Unequal attention

Lopsided funding for wildlife conservation is resulting in some critically endangered species being driven towards extinction.

Published : Mar 21, 2013 00:00 IST

The white-bellied heron in Bhutan.

The white-bellied heron in Bhutan.

VOLTAIRE’S famous quote of common sense not being so common seems to apply when it comes to India’s budgetary allocation for wildlife conservation. It would be logical to assume that species that are listed as being a step away from extinction are given top priority when it comes to the planning and allocation of finances, but apparently this is not so.

A bit of background is essential first. India is home to 7.6 per cent of the world’s mammalian species, 12.6 per cent of bird species, 6.2 per cent of reptile species and 6 per cent of the flowering plant species. That means India has about 90,000 species of animals and 40,000 species of plants, making it one of the top one dozen countries with gigantic biodiversity.

As breathtaking as this sounds, there is a sharp downside. Some 132 of these animal and plant species have been marked as “critically endangered” and have found a place on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Red List is a directory of species that are facing threats and groups them under the following categories: least concern, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in wild, and extinct. The “critically endangered” list for India includes 60 species of plants, 18 species of amphibians, 15 species of birds, 14 species of fish and 10 species of mammals. Among these are the Jerdon’s courser, the forest owlet, the Bengal florican, the white-bellied heron, the sociable lapwing, three species of Gyps vultures, the pygmy hog, the Andaman white-toothed shrew, the Namdapha flying squirrel, the Malabar civet, the gharial, the Gangetic dolphin and the giant clam. Despite their frighteningly low numbers and their rapidly diminishing habitats, there are no species-specific conservation budgetary allocations for them.

A look at the budgetary allocations for wildlife conservation shows a complete neglect of species that are racing towards extinction. Instead, the bulk of the budget goes towards tiger conservation. While there is no doubt that the tiger population (currently estimated at around 1,700) has improved because of an intensive conservation initiative, there are many who argue that the Union government should show the same enthusiasm for other species, especially critically endangered ones.

Glaring omissions The minutes of a meeting of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) held on September 5, 2012, state that the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-12) allocated Rs.778 crore for tiger projects and Rs.364 crore for other Protected Areas (PAs), support for recovery of critically endangered species, and support to wildlife outside PAs. The Twelfth Plan allocates Rs.167.70 crore for tiger projects and Rs.73.50 crore for the rest. The omissions are glaring. Critically endangered species, wildlife crimes and trafficking—all deserving of serious attention—are lumped together with other conservation projects. On the surface there seems to be no reason to give a disproportionate amount of the budget to the National Tiger Conservation Authority. It is responsible for 41 tiger reserves, which cover close to 6,400 square kilometres of reserve land and account for just 2 per cent of the country’s geographical area. Besides, the tiger is not a critically endangered species, and the large amount of money being spent on it has given rise to a certain amount of debate (fortunately, not acrimonious) within wildlife circles.

One line of reasoning that justifies the majority of the funds going to tiger conservation is that saving the tiger’s habitat results in saving a host of other flora and fauna. This is a valid argument because the health of a large mammal can easily be used as an indicator of the health of smaller creatures and, indeed, saving ecosystems is truly the holistic way of conservation, but the current situation is too skewed for just this approach to be taken. Besides, the project to save the tiger covers only areas that tigers inhabit, and not many of the critically endangered bird species are found there. This naturally begs the question, “What happens to creatures in areas where there are no tigers?”

Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), says, “Andaman and Nicobar [Islands] have no tigers. Neither does Ladakh or the Himalayas. If the logic of saving ecosystems is to be applied, then how will the National Tiger Conservation Authority save riverine and marine ecosystems? The Gangetic dolphin or the sea turtle does not share tiger habitats but they are critically endangered. Do we not need to protect these species?”

To prove his point, Rahmani plotted the presence/absence of all the threatened Indian bird species that have been recognised by BirdLife International and the IUCN for 2011 against each tiger reserve. His findings, published in a book titled Threatened Birds of India: Their Conservation Requirements , were released in 2012 by Jayanthi Natarajan, the Minister for Environment and Forests. Rahmani is at pains to explain that he is not anti-tiger: “We have to protect this magnificent animal but there are others too, and my question is why are we not being more inclusive of species?”

In the chapter on “Tiger Reserves and Threatened Bird Species”, he reiterates his opinion that though protecting tiger habitats does benefit a variety of other animals and birds, many species that desperately need protection are not necessarily living within tiger habitats. He writes: “BirdLife International (2011) and IUCN have recognised 15 bird species as critically endangered in India. Interestingly, eight species (Himalayan quail, Ophrysia superciliosa ; pink-headed duck, Rhodonessa caryophyllacea ; Christmas frigatebird, Fregata andrewsi ; great Indian bustard, Ardeotis nigriceps ; sociable lapwing, Vanellus gregarius ; spoon-billed sandpiper, Eurynorhynchus pygmeus ; and Jerdon’s courser, Rhinoptilus bitorquatus ) are not found in any tiger reserve. The Himalayan quail and pink-headed duck could be extinct, and Christmas frigatebird is a vagrant in India (with one stray record in Andaman), so they are not likely to be found in any tiger reserve. There are some chances that the spoon-billed sandpiper could be found in Sundarbans Tiger Reserve but till now no confirmed sighting has been reported.”

Kishor Rithe, president of Satpuda Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that works for wildlife with local residents in eastern Maharashtra, and a member of the NBWL, makes a valid contribution to this debate. He says, “If we put up this issue of the tiger versus other animals and birds, then we are just making things easy for the MoEF [Ministry of Environment and Forests] and the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office]. They will address the issue by taking the easiest option and that will be to curtail the tiger budget and give part of it to other species. That is not what anyone wants. We need an overall increase in budgetary allocations for conservation, but the reality is that the government is not ready to increase allocations for the wildlife and forest sectors. They are very rigid about this.” Rithe says it is pointless for conservationists to make it a “tiger versus other species” argument. He says it would be more relevant to ask why the budgets of sectors such as water resources, power and surface transport have been increased while that of wildlife and forests has not; this despite the fact that all three benefit from the forest and wildlife sector.

Explaining this, he says, “For example, the Water Resources Ministry has canals running for miles through sanctuaries but they will not let any water be siphoned off for animals… not even during the worst period of central India’s summers. However, if these same canals were built on land belonging to a village, the Ministry would be obliged to have some mitigating measure like sharing the water.”

The same sort of thinking goes on in the Ministry of Surface Transport. Thousands of kilometres of road run through sanctuaries, and hundreds of animals are run over, but the Ministry refuses to take any mitigating measures, disclaiming all responsibility for the animal deaths. Valuable money meant for direct conservation goes into things like this.

At an NBWL meeting, Rithe proposed that “mitigation measures be implemented in PAs and wildlife corridors to stop accidental deaths of wild animals due to linear infrastructural projects such as electric transmission lines, roads, highways, railway lines and canal networks of irrigation projects”. He has requested the Prime Minister to instruct Chief Ministers about this, adding that the State government agencies concerned “show hardly any concern and responsibility to have mitigation measures”.

But, to return to the earlier debate, one outcome of the lopsided wildlife budgeting is that a catch-22 situation develops. Funds are often distributed on the basis of the information available on a species. The thinking is that the money will be maximised if there is already existing research to build a plan on. While this is true, it also means that species that were stable in numbers but have suddenly been pushed closer towards extinction (like the great Indian bustard) lose out.

Rahmani says, “Project Tiger gave results and that is one of the reasons for continuing to give it funds, but if the government doesn’t back new projects, how are they to ever start?” Data availability is a huge problem. “If very little is available on big mammals like the snow leopard, the lynx, bears, wolves, you can imagine what the situation is like for some small beetle on the forest floor,” says Rahmani, who also says that the funding situation is further complicated because corporate sponsoring (though a healthy initiative) is attracted to “glamorous” animals like the tiger. Partiality in funding also affects student research. There are few people who persevere and study lesser known small species of plants or animals. Most end up studying already well-researched species because they will be assured of funding.

National animal status One frustrated conservationist said that part of the problem was that the decision-makers were “ babu s with no knowledge, no concern and no wish to learn”. An anecdote highlights this unfortunate reality. The tiger’s status as the national animal apparently means it must receive special attention. It was only in 1972 that it took over this status from the lion. One wonders if there would have been a Project Lion instead if the change had not been effected.

Similarly, the great Indian bustard was actually supposed to be the national bird. It would have been appropriate since it was common and its habitat ranges from Kanyakumari to Haryana and from Rajasthan to Odisha, but at the time of deciding someone raised the question of possible mispronunciation of the bird’s name, and so the honour of being the national bird went to the peacock. As in the case of the lion and the tiger, one wonders whether there would have been only 300 peacocks surviving now instead of 300 bustards.

Rahmani summed up the situation, “Project Tiger is not the final answer to all the conservation problems of India as it does not cover deserts, grasslands, coastal areas (with the exception of the Sundarbans), marine ecosystems, wetlands, high-altitude areas and islands. There is now a need to look beyond Project Tiger… if they want to achieve the zero-extinction goal by 2020.”

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment