It is widely claimed that one good thing the lockdown has done is initiating the healing process of nature. Urban wildlife has revived in many places as mornings are now welcomed with the sweet symphony of bird calls. Skylines have become clearer as the haze from vehicular and industrial pollution has significantly reduced. Aquatic life has become more active. Frequent sightings of leopards have been recorded from the Sanjay Gandhi National Park - fearlessly seated on the walls of Arey colony in Mumbai in absence of significant human activities.
Sudhir Das, Director, Sundarban Tiger Reserve, in an interaction with the Hindustan Times recently said that the patrolling teams are spotting almost five to six tigers a week. Earlier, spotting a tiger in the impenetrable Sundarban mangroves was highly infrequent. Media sources state that the mangrove forest was reopened on June 15, 2020 with certain restrictions after the lockdown was relaxed in West Bengal.
However, despite the positive impacts, the lockdown has also adversely affected Indian wildlife in certain ways.
The lockdown has had an adverse impact on revenue generation of the Indian wildlife tourism sector. A report by The Times of India states that the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve (DTR) in Uttar Pradesh has incurred a revenue loss of 45% in comparison to last year’s revenue. Forest officials stated that the tiger reserve earned nearly Rs. 64 lakh last year which has fallen to Rs. 35 lakh in 2020 in the tourist season that extends from November 15 to June 15. According to a 2017 report by TOFTigers, wildlife tourism across the four tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh (Kanha, Panna, Bandhavgarh and Pench) generated an annual revenue of `166 crore. Of this, 45% went to the local economy.
Nirmalya Chakraborty, wildlife explorer and editor of the Jungle Rhythms, told BE, “With no access to national parks - jungle lodges, field naturalists, safari drivers, tribal driven jungle eateries, along with the entire ecosystem of individuals involved to run the entire machinery of managed ecotourism have now collapsed. The entire season for their annual income has been ruined and many lives are in agony.”
With the International Tiger Day around the corner (on July 29), no celebration is expected because of the current scenario. Moreover, the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s (NTCA) recent decision of slashing the funds by 15% for each state has doubled the miseries of the tiger reserves.
Increase in poaching activities
Absence of jungle safaris has led to a greater animal movement. However, as a result of restricted human movement, poaching has also increased. Chakraborty informed, “Poaching for wild meat consumption during lockdown has been the highest. Some of these cases were attributed to craving for meat and local meat shops being closed. Cases were reported from Santalpur region of Patan district in Gujarat, Kodagu and Shivamogga where poachers were caught trying to sell deer meat for consumption.”
This can prove to be fatal for the tigers as depletion of herbivore species (prey) in an ecosystem where big cats thrive would naturally impact the ecological balance, escalate conflict cases and derail conservation efforts.
A report titled, ‘Indian wildlife amidst the COVID-19 crisis: An analysis of poaching and illegal wildlife trade’ records a jump in poaching activities. It increased from eight out of 35 (22%) total reported cases during the pre-lockdown phase to 39 out of 88 (44%) cases during the lockdown period. A significant increase in the poaching of ‘small mammals’ including hares, giant squirrels, monkeys and smaller wild cats has also been recorded. Although there has been a high demand for some animal products in the international markets but it is presumed that most of the hunting during the lockdown period is for meat or for local trade. Cases for these rose from six (17%) to 22 (25%) between the pre-lockdown and lockdown periods.
Solutions to protect Indian wildlife
Wildlife experts have suggested that directing a portion of tourism revenues towards an emergency conservation fund in case of situations such as this pandemic and increasing incentive-driven enforcement could help in the protection of vulnerable wildlife habitat. The researchers of the Rights and Resources Initiative, in a 2018 study compared the success of conservation in forest areas managed by indigenous communities with protected zones conserved through modern science-based techniques. The study, which spanned across 28 countries including India, found that local people achieved similar (if not better) conservation outcomes at a substantially lower budget.