Sunday, November 19, 2017

The National Tiger Conservation Authority’s Moment of Glory

The estimation indicated a 30 percent increase in the tiger population over the last census of 2010, with an estimate of 2,226 tigers
Tigers in Kanha Tiger Reserve
Image: Sourabh Bharti

This article is an exclusive extract from the author’s forthcoming memoir, Environment Through Finance Eyes.

Today, tigers have indeed become a hugely conservation-dependent species. The major threats to tigers are: poaching that is driven by an illegal international demand for tiger parts and products; depletion of tiger prey caused by illegal bush meat consumption; and habitat loss due to the ever increasing demand for forested lands. To gauge the success of conservation efforts as well as to have a finger on the pulse of tiger population and their ecosystems, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in collaboration with the State Forest Departments, National Conservation NGOs, and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) conducts a National assessment for the Status of Tigers, Co-predators, Prey and their Habitat every four years.
The methodology used for this assessment was approved by the Tiger Task Force in 2005. The first assessment was done in 2006. It had estimated 1,411 tigers (lower and upper limits being 1,165 and 1,657) and the last country level estimation of 2010 had indicated a figure of 1706 (lower and upper limits being 1,520-1,909 tigers). However, the 2010 assessment also showed a decline in tiger occupied area. This decline in tiger occupancy was recorded in areas outside of tiger reserves, indicating loss of habitat quality and extent – a crucial element essential for maintaining genetic connectivity between individual tiger populations. To address this vital conservation concern, the NTCA in collaboration with the WII had delineated the minimal tiger habitat corridors connecting tiger reserves for implementing landscape scale tiger conservation. All tiger reserves began managing their tiger populations based on a tiger conservation plan (TCP), which addresses specific prescriptions for core, buffer, and corridor habitats.

Tiger in Kanha Tiger Reserve {Image: S. P. Yadav)

Also Read: The Full Tiger Series by Sudhansu Mohanty

The NTCA and Project Tiger’s moment of glory came in January 2015. The third round of country level tiger status assessment had been completed in 2014, and the team had put together its findings. Now the estimation indicated a 30 percent increase in the tiger population over the last census of 2010, with an estimate of 2,226 – the lower and upper limits being 1,945 and 2,491 respectively. Looked another way, it suggested that India now was home to around 70% of tiger population amongst the 13 tiger-range countries in the world. India’s long history of conserving the species through Project Tiger had come of age. A thrilled Prakash Javadekar who released the estimation report and wrote out the number – 2,226 – on the white board in front of a packed audience, went on to delightfully say that India now was also prepared to export tigers to any country of the world that was interested in conserving this flagship and charismatic animal in the wild!

Tiger in Kanha Tiger Reserve
Tiger in Kanha Tiger Reserve {Image: S. P. Yadav)

Every success brings with it dollops of imaginary skepticism and gobs of jealousy from fellow practitioners or those who archly pretend to be one. The intent often is malicious and sinister to trash and fluff the study, and least to do with questioning data on scientific basis. It was hence no different even in the tiger-land. Soon a nattering group of biologists questioned the reliability of India’s recently released tiger population estimation published in a journal from Oxford. I was surprised when I first heard about it. And I wondered: Was it a case of envy and neglect or lack of visibility or all of the above that seeded this and prompted them to question the assessment? I checked with people who were in the know of things. I wasn’t far off in my surmise. The issue went on for a few months. Eventually, it was the team of two outstanding scientists of the Wildlife Institute of India, Yadvendradev Jhala and Qamar Qureshi, who nailed the lies in an article in the April 2015 issue of Sanctuary Asia. I can do no better than let the duo speak in their words and explain it best.
“The reliability of India’s recent tiger population estimation has been questioned by a paper published in a scientific journal by authors from Oxford.
Since 2005, a group of biologists led by Dr. Ullas Karanth have been critical of India’s tiger status assessments. The paper published by his student from Oxford is a reiteration and synthesis of these views. Essentially, the paper criticises the very basis of sound ecological relationships using theoretical statistical models that are based on reducing the quantum of sign intensity of tigers to mere presence or absence. The paper and subsequent press releases consider the use of double sampling in estimating tiger numbers as flawed. The paper further states that the logic of presuming that there should be more tigers in areas where we find more tiger signs is not reliable, though we have demonstrated such relationships with data repeatedly.”

