Conservation is often referred to as a crisis discipline, because of rapidly declining biodiversity, altered habitat and ecosystem and uncontrolled use of natural resources. The world faces an unprecedented 6th global mass extinction, which most probably is going to happen, with or without the aid from humans. Only that, within the hands of humans, our ecosystem is fragile and the rate and time frame of that extinction is going to be shorter than it would be in a natural system.
The first thing that must be outlined before talking about conservation biology is that, it is an effort towards saving the beautiful species that we share the world with. Which is a fact that most humans tend to forget, we do not own this place by ourselves, we share it! Every single animal or life on this planet has equal right to it. The taxes you pay for land,doesn’t make it yours in the natural world. It’s conceptual, blame the humans again, and the establishment of Government and the taxes that they get from you to own a land that doesn’t really belong to them either. Anyways, let’s not get off topic here. The point is, we share this planet with millions of species, and unlike those species, it’s just us who mess with the earth, destroy the habitats of others and enjoy the warmth of our houses and put aside all the wrath that nature throws, at every single life form out there. Yet, we still complain about those animals who are still outside, now struggling to even survive because of US, and no one else.
We now face a global threat and are in dire need of saving the species from what we did. But before accusing myself and each and every one of you, it is important to outline the fact that extinction is a natural phenomenon, just like climate change is. Animals have been going extinct since the dawn of life form, way before humans roamed the earth. We had nothing to do with the past 5 mass extinctions. Animals go extinct, with or without us. But having said that, at present, it is indeed because of us that most of these animals are on the verge of extinction. Whether its us encroaching their habitat, killing them for fun or food or just out of fear.
This is where different approaches on how to conserve a species sustainably comes in handy. As the only animals in the planet, who can actually think and care about other animals, and don’t want them to get extinct, we must learn to live in a sustainable way with them.
The first step for conservation of any species is to understand the species. Understand where it lives, what it eats, or who eats it, what it does, what it doesn’t do, everything!!! Until and unless you know how a certain species work you will not be able to conserve that species, you surely might be able to protect that species but conserve? I disagree to that! If this doesn’t make sense, I will get into the main topic or statement I wanted to make with this blog. The analogy should come along in a while.
Let’s talk about the conservation scenario in Nepal, specifically on Tigers. I saw a post on twitter and also on other online media, in fact it is all over the place, about how they’re going to double the number of tigers in Nepal by 2022. Who’d not want that? I love big cats, and the Bengal Tiger is a majestic species. I’ve wanted to see it once since I knew about it, and haven’t been lucky to see one so far, but it’s on the top 10 list of animals that I want to see in the wild. The conservation effort in Nepal, when it comes to tigers have been topnotch. We rarely hear news about the Bengal tiger being killed by poachers and other traders. But here’s the thing that I wasn’t satisfied with.
An adult male Tiger’s home-range is around 50-55 sq km and females’ is around 40-45 or could go lower than that up-to 15-20 (Research from Bangladesh). I don’t think we have research from Nepal that outlines the home-range of tigers in Nepal. I think we should start there first before talking about doubling the number of tigers. Why? Because Chitwan national Park (CNP) already has 125 tigers, and has an area of 932 sq km, Basically if you divide the area by the total number of tigers, it will come out to be around 7 sq km per tiger. But since there are definitely cubs and not all the tigers are adult their home range can be smaller, even if we halve the number of total tigers to visualize the adult tigers among the population and give them 40 sq km as an average home range. So, 62 adult tigers with a 40 sq km home range area would result in 2480 sq km which is more than double the area of CNP. Tigers are highly territorial and coexisting or sharing a habitat is rare for them, or at least no research suggests otherwise. So just imagine how we already have twice the amount of tigers in a national park, but are trying to double the amount of tigers there? How is it that hard to put your mind across that fact, that the habitat is too small for that many tigers already? Isn’t that just an invitation for more human-tiger conflict? Which again results in casualties at both ends? Has anyone looked at the population density or status of its prey at CNP? Or what’s the per capita intake of the tiger when it comes to its favorite prey and how conserved and how looked after is that particular species? In my opinion, conservation should start at that. If you double the number of tigers in a national park with a carrying capacity way less than what you’re trying to achieve, I don’t think it’s going to be a good conservation effort. What if the prey species number is way less than what those tigers will need? Aren’t they going to come out to the human habitat in search of food?
