Thursday, April 19, 2012


When the buying stops, the killing can too!” WildAid, an organisation committed to ending wildlife trade by reducing demand for wildlife products through awareness campaigns had come up with this slogan. I once got an opportunity to work on one of their projects in India and it had, through exposure and association, become the guiding principle of my conservation philosophy. But this afternoon changed all that.

I had planned on spending the day at the WWF library in Delhi, researching for a story about tiger conservation when I ran into an old mentor of mine, the tallish and amiable figure of Khaled Pasha, now heading TRAFFIC (a wildlife trade monitoring network) India as a research and training coordinator. And just like a mentor ought to, good old Mr. Pasha took me under his wing and whisked me away to his office on the floor above. After we’d brought each other up to speed on the events in our lives since we’d last met, nearly a decade ago, we started talking about what had once brought us together – the conservation of Asian big cats.

Khaled had news for me. China wasn’t the big bad boy of conservation anymore. “The Chinese are really serious about conservation now. They have banned the trade in animal parts. Tiger farms-where tigers were bred in cages like goats to feed the once burgeoning traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) market- that were once widespread are now few and far between. And the Chinese government is taking active interest in international conservation policy development as well as conducting raids that are resulting in significant seizures of wildlife parts.” That was a very big step in the right direction. China had been the prime market for everything from tiger bones and ivory to bear bile and shark fins. Reduced demand from China ought to result in a significant drop in poaching for these products.

Khaled smiled a wry smile and shook his head. “We need to look at wildlife products and the trade in wildlife products like any other contraband.” Remember the 80s when the biggest threat to rhino populations across Africa and Asia was from this demand for rhino horn dagger handles in Yemen and other West Asian nations? Well, through regulation, education and enforcement, the demand was controlled and reduced significantly in the region. But did that mean the rhinos could breathe easy? Far from it! Even bigger numbers have been poached since and India’s parks lost quite a few rhinos to poachers last year. Carcasses riddled with bullets fired from sophisticated assault rifles were found in and around Kaziranga and other parks, their horns sawed off by highly motivated and well equipped gangs of poachers. The horn’s most likely destination – Vietnam.

When demand in one region for a wildlife product falls, a new market spurred by new geo-political factors emerges. Opportunistic wildlife traders fuel this new demand through a well oiled and well timed distribution mechanism, “just like Pepsi ensures you get a Pepsi, and only a Pepsi, even if you don’t want it, in markets it can reach…” quipped the ever genial Pasha. “Vietnam wants rhino horn because of this unfounded notion that it cures cancer…”

So as things stand, the killing won’t stop even if the buying does, because the killers will a find the way to new market more oft en than not… So are the tigers doomed? Will the rhinos become extinct in the wild? Would wild tuskers disappear from our forests forever?

Khaled and his fellow wildlife warriors believe there are reasons for hope. But concrete steps need to be taken to safeguard the future of our wild heritage.

“Non governmental agencies like ours can only provide actionable intelligence – that is information that is precise and timely – but we are not an enforcement agency. We can’t legally arrest a poacher and apprehend a suspect.” And that’s from where the system starts looking all pear shaped. “Most seizures of skins, pelt and bones are incidental hauls. Unfortunately wildlife crimes are not treated with the kind of intensity that they deserve. Follow up action aft er arrests is invariably weak and uncoordinated.” Every year, tigers are killed in Madhya Pradesh, rhinos in Assam and elephants in Uttarakhand. Is it really possible to save our wildlife in the face of such relentless onslaught?

“It is possible!”, said Pasha. “Though few and far between, there are a few examples of ‘0 loss’ from the last year. In Nepal, the government deployed a contingent of the army to protect the rhinos in Chitwan and other national parks and registered a ‘0 loss’ year in 2011. In that same year, India lost more than two dozen rhinos from its national parks.

But Orang, a national park on the north bank of the Brahmaputra and a rhino haven wasn’t one of those parks that lost its rhinos. Here, though the state did not deploy a military contingent to protect the rhinos, the dedication and commitment of the park administration kept the rhino safe, at least for now. Unlike parks in the rest of the country where administrators and local villagers are at loggerheads, here in Orang, a proactive administration has successfully integrated locals into the conservation process.
This ensured that actionable intelligence reached the forest department in time for them to take quick and decisive preemptive action.

But even more important than the dedication and ingenuity of the park administration is local political will. “For instance, look at the lion poaching case in Gujarat…” Pasha added. “The Chief Minister parked himself in the park for three days, demanding conclusive action to apprehend the culprits. The whole state ministry, along with central agencies was involved in this mission and the impetus came from the very top. This ensured that the criminals were apprehended and the pride of Gujarat has remained in its only home in the world.

“But we can’t depend on individual initiative if we are to save our wildlife” he remonstrated. “What happens when a forest officer is transferred or a minister loses an election or makes a political shift . His replacement might not share his sense of priority and redirect resources elsewhere. Suddenly the programme instituted by his predecessor would collapse and the animals and forests would be vulnerable again. To counter this, conservation laws that govern protection of our forests, that allow for and insist on coordination between intelligence and enforcement agencies and across state and eventually international borders, and the deployment of resources and trained personnel need to be institutionalized. Changes in government or in personnel should not mean a collapse of the existing machinery.”

Then he looked into my eyes with a probing yet gentle gaze and said, “This is where the media comes in. Beyond just focusing on sensational news of seizures etc., you should also focus on what needs to be done. Take this message forward and make sure that our concerns are heard by all concerned”.

I smiled and said I would. And here I am, doing my bit, spreading the good word. The question is, is it going to be enough. Answers and more in the epilogue to the trilogy… watch this space…    


No comments:

Post a Comment