- India’s New Wildlife Action Plan emphasises landscape approach to conservation, climate change preparedness and reduction in human-wildlife conflict.
- It will impact 4.89% of country’s land area, its wildlife population and the lives of millions of people living in and around forests.
- Critics say that it is good in intent but poor in details.
There is a new policy document that will directly affect 4.89% of India’s land area, its wildlife population and the lives and livelihoods of millions of people living in and around forested tracts in the country. The New Wildlife Action Plan 2017-2031 (NWAP) sets out the framework for governmental intervention at a time when habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict are becoming increasingly commonplace in the country.
Keeping with this need, a landscape approach to wildlife conservation and incorporating the impact of climate change are the two themes that the NWAP has added to conservation discussions. Intermeshed with these two, there is also an emphasis on reducing human-wildlife conflict.
The NWAP is the policy framework on which management plans for the protected areas (PAs) will be developed in the coming 15 years. There are 733 protected areas in the country, constituted under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 (WPA). This includes 103 national parks, 537 wildlife sanctuaries, 67 conservation reserves and 26 community reserves. The action plan launched recently is the third one for the country – the first was from 1983 to 2001, the second from 2002 to 2016.
Landscapes, climate change and reduced conflict
These PAs are nestled within landscapes in which there are multiple land uses. The NWAP aims to look at conservation by taking into consideration this mosaic. This will be more effective than looking at the protected areas in isolation. “Since PAs are located in between areas of human activity and habitation, there has to be participation of people for landscape-scale conservation,” said J.C. Kala, a former director general of forests who chaired the committee that drafted the NWAP.
The NWAP states that taking the landscape approach to wildlife conservation can help in look at the issue of human-wildlife conflicts, which have been increasing in frequency in the recent years, in its broader context. “While animals keep moving out of PAs, humans keep intruding into wildlife habitats,” explained Kala. “Thus the traditional approach of looking at conservation within the boundaries of PAs is not as relevant today, and hence we decided to look at landscapes in their entirety so that development and conservation can be prioritised simultaneously.”
The thematic focus on climate change is also a new approach. Accepting climate change as a reality, the NWAP plans to promote research specific to climate change, including long-term monitoring and assessment of change in the distribution of vegetation types and ecosystems. Also, there is an emphasis on vulnerability mapping for fires, epidemics, drought and other environmental stresses that come with the changing climate. The NWAP states that there is a need to strengthen research on adaptation and disaster risk reduction.
“The focus on climate change is to factor into management plans how the floral and faunal diversity and habitats are likely to change over time,” said Raman Sukumar, elephant expert and professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, who was a member of the drafting committee. “We need to develop robust data to understand region-specific scenarios and how that can affect landscapes and trigger human-wildlife conflicts.”
Given India’s increasing population and development needs, there are limits to increasing the areas of PAs. “Over the recent years if you are to look at the increasing number of PAs you will realise that the area is not necessarily increasing significantly,” said Sukumar. “Some of the newer PAs are very small in size, even though their numbers may be going up. This also increases the conflict with communities because protected areas are being declared in areas where there are substantial human population, and it is being done without understanding what their rights are.”
Taking a landscape approach to conservation is seen as a more effective way to deal with these concerns. “Considering the landscape as a unit will help us look at multiple issues holistically,” commented Sukumar.
Missing on details
Conservationists are happy with the inclusive approach of the NWAP, when compared to the earlier plans. “There is an acknowledgement of the need for securing support for conservation from local people in the NWAP that is welcome,” said Meera Anna Oommen of Dakshin Foundation.
On the issue of human-wildlife conflict more importance is given to research from the ground. The NWAP warns against unnecessary relocation of both animals and forcible relocation of people, and takes into cognisance the importance of traditional knowledge and local practices to prevent conflict. “But on a fundamental level, the plan does not deal with the root cause of conflict, which relates to issues of distributive justice of marginalised groups living near the edge of the forests, and thereby bearing the brunt of the conflict,” she added. “Also, there are no details on how the plan would involve communities in decision making.”
Sharachchandra Lele, senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), agreed with this assessment. “The intention of the NWAP may be good, but it lacks in details on how to strengthen people’s participation. There is also confusion between people’s participation and strengthening governance structures. There is no analysis of what the pressures are on wildlife areas and how are we governing it. This becomes relevant for the implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) and the Forest Rights Act (FRA),” he said.
According to him, the NWAP does not articulate in detail about the rights of the village councils or gram-sabhas inside forests. These local governance bodies have forest management rights under the FRA. It further talks about the declaration of critical wildlife habitats under the FRA but does not define the process by which an area can be declared so.
Everything else but wildlife
“This plan does not do what it should have done,” said Praveen Bhargav, managing trustee of Wildlife First. “It should have focussed on protecting the PAs from serious development threats and from the negative impact of FRA. Instead, the NWAP has ceded ground to practically every other interest under the flawed premise that wildlife can be conserved under all kinds of development and sustainable use. The NWAP will tragically enable exploiting of wildlife habitats for other uses.”
Bhargav stated that five million hectares of forests have been lost due to the implementation of FRA, which gives rights over land and forest use to forest-dwelling communities. The fact that wildlife requires inviolate spaces is being ignored in the present plan.
“While nobody denies that marginalised communities should be supported, the grant of rights within protected areas without any regard to the impact of fragmentation is a matter of serious concern. The NWAP does not say anything about this,” argued Bhargav.
The NWAP, he said, should have ensured that the compensatory afforestation fund collected from the proponents of development projects that destroy or fragment forests is used to consolidate the country’s wildlife habitats. This would have a huge impact from a wildlife, biodiversity conservation and watershed perspective.
What works on land does not work with the sea
While for Bhargav the demand is to have inviolate spaces for terrestrial conservation, for Naveen Namboodiri of Dakshin Foundation the principle of “no take” is inadequate while working with coastal and marine biodiversity conservation. The NWAP does not break free from the biases of the earlier plans, since the basic legal framework for any protected area is the WPA.
“The problem is that the WPA, which also gets extended to marine protected areas, is designed for territorial forests and is inadequate to deal with the marine habitats. Marine protected areas can be managed only if it can be decided with local communities on how much fish and other resources can be harvested sustainably. The principle of inviolate protection does not work for marine systems,” Namboodiri noted.
With wildlife habitats covering tropical to temperate latitudes, from altitudes ranging from below sea level to the snowy ridges of the Himalayas, it is difficult for an omnibus action plan to cover all details. “The document is only a guideline that provides the broad principles. The details have to be worked out by those working in each of the sectors,” observed Sukumar.
In its statement of intention, the NWAP also deals with the control of invasive species, training of frontline conservation personnel, securing wildlife corridors, hastening settlement of rights, developing species recovery plans, managing tourism sustainably, keeping pace with the latest research, and ensuring adequate funding for conservation. While the 15-year timeframe has the potential for providing policy stability, it may also deter managers’ ability to deal with localised issues.
Banner image: Animals such as the Indian Gaur have been moving into human habitation causing conflict. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.