[Book Review] “Rewilding” outlines challenges of saving wildlife and its habitat in India

  • Rewilding – India’s Experiments in Saving Nature tells the stories of restoration efforts of wildlife in India, some successful, some inconclusive and some failed.
  • The concept and implementation of rewilding is much easier in North America and Europe, where vast landscapes are available with the negligible presence of humans. But rewilding is much more difficult in India where biodiversity and humans occur together.
  • Ecologist and environmental author A.J.T Johnsingh, in his review, highlights the multitudes of cases of rewilding in India, as explored in the book by conservation biologist and environmental journalist Bahar Dutt.

It was delightful and educative to read Rewilding, India’s Experiments in Saving Nature by Bahar Dutt, a conservation biologist and an award-winning environmental journalist, who has reported on some of the detrimental conservation issues in the country. She has written stories on poaching, deforestation and mining that destroy the integrity of the wildlife landscapes and corrupt politicians who take bribes to perform actions that are inimical to conservation. In this book, she has made an appreciable effort to tell the stories of the restoration efforts that are laden with numerous problems in getting the support of the Government and implementation to ensure success.

She begins the story with three concepts: cores, corridors and carnivores, postulated as the essential ingredients in rewilding, as noted by eminent biologists, Michael Soule and Reed Noss. She rightly argues that the concept and implementation of rewilding are much easier in North America and Europe, where vast landscapes are available with the negligible presence of humans. But rewilding is much more difficult in India, where “biodiversity and humans occur together like tossed salad” and where protected areas do not exist on the same scale as in Africa, Europe or North America.

She brings to the attention of the readers the two earlier attempts in rewilding – reintroduction of tigers in Durgapur by Maharawal  Lakshman Singh in the year 1930 and reintroduction of three Asiatic lions (a male and two females) from Gujarat in Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh in 1958. In both places, the population of the two species increased but eventually disappeared due to lack of protection and monitoring.

Rewilding, India’s Experiments in Saving Nature by Bahar Dutt
Rewilding, India’s Experiments in Saving Nature by Bahar Dutt.

Her stories on reintroduction are based on the Panna tigers of Madhya Pradesh, pygmy hogs in north-east India, rhinos and swamp deer in Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam, red-crowned roof turtle and gharial in Chambal River, turtles in Ganga River, mugger crocodile in Neyyar reservoir in Neryyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, mahseer in the Cauvery River that flows through Karnataka, vultures, sea grass in the Gulf of Mannar in Tamil Nadu, corals in the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat and Gulf of Mannar, olive ridley turtle on the Odisha coast, Aravali Biodiversity Park in Gurugram near New Delhi and restoration efforts in Kaikondrahalli Lake in Bengaluru.

These stories can be grouped under three categories: efforts that were successful, inconclusive efforts and efforts that failed. Attempts to reintroduce mugger crocodiles in the Neyyar reservoir stand out as the glaring example of a failed project. Crocodiles from captivity were introduced in the reservoir in 1883, but soon there were attacks on people including some deaths which made them rise against the program. This forced the Government to stop the reintroduction and instead capture about 10 crocodiles. Since the people use the reservoir for various purposes, including for washing utensils, they protested against the reintroduction, which put an end to the program. Mugger crocodiles seldom attack people and what provoked them to attack people despite the abundance of fish in the Neyyar reservoir is a question that has gone unanswered.

Another example of a failed project is the introduction of thousands of young turtle in the Ganga River, which was once home to 13 species of turtles. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, thousands of young turtle were released with the primary hope of using them to clean the river. But all of them disappeared, possibly due to lack of food as a result of unregulated fishing and persistent high levels of pollution. The proposal to create a waterway in the Ganga for cargo and passenger movement by dredging it will be a great threat to the ecology of the river and its inhabitants.

The projects on growing sea grass to help the population of endangered dugong, which forage on the sea grass, and establishing populations of corals, which can lead to the abundance of fish, can be cited as examples of efforts that are inconclusive. The intentions behind these laudable efforts were noble but the scale at which it was carried out in the sea landscape, which is vast, and where conservation problems such as climate change, overfishing using bottom trawlers and garbage pollution in the form of plastic are enormous. One study has found that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010 from people living within 50 kilometers of the coastline. Plastic can smother both the sea grass and the corals.

