A barn owl and a tiger. Representative image. Photos: Hari K Patibanda/Flickr, CC BY 2.0, gawnesco/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0 Collage: The Wire Science
In general, conservation has had the unfortunate history of being the preserve of the global urban elite, reflected in the canonical area – and species-based conservation approaches endorsed by global brands of conservation, both institutional and individual.
The year 2022 marks an important landmark year for Indian conservation, as it has been 50 years since the enactment of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 (hereafter Wild Life Act). This Act arguably resulted in the preservation of many natural areas and prevented – the then ongoing – declines of numerous species. That it was formulated by a select few and incorporated but a minute fraction of the country’s enormous cultural diversity in human-environmental relationships is but a historical footnote now. The use of wildlife was allowed within the Act when it was first passed, but became viewed as abhorrent over time even though it was practiced and accepted by local communities. This, of course, applies predominantly to terrestrial species and higher vertebrates, as aquatic life continued to be used.
For the next decade or two, Indian conservation would be dominated by an upper-class clique whose primary qualification was access to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Many important and valuable decisions were no doubt made, but conservation in the country became increasingly elitist, protectionist and exclusionary during this time. Through the 1990s and 2000s, a people’s revolution ensued, with calls for a more inclusive approach.
What does all this have to do with the recently passed amendment of the Wildlife Act? Well, the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2022 passed by both houses of parliament evokes a strong sense of déjà vu. A throwback to the elitism of the 1970s and 1980s if you will. While the world is moving towards more inclusive models of conservation, India’s premier law for wildlife protection has not kept pace with the changing moral, ethical and social milieu, and seems to be moving back in time.
In the latest report, which recommends an array of changes, is a new list of species under the Schedules of the Act. These schedules confer varying degrees of protection to species (and punishment for infringement) and consequently prohibit the use of various kinds, including some forms of research. The key schedules (1 and 2) now include an expanded list of mammals, nearly all birds found in the country, some selected amphibians and reptiles, some sharks and rays (an earlier draft contained more than 100, including many commonly used species), and many pretty invertebrate species. Should this not be cause for cheer amongst conservationists? What could be wrong with prioritising more species for conservation and giving them more stringent protection?
From 1972 to the present, various actors from government and civil society have contributed to the Act and hold collective responsibility for its outcomes, both positive and negative, which will continue to be debated. Here, we focus on the problems with the schedules in an open letter to the conservationists who contributed to this list. Its consequences may have been unintended but are nevertheless far reaching, given the way the Act is framed. We call for a more inclusive approach to process and a broader dialogue between a wide range of ecologists, social scientists, and state agencies so that we can arrive at a formulation that is better for wildlife, people and conservation.
Dear conservationist colleagues:
First and foremost, the elevation, as it were, of species to Schedules 1 and 2 conflates three very different goals. The first is the prioritisation of species for conservation, the second is punitive action for violating the Act, and the third is the regulation of scientific research. When the same piece of information (listing of species on Schedules) is used to inform very different objectives simultaneously, chaos is bound to ensue. The Wild Life Act is primarily a legal instrument that legislates and provides for punitive actions for trade, trafficking and other forms of illegal use of species. It is a restrictive act, and not an enabling one, and is not well designed to prioritise species for conservation or set research goals.
Even the IUCN Red List, the global standard for conservation prioritisation, clearly states that it is policy-relevant but not policy prescriptive. This means that listing a species as ‘Critically Endangered’ or ‘Endangered’ does not prescribe a single particular course of action for conservation. In other words, the conservation action needed to ensure the viability of two ‘Critically Endangered’ species can be completely different from each other, depending on the biology of the species (body mass, range size, etc.), and the social, economic and political contexts that the species exist in. Nonetheless, default conservation actions – whether driven by IUCN or Wild Life Act Schedule priorities – tend to be overwhelmingly exclusionary. Thus, listing species often has little positive conservation impact, and negative consequences in many cases.
Second, the process for listing species is as unclear as it was in the previous list. Red Listing processes have a clear methodology with relatively well-worked-out data-driven criteria that determines whether a species meets the criteria for a specific threat category. The current listing has no transparent methodology/mechanism, which is the crux of the problem.
In addition, the list of species appears to have been created with little or no consultation. While many wildlife ecologists were aware of (and party to) submissions to the Joint Parliamentary Committee with regard to the sections governing research and other provisions of the Act, few were aware of large-scale changes to the list of species in the schedules. There are today large databases on many groups of vertebrates across India, but none of this seems to have been incorporated into the decision-making. Consequently, the outcomes are not based on science, which is particularly odd given the breadth of ongoing scientific research and existing expertise in India.
This means that some species find themselves in Schedule 1, but biologically and conservation-wise, similar species are in Schedule 2. This specific arbitrariness was what conservation scientists loudly bemoaned in the previous version of the Schedules, but we have now dealt ourselves a similar set of cards. Thus, species which are critically endangered, such as the Great Indian bustard – down to less than 150 individuals – find themselves in the company of peafowl, which are so numerous that they are considered as agricultural pests.