Deer in Kanha Tiger Reserve {Image: S. P. Yadav)

Also Read Part-I: e-Eye Of The Tiger 

Then they explain step by step, how the tiger estimation is carried out across the country; the scientific and the pragmatic rationale and the processes involved; the other option of camera trapping all areas for greater accuracy that’s financially costly and in pockets of low tiger numbers even unreliable, compared to the present scat-based DNA analysis.
“We first establish relationships of tiger abundance with tiger habitat extent and quality, prey abundance, human pressures and intensity of tiger signs from areas where we have very reliable information on tiger density through camera traps. We subsequently use this relationship to predict tiger abundance in areas where camera traps cannot be deployed, but are known to have tigers. The Oxford paper in the Journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution and press releases offer few alternatives to our approach at estimating tiger abundance at the landscape scale. The paper talks about using joint distribution modelling of covariates, without realising that this approach too is a form of double sampling – the same principle used by us and ingrained in ecological and statistical theory. Often ‘occupancy analysis’ is considered as an alternative to population estimation.
Occupancy provides estimates of where tigers are found, or more importantly, are likely to be found. We estimate tiger occupancy as a probability of a forest patch to harbour tigers. But occupancy does not tell us anything about how many tigers there are – just that tigers are likely present. Clearly, occupancy is not a solution to estimating tiger numbers.

Tiger in Kanha Tiger Reserve {Image: S. P. Yadav)
Tiger in Kanha Tiger Reserve {Image: S. P. Yadav)

Also Read Part-III: Tigers’ Wellness Is Our Wellness Too

All this understandably ends up confusing the public and even decision-makers. Differences of opinion are essential and can be positive to conservation. But as we see it, the only theoretical alternative that might serve the purpose even better than what we have been able to achieve for the latest tiger status assessment would be to camera trap all areas where tigers occur. This would unquestionably provide a more precise estimate, but the resources required would be too large, and in some areas that have very low tiger numbers, camera trapping itself would prove to be an unreliable data gathering tool, when compared, for instance, to scat-based DNA analysis. There is the additional problem of stolen cameras (and consequent data loss) that virtually every field biologist has come to terms with when working in human-dominated areas.
The bottom line, in our view, is that this approach may be ideal, but it is impractical. Until scientists are able to camera trap all tiger occupied areas, we cannot currently see a better option to our approach, which uses the best available science and technology to provide reliable estimates of tiger numbers in India. It should be noted that 77 percent of our estimated mid-point of 2,226 tigers came from camera trap data (1,570 individual tigers photo-captured). The remaining 23 per cent were estimated from faecal DNA, plus models based on sound ecological relationships. The actual number of tigers in India are anywhere between 1,945 and 2,491, signifying a major conservation success story.”

Tiger in Kanha Tiger Reserve
Tiger in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve (Image: Sourabh Bharti)

Also Read Part-IV: Environment vs. Development: Who Wins?

Succinctly put, Jhala and Qureshi stopped short of calling it a glaring instance of intellectual dishonesty, but to the discerning it was nothing but just that. I’m fairly confident that the duo will soon enough irrevocably nail the lies peddled in a scientific journal to discredit the national tiger survey results as inaccurate and muddling the readers mind. I guess tigers in the wild not only evoke lots of thrill but also oodles of jealousy and heartburns for the also-rans, and consequentially plenitude of shenanigans. I call these aberrations the tiger politics in India where, like any areas of high visibility, the two-legged creatures who fall by the wayside outshone by others on merit and hard yards put in, bristle in green envy and take periodic shambolic potshots at others who strictly follow the ethics of scientific methodology and NTCA’s protocol for tiger population estimation and tiger conservation management. And if I may add in a lighter vein, notwithstanding the fact that despite their leonine persona, the tigers exhibit “secular” values, and are “democratic” in their outlook and behaviour – something truly admirable in today’s fraught times of polarised outlook!
[… to be concluded on Sunday, Nov 26th]
(Reproduced from Indus Dictum, 19.11.2017)

The Oxymoron Called “Rewilding Tigers”

By the time I visited the Kanha Tiger Reserve the first time in May 2014, I had dug deep into important issues of conservation & natural regeneration.
Tiger Conservation Environment SP Yadav watermark
Image: S. P. Yadav

This article is an exclusive extract from the author’s forthcoming memoir, Environment Through Finance Eyes.

By the time I visited the Kanha Tiger Reserve the first time in May 2014, I had dug deep into important issues of conservation and natural regeneration – the need to let nature go about its own unique way and repair the damages wrought on it. My myriad discussions with Rajesh Gopal, Himmat Negi, and SP (the first two are former Field Directors of Kanha Tiger Reserve) in the Ministry, and with the many visiting Field Directors of TRs had helped allay my misgivings.
Village relocation was another abiding issue that just refused to go away. Simply put, it meant families staying in the core areas need to be relocated outside to make the Tiger Reserves inviolate. The natural regeneration of the vacated spots – despoiled by man – lets the area to slowly lurch forward, gathering pace as it went along, and in 3-4 years it’s restored to its unsullied, pristine form. I heard this from experts but didn’t believe them wholly, though I thought it would be impolite to say anything to the contrary. But my disbelief stayed. The compensation package of Rs 10 lakh for a family was attractive enough for these people otherwise denied the benefits of modernisation, to decide and move out. The amount needed was huge, the fund allocation rather small.
It was Jasbir Singh Chauhan, the Field Director of Kanha TR who put my doubts to rest. Jasbir is an ebullient forester, a no-nonsense man and full of beans. He knew not only Kanha’s terrain and topography and the roads winding up and down the meadows and ravines like the back of his palm, but also the numerous personnel who manned the vastly sprawled out reserve. Driving under the tall imperial sal forests climbing into high heavens, past the ubiquitous spotted deer, barking deer, sambar, four-horned deer, gaur, swamp deer, and the hard ground barasingha on either side of the road, as we reached the spot and alighted from our Gypsy, my first impression was that of a restored and rejuvenated body taking baby steps in its path to recovery during a difficult period of convalescence.

