Conservation: Blood, Sweat and Tears

On the plains of Africa stands a tall man – well camouflaged in the dry grasslands – looking over a solemn landscape charred by the afternoon sun. He is backed by two of his colleagues who are looking as intently as he is. They are carrying loaded guns held cautiously over their shoulders, scanning the horizon. Sweat trickles down their brow as they stand motionless in the simmering fields.

In the distance lays a wounded white rhinoceros, its leg crushed in a trap set up by poachers. Bleeding profusely, the rhinoceros has given up the struggle to set itself free. Only escape is death, which is unfortunate. The watchful guards have already called a veterinarian and a team of rescuers, as they scan the surrounding area for poachers, who as well are keeping an eye on the dying rhino. The poachers have no remorse. No pity. Their fears died long time ago, and there is no room for tears.

It is a common event in the life of a forest guard in Africa, in India or elsewhere. A battle that is constantly fought, sometimes won, most of the times lost. Major reasons concerning this failure, as reported by Mike Cadman in “Consuming Wild Life: The Illegal Exploitation of Wild Animals in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia”, are: the inability by state agencies to adequately monitor the illegal killing of wild animals, lack of centralized statistics and data, uncoordinated response from authorities, insufficient enforcement and a general way of thinking that promotes killing instead of protection and respect. If I were to relate these basic reasons to the current wildlife conservation situation in India, I can simply overlay problems of conservation in India to that mentioned in the report.

The global wildlife trafficking trade is worth some US$12 billion a year (Cadman, 2007). It is one of the many trades like blood diamonds and blood oil, involving corrupt minds and their evil deeds. Conservation is a war against this corruption where blood, sweat and tears are shed – I remember of a famous quote adapted from Sir Winston Churchill’s speech, “…I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.” Only difference in history and in present is, however, in what we must take vow for, destruction or conservation. The ordeal of-the-most-grievous-kind we face today is: Extinction, as African Conservancy enlists in “Wildlife & Conservation Statistics”, every 20 minutes, about 35,000 human lives are added, but one or more entire species of animal or plant life is lost; and, Habitat Destruction – 80% of the decline in biological diversity is caused by habitat destruction.

When it comes to wildlife conservation, there is government, educational institutes and tourists involved. What we often exclude are the local people who may live in the reserves, parks and sanctuaries. This exclusion, or ignorance, can affect the present and future of any reserved forest. The book, “Social Change & Conservation” by Krishna B Ghimire and Michel P Pimbert, consider Protected Areas as a social place. According to the authors, most parts of the world have been modified, managed and improved by people for centuries. The biodiversity which conservationists seek to protect may be of anthropogenic origin. The concept of wilderness as an “untouched or untamed land” is mostly an urban perception, the view of people who are far removed from the natural environment they depend upon (Ghimire & Pimbert, 1997). I completely agree with such an understanding. The Carolinian Life Zone in the eastern North America, that seemed pure and virgin to me at first, is in fact a result of successful reforestry operation carried out in and around Norfolk County, Ontario, not more than 80 years ago. The Sacred Groves of India, which have been protected by local communities for centuries, are in fact some of the most diverse and untouched forests to exist in India today. The point to note is that local, indigenous people play a pivotal role in shaping as well as saving an ecosystem.

One of the political concerns in the scenario of Indian conservation is whether protected areas should be inviolate and managed by the state or local communities, including management as well as access to resources within these areas (Saberwal, 2000). In the report, “Conservation as Politics: Wildlife Conservation and Resource Management in India”, Saberwal raises a question if the state can enforce unpopular policies that exclude local communities from conservation areas. This was done in the Yellowstone National Park in United States in 1872, when Crow and Shoshone native Americans supposedly left the park after intense persuasion or were driven out by the army, which then managed the park until 1916 (Ghimire & Pimbert, 1997). It is still currently carried out in India and elsewhere, where local tribes are removed from nature reserves for various reasons. One reason being that they invaded the reserved parks after the area was considered protected under law, as is happening in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and at Tadoba Tiger Reserve (read it here), other being building of a dam over a river within the protected area. Saberwal (2000) has put forth an interesting reason why disallowing local (tribal) people can be of ill to conservation. He writes, “While posting of guards may ensure the absence of villagers from the more high profile sections of National Parks, there is little the state can do against anonymous crimes, such as setting of forest fires or use of poison to kill lions, tigers and other carnivores. Such actions are, in part, an expression of alienating villager’s feel from conservation programs that deny them access to basic necessities. This animosity may translate into heightened support for poaching.”

In today’s vulnerable times, a little risk of poaching can send an entire ecosystem in an imbalance. Thus the issue of conflict between government and local communities is sensitive, and if ignored, can lead to dire consequences. Another, rather different but human-related impact on protected parks, is regarding tourism. After the recent “no tourism in core area” news in India made nature enthusiasts angry and sad, it sparked some interesting debate. Some people were against the idea, since according to them, more tourism directly related to more income to the park, thus more conservation measures, it also means less poaching, since the tourism activity is supposed to keep poachers at bay. Less tourism means less income and more poaching possibilities. But how much is “more” and how much is “less”? This is the question that needs to be asked, since more vehicles entering a park and surrounding a family of tigers is risky. It also means that the Forest Department is not keeping up with the regulations in the park, which may lead to animal deaths due to rash driving (read about the unfortunate accident of a tigress in India). It might seem perplexing, as Saberwal (2000) has rightly put, “what on surface appears to be a simple issue of protecting wild animals and plants from forces beyond their control, on closer inspection quickly dissolves into a complex tangle of conflicting issues: human rights versus the protection of animals and forests, exclusion of all humans from protected areas versus increased local participation in protected area management.”

What we as outsiders can do is volunteer for Protected Areas, encourage local community participation, offer help by delivering informative lectures to the locals, and give them a chance to save the land where they live and belong to. If we can spend a week every year in such volunteer-work, I am sure the world will see a significant change. If we can change the thinking of the poor poacher, we can turn them into conservationists – this has successfully happened in many parts of the world such as Africa and Asia. An interesting and inspiring talk by a poacher-turned-conservationist, who stood strong in favor of wildlife conservation when Congo was shrouded in dark days:

Although we live in the Age of Ecology, there are places in the world where blood is shed, where sweat drips to the level of exhaustion, as conservationists – local and otherwise – put their lives on the line to protect the forests. Yet tears will roll until we stop poaching and deforestation, or fight for our own existence once we end the lifeline of this planet – the forests, the water and all the living creatures.

Works cited:

Cadman, M. (2007). Consuming wild life: The illegal exploitation of wild animals in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Preliminary.
African Conservancy (n.a.). Wildlife and Conservation Statistics.
Ghimire, K. B.; Pimbert, M. P. (1997). Social change & conservation. London: Earthscans Publication ltd.
Saberwal, V. K. (2000). Journal of international wildlife law & policy 3(2). 
Cadman, M. (2007). Consuming wild life: The illegal exploitation of wild animals in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Preliminary.
African Conservancy (n.a.). Wildlife and Conservation Statistics.
Ghimire, K. B.; Pimbert, M. P. (1997). Social change & conservation. London: Earthscans Publication ltd.
Saberwal, V. K. (2000). Journal of international wildlife law & policy 3(2).

1 comment:

  1. It is incredibly disheartening to hear of poaching. At this point, I would think that people would be able to appreciate the animals for their intrinsic value, rather than the economic one, but alas, that may never come to fruition.

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