OUR WILDERNESS It’s high time people stopped delegating the responsibility for
conserving our wildlife to the government and themselves adopt an
environment-friendly lifestyle. Don’t forget ?July 1 is VANAMAHOTSAVA
It’s high time people stopped delegating the responsibility for conserving our wildlife to the government and themselves adopt an environment-friendly lifestyle. Don’t forget ?July 1 is VANAMAHOTSAVA DAY.
Tigers reaching extinction, only a couple of hundred wild lions surviving in Gir, extinction of pink- headed ducks, dwindling populations of elephants, rhinoceroses? almost all animals losing their battle for survival.
"We lose at least 10,000 square kilometers of forest each year and at least 50,000 square kilometers of dense forest canopy are thinned out by the timber mafia. The central government puts the loss each year from forests at 50,000 crores or 1,200 million dollars. The actual level of depletion could be far higher. Few realise that 300 rivers and perennial streams flow from the forests of the tiger. Natural resources are exploited by the politicians and businessmen; the exploitation is then rationalised in the name of ‘development? It is a partnership in crime that cripples this country each day as the face of our land is ripped apart and scarred; rivers are drowned in so many toxic chemicals that river water has become a cocktail of poison. Environment and wildlife laws are violated and every structure of enforcement is paralysed. Resources allocated to protect our environment add up to 50 crores each year when our loss is 50,000 crores annually." So writes Valmik Thaper, India’s "Tiger Man", in his book, Wild Tigers of Ranthambore.
What a depressing picture he projects of a Sujalam, Sufalam country! Although India has produced some of the finest environmentalists like Sunderlal Bahuguna, Chandi Prasad Bhat, Anil Agarwal, Salim Ali, Humayun Abdul Ali? our forests are disappearing. The question arises, what is our forest department doing? In an interaction with Arvind Jha, Conservator of Forests, Thane District, the limitations to good work came forth: "What do you expect from us? Miracles? For the past several years the budget for the department is being reduced. Every single office in this department is ill- equipped, understaffed, unarmed and facing severe financial challenges."
Jha sounded desperate: "I have one unarmed guard to protect 3-5 sq. kms of forests. I have no money to pay for the expenses like diesel, electricity bills, fencing, etc. but I am expected to save these forests. How and from whom?" I realised what an uphill task these forest officers have to undergo. Without much support, either from the government or the people, without large funds, without the manpower or the weapons, they are struggling to keep the forests intact from poachers, terrorists and criminals like Veerappan. They also have to produce revenue, impart education and increase forest cover. Truly an impossible job!
Our forests are under the vigilance of officers of a special cadre called the Indian Forest Service or the IFS. Established in the mid 19th century by the British, the IFS was mainly created to supply timber to their Navy. In order to have an uninterrupted supply of teak for the King’s Navy, the British government proclaimed teak a royal tree, and introduced some measures towards the conservation of teak and other shipbuilding timbers. Two officers of the long-established Indian Medical Service were the first Conservators of Forests: Dr. Gibson in Bombay in 1847, and Dr. Cleghorn in Madras in 1856.
The rate of exploitation of India’s finest forests was phenomenal. In 1854, Dr. McClelland requested Lord Dalhousie to take measures to control this exploitation. The Governor-General laid down the first outline of a permanent forest policy and appointed an officer called Brandis as the Superintendent of Forests in Pegu, Burma, in 1856. Brandis stopped shifting cultivation, one of the major reasons for deforestation, in 1860.
The second phase of the Indian Forest Service began in 1864 when Brandis was appointed the first Inspector-General of Forests in order to initiate regular forest administration and management. The forest officers of that time carried a territorial responsibility. The areas were large and no one could absent himself from his area without permission. Thus no evasion of responsibility was possible. The forest officer was essentially a district officer or became one. Apart from Schlich and Ribbentrop, who entered the service in 1866, 95 IFS officers were recruited in England, trained in France or Germany, and joined the Service in the 18 years between 1869 and 1886. Conservatorships (or Circles) were created in all the provinces by 1868, but the staff under them remained very small and the subordinate staff was badly paid and housed. The area of some of these charges was enormous and transfers of the most able officers from one province to another were frequent. Despite such odds, the forest officials did a commendable job of regulating the forests and earning revenue.