Deer in the Wild (Image: S. P. Yadav)
Deer in the Wild (Image: S. P. Yadav)

Environment and Wildlife Restoration (Image by S. P. Yadav)
Environment and Wildlife Restoration (Image: S. P. Yadav)

It still looked a medley – a legacy of human habitation where the pure is made to turn impure and the good into bad – and contrasted sharply with the grasslands that lay just beyond in eye-catching distance. But a little deeper look and it promised to be getting there. That was gratifying. There was a mass of people who had congregated in anticipation of our visit, both forest officials as well as a few evacuees. I spoke to them seeking out an evacuee to know how life’s been in the civilization and if he had settled in to a secure life. He beamed at me and said, “Yes, it’s been good!” Looking at the motorbike he rode in on, he narrated how it was his first buy from the compensation amount he had received, and how it now carries him to places he wishes to go. Someone standing close by chipped in, “He even hired a driver in the initial days since he didn’t know how to drive, and he rode pillion!” The evacuee smiled hugely, blithely acquiescing with the statement.

Environment and Wildlife Restoration (Image: S. P. Yadav)

Kanha Tiger Reserve follows the National Tiger Conservation Authority protocols and the standard operating procedures to the tee. They keep records of all relocated families, keeping tabs on them, helping the evacuees to resettle and start a new life in alien surrounds. My eyes swept right, then swept left, and then swept over the entire landscape that travelled yonder, and my mind drew a photomontage of how pathetic and sore the rolling landscape would’ve looked when humans inhabited the place and (mercilessly) pillaged for a better living! My reservations were getting weaker by the minute. But doubt still lingered and stayed quite the course. Only on the drive back, I discussed this issue with Jasbir wondering how nature’s self-limiting capacity, like the human body’s, too restores and returns the land to normalcy. So vitiated our modern vision has become with contamination and adulteration, that the virgin and the pristine and the pure seem beyond our seeking!
I sought this out as gratification for my eyes on my second visit to Kanha after the rains some seven months later, in December 2014. It looked restored, almost nearly so, and at peace with the surrounds. “Three good rains do the trick!” exclaimed Jasbir, a sense of pride and satisfaction suffusing his cherubic face. “After it’s restored, the land merges with the adjoining areas and forms one whole for our conservation programme – as grassland, or as experimental plots parceled out, depending on the need, or at times receiving fire treatment including cold fire, if so needed.” I was getting my tutorials on conservation in the wild, and shrinking my personal world of abject ignorance.
Tourist pressure in core area continues with Kanha. In a way, it’s natural. If you’ve a beautiful thing to offer why grudge others wishing to partake of the yummy pie! But there are limits on the number of tourists who can visit the reserve every day and the demand seems to be billowing. No conservationist would like tourists to flood the park and ravage it. I remember vividly one evening as we sat discussing the management action plan of Kanha TR, Jasbir Chauhan picking up his throbbing mobile. “I’m sorry there’s no vacant room,” he said. “Am sorry there isn”t any available for me to spare. Am sorry,” he said, an edge of anger suffusing his voice, and called off. It was a judge of some nearby High Court calling, with a request for a room, as a State guest. Jasbir was upfront and forthright.
“Why can’t they pay instead of freeloading?” I asked.
“They’re like that!” Chauhan snapped again at the imaginary Judge, now with greater vehemence. “They want to be treated as State Guests – always!” His voice was dispirited, though tinged with sarcasm, and his face was screwed up. His grimace said it all.

