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Conservation efforts hinge on determination to preserve species

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.

Conservation efforts hinge on determination to preserve species

As we confront modern challenges, we must ask: Do we have leaders today who embody such commitment to conservation? The plight of the Great Indian Bustard serves as a poignant reminder of the need for visionary leadership...

Conservation efforts hinge on determination to preserve species


Dr Asad Rahmani

The writer is an ornithologist and conservationist; former director of BNHS and now the scientific adviser to The Corbett Foundation as well as the governing council member of Wetlands International, South Asia

Amidst the bleak landscape of widespread extinction, habitat destruction, the global scourge of plastic, climate upheaval, and polluted urban centres, it is challenging to maintain optimism about our world's fate. Yet, amidst this gloom, there remains a glimmer of hope. Despite recent setbacks, such as the failure of the global community to effectively address the plastic crisis during the Inter-Governmental Negotiating Committee in Ottawa, Canada, held from April 23 to April 29, 2024, I maintain optimism. I believe that humanity will eventually confront the plastic menace, just as we did with the ozone issue four decades ago.

In this article, I aim to demonstrate that we can reverse the trend of biodiversity loss if we possess the determination to do so. Drawing examples from around the globe, I will first highlight the role of our government, which used to have a commendable track record spanning decades. This success is attributed to our socio-religious values and visionary leaders who recognized the significance of nature conservation long before it became a mainstream concept.

The reign of Ashoka the Great stands out for its promotion of non-violence and compassion towards all living beings. Ashoka implemented policies to safeguard wildlife, particularly elephants, and designated protected areas where hunting and harming animals was strictly prohibited. The concept of 'abhayaranya' (sanctuary or refuge) was ingrained in ancient Indian society, serving as a haven for various animals, to thrive without fear of harm. These sanctuaries, often nestled within forests, provided vital habitats for wildlife.

In more recent history, the Nawab of Junagadh took the pioneering step of banning lion hunting in his kingdom, in 1879. This marked the initial efforts to protect a dwindling number of Asiatic lions that were left only in the Gir forests. Similarly, in the early 1900s, rhino hunting was banned when a handful of rhinos remained in Kaziranga. Today, thanks to such conservation measures, there are over 1,000 Asian lions in Saurashtra and more than 2,200 rhinos in Kaziranga, along with significant populations in sanctuaries in Nepal, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh.

Since India's Independence, we have managed to avoid major species extinctions, although the numbers of many species, such as 180 bird species, have declined. While some species, like the Mountain Quail, may have naturally diminished, others like the Pink-headed Duck, were hunted to extinction. The Pink-headed Duck was quite widespread in north India and it was unfortunately hunted extensively, leaving nearly 80 specimens to remind us what a glorious bird it must be in its natural, reed-covered jheels. The Jerdon’ Courser was rediscovered by Dr Bharat Bhushan, a BNHS scientist in 1986 and since then, attempts have been made to study and conserve its habitat. So, was the case of the Forest Owlet – considered extinct for 8 decades before its discovery in November 1997. Studies reveal that it is not as rare as supposed earlier and is found in many protected areas of Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh.

The establishment of the Indian Board of Wildlife in 1952 marked a significant milestone, aimed at developing national parks, and sanctuaries and protecting wild animals. The Board had some of the most prominent conservationists in India, for example, Salim Ali, EP Gee, M Krishnan, and Dharmakumarsinh. Regular meetings were held under the chairmanship of former Prime Minister (late) Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru or senior ministers, giving the importance that this Board deserved, even when the newly partitioned nation was dealing with the influx of refugees and other socio-economic problems.

The pivotal Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, spearheaded by former PM (late) Indira Gandhi, ushered in a new era of wildlife conservation in India. Initiatives like Project Tiger have been instrumental in saving the majestic tiger from the brink of extinction. I consider Project Tiger as one of the most successful conservation programmes in the world. Just imagine, what would have been the tiger’s status in our country without Project Tiger.

Recent successes in conservation breeding and reintroduction programmes for species like the Pygmy Hog and vultures underscore the efficacy of strategic conservation efforts. While initiatives for the Great Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican are still in their infancy, their trajectory toward recovery is promising.

All species are resilient and can bounce back - the only requirement is administrative backup, sufficient funding, and long-term scientific conservation plans. Many good examples tell us that with timely interventions, species have been saved from the brink of extinction. For example, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, only nine individuals of endemic Mauritius Kestrels were left in the world, with one pair in captivity and one breeding female in the wild. Habitat destruction, pesticides, and invasive species such as cats, mongoose, and crab-eating monkeys were identified as the main threats. Once the threats were removed and meticulous conservation breeding and reintroduction started, the number started increasing, and by 2019, there were 400, and now it is estimated that there could be 1000 individuals of Mauritius Kestrel. Besides control of pesticides, particularly DDT and habitat protection, the most important step was the control of cats and monkeys. Unfortunately, in India, if any scientist mentions control of free-ranging stray dogs, fanatic dog lovers start howling, no matter if such free-ranging dogs are the major threats to 80-90 threatened species.

