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Friday, February 8, 2013

‘Poaching grave threat to our fauna’

Feb 08, 2013 India’s leading naturalist and field biologist Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh talks to Rashme Sehgal about his recently released book Mammals of South Asia, which he co-authored with Nima Manjrekar. Excerpts from the interview: Q. What made you take on this rather daunting task of editing a book on the mammals of South Asia? A. The absence of a book giving detailed information on the mammals of the South Asian region prompted Dr Nima Manjrekar and me to work on the book. South Asia has seen lots of research on mammals during the last 2-3 decades and there was a need to put this information together. Q. You were able to record the presence of 574 mammal species. Does this list include the names of animals that were considered extinct? A. Actually the listing was done by my colleague P.O. Nameer, who is an authority on mammalian taxonomy and he is also the Head of Centre for Wildlife Studies in Kerala Agricultural University. The list also includes the names of mammals that are extinct like the cheetah and Javan rhinoceros. The Sumatran rhino is extinct in India and Bangladesh where it was found earlier and its existence in Burma is precarious. The Great Indian rhino, which was once found in the Indus Valley region of Pakistan, is extinct there and is found only in India and Nepal. Q. Many of these species, including the lion, the Sikkim stag and the hangul are facing threats of extinction. As a naturalist, what should the government do to save our precious wildlife? A. The Sikkim stag is not found within the Indian region but its presence is reported from the Chumbi Valley in Tibet. Earlier the Chumbi Valley was part of Sikkim. The status of the hangul is very precarious with its population down to around 200 animals. The population is not increasing primarily because of grazing in the upper reaches of Dachigam National Park in Kashmir which is the only protected area in India which has the hangul. The upper reaches of Dachigam provides the summer retreat for the hangul where the deer go for fawning. There they face competition for feeding from cattle taken there by grazing communities and the fawns get killed by the dogs which accompany the graziers. The status of the lion in Gir landscape is satisfactory but their future is uncertain as they are found only in one landscape. If they are hit by a disease like canine-distemper,then the entire population will be in a serious trouble. In the early 1990s, the Serengeti lions were struck by canine distemper and nearly one third of the population of 3000-4000 lions were killed. Serengeti lions occur in a landscape of 30,000-40,000 landscape. If such a virulent disease affects Gir lions, it may wipe out this small population of nearly 400 lions which are confined to an area of 2,000 Therefore, there is an urgency of establishing the second home for the lions as we are right now carrying all the eggs in one basket. Kuno WLS in Madhya Pradesh is ready to receive some lions but the Gujarat state government has shown no inclination to part with even a few lions. This is extremely dangerous. Q. You have been closely involved with wildlife and our wildlife sanctuaries for several decades now. Are you happy with the state of our tiger reserves and sanctuaries or do you believe much more needs to be done? A. One of the biggest problems being faced by these sanctuaries is the Invasion of exotic which do not belong to the local area, like Lantana camara which has come from South America. Their presence reduces the carrying capacity of a wildlife habitat . The Kaziranga national reserve is invaded by a thorny plant called Mimosa invisa, a native of Brazil, which reduces the habitat available even for the thick-skinned rhino. The understory in the sal forests of the Kanha Tiger Reserve is dominated by Flemingeabracteata another inedible species. Lack of regeneration of species that are palatable to wild animals. In addition to this, we have the growing and the persistent problem of poaching. Tigers are poached to feed the medicinal needs of China when they can easily find medicine from non-tiger sources. Now the Vietnamese have started believing that rhino horn powder is a curative for cancer! Crucial corridors should be established without any delay. Threats to wildlife are increasing. I would like to cite the example of the need for a corridor to be established between the two halves of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve. We have not established it during the last 30 years. Q. With habitats getting fragmented, how can we save India’s diverse wildlife? A. This can only be done by the establishment of corridors and inviolate areas .. Q. The threat of global warming is expected to result in substantial changes in our present ecosystems. How do you see animal population being able to adapt to such changes ? A. Animal populations will suffer largely due to drought which is one manifestation of climate change. We are seeing this happening in the Mudumalai-Bandipur-Nagarahole landscape where rains have failed and a good number of elephants are dying. One thing we should do is to create thousands of garbage-free water bodies in the country.

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