The first Indian Forest Act was passed in 1865. Accurate surveys and maps are extremely important for successful administration and management of forests. Therefore, in 1873 the Forest Survey Branch was created for topographical surveys.
The third phase of IFS started when it was re-constituted as the third All-Indian Service in 1966. The All-India Services are created by the President of India under Article 312 of the constitution of India. The officers of an All-India Service are allocated to a State cadre and they normally work under the government of that State unless called upon by the Union Government to work under itself. Recruitment is made through an All-India Open Competition (IFS Examination) on a yearly basis conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), New Delhi. It is open to Science Graduates only. The candidates have to qualify in a written test, personality test, rigorous medical test and an endurance test consisting of a 25 km. walk. Profiles of new entrants in IFS show that most of them are highly qualified with post-graduate degrees in Science, Engineering, Agriculture and Forestry disciplines.
Today’s forest officials have different roles, new challenges and a completely different attitude than their British counterparts, who were mainly involved in revenue generation. With stricter laws and regulations, the forests today are considered non-exploitable assets. The foresters are required to work on issues like conservation, increasing biodiversity, management of natural reserves, spreading awareness and education, encouraging participation by the locals and increasing tourism.
The Tiger Issue
The Indian mind thinks of a forest or wildlife only in terms of a tiger, and when one thinks of a tiger, the late Kailash Sankhla’s name immediately comes to mind. This man realised the importance of tigers as top predators to keep the web of forest life intact. When he realised that tigers were surely heading towards extinction, he was shaken. The estimated tiger population then (in 1970), was about 1,000 in the entire country (as against 40,000 in 1900). As a responsible forest official, Sankhla decided to give this matter utmost priority. After serious lobbying and reasoning, Project Tiger was launched in 1972. With great work done by Sankhla, G.V. Reddy, Fateh Singh Rathore and several others, the tiger issue started "burning bright" and brought out several concerns relating to forests, conservation, wildlife, livelihood and development. Sankhla, as the director of the project, was successful in increasing the number of tigers to almost triple the number that existed in the seventies.
The wildlife trade is a major reason for the reduction of tigers and many other animals with beautiful hides or decorative parts like tusks, horns, antlers, etc. Animal products fetch high prices in international markets and many animals are slaughtered for this reason. After organised action by customs, police and security forces against drug trafficking, the wildlife trade became a major source of income for terrorists and the mafia. Terrorists have destroyed Manas in Assam; a sanctuary which was one of the best in the world is in ashes today. Almost the entire North Eastern forests are in the grip of terrorism today.
With support from the international mafia, poachers are well equipped and forest officials have an unfair combat to fight. It is the combat between the Kalashnikov and the lathi. There are several forest officers fighting such unfair battles. For instance, A.M. Annaiah, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Nagarhole, is fighting against sandalwood and timber poachers in the Shimoga district in Karnataka, not only with small-time poachers, but also organised criminals like Veerappan. Annaiah’s efforts were recognised by the ABN-AMRO Sanctuary Award, which was recently conferred on him. However, there are many such officers who are doing great work, but their songs remain unsung.
Conserving habitats for wildlife is the major task for the Forest Department. Unfortunately, most of our forests and parks are shrinking. The case of Mumbai’s own National Park, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), is quite distressing. SGNP is a unique forest. No other city in the world, within its limits, has a National Park with such a diverse forest and such a big number of predators like leopards. Thanks to this 105 sq. km. park, we can still breathe in this polluted city.
Management of SGNP has always been a serious issue due to its proximity to Mumbai. Being an island, Mumbai faces severe problems of land shortage and to keep a park like SGNP safe from encroachment is almost impossible. Sure enough, about 20 square kilometers area of this park was encroached upon by builders, slums and illegal quarries in the last two decades. When the encroachment problem became severe, the Bombay Environment Action Group, an environmental activist group, filed a petition in the High Court and brought orders to remove the encroachments. However, because of strong political interference, organised groups of encroachers, some elite socialites and human rights activists, the Forest Department is under tremendous pressure not to comply with the court orders. The situation is typical of our country, where defaulters go scot-free and the responsibility is tossed about among the bureaucrats and the politicians. However, the Forest Department showed courage and diplomacy in complying with the court orders to remove most encroachments within a short time.
