It is time we gave priority to animals on the basis of the threat perception
When a tiger dies in a national park, it makes it to the front pages of newspapers, and bureaucrats and animal lovers go into a huddle to avert another tiger death. There is similar concern over the death and destruction of habitats of other large mammals like elephants, rhinos, leopards and snow leopards because they attract tourists and bring in revenue. These larger-than-life species are also our window to the outside world.
The forgotten ones
However, several smaller species die, or are near extinction, or are threatened in India. These include the the Great Indian Bustard, the house sparrow, the shy Indian pangolin, the caracal, the slender loris and the star tortoise, which do not evoke the same public outcry or action. The National Board for Wildlife in 2012 identified more than 15 species, including the magnificent Hangul of Kashmir and the Barasingha of Madhya Pradesh, as critically endangered.
Are we suffering from what M.K. Ranjitsinh, one of India’s leading authorities on wildlife, calls mega species myopia? No one wants to remove the tiger from its exalted position as the first among equals. It is true that in protecting the tiger we are protecting an ecosystem. The big cat dominates the high grasslands. But what about the animals in the dry grasslands, the mountains? It is true that excellent conservation work has led to greater siting of the snow leopard in the snowy reaches of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh, but should not this support extend to its prey base and the less glamorous species of the region?
The hog deer, which are prolific breeders, were the principal food of the tiger in the grasslands of Corbett National Park in the sixties. There was an abundance of them and it was a major species of the park, vital for the survival of the tiger. Now there may be just 20 of them in Corbett and no one seems concerned. Though the preferred food of the tiger is the chital, there were not enough of them in the sixties to provide sustenance for the tiger, so the focus was on the hog deer.
One of the rarest species and undoubtedly one of the most endangered is the Great Indian Bustard, which is the State bird of Rajasthan. Endemic to Jaisalmer and Pokhran, its habitat was severely damaged by the nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998. Their numbers may be down to 60 in their home turf, says Mr. Ranjitsinh. In Gujarat, not a single adult male has been sited. In the Naliya area of Kutch, the last bastion of the bustard in the State, power lines are pushing out the bird. In Maharashtra too, they are missing. The world population of the bird may be just 80.
The mouse deer (scientific name Chevrotain) is a miniature, just a foot high and tiptoes like a ballerina. It can be found in the Sal forests of south India, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. Mouse deer meat is said to be delectable and before the Wildlife Act came into existence, it cost thrice the price of any other meat. The mouse deer raises its young in the hollow of the fallen Sal, but unfortunately these trees are used as fuel wood.
The caracal has disappeared from the Kuno sanctuary of Madhya Pradesh. However, there are records of it being seen in Ranthambore in Rajasthan and in Kutch, Gujarat. It is feared that the Malabar civet cat may have gone into extinction.
Traded or killed
The pangolin, which can be found all over India, seems doomed because its scales, which are said to have medicinal value and are more expensive than gold, are sheared ruthlessly. Its meat too is in demand in China. Illegal trade continues not just in parts where there are tigers but also in parts where there are musk deer, otter, mongoose and other animals.
The slender loris, a nocturnal animal found in the Western Ghats, and the tortoise are traded in the pet market.
Now with reports of nomadic Gujjars making forays into Dachigam, the Hangul, the only deer species of its kind, is down to around 200. Manipur’s State animal, the brow-antlered deer or Sangai, which lives on the floating morass of Loktak Lake, is also fighting for survival with numbers down to around 200. However, with Sangai festivals and Sangai tour services, Manipur is going all out to protect them.
With so many small animals on the verge of extinction, it is time we gave priority to animals on the basis of the threat perception to them. Today, we have the expertise to save them but lack the political will. They are perched on a precipice and unless we act, they will become as dead as the dodo.
Date: 1 Dec 2017