Image: Sourabh Bharti

A compromise to keep the tourists’ desire and TR’s needs should help. I had often thought about it every time I stepped into a reserve, and had got no answer. Till the day when shortly after a late lunch, around three in the afternoon, Jasbir drove us to what they called the Rewilding Centre. The moniker itself appeared an oxymoron: what kind of rewilding there could be, and where’s the need for all that in the midst of wilderness, where wild animals anyway romped and frolicked freely to their heart’s content, and the carnivores gorged on the ungulates and preyed limitlessly to their heart’s content? It was hot and gummy, and I was tired and deadbeat after the long winding early morning round that had gone on well beyond noon. I was also feeling enervated and sleepy, and didn’t ask Jasbir to apprise me beforehand the activities they do at the Centre. It was only when we pulled over that he started telling me the things they do there.
“Many years ago, infighting or death of mother-tigresses in the Kanha TR gave rise to a piquant situation: rearing orphaned tiger cubs,” Jasbir explained. “They were too precious to be left to the vagaries of the wild when they were not wild enough to hunt! That’s when the idea of rearing and rewilding the orphan cubs took roots. A specially designed in-situenclosure typical of a tiger habitat with water body and large enough to mimic the natural wild was built here in the Mukki range. When small, these cubs were fed on milk, egg and meshed meat, even small live goats. Later, as they grew bigger they’re released into the enclosure to run and hunt ungulates let in this arena to gorge on natural prey base. This was a period of learning and training – rewilding – for them.”
Soon enough the success of the facility helped to innovate some more. “Now injured ones are picked up, apart from the orphaned tigers,” Jasbir continued, “for treatment and put here. Some are restored to normal health soon enough, but the seriously injured ones take considerable time to get fit and ready to live on their own off nature. They’ve to hunt and fend for themselves in the wild and it isn’t easy unless they’re normal and on a roll. Also, long periods of food served to them during recovery make them lose their natural ability to hunt. Hence the need to rewild them.”
This was something I’d never heard before. My mind drooping till then suddenly awoke with a thud. We enthusiastically climbed the tall steps to view the rewilding arena where little by little the tigers are put through their paces to help revive their natural instinct and gain confidence. I rolled the thoughts in my head: Rather than offering preys on a platter as during periods of convalescence and recovery, the preys are let into the enclosure where the tigers chase and hunt to have their fill; and once they – injured or infant – regained the skill to hunt, they’re let out in the wild. This was quite intriguing for my novitiate’s mind.

Image: Sourabh Bharti

I didn’t know this experience would set off a wild thought in my head. When we met in the evening to discuss the day’s happenings, I asked SP and Jasbir – my ideas still inchoate, still in an embryonic state and still wrestling to hammer out the details in my disembodied mind – if it wasn’t possible to propose a tiger safari in the buffer or fringe areas, going by and taking a cue from what one had seen today – rewilding of tigers! I asked gingerly, my voice low and lacking in self-belief and conviction, not sure how my ideas would sound to wildlife experts and practitioners, but I said it nonetheless, to get it off my chest. Both responded positively, even with alacrity, with SP pitching in that the NTCA protocol provides it too! I asked him why the hell he hadn’t told me this before! I could’ve spared my dunderhead from being put through the wringer!
It was a Eureka moment. We discussed in great detail if Kanha could experiment on this. Funds were least of the problems, the National Tiger Conservation Authority could bankroll it; in any case it involved a small amount of 2-3 crore rupees, largely for the wired fencing in 4-5 hectares of land and laying out the jeep driveway. The aged tigers could be lodged in here and feed off the ungulates available naturally in the fringe forest land. The safari, preferably on solar power-driven vehicles, could be an hour long. Sighting was assured. That would satiate man’s craving. And, the return on investment fairly quick; over time, it could even supplement the Tiger Reserve’s coffers. Visualising this scenario, I was beside myself with joy.
Soon thereafter, I was delighted to learn that the Madhya Pradesh government had begun work with great fervour to get the tiger safari off the ground. It was the realisation that the global community’s passionate interest in tigers held a unique window of opportunity to educate and spread awareness that architected creation of International Tiger Center. Much effort went into its making to turn it into much more than a safari – using the charismatic tiger as a metaphor for ideal environmental engagement with tourists. But, sadly, as I write these lines now three years since, I understand there hasn’t been much progress after the initial burst of interest. Such a pity!
(Reproduced from Indus Dictum, 12.11.2017)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Environment vs. Development: Who Wins?

The Environment vs. Development debate is bound to surge exponentially in the years ahead.