When probed on this matter, Bharti, Dy. Conservator of Forests, SGNP, said that it was the coordination among different wings of the Forest Department and cooperation from the environmental groups that helped the Department in this situation. Bharti said that all it requires is to keep your head while tackling such explosive situations and take firm decisions as required. The Indian Forest Act is a strong Act and gives reasonable powers to the forest officials to help them in their task.
Since the early seventies, wildlife tourism has increased in India. Efforts by the government as well as the private sector have contributed towards its growth. Forests like Ranthambore, Kanha National Park, Periyar, Mudumalai, Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and Corbette National Park are major tourist attractions. The life of forest officials here mainly revolves around tourists and tourist attractions. Unfortunately, wildlife tourists in India are ill-behaved and they cause immense damage to these parks by littering, throwing matchsticks or cigarettes, playing music or creating noise. Also, tourists try to venture into core zones of the parks in the quest of spotting big mammals. Restricting these tourists to the tourism zone and entertaining and educating them is quite an uphill task.
I remember an incident where I created panic through misguided moves. The incident happened in the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary in West Bengal. Early in the morning I was waiting for the elephants to get ready for the morning trip to see the famous one-horned rhino. Since there was some free time, I was wandering aimlessly in the nearby forest. Suddenly, I heard some noise at a distance, and after a few moments the cause of the noise appeared, a full-grown male elephant taking his morning snack. I decided to click pictures, but the light was too dim. Shooting elephants with a flash is a risky business since it irritates the animal and there is always the risk of the animal attacking you. It is always wiser to avoid such heroics.
However, I noticed a deep trench between the pachyderm and me and decided to take some pictures by using the flashgun. I did so, and the gentle giant got angry. He started trumpeting and moving his head up and down in rage. In his fury the animal jumped into the trench and started crossing it. I was terrified and I ran back to our own elephants thinking that the bull would not dare to approach when some 13 tame elephants were standing with a mob of about 60 people. However, the animal kept charging and at that moment the local officer realised that it was the infamous rogue elephant from that area who wouldn’t stop. He ordered all of us to mount the elephants and stay put. We hurriedly did so.
However, these elephants too started getting agitated since all of them were females and had their calves around. To safeguard their calves, they started challenging the rogue while we were on their backs. In a split second the local officer made a decision. He rushed to his office, brought his gun and shot a blank. The rogue animal was stunned by the sound and escaped into the dense forest. It was the timely action of the forester which saved everybody from the wrath of the rogue.
Forest fires are quite common in our country, and keep forest officials on their toes. According to a document of the Forest Survey of India, India loses 37 million hectares of secondary forest vegetation every year. Almost all these fires are caused by carelessly lit cigarettes or cooking or bonfires. Quite a few fires are also started to clear a forest patch which can be encroached upon later on.
In SGNP too, forest fires are a regular phenomenon. The number of fires decreased after the core zone of the park was sealed for the tourists, but still the park is on fire every single week during the summer months, especially during the festival of Mahashivratri. Lakhs of people enter the park on this day to pray, especially as there is no Shiva temple in this park. The carelessly thrown matchsticks and half-extinguished cigarettes and bidi butts start the fire, which is fuelled by the strong winds. In the absence of any firefighting equipment, the foresters have to run with green branches from nearby trees to put out the fire. It is not the equipments but the attitude that matters in such cases.
Forest fires mainly burn secondary vegetation like grasses and herbs, which is the primary food of herbivores. In the absence of food, these animals emerge from the forests and the man-animal conflict begins. The herbivores then raid the green farms to satisfy their hunger or the carnivores appear in search of food since their prey base has been removed from the forests. The carnivores, which move mostly at night, attack human beings due to mistaken identity or lift cattle, pets or even children in some cases. Villagers then react strongly by killing animals or even setting up fires, clearing some more forest. Also, many times locals put up false claims by showing naturally dead cattle or pets as victims of predatory attacks. If such claims are overruled by forest officials, the villagers take revenge by killing wildlife or by destroying the forests. Under all these circumstances, the forest officials have to stay calm and try and bring the situation under control. This task is worse than fighting a war, when you at least know who the enemy is.
Issues like wildlife trade, habitat destruction, encroachments, fire, etc. are an inevitable part of our society. The problems will always remain and the Forest Department will keep fighting to prevent it, there is no escape from the situation. But some difference would be made if people stop delegating the responsibility for conserving our wildlife to the government and themselves adopt an environment-friendly lifestyle.