The importance of protected areas

Print edition : February 05, 2016

While the grey slender loris, a primate species, is well protected in the Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve (Karnataka), it is seriously threatened owing to loss of forest habitat. Photo: Anant Zanjale

With the adjoining Bandipur (Karnataka) and Wayanad (Kerala) protected areas, the biologically diverse Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (Tamil Nadu) forms a large forested landscape. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The forest rest house at Supkhar; this Halon river valley part of the Kanha Tiger Reserve (Madhya Pradesh) may support the reintroduction of the wild buffalo in the near future. Photo: Sudhir Misra

The Mudumalai Tiger Reserve receives extremely good rainfall and supports a typical biodiversity of significant forest ecosystems, especially the shola-montane grassland complex. Photo: Anant Zanjale

At the Kanha Tiger Reserve. Bamboo has low resistance to biodegrading organisms and has disappeared from many areas of central India, but the protected areas in this part of the country are excellent repositories of this plant species. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The Pench Tiiger Reserve (Madhya Pradesh) manages a good tiger population in tropical deciduous teak and mixed forests. Photo: Amit Pare

The Kaziranga National Park (Assam), a World Heritage Site and a biodiversity hot spot in the sub-Himalayan belt, conserves around two-thirds of the world’s great one-horned rhinoceros. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The Anamalai Tiger Reserve (Tamil Nadu) is an important watershed area that supplies water for agriculture and power supply and supports, besides the endangered Nilgiri tahr (seen here), several major reservoirs. Photo: Anant Zanjale

Wild elephants at the Corbett National Park (Uttarakhand). Elephant conservation requires large areas so that they have space to forage and move around. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The Wild Ass Sanctuary (Gujarat), a remarkable landscape renowned for its special biodiversity, is part of a transitional area between marine and terrestrial systems. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The Corbett National Park not only conserves a variety of faunal species but also two major rivers and their tributaries as important hydrological resources. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The Nameri Tiger Reserve (Assam) also conserves the ibisbill, an endangered and unique wader of the flat, stony rivers of the high-altitude Himalayan valleys. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The Malabar grey hornbill, an endangered fruit-eating bird, in the Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve, which preserves a landscape of ecologically threatened forest types. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The Kanha National Park conserves large mosaics of forest, grassland and water, with typical floral and faunal species of the central Indian highlands. Photo: Anant Zanjale

Among the world’s most productive ecosystems, the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans are adapted to survive in the harsh interface between sea and land, protecting the shore. Photo: Anant Zanjale

The extremely beautiful sub-Himalayan Manas Tiger Reserve (Assam) is a biodiversity hot spot that has extensive alluvial grasslands and tropical evergreen forests, with a wide variety of floral and faunal species. Photo: Anant Zanjale

In the whole debate in India on climate change, the role of protected areas, the only natural tool to mitigate its effects and help us adapt to it, has not been discussed enough. Text by RAKESH SHUKLA and photographs by ANANT ZANJALE

IT was a bright spring morning, and seated under the thatched wood-framed umbrella in front of the forest rest house at Supkhar in the Kanha Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, I scanned the heart-warmingly panoramic landscape through field glasses to follow the alarm calls of chital. I zoomed in on a small pack of wild dogs disappearing into the distance as it chased a chital herd in the nearby grassland. The grassland, crossed by the narrow Halon river, stretched all around. The grassy expanse gradually blurred, turning into the shrubby undergrowth of the stately sal and mixed forests sloping up on to the hills. In the sunlight and the shade, there were many different hues of green, greyish and yellowish-brown splashed and scattered all over the wilderness.

I strolled down to the famous rest house and marvelled at the ingenuity of the foresters of a bygone era. Built in 1910, it is located amid a grove of sal and pine (a conifer species) trees overlooking the picturesque grassy expanse and rolling hills. A rather pleasing, though unusual, association of broadleaf and needleleaf trees considerably adds to the floristics of this site. The British actually planted these pines in the early decades of the last century to cover large blank patches in the forest. The steeply sloped high roof of the rest house is thatched with a local grass ( Heteropogan contortus). The layered thatch, deftly arranged and fastened on bamboo plaits, rests on wooden battens and long rafters and is replaced once every three years. The thatched layers keep temperatures in the rest house within tolerable levels even in the last week of May, when the temperature hovers around 46 °Celsius. The tribal people who once lived in this area (now relocated) handed down the skill to their descendants, who have mastered this remarkable workmanship. Interestingly, the management has chosen to keep the rest house unelectrified to date!

