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“In a lot of lesser-known species we would not even know if they are becoming locally extinct: There is a deep chasm of missing data.”

December 11, 2020

Shreya Sethi is a research scholar at a premier research institute of India. She is on the verge of completing a doctorate in wildlife economics. The focus of her work lies on Laws and Policies and improving conservation efforts especially with a strong bend towards curbing illegal wildlife trade and hunting. Shreya’s research work largely centres around Central India. She shares some very interesting insights based on her personal explorations and findings.

Barasinga or the Swamp Deer

Praveen Gupta (PG): How would the tiger and lion blend if the lion were to be introduced in Central India?

Shreya Sethi (SS): Well, there are two parts to this; on one hand, there is a case when African Lions were introduced in India (Reference Book “Life with Wildlife” by Dr. Ranjithsinh Jhala) and that story ended badly as it was poorly planned and executed reintroduction. The lions were killed by tigers due to inter-species conflict. In the current scenario, there are six proposed sites for Asiatic Lions and the most probable one for reintroduction being Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary, Madhya Pradesh. It has close to no tigers. But I believe there is more ongoing research at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) about the interactions of tigers and lions and possible conflicts.

PG: Do we have the grasslands and the desired ecosystem for reintroducing lions and cheetahs in Central India?

SS: I was in conversation with Dr. Laurie Marker (Founder of Cheetah Conservation Fund) and Dr. Ranjitsinh Jhala on this. Yes, these animals require vast grasslands especially the Cheetah given how they hunt their prey. 

I am going to answer this individually for Lions and Cheetahs. 

Lion re-introduction in Central India is key for diversification of gene-pool and to maintain a healthy population of Asiatic Lions.

Lion re-introduction in Central India is key for diversification of gene-pool and to maintain a healthy population of Asiatic Lions. Further, the Central Indian landscape is the only one that comes close to its native one, so in terms of choice for reintroduction, there can be nothing better than Central India. Thus, I support the stance of Asiatic Lion re-introduction in Central India. 

Cheetah’s reintroduction plan while has been ongoing for a long-time especially pushed by Dr. Ranjithsinh Jhala, I would go with the view of Dr. Laurie Marker. Her suggestion is that India should first protect and conserve what we already have – Tigers, Leopards and Lions, than take on other species. Given that the threat of poaching, habitat destruction and encroachment continues unabated finding vast pristine grassland tracks may not be viable.

Having said that, with the growing human population in fringe forest areas and otherwise, the introduction of Cheetahs might increase incidences of Human-Wildlife Conflict and lead to retaliation hunting. A re-introduction might also give false hopes that in the face of local extinction – importing species is a solution thus – undermining the conservation principles. 

The introduction of Cheetahs might increase incidences of Human-Wildlife Conflict and lead to retaliation huntingThe Cheetah does not have specific ecological benefits (as long as we maintain a healthy Tiger and Leopard population) given the species has been extinct in India since 1947. 

While on the flip side the reintroduction might help to generate more tourism revenue. Looking at it through a cost-benefit lens, I feel the cost of enforcement, balancing human-wildlife conflict, and needs of local communities outweigh the tourism revenues. The Cheetah does not have specific ecological benefits (as long as we maintain a healthy Tiger and Leopard population) given the species has been extinct in India since 1947. 

1. Hunters/Poachers come in direct competition with the apex predator species like Leopards and Tigers, which means that in case the herbivore population decimates there would be chances of increased depredation on livestock leading to a rise in negative human-wildlife interactions or commonly called Human-Wildlife Conflict. 

2. Due to excessive poaching pressures of “Predator species” (example of Panna Tiger Reserve when local Tiger population went extinct), the size of herbivore species increased due to the imbalance created in the ecological food chain. 

3. Zoonotic spillovers (as evident from the current COVID-19 Pandemic).

4. Ruthless poaching of species like in case of Asian Elephants especially the Tuskers means, that only the “males” are poached leading to imbalanced propagation of a species. 

5. Extinction of a specie due to excessive exploitation also, implies ecological imbalances like reduced seed dispersals and habitat changes as herbivores species like Deer and Elephants play a key role in maintaining the same. 

Gaur (Indian Bison) with the famous white socks!

PG: What causes more harm to our forests – poaching or hunting? Are there any unique nuances that you come across?

SS: Poaching and Hunting are terms more appropriate in an African country or countries with Legal Hunting Laws. In the case of India, Hunting and Poaching are synonymous, the law treats any harm to the Scheduled Species/ Native Species (as per the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972) as illegal hunting, this goes on to be as nuanced to add that even stealing bird eggs from the nest is equivalent to hunting and a punishable offence.  Yet, there is a caveat about the fine or jail term which varies depending on the species in question and the location of the crime (hunting). 

In the case of India, Hunting and Poaching are synonymous, the law treats any harm to the Scheduled Species/ Native Species (as per the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972) as illegal hunting.

Looking closely at the problem of poaching or hunting (as mentioned in the question), while prima facie the connotation of the word poaching makes it seem more harmful but, in fact, it is important to note that both poaching and hunting are harmful. Poaching is often used to denote hunting for an external demand or for wildlife trade and assumed to be operated by a nexus of criminals but, as the very grass-root any hunter (subsistence or tribal) can be pulled-into the wildlife trade chains given the large sums of money involved.

Hunting often goes unnoticed if it is of smaller / lesser-known or non-charismatic species like Wild Pigs, Spotted Deer etc. but these species are equally important to the ecological balance and often too much discussion on poaching and commonly poached species (charismatic species likes of Tiger, Pangolins) undermine the other lesser-known species. To exacerbate the problem further, there is no population census of any other species except Royal Bengal Tiger, Asiatic Elephant, and Asiatic Lion and to some extent of Leopards in India. This makes it even more difficult to put a magnitude to the severity of hunting/poaching. 

