Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cheetah in India

After prolonged deliberations Government of India has decided to reintroduce the Cheetah in the country. As many as eighteen cheetahs will be sourced from Africa and will be introduced into three sites, viz. Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary, Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary (both in Madhya Pradesh) and Shahgarh landscape near the international border in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. A project costing $ 65 million has been formulated and is likely to be implemented within three years. Each of the three sites will be allocated $ 22 million for preparation and restoration. Presumably each site will get three pairs of imported cheetahs which will be nurtured and encouraged to breed under the supervision of wildlife experts.

The decision was taken on the basis of the recommendations of wildlife experts, national and international, who met at Gajner in Rajasthan in September 2009. The rationale behind the decision was restoration of India’s natural heritage for “ethical and ecological” reasons. In the words attributed to Jairam Ramesh, the Indian Minister for Forests & Environment, “It is important to bring back cheetah, as it will restore grasslands of India. The way tiger restores forest ecosystem, snow leopard restores mountain ecosystem, Gangetic dolphin restores waters in the rivers, (the) same way cheetah will restore grasslands of the country.” (For a long time it has been felt that the Indian grasslands have been degrading because of over-grazing by antelopes and, of course, livestock.) Moreover, revival of the cheetah will bestow on India the distinction of being the only country with six of the eight big cats – a classification that is not quite scientific but is informally used to distinguish the larger felid species from smaller ones. With the exception of cougar and jaguar, the country will host the cheetah along with other big cats – lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards and clouded leopards.

Once upon a time India used to host cheetahs – a name that has been derived from the Sanskrit word “chitrakaya” meaning speckled – in great numbers. Emperor Akbar is reported to have maintained a stable of them in scores, tamed and trained for hunting antelopes. Even in the British colonial days these were kept in captivity and were mainly used for hunting, thus gaining another name – Hunting Leopards. Over time, however, the animals were mercilessly hunted down – like lions and tigers. Besides, the loss and degradation of their habitat contributed to their complete elimination from India by the middle of the last century.

Extinction of the species in India made it lose the “Indian” prefix. The Asiatic Cheetah (sub species: Acinonyx Jubatus Venaticus) earlier used to be largely known as “Indian Cheetah”. Currently, however, it has lost even its “Asiatic” prefix as it is mainly concentrated in Iran and, hence, is commonly known as “Iranian Cheetah”. Once roaming over the wilds of a huge range, from Middle East to the entire Indian sub-continent, the (Asiatic) Cheetah is now mostly confined to Iran in its Kavir desert region. There have been some stray sightings in Balochistan and Sindh provinces of Pakistan. According to researchers, not more than 100 Asiatic cheetahs are now estimated to be around, 70-odd of which are in Iran.

Reports had earlier appeared about India’s keenness to relocate a few Iranian cheetahs in reserves that are found suitable for them. Perhaps, it was felt that belonging to the same sub-species, the Iranian cheetahs will have a greater chance of survival in Indian conditions. It seems, the idea had to be abandoned because the Iranian cheetahs are critically endangered and withdrawal of even a few from the acutely limited stock would threaten the survival of the species. The country, therefore had to take recourse of procuring them from Africa where most of the game parks – and there are surfeit of them mostly located South of Sahara – have cheetahs in good numbers. Considered endangered, the African cheetah’s population is currently estimated to be around 12000 – enough for India to try and have eighteen of them relocated from there. Namibia is currently hotspot for the Cheetah as the efforts made by Cheetah Conservation Fund are increasingly proving to be successful. Nonetheless, as cheetahs in Namibia are reported to be sharing their habitat with farmers, man-animal conflicts are frequent leading to frequent kills. It has been estimated that all the three sites taken together have the potential to host 160 cheetahs, with Kuno-Palpur having the maximum potential – of hosting 70 cheetahs. Realisation of the potential will, however, depend on how well the sites are managed and made conducive to the animal’s proliferation.

