Sunday, July 19, 2015

Step back and make way. They are equal citizens of Earth.

"These creatures require our absence to survive, not our help. And if we could only step aside and trust in nature, life will find a way," says John Hammond, in The Lost World

He was talking about the dinosaurs, but this is sane advice for almost all conservation efforts today.

Last week, I had my friend Kathi over for lunch and we ended up talking about her house in Colorado. On her last visit, she was sitting by the window, writing. She looks up and sees a black bear looking at her through the window. Perhaps the bear was hungry or just curious. Kathi didn't have the opportunity to find out. She stood very still and the bear eventually just strolled away. None of them bothered the other. There was mutual respect, or so I would like to believe.

It was a thrilling episode, scary but one that she will remember for the rest of her life. I want to have such encounters too (but only the ones that do not end in me being eaten), while staying in the city. And considering that Mumbai boasts of the highest density of leopard population close to a city anywhere in the world, it doesn't seem like an impossible wish. A few years ago, human-animal conflict led to several people being attacked by the big cat near Mumbai, but for the past 3-4 years things have been peaceful. Do we dare hope that humans have learned to co-exist peacefully with the leopards? I do hope so. And we really do need to learn sooner than later.

A very long time ago, human beings were like other animals that have a mutualistic relationship with nature. We undertook risky hunts for food and other requirements, ate when hungry, helped maintain food chain, and when we died, we gave back to the environment. Our corpses were consumed by predators, scavengers, and a variety of other organisms as we decomposed. And whatever was left was gradually absorbed back into the earth. As far as fighting other animals were concerned, it was never a one-sided fight, unlike today. Each party stood to lose as much as the other and there was a natural justice in it all. In short, we were like other animals, and had to play by the rules of the game called Survival of the Fittest. We instinctively understood our place in the scheme of things and never challenged the supremacy of nature.

But as we evolved, our egos grew bigger and we started treating nature as our plaything. Our relationship with nature is easily parasitic now. First, by going on an obscene hunting spree and then by plundering resources like wood, fossil fuels, and minerals, we have selfishly taken much more than we could ever give back. We have pushed both flora and fauna, and nature itself up against the wall. And now when we have done an irreparable damage, we are finally developing a conscience. But hundreds of species have already been lost and many more are on their way. In fact as per a popular discussion now a days, Earth is at the brink of Sixth Mass Extinction and guess who is to blame for it - it is us humans, the species that claims to have the most highly evolved brains of all. Who needs a comet to come strike the Earth when we are busy doing this to ourselves:

Disclaimer: This is a public domain picture, and has been used as per the license.
But whether we are the biggest brains or the biggest morons is a topic of another long discussion, probably to be undertaken in another long blog post. The current concern is to identify some animals that absolutely need to be saved. While species like tigers, lions, and elephants have enough people rooting for them, there are some other species native to Indian subcontinent for whom we need to make more efforts. Some of them are:

Gharial: This quirky crocodilian is easy to identify because of its long, narrow snout. The adult male Gharial's have a Ghara (matka) shaped protrusion on the tip of their snouts. Fish and small crustaceans form the bulk of an adult Gharial's diet. And as a result, overfishing has negatively impacted Gharial population. At the last count, about 1200 gharials were found to be surviving in the wild in India and a very small percentage of these are adults. The populations are limited to three tributaries of Ganga: the Chambal and the Girva Rivers. (source: WWF Indian Gharials) Conservation efforts such as breeding of gharials in captivity and then releasing them into the wild haven't yielded encouraging results because of other factors that impact the population, such as inadequate food supply and low water levels. (source: The Gharial Recovery Program). So a more holistic program that also requires a gharial's preferred habitat to be maintained should be beneficial and efforts are currently on in this direction (refer: The Gharial Recovery Program). And this one of the main reasons why I would love to see more efforts being put into Gharial conservation - it would also result in conservation of rivers, local fish populations, and also lead to conservation of other endangered animals such as Ganges river dolphins and mahseer.
One-horned rhino: Found only in India and Nepal, the one-horned rhino was once almost pushed to extinction because of extensive hunting and poaching. Rhinos are killed for their horns, which are considered to be aphrodisiacs in some cultures, even though there is no such proof. Depletion of alluvial grasslands has also resulted in their population shrinking. By 1975, only about 600 were found surviving in wild. But since then, tireless conservation efforts have brought the numbers back to over 3,000, with about 90 per cent of the population restricted to Kaziranga National Park in Assam. (source: WWF Greater One-Horned Rhino) So even though the numbers are encouraging, this puts the population at risk of extensive damage in case of events like a forest fire or an epidemic. Moreover, most rhino sanctuaries have almost reached their capacity. Therefore, new populations need to be established to truly protect the rhinos.

Indian Wild Dog (Dhole): These social, pack hunters have not had it easy. Not only have they suffered because of prey depletion, they have often been accused of livestock hunting and persecuted. Poisoning of dholes is common in some areas where there is are huge instances of human-animal conflict. But these are brave creatures and have been known to kill tigers and leopards too.Today they survive in Central and Southern India and can also be found in Ladakh and North-East India. The species is listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List, but such is the state of awareness that there are no dedicated efforts to save the species. Moreover, there is no reliable data about how many dholes exist in the wild in India, even though sightings aren't that rare. So you can probably see why this species is on my list.

And here is a fourth species. And if we think long-term about the conservation of this species, all other problems will probably get resolved:
By Paul Keller ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By our conservation, I do not mean proliferate at an astonishing rate. In fact that is the last thing we should do. So when people ask the British Prince George and Kate whether they are going to have a third child just weeks after their second child is born, I want to pull my hair out. Royal or otherwise, none of us (irrespective of geography, religion, social stature) need to have three kids. In fact having more than two should be made a criminal offense.

Because in order to go back to a population that is sustainable, we need to step back a little lot so that nature can take its course and restore the order. And while we do that, we need to conserve everything that forms our habitat - the trees in the cities, the forests, the jungles the hills, the rivers, the waterfalls, the oceans, and of course the flora and fauna. 

Though so far we have hardly put our brains to good use, here's something to take inspiration from - we are the only species so far who have not only thought about the conservation of other species but are actually taking steps to make a difference. Only us human beings. Well with the exception of this dog:

Imagine a world where you wake up to the sound of birds twittering in the trees, where butterflies flutter on flowers of various colours, where you have deer coming up to your house to feed on the grass, where everyone has enough to eat, where no baby elephant loses her mother to poachers, and where leopards, tigers, and lions rule the jungles. All these are interrelated, and we just need a little tweak to make it happen. It may take a long time but still imagine and it can one day be possible.

I am participating in the Save the Species contest for the book “Capturing Wildlife Moments in India” in association with Saevus Wildlife India,  read the reviews for the book ‘Capturing Wildlife Moments in India’ here.

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