By Anusha Krishnan
A new study by an international team of scientists from both academic institutions and conservation NGOs, and forest managers reveals that although India’s conservation program has its ups and downs, measuring its success depends on better monitoring and data from protected areas. The scientists, including those from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, and the University of Chicago, suggest that increased research on protected areas – to document biodiversity, assess conservation goals, and explore economic benefits for local people – can aid in successful conservation measures.
Variety is the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour.
-William Cowper, The Task, Book II (1785)
If there is any truth in Cowper’s words, the unique flavour of India’s biodiversity lies in its rich flora and fauna. In an effort to conserve this diversity, India has set aside 5% of its land as ‘protected areas’; but has this strategy worked?
An answer to this question is perhaps impossible to obtain at this juncture, declares a recent study published in the journal Biological Conservation by an international team of scientists from both academic institutions and conservation NGOs, and forest managers from all over India. The reason for this is a lack of monitoring and data from protected areas. The study, nonetheless, reviews the history and status of India’s protected areas, and attempts to gauge the prospects for conservation efforts in the future. This assessment is the first of its kind for protected areas in India.
Biodiversity conservation in India is a major challenge. The nation is home to an exceptional number of plants and animals, as well as a burgeoning human population with a growth rate of 1.13%. Unlike the sparsely populated low-diversity swathes of land (nearly 15% of their total area) protected by the USA and China, the 5% of land that India protects, exists in the midst of densely populated areas.
This of course, presents a suite of problems for conservation efforts in India, despite its history of strong legislation policies regarding biodiversity protection. The first and foremost of these are the small sizes and fragmented natures of protected lands, and poor connectivity between such areas. The study points out that the loss of tigers from the Sariska and Panna national parks are an eloquent testimony of the dangers posed by small and fragmented habitats to conservation endeavours. In a cascading effect, these two factors also contribute greatly to other issues such as wildlife-human conflicts, and the loss of genetic diversity in wildlife populations.
Furthermore, expanding industrialization efforts, monocultures of crops such as rubber, teak, and coffee, and human-wrought degradation have lowered the habitat quality of many protected areas. Added to this, the study also identifies that hunting – especially in Northeast India – along with climate change and the spread of invasive species as major threats to conservation in India.
However, the news is not all bad. India has had no recorded extinctions of birds or mammals in the last 70 years, since the loss of the cheetah. Currently, 85% of the total one-horned rhinoceros and 70% of the total tiger populations, are found in India, largely due to stringent conservation measures and the establishment of 104 national parks and 551 wildlife sanctuaries.
“The report also highlights the growth of conservation reserves on public land, and community reserves on private land, which were initiated in 2006 and of which there are now more than 200,” says Trevor Price, one of the authors from the University of Chicago. “These have much potential to not only conserve biodiversity but also increase local incomes. For example, the Pawalgarh conservation reserve, declared in 2012 now receives almost as many tourists as the nearby Corbett national park, and a community reserve near Eaglenest wildlife sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh helps to conserve the iconic Bugun liochicla,” he adds.
Apart from highlighting the need for India to maintain its 5% of protected areas, the study also emphasizes the dearth of monitoring and data, especially with respect to local community involvement and large variations in the kinds of threats faced by protected areas.