Similarly, jackals and bonnet macaques are listed in the same breath as tigers and rhinos in Schedule 1. The barn owl, an extremely common bird often found nesting in the apartments in the cities, is placed in Schedule I along with the forest owlet which is rare and possibly endangered. On the other hand, the white-bellied sholakili is in Schedule 1, but the Palani laughingthrush, a bird with similar ecology and a far more restricted distribution, is in Schedule 2. The checkered keelback and rat snake, which are amongst India’s most widespread and common snakes, are on Schedule 1 while most other snakes (including rare and range-restricted ones) are on Schedule II. The ‘list’ goes on.
A principal consequence of listing species in the schedules is its impact on research. Despite many efforts to change the Act, research that requires capture of animals continues to be accommodated as an exception to hunting prohibitions under section 12(b) of the Wild Life Act. While permit processes have been streamlined in many states (and the recommendations contain provisions for improvement), access to both areas and species listed in the schedules has and will continue to be constrained regardless of whether mediated by state agencies or conservationists themselves. But this poses unreasonable and unnecessary constraints on what we can learn about the ecology of these animals and what is needed for their conservation. The inclusion of all these species in the Schedules could be the death knell of ecological research in India.
But, today, we need far more detailed information on species more than ever, as the pace and intensity of climate change continues to ratchet upwards. To what degree are threatened species thermally stressed? What effect does this stress have on survival? What kinds of species are likely to move in response to climate change? Where will they move to?
These are just some questions for which it will become increasingly crucial to find answers if the conservation community is to take adequate action to ensure that populations remain viable. Answering such questions requires fine-grain information using the latest technology and tools, and cannot be collected by simply observing an animal or a plant from a distance. To conflate punitive measures for illegally hunting a Schedule 1 species and temporarily capturing a Schedule 1 species to affix a tracking device, or obtain a highly informative tissue sample are at cross-purposes. Thus, the provisions of the Wild Life Act can be in complete disconnect with the science that is required to gather fine scale information for the protection of a species. As of now, too many decisions with widely varying objectives are based on a single listing of species in different Schedules.
Globally, South Asia is set to be one of the most drastically impacted regions by climate change and emerging diseases. In the future, India will need to rely on a well-trained cadre of wildlife biologists and disease ecologists to understand rapidly emerging threats to wildlife and humans and recommend innovative conservation plans using a ‘One Health’ approach. Climate change is going to lead to unforeseen threats that will demand out-of-the-box thinking. If the revised schedules in the amended Act end up being a barrier to understanding the natural world and its species in a rapidly changing world, we have shot ourselves in the foot by not allowing an environment in which the next generations of conservation scientists can be allowed to develop. While countries across the world are increasingly recognising the importance of science in aiding conservation, this goes in the opposite direction.
One of the major criticisms of the Wild Life Act was that it did very little to promote the conservation of species that were listed under the various schedules. By contrast, legislatures in other countries, such as the Endangered Species Act of the US, are designed to set in place a series of steps that will ensure that populations of listed species recover, so that eventually they can be delisted.
Though contested and exclusionary, area-based conservation approaches in India have been effective to a degree. However, listing large numbers of species in the Schedules can greatly dilute the attention needed for a select few, increase confusion for implementing agencies and even lead to perverse consequences.
As in the famous Bharatpur example, many grasslands and wetland birds are common, but their habitats are maintained by a certain form of human use. If these are fenced because their denizens are now elevated in the Act, it is possible or even likely that they will decline. For example, species such as the Great Indian Bustard have become critically endangered because area-based conservation failed to account for the ecology of these species that needed vast areas spread across 1000s of sq.km.
Finally, the recommendations are utterly insensitive and tone deaf about people, from farmers to fishermen to forest dwellers. Species that are both common and cause immeasurable harm to farmers and forest fringe communities such as wild pig and nilgai are listed under Schedule 2. These and other species impose a massive economic and psychological cost on these communities, affecting their physical and mental wellbeing.
The recommendations continue the vein of protectionism that marked the formulation of the Act. Fifty years on, they represent yet another example of elitism and neo-colonialism. We make a call here for a clear elucidation of the purpose of listing schedules in the Wild Life Act, followed by the development of a clear, robust approach to listing and delisting species. We recommend a democratic, data-driven approach to conservation prioritisation, independent of Act-based restrictions to conservation actions and approaches. This should comprise a more inclusive set of such approaches that take into account the country’s true cultural diversity, not just urban elite mindsets and practices. Finally, we call for an open access regime for science and research that can help advance both ecology and conservation in the country.
Though the Act has been passed, there remains an opportunity for the government and wildlife scientists to engage and arrive at a formulation that is better for wildlife, people and conservation.
Kartik Shanker and Umesh Srinivasan are with the Indian Institute of Science. Robin Vijayan (VV) and Nandini Rajamani are with Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Tirupati. Ramana Athreya and Jayant Kulkarni are with IISER, Pune. Farah Ishtiaq, Tata Institute for Genetics and Society, Bangalore. Ullasa Kodandaramiah and Heman Somanathan, IISER, Thiruvananthapuram. Anand Krishnan, IISER, Bhopal Prachi Mehta, Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, Pune. Abi T. Vanak, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru.