- A new study reveals that wild canids and striped hyenas can serve as flagship species for increasing India’s conservation potential.
- At present, wildlife monitoring in India predominantly involves national estimation of tigers and their prey, Asiatic lion, Asian elephant and one-horned rhinoceros populations, says the study author.
- The findings suggest that states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh should invest efforts towards conserving these carnivores and their habitats as they ranked high on the priority scale.
Many countries, including India, have usually focussed on large carnivore conservation that has mostly centred on forested national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. For years, the focus has been so narrow that the importance of other species has been ignored, despite them being major players in conservation. India’s non-protected areas support many carnivores, representing unique and under-valued habitats and ecosystems.
A recent study reveals that wild canids (such as wild dogs, jackals, wolves and foxes) and striped hyenas can serve as flagship species for increasing the country’s conservation potential.
Highlighting the aim of this study, lead author Arjun Srivathsa, affiliated with the University of Florida, U.S. and Wildlife Conservation Society-India, said, “At present, wildlife monitoring in India predominantly involves national estimation of tigers and their prey, Asiatic lion, Asian elephant and one-horned rhinoceros populations. No protocol or framework exists for monitoring other species groups like wild canids, small carnivores, amphibians, riverine fauna, or ungulate herbivores in high-altitude or non-woodland habitats. Our aim is to build a monitoring system with real-time documentation of distribution and threat data on these carnivores, coupled with periodic analyses. This would work in tandem with and complement government-driven monitoring programs with decentralised local efforts, fostering citizens’ involvement in scientific research while also garnering public support for conservation. Citizens can report their sighting records of wild canids and hyenas on our website.”
Identifying conservation clusters through prioritisation is common in scientific literature, but not as widely implemented on ground. But Brazil has “Jaguar Conservation Units” that were identified some years ago (2014-2015). Areas critical for conservation of some butterfly species have been demarcated through a similar process in the UK, added Srivathsa.
India’s small carnivores as potential flagships for conservation
The study has focused on eight species/sub-species of wild canids in India— dhole, golden jackal, Indian wolf, Tibetan wolf, Indian fox, red fox, desert fox and Tibetan fox. The striped hyena, which is not a canid, was also included because it is ecologically very similar to the wild canids, and has similar conservation requirements.
Additionally, the species chosen are carnivores that represent multiple unique ecosystems. Dholes inhabit tropical forest habitats; similarly, golden jackals, Indian wolves, Indian foxes and hyenas need grasslands, scrublands, open/barren lands and ravines. Desert foxes dwell in the arid areas of north-western India, and the mountains and plains of Himalayas and trans-Himalayan plains are important for Tibetan wolves and red foxes.
“These habitats support unique and important ecosystems and many species of wildlife. Taken together, they can serve as ideal flagships for conserving these habitats, most of which have been overlooked and decimated over time,” said Srivathsa.
The planning of this study began in August 2018 and the team collected data in four phases from October 2018 till May 2019. The main objective of this study was to assess where the eight canid species/sub-species and the striped hyena species are distributed in the country and come up with updated maps.
“We used this information to identify important zones for their conservation and then to understand how much of these zones are prioritised for conservation already and potential threats to them. We used three sources of knowledge to assign a ‘conservation score’ to each of them, indicating their threat level in India: (i) experts/biologists who study these species (ii) conservation status as assigned by IUCN, CITES and India’s Wild Life Protection Act, and (iii) our results for species distributions. Based on our assessment, golden jackal and red fox had the highest conservation score (relatively the least threatened) and, Indian fox and striped hyena had the lowest conservation score (indicating higher threatened status) in India,” explained study author Iravatee Majgaonkar from Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.
The team also added that they would like to make this a periodic exercise, where such information is updated every few months or annually.
The findings suggest that states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh – which ranked high on the priority scale – should invest efforts towards conserving these carnivores and their habitats.
