World Environment Day, June 5 Environment

Rewilding India

A rhinoceros in Kaziranga   | Photo Credit: AJT Johnsingh

Earlier this week, videos of blackbucks frolicking in the grasslands of Bisalpur, a village in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, were shared on the Instagram page of the Bisalpur Rewilding Project. Helmed by royal Shweta Rathore, the project (that commenced in 2018) has brought back over 150 of the endangered Indian antelope, apart from several other species of fauna and flora. This is a successful example of rewilding — a term linked with ecological restoration that has the ‘potential to increase biodiversity, and create self-sustainable environments’. “Rajasthan holds huge possibilities for rewilding,” says Rathore, explaining that the grasslands are often mistaken for wastelands in the state. Today, Bisalpur is teeming with over 100 species of birds, including the black drongo and blue-cheeked bee eater, and Rathore’s team has successfully worked on vulture conservation in the area.

Rewilding has been practised for decades across the globe. Take, for instance, the reintroduction of wolves at Yellowstone over 21 years ago, which helped successfully reverse the degraded ecosystem at the US national park. But while restoring barren or damaged landscapes is welcome — closer home, examples include the pygmy hog returning to Assam, and conserving Indian rhinos at Dudhwa Tiger Reserve — rewilding needs to be done in a pragmatic manner. So what could be a better time to bring up this discussion than on World Environment Day 2021, aptly themed on ecosystem restoration.

Expanding the definition
  • “In India, we have traditionally been more concerned about species than ecosystems. So we’d reintroduce tigers in Sariska and Panna, where they were locally extinct, or move rhinoceros to Dudhwa, or captive breed gharials and release them in rivers in North India. If the forests and rivers into which these species are being released are already protected areas, what are we rewilding?” asks author and journalist, Janaki Lenin.
  • Elaborating on rewilding projects, she point to the Timbaktu Collective’s Kalpavalli forest, which stretches over 7,500 acres of what was once degraded pasture land and now is a habitat for blackbucks, leopards, and wolves. To a smaller extent, Rao Jodha Park in Jodhpur supplanted a Prosopis wasteland. Also, in Pandalgudi, near Madurai, the Auroville Botanical Sanctuary is restoring abandoned limestone mines of Ramco Cements. “Can we expand the definition of rewilding to include restoration of abandoned landscapes?” asks Lenin.

Moreover, starting this year, the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration comes into play. Be it mangroves or aquatic wildlife, the initiative is aimed at "challenging everyone to scale up restoration efforts that breathe new life into our degraded ecosystems". The announcement comes at a crucial juncture for India, where nearly 70 years after the last cheetah was pushed to extinction, a new ‘rehabilitation’ programme was announced last week. Soon, eight big cats are to be relocated from South Africa to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh. If all goes as per plan, the region could become the country’s first-ever cheetah sanctuary.

Even as this programme is being debated, it is safe to say that the concept of rewilding is vastly misunderstood. In the West, the stress is on ecosystems rather than individual species, whereas it is the other way around in India. We ask experts to weigh in on the definition, successful projects in the country, where we’re lagging, and what needs to be done.

(Clockwise from bottom left) K Ullas Karanth, conducting radio telemetry, and Karanth, Melvin Sunquist and team with a tranquillised radio-collared tiger

(Clockwise from bottom left) K Ullas Karanth, conducting radio telemetry, and Karanth, Melvin Sunquist and team with a tranquillised radio-collared tiger   | Photo Credit: Kalyan Varma, Michael Nichols, and Fiona Sunquist

Backed by science

Ullas Karanth, wildlife biologist and director, Centre for Wildlife Studies

To Karanth, rewilding is restoring viable populations of species to habitats from which they have been eliminated by human actions and impacts. “The plan to create a second population of lions in Kuno, Madhya Pradesh, that began in the 1980s [by reintroducing lions from Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat] was reasonably well thought out. But the one to introduce cheetahs from Africa is poorly conceived as it ignores the fact that the spotted cat requires large areas to sustain itself. And in habitats already densely populated by humans and livestock, they will be eliminated due to conflicts,” he says. “The first step should have been to create a wilderness area of 5,000 or more square kilometres. Without such preparation, reintroductions are unlikely to establish a viable population in India.”

Karanth stresses that rewilding is not about unthinkingly dumping wild (caught or captive bred) animals in an ad hoc manner. “Species go extinct because of impacts and threats. These could be social [human and livestock density], cultural [hunting practices], and ecological [size and quality of available habitat]. If these threats have not been addressed, rewilding is unlikely to work,” he says.

Rewilding India

One for the cities

Bahar Dutt, environmental journalist and author

The most exciting project Dutt discovered while researching her 2019 book, Rewilding: India’s Experiments in Saving Nature, was the effort to set up riverside hatcheries along the Chambal River in Madhya Pradesh. Led by Dr Shailendra Singh of the Turtle Survival Alliance, it had “no fancy cages, no veterinary doctors on call”, just hundreds of nests being guarded ‘in-situ’ by local people. “Rewilding as a concept is exciting, but it cannot be replicated in India the way it was originally developed in the West,” she says. “However, if we can use rewilding to restore corridors and landscapes, while keeping the human component central, rather than just focussing on individual species, it may make more sense for conservation.”

Interestingly, she adds that Indians have always been ‘rewilding’ nature. “In the days before there were fancy dart guns or choppers to move animals, communities were rewilding their forests — whether through the concept of sacred groves or through community-led conservation.” Sacred groves are a classic example of communities having protected and restored forests in a sea of highways and mining projects.

(Clockwise from bottom left) Shweta Rathore, Kartikeya Singh, and snapshots from Bisalpur

(Clockwise from bottom left) Shweta Rathore, Kartikeya Singh, and snapshots from Bisalpur   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Bringing back the black buck

Shweta Rathore, Bisalpur Rewilding Project

Launched in 2018, the Bisalpur Rewilding Project is Rathore’s passion project, along with her 19-year-old son Kartikeya Singh. On the outskirts of Jodhpur, Bisalpur Jor had suffered years of neglect — from overgrazing, mining, etc. The area, which envelops a large chunk of arid desert, is perhaps the last bastion for the region’s wildlife, which includes the black buck, says Rathore, 44, whose paternal ancestors trace their lineage to Ajmer’s Chauhan rulers. With environmentalist Pradip Krishen initially helming the project, today hundreds of species of flora and fauna call the former ‘unviable wasteland’ home.

A few of the techniques adopted by the team include clearing the landscape of baavlia, an invasive weed that was ravaging the indigenous flora, by taking the help of local Khandwaliya folk. They also brought back indigenous trees such as pilwan and dhok, creating a native seed nursery, besides improving water availability in the region, and introducing hydroponic farming. “At Bisalpur, we’ve stopped tilling and ploughing. [Hydroponics] helps stop animals from grazing, and keeps the vulnerable seedlings and native plants safe,” she says, adding that their efforts in vulture conservation have been a success.

(Clockwise from bottom left) AJT Johnsingh, a tigress in Ranthambore, a Nilgiri Tahr male in Eravikulam, and a lioness in Gir

(Clockwise from bottom left) AJT Johnsingh, a tigress in Ranthambore, a Nilgiri Tahr male in Eravikulam, and a lioness in Gir   | Photo Credit: AJT Johnsingh

The Kuno story

AJT Johnsingh, wildlife biologist and author

India has a spate of unfinished rewilding stories. Back in 2013, when Johnsingh was working for the Wildlife Institute of India on the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project in the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, he recalls how, despite the Forest Department of Madhya Pradesh (MP) creating a people-free 750 sq km area, the Gujarat government was not willing to part with a few lions from Gir. “Even after the Supreme Court’s verdict in 2013 [stating that lions should be reintroduced in Kuno within a period of six months], nothing happened. Our last meeting in Kuno related to that was in December 2016,” says the biologist.

Johnsingh believes that if there is sufficient and suitable habitat, rewilding of ungulates (hoofed mammals) will be much easier than carnivores. “In Maharashtra, a rewilded tigress was released [March 2021] but was killed by the local tigress. If the rewilded cat had been released in an area with lots of prey and no resident tigress, it would have survived. But that can’t be done as the goal of rewilding is to augment the population, and so a tiger or tigress should be released only in a place where there are others,” he explains.

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 3:33:00 AM |

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