How wildlife outside protected areas responds to climate extremes

A pair of dead chicks of the baya weaver bird. The birds had fallen out of their nests when cyclone Amphan ravaged West Bengal. Photo by Saptarshi Gayen.

  • Climate change and extreme weather events impact India’s wildlife both within and outside protected areas. The global attention on climate change’s impact on biodiversity is reflected in India’s policies but their integration with research and actions such as setting up alert systems need attention.
  • Examining traditions of human-wildlife coexistence outside protected areas and sustaining these traditions are crucial to cushion the impacts of severe weather on wildlife. Urban habitats outside protected areas can be considered as refuges for protecting ‘holy’ and commensal species.
  • Understanding how wildlife responds to severe weather conditions, such as sheltering in human-dominated landscapes, can inform conservation actions. A landscape-level approach to conservation also enables species to disperse during extreme weather events. Impact of extreme weather events on invasive species needs improved monitoring.

A day after May 20, 2020, when cyclone Amphan had ravaged parts of India’s east coast and Bangladesh, Saptarshi Gayen, a computer science student ventured out with his camera to document the impacts of the extreme weather event in his hometown Singur in West Bengal. The self-taught wildlife photographer’s worst fears came true. “There were two baya weaver birds that had fallen out of their nest and were lying dead on the road,” recalled Gayen, who had been worried all-night about the fate of the birds and their nests in his neighbourhood as the cyclone raged on. Gayen’s evocative photograph spotlighting the impact of extreme weather events on wildlife was “highly commended” by the Royal Society of Biology for their Young Photographer of the Year honour recently.

Baya weaver birds (known for fashioning intricate nests) and other birds are attracted to the sweeping agricultural plots and wetlands in Singur in Hooghly district in the Gangetic flood plains of Bengal on the east coast. The dead weavers were just one among many such examples of the cyclone’s impacts on the region’s avifauna.

Barely two weeks after the east coast was badly impacted by Amphan, India’s west coast witnessed cyclone Nisarga toppling coconut palms and old-growth trees in residential areas as it tore through Raigad district in coastal Maharashtra. Raigad is home to raptor species such as the white-backed vultures. And the raptors roost and nest on these trees.

Nisarga wreaked havoc on the endangered raptor populations, said Sagar Mestri of Maharashtra-based non-governmental organisation Seescap (Society of eco-endangered species conservation and protection) that has worked on vulture conservation in the landscape. “From close to 300 white-backed vultures, before the cyclone, we were able to spot only about a hundred of them after the event,” Mestri told Mongabay-India, adding that these events are a blow to the declining vulture population.

Fueled by unusually warm waters of the Bay of Bengal, cyclone Amphan became one of the strongest cyclones in the recorded history of the north Indian Ocean. And while the Arabian Sea is relatively colder than the Bay of Bengal, “rapid warming is making it fertile for cyclone formation”, one of the reasons cited by experts for the increase in the number of cyclones in the Arabian Sea.

Since global climate change has the potential to influence extreme weather (flooding, drought, hurricanes, and tsunamis) around the world, according to experts, understanding wildlife response to extreme weather events can inform conservation efforts. Understanding traditions of coexistence outside protected areas and sustaining these traditions are crucial to cushion the impacts of severe weather.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s threat classification system lists ‘climate change and severe weather’ as among 12 categories of threats to species. The section on climate change and severe weather includes habitat shifting and alteration, droughts, temperature extremes, storms and flooding and other impacts as broad themes. Climate change is a key driver of species extinction, notes a landmark Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report. A finding of the report is that the distribution of 47 percent of the proportion of terrestrial flightless mammals and 23 percent of threatened birds may have already been negatively impacted by climate change. Even for global warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, the majority of terrestrial species ranges are projected to shrink profoundly.

The global attention on climate change and severe weather impacts on wildlife and biodiversity also resonate in the latest edition of India’s National Wildlife Action Plan 2017-2031 (NWAP) that acknowledges that the country’s protected areas were designed at a time when climate change was “hardly a criterion” for wildlife conservation. The plan underscores that species will need to disperse to more suitable habitats in response to climate change and calls for climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction in the management planning process and assisted migration of wildlife in tune with climate change.

