India is renowned as the land of the tiger and the elephant; many of our gods are depicted riding peacocks or tigers. But sadly, the equation that existed between people and wildlife centuries ago has vanished, and our Protected areas, which comprise a mere 4% of India’s landscape, are now mere islands amidst a sea of people, with tremendous demands and pressures being put on them.
The most serious problem that I see today is the neglect and collapse of basic wildlife protection capacity during the last decade. This “mission-drift” has resulted from several causes: lack of political will, deterioration in the quality of forest administration, and the influence of international conservation paradigms that blindly promote “sustainable use” as a solution, while failing to recognize the overexploited status of the forest resources targeted for such use.
What, in your opinion, are the most urgent threats to wildlife?
By far the most urgent threat is the pressure from illegal hunting or poaching. We still have substantial amounts of forests left in some areas, particularly in the huge swathes of the tribal belts of Central and North East India, but they are “empty forests”. The wildlife in them has mostly been killed off, eaten or sold. The killers come in a variety of forms: they may be local people hunting for the pot, using snares or guns, or they may be the lowest link in a mafia that is involved in the massive international illegal trade in wildlife that is today almost as big as the drug trade.
In addition, during the past decade, reckless development in the form of new highways, mines, dams and even so-called ecotourism have emerged as major indirect threats to wildlife habitats both inside nature reserves, as well as outside them. There are powerful lobbies pushing these projects..
As a biologist, can you tell us about the impact of poaching?