My romance with tigers and Tiger Reserves (TR) stayed undimmed. Notwithstanding the unstinted offering of the mother-son duo at Ranthambhore and mother-cub quadruplets at Pench and the charisma they exuded, my mind inexplicably was pinned more on the wild habitats. Long discussions with Rajesh Gopal, SP, and Himmat Negi had helped me appreciate the implications of long term ecological conservation through TRs. I read all that they offered to remove cobwebs in my woolly head. I went back to the Project Tiger (PT)’s origin, among the most ambitious conservation projects the world has seen, which in scale, size, and diversity of field operations and challenges, has no parallel.
It began in the early-1960s to protect tigers and its habitats. But it picked up speed under the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. An enthusiastic wildlife lover, she set up a Task Force in 1972 with Dr. Karan Singh as the Chair. On recommendations of the Task Force, 9 tiger reserves were identified and the PT had gotten under way. Today it’s grown into 50 TRs across 18 States encompassing nearly 40,340 sq. km of core and critical tiger habitat in the form of forests, meadows, mountains and scrubland. More than protecting the endangered species, it has morphed into a holistic ecosystem approach defining the core-buffer strategy, encompassing protection and development initiatives, and giving a new perspective to the concept of wildlife management in India. Today, it’s become a role model for conservationists worldwide.
In hindsight, PT was a master stroke. Indira Gandhi was clairvoyant to crystal gaze the implications of sculpting a measure of government-backed conservation of environment in the natural order of things, despite unavailability of firm data. Conservation of tiger has ecological significance transcending state and national boundaries. Tigers sit atop the ecological food-chain; their conservation cascades into overall wellness of all species of plants and animals populating the ecosystem. As territorial animals, tigers serve as barometers of forest ecosystem: a healthy tiger population suggests ecological wellness, much as an unhealthy population index is ecologically worrisome. Four decades since the launch of PT and its success, tigers continue to remain one of the world’s most endangered large predators.
Agricultural expansion and developmental priorities, revenge killings by people as sequel to man-animal conflicts, demand for tigers’ body parts and derivatives in the illegal global market make them very vulnerable. On the flip side, tiger conservation sets off several intangibles and life-supporting benefits. Forests act as carbon sinks, it grants Meso climate; the presence of continuous forest cover to a depth of ten kilometres impacts climate of nearby areas, even to a hundred kilometres – a phenomenon beneficial to both humans and crops as shield from climate extremes. There are several others too.

Tiger Conservation Environment SP Yadav watermark
Image: S. P. Yadav

Problems stay, though. This is natural in a diverse country with a democratic, federal set-up. It takes time and energy to disabuse loads of transferred knowledge to deemed wisdom, when they aren’t necessarily wise or correct. One such is the belief that the traditional resource dependency of forest dwellers is benign. Not always so. Nature has over time changed from its primordial state and keeps changing, little by little, most unobtrusively, as everything else does; it is natural that all stakeholders need to calibrate their responses to these changes. Often with our human endeavor catalyzing changes, several distortions have crept in to misshape the forest dynamics itself. Demographic pressure shows as people chip away at forest’s edges. With just two percent of the world’s forest area, we support 17 percent of the global livestock and an equal percentage of humans. Nothing possibly is more challenging today than sustaining a system of viable protected areas in a country like India.
Developmental activities are another serious worry. It’s no one’s case that development shouldn’t happen. That’s not the issue. The point is how to ensure development without despoiling the ecosystem or if damage can’t be avoided, how about seeking appropriate by-passes to keep them virgin – pristine and viable? Sustainable development, the global much sexed-up term, like statistics, hides more than it reveals. Isn’t the dialectics of development versus environment unequal? Can an intangible environment ace the tangibles of development that you can literally hold in your hands, and even palpate? Given man’s natural impulse to improve his lot, isn’t this a David vs. Goliath dueling? How harshly things are pitted against ecosystems, I silently witnessed in one of the Chai pe Charchas. In the euphoria of government formation, Javadekar, mimicking Modi’s pre-election hype, had instituted a quotidian 9 o’clock morning meeting with Additional Secretaries/Additional DGs and above officers. Charcha (discussion) at 9 was anathema for most senior bureaucrats’ lifetime habits – it affronted their sense of dignity to show up at workplace on time!
The discussion veered around the road-widening and four-laning of NH7 between Kanhaand Pench TRs. Nitin Gadkari, the Road & Highways Minister had called, Javadekar said, enquiring after the status of clearance. Rajesh Gopal told Javadekar that the three suggested underpasses, each of 50 meters, are an apology for animal movement and not acceptable. Javadekar snapped, fraying: “When we can’t feed people, must we bother about wild animals!” A sepulchral silence descended on the assemblage. But Rajesh Gopal, sitting in one corner, held forth – as a true blue-blooded conservationist and India’s foremost hands-on tiger man (he’s presently Secretary General of the Global Tiger Forum, an intergovernmental international organisation, looking after all 13 tiger range countries of the world) would – unyieldingly, not letting go his emphasis on the acute need to protect the iconic tiger corridor, and belabouring the significance of the tiger gene pool.

