As defined by IUCN (International Union of Conservation of Nature), a Protected Area (PA) refers to an area with ” a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” Depending on the level of protection, that is given by the legislations of different countries and by the international organizations associated with the protection and conservation of biodiversity, there are different kinds of Protected Areas.
Protected areas are areas where human occupation or the exploitation of resources are least. IUCN has provided the definition for protected areas that has been widely accepted across regional and global frameworks. There are several kinds of protected areas which vary by level of protection depending on the laws of each country or the regulations of international organization involved. Protected areas also include marine protected areas and might even be transboundary overlapping several countries.
The Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972, which is the principal legislation for the protection of the plant and animal species in India, along with its subsequent amendments provides for the establishment of 4 types of protected areas in India, namely National Parks (NP), Wildlife Sanctuaries (WLS), Conservation Reserves and Community Reserves. Besides these 4 types of Protected areas India also has other forms of protected areas, namely, Elephant Reserves (ER), Tiger Reserves (TR), Biosphere Reserves (BR), Sacred Groves, Marine Protected Areas (MPA). As of 2019, there are a total of 903 Protected Areas in India.
Although these areas primarily serve, as sites of in-situ conservation of endangered plant and animal species, but during the past few decades, the scope of their utility has got widened from being mere sites of conservation of biodiversity to poverty alleviation and sustainable developments. Sadly, however unsustainable anthropogenic activities combined with the change in climatic conditions are creating several challenges to the above-mentioned long-term objectives of these Protected Areas.
Importance of Protected Areas
The primary importance of the Protected Areas is, of course, the protection and conservation of endangered wildlife species. As we know that many of the native animal species of our country are in the category of Threatened Species according to the Red Data Book published by IUCN and many of which are large mammals, which are facing the threat of extinction. The Protected Areas provides these species with a safe habitat, free from undue anthropogenic interference, to survive and grow in numbers.
From the ecological point of view as well these areas are extremely important as they provide forest cover for Carbon Sequestration (long term removal of carbon from the atmosphere) and reverse the effects of global warming in the long run. The ecosystem services provided by these areas also include providing of non-timber products, clean drinking water etc. to the local human communities.
The Protected Areas also provides opportunities for human-centered socio-economic development, especially of those communities which live around these areas by providing income opportunities to the people through tourism. A recent study conducted by the Indian Institute of Forest Management; Bhopal revealed that the monetary benefits arising out of select Tiger Reserves (TR) in the country amount to about 50,000 to 1,90,000 rupees per hectare per year. These areas also provide a source of aesthetic pleasure to the people especially the tourists, by providing them with an opportunity to witness the beauty and grandeur of undisturbed nature.
Issues with the Protected Areas in India
One of the primary issues with the protected areas in our country are their small sizes. The limited areas of these sites are not sufficient to maintain a full complement of the species. Another very grave issue is the dichotomy that exists between the intent and the execution of the conservation policies.
On the one hand, India has been a very active and vocal member of several international conventions for the conservation of biodiversity, which have recognized the importance of and advised the involvement of local communities in the management of biodiversity, and has introduced initiatives (like the National Wildlife Action Plans (NWAPs) etc.) and legislations (Forest Rights Act etc.) to implement the same but on the other hand, when it comes to implementation of these initiatives and legislations we find a whole different scenario. The Third NWAP, for example, that was introduced in 2017, with the stated intent of involving the local communities in the conservation initiatives, views local communities as a hindrance rather than a stakeholder to the conservation initiatives.
Even the Forest Rights Act, passed in 2006, which granted the rights to local communities over forest land and produce, had been largely ineffective due to bureaucratic redtapism. As consequence, we find that every now and then local people are getting evicted from lands coming within the purview of major protected areas, even when those people had been living in those areas for generations. This in turn had affected the socio-economic lives of these people, as their livelihoods are being compromised and therefore these people have often resorted to unlawful means of accessing the forest resources, like poaching, illegal felling of trees etc. This has in turn been leading to the degradation of the wild flora and fauna, thus largely neutralizing the very objective of establishment of these protected areas.
