WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

Behind the beautiful number of 2,226 lie some distressing realities for India's tigers

Are wildlife figures meant to best reflect reality, or merely to keep saying 'all is well'?

Numbers are ostensibly the simplest indicators of success in wildlife conservation. A rise in numbers is greeted with much fanfare and jubilation. As a standalone factor, however, numbers can – or be adapted – to create an illusion of security.

Since last year, India has celebrated wildlife numbers on at least three occasions. First, India’s tiger population saw a purported 30% rise from 1,706 to 2,226. Then it was the leopard population in the country, which was estimated to be around 10,000-12,000. And finally, news came in just before the 3rd Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation earlier this year that the world’s tiger population had increased from 3,200 to 3,890 in just over five years.

While it may appear that everything is going right, reading between the lines tells a different story.

Throwback to the 1990s

“In the absence of relevant details, one cannot read too much meaning into any of these numbers,” said Ullas Karanth, Director for Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society, in his essay “India’s Tiger Counts: The Long March to Reliable Science”.

After all, these numbers are estimates are derived by scientific methodologies. Improper implementation of methodologies is unlikely to generate numbers of practical value. Wildlife scientists of international repute, including Karanth, have questioned these estimates. This should have ignited scientific debates. Instead, their voices have been repeatedly ignored, raising doubts about priorities.

Are these figures meant to best reflect reality, or to keep saying “all is well”? And why?

This is reminiscent of India’s stubborn policy of the 1990s. Ignoring expert opinions and technical abilities, the country pushed on with the unreliable “pugmark census” method of counting tigers, resulting in an estimate of 3,642 big cats in 2002. Had this bubble not been burst by the controversy over Sariska’s missing tigers, we might have had “more” tigers today than ever.

False luxury

Sweeping numbers – over large geographic scales – also misrepresent or allow glossing over ground realities. These do not reveal the extreme threats that our wildlife faces on the ground.

For instance, these numbers tempt us to overlook dangers of “six-laning” Highway 7 and 6 to the critical Kanha-Pench forest corridor in Madhya Pradesh, the landscape that supports 10% of the world’s tigers. They also do not divulge much about unscientific backtracking by the government’s “scientific body” on necessary mitigation measures, nor the decade-long fight for justice by individual conservationists.

Numbers impress upon us a false luxury. Sadly, Kanha-Pench corridor is just one of many distressing realities for India’s national animal, hidden behind the beautiful number of 2,226.

Moreover, national or international numbers have little conservation implications at a local level, where wildlife issues need to be viewed and addressed in space and time.

A national population of 10,000-12,000 leopards seems a healthy figure, when unfairly (albeit unconsciously) compared with tigers. Notwithstanding the value of this estimate, experts are unwilling to back this figure given that leopards and people are killed in conflicts on an almost daily basis.

“I think acceptance of people towards the predators is a [greater] sign of conservation success,” said ecologist Dr Vidya Athreya, who has been a part of the Maharashtra forest department’s sustained efforts at facilitating leopard-people co-existence in a metropolis like Mumbai, among others.

Aggravating conflicts

Finally, without adequate viable habitats, our infatuation with high numbers can be extremely risky. We are already witnessing increasing instances of wildlife movement, even in drastically human-modified environments.

With habitats under siege from aggressive unscientific development drives, conflicts are only likely to get aggravated. Add to this unscientific handling of conflicts by bureaucrats and conservationists alike – risking public support for wildlife – and we have the perfect blend for a disaster.

None of this is new information. Post the Sariska controversy, during an introspective phase by the tiger bureaucracy, the Tiger Task Force (2005) even noted the need to build upon “democratic, inclusive traditions of science…to foster a healthy growth of wildlife biology in the country".

Yet, this and other recommendations of the task force remain neglected, as do scientists who ask inconvenient questions.

Wildlife research and conservation is an evolving field. The country can either allow it to grow with the times, or as before, rigidly maintain status quo till disaster strikes.

“Conservation is not a choice but an imperative,” said the prime minister. With its resources and leadership, India can find sustainable solutions for its wildlife and its people. However, this must begin with acknowledging the problems. The least we can do is to not let the problems be concealed by numbers.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.