A juvenile vulture waits atop a tree in Mhasla, Raigad district, affected by cyclone Nisarga that destroyed it's nest. Photo by Seescap.
A juvenile vulture waits atop a tree in Mhasla, Raigad district, affected by cyclone Nisarga that destroyed its nest. Photo by Seescap.

Anticipating and reducing disaster risk in wildlife management

Seescap’s Mestri said that specific local plans are needed for reducing risks and mitigating impacts of extreme weather events on wildlife especially in the context of rescue and rehabilitation. He added that the Raigad district collector was proactive in ensuring protection to wildlife during the Nisarga cyclone. “Necessary support and technical guidance boost rescue and rehabilitation efforts in such events,” Mestri added. The organisation is now constructing artificial trees to house the raptors impacted by the cyclone.

In 2014, a series of hailstorms swept Vidarbha and Marathwada regions in Maharashtra, the most hailstorm-prone state in the country. The storm killed about 62,250 birds and hundreds of mammals and injured many, said a report led by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) researchers. They learned about several rescue operations spanning many areas, but “only about 20 percent of the injured wildlife could be recovered because of the lack of experience and technical guidance.”

Based on the mortality at known bat roosts, the researchers assumed that 50 percent of the population of tree-dwelling bats including flying fox (Pteropus medius) and short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus sphinx) were decimated in this hailstorm. In a few cases, ungulates such as chinkara (Gazella benne), Indian blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) and nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) jumped into nearby water bodies or into the thick bushes to take shelter from the hailstones.

BNHS’s Sujit Narwade, one of the authors of the report, underscored that there should be specific provisions for having a mechanism to address the impact of climate-change-linked extreme weather events on wildlife inside and outside protected areas. “Protecting habitats during such events would be a challenge but restoring such habitats post events could be suggested. While climate change impacts on wildlife in India are being considered, the challenge is to integrate them with wildlife studies and develop an alert mechanism for systems to prepare,” said Narwade.

Gauging impacts outside and inside protected areas

Anil Chhangani, professor at Department of Environmental Science, MGS University, Bikaner, who has documented impacts of droughts on wildlife in India’s desert state Rajasthan, emphasised on creating sanctuaries in and near cities to “safeguard specific species against major external forces, including climate change, that impact biodiversity reserves too.”

Between 1999 and 2001, monsoon failures triggered by the 1998-2000 La Nina event, hit Rajasthan’s Aravalli region with one of its worst droughts. Chhangani and colleagues found that populations of 13 mammal species, including wolf (Canis lupus), blue bull (Boselaphus tragocamelus), and Hanuman langur (Semnopithecus entellus) crashed (and then rebound) in the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary (KWS), 200 km south of Jodhpur city.

The rebound suggests a high degree of resilience, said Chhangani. In another finding, while Hanuman langurs suffered a population crash of nearly 50 percent from 1999 to 2001 in KWS, troops of monkeys in a temple just outside the PA were buffered from the drought. “They had access to food provided by the local community; communities offer them food primarily out of reverence to the monkey god, Hanuman, the langur’s namesake. Local people regularly provision them with wheat and millet-based prepared foods, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Drinking water is continuously available to all troops,” Chhangani told Mongabay-India. On an average of one-third of their diet may be directly related to these human-provided subsidies.

Chhangani highlights that while wildlife sanctuaries in protected areas are undeniably important conservation tools, their findings reinforce that conservation areas should not be isolated from the community and the notion that cities can serve as de facto sanctuaries for some species, particularly for ‘holy’ and commensal species. India has traditions of coexistence with wildlife. “We need to understand these relationships to prevent climate-related die-offs,” said Chhangani.

In Assam’s Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve (KNP/KTR) where floods are necessary for the smooth functioning of its ecology and grasslands, the events prompt wild animals to look for highlands and they often move into human habitations for refuge. These animals are then rescued by the forest department with help from Wildlife Trust of India (WTI)-run Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC).

