Monday, January 12, 2015

Carnivores in the neighbourhood / Janaki Lenin

The tigress strode boldly across open farmlands, and crossed railway tracks and highways at night. She avoided venturing close to villages in her hunt for wild pigs. During the day, she hunkered down in forest patches, reed beds, or plantations, out of sight of people.
A few villagers walked within 100 metres of her hideout, but she didn’t move. In an area where the average human density is 200 per square kilometre, no one knew of her existence except a few researchers and forest officials. She wore a GPS collar that transmitted the coordinates of her location by text message several times a day for four months.
Contrary to popular belief that tigers need to live in vast forests, this tigress was 45 kilometres away from the nearest one, Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. The collar stopped functioning after four months, but a camera trap took her photograph in the same area a year later. She wasn’t a lone tiger struggling to survive in a less than ideal habitat; two other tigers lived nearby. Despite living so close to humans, she posed no threat to them.
Impediment to survival
When wild carnivores are found far outside forests, managers and conservationists often grasp for excuses. Wild animals prefer wild habitats, we are told. If they are found anywhere else, there must be something wrong. Lack of habitat, disturbance within forests, and lack of prey are oft-cited reasons. After visiting the farmlands of Akole, Maharashtra, where leopards live among people without causing alarm, one forester exclaimed to the biologist studying them, “These leopards are not normal.”
Animals disregard not only our boundaries but also our assumptions. They go where there is prey, whether domestic, feral or wild, and they live in what little cover is available. The only possible impediment to their survival in landscapes where humans live is the level of tolerance of people. Our religious and cultural traditions are empathetic of almost all animals including venomous snakes.
Regional folk deities like Waghoba in western India and Dakshin Ray in Bengal or a pan-Indian goddess such as Durga bestow sanctity on large wild cats. Even in an extreme situation like in the Sunderbans, where more people are killed by tigers than anywhere else, no one demands that all tigers be killed. It’s because of this tolerance that India still has the largest population of wild tigers in the world despite our high human population.
In comparison, European folk tales traditionally demonise predators, and fear of them runs deep. Even though human densities are relatively low, Europeans almost eradicated their carnivores. Brown bears used to be found throughout Europe except in Iceland and the Mediterranean Islands. By the mid-20th century, they were holding out in the east, north, and west of Europe.
Similarly, much of the continent was wiped clean of its wolves after the Second World War, but they managed to survive in the three Mediterranean peninsulas, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. The number of Eurasian lynx also diminished, and they survived only along the margins of international borders. This dismal situation has changed.
A new assessment, ‘Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes,’ by 76 authors from 26 countries, was published in S cience in December 2014. It shows that like the tigress outside Tadoba, carnivores are recolonising Europe, ranging far outside protected forests and staking territories among human-owned farms and plantations.
From the margins of Europe, wolves have recolonised more than 15 per cent of the land. They’ve returned to countries from where they had been declared extinct such as Norway, Poland, Latvia, Germany, and Bulgaria. Even though brown bears are huge, weighing an average 200 kilogrammes, they are now the continent’s most abundant carnivore. About 17,000 bears roam over 4,85,400, about 10 per cent of Europe.
This turnaround was achieved after decades of coordinated legislation, good law enforcement, and public support for conservation. Instead of antagonising local people by outlawing their hunting traditions, management plans incorporated such practices and promoted recovery of animal populations. And therein lies a lesson for India.
The separation model
India’s primary conservation model, borrowed from the U.S., is to create exclusive zones, separating people from predators. Carnivores need plenty of space, and American parks, free of settlements, are large enough to accommodate them. They remove any predators found outside designated wildlife areas that take livestock.
Few parks in India are devoid of settlements and not many are large enough to maintain good breeding populations. We apply the separation model as it suits us. People living in forests have to relocate to make space for predators. But if the state removes carnivores living outside forests, there won’t be many of them left. Our laws and policies guide management of animals inside forests, but there’s no state policy to deal with predators living amongst people.
People living around forests have a long history of living with predators. Generally, they tolerate some level of loss before complaining to the Forest Department. But these complaints may not always be straightforward. Often, people are at loggerheads with the forest department. They may express their unhappiness by asking the department to remove “the government’s animals” from their property. Wildlife symbolises the state and its callous policies.
After decades of treating their carnivores as vermin, many European countries worked hard to get them back. We haven’t yet hit a low like Europe did, but we are headed that way if we don’t turn the ship around. For instance, tigers, once found across the subcontinent, now range over a mere 2.5 per cent of our country. If the species has to regain at least some lost ground, we need to do more than focus on protected areas. Biologists advocate lifting our heads and looking at the landscape. This is also where numerous people live and they decide if they want to live with predators. Antagonising them isn’t going to achieve conservation ends.
By following a coexistence model, the Europeans not only managed to bring back carnivores, they have proved it works. Europe now has twice as many wolves as the U.S., excluding Alaska. More than 12,000 wolves range across a continent that’s half the size of the U.S. and has more than twice the density of people, 97 people per sq. km. compared to the U.S.’s 40. While protected forests are great for conservation, they cannot be the only strategy. It’s time India learned from the European experience.

( Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals. She writes of the intermingled destinies of humans and wild creatures . )

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