The pandemic has added to the urgency of protecting wildlife
Every celebration is an opportunity for conversation. During its 68th session in December 2013, the United Nations General Assembly decided to observe World Wildlife Day on March 3. The reason was to raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants. The choice of date was to mark when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was signed in 1973.
The theme for World Wildlife Day 2021 is Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet. The objective is to highlight the importance of forests with all their living residents and how they support the livelihoods of millions of people across the world. It also focuses on local and indigenous communities as an integral part of the forest ecosystems and their synergetic interactions.
There is no way to avoid depending on wildlife, in urban or rural areas. Take just one example. If bees and other pollinators are not doing well, our food production mechanism will be severely affected, as predicted in the recently published Living Planet Report 2020 (LPR).
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, people worldwide have become familiar with zoonotic diseases — where the infection is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to human beings. There are over 200 known types of zoonosis. Whether Covid-19 had a zoonotic origin is still being debated, but what we know is that zoonotic diseases are rising.
This is attributed to two environmental risks. The first is the large-scale conversion of land for agriculture, which increases interactions between wildlife, livestock and human beings. The second is inadequate food safety standards in some parts of the world, including permitting the trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife species, which is increasing human exposure to animal pathogens.
Human-wildlife conflict is also on the rise in India. This is most prominent when large mammals such as tigers, leopards, elephants, and ungulates like nilgai, wild boar, and human populations coexist and share limited resources. The distinction between human-use areas and those used by wildlife is thin and often broken, which increases conflict and poses a threat of zoonotic disease transmission. It is estimated that approximately 500 people and 100 elephants die every year in India due to negative interactions between humans and elephants. Most of these conflicts are avoidable.
Negative interactions between humans and wildlife intensify when local communities feel that wildlife needs or values are given priority over their own needs. In case government authorities fail to address the bonafide needs of local people or work with them to address such conflict adequately, the negative interaction intensifies, becoming a conflict between humans and wildlife — and between humans about wildlife.
An antagonistic approach develops among people towards wildlife, manifestations of which have been seen in recent times. Many will remember the poignant case of a pregnant elephant suffering a painful death after it reportedly ate a crude-bomb masked in a fruit that was meant to illegally kill wild crop-raiding herbivores. Too often, when wildlife conservation initiatives suffer, what weakens is the economic and social well-being of local people. Local support for conservation declines and, in effect, eco-development efforts meant to offset more general “costs” of living near a protected area may be hindered.
Therefore, wildlife conservation needs to be prioritised, and development plans at country, state and district levels need to take cognisance of wildlife needs. Of late, we have seen that wildlife conservation needs are not adequately addressed while submitting developing projects, where a large swathe of forest lands is proposed to be diverted or a road passing through a large mammal corridor is proposed without appropriate mitigation measures. We tend to forget that wildlife and natural resources are mostly irreplaceable and cannot be bought. The pandemic in 2020 suggests that we need to reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases. For this, land-use change that destroys wildlife habitats needs to stop, and unsustainable extraction of wildlife for human use needs to be curbed.
Dipankar Ghose is the director of the Wildlife and Habitats programme, WWF India
The views expressed are personal