I arrived in India a week ago after a gap of about 15 years – I’m here to explore the possibilities of collaborating with Indian colleagues on a couple of research topics. I have one possible advantage in research in India: I was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the fifth generation on my mother’s side to be born in India; and one possible major disadvantage: I know nothing about cricket, which along with Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity, is one of India’s great religions (as one person has already said to me ‘you mean you’re Australian and Indian, and you don’t know anything about cricket!’).
India covers 2.4% of the world’s land area and houses 17% of the world’s human population. It simultaneously contains 8% of the world’s mammals and 12% of the world’s birds, and is considered one of the world’s biologically ‘megadiverse’ countries. The persistence of those species and their habitats in the world’s second most populous nation creates an extraordinary opportunity to understand cultural relationships with wildlife and ecosystems. Interesting Wiki here, and another here.
CULTURES OF CONSERVATION
My first five days in India were spent at the improbably named YETI Conference (Young Ecologists Talk and Interact) at the prestigious Wildlife Institute of India in Dehra Dun. This was a gathering of maybe 300 people, including a who’s who of Indian conservation, from the patriarchs (Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh) to the senior and mid career researchers like Dr M.D. Madhusudan (known to everyone as Madhu), to the ECRs, all there to mentor and inspire the newest generations of postgrad ecologists and a handful of postgrad social scientists working on conservation.
It was a crash course in Indian ecology and conservation debates.
I grew up with several Indian classics on the bookshelves including E.P. Gee’s The Wildlife of India, Salim Ali’s Indian Birds, Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaon, (and of course the complete works of Rudyard Kipling). Ali, Gee and Corbett were all very influential in determining the early course of conservation in India with direct access to Prime Ministers like Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. AJT Johnsingh, Ullas Karanth, VB Mathur and others inherited their mantle, and have mentored and educated the current generation of conservation professionals.
Discussions at YETI circled around terms like ‘inviolate space’ and ‘conservation displacement’ (meaning the voluntary or coerced removal of entire villages from within proposed or existing national parks) at one end of the spectrum, to engaging with participatory conservation and innovative governance that empowers local people rather than excluding them, at the other. Tiger conservation dominates debates – India has half the world’s population of wild tigers, and there have been uneven conservation outcomes since Indira Gandhi launched Project Tiger in 1973.
Challenging the notion of inviolate space, M.D. Madhusudan gave an inspirational plenary on reconciling people and wildlife in India. Madhu is an ecologist (credited with discovering the Arunachal macaque), but his plenary was philosophy, politics and the nature of knowledge. He argued that the recent and controversial 2006 Forest Rights Act was in fact Indian democracy balancing the historic failure of conservationists and ecologists to acknowledge the legal rights of tribal and local peoples embedded in the original 1972 Wildlife Protection Act – power had been used to avoid civil engagement, and that misuse had now been redressed. He stressed that while biodiversity is important, it is equally important to maintain diversity in society, culture and knowledge systems. Conservation should be built on the foundation of respecting well-being, respecting autonomy and respecting fairness.
A recent paper presented the dilemma diagrammatically like this (Archi Rastogi, Gordon M. Hickey, Ruchi Badola, Syed Ainul Hussain, Saving the superstar: A review of the social factors affecting tiger conservation in India, Journal of Environmental Management, Volume 113, 30 December 2012, Pages 328-340).
Other presenters argued strongly for evictions of villagers from protected areas, and removal of livestock from potential habitat areas or the creation of realistic compensation schemes if livestock are the de facto prey for large carnivores. Some of the little research on the outcomes of these conservation evictions has been done by Asmita Kabra, a human ecologist who ran a workshop on social science methodology.
There is a very strong emphasis on fieldwork – students and researchers regularly clock up hundreds of kilometres of walked transects. Suresh Kumar, who collaborates with tribal hunters in Arunachal Pradesh on bird research, told me he trekked for three weeks just to get to his field site! There was also noticeable strong participation by women – many mid- and early career researchers are women, working on everything from sperm length in birds to the cheetah reintroduction program.
Throughout the conference, there were particular specifically Indian characteristics. All presenters included detailed acknowledgements to collaborators, mentors, supporters and colleagues. Many people mentioned India’s great cultural traditions, several emphasized humility. The conference catering was entirely Indian and vegetarian – for five days I consumed no meat or alcohol (probably a record) – we ate with our hands while in animated conversation in cavernous student hostels. Thirty percent of Indians are vegetarian, and simultaneously India has the largest livestock herd in the world, both factors that influence conservation outcomes.
Extraordinarily, despite phenomenal levels of population and economic growth, India has lost only one mammal species to extinction in recent or historic times, the cheetah. India’s last wild cheetahs are thought to have been hunted to extinction by the Maharaja of Surguja in 1947. (Compare this with Australia: the worst record of mammal extinctions in recent times, with at least 22 mammals becoming extinct in the last 200 years). Many mammals do however face local extirpations and range contractions.
Hunting has an old and contested history in India, with hunting activities at very different scales by Indian royalty, the British Raj and Indigenous and other local communities. The ways these groups differently value the wildlife they have hunted influences the nature of the hunt. Hunting in India today includes the following kinds of engagement: tribal (Adivasi) hunting for subsistence and cultural purposes; possible other local subsistence hunting; poaching for profit (especially tigers, but also leopards and other species); the live bird trade; and hunting of animals in response to human-wildlife conflicts, including crop-raiding, stock killing, and human injuries or fatalities.
I spoke with many wildlife and conservation professionals as well as postgraduate students about their knowledge of and attitudes to hunting in India. This is one of the research topics I am hoping to collaboratively approach in discussions with colleagues in New Delhi and Bangalore next week. One of my key interests is the knowledge that hunters have about the species and habitats they interact with – when you regulate hunting, you potentially start to lose these knowledge systems.
I’ll post again from Bangalore.