The protection of wild life has a long tradition in Indian History. Wise use of natural resources was a prerequisite for many hunter-gatherer societies which dates back to at least 6,000 B.C. Emperor Asoka’s edicts of the third century B.C. depicts one of the earliest conservation laws.
Centuries later, the Mogul emperors, sportsmen, men of action and born observers that they were, displayed a deep interest in the animal life of the country. The ethos of conservation and reverence for nature and wildlife as reflected in some of the exquisite images depicted in Indian art, painting, sculpture and architecture and use of animal fables from early literature like Panchatantra and Hitopa-desha are more relevant today than they were centuries ago.
Pre-colonial rulers had set up hunting reserves in many parts of India. In later years some fine sanctuaries were established in what was then British India, and in a few of the princely states. Well known examples are Bandipur in Karnataka, Corbett Park in Uttar Pradesh, Vedanthangal in Tamil Nadu.
Water hole at Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary, Wayanad - Pic by Mohan Pai
But for the protection given to the Lion in Junagadh State and to the Great Indian Rhinoceros in Nepal and Assam, these two animals would have been exterminated long ago. Natural ecosystems have evolved over millions of years. A remarkable feature of the ecosystems is the basic stability of populations that they sustain, providing for a natural balance. Each ecosystem sustains a variety of organisms adapted to their environment and participating in a cycle of events involving interdependence between organisms and the physical world around them. Deforestation has been one of the major causes for the depletion of wildlife. Wild animals are left with no alternative but to adapt, migrate or perish. Widespread habitat loss has diminished the population of many species, making them rare and endangered.
There was a wholesale slaughter of wild creatures during late 19th and early 20th century during the colonial period. ‘In sheer numbers, over 80,000 tigers, more than 1,50,000 leopards and 2,00,000 wolves were slaughtered in a period of 50 years from 1875 to 1925’ (Mahesh Rangarajan). The beginning of the Second World War in 1939 resulted in enormous pressures on Indian forests for timber in early 1940s. Contractors moved in and large tracts of forest were cut down. They had guns, they hunted on a large scale. Few accurate records exist of the slaughter that took place.
The wood was even sent to Burma and beyond for building all that the British required. The forest service was fully occupied in this task.
After independence in 1947, a spate of ill-advised developmental schemes, an uncontrolled push for agricultural land, and unmonitored hunting wrought havoc on wilderness.
A series of river valley projects sprung up in prime wilderness areas. While this habitat devastation was taking place, the elite took to more sophisticated guns and tougher vehicles like jeep to make inroads into the forest and shoot thousands of tigers and other game. It was free-for-all. The British had left but the Indian elite was on a binge to shoot tigers. Shikar companies sprang up everywhere, enticing hunters from all over the world to the killing game.
With a growing concern for the fast dwindling wildlife, the Government of India in 1952 set up the Indian Board of Wildlife, as also state wildlife boards. Wildlife together with forestry, has traditionally been managed under a single administrative organisation within the forest department of each state or union territory, with the role of central government being mainly advisory. There have been two recent developments. First, the Wildlife (Protection) Act has provided for the creation of posts of Chief Wildlife Wardens and Wildlife Wardens in the states to exercise statutory powers under the Act. Under this act it is also mandatory for the states to set up state wildlife advisory boards. Secondly, the inclusion of protection of wild animals and birds in the concurrent list of the constitution, has proved the union with some legislative control over the states in the conservation of wildlife. The situation has since improved; all states and union territories with national parks or sanctuaries having set up wildlife wings.
The adoption of a National Policy for Wildlife Conservation in 1970 and the enactment of the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 1972 lead to a significant growth in protected areas network, from 5 national parks and 60 sanctuaries to 87 national parks and 485 sanctuaries in 2000.
The network was further strengthened by a number of conservation projects, notably Project Tiger, initiated in April 1973 by the Government of India with support from WWF and the Crocodile Breeding and Management Project, launched in April, 1975 with technical assistance from UNDP/FAO.
The large number of protected areas indicates concern for conservation. However, not all biogeographic provinces have received adequate attention, and vital habitats have been left unprotected. As many as 105 of India’s protected areas (out of a total of 571 parks and sanctuaries) are located in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago alone. But the sanctuaries occupy only a small percentage of total mainland, barely 4 percent of mainland India. Many of them are small; 113 sites are less than 20 sq. km in extent, and some of these are too isolated from other wilderness sites to form viable habitats. Only 25 wildlife reserves in India cover more than 1,000 sq. km each.
