[Commentary] India’s wildlife conservation journey has had great strides and many hurdles

Barasingha stags in Kanha National Park. Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun/ Wikimedia Commons.
  • The author of this commentary takes us through the recently published book ‘Wildlife India @ 50’, that recounts the 50 years after the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, came into existence.
  • The relentless efforts of concerned citizens, activists and journalists have been the core of India’s wildlife conservation movement. Wildlife acts and amendments over the years, have led to the establishment of sanctuaries and protected areas which revived the population of many important species.
  • The golden era for India’s conservation movement began in the late 60s and early 70s, after which in the 90s the zeal to promote wildlife conservation was paused. Now, the state of India’s wildlife is in a morass and it’s the eco-warriors who must steer the country out of it, writes the author.
  • The views in the commentary are that of the author.

Fifty years after the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 came into existence, raising hope that human-animal conflicts would reduce and poachers who were decimating our forest and rivers of their animal wealth, would be checkmated, the question of whether India can really save its wildlife, forests and ecosystems remains.

Through personal, ‘lived’ stories of their journey in wildlife conservation, 34 foresters, researchers, activists and journalists recount the roller coaster ride of India’s wildlife over these years in a book by Rupa Publications, Wildlife India @ 50, edited by Manoj Kumar Misra, a former Indian Forest Service Officer.

India’s wildlife history

At the beginning of the last century, India was a country teeming with birds and wildlife. It was rich not only in its mineral wealth but abundant in flora and fauna. Invaders into the subcontinent took to hunting in a big way and the country’s princely states too delighted in shikar (hunting). They killed the majestic tigers and leopards and the impact was clear. The lithe and majestic Indian cheetah was officially declared extinct in 1952.

The Madras Elephant Protection Act of 1873 and the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1887, revised in 1912 as Wild Birds and Animal Protection Act, could not stop the rampage as well. In 1935, amendments were made to the 1912 Act which led to the creation of national parks and sanctuaries where hunting was prohibited.

India’s ability to bounce back from all that wildlife loss has been phenomenal. The voice of concerned citizens, activists and journalists has been the central part of this movement.

The golden era for India’s conservation movement began in the late 60s and early 70s when Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister of India took the challenge of arresting the destruction of India’s flora and fauna. The 10th Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, held late in 1969 in present day New Delhi had flagged the dire status of India’s forests and wildlife.

Image shows the cover of a book featuring a leopard and a stamp featuring a tiger
(Left) Front cover of the book ‘Wildlife India @50’.  (Right) Project Tiger was one of the first wildlife conservation initiatives in India. Stamps were a popular way of bringing this iconic species into focus after colonial hunting had nearly wiped it out. Photos by Ananda Banerjee and Post of India. 

The 1972 Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLPA) heralded a new dawn. In the year that followed, Project Tiger was launched and new wildlife protected areas, national parks and sanctuaries were created all over the country. The broad philosophy was that if tiger can be saved as the head of the ecosystem, there was new hope for smaller creatures down the food chain. There was a new synergy.

The Wildlife Institute of India (WII), established in 1982, with its strong research base gave wings to the nascent conservation movement and amendments were made to the WLPA in 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1987.  The Indian Board for Wildlife, now National Board for Wildlife, with committed and knowledgeable field activists as members, spelt out the priorities.

Then Prime Minister India Gandhi and Karan Singh, her Cabinet colleague, provided the necessary muscle and political support. Project Elephant, launched in 1991, sought to rebuild forest corridors so that the wild elephants, deified in Hindu scriptures as Gaja, could move freely through their traditional routes.

However, as Manoj Misra (the editor of the book) and other wildlife experts point out, with the opening up of the economy in the 90s, “a sudden brake was put on the missionary zeal to promote wildlife conservation in the country in 2000.”

An important lesson while creating protected spaces for wildlife

There is no denying that great strides have been made in protecting our wild species and their habitat. However, the same sympathetic attention was not given to the forest dwellers who were forced to move out to provide inviolate spaces to the newly protected creatures of the jungle. Translocation of villages from protected areas is not easy and unless handled with sympathy and concern, their resentment is evident.

While talking to foresters, the displaced communities would refer to the tiger as ‘your tiger’ and not ‘our tiger’. Often, they placed poison in the tiger’s kill seeking revenge for their ouster or loss of their cattle to the king of the jungles. The question often asked is, “Is the life of the forest dweller less important than that of tigers, leopards and elephants?” Yet, inviolate spaces were needed for regeneration of the country’s wilderness areas and wildlife and there were examples of that being done amicably.

The author of this commentary writes that the period of the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was the golden era for India’s conservation movement. Photo by Finnish Heritage Agency/Creative Commons.
The author of this commentary writes that the period of the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was the golden era for India’s conservation movement. Photo by Finnish Heritage Agency/Creative Commons.

