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Updated: May 26, 2012 00:16 IST

The power of one

Neha Sinha
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SINGULAR FOCUS: Using a handful of birds, the Siberian Crane Memorandum aims to build awareness of a dwindling species that is facing the tragic risk of being forgotten. Photo: Special Arrangement
SINGULAR FOCUS: Using a handful of birds, the Siberian Crane Memorandum aims to build awareness of a dwindling species that is facing the tragic risk of being forgotten. Photo: Special Arrangement

We are in a new era of conservation where individual animals are being used to rebuild entire populations

A slew of conservation agreements that India has signed with other countries puts the individual animal at the heart of efforts to protect locally endangered species

In 2010, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between India, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, and several other Asian countries bound to the Convention on Migratory Species to carry a pair of Siberian Cranes — now locally extinct in India — on Indian soil as a step towards their conservation. In the first week of May 2012, a Resolution was signed between India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh for protecting Gyps vultures, teetering at the edge of extinction, from the drug Diclofenac, in both human and veterinarian forms. On May 17, India and Russia inked a Joint Resolution on saving tigers and leopards, followed with the signing of another bilateral agreement between India and Nepal on cross-border protection for tigers. In October this year, India will host the Conference of Parties for the Convention of Biological Diversity, the only Convention that legally binds most countries in the world to protect species, ecosystems, and ways of life that foster species and ecosystems.

Siberian crane absent since 2002

It is perhaps the first time that that the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, has displayed so much diplomatic heft, and for such diverse species. Siberian Cranes have not been spotted in Keoladeo National Park since 2002. It is a local extinction that is confusing for the generation that bird-watched in the 1990's, but one that is fairly accepted in the tourists of today. Siberian Cranes sailed over national borders each year — officially recorded by Rajasthan forest department from the 1960s to the 90s — crossing 5,000 kilometres from Russia to Ab-i-istada in Afghanistan, to India's Keoladeo National Park with the insouciance and ease characteristic of wild animals. The annual migration of the Siberian Crane — a white-eyed bird with an unmissable scarlet face — held an enigma that was both arresting as well as mystifying.

The Gyps vulture

On the other hand, the vulture was viewed as rather less charismatic. The vulture scours the Indian subcontinent to clean up our carcasses; unfortunately for the Gyps vulture species, it only got missed following a cataclysmic population crash (99.9 per cent decline) in the last decade alone. The tiger has held our attention since the inception of India's conservation movement in the 1970s, but rather than being just a gratifying diplomatic move, the agreement with Nepal on tigers demonstrates a very real fear — that of poaching of individual tigers as they traverse a leaky border.

The Government of India's involvement with these international agreements signals two advances. One is the admission of the real threat of local extinctions that species like the tiger and Gyps vulture are exposed to — and the way forward for the Siberian Crane, which has already succumbed to local extinction.

The other is a welcome addition of a cross-sectoral organisational milieu to these agreements — signalling that with species moving all the time, conservation cannot be the business of governments alone. The regional declaration on vultures includes contributions from and expertise of the Cambridge University and the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, which, along with a host of organisations, will now examine new drugs like Ketoprofen and Nimesulide to see if they pose a threat to vultures. The treaties on tiger conservation have come after involvement with the World Bank and new players like the Environmental Crime Programme of the Interpol, created in 2009.

I'd like to argue a third consequence: apart from the rarefied, bilateral and multilateral nature of these conservation agreements and intra-country conservation strategies, these treaties will bring back focus on individual animals.

The Siberian Crane Memorandum especially focuses on creating a new, and national, consciousness of the Siberian Cranes using just a handful of birds. These birds will be kept in an exhibit facility in India, with the eventual aim of building a resident Indian population. This effort is working backwards from many other conservation actions — following local extinction, the goal will now be to use individuals to build awareness and re-forge associations with the species, one that faces not just a drop in numbers, but the tragic risk of being forgotten.

Like the Siberian Crane initiative, these tigers and vultures that cross borders should stand for symbols that shape a national conservation consciousness. This can be done by following the stories of animals as they cross borders and safeguarding their dispersal.

Tiger corridor

The success of the Indo-Nepal agreement on tiger protection should not be judged through well-lit conference declarations but through the action taken when an individual tiger traverses between India's dense and poorly-visible Dudhwa National Park to Nepal's forests — and in providing a corridor which is safe from snares and guns. And the resolution between India and Nepal should signal, on a day-to-day level, a Diclofenac-free entry pass for vultures, already observed to travel between Jharkhand and Nepal.

We are in a new era of conservation, one where individual animals are being used to rebuild entire populations and one in which human intervention comes with increasing degrees of scale. After individual tigers were taken, one by one, to repopulate Sariska and Panna tiger reserves between 2008-2010, inter-State reintroductions are in various levels of planning and execution for swamp deer, rhinos, gharials, gaurs and Red pandas. It is an intervention paradigm that has unsettled the mores of the ‘let-nature-be' school of thought. Equally, it is an intervention paradigm that runs the risk of making mascots out of individuals to the detriment of a serious conservation effort that relies more on saving what exists rather than artificially moving species.

But new bilateral initiatives also hold the chance to reintroduce the idea of the intrinsic worth of an individual animal, much in the way old-school conservation valorised wild animals for their most basic quality — that of being ‘wild'. Animals have been valued for qualities of homing and migrations, epic journeys for food and habitat, and with an inconvenient and constant disregard for politics and borders; this symbolism has held central space in traditional ideologies of conservation. It may be time to rekindle these values, with the focus on individuals that this contemporary spate of international resolutions will bring.

Tagging & monitoring

At a tangible level, very few individual tigers and vultures remain, especially near international borders. On a practical level, this will mean more radio-collaring or satellite-tagging of individual tigers and vultures, and monitoring of their movements as they cross borders. On a broader level, it will mean facilitating and cementing co-operation between different State agencies with new gusto. Amidst much gloom and reports of tiger poaching, there is the recent success story of a tiger from Uttar Pradesh's Rehmankheda, one that left forest corridors, facing the risk of human conflict and organised poaching. With sustained and coordinated effort between various district agencies (and a 100-day chase later) the tiger was caught, radio-collared and released in the Dudhwa forests.

That is the story of an individual tiger, one that has found a long-drawn but amenable conclusion. Individuals foster species, and as the tiger, Siberian Crane and Gyps Vultures crash towards extinctions, a focus on the intrinsic worth of the individual may be the all-important first step both towards nurturing national consciousness as well as saving Joint Resolutions from tedium.

(Neha Sinha is a writer and conservationist with the Bombay Natural History Society.)

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