Saving species that share the earth with us has not generated the level of commitment that it deserves, says Sanjay Gubbi

Another year has passed since the last World Environment Day. The media and public had a burst of information about climate change and were perplexed by it as this hazard would directly affect Homo sapiens. On a global scale, society wakes up to such daunting environmental issues as it happened in the past with nuclear energy, greenhouse gases and others. Nonetheless, there are equally serious concerns with saving species that co-inhabit this planet and that has failed to generate similar levels of attention or commitment from society.

The nation faces an uphill task in saving its national animal, the tiger. Loss of habitat and prey continue to threaten the tiger. However, one question that draws the attention and curiosity of most people, from laymen to policy makers, is, how many tigers do we have? Countrywide estimates of tiger densities that were recently put out by the Government drew flak from certain sections of wildlife enthusiasts. Nevertheless, that India is still the best prospect for saving this amber-eyed cat is a matter of solace.

Not enough

Taking cue from the committee set up to devise policies to save tigers, the Government instituted the Elephant Task Force for drawing up plans to ensure the long-term future of this species. However, due to lack of public and media pressure, the recommendations of the task force did not go beyond the symbolic declaration of elephant as the national heritage animal. One wishes the recommendations had been taken seriously about the species, which can create tension among its human neighbours due to its ability to damage crops and cause fatalities.

The other species that draws attention due its biological and elastic nature of living close to humans and also responsible for high levels of conflict is the spotted cat, the leopard. The species continues to be hacked, stoned and burnt with few pragmatic approaches to reduce the problem. More importantly, the behaviour of people in situations where large-bodied wildlife enters human habitations is appalling. Large-scale public education and crowd management by the police are essential.

Protecting corridors

Recent information reveals that tigers move vast distances in search of new territories. This brings into limelight the issue of creating corridors and holding on to viable forest cover between protected areas. In this direction, the concept of critical wildlife habitats needs a relook. We need to identify and declare areas that are ecologically vital and provide linkages between source wildlife populations, especially for wide-ranging species such as the tiger.

After decades, the country has a Minister for Environment and Forests who has made his presence felt. There is little doubt that a few issues could have been dealt in a more realistic manner. But, at present the ministry is more transparent and trying to move away from a tight totalitarian regime. Opportunities are provided to civil societies, eminent scientists to participate in the decision-making processes which were almost non-existent during the previous administrations. The Minister faced the wrath of the business community for going by the rule book. A leading journal from the Wall Street touted him as someone with an ‘activist agenda', sacrificing economic growth for environmentalism.

Despite all the criticism, I would say the minister has restored some respect to Paryavaran Bhavan, which earlier acted only as a project-clearing machinery. It is true that rearranging a system built over half a century is not as easy as rearranging nuts and bolts of machinery. But there surely have been a few steps in the right direction that needa to be appreciated.

Cost of development

Currently the world is filling up; filling up with more people. India's has grown to about 1.21 billion, and with it the economy has grown too. The mantra of perpetual development is now the secular religion. Development projects continue to assault natural habitats. Today our world is being crafted and guided by a few corporate houses and individuals. Development lobbyists from across the globe are the political actors deciding the way our wildlife habitats are sliced, cut, divided and distributed among several interest groups that want a piece of our wildlife turf.

It is not development versus wildlife conservation. A middle path where wildlife is kept at the core of development planning when it involves ecologically sensitive areas is the need of the hour. If highways, dams and mines do not slice the country's four percent land area that harbours our national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, it makes little or no dent in the overall growth objectives of the country. In this world of limitless demands but limited land area for wildlife, urgent steps are to be taken if we are serious about securing the homes of tigers, elephants, rhinos and other habitat-specialist species.