Adult rhinos with a calf at a highland during flood at Kaziranga National Park in Bagori range of Nagaon district of Assam, India. Photo by Diganta Talukdar/Wikimedia Commons.

WTI’s Rathin Barman maintains that with increasing frequency of extreme weather events the conservation thrust for regions such as Kaziranga must be on a landscape-level approach and protecting corridors, as envisaged in the NWAP 2017-2031 because Kaziranga’s wildlife doesn’t necessarily stay within the delineated boundaries. “The animals such as rhinos, tigers and elephants instinctively know to seek refuge in the Karbi Anglong hill highlands. Earlier we used to see major floods every eight to nine years; over the last four years we are seeing big events every year,” Barman told Mongabay-India.

This year’s flood is the sixth heaviest in the history of Kaziranga, killing over 153 wild animals, including 12 rhinos. The flood in 2019 was the third-worst flood KNP faced since 1988 which is considered the worst flood ever in the history of the park.

Barman advocated for an exclusive disaster management plan for wildlife. “We have the necessary infrastructure and protocol for rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife in disasters, especially when they disperse into human habitations. The collective know-how from different parts of the country on mitigating impacts of disasters on wildlife can be harnessed for a specific plan on disaster risk reduction,” he said.

Scope for co-existence in extreme environments

In the Thar landscape in Rajasthan desert foxes are adapted to survive in extreme environments. They have benefited from the expansion of agricultural areas and human settlements in the Jaisalmer area due to enhanced water availability from the Indira Gandhi Canal project and tubewell construction.

These omnivores (feed on a variety of animals, plants and even processed food for human consumption) enjoy the freely available water for drinking that they access from agricultural landscapes, said Sumit Dookia, wildlife biologist and professor at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University.

Droughts here are limited, as a major part of Jaisalmer receives canal water for irrigation and the desert foxes dominate over Bengal foxes, he said, adding that desert foxes have “adapted well” to the increased rainfall (and greening) in the Thar desert, but desert-loving species like the great Indian bustard and Indian gazelle, are facing challenges from the rainfall variations, among other threats.

In Telangana, solar percolations tanks, managed by members of a Joint Forest Management Committee, in wildlife movement areas (corridors) around the Kawal Tiger Reserve, have helped enhance the storage capacity of water as well as recharge groundwater levels and ward-off human-wildlife conflicts. “As the streams and other natural water resources dry up in the forest in summer, we ensure wildlife has adequate access to drinking water in the corridor areas also. This helps prevent incidents of human-animal conflicts when wild animals come to human habitations in search of water,” said forest officer Lavanya B.

Extreme weather events an outlet for illegal species

However, in Kerala, ‘fugitive fish’ or alien species that escaped from illegal aquaculture farms along the river banks in the 2018 floods, such as the predatory arapaima, (Arapaima gigas) and alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula), have “become an additional and perhaps one of the most significant threats” to the state’s native freshwater fishes. Rajeev Raghavan of Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies who documented the ‘fugitive fish’ in the aftermath of the floods, said that absence of biosecurity in the fish farms and lack of enforcement of legislation on import of species are key challenges.

“Also, the design of protected areas is biased in such a way that they are mostly in the upper reaches of the Western Ghats where most of the forest patches occur and most of the reservoirs are built in the upper reaches to harness the flow of the river. Illegal aquaculture often using species that are not legally allowed in India flourishes in the middle and lower reaches of the rivers. Most of these rivers are a cascade of dams and the floods flushed out the fish from the farms into the rivers,” he said.

Raghavan adds that freshwater fish (except for some pipefish) are not included in the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, that also complicates the conservation challenges of specific species. “Fish is not considered as wildlife; aquatic organisms are a grey area; they are neither in wildlife nor in livestock. One reason why freshwater fish is not under the ambit of the Act could be because they are connected to livelihood and food security. But when they are in a wildlife sanctuary, they are part of wildlife and many species need protection; they are incidentally protected once they are inside a protected area but once they are outside it’s a different story,” he added.

Banner image: A pair of chicks of the baya weaver bird that had fallen out of their nests and died when cyclone Amphan ravaged West Bengal. Photo by Saptarshi Gayen.

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