There have, however, been reservations about the whole process. Firstly, of course, misgivings are always there about introduction of an alien species, an effort which not only is dicey, it also can cause all kinds of complications. Besides, the Indian record of wildlife conservation is not quite enviable. The country’s “Big Five” are under serious threat. The Asiatic Lion, numbering around 350, is concentrated in one sanctuary and cohabits with humans and their livestock. One single mishap could wipe off the entire species. Tigers, at the last count, were a precarious 1411 in number. Eleven adults have been lost in the first five months of 2010 along with a few cubs. The elephants are under threat from poachers, villagers and vehicles, including railway trains. The rhinos are vulnerable and are still under threat from poachers who are keen on their horn – supposedly an aphrodisiac. Leopards are being lost virtually at the rate of one every day. A cat comparable to cheetah, though belonging to genus “panthera”, has not been cared for so far, with no conservation policy for it yet in place. Its shrinking prey-base and habitat is driving it towards human settlements resulting in conflicts in which it invariably loses. Prerna Singh Bindra, a well-known naturalist, author and columnist, feels that the way the leopards are being killed it could well beat the tiger in the race to extinction. In the first 50 days of 2010 India lost as many as 60 leopards – more than one a day.

Worse, both the states, viz. Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, in the sanctuaries of which cheetahs are to be relocated, have had indifferent record of providing protection to big cats. Rajasthan had its debacle in Sariska Tiger Reserve as did the Madhya Pradesh wildlife administration had its own in Panna Reserve. In both the reserves, immensely popular as they were, tiger became extinct despite the local Reserve administration’s claims of their presence.

The record of the forest departments of various states in conservation of wildlife, therefore, is nothing to write home about. In this scenario one views the decision to introduce African Cheetah in Indian grasslands with trepidation. Relocation per se may not be a problem as Indian wildlifers have acquired some expertise, having relocated a number of tigers to Sariska and Panna Tiger Reserves and some rhinos from Kaziranga National Park to a neighbouring game park. After relocation the cheetahs may be nursed well enough and may even proliferate. But, what eventually would be vital is how the animals are monitored for their wellbeing and provided the necessary protection, particularly from poachers. Generally weak and, one dare say, even callous, the foresters’ lackadaisical attitude, corruption, turf wars, inadequate and ill-trained forest staff are the bane of Indian game parks, protected areas and other forests.

One can only hope that the foresters will shake off their lethargy and pull themselves up by their boot-straps to face the challenge of reviving the cheetah in the country where once it chased chinkaras and blackbucks with considerable freedom.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

This Raavan is welcome

Jairam Ramesh, Minister of State for Environment & Forests, while addressing the media said the other day in Bhopal that he was generally called “Vikaas ka Raavan” (a destructive daemon in so far as development was concerned). He did not mention any names. It could, however, be inferred that he meant his colleagues in the government.

Raavan was the ten-headed mythical daemon king of Lanka, now Sri Lanka, portrayed negatively in the Hindu epic Ramayana basically for infamously kidnapping Sita, the revered wife of Lord Ram. Raavan was also a great scholar, a maestro of Indian musical instrument Veena and was profoundly devoted to Lord Shiva. Ramesh, apparently used the simile taking the negative aspects of Raavan as, many a time, for reasons of conservation of the country’s environment, he has had to take positions against proposals seeking to further the process of development (vikaas).

Many of us who are concerned about our deteriorating environment dread the word “development” and its Hindi equivalent “vikaas”. In the name of development, progress and economic growth forests are being plundered, land rendered barren, rivers polluted and the air is being fouled up. The benefit of all these go to only the big business and their political supporters who make money on the side while cutting deals on behalf of businessmen/industrialists with the government. Other beneficiaries are the bureaucrats and the engineers who, regardless of the damage that construction projects cause to the environment, are all for them as these allow them to make tons of money, if the project is in the public sector, by short-changing the government. A vast majority are, however, left out in the cold without any benefit. In fact, they get the rawest of deals as it is they who are put to all kinds of trouble. Not only they do not get anything out of such projects, they also have to make the ultimate sacrifice by moving their hearths and homes from their ancestral lands for compensations that are, at best, puny and are seldom paid timely or in full and on many occasions with promises of rehabilitation that generally remain unfulfilled.

