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Rushing towards ecocide

The realisation that the environmental regulations, that protect India’s wildlife and keep our air and water clean, are being eroded to promote industry, prompted Prerna Singh Bindra to write her book

books Updated: Nov 10, 2017 16:36 IST
Prerna Singh Bindra
Prerna Singh Bindra
Hindustan Times
gharial,sarus crane,flamingo
Vanishing: A road could destroy flamingo colonies in the Rann of Kutch, the only known regular breeding area of the species in India.(Shailesh Raval/The India Today Group/Getty Images)

It is dawn, a pinkish-saffron hue creeps over the stunning vista of golden sand, craggy ravines and the beautiful river Chambal meandering through. We (I was with foresters and the conservationist Rajeev Chauhan) were crouched on the banks, silent and stiff, watching a concentrated assembly of some 350-odd gharial hatchlings lined close to the shore in shallow water. A slight movement and the hatchlings scattered; as we positioned ourselves into statues, they regrouped.

It’s quiet except for the gentle murmur of flowing water.

We edged a wee bit-closer and from the depths of the river emerged a huge male gharial. A buzzing-hissing sound pierced the silence as he breathed out forcefully. He seemed agitated by our presence, sending us warning signals, and hovering close to the little ones who soon clambered onto his back. Soon nothing except ‘daddy’s’ ghara — a pot-like mass at the end of a long, narrow snout — was visible! The kids piggy-backed on ‘daddy’ for the hour or so that we were there, occasionally sliding off and scrambling back on.

To see a reptile, so feared and maligned, being a protective, attentive parent tops all the natural history moments I have witnessed.

This was near Pinahat in Uttar Pradesh — along the Chambal, in which roam a majority of the 1,000 gharials that survive in the wild. An ancient crocodilian species, the gharials’ historical aquatic habitat of over 20,000 sq km is now restricted to a few river stretches in India and Nepal.

My next story is about the birds and the bees! In my childhood, bees were a common sight — hives hung heavy from old trees in the gardens of our colony. The trees have long vanished, and so have the bees. There has been a catastrophic, worldwide decline in bee populations primarily due to the extensive use of pesticides and herbicides.

We are living in the age of the Sixth Extinction, losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate. There have been five great die-offs in history, all by natural causes like giant meteorite strikes. This time, “the cataclysm is us,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert author of the Pulitzer winning ‘Sixth Extinction’. The wiping out of other life on our planet is humanity’s most enduring legacy.

Extinction matters — it touches our lives in ways we are yet to understand. In some cases, the loss of a mere bird can lead to a health crisis. India has lost over 97 per cent of its vultures in a matter of a few decades. We think of the vulture as ghoulish, or use it as a metaphor for evil opportunists. But the near extinction of this scavenger has meant the loss of an efficient carcass disposal system. The carcasses, earlier stripped to the bone by vultures, are left rotting increasing the possibility of the spread of zoonotic diseases such as anthrax.

Bee declines will hurt local and global economies. As pollinators, bees are fundamental to food production. Along with other animal pollinators like butterflies, beetles and bats, bees are believed to service crop plants like mango, mustard, almond, coffee and grape, to name but a few. The loss of such pollinators will hit our palate; and the pesticides that are killing the bees are slow poison for us as well.

Extinction is not ‘only’ about the animals. India’s rivers have been reduced to filthy, toxic drains shrinking gharial and dolphin populations; but the clear, fast-flowing rivers that wildlife needs are our lifeline as well. The annihilation of forests cuts at the root of our survival. Forests are river watersheds; about 75 per cent of the world’s accessible fresh water comes from forests. India’s forests absorb over 11 percent of green house gasses. Yet, we are diverting, read destroying, at least 135 acres of forest every day for industry and infrastructure.

The loss of nature is an existential crisis; our development will not be sustainable unless India is ecologically secure. According to the World Bank, the loss to the nation’s GDP due to a degraded environment is 3.7% annually.

Prerna Singh Bindra (Courtesy the author)

These are the links I dwell on as I weave The Vanishing around India’s spectacular wildlife and its current crisis, bringing in stories of hope, and attempting to point the way forward.

The book also dishes out an inconvenient truth: of how we are all culpable in this ecocide.

What I found most worrying, spurring me on to pen this book, was the silence that surrounds this ‘vanishing’, almost as if it didn’t exist, or is taking place in a parallel world. Worse, we pitch wildlife protection and a healthy environment against development. Even as I write, environment safeguards, that were painstakingly enacted in the 1970s & 80s, are being eroded in order to promote industry, investment, and infrastructure. Laws and regulations that protect our tigers and elephants, forests and wetlands and help keep our air and water clean are being rewritten, or rather diluted to serve not the citizens but a corporate minority.

The institutions to protect wildlife are being weakened. The mandate of the National Board for Wildlife is conservation, yet in the two years starting May 2014, it rejected a mere one per cent of projects inside and in the immediate vicinity of Protected Areas. Among the projects it has allowed recently is the Ken-Betwa river link that will drown Panna Tiger Reserve, a road through the Kutch Wildlife Sanctuary that will endanger the flamingo’s only nesting site in India, scoping for uranium in Amrabad Tiger Reserve in Telangana, and a missile-firing testing system on the ecologically-fragile Tillanchong island, the only abode of the Nicobar megapode.

Read more: Indira Gandhi: Linking forests to welfare

India worships nature. Goddess Durga rides the tiger, elephants are revered as Ganesha, and Bikaner, Rajasthan, has temple where rats are the reigning deity. It is this deep cultural connect and the strong legal and institutional framework that has helped protect the nation’s wealth of wildlife, and indeed given it the status of a global conservation leader. We still have the maximum number of tigers, Asiatic elephants, Gangetic dolphins, greater one-horned rhinos, and sarus cranes in the world. India is the only sanctuary for great Indian bustards, blackbucks and lion-tailed macaques.

But we are losing this reverence, and there is a collapse of political will to conserve. India is a vibrant, vocal democracy, yet there is a pervasive silence over this war on wildlife.

Unless people speak up, unless nature gains a greater constituency, governments will continue to be indifferent, if not hostile to wildlife. We need to wake up to the fact that protecting our natural heritage is in our national interest.

First Published: Nov 10, 2017 16:34 IST