Animal Welfare Day: The Vanishing - Part One

Our planet is in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction of plants and animals. As a natural phenomenon, extinction occurs at a background rate of one to five species per year; what we are losing now is between 1,000 to 10,000 species a year.

Animal Welfare Day: The Vanishing - Part One

Wildlife Week is celebrated all over the country in the month of October from 2nd to 8th October every year to protect animal life. It was first started in the year 1952 with the great vision of saving the life of the Indian animals by taking some critical steps. It involves the planning to save animal extinction of any species of India.

On the occasion of World Animal Welfare Day, Gaon Connection is starting a new series to make people more aware of the conservation and protection of the wildlife and to discuss all the issues related to the preservation of the wildlife. In this weekly series, we would bring you extracts from, "The Vanishing", written by India's eminent wildlife reporter Prerna Bindra and published by Penguin Random House India in the year of 2017.

The Vanishing:- Prologue

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

India ranks amongst the top countries of the world in biodiversity.

It has evergreen forests, grasslands, deserts, mountains, mangrove swamps, seas, wetlands and marshlands—diverse ecosystems that harbour a rich variety of wildlife. I met with rare wild animals, and people who observed, studied and protected them.

I encountered India's only ape, the hoolock gibbon, in the evergreen jungles of the North-east; I met and fell in love with the tiger in the dry forests of Ranthambhore; glimpsed a fishing cat in Howrah, a predator symbolic of wetlands and marshlands; was enchanted by a flamboyance of flamingos in Kutch; went in search (and failed to find) the elusive ghost of the mountains, the snow leopard, in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, and swam with a green sea turtle off the coast of the Andaman islands.

This is the most exciting, rewarding part of conservation work. Being in the field and meeting with wildlife makes all the battles, and the struggles, worthwhile. The encounters were a revelation, opening my mind beyond the narrow scope of what we consider 'animals'—whom we usually judge, and measure, by the yardstick of man. It suits us to slot them as automatons.

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Likely, because this makes it easier for us to use, and abuse, them—as beasts of burden, tools of entertainment, or kill them for flesh and trophy. Meeting the animals taught me different.

"Animal's Social Structure"

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Over the years, I learnt animals have their own social structures, and kinships, possess language, feel empathy and have thought processes. As scientists are discovering, the animal mind is a 'place of richness, joy, thought and even nuance'. Elephants mourn the loss of their own and use signature calls that serve as 'names'. In popular perception, leopards are largely maligned as bloodthirsty predators on the prowl eyeing human victims. On the contrary, this big cat is secretive, and shy, with an instinct to avoid humans.

I simply had to share this, to break myths, expand our limited perception of 'beasts', and lure people into their mysterious, magical world. I have woven the nature of animals in The Vanishing.

I was also faced with the harsh reality of how imperilled India's wildlife is—poaching is ruthlessly exterminating animals, and habitat destruction and fragmentation is wiping out wildlife. It took a heartbreaking encounter with an orphan elephant in North Bengal to comprehend the repercussions of slicing a forest into pieces.

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"Born Wild"

The calf would have been about two years old, and one of its feet was shackled by chains as he shuffled after the other domesticated elephants employed by the forest department for patrolling the jungles—and carting tourists. Unlike some of its older compatriots, this one was born wild. His mother and one or two other members of the herd had been crushed in a train accident.

The railway line links Siliguri to Alipurduar (West Bengal) through sanctuaries, forests, and paths frequently used by the elephants. This little baby was found bellowing next to its dead mother, sucking bewilderedly at her lifeless teats. He was a victim of mindless, unplanned, non-inclusive development, which does not factor in ecological considerations or consequences.

In my mind, that little elephant calf became the face of what destruction of forests does to wildlife. This railway line has caused havoc to the resident elephant populations, with over forty of the animals crushed by trains in the past decade. Along with other development activities such as roads, it has destructed forests pushing the distraught animals into the rapidly expanded urban areas that now engulf their jungles.

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This is increasing the confrontation between humans and elephants. Such human–wildlife conflict finds space in the book, though I deconstruct this struggle to present.

"Manmade Conflict"

wild animals living in peace with humans. Conflict is manmade: a product of not just the large-scale annihilation of habitats, but also of our conduct—or should I say misconduct—around wildlife.

As I evolved into a conservationist, the nature of my forays changed, took on another dimension. The underpinned purpose now was to assess, understand and try and resolve problems and threats that afflicted forests and wildlife. I ventured into sanctuaries under siege to understand how conservation plays out in habitats ridden with insurgency and conflict.

I travelled to forests in the heart of India, where coal mining and expanding highways were splintering one of the world's finest tiger habitats; I wandered along India's coasts to find remote beaches and turtle nesting sites obliterated by ports and tourism infrastructure. I visited reserves burdened with insipid, disinterested management.

You will find some of these stories woven into the narrative of this book. Problems in the field, albeit crucial, are only one part of the conservation matrix. The other action is in the corridors of power, where policies, regulations, laws governing the environment are made and unmade.

"The gravity of the Wildlife Crisis"

I had an opportunity to observe this closely and be a part of the decision making process as a member of various government committees, particularly the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). The standing committee regulates diversion of land from our sanctuaries and parks for projects—mostly tagged as 'development'. Almost all such projects carry an ecological cost, yet most sail through committees and boards which have a mandate to conserve.

I was appalled at how a body constituted to be an independent watchdog, and regulator for wildlife protection legitimizes the process of its destruction, kow-towing to the government's agenda of development at all costs. Till I became part of it, I was woefully unaware of the committee's role or import in the country's wildlife conservation scenario, which is what compelled me to write an insider's account of it.

My tenure also reiterated the gravity of the wildlife crisis. Before I move forward, it must be said that the phenomenon is global: Our planet is in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction of plants and animals. As a natural phenomenon, extinction occurs at a background rate of one to five species per year; what we are losing now is between 1,000 to 10,000 species a year.

It's the worst spate of die-offs since the giant meteorite that hit earth some 65 million years ago wiping out the dinosaurs, and over half the planets' species. Unlike the previous mass extinctions caused by such asteroid strikes and volcanic eruptions, the demon meteor this time is us—Homo sapiens. Our impact has game-changed the planet— altered and destroyed natural habitats, changed the climate, rapidly making the earth inhospitable. This massive impact of humans on the planet has placed us in that phase of history commonly referred to as the Anthroprocene.

( To Be Continued...)

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