By Anish Andheria
Anish Andheria is the President of the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT). Currently, the WCT is strengthening the protection mechanism of 83 national parks and sanctuaries across 17 states of India. Andheria, who was awarded the prestigious Carl Zeiss Conservation Award in 2008, is a large carnivore specialist with field knowledge on predator-prey relationships. He is also a professional photographer of repute and has co-authored two books on Indian wildlife
Recently, Corbett witnessed a horrific incident where two tigers were poached. What do you think are the shortcomings due to which we are not able to prevent such criminal acts?
There is tremendous human pressure on our tiger reserves. Well over a lakh of people reside in the buffer zones of each of our large tiger reserves – Tadoba, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Dudhwa, Melghat, Sundarbans, etc. Additionally, a total of over 35,000 families reside inside the core of our 45 tiger reserves. As long as such large human populations continue to depend on our prime tiger habitats, the problem of poaching and habitat degradation cannot be averted.
Other important reasons for such criminal acts are a) fewer anti-poaching camps in the buffer zones of tiger reserves, b) increasing number of state and national highways cutting through tiger reserves, thereby providing easy access to poachers, c) poor or non-existent intelligence -gathering network of the forest department d) lack of a national-level database of wildlife offenders, and, above all e) extremely poor conviction rates (less than 2 percent of wildlife offenders get convicted in India), there is absolutely no fear in the minds of the poachers because of this.
Are the existing laws enough? Also, what is your assessment of Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB)? Have they done enough to prevent such crimes?
The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, is by far the most stringent Act as far as protection and conservation of wildlife goes. The problem is the implementation of the Act, not
WCCB was set up for the right reasons: a) to develop a mechanism for gathering and dissemination of intelligence related to wildlife crime and illegal wildlife trade in India for result-oriented action, b) to develop a wildlife crime database management system to effectively implement wildlife policy in the country, c) to develop infrastructure and build capacity of the enforcement officials in the field of wildlife crime and illegal trade, and d) to advise the Government of India on issues relating to wildlife crimes having national and international ramifications. However, due to poor financial backing the organization has not been able to have an impact in the field, A few regional offices of WCCB were planned, but most of these offices are grossly understaffed, leaving them ineffective. The government will have to empower WCCB on a war footing, both in terms of finances and providing authority if it wants to make a headway in a positive direction.
Tell us about the anti-poaching camps.
Anti-Poaching Camps (APCs) are fundamental units of protection within tiger reserves where forest guards and forest watchers live and operate from. These camps are set up in strategic locations inside forests. The duty of the forest staff is to patrol the forest throughout the year; prevent poaching, grazing and illicit logging; monitor wildlife populations; watch out for and prevent forest fires; maintain patrolling roads; maintain waterholes and improve the water harvesting ability of the forest by building check-dams and other structures; etc. Having understood the importance of APCs, the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), as part of the Save our Tigers Campaign, equipped over 650 APCs across several tiger reserves. Over 25 important items, including solar-operated chargers and lights, bicycles, 750-litre water storage tanks, cupboards, metal trunks, metal cots, chairs, tables, winter jackets, raincoats, cameras, rucksacks, torches etc. were donated to every single APC of the shortlisted tiger reserves.
How did you come up with the idea of Rapid Response Units. Is the experiment working?
Human-animal conflict is a major cause for outrage among villagers staying in and around tiger reserves. Apart from putting the lives of wild animals under severe threat, this phenomenon creates insurmountable friction between the forest department and local communities. In recent times, this has resulted in unfortunate lynching of leopards, tigers, sloth bears, rhinos and even elephants. To keep herbivores out of their agricultural lands villagers have started laying live electric wires along their fields, mercilessly killing hundreds of deer, wild pigs and antelopes.
The forest departments across India are largely under-equipped to handle man-animal conflict situations, resulting in unprecedented delay in responding to emergency calls by the villagers. Such delays not only anger the people but in several cases result in threatening the lives of people or wild animals involved in conflict.
Acknowledging this gap, WCT, as part of the Save our Tigers Campaign, conceptualized, designed and introduced the first-ever Rapid Response Unit (RRU), a well-equipped conflict resolution vehicle. The RRU consists of three motorcycles, one modified four-wheel-drive vehicle and about 25 pieces of equipment such as stretcher, helmets, baffle boards, rope, generator, tents, flashlight, torches, first-aid kits, etc.
What more can be done to reduce man-animal conflicts?
Conflict management is a complex topic and will require a multi-pronged approach such as 1) Awareness of the community residing in and around the forest areas is very important. A better understanding of wildlife will assist the people in making behavioural changes, thereby reducing conflict e.g. not walking out in the dark in areas prone to elephant movement. 2) The cropping pattern and the type of crop will have to be chosen scientifically so that wild herbivores do not get lured to the crops, e.g. medicinal herbs are not generally eaten by wild herbivores. By growing herbs instead of traditional crops such as pulses and paddy, man-animal conflict levels can be reduced drastically. 3) Wherever feasible, solar fencing will have to be used to keep wild pigs out without injuring them. 4) The forest department will have to deploy specially trained response teams in conflict-prone areas. These response teams will have to undergo repeated training and mock drills to stay alert at all times. 5) A good veterinary doctor will have to be part of the response team to tranquilize the wild animal before translocating it back into the forest. 6) The coordination between the forest department and the police will have to be improved to carry out efficient crowd control during conflict.
What has been Aircel India’s contribution to this initiative?
Without Aircel the television campaign would not have been possible. They provided the finances to NDTV for running two 12-hour telethons on national channels. Additionally, Aircel ran a nation-wide awareness campaign on prominent hoardings and at bus-stops to lead up to the telethon. Aircel’s commitment to tiger conservation is a great example of how a corporate house can contribute to nature and wildlife conservation at a national level. I hope other corporates come forward in support of wildlife.