This is precisely what has been happening in projects of big or small dams, mining projects, setting up of steel or aluminium plants, power plants or whatever. The word “development” may have connotations of progress and prosperity, but it also suggests ruination of the environment and misery to the faceless and, now not-so-mute, poor. No wonder all the environmentally vital areas of the country, endowed with dense forests and rich ecosystems in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar, have become conflict zones – conflicts of the poor who own or are settled on the lands or in the forests with the sponsors of projects. This has also provoked conflicts within the government. After all, there are ministries having development as their raison d’ĂȘtre and, hence, for their own perpetuation they have to push for more development. When proposals emanating from such ministries are shot down by the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), its helmsman, Jairam Ramesh, gets a mouthful and is called all kinds of names, one of which is “Vikaas ka Raavan”.

Before Jairam Ramesh arrived on the scene the MoEF, perhaps, had a quieter time. The ministers, who held charge of the Ministry in the governments of United Progressive Alliance I (UPA I) and, before that, in National Democratic Alliance (NDA), were perhaps not very much interested in conservation of environment. From all evidences, it was for them, kind of, another job. No wonder very large tracts of forests and lands as also numerous rivers were degraded or polluted because of lack of alacrity on the part of the Ministry. The proponents of developmental projects had little difficulty in having their proposals seen through the Ministry. All kinds of stratagems – fair or foul – were used, occasionally even invoking the clout of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). In fact, the PMO is reported to have issued directives that no hindrances could be placed before any developmental project, which would have to be cleared as quickly as possible. After all, the government of UPA I, too, was chasing that elusive double-digit GDP growth-rate. The MoEF, therefore, during UPA I often came to be reviled as a “rubber stamp”.

That’s precisely what the Ministry has ceased to be with the advent of Ramesh at its helm. He has infused a tremendous lot of vigour into it and has made the Ministry what it should have been all these years – a vital cog in the process of effective governance for balanced economic development that takes into account all the environmental considerations in order to pass on to posterity a country where future generations, apart from availing of the plentiful fruits of development, could, inter alia, also breathe air that is fresh, drink water that is uncontaminated and watch in its native habitat that majestic animal that we call tiger. Projects for development are now being critically examined by several rejuvenated re-constituted bodies with a view to scrutinising their impact on the environment – forests, wildlife, rivers, air and what have you. Unused to this kind of resistance the development-oriented ministries find MoEF as a roadblock and, therefore, let out shrill, often abusive, cries.

Given to committing faux pas, Ramesh avoidably landed himself in trouble on several occasions. His pot shots on the Home Ministry taken from China about paranoia in regard to Chinese workers in India were eminently avoidable. So was his act of holding a piece of rock at the Union Carbide factory at Bhopal and claiming it was not contaminated was a gaffe of the first order. Nonetheless, he has brought environmental issues on the front pages of newspapers and has saved many a forest from being decimated. Two recent instances readily come to mind. Adani Industry’s application for mining coal in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve for setting up a 1980 MW power plant at Gondia was rejected for the reason that coal-mining would destroy rich forests and tiger habitat in the area. Likewise, Ramesh’s Ministry rejected the proposal to amend the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification to eliminate a massive mangrove zone to accommodate the second airport for Mumbai. The promoters were asked to look for an alternative site.

Many an environmentalist heaved a sigh of relief when Ramesh was once again accommodated in the Upper House of the Parliament. Regardless of his several indiscretions India and its environment need him. Many of us, therefore, would like this Raavan to be around for quite some time.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Innocents caught up in climate-change jam

Not many would have heard of the Nenets who inhabit the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle between the Kara Sea and the Gulf of Ob. I too hadn’t until I came across a feature on them in Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society of UK.

The 120,000 square kilometres peninsula is one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses which for a thousand years or more has been home for the Nenets. They have so far been moving around with ease in this vast bog of tundra that is dotted with lakes, using survival techniques that have changed little with time. As summer approaches they retreat to the north and descend down south as the cold weather sets in, timing it well to be able to cross the mighty Ob when it is still frozen with their herds of reindeer, whereafter the animals give birth.