Tiger Conservation Environment sourabh bharti
Related: Tigers’ Wellness Is Our Wellness Too by Sudhansu Mohanty (Image: Sourabh Bharti)

The issue revolved around prioritising tiger conservation through landscape genetics and habitat linkages. The 150 km area between Pench and Kanha TRs extending eastward to Achanakmar is most critical for tiger gene flow of its population. Camera-trappings since 2006 have yearly recorded tiger dispersing, and with presence of gaur, sambar and chitalaffirming it as a vital tiger movement corridor. Field observers have further confirmed evidence of resident tigers. A sub-adult male tiger photo-captured in Pench TR in 2006 had become the territorial breeding male in Kanha TR in 2010! One study showed significant reduction in gene flow between TR pairs with degraded corridors (Kanha–Satpura, Kanha–Melghat and Melghat–Pench), while there wasn’t any significant change among TRs connected with forest corridors (Kanha–Pench, Satpura–Melghat and Pench–Satpura). With more than 13% of sampled tigers dispersing within the Kanha–Pench landscape in the last decade, developmental projects – widening of national highways and rail lines – will cleave the corridor with permanent barriers and affect connectivity big time. The corridor, an exemplar of two source tiger populations managed as one meta-population, will be dented. Environmentalists and foresters have, naturally, clamoured to ensure green infrastructure mitigation measures to keep it going.
The conversations didn’t go too well that day, but all along I was quietly mulling over the reality. By the time I trudged back to my room after the Charcha my mind was intuiting, seeking an answer. Sadly I realised that in an unequal battle between development and environment, with political parties indulging in hugger-mugger populism and optics, and least appreciating the need to equilibrate, the former shall always prevail. This makes Project Tiger all the more challenging and, paradoxically, also more relevant. The Environment vs. Development debate – exacerbating with bedevilling climate change, and manifesting in Nature’s quirky ways like serial tornados/hurricanes, rise in global temperature, wildfires, and downpour deluging deserts – is bound to surge exponentially in the years ahead.
The expansion of NH-7 on this 10 km stretch of road doubtless will impact Pench TR both in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It will destroy the corridor between two of India’s iconic TRs, Kanha to Pench – the locale of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book – apart from impacting Navegaon-Nagzira TR, comprising five protected areas (PAs): Nagzira, New Nagzira, Koka, Navegaon National Park, and Navegaon Wildlife Sanctuary. Around the time the matter was in the Courts, in March 2016 a group of 29 eminent scientists and conservationists, and many among them who had served on various statutory and expert committees, like the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), NTCA, Forest Advisory Committee, WII etc. for decades, wrote to the NTCA and the WII, flagging critical ecological, legal and policy elements of the NH7 inter alia strongly urging to:
(i) Recommend to the High Court that mitigation measures as per the WII’s original May 2012 report are absolutely necessary and non-negotiable;
(ii) Address the issue where there is no overlap of the proposed mitigation measures with the identified animal crossing zones;
(iii) Recommend that the existing road below the recommended underpasses be decommissioned and the habitat be restored to natural conditions to allow wild animals to use the corridor in an unhindered manner; and,
(iv) Ensure that in the future, the principle of avoidance must be followed as per the NBWL Sub-Committee’s recommendations for roads in Protected Areas.

Tiger Conservation Environment SP Yadav watermark
Image: S. P. Yadav

While work on the NH-7 was stalled by the National Green Tribunal, the Nagpur-bench of the Bombay High Court allowed road widening with the mitigating provision to construct a paltry 1.8 km of road bridges for animal movement. The Supreme Court upheld the High Court order, and in effect went against the recommendations of its own Central Empowered Committee (CEC), which had categorically said that “the ecological cost of the present project is immense and that no mitigation measures are adequate to compensate the same” since it would cause “irreparable damage to a critical wildlife habitat.” The CEC couldn’t have been more forthright. It stressed that the NH-7 work is among the exceptional cases where ecological security must take precedence over developmental concerns, even suggesting that rather than widening this critical stretch of road, the alternative route via Chhindwara could be explored. The moot point is: Can the fidelity of invisible eco-sensitive environmental concerns that may tote up to, say, 10 times more than the cost of developmental work, triumph over return on investment, optics, grandstanding, and instant hyperboles or jumla of perfervid patriotism? My fingers are crossed!
The impassioned plea of environmentalists has improved mitigation measures in this stretch of NH7 road, but only just. The latest information is that the length of animal underpass has been increased to 2,205 metres on Maharashtra side and 2,100 metres in Madhya Pradesh, with the height reduced to 5 metres from the original 7. I checked with eminent animal biologists like Rajesh Gopal who, as the former Field Director Kanha Tiger Reserve and Member Secretary NTCA, knows the terrain and animal behaviour like the back of his hand. They consider it as a compromise. Here was a chance for a country with the largest wild tiger population to demonstrate its commitment to conservation and infrastructure development to go in a complementary manner, but alas the mitigation didn’t happen that way!
Ironically, one such crisis not too long ago had acted the savior for Project Tiger. Sariskahad lost its tigers ostensibly to poaching, circa 2004. No tigers were being sighted in the TR; more alarmingly, there was no indirect evidence of tigers’ presence through pugmarks, scats or scratch marks on trees. Sariska (like Panna TR later) mercifully was successfully repopulated, but the shock rippled out, sounding warning bells in the highest quarters. On recommendations of the National Board for Wildlife chaired by the Prime Minister on March 17, 2005, a Task Force was set up to focus on tiger conservation and suggest improvement measures. The NTCA born in 2006, aimed at ratcheting up India’s confidence in the conservation of tiger, its national animal, was granted statutory and administrative powers, and obligated to submit PT annual report to the Parliament. Despite vicissitudes, it has happily lived up to the confidence reposed on it.
(Reproduced from the Indus Dictum)
[… to be continued on Sunday, Nov 12th]