My surroundings were unpolluted, very different from the polluted environment in our cities. According to a World Health Organisation report, 13 Indian cities figure among the top 20 most polluted cities in the world. Currently, many options—ranging from regulating vehicle movement to prohibiting emissions from petty factories—are being considered to minimise pollution at least in some megacities of the country. Besides, a host of climate-change technologies ranging from preparing a smart grid, using LED lights to using biodiesel, driving hybrid cars, and using solar and wind energy are also being discussed. Amid the understandable haste to deal with climate change, the only natural tool available to mitigate its effects and help us adapt to it, the protected area (P.A.) network has not been discussed enough.

Protected area network

It has been government policy to set aside a certain percentage of total forest/geographical area exclusively for the conservation of wildlife. Generally, these areas refer only to sanctuaries and national parks. Technically, however, there are provisions in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, for the creation of conservation reserves on government land and community reserves on private land. These P.As, especially sanctuaries and national parks, are created on the basis of criteria, including wildlife potential, the status of endangered species, ecological and/or connectivity significance or being part of some hitherto unrepresented biogeographical area. Almost every P.A. is endowed with remarkable ecological, floral, faunal and geomorphological significance. No operations of territorial/general forestry are allowed in P.As, and everything is subordinated to wildlife conservation. Each P.A. is managed under a conservation/management plan with clear goals and objectives, prescribed conservation practices, and a basic framework for periodic evaluation. No wonder that these areas support a significant percentage of the wildlife populations of the country. India now has some 530 sanctuaries, 103 national parks, 65 conservation reserves and 25 community reserves. Besides, some 47 P.As have been notified as the core or critical tiger habitat of tiger reserves. The P.A. network also includes several marine areas that protect and improve marine biodiversity and ecosystems. While 21 per cent of the total geographical area of the country is forest area, the P.A. network is around 1.60 lakh sq km, which is less than the targeted 5 per cent of the country’s geographical area. India ranks sixth among the 12 mega biodiversity countries of the world.

Role of protected areas

A P.A. network is an important natural instrument that human communities can use to moderate and adapt to climate change. While the role of managed forests and other ecosystems is important, the P.A. network commands some significant advantages over these options. Operating under an effective framework, P.As have a firm legal standing and can offer long-term protection against biotic pressures. Protected areas are sometimes the only natural or sub-natural habitats in ecoregions or large areas. As they are special areas for biodiversity conservation, the cadre who manage them have more opportunities for capacity/expertise building and can consequently respond to new information on local changes in the environment. These areas generally have well-planned data sources for ecological monitoring and are supported by networks of national and international experts and activists for periodic alerts and advice.

Protected areas can reduce forest fragmentation and degradation through stringent protection and best management practices for biodiversity conservation. Experts say that effective protection of these areas will enhance carbon sequestration. (Carbon is stored in the atmosphere, rocks, soils, oceans and crust, and they are generally referred to as carbon pools, stocks or reservoirs and naturally act as both “sources”, adding carbon to the atmosphere, and “sinks”, removing carbon from the atmosphere. The process by which carbon sinks remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is known as “carbon sequestration”.) Protected areas are a proven instrument to maintain forest cover in large areas and can strengthen the resilience of ecosystems and landscapes to climate change and provide safety through their genetic resources and ecosystem services. For example, while bamboo has disappeared from many areas of central India owing to heavy cattle grazing and frequent fires, the species is supported in several P.As.

Large grassy expanses are supposed to be large stores of carbon. Grasslands managed under P.As can significantly add to carbon storage. Conversion or degradation of grasslands outside P.As tends to increase carbon loss and may turn into major carbon “sources” for the atmosphere. Reclamation of agricultural lands through village relocation from P.As and their development into grasslands is reported to lead to carbon sequestration. There is already a ban on cattle grazing in P.As and even this small preventive measure can lead to increased sequestration. Restoration of unproductive and degraded agricultural lands to natural vegetation is another effective way of carbon sequestration.

