forest areas likely to influence biodiversity, what are the major reasons for it, and the ways to improve water sources in reserved forest areas?

There are quite a few natural water bodies within our forests. However, these have been grossly mismanaged. One of the major management interventions that we adopt in our PAs is the construction of the check-dams and the waterholes. However, the placement and locations of these structures are mostly decided based on convenience, accessibility, and other anthropocentric priorities rather than the actual need and scientific assessment. There are several examples where waterholes have been considered very close to perennial water sources. There are several instances where waterholes have been constructed right inside the natural swampy areas. Such acts are because of our unscientific, anthropocentric, and mega-vertebrate-centric management. Many times, when we adopt a management strategy, we usually have only the mega-vertebrates in our minds. Very seldom we do think beyond, the tiger, elephant, and other large vertebrates when we design and implement our management interventions. For example, when we construct a waterhole in a natural swampy area within a forest or protected area, our mindset and thought process is such that we feel that only if there are huge/deep waterholes, then only animals such as elephants and other large vertebrates would be using them. Which is not true and this is because of our anthropocentric outlook. More importantly, when we construct a waterhole in a swampy area, the whole water in the natural swamp drains off to the big pit that we have constructed, thus killing the existing natural swampy areas, which are acting as a crucial habitat for hundreds of other creatures, that are big and small. Thus, the mismanagement of our water bodies would adversely affect our biodiversity. The water bodies within the forests and the PAs need to be protected with topmost priority and the human interventions on them should be minimal and also based on scientific principles. The watershed area should remain intact and no human interference of any kind should be allowed in the watersheds. Wherever the habitat quality has deteriorated the interventions should be made only using stringent principles of restoration ecology. Ad hoc and short-sighted interventions can only harm than good and should not be attempted. 

Q: The state of biodiversity is not in a laudable state, with most surveys focusing either on green cover or specific species. What per you is the right way to ensure the healthy growth and conservation of all kinds of animals and birds?

There are very few organised, systematic national-level attempts to document our biodiversity. As you rightly indicated, such efforts have been there only for a few charismatic mega-vertebrates such as elephants, tigers, lions, rhinoceros, etc. But the biodiversity of a nation that is as vast, rich, and diverse as that of India, is something that is yet to be systematically documented. An innumerable number of novelties are being discovered in our nation every year and the rate of discoveries is on the rise. However, this is primarily due to some individual effort with minimal institutional, financial, and logistic support. This has to change. National-level initiatives involving a network of government and non-government organizations ideally in the citizen science mode need to be attempted to document our biodiversity. An adequate number of Permanent Preservation Plots need to be taken in all our representative habitats across the country and long-term monitoring of the biodiversity in these sites needs to be done. Such an effort should be coordinated and implemented at the national level, with the logistics part being taken care of by the MoEF with the support of the respective State Forest departments at the State level, and the technical support from the network of organizations across the country and implemented with the support of the interested citizen. Systematic documentation and maintaining baseline data for all the taxa is extremely important to ensure the long-term conservation of the immensely rich biological diversity of our great nation.  

Q: Which are the best forests when it comes to biodiversity and wildlife- very dense, moderately dense, or mixed forests?

We need a mosaic of different types of habitats to ensure the long-term conservation of biodiversity. We need pristine rainforests, we need deciduous forests, we need scrub jungles, we need deserts, arid lands, coasts, marine habitats, mangroves, temperate forests, cold deserts, alpine meadows, grasslands, swamps, wetlands, etc. because this incredible diversity of habitat ensures the immense biodiversity our country.

Q: How important is it to conserve 'virgin forests'? What is their contribution to eco services?

We have very little of the 'virgin forests' that are left. All our forests have been modified and interfered with by people. However, the ecosystem services that are performed by the virgin forests are extremely crucial. The hydrological functions performed by virgin rain forests for example are particularly vital in maintaining the sustained and perennial flow of several rivers, and thereby supporting life throughout the river course and the downstream areas, including the estuaries. 

Q: We lament that birds like sparrows are almost going extinct in a majority of places and yet, there are no conservation efforts at places where they still exist. The development works at such places are risking their survival. What is your advice to deal with this situation?

House sparrow is a flagship species of 'common biodiversity' which we are losing at an alarming rate. Several species were once common and are no longer so, sparrows are true in some areas but this catches the imagination of people and is not something that should be taken. While it may be true that there has been a decline in the population of house sparrows, in some parts of its range, its conservation status according to IUCN and BirdLife International is the Least Concern. The justification given by BirdLife International on the conservation status of House Sparrow reads: "This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). Even though the population trend appears to be decreasing, the decline is not believed to be sufficiently rapid to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is extremely large and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons, the species is evaluated as Least Concern." At the same time, several other species of birds are threatened with extinction in our country. For example, the following birds belong to the Critically Endangered category according to IUCN, meaning they are facing the greatest threat of extinction in the country. They are Himalayan Quail, Baer's Pochard, Pink-headed Duck, Siberian Crane, Great Indian Bustard, Bengal Florican, White-bellied Heron, Christmas Frigatebird, Sociable Lapwing, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Jerdon's Courser, Forest Owlet, Red-headed Vulture, White-rumped Vulture, Indian Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture and Bugun Liocichla. The conservation strategies that need to be adopted for the conservation of these birds vary from species to species.  However, some of the general recommendations for the conservation of the birds and other biota include the conservation of all the remaining natural habitats of the country in its totality. When I say natural habitat, it does need to include all the representative habitats across the landscape in this diverse country. However, for some of the species like the vultures listed above, we have to adopt a different strategy of ensuring the quality of the prey (primarily the carcass of domestic livestock), assisting with captive breeding, and reintroduction programme. Added to it our management interventions on our habitats need to be supported with scientific facts, rather than ad hoc actions. There is also a greater need for the generation of baseline data, which is very crucial for the long-term conservation of any taxa. 

 Q: Is unregulated eco-tourism likely to jeopardise conservation efforts at sanctuaries? How can one know how much is too much?

Well, though the concept of ecotourism is quite good and should be promoted, in the vast majority of cases what happens is mass tourism and associated problems. The ecotourism ventures being implemented in the country need a relook and have to undergo stringent review and ensure that they do follow the principles of ecotourism in its strictest sense. Carrying capacity studies also need to be undertaken, at all the ecotourism centres, and the tourist influx be regulated based on the carrying capacity studies.


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