As we stay at home and wait out the lockdown, many of us have found solace in the idea of nature rebounding in Indian cities. The skies are bluer, the birds are chirping, and deer, peacock and elephants are reclaiming the streets.
A different story, however, is unfolding for wildlife in India’s national parks.
Anecdotal evidence has rolled in from across the country – including Assam, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand – of illegal activity in forests, thwarted poaching attempts and seizure of bushmeat.
In theory, the shutdown of tourism and jeep safaris in wildlife reserves means less sound and noise pollution in the forest, and greater freedom of movement for animals. But in reality, wildlife tourism – with its many additional eyes and income streams – keeps illegal hunting and excessive resource extraction at bay.
Loss of wildlife tourism revenue
According to a 2017 TOFTigers report led by conservation biologist Raghu Chundawat, wildlife tourism across four tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh (Kanha, Panna, Bandavgarh and Pench) generated an annual revenue of Rs 166 crore. Of this, 45% was ploughed back into the local economy, generating employment for lodge and camp staff, guides, jeep drivers, souvenir shop owners and small businesses.
Since the lockdown began on March 24, tourism revenues have stopped entirely. With their livelihoods lost, it is no surprise that those living on the fringes of forests may be turning to the resources in their backyard.
“The next 8-10 months will be tough for the tourism industry, but our biggest fear is going back into the forest to find that there’s been a lot of illegal felling or trapping. If the forest’s health is degraded, wildlife tourism – and the people who depend on it – will take much longer to recover,” Jehan Bhujwala, co-founder and naturalist at the Shergarh Tented Camp in Kanha National Park, told The Wire Science.
In Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, wildlife tourism began declining back in December 2019, following the CAA protests, and finally came to a standstill in mid-March. In a single week during the lockdown, forest officials thwarted at least six poaching attempts for the coveted one-horned rhino’s horn in protected areas. Unfortunately, Kaziranga’s 13-month long “no poaching” record was broken this month when a rhino carcass was found alongside eight rounds of empty AK47 cartridges. Its horn was missing.
Karnataka has also reported an increased detection of rudimentary snares and poaching attempts in Bandipur and Nagarhole National Parks. The snares may have been set up to capture wild meat (wild boar or deer) but wouldn’t filter out big cats or other animals, who also risk being injured.
Prerna Singh Bindra, a member of the standing committee of India’s National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) in 20100-2013, emphasised that “increased reliance on the forest – most already under pressure – may not be sustainable. The need of the hour is to address livelihood needs while also stepping up vigilance.”
Resource extraction, returning workers
The months from April to June are already high season for local communities to tap into forest reserves.
“Increased forest activity is common at this time of the year. The village folk use their nistar rights – rights to the concessional supply of forest produce – to extract bamboo to mend fences and timber to repair their houses before the monsoon. Mahua and tendu fruit collection can [precipitate] increased human-animal contact and conflict with bears,” Hashim Tyabji, a naturalist and former honorary wildlife warden in the Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, said.
But in the Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh alone, where nearly 50% of Kanha National Park lies, an estimated 55,000 migrant workers returned home in the first month of the lockdown. The young men and women who worked in construction or other contract jobs in nearby cities had suddenly found themselves out of work.
Kanha is already feeling “added pressure from the returning workers for resource extraction in the buffer zone,” L. Krishnamurthy, the field director at Kanha Tiger Reserve, said. “Lockdown or not, protection is always a challenge for a national park. We have equipped our patrolling camps with essential supplies and provided health checkups. The core area is well-protected but in the buffer zone, resources are limited and now there seems to be increased competition among the local population.”
A forest official confirmed there had been 14 human casualties due to human-animal conflict across Madhya Pradesh in the first month since the lockdown – nearly twice the average number expected at this time of the year.
Short- and long-term solutions
With the continuation of the lockdown and the arrival of the forest fire season, “one short term solution is to redirect those who worked in tourism (and are familiar with the forest as guides and drivers) to support the forest department with information gathering and monitoring. That could create temporary livelihoods, while also sharing the responsibility of conservation with the local community. It will in turn, reduce the pressure on forest resources,” suggested Bhujwala.
In the long run, directing a portion of tourism revenues towards an emergency conservation fund and increasing incentive-driven enforcement could help protect vulnerable wildlife habitats across India.
India gradually needs to shift away from fortress conservation, which alienates local communities, to a model that leverages traditional ecological knowledge. In a 2018 study by the Rights and Resources Initiative, researchers compared the success of conservation in forest areas managed by indigenous communities with protected zones conserved through modern science-based techniques. The study, which spanned 28 countries including India, found that local people achieved similar (if not better) conservation outcomes at a substantially lower budget.
Increased resource extraction, bushmeat hunting and human-animal conflicts during the lockdown are evidence that the protection of wildlife habitats are closely interlinked with the economic sustenance of rural communities. At the same time, the health of these wildlife habitats is essential for the prevention of future pandemics. An article co-authored by disease ecology expert Peter Daszak warned, “rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.”
It is therefore imperative that India’s national parks be protected through immediate financial support to rural communities in the short term and conservation-oriented livelihoods in the long run. If not for forests and the animals, then for our own survival.
Shivya Nath writes at the confluence of responsible travel, animal rights and sustainability. She is the author of the best-selling travel memoir The Shooting Star, and runs an award-winning travel blog. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @shivya.