Conservation Conversations

DR ULLAS KARANTH-HIGH DENSITY HUMAN POPULATIONS INCOMPATIBLE WITH CONSERVATION NEEDS OF THREATENED SPECIES

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No one, anywhere, has done better Research and Conservation on big Carnivores than Ullas, says world’s pre-eminent field biologist Dr George Schaller. Renowned tiger biologist Dr Ullas Karanth has been fascinated by wildlife since childhood. Setting up the Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) in 1984, he has conducted groundbreaking long-term research on the ecology of tigers, sympatric predators and other large mammals. Winning many national and international laurels, Ullas Karanth has pioneered the scientific use of camera traps in population density studies of large wild mammals in India.

Q1. Elaborate on the “myth” of human-wildlife coexistence and its impact on both people and wildlife?

Human wildlife coexistence is not a myth, but a fact of life. However, what really matters is the spatial scale at which you want that coexistence to be sustained.  For example, tigers can coexist with humans at larger scales like the country, state or even large landscapes like Western Ghats. However, they will be driven to extinction, if we impose this coexistence on them at the scale of a wildlife reserve or a cluster of home ranges.  This is precisely why their distribution in India covers less than 2 percent of our land. If we compel coexistence at this scale, their populations cannot be sustained. It is so obvious from history and geography. Human populations at high densities, living off the land in some manner and linked to external markets are not compatible with conservation needs of many threatened species.

Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, Melvin Sunquist and team with a tranquilised radio-collared tiger : Photo by Fiona Sunquist

Q2. Do development projects like Hubbali-Ankola rail line, Sharavathi pumped storage project, Shisila-Byrapura road, etc. proposed in Western Ghats aid economic development of that area? What about ecological costs?

Considering that even the 60-year old Hassan-Mangalore Railway (which caused maximum damage), and connects the big cities of Bengaluru and Mangaluru, has remained economically unviable, I am sceptical of the economic viability of all such new schemes. These projects are created because we have powerful vested interests in the construction industry who push them. A large bureaucracy in the engineering and irrigation departments which is also becoming redundant, is promoting them to keep itself employed. We need far more rigorous economic analyses which I think will show these projects are not viable.

An undisturbed patch of forest. By Tejus RS

The same is the case with almost all ‘green energy’ projects for mini-hydel power generation, wind power and solar power projects. Unfortunately, the economic unviability and ecological damage from these “green energy” projects are being ignored by most the self-styled “greens”.  Similarly, they ignore massive damage caused by mindless expansion of rural roads and bridges in the interiors of Western Ghats.

Q3. What impact linear structures have on large animals like the elephant, tiger and gaur and the smaller animals like snakes, insects etc. in the Western Ghats?

Dr. K. Ullas Karanth studying skull in forest

That depends on the type of structure and the species… However, from what I have seen in China and other countries, well planned and designed Tunnels are less disruptive than these surface structures. Although initial expense is higher, they provide a better ecological solution.

Q4. If a patch of forest is cleared for non-forestry purposes within what span can we feel the adverse effects? 

I do not think it is possible to predict a time frame, or even if all non-forestry activities are harmful.  Forest Land conversion to agriculture and rural road networks are certainly causing a lot of damage.

Dr. K. Ullas Karanth_Radio Collaring Tiger

Q5. How does illegal wildlife trading and consumption, forest encroachments and deforestation be a cause for a pandemic (zoonotic disease) like Covid-19?

Wildlife trade exposes people and domestic animals in the so called ‘wet markets’. Forest encroachment by agriculture and rural roads that promote such encroachment, both are more likely to increase exposure of humans as well as domestic animals to zoonotic diseases from wild species. Similarly, many diseases such as rabies, distemper, anthrax are spread from domestic animals to wild populations. The increasing numbers of feral domestic animals such as dogs and cats not only spread disease but also kill thousands of wild animals on a regular basis.

Roadkill – Bronzeback tree snake. By Tejus RS

Q6. Lastly, how important is the conservation of Western Ghats in fighting climate change? 

I am not a specialist in climate change related projections. However, Western Ghats have an important role in protecting the soil and watersheds of the region. Even the current variations in rainfall are causing significant damage as we can see. If climate change aggravates such fluctuations, the damage will become more severe.

(In conversation with R S Tejus)