“Dholes are found in the forested areas of Western Ghats, Central India and Northeast India. Golden jackals have widespread presence across the country, and are perhaps the only species that can occur in urban/peri-urban habitats. Indian wolf, Indian fox and striped hyena are found in grasslands, scrublands, open/barren lands, ravines and also in certain agricultural lands across the country. Desert foxes are restricted to the driest areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Tibetan wolf and red fox are found in the Himalayan and trans-Himalayan regions,” said Srivathsa.
Identifying the Canid Conservation Units
Canid Conservation Units are groups/clusters of taluks that the scientists have identified through their constant study. These are high priority areas for conserving wild canids and hyenas, identified by incorporating their distribution, diversity, their habitats, locations of relatively low human population densities and relatively low human poverty levels.
“The CCUs that we have demarcated also include areas that are currently protected as National Parks or Wildlife Sanctuaries. But these protected areas are mostly in forested areas which are good for dholes. But most other habitats have a lot of human presence. Such areas cannot be safeguarded using the same approach of declaring protected areas. There is a need for modifying our approach in such a manner that these lands are equitably regulated to protect species and their ecosystems without restricting sustainable use of resources by communities. The challenge is to explore logistically, economically, and more importantly, socially feasible management approaches,” said Srivathsa.
Elaborating on the challenges of such an approach, Majgaonkar said that the very first challenge is whether the management of a CCU can remain flexible enough to fit local conditions. “Since our suggested CCUs consist of large swathes of human use landscapes, there cannot be one single answer to how these should be managed and sustained. India is extremely diverse in terms of land-use, habitats, legal provisions, people’s customs and there has to be very site specific answers as to how in each CCU, sharing of space between people and canids or hyenas can be facilitated. Secondly, although we have tried to account for human development needs, a large infrastructure project is invariably destructive. Non-forested habitats are more easily diverted to such large projects and it is these habitats that we are highlighting in our paper. A major challenge lies in whether we can ever successfully oppose large projects and landscape modifications where arguments about employment and development are much stronger,” she said.
Sumanta Bagchi, Assistant Professor, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangaluru says that overall, the flagship species are useful for conservation planning.
“On one hand, the idea is to identify one or a handful of such species as representatives of their landscapes or ecosystems, in order to focus conservation attention which is a commendable approach towards the otherwise complex problem of conserving many forms of organisms. On the other hand, researchers are passionate about certain species and champion their cause. This gives much needed voice to the challenges faced by different species. But, this can lead to a situation where many flagships, keystones and umbrellas end up jostling for attention. Are too many flagships very different from having none at all? I am not saying that canids and hyenas aren’t flagships, or shouldn’t become so. A broader conceptual challenge facing conservation is how to evaluate whether any action, regardless of how they were implemented, is actually effective or not. For instance, one needs to ask whether results from conservation actions are any different from no action at all. These counter-factual scenarios are a nuisance, but they are necessary to evaluate what works and what doesn’t. This broader discussion is outside the scope of this paper. But, I applaud the authors for championing the cause of canids and hyenas in India,” said Bagchi.
Need for active engagement to avoid wildlife and human damage
Jackals, Indian wolves, Indian foxes and hyenas share space with a relatively higher human population than the other five species. Majgaonkar said, there are direct (example, retaliatory killing) and indirect (example, spread of diseases) negative interactions with humans. “Generating awareness is probably too simplistic a term to use. There has to be active engagement with people who share space with these species and site-specific strategies have to be devised so as to ensure that both wildlife and human experience least damage. This is a matter of years [of engagement] and not just one odd workshop held with local groups. Of course it is going to be very challenging and will require a large amount of resources,” she added.
Srivathsa, A., Majgaonkar, I., Sharma, S., Punjabi, G.A., Singh, P., Chawla, M.M., Banerjee, A. (2020) Opportunities for prioritizing and expanding conservation enterprise in India using a guild of carnivores as flagships. Environmental Research Letters, 15: 064009. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/ab7e50
Banner image: A pair of Indian wolves in the Deccan grasslands. Photo by Anup Deodhar.