Monday, October 23, 2017

TESS Conveys Project Tiger Activities More Aptly Than PT

Hasn’t the time then come to more aptly call it, possibly even more unreservedly, something like Tiger Eco-System Services (TESS)?

eye of the tiger watermark 2
Image: Sourabh Bharti

This article is an exclusive extract from the author’s forthcoming memoir, Environment Through Finance Eyes.
Continuing with Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR), for me, another highlight was seeing the efficacy of Lantana eradication. Dr. C. R. Babu who joined us the morning next, showed me around the different areas in Dhikala and in Jhirna where Lantana grass, a biological invader, had been successfully eradicated, thereby facilitating habitat improvement and growth of natural grassland, so essential for the herbivores, and kick-starting the cycle of optimal ecosystem services.
Put simply, Lantana camara, the scientific name of Lantana, native to Central and South America, has invaded and wrought havoc across global tropical/sub-tropical regions. It has disrupted ecological services, affectinkng forest ecosystems benefits, and adversely shrunk wildlife habitats. The wild-lifers, if one may say so, have naturally strayed off their habitats, spurring frequent man-wildlife conflicts. Dr. Babu, Chairman of the Ministry’s Centre of Excellence – Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Eco-Systems (CEMDE) – and his research team, working on Lantana’s taxonomy, biology and ecology, succeeded in evolving a simple but effective management strategy to contain this eco-scourge: extirpation of Lantana through cut rootstock method; weeding out of seedlings/young plants from bird droppings under perching trees and surface run-off channels; and eco-restoration of weed-free landscapes to native grasslands/forests. This was first tried out in CTR, and with resounding success.
Dr. Babu is a byword in the field of Lantana eradication. A month later, on a short visit to the ICFRE in Dehra Dun, after the official engagements, I found a couple of hours to myself. I snuck out to the Rajaji National Park. On the way the traffic slowed us down and by the time we reached the Park, it was pretty dark. In the headlights of the vehicle it was hard to see the habitat I was interested in. Instead, I settled discussing with the officers of the Park. I asked for the Annual Plan of Operations (APO) and browsed through it. Lantana removal was among the important activities in the Park, parenthetically to be carried out through the Dr. C.R. Babu style of Lantana-eradication! I was pleasantly surprised and happy. I came back and called Dr. Babu to compliment him that his Lantana-eradication technique has already been memorialised at the Rajaji National Park!
But staying with Lantana, I must confess that although Lantana is indeed a bio-invader and tells on habitats seriously damaging the grasslands, many wildlife experts evince widely varying sentiments. Foresters in Kanha Tiger Reserve for example seem rather paternalistic about Lantana, because as the story goes, many years ago a tiger had littered amid the Lantana weed and the sanguine sentiment has held. Similar sentiment could be found with others who temper it with obtuseness that of course Lantana, a bio-invader, cannot be allowed to overrun the park, and will need to be managed!

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Read Part-I of the Tiger Series: e-Eye of the Tiger by Sudhansu Mohanty (Image: Sourabh Bharti)

