Tigers and Elephants are undoubtedly the greatest creations of mother nature. They have deeply influenced our culture, religion and mythology, and have therefore been acknowledged as our national animal and national heritage animal respectively. Yet, they are also the most threatened animals in our country. As I write this piece, news is pouring in that a tigress has been brutally bludgeoned to death by villagers in Pilibhit Tiger Reserve (UP), another one run over by a speeding vehicle in Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Karnataka) and a magnificent male elephant has been fatally electrocuted by a high tension power line near Dudhwa Tiger Reserve (UP). However, for a developing country like India, is that reason enough to invest public money and government resources on saving them ? The Hon’ble Minister of Transport raised a pertinent question in the parliament last week, is spending hundreds of crores on building wildlife underpasses in tiger reserves really worth it ? Can India being a poor country afford this additional cost burden on development? The answer is yes, not just because it makes sound economic sense but because our very lives depend on it…
So how do tigers and elephants impact the multitude of humans , going about their daily chores in concrete jungles ? Let’s start with the most basic human need – water. Today 600 million people in India are already battling severe water shortage, and as per NITI Aayog, 21 major cities are slated to run out of water supply by 2020. In this context, India’s 50 Tiger Reserves covering just 2.1 % of its landmass are responsible for the origin and sustenance of more than 300 rivers, most of them perennial whose downstream benefits are invaluable (Eg -Narmada, Cauvery, Kali, Gomti, Periyar Kosi, Son, Chambal etc). Moreover, river floodplains and forest aquifers account for 10-15% of India’s pure groundwater recharge. Being the most fertile, the floodplains of rivers are heavily encroached by human settlements, it is only tiger reserves like Kaziranga that allow rivers like the mighty Brahmaputra to freely break its banks and recharge its floodplains.
So what happens to these rivers if we do unplanned development inside tiger reserves ? the large scale deforestation results in greater amount of silt being washed into the rivers, lower water retention and slowly rivers tend to dry out. A classic example of this is the Tamirabarani river in Tamil Nadu which is the main water source for Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts. In the 1980’s clearing of forests resulted in Tamirabarani turning dry for four months every year, however, after the govt declared the forests of Kalakkad Mundanthurai area as a tiger reserve in 1992, the area received better protection from indiscriminate logging and overgrazing, the tiger population revived and so did the river Tamirabarani. Records show that from 1946 till 1990, the river received only 13,000 cubic feet of water annually . After the area was declared as a tiger reserve, the inflow increased to 23,000 cubic feet and continues even today !!
Apart from water, pure air is equally important if not more for our survival. The Global Burden of Disease Study for 2013, had found that outdoor air pollution was the fifth-largest killer in India accounting for 620,000 deaths annually. So how do Tigers and Elephants give us pure air ? These are two mammals that greatly shape our forests . The presence of tigers often acts as a deterrent to illegal wood cutters. Due to dense canopy cover and thick humus layer on ground, tiger reserves play an important role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Since time immemorial, elephants have been the greatest ecosystem engineers. Simply by walking around, they can shape their environment in a way no amount of artificial afforestation can match. By stomping saplings, peeling bark, clipping branches and trampling vegetation, elephants filter out smaller (i.e. low wood density) trees, promoting the dominance of high wood density trees that can store more carbon, also their travels over long ranges ensure optimal dispersal of seeds which ultimately leads to increase in forest cover. In short, elephants are our greatest allies in the fight against climate change and their existence saves us tens of billions in climate responses.
So how do we put a value to the benefits tigers and elephants bring to the nation? Fortunately, with modern methods of green accounting, it is possible to attach a monetary currency value to it. As per the result of a study done by Indian Institute of Forest Management , saving just two tigers yields a capital benefit of about Rs 520 crore !! A perfect example of this is the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand, popularly known as the land of “Roar and Trumpet” due its globally significant population of tigers and elephants. It is estimated to provide economic benefits worth Rs 14.7 billion annually including gene-pool protection (10.65 bn), provisioning of water to downstream districts of Uttar Pradesh ( 1.61 bn) and water purification services to the city of New Delhi (550 mn), generation of employment for local communities (82 mn), provision of habitat and refuge for wildlife (274 mn) and sequestration of carbon (214 mn).
But unmindful of these facts, our policy makers (irrespective of political parties) continue to push for unplanned development in these forests. Over the last 10 years, approximately 760 projects like highways, railways, dams, mines and power lines have been sanctioned by the govt in protected areas harboring tigers and elephants. The results have been disastrous, more than 87 elephants have died in train accidents and 462 electrocuted from low hanging power lines in the last 10 years. Similarly, we have lost 16 tigers and 300+ leopards to road and rail hits since 2012. Such projects also endanger the life of people living on the fringes of forests by causing man animal conflict, the deforestation caused by these projects lead to drying up of forest water sources and loss of prey, resulting in billions of dollars worth of damage due to crop raiding by elephants and cattle kills by tigers. So isn’t this suffficient economic rationale for building mitigation measures like underpasses for wildlife on highways, or better still , aligning the highways/railways away from core forest areas? Yet the govt has exempted 13 new railway projects from seeking environmental clearances to fast track “development” and govt sanctioned Uranium mining threatens the very existence of Amrbad Tiger Reserve (AP). Do you, a responsible citizen of this country really want such “development”? Would you really mind reaching your destination 45 mins later in exchange for pure air and water? if yes then help me by tweeting your answer to @nitin_gadkari and @PrakashJavdekar today.
In conclusion, I would just like to add that apart from the tangible benefits of conservation highlighted in this article, there are many intangible benefits that are yet to be explored. Tigers and elephants are sentient beings that have walked this planet for millions of years before us, do we really know all about them and heir habitats ? The rice plant that saved India from near starvation in the last century (IR-8) was bred using wild rice plants collected from the tiger habitats now part of Chhattisgarh. The famed sixth sense of elephants is a power currently beyond human comprehension, if you don’t believe me search for the video of elephant conservationist Lawrence Anthony’s death on Youtube, just when he was about to die, the elephants who considered him a part of their herd, eerily turned up enmasse at his residence to pay their tributes. It just shows that there is a lot that our science can still learn from them, there are many mysteries of the world still waiting to be unlocked, if you have ever looked into the eyes of a tiger, wild and free in the forest, you would know what I mean…
@copyrights shikhar ranjan 2019