2018 in Wildlife: Gir lions, 'man-eater' Avni, dead elephants echo drumbeats of doom

It’s going to take a lot more than dedicated officers and conservation groups to save India’s wildlife.


It has been repeatedly said – by observers, environmentalists, activists and really anyone with an abiding interest in wildlife and wildernesses that we had some of the best laws in place for the protection of wild animals and wild places.

Foreign TV wildlife film-makers always pointed out in hushed, admiring tones, that Indians had a universal empathy with the wild – and indeed worshipped many animals – from rats to tigers and elephants. We can also (just about now) still boast of having the ‘big four or big five’ – the tiger, lion, leopard, rhino and elephant.

True, it’s been difficult to implement all the laws incurred in our famous Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 – but well the feeling was that the Government – and more specifically, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, was on the side of the cause – protecting wildlife and wild places. The ‘enemies’ were poachers and encroachers, timber thieves and industrialists trying to weasel in.

2018 in Wildlife: Gir lions, man-eater Avni, dead elephants echo drumbeats of doom

Stripe-necked mongooses at the Bandipur National Park in 2015. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Now everything’s changed and wildlife and the wild places in India are looking down the barrel of a gun held by none other than the same Government that had hitherto sworn to protect it — and more specifically, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. This year, proposals have been rammed through, roughshod, to change and water down the very laws that protected our wonderful natural heritage.

In the past, environmental projects needed numerous clearances before they could go ahead – something industrialists naturally resented: it could take ages and come with all kind of riders. Now, in this past year, the Government has decided to make environmental clearances for such controversial projects a walk in the (car) park. If you find coal or gold in the core zone of a national park – don’t worry, the Government will now help you get it out (and devastate the area) post haste. In the past, tribals and village communities had the right to use the forests and collect forest produce – now more or less anyone can do so – especially industrialists. It’s so much easier now to clear forests and put up plantations or tourist resorts and golf courses – because hey, that’s good for the economy – the tigers and elephants can go take a hike if they don’t like it.

Demoiselle cranes, one of the many migratory birds that fly down to India, spotted at the Tal Chhapar Sanctuary in Rajasthan. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

A pair of Demoiselle cranes, one of the many migratory birds that fly down to India, spotted at the Tal Chhapar Sanctuary in Rajasthan. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

For wildlife and our few remaining wild places – the drumbeats of doom have begun beating – and the drummer is none other than the Government itself. It’s perfectly fine to dig mines, set up polluting industrial plants right inside or cheek by jowl with a National Park or Tiger Reserve — too bad if the animals get disturbed. The Government will build roads and railways to help you on your way.

That holy river, the Ganges is being dredged, widened, dammed, sucked dry and generally mucked around with to enable huge cargo and tourist ships ply up and down it. The highly endangered Ganges River dolphin, which relies on sonar to catch its prey (and is the top predator in its habitat) is going to be one hell of a confused mammal when it hears the thrumming of giant ship propellers. Besides, ‘fragmenting’ the river into sections with dams, completely limits their social and love lives and could possibly result in desperate and very unhealthy inbreeding.

That stately bird – the Great Indian Bustard – has crashed to a population of maybe just 100 birds – most in the deserts of Rajasthan where it runs the risk of flying into windmills and electric pylons sprouting like mushrooms. Fortunately, a completely harebrained plan to make an expressway a fit runway for fighter jets was dropped when it was found it was close to the nesting grounds of these almost-extinct slow breeders. But most of its grasslands have gone – under the plough or used for other purposes.

An Indus river dolphin pops it head above dirty waters. The Ganges and Indus River Dolphin species are an important indicator of the health of river ecosystems. Image credit: WWF India

An Indus river dolphin pops its head above dirty waters. The Ganges and Indus River Dolphin species are important indicators of the health of river ecosystems. Image credit: WWF India

Highly-contentious and dubious ‘river-linking’ projects (such as the Ken-Betwa one) have split pristine National Parks (such as Panna) into two, exactly what the wall did to Germany way back after World War II. Apart from the fact that there’s a maniacal desire to build expressways and elevated roads through National Parks and other ‘Protected Areas’. Building a road anywhere entails the round-the-clock use of heavy, noisy and very smelly machinery, the setting up of camps for labour and engineers and in this case, the decimation of thousands of huge old forest giants and everything else living in the way. And it’s not all over in a day: it takes years.

