The past year has been difficult for wildlife conservation organisations and enforcement agencies. Still bogged down by the second, devastating wave of covid-19 to hit the country, their inability to have enough personnel in the field has had a cascading effect on poaching and man-animal conflict.
Incidents of poaching in India are estimated to have increased—almost doubled—in 2020. The trend has continued this year. Not only have species and habitats taken a hit, so have the people who work to protect them. Several have lost their lives to covid-19. So much so that last month, the central unit of the Indian Forest Service Association in Delhi sent a letter to states to declare forest officers front-line workers.
Wildlife and nature non-profits like Wildlife SOS and the Wildlife Trust of India find themselves in the same boat. The latter, in fact, started the Conservation Heroes COVID Casualty Fund in May for wildlife warriors and forest staff impacted by the pandemic.
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Kartick Satyanarayan, the co-founder and CEO of Wildlife SOS, says that while forest officials haven’t been able to reach out to people and communities as part of their conservation effort during the pandemic, local communities too have not been able to reach out to organisations such as Wildlife SOS. “Before the pandemic, they would contact us (in case an animal had to be rescued or moved from a populated area). We would deploy a team along with officers from the wildlife protection department and the police,” says Satyanarayan over the phone. Efforts to sensitise people, in person, on avoidance behaviour around leopards and bears has become difficult. “We can’t gather in groups because social distancing is essential. It has posed a huge challenge to us,” he adds.
They have done their best to respond to rescue calls—on leopards that had fallen into wells, injured tigers, and more. “A lot of snake calls (to rescue the reptiles) were responded to. We also rescued a rare, endangered species like the pangolin,” adds Satyanarayan.
In an interview, Satyanarayan talks about the pandemic’s impact on eco-tourism, relying on digital platforms for work, and the need to protect biodiversity. Edited excerpts:
Over the past year, and during this second wave of the pandemic, how has wildlife conservation in India been affected?
The pandemic has taken quite a severe toll on wildlife conservation across India. A lot of the gains we have had over the years, sadly, have been lost. If you look at it from both perspectives, there have been some positives—nature has had the chance to crawl back and claim some spaces because of lesser human movement. At the same time, conservation projects and wildlife protection require some amount of human presence on the ground. This is an essential, inescapable requirement for the surveillance of protected areas, preventing poachers through active enforcement activities and long-term monitoring of wildlife species.
Unfortunately, the travel restrictions, lockdowns and active sickness—several forest officers have succumbed to covid-19 and their families have been affected—have put a spanner in the works. A lot of enforcement activities and monitoring, by default, have been put on the back burner.
A lot of communities that were dependent on eco-tourism and tourist activities have completely lost their source of income. There’s a likelihood that some of these people, surviving around forest areas and hunter gatherers earlier, may have taken to timber felling and facilitating poaching because it’s a quick way for them to get something for the pot.
While we don’t have statistical data, there has been an increase in incidents of human-wildlife conflict and reporting of poaching. It’s safe to say that this is obviously because of the inability of enforcement agencies and organisations like ours to send field staff out there.
How are you reaching out to people?
We have started using some digital assistance. In some cases, we have just had to take the risk: Some of our people have had to go to the field. A lot of them did fall sick and had to be put through medical care. It was inescapable. On the other hand, we started WhatsApp calls and announcements. We made groups (on the app) with local communities.
Let me give you an example. We have a project in Chhattisgarh where we have been tracking a herd of elephants in a district called Mahasamund for a couple of years now. There was a huge amount of conflict earlier because this herd went into a human-dominated landscape. The locals did not know how to deal with a wild elephant herd. As a result, there were 90 fatalities in one year alone from this herd. We engaged with the wildlife department to reach out to the local community there. In the pre-pandemic era, we were able to go from village to village and set up local groups. We were teaching people how to do avoidance behaviour.
We worked with the forest department and put a GPS collar on the matriarch of the herd by tranquillising her. The matriarch leads the entire herd. As she moved, we were getting real-time locations of her movement with the herd. We were able to report that through the forest department as well as on WhatsApp groups, where we had representatives of all the local villages. They were now aware of their trajectory. That way we were able to save human lives and property, agricultural crops and elephant lives.
When we get regular updates from this tracker, it drains the battery very often. We had a team on standby to track the elephant again and replace the collar. It’s a complex, time-consuming, field-based method. That meant we needed about 30-40 people on the ground to track this herd. Because of the pandemic and the second wave, we had to pull back our team.... We also lost the ability to keep people informed. In the absence of the GPS collar, we have a two- to three-member team that is tracking the herd on the ground. We are constantly in touch with the forest department to send our team in whenever it’s safe to do so.
What are the other technological innovations you have had to fall back on?
A lot of our surveys, education, awareness and research projects, etc.—a lot of these had to be used in an innovative model using digital platforms. That was the only way. Even paying some of our staff in the field, buying medicines, stockpiling food. All of that had to be restructured. It has been helpful for us to use Google Meet, Zoom and WhatsApp video calling. Gathering intelligence on our anti-poaching unit has also been quite a challenge. We have been combating that by using digital platforms as much as possible.
Has this pandemic shone some much needed light on the human side of wildlife conservation?
We have always known that. We treat our teams with a great amount of respect. Our animal care staff, our veterinarians, field biologists are the ones that really make things happen on the ground. Yes, the pandemic has shown how important it is for people to be compassionate and willing to get out there. But at the same time, it is also important to realise that humans are the reason that we have landed ourselves in a mess like this. I hope people realise how important it is for us to protect forests, nature and biodiversity—including our wildlife. At the end of the day, even species like butterflies, frogs, snakes—our indicator species—people don’t realise their importance. The whole ecosystem is so intrinsically complex that damaging one thing can lead to a chain reaction. If we continue this pace of destruction, it will come back to bite us.