Protected Areas of the Western Ghats
Western Ghats is an area of exceptional biological diversity and conservation interest, and is one of the major tropical evergreen forest regions in India. As the zone has already lost a large part of its original forest cover (although timber extraction from the evergreen forests of Kerala and Karnataka has now been halted) it must rank as a region of great conservation concern. The small remaining extent of natural forests, coupled with exceptional biological richness and ever increasing levels of threat (agriculture, reservoirs, flooding, plantations, logging and over exploitation) are factors which necessitate major conservation inputs.
The system of Protected Areas in the Western Ghats includes Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, the first and the largest biosphere reserve in India, 13 National Parks and 45 Wildlife Sanctuaries. The largest national park is Bandipur with an area of 874 sq. km and the largest wildlife sanctuary is in the Anaimalai hills having an area of 841.49 sq. km the 58 protected areas together cover an area of 14,140.36 sq. km this amounts to 8.8% of the Western Ghats area. Of this, Bhadra, Bandipur, Periyar, Kalakad Mundanthurai are Project Tiger Reserves (Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1998). Some of the protected areas in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have also been designated as Project Elephant Reserves. The Bandipur national park in Karnataka is flanked by the Mudumalai sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, the Nagarhole park in the north and the Wayanad sanctuary in Kerala in the west thereby providing a continuous corridor and the largest habitat area to elephants.
It is believed that there were more than 40,000 tigers in India some 80 years ago. Habitat destruction, rampant poaching and hunting brought about a sharp decline in their numbers. The National census of tigers in 1972 recorded the existence of only 1827 animals.
Considering the alarming endangered status of this majestic animal, the Government of India with support of WWF launched a scheme to protect the tiger called “Project Tiger” with nine sanctuaries declared as tiger reserves.
More tiger reserves were added in due course of time and today there are 28 national parks/sanctuaries under Project Tiger.
The main objective of Project Tiger was: “To ensure maintenance of a viable population of tiger in India, and to preserve, for all time, areas of biological importance as a national heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people”.
The then Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, a strong supporter of the Project, and of conservation in general observed, “The tiger cannot be preserved in isolation. It is the apex of a large and complex biotope. Its habitat, threatened by human intrusion, forestry and cattle grazing, must first be made inviolate”.
Project Tiger is a holistic conservation programme. The tiger cannot be saved in isolation. Saving the tiger involves the maintenance of a viable population of its prey species - the herbivore animals. For the herbivores to survive it has to be ensured that the vegetation of the forests is rich and varied. Thus saving tiger means saving an entire ecosystem.
The project is administered jointly by the wildlife departments of both the states and the centre. Project tiger, initiated in 1973, is one of the most comprehensive conservation efforts ever launched. At the apex of a complete biota, the tiger can be saved, not in isolation, but by making its habitat sacrosanct. Populations of rhinoceros, elephant, swamp deer, gaur and several other species have been preserved in this way.
Tiger Reserves in the Western Ghats
Project Elephant, a scheme sponsored by the Government of India has designated 10 elephant reserves in the country of which 4 are in the Western Ghats. The four reserves also contain a mosaic of vegetation types and ecosystems harbouring high diversity of flora and fauna. For each elephant reserve a perspective plan has been provided which identifies the spatial integrity, important corridors, conservation issues and recommended action.
Dubare Elephant Camp, Coorg - Pic by Mohan Pai
Elephant Research and Conservation Centre (AERC 1998) has set up GIS database for 39 divisions comprising the four reserves in the Western Ghats. The AERC has also established a database on the demography and mortality of elephants and human elephant conflicts within the reserves.
Source: Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre (1998); ENVIS (1998)
Note: About 6,000 sq. km of these reserves are actually outside the limits of the Western Ghats yet contiguous. An estimated 6,822 elephants occur in this area.
Since the launch of the tiger conservation movement and the ‘Project Tiger’ in India, the tiger has made a dramatic recovery. Improvement in the quality of habitat and available prey has been considerable not only within the Project Tiger reserves, but also outside in Anaimalais and Nagarhole in the Western Ghats. Further to the managing the systems of Protected Areas and initiatives such as afforestation, eco-development, Joint Forest Management, the state departments of forests have mooted programmes that specifically address conservation of endangered vertebrates. Chief amongst these is the annual wildlife census organised by the forest departments. These censuses have enabled the closer monitoring of the status of some of the endemic and endangered mammals of the Western Ghats. Programmes on captive breeding and ex-situ conservation of such mammals and reptiles have also been coordinated by the forest departments through the zoos.