Platform: Call from the wild


CORBETT NATIONAL Park received a Christmas present this winter. It came in the shape of a dead bull elephant near the southern border of the sprawling reserve whose southern forests virtually define the border of Uttaranchal. The animal’s face had been mutilated, its trunk and head partially sawn off in order to have its tusks removed. The method of killing may have been poison.

Last week, with the discovery of three other mutilated elephants at Corbett, the count has gone up to five.

These incidents did not happen in some remote corner of the country. It happened within a few miles of Ramnagar. The killings are taking place in an area just five hours’ drive away from New Delhi and frequented by tourists.

The reasons for the killings are many: profit, greed, poverty, ignorance, poor or non-existent enforcement, poor resources, poor management and lack of political support. All these reasons feed into each other.

The killing of elephants goes beyond the ambit of a simple crime. The elephant is a symbol of India and Asia, and the forest that sustains it delivers ecological services such as water catchment and flood regulation. Without the forest, the rivers and ground water will not be recharged; there will be sudden floods; top soil will be washed away; and over a few years, the lives of farming communities will become impoverished.

Protecting our forests is a matter of national security. Environmental problems are regional and trans-regional. Forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan affect peninsular Malaysia and Singapore; deforestation in Nepal affects Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Over the next 10 years, water crises will spawn temporary panic migrations in human populations, as well as slow long-term migrations. The social and economic upheaval this will create will shake the country’s Government and administrative system to its foundations. To mitigate these effects, we must ensure that our forests are protected.

Equally important is biodiversity. India’s ancient tradition of Ayurveda is now becoming fashionable in a world growing tired of chemical drugs. Ayurvedic remedies are derived from the medicinal plants that are disappearing with our forests. Take a trip to any of the monocultural tree plantations that the Government passes off as forests and you will see for yourself how destroying a primary forest kills biodiversity.

Wildlife is a part of that biodiversity. If a forest that once had tigers and elephants no longer has any, the reason is because it has lost the capacity to support them.

The scientific community has the information required to protect forests and wildlife. But no attempt is made to make this information public or to act upon it. The result is that politicians operate with short-term vision, pressured by the process of globalisation and free markets, failing to understand that the state of our forests is of grave importance.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was moved by the death of the tigress Saki in Hyderabad Zoo. He fired off a memo from his hospital bed as he recovered from his knee operation and demanded a thorough investigation. Conservationists took note of the irony: zoo tigers (which cannot be reintroduced in the wild) have little to do with wildlife, where conservation is most required.

So earlier in the year, when the skins and organs of dozens of tigers and hundreds of leopards were seized, the Prime Minister did nothing. One must not forget that he is also the chairman of the Indian Board for Wildlife — a body that decides policy and vets industry project proposals that have an impact on wildlife.

The board has not met since 1998 when former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, under pressure from conservationists, held a meeting. One of the plus points of this meet was the acceptance of the fact that the tiger is today in a critical position despite the ‘successes’ of Project Tiger.

India has about half the world’s remaining 5,000-odd tigers. Tigers in India exist in a fairly wide range of habitats, from the dry forest to the mangroves of the Sundarbans (the world’s largest intact mangrove ecosystem).

Immediate pressure from poachers can decimate species like tigers, elephants, turtles and snakes, creating a domino effect that erodes natural cycles and cripples food chains. Tigers are killed to supply body parts to markets in China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. These countries have banned trade in tiger parts, but illegal trade continues to thrive. For a few dollars, a tiger can be located and killed by a local poacher in India who supplies the animal to a city-based middleman who then arranges for it to be taken out of the country (usually through Tibet or Nepal).

The same goes for ivory, much of which finds its way to Japan. The big traders in wildlife are known to be involved in arms and drugs as well. In India, wildlife crimes are increasingly being taken seriously, but prosecution is notoriously weak and unsuccessful. The enforcement machinery is inadequate; morale among enforcers — the forest department — is generally low.

It makes a big difference if the Prime Minister takes an interest in this important issue, or simply sends out a signal to Government departments and frontline agencies to ensure a crackdown on poachers.

Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were personally interested in wildlife and it made a difference. For one, the board met regularly. In the Nineties, interest in wildlife conservation almost vanished. While there has been more media attention, the Government has in recent years failed to send the requisite signals to its field agencies.

The old bull elephant at Corbett which was killed and hacked deserves a memo from the Prime Minister as much as Saki did. The death of elephants in Corbett is a wake up call and exposes the weaknesses of our system.


Asian pollutants stain ocean


Washington: HOME HEATING and cooking fires in India and southeast Asia, fueled by wood, dung and farming wastes, pump tonnes of pollution into air, contributing to the staining of almost million sq km of the atmosphere above the Indian Ocean, a study shows.

An international research effort, the Indian Ocean experiment, found that although Europe and North America still lead the world in per capita release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Asia is catching up.

"The nature of the pollution (from Asia) deviates from that in Europe and North America," the researchers said in a study appearing in Science.

Instead of fossil fuels as the major source of pollution in Europe and North America, much of the pollution from India and southeast Asia comes from biofuels collected in the forest and field.

In India, a third of the biofuel is firewood, animal dung and agricultural wastes, like straw.

Pollution from such fuels causes greater carbon monoxide concentrations in the atmosphere. "Considering the population size, the situation in Asia may become more serious." This will add considerably to the global atmospheric pollution in the Northern Hemisphere.