If that doesn’t sound possible, look at the cases of Leopard conflict in Kathmandu. Go to the outskirts of Kathmandu, specially Suryabinayak, locals will tell you about their dogs disappearing overnight as a victim of Leopard attack. Someone once asked me “Why do the leopards come to the city? There are so many thick forests around the valley”! Leopards don’t eat trees or leaves, they need meat, they need deer and no matter how thick our forests are we DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH PREY species for the leopards, so that’s why they are forced to come into the city in search of food and dogs seem to be an easy pick. How sure are you that it’s not going to happen if you pump up the number of tigers in CNP with 932 sq km? And again, why just TIGERS? Why not Leopards? This is one thing I never understand, why is there so much concern for tigers but not leopards? I have never heard or read a post about WWF working for leopards or sending out a shout-out to leopard conservation or just you know, doubling the leopard population? And, I don’t think that the leopards come to the city because there’s way too many leopards in the forest. They come because they can’t find food in the forest, and almost every leopard that comes to the city ends up getting killed. Where’s that doubling the species conservation there? Neither conservation works like that nor science nor nature. Until and unless we understand the ecology and the system behind that animal, no matter what we do it’s going to fail. Has anyone ever looked into the inbreeding frequency of the tigers in CNP? Or again their prey species? Or the population status of those prey species? There are leopards in CNP too, they share the prey species, are you sure that both of those species are getting enough prey to feed upon? Don’t even make me go into the fundamentals of Ecology- There’s death, emigration and of course birth and immigration too. But both the species, predator and prey are subjected to those forces. Do we have an account of that? Forget about predator for now, what is the fertility rate of the prey species? Has anyone looked into that? Are there enough deer species in the forest and how are they coping with the same habitat which makes a species at the top of food chain vulnerable? How many offspring can the deer produce and how many of those babies survive long enough to keep the chain going? Let’s just go back to the empirical evidences and the theories and think about carrying capacity, it’s a rule, that’s how nature works but, forcing a species to exploit its already exploited habitat is not what conservation is. It’s not science!
So, I think it’s critically important to look at all those aspects of ecology. Competition is natural, interaction is natural, and so is death and extinction, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But what we can do is aid them to survive, work on how we can keep check on their food resources or assure that no humans are going to kill or harm them. It’s not just about the tigers, the conservation approaches in Nepal are all inclined towards that. Recently I read a blog about dolphin conservation whereby, it was delineated that the dolphins are facing extinction, which they are, but it depends upon the scale again. It is quite tricky to begin with, so basically the point I’m trying to make is, that particular article talked about how the population in declining but in the next paragraph, it talked about how you can see a dolphin within minutes of going to the river. I was there before, and the author is right, I saw a dolphin within the first few minutes of being there. And we personally saw at least 40 dolphins with our own eyes! So that small river has more than 40 dolphins, what is the carrying capacity of that river? What’s the home range for that migrating species? They are coexisting species but still they do need their own space. Therefore, without knowing its home range or its biology at all, is it okay to call the species population declining in that particular place? Why not work on raising awareness about how you shouldn’t kill dolphins or how you shouldn’t pollute the water and stuff? Before making assumptions, that is what I think should be the first step and then simultaneously working on the habitat based study of the dolphin, availability of its food on that particular river and survival/fertility efficiency of a particular dolphin. What if 40 dolphins in that particular river are more than it can handle? And they’re dying because of competition? Why not look into other river systems? I’ve heard that Koshi had dolphins too but in the recent years, people haven’t seen one, so may be it would be better to work on that aspect, to figure out if the Koshi river is out of dolphins or not?.
One of the Dolphins from Mohana river
The bottom line is, causation is more important than effect when it comes to ecological conservation. Without knowing the basis, it’s not a good thing to make assumptions. I think our conservation approaches should take into account all these factors and change for the better! Conservation is a board field and we can talk about every single thing or all the species, but I just wanted to outline the “Doubling the Tiger population” issue on this blog!