They may not be able to observe this routine for long. With the rise in global temperature all this – transhumance, as it is called – is changing. Their seasonal migrations are becoming more forbidding as walking is difficult through the mud, with the sleds increasingly becoming useless. Not only the Ob is freezing about a month later and the permafrost beneath the tundra is thawing leading to collapse of soil systems and river banks, the warming is also depleting the foraging grounds for the reindeer. With the delayed arrival of the winter the Nenets and their herds have to wait for Ob to freeze. The waiting adversely affects the reindeer as they need to cross the river to give birth. The delayed winters also create food shortage. With the temperatures not hitting -50o Celsius any longer the reindeer get bothered. And, what bothers reindeer bothers the Nenets as their lives are intertwined. The future for them is vague and the days of herding for the Nenets are now apparently numbered. Already there are visible signs of serious threat to their livelihood.

Another community likewise affected equally, if not more, by climate change is the one which inhabits the Tropics in the Sunderban forests. Straddling the massive delta of Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna on the Bay of Bengal spreading across India and Bangladesh, Sunderbans are spread over an area of more than 10000 square kilometres. More than half of it has the world’s largest mangrove forests which have been declared as two different World Heritage Sites for the two countries. The forests are also home to a substantial population of the threatened Royal Bengal Tiger.

A 2007 report of the United Nations Economic & Social Council (UNESCO) said that a 45 centimetres anthropogenic rise in the sea level by the end of the current century is likely to destroy 75% of the Sunderban mangroves within the current century. However, certain inhabited islands have already disappeared having been overtaken by the sea. Among them are Lohachara and the New Moore islands. Another island, Ghoramara, has lost around half of its landmass turning more than half of the Island’s population of 12000 into climate refugees. They have all fled – some to the mainland and others elsewhere in Sunderbans. The remaining have had to give up cultivation in the fertile soil or gathering honey from the jungle and have taken to fishing. Researchers have heard the same story retold everywhere in the Sunderbans. As the sea-water comes in floods it destroys the crops, the soil takes on the sea’s salinity and renders it unproductive. Moving away and looking for a safer place is the only alternative to cope with the rising sea. Of late, such movements have, however, had to become devastatingly more frequent, stressing the once-simple rhythm of life of these poor people.

These are illustrative instances of two communities among numerous others, basically indigenous people, which are facing hardships and misery on account of global warming. There are still others who are caught up in the measures adopted worldwide to mitigate the impact of climate change, disrupting their life that they have led for ages. For instance, in Borneo 10000 people have been uprooted from their homes to make way for dams to produce hydroelectric power. This is part of Malaysia’s efforts to contain global warming. In the process, however, the local Penan people lose their ancient homeland and their traditional way of life. Hunters and gatherers as they were, they have been forced into agriculture which they are not adept in. Unable to cope with the drastic change, they may not be able to survive separation from their native environs and traditional way of life.

Again, in Brazil the Guarani Indians are being pushed away from their ancestral lands for growing sugarcane for being converted into ethanol – a bio-fuel that has been used in Brazil for decades as a cleaner substitute for fossil oils. Brazilian President considers ethanol an effective weapon in the fight against global warming. Having banned sugarcane cultivation in the Amazon to save its pristine forests Brazil is now pushing it in its southern parts which are home to Guarani. The takeover of their lands by sugar plantations and cattle ranchers has reduced them to a state of desperation. Occupying small parcels of lands, they complain of pollution of their rivers and consequential loss of fish stocks. Guarani now are either starving or have become alcoholic with murders and suicides having risen in number.

Ironically these communities and many such others have had no role in warming of the globe and they have contributed the least, if at all, to the world’s rising levels of greenhouse gases. Indigenous people as they are called, they have generally been leading carbon-neutral lives. Most of them are innocent and are even unaware of what has hit them. There are about 370 million such people who hardly impinge on the planet’s climate as against around 350 million of the United States who are responsible for about 25% of the greenhouse gases. And yet these unfortunate people are suffering the most having serious threats posed to their life by climate change or are being made to sacrifice their traditional, simple and harmless lifestyle in a bid to cool the Earth.

Those in the developed world, which is solely responsible for the impending catastrophe, spare not a thought for these unfortunate people. The miseries of these innocents mean nothing to them. “The American way of life is not negotiable” thundered George Bush (Sr.) with considerable haughtier at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. But, he and others of his ilk can, surely, play around with the lives of the voiceless poor of the world. Having practically nothing they have to sacrifice the most while those who plunder Nature to live in the lap of luxury wouldn’t forgo one bit.

That’s the way of this world where the law of the jungle prevails – heavily weighted against the poor and the meek!