My other favourite recovery story is of Seychelles Magpie Robin. It was common on all the granitic islands of Seychelles but habitat destruction and introduced predators (domestic cats and rats) killed them in large numbers. Such ground predators were never present in small remote islands so the Seychelles Magpie Robin, like many island birds, had evolved without the fear of these introduced predators. By 1970, it was on the brink of extinction, with only 16 individuals remaining, all on Fregate Island. Predator control by killing cats and rats gave it breathing time to recover so that by 1990, 21 individuals survived. Still, many were killed by cats and rats, so BirdLife International, the largest bird conservation organization in the world, transferred birds to Cousin Island in 1994 and to Cousine in 1995 which were cat and rat-free. Meanwhile, more islands were made cat and rat-free by elimination, so some birds were transferred in 2002 to Aride Island and in 2008 to Denis Island. Today, there are established populations of Seychelles magpie-robins on all five islands. As of 2012, the total population was 244-248 birds. Can we think of the elimination of invasive species, including free-ranging stray dogs, from protected areas? Even a discussion based on hundreds of evidence of the menace of stray dogs will bring abusive trolls from fanatic animal-right activists. Killing of small children of poor families by stray dogs will not move these self-righteous people, but at the same time, they will not allow their children to move around with these menacing stray dogs.

I will give some more examples from different countries. In 1974, newspapers of the world, including Hindustan Times carried the story that the Arabian Oryx was officially declared extinct due to unrestricted hunting by the newly rich Arab Sheikhs. It was perhaps one of the indirect victims of the oil curse, the word coined by American economist Terry Lynn Karl, in her "The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States," published in 1997. Newly-acquired wealth and all-terrain vehicles became a curse to desert-dwelling oryx that was used to walk long distances in sparsely-vegetated deserts but were no match to fast-moving vehicles with rifle-driven hunters. The poor animals were chased to exhaustion and then shot, sometimes too tired to even move. The extinction of this iconic signature animal of the Arabian peninsula horrified the general public and international news shamed the so-called royal families. Soon a plan was made to reverse the trend by breeding Oryx. Fortunately, there were some animals in private reserves and a small population present in the Phoenix Zoo, USA. Conservation breeding programmes were started in many centres and once the population was built up, reintroduction started. I was present in the Mahazat-as-Sayd protected reserve in Saudi Arabia in 1990 when two dozen animals were released in an enclosed 2,400 sq. km fenced reserve. I also saw some animals in Oman where a free-ranging population was released. In 2016, populations were estimated at 1,220 individuals in the wild, including 850 mature individuals, in Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Jordan and Palestine. Additionally, there could be 6,000–7,000 in captivity worldwide. This extremely handsome animal, with long pointed horns, has been saved from extinction by timely actions.

If we come to the steppes of Mongolia, there is another success story of a wild horse whose name is difficult to pronounce: Przewalski’s horse, named after Russian explorer and geographer Nikolay Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky. Over-hunting exterminated this magnificent animal and by 1969 there were none left in the wild. However, a number of these horses were captured around 1900 by Carl Hagenbeck, who supplied animals to European zoos. From the progeny of these zoo animals, a population was raised without much human contact and released in the wild. There are now around 300 individuals in several reintroduced populations, mainly in Mongolia and China. In captivity, there are around 2,000 individuals in various zoos, breeding centers, and reserves around the world, managed through coordinated breeding programmes aimed at conservation. It is another animal saved and reintroduced in the wild with the support of governments, scientists, zoo keepers, and conservationists.

In a recent paper in the prestigious journal Science, titled The positive impact of conservation action, written by 33 scientists from 43 institutes (some scientists work in multiple institutes) it is proved that “the strongest evidence to date that conservation actions are successful but require transformational scaling up to meet global targets.” For conservation to be successful, there are five basic requirements: a) government support; b) long-term funding; c) actions based on science, d) public support, and e) passion and commitment. All the examples that I have mentioned above had government support. For conservation to succeed, government support, sustained funding, science-based interventions, public engagement, and unwavering commitment are essential.

Despite past successes, the level of government support for conservation initiatives fluctuates with leadership. Indira Gandhi's steadfast commitment to wildlife conservation resulted in landmark legislation and the establishment of protected areas. Her leadership exemplified the profound connection between environmental stewardship and humane values. It was only due to her that we have the Wildlife Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act, Project Tiger, and nearly 500 sanctuaries that were declared after 1972.

Based on my 50 years of experience in the wildlife field I have no hesitation to write that no other Prime Minister was as concerned about wildlife and environmental issues as Indira Gandhi was. An example of her genuine commitment to the environment was that she was the only head of the country to attend the first international conference on the environment in 1992 in Stockholm, Sweden. The other was the host, Olaf Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister. She said: “One cannot be truly human and civilized unless one looks upon not only all fellow men but all creation with the eyes of a friend...” The Stockholm Conference, called the “United Nations Conference on Human Environment”, was a watershed in the international environmental movement - it put environmental issues on the international agenda for the first time. After 20 years, when environmental protection had become a major concern, 57 heads of state and 31 heads of government, civil servants, conservationists, environmentalists, scientists, and NGOs of 192 countries attended the Rio Conference in 1992. Since Rio, international conferences on biodiversity, climate change, fisheries, environment and rewilding nature are held regularly, and attended by thousands of people. Great leaders like Indira Gandhi showed the way that others now follow.

As we confront modern challenges, we must ask: Do we have leaders today who embody such commitment to conservation? The plight of the Great Indian Bustard serves as a poignant reminder of the need for visionary leadership.


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