Another very grave threat to the protected areas are the rising instances of human-wildlife conflict. Various surveys have revealed that at least one human life had been lost every day, over the last few years, due to attacks by large mammals mainly tigers and elephants. At the same time, these large mammals are also being killed in large numbers due to various anthropogenic causes like poaching, poisoning, electrocution, train accidents etc.
Again wildlife-tourism, which on the one hand generates income for the local communities have often proved to be detrimental to these protected habitats. Tourism, for example, promotes the construction of more and more guest houses within the protected areas which in turn not only leads to deforestation but also spreads pollution due to unsustainable disposal of garbage.
Government Efforts to Mitigate the Issues
The Government of India is planning to increase the number of Protected Areas in our country from the current number of 903 over the next few years. Recently the issue was discussed in a meeting of a Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) chaired by the Hon’ble Union Environment Minister. The committee has several recommendations to the central government, which includes issuing advisories to the states and union territories (UT) to make sincere efforts to increase the number of protected areas within the states and the UTs.
To mitigate the issue of human-wildlife conflict the government introduced the conception of “Joint Forest Management “ in its national forest policies, which is an approach based on the notion of cooperative federalism, that is involving all stakeholders including local communities in the “sustainable conservation and management of the forests “.
The National Wildlife Action Plan (2002-2016), adopted in the year 2002 emphasized on implementing the abovementioned conception. Recently a draft of the third version of the NWAP for the year span 2017-2031 was published, based on the recommendation of J.C. Kala Committee, which, in addition to emphasizing the abovementioned notion of joint participation of government and local people in the conservation of the forests and species also introduced a new conception of linking climate change into wildlife planning.
Also, some states have introduced compensation schemes to provide financial incentives to farmers and livestock owners, living in areas around the protected areas, in response to the damages caused to the crops and livestock due to attacks by wild animals like tigers, elephants etc.
To reduce the loss of lives of wild animals due to accidents, especially on train tracks various government organizations have come up with different innovative projects and initiatives. One such initiative, known as “Plan Bee“, can be quoted in this regard. It is an initiative of the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR), introduced last year which involves setting up devices near rail tracks, which mimics the buzzing sound of a swarm of bees. This sound acts as a natural repellant of elephants and keeps them away from the rail tracks.
As far as the use of forest resources is concerned, a recent amendment to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 has removed bamboo from the category of “trees” thereby allowing the local farmers to freely cultivate and harvest bamboo. This step has empowered nearly 20 million farmers, forest dwellers, economically by creating income and job opportunities especially on those fields, like handicrafts etc. which are largely dependent on bamboo.
Conclusion and Way Forward
Protected Areas in India are crucial not only for the conservation of the native endangered flora and fauna but also for the overall socio-economic development of the local communities located around these protected areas. Thus, in a way, they contribute to the overall national income of our country.
The conservation strategies adopted over the past few years has shown a paradigm shift from the traditional notion of “preservationism”, which is an approach that restricts any and every anthropogenic activity, to the notion of “sustainable use”, which advocates the involvement of local human communities in the conservation process via the creation of a symbiotic environment, allowing sustainable use of forests and forest products by the people, to satisfy their socio-economic requirements, and in turn involving these communities in the protection and preservation of wild flora and fauna.
This approach will be effective in the long run if the associated challenges (some of which had already been highlighted in the article) are addressed effectively. The government must address the interests of the local communities before making any changes with regards to expansion of the protected sites or demarcating a new site as a protected area. If the local population needs to be relocated for this purpose, care should be taken that their socio-economic lives are not hampered. Also, in case of dispute resolution of any kind, the government must consult the leaders of the local population before implementing any initiative to address the dispute.
The government must also spread awareness through large scale campaigns regarding the socio-economic benefits that these protected areas can provide to the local population. Also, the forest staffs are required to be given adequate training and should be provided with modern equipment so as to prevent illegal activities like poaching, illegal tree-felling etc.
In addition to these more and more funds should be devolved to the agencies and institutions in charge of the management of these protected areas to reduce large scale dependency on funds collected from tourism and safaris.