By stressing ‘intrinsic value’ and ‘best interest’ of species, the Supreme Court wants conservation to be pan-nation rather than State-bound

In response to calls to shift some of India’s last Asiatic lions to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, the Gujarat State Wildlife Board went to the extent of calling lions [exclusively] Gujarati ‘family members’. But, in a historic judgment lauded by the world conservation community, (Centre for Environmental Law WWF-1 v. Union of India and others, Supreme Court, 2013) the Supreme Court has ruled that Gujarat has to part with some lions, to be shifted to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary, upholding the nation’s right to have a second habitat for lions.

Predictably, this long legal battle has been understood as a battle between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Also, responses to the Supreme Court order have been all about lion conservation vis-à-vis Gujarat, testing the notions of how much ownership a State can have over a wild animal — even if in recent times saving the lion has been about Gujarati ‘pride’, management and effort.

However, this judgment is about much more than Gujarat, or even lions. The judgment calls for something that policymakers have neglected — what it calls the ‘species best interest standard’. Placing the persistence of species at its heart, the judgment calls for directives based on an ‘eco-centric approach’ and not a human or anthropocentric approach. Combined with the idea of doing what is best for the species, rather than the whims of policies, planning and politics, the judgment makes a powerful call for a new conservation paradigm, based on both science and ethics, for our most threatened species. It has recognised the lack of governance and planning response to endangered species, and has called for the “necessity for an exclusive parliamentary legislation for the preservation and protection of our endangered species”.

Finally, the judgment brings down the barriers of protected area conservation — protection girded by State boundaries and State pride — and calls for this to be done with the species in mind and not profit. Notions that may be unfashionable but are certainly needed at a time when many of our critically endangered species have rescue plans but no action, and at a time when India is the President of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Intrinsic worth of species

In TN Godavarman Thirumulpad versus Union of India, Supreme Court, (2012) the Supreme Court ruled in favour of wild buffalo conservation. It also called for the ‘eco-centric approach’, one that would go beyond what is profitable for people. Conservation in India is not withoutits well-loved pin-up stars: The lazy stretch of a tiger, the dance of a peacock, the strut of a lion, and the eyes of the four-horned antelope chousingha, are well-documented and have large, enthusiastic fan clubs. Conservation of these species depend quite often on the idea that these animals are beautiful, charismatic, and worth saving.

The difficult question though, is what of animals that are not considered beautiful? Or what of animals which do not seem to be of direct benefit to people and tourism? To these questions, science and our wildlife protection Act has the answer — we are duty bound to protect our species, whether we deem them worthy or not. In the wild buffalo judgment (2012), the Supreme Court called for saving species on the basis of their ‘intrinsic worth’. Ecologically, this is an idea very relevant to our times, and takes us back to our earliest lessons in understanding nature — that each species is important for resilient ecosystems.

In its judgment on lions (2013), the Supreme Court reasserted the intrinsic worth of species — particularly important to heed when planners disagree. Despite how worthy we rate our species, this intrinsic worth approach underlines the inherent right of all species to exist. This approach becomes even more important in the case of an endangered species, or species which are as isolated, threatened and hemmed in as the Asiatic lion. By asking for lions to be ‘re-introduced’ to Kuno-Palpur, the Supreme Court has gone beyond State boundaries. It is invoking the historic range of the lion, once so common it was called the national animal of India — a mantle now worn by the tiger.

Significantly, the court is aiming both for a landscape approach — upheld by population biologists as the long-term key to saving several species — and also this entirely new standard for endangered species conservation: the “best interest” standard. It is, in effect, reinforcing the wildness of animals by stressing that wild animals belong to natural and wide-ranging habitats and not States and their units of governance.

Of dugongs and bustards

In keeping with the ideas of ‘intrinsic worth’ and ‘species best interest standard’, the judgment has directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests to “take urgent steps for the preservation of Great Indian Bustards, Bengal Floricans, dugongs and Manipur-brow antlered deer”. This is significant as policies on paper to save these species exist but have not been implemented across different States or landscapes. Project Bustards, meant to save our three bustards — the Great Indian Bustard, Bengal Florican and Lesser Florican — has received in-principle approval from the Ministry of Environment and Forests but that is as far as the project has gone. There are perhaps 200 Great Indian Bustards and less than 300 Bengal Floricans left in India. There is thus a compelling need for the nation — and not just States — to to save these critically endangered birds.

Non-human citizens

In a sense, this is about the future but the future of citizens who are distinctly non-human. “The cardinal issue is not whether the Asiatic lion is a ‘family member’ or is part of the ‘Indian culture and civilization’, or the pride of a State but the preservation of an endangered species for which we have to apply the ‘species best interest standard’. Our approach should not be human-centric or family-centric but eco-centric,” the judgment on lions says.

In reminding us that lions are not about Gujarat, and saving bustards and dugongs is the nation’s and Parliament’s prerogative, the court has moved the spotlight from humans toward non-human citizens. As the humans in the story, it is now contingent upon us to use our imagination and faculty to save these citizens, with passion and commitment.

(The writer is with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at n.sinha@bnhs.org)