Dr. Rajesh Gopal, Member-Secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority, updates his work on wildlife management for field professionals who are facing new challenges on the job

India’s wilderness is crucial for its survival. A country that destroys its wildlife works to its own disadvantage. As Al Gore, Nobel Prize winner and chair of the Alliance on Climate Change, pointed out in 2006, “What we do to nature, we do to ourselves. The magnitude of environmental destruction is now on a scale few ever foresaw; the wounds no longer simply heal themselves. We have to act affirmatively to stop the harm.”

Picking up on this wisdom, Dr. Rajesh Gopal, Member-Secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, has written what could be called the Bible for wildlife management in the country. Called Fundamentals of Wildlife Management, the nearly 1300 pages tome delves into the values of wildlife, the study of signs and symptoms, basic animal biology and ecology, wildlife habitat, basic statistics, habitat analysis and evaluation. It gives insights into animal behaviour, wildlife population and interactions, population estimates, habitat requirements and attributes of some animal species. It deals with the use of radio telemetry for protection of animals, wildlife policy and legislation, human-wildlife conflict, health care and above all, the in-situ and ex-situ conservation practices in the Indian context.

The book has been revised and updated 20 years after the first edition came out and is a unique combination of a textbook and a manual. Written by a professional, who is also a qualified scientist with years of field experience, it is for field professionals, young researchers and academics eager to take up the cudgels for India’s green spaces and its wildlife.

There have been significant changes since the first book — the increased challenges of protecting wildlife in human dominated landscapes, the new threat of poaching owing to demand for body parts of big cats in illegal foreign markets, mushrooming of ecologically unsustainable land uses in a landscape beyond a tiger reserve or a protected area thereby affecting the corridor, need for actively addressing human-wildlife conflicts, and above all, balancing conservation and development. However, proactive and professional management would ensure an assured future for our wildlife in protected areas, says Dr. Gopal.

Though India’s land mass of 32.87 lakh sq km is just 2.4 per cent of the world’s geographical area, it has tremendous biodiversity with almost 8 per cent of the world’s diverse life forms. More than 350 species of mammals, 1224 species of birds, 197 species of amphibians, 2546 species of fishes, 57548 species of insects and 46286 species of plants have been recorded in the country, making India one of the 12 mega biodiversity countries of the world.

Five per cent of the country’s geographical area contains 668 protected areas — 102 national parks, 515 wildlife sanctuaries, 47 conservation reserves and four community reserves. Forty of the protected areas are Tiger Reserves.

The challenges of course are “securing inviolate space in the form of core areas for wild animals like tigers to breed, managing forested corridors for the spill-over of animals from such source areas to other viable habitats and protected areas, ensuring ecologically compatible land uses in a tiger landscape, stepped up protection, reducing the resource dependency of local people on forests, besides providing them a viable livelihood option, ensuring conservation as well as development. ‘Better’ growth is always better than ‘more’ growth at the cost of our wilderness,” says Dr. Gopal.

The 2010 assessment of tigers and their habitat shows the protected areas are satisfactory but require handholding. However, the quality of forest habitat outside such areas is too poor to support wildlife. Therefore, wild animals are turning into ‘ecological dislocates’ by entering into conflicts with local people (livestock depredation, crop raiding, human mortality etc.). “Due to Project Tiger, India has the maximum number of tiger areas and tigers amongst the 13 tiger range countries. I am confident our tigers have an assured future,” says the Tiger Man.

However, there are several species of plants and animals that are still endangered — the snow leopard, the Asiatic lion, the barasingha, the hangul deer and many species of insects and orchids. Due to human pressure and varied land use, the man-animal conflict needs to be addressed in an ongoing manner. Among the conflict prone areas are Corbett, Ranthambhore, Sunderbans, Dudhwa-Pilibhit and Tadoba-Andhari among others.

Since India has a forest climate a bit of protection can do wonders for the forests. However, Dr. Gopal feels that the general forest areas are “rights burdened” and prone to disturbances resulting in loss of productivity. Flagship programmes like JFM, Green India have been launched to address this situation. The book has guidelines for foresters to protect our wilderness areas.

There have been several memorable moments in the author’s life, especially during his long field postings at Kanha and Bandhavgarh. Over 23 years, he has seen tigers in all their moods and idiosyncrasies. He has seen a resident male decapitating and killing two young tiger cubs at Mukki; a large resident male at Churi in Kanha that specialised in stalking only adult gaurs. He was witness to a terrible fight between a tigress with two cubs and a sloth bear and a lethal combat between a tigress and a leopard. But the most unforgettable experience was when a python swallowed a cheetal fawn in Bandhavgarh and within minutes the python was slit open by a tigress to feed on the swallowed fawn!

Based on his innate experience as a manager of wilderness and wildlife, Dr. Gopal favours a second home for the Asiatic lions, currently confined to Gir. The lion population has grown from a small group — genetically representing one individual and diseases like feline enteritis can wipe out a whole population. So there is urgent need to put some of the lions in a geographically isolated alternate habitat like the Kuno-Palpur sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. Dr Gopal also supports the move to bring back the cheetah, one of the swiftest animals on the planet, to India.

Thanks to the print and electronic media, there is a lot of awareness among the general public about nature, wildlife and related issues. However, Dr. Gopal feels there is scope for fostering awareness in the rural and semi-urban areas as well. “Then we can depend on our younger generation to save our wildlife.”

For Dr. Gopal, the book is a labour of love. He has tried to put together whatever he learnt from his field colleagues. The1700 references in the book can be sources for gleaning more knowledge and understanding of wildlife issues. There are numerous books on Indian wildlife, but this one brings synergy between wildlife academics and field management.