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Fifa, and a species in peril

Fifa's Under-17 World Cup mascot Kheleoan anthropomorphic character represents the clouded leopard, an endangered cat

Kheleo, mascot for the Fifa Under-17 World Cup. Photo: LOC, FIFA U-17 World Cup India, 2017
Kheleo, mascot for the Fifa Under-17 World Cup. Photo: LOC, FIFA U-17 World Cup India, 2017

In the coming week, youth teams of 24 countries will kick off the Fifa Under-17 World Cup, in India. The sport of football, or “the beautiful game", is trying to revive the glory days of the 1950s and 1960s. India won gold in the 1951 and 1962 editions of the Asian Games and finished fourth in the 1956 Olympic games.

At the forefront of promoting this major international sporting spectacle is Fifa’s mascot Kheleo—an anthropomorphic character representing the clouded leopard, an endangered cat. The name is an amalgamation of two words— “khel" (meaning sport) and “leo" from the leopard. The U-17 World Cup will be played in six cities—New Delhi, Goa, Kochi, Guwahati, Kolkata and Navi Mumbai—from 6-28 October.

“We wanted a feisty, fast and agile character for the mascot," says Joy Bhattacharjya, project director of the tournament. The Fifa team, Bhattacharjya along with Javier Ceppi, tournament director, Local Organising Committee (LOC), and Arup Soans, head of marketing, wanted something different yet charismatic. Tigers and elephants had been overused as mascots so they looked at species like the snow leopard and the parakeet. Bhattacharjya, a wildlife enthusiast, wanted something unique and focused on the north-east region from where most of the Indian team players come from. So, the clouded leopard was selected. “It’s an unusual choice, yet it’s a charismatic cat of conservation importance," says Bhattacharjya.

The clouded leopard is found in the Himalayan foothills, ranging from Nepal to Myanmar and southern China. It’s the state animal of Meghalaya but very few people can claim to have spotted one in the wild. The forest areas where this elusive cat feels at home are dark and impenetrable—in places where sunlight struggles to touch the ground.

In 2015, I had the opportunity to spend a week observing how wildlife biologists use camera traps to find about rare and little-known species. In the Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram, the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, a part of the University of Oxford’s department of zoology (WildCRU) had set up a three-month project to estimate the population density of clouded leopards.

Every day, wildlife biologist Priya Singh, an alumnus of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), and her local team would trek through some of the densest and inhospitable terrains to set up camera traps and spend nights in ramshackle anti-poaching camps lacking basic amenities. The 160 camera traps deployed over three months captured 84 photos of clouded leopards. Singh, however, never spotted the cat during her long hikes inside the forest.

During the project, several cameras were also stolen and threats slyly conveyed by locals when the research team raised poaching and hunting issues within the tiger reserve. Further, the more pressing issue was the expansion of oil palm plantations in the buffer area of the national park replacing old growth forests.

Oil palm is a common ingredient found in food and skincare products. It is grown at a tremendous environmental cost, replacing tropical forest—home to species like the clouded leopard.

Over the years as global demand for oil palm has soared, blocks of oil palm plantation endangering countless species have replaced pristine rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia. The two countries produce 80% of the world’s oil palm and India is one of its largest importers.

In order to curb imports and become self-reliant, India has been aggressively promoting oil palm cultivation, especially in the North-East where the climate and terrain suit the crop. In the recent past, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram have taken to oil palm cropping in a big way, inviting private companies to set up operations in the region. The government has identified 101,000 hectares in Mizoram for potential oil palm cultivation

In April, the Union cabinet, chaired by the prime minister, eased land ceiling limit for oil palm cultivation under the National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm (NMOOP) to attract companies with maximum benefit of 100% foreign direct investment (FDI) and revised norms of assistance mainly for planting materials, maintenance cost, inter-cropping cost and bore-well set-ups to make oil palm plantations attractive. NMOOP aims to add another 1.25-lakh hectare to the 3-lakh hectare (mainly in the North-East) already under oil palm cultivation in the country.

The North-East is a global biodiversity hot spot and conservationists rue that the steady growth of oil palm cultivation is eating into the rich biodiversity. New plantations do show up as an increase in green cover under the Forest Survey of India but ecologists label them as “silent forest" devoid of any biodiversity. This is contrary to the claims of the Mizoram government’s agriculture department, which says, “Oil palm stands as an ideal crop capable of achieving conservation of soil and moisture, repair degraded land, provide ecological balance, food and security of rural and urban poor." Umesh Srinivasan, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University, US, who studies the distribution and population dynamics of Himalayan birds and the expansion of oil palm in India, has repeatedly said in his research presentations that the practice is detrimental to biodiversity and the crop requires chemicals inputs which lead to groundwater pollution, among other health hazards, in the region.

Despite the huge environmental costs, there are hardly any viable alternatives to oil palm. Solidaridad Network, a global sustainability organization, and the Solvent Extractors’ Association of India launched the Indian Palm Oil Sustainability Framework (a set of environmental and social criteria applicable in Indian conditions to produce and trade in sustainable palm oil) on 13 September, claiming “better environmental performance", among other benefits. But for cats such as the clouded leopard, the game is as good as lost.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

He tweets at @protectwildlife

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