India’s prime minister has been lauding critical successes in conservation, advances that mirror efforts in other countries. These successes may point the way to future efforts to prevent extinction of vulnerable species. There are, however, serious challenges ahead.
“India Week” concludes today on Wild Animal news. On Monday we reported about Project Cheetah, an ambitious effort to reintroduce Cheetahs to that country. They were killed off in 1952. Project Cheetah mirrors efforts in South America to reintroduce jaguars to areas from which they were driven 70 years ago.
Yesterday we talked about India’s use of elephants to patrol reserves. Project Cheetah is using two pachyderms to protect the eight cheetahs brought from Namibia. The cheetahs are currently in quarantine before full release. This is an example of how seriously India can take conservation.
And today comes word from India media about the overall success.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a supporter of Project Cheetah. The cheetahs were released on Indian soil on his birthday, Sept. 17. He is using the occasion to point to what he terms major conservation success in India.
On the surface, the successes are quite stunning. India Today says the country now has 52 tiger reserves. Modi’s government also estimates that the leopard population has grown from about 7,000 to about 12,000 since 2014. India took a pledge, along with other nations, to double tiger populations. He says India is ahead in its pledge. That number has risen from around 2,000 to nearly 3,000. Budget for conservation has increased.
Protected spaces in India now total a bit over 5% of the country, up from 4.90%. The country is also rebuilding forest and working to increase the number of protected areas, which now total about 1.7 million square kilometers, Modi also mentioned Asiatic lions in the Gir Forest, which also seem to be increasing in number.
But issues remain. At least one of the tiger reserves has no tigers. They were lost due to mismanagement and poaching. Indian officials plan to reintroduce tigers into that reserve, and say the mismanagement and poaching issues have been solved. That remains to be seen.
Counting wild animals is difficult too and totals always are estimates. It can be very tempting to pick a higher end estimate when you wish to appear successful and a lower end number when you wish to seek funds.
More critically reserves are important but there must be interconnections or animals in the preserves become inbred. India is growing at such a rate that inbreeding in tigers is becoming an issue. In the United States mountain lion inbreeding in Southern California has helped lead to the Liberty Canyon overcrossing project. It is hoped that the freeway overcrossing project will link the Santa Monica Mountains to less developed areas of California so that the bigger cats and other creatures can safely pass over the 101 Freeway.
Of the three cats mentioned leopards are probably the least concern. They are far less specialized than cheetahs and have a much wider prey base. Leopards are roughly one-third the size of tigers. That gives them greater ability to survive close to humans.
Unfortunately, the captive wild animal trade targets cheetah cubs, and is a serious problem in Africa. Some estimates suggest that stealing wild animals out of their habitat as exotic pets is on a par with drug running and gun running. Multi billion dollar businesses all.
Finally, India has yet to decide exactly how to protect its wild animals. The vow to double the tiger population has led to a “tiger-centric” approach. Indian officials have actually landscaped reserves to make them “tiger friendly.” The theory was that if tigers can live there, so can all the other creatures. That theory is being seriously challenged. Moreover, other conservation agencies are thinking of “flipping the script” and being “people-centric” in conservation. That is to say regarding humans as equal partners in conservation efforts and seeking input, buy-in and collective benefit when making conservation decisions.