IUCN cheers one protected area and raises concerns for six

  • The IUCN in its 2017 World Heritage Outlook report marked the conservation outlook of Khangchendzonga National Park as good.
  • The Western Ghats and Manas have been flagged with serious concerns. The outlook for Kaziranga and Keoladeo improved since the first report of 2014.
  • Climate change has become an overriding threat globally for the IUCN heritage sites.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has commended Sikkim’s Khangchendzonga National Park with a “good” conservation outlook for the year 2017 in its World Heritage Outlook 2 report. Even though this may bring some cheer, there is disappointment that the Western Ghats and the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam have been flagged as having “serious concerns.”

Of the seven IUCN world heritage sites in the country, the Kaziranga National Park in Assam and the Sunderbans National Park in West Bengal have fared better in the IUCN report card this time compared to the previous outlook of “significant concern” in 2014. They have gone up to the status of “good with some concern.”

The Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand’s Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers national parks retain their former position of “good with some concern.”

Sarus Crane at Keoladeo National Park, where the outlook is “good with some concern.” Photo by Lip Kee / Wikipedia Commons.

The report, released at the UN climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, assessed the conservation status of 241 World Heritage sites in 107 countries. Apart from recognising the well-managed sites, it tracks the conservation status of the remaining sites, along with identifying the pressing conservation threats faced by them. Moving forward from its first edition in 2014, the current report provides the first global update of its assessments and opportunities for comparison with its last observations.

Multiple pressures on the Western Ghats

The IUCN, in its detailed report on the outlook for the Western Ghats, notes that the pressure of growing human population in the region is greater than that faced by most ecologically sensitive areas around the world. The Ghats host hotspots of biodiversity and straddle across the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The report underlines livestock grazing, crop cultivation – coconut, rubber, teak, eucalyptus, cardamom, tea, and coffee – as serious threats to the mountain chain.

Further, unsustainable extraction of fuelwood, non-timber forest produce and other resources will always remain a threat. The report, however, specifies, “subsistence collection by local communities is not a threat, and the issue is rather the pressure created by organised industry.” Wildfire, hunting, water pollution, flooding and landslides are other threats. Tourism and population incursion due to “massive pilgrimage” are “increasing disturbance to sensitive areas.”

“The way forward for the conservation of Western Ghats is to have strong law enforcement, incentivise voluntary relocation of people out of protected areas, and apply existing wildlife and environmental laws while approving newer infrastructure and development projects,” said K. Ullas Karanth, director of Wildlife Conservation Society India. “All of these interventions must, however, be based on a sound foundation of science, research and monitoring.”

The unique shola-grassland ecosystem of the Western Ghats, which is facing multiple pressures to its existence. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

Conserving the rhino habitat

Meanwhile, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary is another area of “significant concern” for the country. Home to various endemic species such as the pygmy hog, hispid hare and golden langur besides harbouring the charismatic elephant, tiger and rhino, Manas faces serious challenges due to rhino poaching. The report notes that these are linked to the increasing activities of insurgent groups in the area that use the site as a refuge. It states that the current limitations faced by the forest guards while responding to this threat efficiently and insufficient law enforcement are causes for concern. The translocation of rhinos under the Indian Rhino Vision (IRV) 2020 program has been temporarily put on hold as the security and protection levels in the park are not found to be up to the desired levels.

“The park is still in the revival stage, and it may take another five years to come out of the present tag of ‘significant concern’,” noted Bibhuti Lahkar, the 2016 IUCN Heritage Hero who has been working in Manas for more than two decades. But the situation is improving, following the adoption of a three-pronged strategy that involves improved protection mechanisms, more involvement of local communities in conservation through enhanced livelihood options, and increasing awareness.

“For better habitat management, we have developed a grassland management plan to have control over its burning, and are also focusing on the removal of invasive species. Working committees have been formed and plots selected for this purpose,” said Hirenya Kumar Sarma, field director of Manas Wildlife Sanctuary.

While Manas is on its road to recovery, Assam’s Kaziranga National Park – the global stronghold of Asian one-horned rhinoceros – has been assessed by IUCN, “as one of the better managed protected areas in the country and elsewhere, owing both to its enabling framework and demonstrable success in conservation.” It rates its overall protection and management strategies as effective with the park having enforced “the highest legal protection and strong legislative framework under Indian wildlife laws.”

Excessive tourism is impacting the rhinos in Assam. Photo by Debiprasad / Wikipedia Commons.

However, rhino poaching, the spread of invasive species such as mimosa, livestock grazing, highway traffic, unplanned tourism and seasonal flooding continue to be current threats that have a direct bearing on the wildlife and its habitat.

Climate change worsening global situation

Globally, the IUCN report highlights that climate change is the greatest overriding threat to natural heritage sites. This is in addition to various site-specific threats and challenges. The 2017 World Heritage Outlook has listed 62 sites with outlook as high/very high current threat, as compared to 35 in 2014. In short, the picture is grim globally.

According to the report, fire threat ranks second in terms of the increase in the number of sites it is affecting – registering a rise of 33% between 2014 and 2017. In most cases, it is likely that increasing fire risks are linked to climate change impacts.

The spread of invasive species and the impact of poorly managed tourism also figure among the top three widespread threats. Major infrastructure development such as roads, dams and tourism facilities, mining and oil and gas development have featured among the top potential threats.

Mount Khangchendzonga and the surrounding habitats. Photo by Carsten Nebel / Wikimedia Commons.
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