Sunday, November 14, 2010

Creatures of a Lesser God

Published in the Financial Express 14 Nov 2010

Elephants and tigers, charismatic, sexy mega-mammals, are the mascots of wildlife conservation. Use them as umbrellas to protect a range of smaller less-popular species, said the wise ecologists. The amount of effort, publicity, concern (and millions of conservation dollars) elicited by these popular “umbrellas” is several orders of magnitude larger than any other creatures. We accept this inequality of the haves and have-nots just as easily as we accept it in human society. Today, however, in the grip of the tiger crisis, and with new research on a range of species from leopards to frogs, it appears as if the umbrella plan isn’t holding up. In some quarters, these are fighting words.

Take the long-snouted, fish-eating gharial. This crocodilian is extinct in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar and found only in India and Nepal where we are down to under 200 breeding adults. Put differently, there is no other large animal so close to extinction in India today! The gharial’s only hope of survival seems restricted to the Chambal and Girwa rivers. There is no mega mammalian umbrella here; the crisis is so dire that we urgently need to address the threats to this riverine species head on.
On the other hand, the wet forests of the Western Ghats and the Northeast were declared biodiversity hotspots not because of the relatively sparse mega-fauna but the numerous little creatures.  A myriad species of frogs, snakes and other small fry are found in isolated valleys and are not known to live anywhere else; extinctions are happening to life forms we haven’t even identified yet! The conservation of these “insignificant” creatures falls by the wayside when inordinate focus in placed on large mammals.

In practice umbrella conservation eventually focuses on just that species. For instance, long before the last tiger was poached in Sariska, the four-horned antelope had gone extinct in the Park. Although it was a prey species on which the tiger’s own existence hinged, this missing link in the food chain went completely unnoticed and un-mourned by most conservationists. Umbrella? Although the Tiger Task Force identified a whole range of systemic failures that led to the crisis, the presence of local people became an easy scapegoat for both government and conservationists. Despite the Supreme Court and Ministry of Environment and Forests directive, mines continue to operate around the Park with impunity. In addition to the message that local people are a disaster for wildlife, the fixation on large mammals whose survival is tied to tiny ‘protected’ forests jeopardizes conservation across the ‘unprotected’, greater part of the country.

These same “problematic” humans live with leopards far away from forests and sanctuaries, in the agricultural areas of Maharashtra. Not far from the Chambal, across the wetlands of Uttar Pradesh, the world’s tallest flying birds, the sarus crane, has survived alongside farmers for generations. Traditional agriculture has in fact benefitted a range of bird species such as jacanas, storks, shikras, egrets, herons, prinias, weaver birds, cisticolas and reptiles like monitor lizards, rat snakes and many more. All these ordinary farmers have been practicing conservationists while city slickers mainly preach, rant and rave. Here’s a conservation army to empower and enthuse, it’s time to look past the gates of sanctuaries and national parks and mega-mammals. And this is where the future of much of our biodiversity lies.