Night traffic on National Highway 766 through the Bandipur National Park had been stopped – they’re now hell-bent on reopening it. They want to build elevated highways and expressways in the Bandipur-Bandipur-Mudumalai-Wyanad belt in Karnataka and Kerala. Roads through jungles are nothing but the harbingers of death for wildlife – through ‘accidents’, and the settling down of people alongside. Fortunately, two such similar – though smaller – projects planned in Haryana (through the Aravali Biodiversity Park and a road connecting Manesar to Gurgaon through these ancient mountains) have been deferred because the Government had to be forcibly reminded – by children that Gurgaon often had the dirtiest air of all the cities in the world.

Biplab Hazra was named the 'Sanctuary Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017' for this photo entry, titled 'Hell is Here,' which shows a calf and its mother running for their lives after being set on fire amidst a mob attack in West Bengal. It beat 5,000 other entries Asia-wide in a competition organised by Sanctuary Asia, a conservation & environment-protection group. Image: Sanctuary Asia/Biplab Hazra

Biplab Hazra was named the 'Sanctuary Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017' for this photo entry, titled 'Hell is Here'. It shows a calf and its mother running for their lives after being set on fire amidst a mob attack in West Bengal. It beat 5,000 other entries Asia-wide in a competition organised by Sanctuary Asia, a conservation & environment-protection group. Image: Sanctuary Asia/Biplab Hazra

Animals too this year have had a bad deal. An ominous trend is the ‘lynch mentality’ that seems to be taking over in every field. If a leopard is discovered in or near an urban area it is often chased, stoned and beaten to death by berserk mobs. The controversial killing of 'Avni'the alleged man-eating tigress (leaving her nearly grown-up cubs orphans) generated heat and hysteria: Over 200 hunters and sharpshooters got after her, infra-red cameras and paragliders were used as was Calvin Klein perfume! Villagers in the affected area celebrated her death with firecrackers, though controversy swirls around the manner and necessity of her killing – by the son of India’s foremost tiger hunter. Here again it is alleged that laws in place were royally ignored.

Over 50 elephants have died crossing railway tracks running through forests, Protected Areas and National Parks in the last three years. Most of these railway tracks are in the ‘forest corridors’ that the animals use on their migratory treks. Firstly, there ought not to be any railway tracks running through National Parks and Sanctuaries at all. In some places however, they now want to convert the metre gauge lines into broad gauge – enabling faster, heavier trains to roar through.

At least 21 lions at the Gir sanctuary were found infected with canine distemper virus this, which eventually took their lives. AFP

At least 21 lions at the Gir sanctuary were found infected with canine distemper virus this year, which eventually took their lives. AFP

The shocking, sudden death of over 20 precious lions in the Gir due to the highly infective canine-distemper virus (passed on by dogs and cats) reminded us of another continuing bit of foolishness. This same virus had back in 1994 decimated one-third of the Serengeti’s lions. We in India have just over 500 left (brought back from a scrappy dozen) – all in one place: Gujarat’s Gir forest. The State Government along with the politicians, like petulant children have steadfastly refused to send some of the kings to other kingdoms – one or two which were actually made ready for them in nearby Madhya Pradesh.

Worse, as usual, when the news got around of the lion deaths, the authorities adopted the time-honoured head in the sand ostrich approach – saying the lions died fighting each other. Now they’re going around vaccinating them! The same attitude prevailed when it came to light that all the tigers in Sariska and later Panna had been shot by poachers. The authorities first refused to believe or accept this – kicked out the researchers stating this – and now have had to accept tigers donated by other parks. It shows a jaw-dropping lack of commitment.

Fortunately, there are however, dozens of sterling wildlife officers and staff who go well beyond the call of duty to protect their charges, so it’s not all black and bleak!

In the end, it’s going to be more than just mere dedicated officers in the field that can save India’s wildlife. We, the people are going to have to get up and scream and shriek, very loudly indeed. Most of all, it’s going to take the person at the very top (like Mrs Indira Gandhi had done) to really call the shots and put an end to the destruction of our last remaining wildernesses and their denizens.

Here's a list of our other year-ender stories:

Best Camera phones of 2018: Pixel 3, Apple iPhone XS, Huawei Mate 20 Pro on top

Audio trends of 2018: Airpods, Alexa, Google Home, AI-powered speakers and more

India's year in space: ISRO's big wins in 2018, Gaganyaan 2022 and Space startups

Best flagship phones of 2018: From Samsung Galaxy S9 to Poco F1 to OnePlus 6