The issue of leveraging solar energy is of much salience in Tiger Reserves as I soon realised while visiting other reserves. Nowhere was its need perhaps more than in the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (STR), a vast reserve spread across the humongous delta formed by several rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal. Inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, STR is estimated at about 4,200 sq, km. Of these, about 1,700sq. km are water bodies in the form of rivers, canals and creeks, varying widely from just about a few meters to several kilometres.
The STR is intersected by a complex web of tidal waterways, mudflatsand small islands that are flush with mangrove forests. The interconnected network of waterways makes the mangrove forests – habitat of the eponymous Royal Bengal Tigers – mostly accessible by boats. They serve as crucial bio-protectors against floods and cyclones for inhabitants living in and around this substantial deltaic plateau. Not to forget that the national park sprawled out in this unique ecosystem acts both as lung and kidney in flushing out effluents and pollutants as the rivers drain out into the Bay. 
Given the geography and topography of STR, the region seemed hostile in performing the arduous task of tiger protection. The four protection camps I visited – Kendo, Haldibari, Neti-Dhupani, and Dobanki – were way far out in the Bay where Forest Guards and Watchers live and work. Kendo is the last protection camp closest to the Bay of Bengal, about 90 kilometres (two hours by speedboat) away from Sajnekhali, which acts as the gateway to the Sunderbans National Park. Fairly inaccessible and with no population around, the protection camp had just about enough solar PV panels to illuminate the building with a few lights, but not enough to power a few fans.
The place in the midst of water is rather humid except during the winter months; the rest of the year the weather challenges them to their bones. The need to improve the living condition of the people manning these outposts was paramount. This is where solar power can help in a big way. I was pleasantly surprised that despite the inhospitable and challenging conditions, these people live and work day-in and day-out – their spirit was upbeat and their morale high. The Field Director, Soumitra Dasgupta, an Indian Forest Service officer of 1989 batch, [presently IG (Wildlife) in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change – just the perfect fit to revamp the Wildlife Division], ever gung-ho, led by example and helped buoy their spirit – his passion and good cheer rubbing off on his officers and staff, and spurring them on. 
I came away with the feeling that since these are non-family stations, to mitigate the problems of these personnel, we could consider granting them ration (as done for the police, the armed forces and the Special Tiger Protection Force) and separation/hardship allowances from the project funds. To boost the morale of these personnel, it would help if the possibility of even getting their families over to these places for short durations could be explored. Such inexpensive appliances like Mitti-cool, a refrigerator made of clay, that needs no electricity, could as well be considered to provide cool drinking water to people working in adverse and hostile environment. I am glad that we worked out the details and sanctioned ration allowance within a couple of months.

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Image: Sourabh Bharti

There was need, too, for a few more Floating Patrolling Camps in this waterscape, where water seemed the defining image in this vast landscape. With rain falling in buckets a good 6-7 months of the year, the difficulties of patrolling the national park seemed a big challenge. Quick and ready access to this remote and inaccessible topography, especially during the monsoon months, posed challenge to patrolling. We discussed this issue at length, almost at every patrol station we visited. Thinking aloud, I even suggested providing financial support for chopper service for monitoring, surveillance, and rescue operations on contractual basis from the PT funds, as and when the need arose. 
The Kaziranga National Park (KNP) is yet another unique national park formed by a river – Brahmaputra -when it spills over its banks during monsoon and inundates the park. The receding river water leaves behind in its trail umpteen mudflats. KNP is home to a mega-biodiversity that includes the putative one-horned rhinos and tigers. Unfortunately, the rhinos are poached upon with the intent to harvest their horns that command astronomical prices in the international black market, purportedly for its aphrodisiac property. They are poached on all sides of the park. E-surveillance, the kind started in the Corbett Tiger Reserve to keep vigil 24×7, seems the only way forward here.
Of all the tiger reserves and national parks that I visited, Kaziranga is non-pareil. Standing on a watch tower, I surveyed hundreds upon hundreds of wild animals – rhinos, swamp deers, Hoolock Gibbons, elephants, pangolins, and a score of others I can’t put a name to – on the flat mudflats, as though served on a platter by an unstinting host! It was the closest to any wildlife African safari that any tiger reserve or national park in India could offer and was a feast for the eyes. Only the tiger was missing! And that’s what makes it so elusive and the reason why human beings hanker after it.
My visits to Kaziranga and Sundarbans, preceded by my earlier visit to Corbett, and coupled with my interface with sundry files that came to me in steady, timely schedule and the numerous discussions with the tiger-men helped me appreciate that tiger conservation encompassed a host of benefits not ordinarily known to the common man: clean air, clean water, more fish catch with higher fertility and productivity, employment and poverty alleviation to local population, and forest protection; also, that tiger conservation subsumes conservation of other flagship species like rhinoceros, elephants, and barasingha.
As I wound down my visit to Kaziranga and on the drive back to Guwahati, still rolling and processing my newly-acquired empirical experiences and the teeny-weeny bit I knew about Nature’s requite instinct, for no particular reason that I could figure out, I felt a faint disembodied thought of inadequacy colonising my mind. Hasn’t something inscrutable gone missing somewhere? I tried hard, but couldn’t. And then unbidden, quite serendipitously, it pitter-pattered in my mind; it wasn’t the inscrutability of the wild, but something more earthy and mundane: Ain’t calling our Centrally-Sponsored Scheme (CSS) by the eponymous rubric, Project Tiger, rather inadequate, diminishing the full import of the range of activities done under PT? Was that it? I asked myself. Yes, indeed. Hasn’t the time then come to more aptly call it, possibly even more unreservedly, something like Tiger Eco-System Services (TESS) that faithfully and fulsomely captures the range of activities done under the PT scheme to keep the forest eco-systems alive and uptick? I couldn’t help mutter my thoughts, and also said it in my tour note. I left it to the experts in Project Tiger to reflect over the suggestion.
[… to be continued on Sunday, Oct 29th]
(Reproduced from the Indus Dictum)