A reliable measure of just how endangered the natural environment is in an era of fast-paced economic development is necessary to advance conservation goals. A recent research report on the likely local extinction threat to 25 mammal species in India over a 100-year time frame attempts to provide some answers. Scientists have looked at over 30,000 historical records about the presence of these animals and assessed them against their current status. What emerges from the work of Krithi K. Karanth and other researchers published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society should be of interest to all citizens who seek to preserve a part of the natural heritage of this hotspot-rich area of earth. One of the key conclusions is about the relatively high estimated probability of local extinction of all the animals surveyed, which range from prey species like spotted deer, sambar, muntjac, swamp deer, wild pig, and gaur to predators such as tiger, leopard, and lion. This is a timely alert. Fortunately, a lot can be done to improve the prospects of survival of these species in varied habitats, going by the fine-grained research data.
India has only about two per cent of its geography under the formal protected area system. The conclusion that these areas lower the probability of extinction in the case of 18 species should serve to tighten government policies that will make them inviolable and immune from even regulated extraction of resources. Further, several mammal species such as mouse deer, blackbuck, chinkara, sloth bear, jackal, and wolf have a range that extends beyond the small geographical area currently protected by law. This underscores the need to expand the protected area system. The vitality of the hills as reservoirs of biodiversity, highlighted by the research, also needs to be recognised — there is evidence that eight species had a lower likelihood of going locally extinct in elevated areas. Cultural factors also work in favour of seven species, although such tolerance has not come to the rescue of some rare endemic animals such as the Nilgiri tahr, swamp deer, and lion. The research data should be of real help to policymakers driving development. For example, they provide a ready map for infrastructure planners, identifying the areas to avoid while giving sanction to gas pipelines, mines, roads, and highways. With intelligent planning, it should be possible to avert protracted development conflicts over the environment. The challenge before India is to retain its natural heritage while working to improve the lives of its billion-plus population. It must act resolutely to stop the march of extinction with sensible land use policies.