Protected areas are crucial in minimising the impacts of a wide range of natural disasters in different habitat types. They absorb excessive rainfall and control stream flows by gradually releasing the water into the soil and the streams and rivers of the watershed. They provide space for the escape of floodwaters, weakening their damaging potential. Ecological loss from uncontrolled fires is kept to a minimum in P.As through effective fire-protection measures. Ecologists attribute fragmentation and increased fire hazards to the desiccation of ground vegetation outside old P.As. Reduction of cattle grazing and the resultant decrease in trampling and soil compaction and maintenance of drought-resistant plant species support drought-prevention initiatives and minimise desertification. Management practices in certain P.As bind soils and stabilise loose rocks, preventing landslides/mudslides and avalanches. Protected areas can reduce or prevent the disastrous effects of hurricanes and storms, for example, the Sunderbans is credited with shielding inland areas from cyclones. Mangroves can reduce the impact of storm waves, and coastal areas with this type of vegetation suffer less than those areas without.

Protected areas maintain water supplies in a region of fragmented or denuded areas because they can absorb and then gradually release water into the soil, plants and streams. This makes them capable of capturing and storing rainfall during the rainy season and ensuring water availability throughout the year. Protected areas minimise their net water flow, resulting in low run-off. They are sources of many important rivers and streams. The Western Ghats have many reservoirs important for power supply.

Natural wetlands and grasslands play an important role in reducing contamination levels in water. The quality of such water is generally better than that obtained from ordinary catchment areas. Effectively managed P.As may also help control the emergence and rapid spread of a wide range of diseases, including malaria, leishmaniasis, trypanosomiasis and filariasis, which are reported to be caused by massive ecological disturbances.

The wild relatives of crops are conserved by P.As. These plant species are the main source of much of the genetic material used for crop breeding. This resource is, however, under threat mainly because of habitat loss, and it is feared that climate change will aggravate the situation. Special strategies are required to ensure the nation’s food supply by protecting these relatives and landraces. Protected areas are vital sources of important traditional medicines and support a wide range of natural genetic resources, providing material for commercial medications. Protected areas offer special conservation benefits for species and ecological processes that cannot survive outside these landscapes and support good numbers of rare and threatened species not found elsewhere. Experts suggest that the greater biodiversity of a P.A. makes it more able to maintain its functions than other ecosystems.

Strengthening the P.A. network is, like any far-sighted undertaking, a proactive rather than a reactive intervention. Currently, the country has an abysmally small area under the P.A. network. No doubt, India is a fast developing country with tremendous economic aspirations. While it has its demographic and economic constraints, one should not forget that the National Wildlife Action Plan (2002-16) commits to expanding the total area under the P.A. network to at least 10 per cent of the country’s landmass. Although this may sound fanciful, there is an urgent need to expand several core zones of tiger reserves and national parks by voluntary village relocation under attractive incentives and packages. The number of P.As may also be increased to achieve the objective. However, it needs to be kept in mind that the larger the area, the better and more robust the ecosystem. There is a need to connect P.As or old growth forests within landscapes through biological linkages/corridors as they function best as part of a larger landscape and not in isolation. Such expansions and connectivity will add considerably to their resilience and help them cope with local climate change.

Substantial parts of landscapes in the country are under immense biotic pressure and consist of hopelessly fragmented forests, with low cover value for wildlife, and degraded and weed-infested plains. These are occupied by the typical Indian innumerability of human and cattle populations, and the way the land is used is not supportive of forests and vegetal cover.

In this bleak scenario, without people’s cooperation, it will not be possible to establish effective corridors to connect P.As. Conservation of natural resources is an integrated biological and social process and needs an understanding of the target communities, especially their socio-economic aspirations and culture. Experience suggests that people’s livelihoods and their ability to be involved meaningfully in conservation planning and practices are critical to environmental conservation. The task of restoring these landscapes and corridors is an enormous undertaking and requires new approaches to deal with its human aspect.

A wide range of confidence-building measures needs to be undertaken from sustainable livelihood, poverty alleviation and health improvement programmes to employment generation and sociocultural uplift. Multidisciplinary teams of experts and professionals need to be involved in the planning process and to harness the talent and expertise of prominent non-governmental organisations in human development-related programmes for nature conservation.

Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.

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