Even the vulture project, one of the most expensive wildlife projects in India, as young and adult vultures are fed costly goat meat (mutton, one kilo is around Rs. 500), may come under the category of an inconclusive project. Vibhu Prakash, the project scientist, has put his soul and effort for almost the last two decades and has helped establish seven vulture breeding centres in the country. Hundreds of captive-bred vultures will soon be ready for release in the wild, where it appears that the use of diclofenac, the drug responsible for wiping out the vulture population and which is also used to ease pain in cattle, has declined. Yet, to release the vultures, as noted by A.R. Rahmani, several 30,000-40,000  ‘vulture safe zones’ need to be identified, which should be free from diclofenac. One worrying aspect of vulture conservation is that several other drugs that are used by people are toxic to vultures.

The restoration of Kaikondrahalli Lake in Bengaluru, which has made much appreciable headway, can also be placed in this category as the neighbors stealthily release sewage into the lake at night and the large intact wetland upstream, which helps to clean up the sewage and recharge the lake in the monsoon, is threatened by proposals to construct a number of buildings there. It appears that the Trust established to look after the welfare of the lake is unable to stop the proposed construction in the upstream wetland.

The tape grass, Enhalus acoroides. Photo by Vardhan Patankar.

The success stories are on bringing back tigers in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, where the population nearly became extinct as a result of poaching; taking back the pygmy hog, the smallest and rarest wild pig, to some of its former habitats; reintroducing and strengthening the conservation status of rhinos and swamp deer in Manas Tiger Reserve and the establishment of Aravali Biodiversity Park. The story on Ranthambhore tigers will always bring to light the names of two people: Raghu Chundawat, who drew the attention of the conservation community to the disappearance of tigers in Panna TR, and Srinivas Murthy, the forest officer who brought back nearly 40 tigers to Panna Tiger Reserve with the support of the local communities and the dedication of his staff. The concern about this population is the lack of corridors for the animals to emigrate and immigrate and the 10,000 crore proposal to link the Ken-Betwa rivers by building a dam, which would bifurcate the Reserve by submerging 40 of excellent tiger habitat.

The reintroduction story on the pygmy hog revolves around two people: conservationist Goutam Narayan and veterinary doctor Parag Deka, who worked tirelessly for nearly 15 years, establishing a captive breeding centre in Basitha near Guwahati. More than 100 hogs have been successfully reintroduced in their homes such as Orange Tiger Reserve and Sonai Rupa Wildlife Sanctuary. Evidence indicates that the introduced animals are doing well, but their future is closely intertwined with the protection and management of wet and tall grasslands, which do not get flooded for a long period of time.

The future of introduced rhinos and swamp deer in Manas Tiger Reserve looks promising as the Reserve is part of the 6500 transboundary landscapes under the Living Himalayas Initiative. It is one of the three transboundary landscapes across the Eastern Himalaya that connects Bhutan with North East India. This landscape has all the three essentials Cs for reintroduction: corers, carnivores (eg., tiger and clouded leopard) and corridors. But the long-term survival of Manas Tiger Reserve and its wild inhabitants is closely linked to the willingness of the Bodo community to support conservation, which would be possible only when the community leads a peaceful life.

Her story on the mahseer fish primarily focuses on the humpback mahseer and the blue-finned mahseer and is interesting. Noone envisaged that the introduction of the exotic blue-finned mahseer in the Cauvery River in the 1980s, with the good intention of increasing the abundance of mahseer for catch and release angling, a time-tested conservation tool, would endanger the native humpback mahseer, which has other problems such as extremely low flow of water in the river in summer and illegal fishing. She writes about the agreement between Tata Power, which manages the mahseer hatchery in Lonavala and which provided the blue-finned mahseer for release in Cauvery River, and the England-based Mahseer Trust to try and revive the humpback mahseer population. In this regard, the Bengaluru-based Wildlife Association of South India (WASI), which has about 40 young and dynamic members genuinely interested in mahseer conservation, have to play a vital role. They too would need the support of the Karnataka Government, which should declare the humpback mahseer as the State Fish, plan programs to reduce the population of the blue-finned species and breed humpback mahseer for reintroduction.

Several more reintroduction projects such as establishing a second home for Gir lions in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary and repopulating the former empty habitats of Nilgiri tahr in the Western Ghats can be carried out in India. In conclusion, I would say that every individual keenly interested in conservation should read the book to understand the challenges of saving wildlife and its habitat in India.

Banner image: Nilgiri tahr. Photo from Unsplash.

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