A great article

Wildlife is on the brink

by PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

Wildlife is on the brink and it is high time we took a critical look at our conservation realities
and policies.
Most that share landscapes with wildlife, for instance, live extremely low
impact lives yet they pay the biggest cost for conservation.

Question of survival: Tribal settlements in Orissa¹s Simlipal Biosphere
Reserve.
If there is one dominating sense about the fate of wildlife in this country,
it is that of Œthe end¹. The wiping out of the tiger from the Sariska and
Panna Tiger Reserves has been headline news; poaching and trading in
wildlife parts con tinues unabated; human wildlife conflict ‹ be it with
carnivores like leopards or tigers, large mammals like elephants or smaller
animals like wild boar, deer or monkeys ‹ is seriously on the rise; lakes,
rivers and other wetlands are either being dammed, poisoned or encroached
upon; climate change threatens to change the world in an unprecedented
manner and as a combined consequence wildlife numbers are dwindling
precariously and many species of birds, animals and plants stand dangerously
close to the precipice of extinction.

The Forest Rights Act
An important new twist was added to wildlife conservation debates a couple
of years ago with the enactment of the Scheduled Tribes and Other
Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, popularly
known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The debate over this act has been
volatile and the opposition, particularly from a section of wildlife
conservationists and former forest officers, has been and continues to be
strong. A lot has been written about these concerns and strong affirmation
came from a rather unlikely source around a year ago. A report in Newsweek
(³India¹s missing tigers², May 5, 2008) took the argument to an unexpected
extreme when it argued that Œdemocracy and economic development¹ were
driving the tiger to extinction in India.

Many might actually agree with this articulation, but even a cursory
analysis will reveal that the conclusions are as ill-informed as they are
short sighted. An entire argument cannot be built on the analysis of and
comment on just one piece of recent legislation in the country: the FRA. The
law is a recent one and its implementation, if it is happening at all, has
just about begun. While fears about forest and wildlife loss may indeed be
justified, selectively wiping away history and placing the responsibility
for the tiger¹s demise at the door of this one legislation and one set of
people is not only irresponsible but also can be counter-productive.

Particularly so since because one aspect of India¹s conservation history ‹
the role of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ‹ continues to be repeatedly
invoked, like in the Newsweek piece. A whole generation of wildlife
enthusiasts and conservationists believe, and with good reason, that Indira
Gandhi ensured that Indian wildlife still has some hope. She was the
architect of critical legislations and frameworks that certainly helped
protect wildlife and her personal interest and intervention like in the case
of Silent Valley in Kerala ensured that many critical habitats were saved.

It is a legacy we cannot deny or wish away, but we also need to ask whether
we can keep hanging on to the past? Our socio-political-economic-cultural
realities have changed drastically since her time. It is the same nation and
yet it is different . Wildlife conservation today, like anything else, has
to be placed within this rapidly changing context. It is crucial to
recognise that the same wildlife conservation policies will not succeed
today just because they did in a different era. If she were alive today,
Mrs. Gandhi would perhaps have agreed.

There is also a whole new Œpost-Indira Gandhi¹ generation of wildlife
biologists involved in cutting edge research across wild India. Many of
their formulations of problems and solutions are extremely nuanced and far
more representative of realities on the ground. They need to be asked and
they need to be listened to.

Condemning the most vulnerable
It is no one¹s case that wildlife conservation is easy. The challenges are
immense and no one but the most optimistic will argue that the future for
our wildlife is bright and hopeful. However, blaming the poor and the
tribal; demanding their displacement to protect wildlife; seeking stricter
and military-like protection is the wrong place to start. By doing this we
are also ignoring many other realities. Most of the communities that share
landscapes with wildlife, for instance, live extremely low impact lives and
yet they are made to pay the biggest cost for conservation.

It is also not a coincidence that innumerable people¹s agitations across the
country today are fighting policies and projects (big dams, large scale
mining, increased industrialisation) that predate on the basic survival of
forest and land dependant communities. Neither is it a coincidence that many
of these are important habitats that support a great diversity of threatened
flora and fauna. It is as important that we recognise this overlap as it is
for us to recognise that both communities and wildlife are, together, losing
this battle. Nothing ‹ be it the laws and the courts, the politicians and
the bureaucrats or the media and the wildlife conservationists ‹ are able to
help them.

Hope and the FRA
Increased mining across the country, for instance, has been one of the most
significant sources of concern for its impact on forests, tribal communities
and important wildlife populations. In an ironic twist now, it is being
suggested that the FRA might actually be the only hope for preventing mining
in forest and wildlife rich areas. Efforts towards this end are already
being made in states like Orissa and in particular in the Niyamgiri hills
where the Dongaria Kondh Tribal community itself is fighting to save the
forests. Additional hope has been kindled following the July 30, 2009
notification of the MoEF stating the forest land diversion for non-forest
purposes should ensure compliance with the provisions of the FRA.

In this larger context then, it comes across as completely unfair to argue
that rights for the poor, the marginalised and the historically
dis-privileged necessarily means the demise of our wildlife? Can we turn the
question and wonder if, in fact, ³it is not too much democracy but too
little of it that lies at the root our wildlife crisis?² That a more
empowered people might actually fight better and more successfully? We don¹t
have the answers today; what we do have is the choice of which question we
will ask.

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