Hunting often goes unnoticed if it is of smaller / lesser-known or non-charismatic species like Wild Pigs, Spotted Deer etc. but these species are equally important to the ecological balance and often too much discussion on poaching and commonly poached species (charismatic species likes of Tiger, Pangolins) undermine the other lesser-known species.

Digressing from the wildlife conservation perspective and looking at hunting through the sociological lens and as a subsistence activity for tribals, in the past, their ways of culling a species were rooted in traditional values and by default aimed at sustainable use but, this is not the case anymore. The main things adding to this detrimental effect is: 

1. Growing population pressures on even from local tribals living in forest fringes.

2. Greed for quick-money thus, making them vulnerable to be pulled-into poaching nexuses. 

PG: From tigers to lesser species, a lot of hunting / poaching is attributed to the demands in China. To what extent is that a myth?

SS: Demand from China for any species in India or the world is not a myth. There are enough links available on google search database with adequate information on Chinese traditional medicines and their ingredients. The seizures that take places of species being exported to China is proof enough that it is not a myth.

This does not mean we need to point fingers at any one country – almost all countries are either sources or sinks for illegal wildlife trade products. There is demand for exotic pets from Europe, USA, and Middle Eastern countries or for luxury products like animal pelts from say the USA.

This transnational attribute of wildlife crime is what makes it complex and requires global cooperation very similar to the likes of Climate Change.

This transnational attribute of wildlife crime is what makes it complex and requires global cooperation very similar to the likes of Climate Change.

PG: What’s your take on the avifauna?

SS: Avian fauna faces multi-faceted risk due to their migratory nature, lower priority in law as compared to terrestrial mammals and also, lower population assessments but, I am optimistic as a lot of Citizen Science projects like Bird Count India are coming up as “birding” is garnering a lot of attention in the current times. 

Our Dry Deciduous Forests – from Deccan to Southern India – are extremely vulnerable to Forest Fires due to high temperatures during summers and also, man-made fires

PG: The picture on fire-line reminds me of the forest fires in Australia and the US/California. How vulnerable are our forests to these?

SS: Our Dry Deciduous Forests – from Deccan to Southern India – are extremely vulnerable to Forest Fires due to high temperatures during summers and also, man-made fires. Firelines are basically made by the Forest Department by burning a part of the forest or creating a tar-road.  Thus, in case of an actual forest-fire, it would break at this point instead of ravaging the whole forest at once. 

PG: Any message to our fellow countrymen as to how they can contribute in preserving the flora & fauna. And how to discourage any illegal trade that triggers poaching?

SS: Quite an interesting point you have raised and this is being used as a campaign theme across the globe to reduce the anthropogenic pressures of illegal wildlife trade on wildlife. If I may add, we should never use the word preservation with regards to Flora and Fauna as the word has a negative connotation and almost implies taxidermy or preserving a dead animal or plant, sorry for being really picky about the use of the Preservation. 

We should never use the word preservation with regards to Flora and Fauna as the word has a negative connotation and almost implies taxidermy or preserving a dead animal or plant.

1. Leave the Wild in the Wild: by this I mean do not try to adopt, pet, or rescue wild/ orphaned animals especially without professional help. 

2. Be Responsible: During a visit to a National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary, or any open Forest; follow a code of conduct especially while using cameras and flash. Do not litter around with plastic as animals often choke on chips packets and die. 

For Conservation /Protection and to Discourage Illegal Wildlife Trade:

1. Do not Fuel Demand: By being a responsible citizen not buying wildlife products for pets or any other use either Indian or Exotic. Discourage your friends and relatives from doing the same.  

2. Report Wildlife Crimes to concerned authorities like the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, as often a lot of these crimes go unnoticed especially exhibits of Snake Charmers, Bear Dancers, or Monkeys in an around your vicinity. 

3. Be Aware: Read product labels carefully or search for information online before purchasing cosmetic products or food items like Coffee, Soya, Honey. Be aware of the product origin which could all indirectly be linked to damage to critical wildlife habitats or a species. 

4. Become a part of Citizen Science Projects in Wildlife Conservation which ensure both research output and create awareness about species in our neighborhood. To quote a few like Birdcount India. 

5. As a rational and responsible citizen minimise carbon-footprint by taking simple steps. Starting from reducing air, water, noise, and light pollution, using more of biodegradables, looking for alternatives in case of forest derived products like wood for furniture or paper.

Rescued Spotted Owlet

Lastly, I would like to add that all species like all humans are equal in the eyes of law – a palm squirrel or a parrot are equally protected as Tigers and Leopards as per out Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. However, we often do not give enough attention in case a squirrel or myna is captured or killed and instead turn our attention to more charismatic species like Tiger, Leopards, and Elephants.

All species like all humans are equal in the eyes of law a palm squirrel or a parrot are equally protected as Tigers and Leopards as per out Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

We need to understand there is a deep chasm of missing data in the case of the population status/estimations of lesser-known species and in a lot of cases we would not even know if they are becoming locally extinct until we actually stop seeing them around us. This has already been the case for amphibian species and re-iterated in the book Sixth Extinction. 

PG: Many thanks Shreya for sharing these valuable nuances of our biodiversity. May you continue enjoying your explorations.

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2 Comments
  1. Surabhi Mishra permalink

    Such an insightful conversation, especially around the differentiation and rationale of approach for Asiatic lions and Cheetahs. Would be interesting to read views on some even large scale measures that need to be adopted by government, based on best practices from other nations

    • Many thanks, Surabhi. Perhaps at some stage I can connect you and Shreya? If the wildlife related stories fascinate you, I will share something very interesting that i saw in terms of how the big cats and elephants have survived in Africa ad India…

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