Cautioning against the “weakening” of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, India’s first and foremost legislation to protect the country’s wildlife, MK Ranjitsinh Jhala, one of the architects of the legislation, called for shifting conservation focus to neglected grassland species such as the caracal and the desert cat.
“The Wildlife Protection Act should be strengthened and not weakened. Period. The conversion of the emphasis from conservation in the wild to conservation in captivity (not as a complement to conservation in wild but as an end in itself) to divert attention is happening now. I believe in in-situ conservation; and ex-situ conservation should be subservient to in-situ conservation, not the other way around,” Ranjitsinh told Mongabay-India at the Central India Landscape Symposium.
Mongabay-India caught up with Ranjitsinh at the symposium in Kanha National Park’s buffer just days before his 85th birthday. At home in the region, where he helped save the central Indian Barasingha (swamp deer) from extinction in the 1960s-1970s, Ranjitsinh adds that one of his regrets with the legislation is the inclusion of the word ‘vermin’. Ranjitsinh, a former bureaucrat, said that the term is now being ‘misused.’ “Vermin was used in those days for certain species that needed to be controlled,” he explained.
With Project Tiger in its 50th year in 2023, Ranjitsinh, responsible for the identification of the first tiger reserves in India as the Member Secretary of the Task Force for formulating Project Tiger, emphasised that he “always regarded the tiger as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. (And) I regard the cheetah as a means to another end”.
Ranjitsinh was referring to Project Cheetah (reintroduction of cheetah in India) as a means to shift focus to grassland-dependent species. He chaired the 2009 Task Force for the Reintroduction of the Cheetah and co-authored the “Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India”.
Cheetahs went extinct in India in 1952. They were reintroduced into India in 2022 following initial discussions in 2009-2010 and over a decade of litigation and controversy over the introduction of African cheetahs instead of Asiatic ones that went extinct.
“There are a few objectives – changing the focus from the tiger, rhinoceros, and to some extent elephant and lions to some of the most productive ecosystems in the world – the grassland-forest mosaic…which is the most neglected [Like I used the snow leopard to shift focus to mountains],” he continued.
“And thereby to shift focus onto other grassland-dependent species which are very endangered. The caracal is the most endangered mammal in India and under the aegis of Project Cheetah we have to start a caracal conservation programme and with it also comes the desert cat, the lesser florican, and great Indian bustard,” he argued.
The best-preserved grasslands in India, he said, are in the middle of national parks and sanctuaries- Kaziranga, Kanha, to some extent Corbett, Dhudwa and in the Nilgiris (shola grasslands) in the south. “There are also grasslands along rivers that provide cover for breeding for the hog deer.”
A grassland policy
Ranjitsinh, the first director of Wildlife Preservation in 1973-’75 in the newly established Ministry of Environment and Forests, illustrated the struggle for the survival of grass-dependent species in the absence of grassland management policy through the decline in hog deer populations in India.
“There are now less than 20 hog deer left. When I first went to Corbett in 1962 there were more hog deer than chital. They are gone now because we didn’t manage the grasslands even in a national park. We submerged a lot (of the grasslands) because of the Ramganga dam and the rest we burnt because we had to show the tiger and the elephants to the visitors. That is my opinion.”
“If one tiger dies outside Corbett it makes it to the frontpage and why not; but when an entire species of grass dependent species goes extinct in India no tear will be shed,” he lamented.
Advocating for bringing about a grassland policy for India (“we need a grassland policy as much as we need a forest policy”) he acknowledged the hurdle in political will.
“It (a policy) would mean regulation of grasslands and that would mean a loss of votes and in a democracy, the most important thing is loss of votes,” he said.
A grassland policy, if framed, would lead to, among other actions, regulating grazing season.
“You regulate the season (such) that in this time (there is) no grazing from a little before the rains start till after the grass is cut. It would be about regulation of the season (grazing) and the quantum of number of grazing animals (carrying capacity of grasslands). It would have to have that kind of management plan,” he noted.
Great Indian bustard
Expanding on his belief that “conservation is the art of the possible” he went on to highlight the plight of the great Indian bustard, a grassland bird on the verge of extinction. It currently numbers less than 200 across Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Its population has consistently declined from an estimated 1,260 in 1969 to 300 in 2008, recording a decline of about 75%.
A critically endangered species, the great Indian bustard, is listed under India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act which seeks to ensure the highest possible protection for it, but industrialisation, mining, and intensive agricultural practices have squeezed its habitats. Collisions with power lines are currently “one of the biggest threats” to the Indian bustards. The bird flies at low heights and has poor frontal vision, and this limited capacity to see means it often does not spot the electric lines until it is too late.
Ranjitsinh and others have been persistent in urging power companies to take high-tension power lines underground in the bird’s prime habitats such as the Thar in Rajasthan.
“We are not saying don’t supply (power) to the villages. We are saying in their remaining breeding areas take them (power lines) underground. It costs a little about a crore to take them underground. But once it’s underground there is no maintenance; there is no loss of electricity and it’s a long term investment. It’s the cost that is preventing them from doing it,” said Ranjitsinh, a petitioner to the Supreme Court, India’s apex court, on great Indian bustard protection.
But there is a law enjoined that says 2% of the profit from any commercial company should go for corporate social responsibility activity. There are over 100 power line companies operating only in the great Indian bustard areas. Sixteen of them declared two years ago that in one year they had earned Rs 29,600 [sic] profit after paying all taxes. What is 2% of that? It is almost Rs 600 crore of those 16 companies.”
“They [companies] don’t want to spend that and therefore in disobedience of the order of the Supreme Court, the lines are still overhead, the bustards are dying and a lot of other birds are dying and the Supreme Court orders are being disobeyed. Will you call that rule of law?” he questioned.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.