One of the most successful relocations of 38 villages from the Kanha National Park was by steered by its Director Hemendra Singh Panwar in two phases in the late 60s and 70s.

According to the data from the WII, in 2021 there were 987 PAs, including 106 national parks, 564 wildlife sanctuaries, 99 conservation reserves and 218 community reserves covering some 5.26 percent of the country’s geographic area. This is a significant increase from the five national parks and 36 wildlife sanctuaries at the time of the Act’s enactment in 1972.

Read more: Two sides of the wildlife law: Animals protected but Kalandar tribe trying to make ends meet

Recognising important contributions

Wildlife India @ 50 also highlights the innumerable contributions of some of those who have battled bureaucratic and political hurdles and even built institutions like the WII, the Bombay Natural History Society, World Wide Fund for Nature-India, Wildlife SOS, Wildlife Protection Society of India, Wildlife Trust, Kalpavriksh and the Goa and Ranthambore Foundations, which continue to be our harbingers of hope.

 Bombay Natural History Society office, Mumbai. Photo by Dr. Raju Kasambe/ Wikimedia Commons.
Bombay Natural History Society office, Mumbai. Photo by Dr. Raju Kasambe/Wikimedia Commons.

Among the greats whose work I saw, sitting on the ringside as a wildlife and environment journalist, to name a few, are K. S. Sankhala (the first director of Project Tiger), M. K. Ranjitsinh (the author of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972), H.S. Panwar, (the then director of Kanha National Park and later the founder of WII) and S. C. Sharma (a forest officer from UP).

Sharma tackled the issue of poaching by senior bureaucrats and police officers; they also extracted wildlife products from protected areas. Politicians and bureaucrats were making forays into our jungles in brazen poaching. Poaching for wildlife parts like rhino horn, tiger parts and elephant tusks too was on the rise. Sharma was instrumental in bringing a change in that domain.

Due to the timely intervention by the leaders of the wildlife and environment movement, we have not only been able to save, but are now witnessing a growth in the population of our keystone species such as the tiger, lion, one horned rhinoceros and elephant. Even crocodiles and the long snouted gharials are doing well and vulture numbers have bounced back after the 2008 ban on the drug diclofenac, used for treatment of inflammation in cattle and deadly for the vultures feeding on the carcass. In 1972, the tiger because of its larger presence across the country replaced the lion as India’s national animal.

A rhino reintroduced in in Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, India. Photo by A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF/ Wikimedia Commons.
A rhino reintroduced in in Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, India. Photo by A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF/Wikimedia Commons.

A growing number of eco-warriors and vigilantes have played a tremendous role in protecting our wildlife and national parks. As Ananda Banerjee, journalist, bird watcher and a contributor to the Wildlife India @ 50 book points out, Goutam Narayan successfully re-wilded the elusive and endangered pygmy hog, the world’s smallest and rarest wild pig, after successful captive breeding in Assam. In Nagaland, Bano Haralu, another intrepid nature lover, used the Wildlife Protection Act and the local community support to save the migratory Amur falcon from being ruthlessly  hunted down.

Pygmy Hog Research and Breeding Centre, Guwahati, Assam. Photo by PJeganathan/ Wikimedia Commons.
Pygmy Hog Research and Breeding Centre, Guwahati, Assam. Photo by PJeganathan/Wikimedia Commons.

Conservation milestones

Among the landmark successes is the population stabilisation of the magnificent barasingha (the 12-horned antelope) at Kanha by Panwar. Not only was more space found for their distribution in Kanha, but tall grass was grown to provide the camouflage needed for rearing their fawn. Today, the barasingha population in Kanha is at a healthy 1,000.

A pall of gloom had descended on the guardians of the tiger in 2009 when news trickled in that all the striped cats had disappeared from the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. From ‘Panna Lost’ to ‘Panna Regained’, the conservation of tigers in Madhya Pradesh is a story of grit and courage.

Using telemetry skills like radio collaring and tracking of tigers, forming a core team of forest staff, gaining the support of the communities around the reserve and successfully prosecuting poachers, especially the powerful landed aristocracy, the conservation team turned the story around. It is a story that India can be proud of. It also shows that when handled with due diligence, tiger revival is possible. Led by dedicated field director Sreenivasa Murthy, between 2009 and 2020, the tiger population rose to 70 from almost nil.

A mother tiger with her two cubs in Panna, Madhya Pradesh. Photo by Mehaknoni/ Wikimedia Commons.
A mother tiger with her two cubs in Panna, Madhya Pradesh. Photo by Mehaknoni/Wikimedia Commons.

Tranquilising the tigers and ensuring there was no death, was an important skill imparted to the field staff. Round the clock monitoring  of all radio collared tigers was the SOP (standard operating procedure) that led to revival of the Panna tiger population. However, a new challenge now confronts the Reserve – the proposed construction of a dam on the Ken river, right in the heart of  the Panna Tiger Reserve.

Individuals too have contributed to the conservation movement by setting up conservancies on large tracts of their own land, some with gaushalas or cattle shelters. Fencing the area, preventing the lopping of trees, the areas have regenerated and wild animals and birds can be spotted.  Aditya Singh and his wife Poonam began a conservancy in 2000 on a 35-acre denuded land in the vicinity of Badlav, a village abutting the Ranthambore National Park. For 21 years they fenced the land, protecting it from grazing and eradicated exotic flora. Over time the Aravalli landscape came alive and with construction of water holes, and now tigers, leopards, nilgai, small mammals and birds can be spotted there. Getting people from the local community on board as wildlife guards, ensured community support.

The Shri Samiti Gaushala, in Ramgarh Shekhawati, in the district of Sikar, has protected a key desert ecosystem for 150 years. Home to the desert cat and the desert fox raptors, snakes and migratory birds, it is a seven to eight square kilometre (sq. km.) ecosystem. It is a community-led conservation programme and the area is protected by guards of the Samiti.

Ravi Rajpal Singh and his son have restored 100 acres of land around their Ramathra Fort Conservancy and hospitality centre, Saptora village, near the Kailadevi Wildlife Sanctuary.  The spotted cat, Indian wolf and migratory birds can be spotted in the Conservancy.

Species that need immediate attention

One of the saddest stories of the Indian conservation movement is the slow disappearance of the state bird of Rajasthan, the Great Indian Bustard (GIB). It is one of the largest and heaviest flying birds of India. It once vied for status as the national bird with the Indian peacock. GIBs were in thousands and could be found all over the Indian subcontinent, except in northeast India and the Himalayas.

Despite the biggest names in wildlife like M. K. Ranjitsinh, Asad Rahmani of BNHS and several young field level conservationists trying to save the GIB, it is on the verge of extinction because of killer power lines in its home territory in Rajasthan which has the only viable population of GIB in the world. A few have also survived in the Rann of Kutch. Orans or the sacred groves of Rajasthan are spaces where the GIBs have been safe and protected. It is important to save the Oran landscape for the survival of GIBs and political will is needed.

A great Indian bustard at Desert National Park, Rajasthan. Photo by Kesavamurthy N/ Wikimedia Commons.
A great Indian bustard at Desert National Park, Rajasthan. Photo by Kesavamurthy N/Wikimedia Commons.

In their perambulations these birds have to cross various renewable (wind and solar) energy project sites and transmission lines and according to a study by the WII, around 15-18 GIBs die annually after collision with them. At present, just about 130 birds have survived, 100 of them in two locations of the Jaisalmer district in Rajasthan. This is the only viable breeding population that has the potential for revival.

Since 2019, an ex-situ conservation cum hatchery unit has been constructed in the Sam Forest Chowki of the Desert National Park for captive breeding of the GIB. Sumit Dookia, a wildlife biologist, laments that the majestic bird has fallen victim to the green and clean energy targets of the government and is doubtful about their habitat survival over the next 25 years when the second batch of captive-bred bustards are proposed to be released.

A second home is needed for the lions of Gir National Park to ensure that the last surviving population of Asiatic lions is not wiped out of the subcontinent in the eventuality of any disease or epidemic. As far back as 1994, the WII had identified the Kuno landscape in Sheopur, Madhya Pradesh as an alternate home for the lions. In 2002, a wildlife division across 1,269 sq. km. was created and in 2018 the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary was upgraded to a national park of 748 sq. km. and a buffer of 487 sq. km.

According to Faiyaz Ahmad Khudsar, who played a role in developing the area for the lions, 24 villages were relocated from the national park which had a thriving population of chital, chinkara, sambar, nilgai and wild pigs. The Supreme Court too favoured Asiatic lions for Kuno stating that “the preservation of critically endangered native species should be given priority”.

Second homes had also been found for rhinos in Dudhwa National Park, the magnificent gaur in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve and the barasingha in the Satpura Tiger Reserve. India had the expertise.

Then quite suddenly, the National Tiger Conservation Authority filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court for introduction of the African cheetah in Kuno, saying it would not impact reintroduction of Asiatic lions at a later stage. This turn around has not gone down well with a large section of foresters and wildlife champions. Has political ego come in the way of a second home for the Asiatic lions? The cheetahs have now arrived from Africa and been introduced to the new landscape in Kuno. It is the people of India and our eco-warriors who will have to steer our wildlife out of the present morass.

The author is a veteran journalist. She has written books on culture, development and the environment.

Banner image: Barasingha stags in Kanha National Park. Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun/Wikimedia Commons.

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