One day in the early 1990s, two scholars met in the auditorium of the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, for its annual research seminar.

One, Raghu Chundawat, a returning alumnus, was a pioneer in India in radio telemetry – the technique of using radio collars on animals to track their migratory behaviour. Chundawat had completed his PhD on snow leopards in Ladakh in the late 1980s, and was in the institute to share some results from his latest project – a wildlife management plan for the then state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The other was a PhD scholar named Yash Veer Bhatnagar, who had by this time spent around three years in the Hemis National Park in Ladakh, studying the snow leopard and its interaction with local communities.

During Chundawat’s presentation and conversations with him later, Bhatnagar realised that there was a fundamental problem with India’s approach to conservation in the region.

The approach was in line with the still dominant model of conservation in India, which focuses on creating “protected areas”, such as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. Humans are kept out of these areas, and animals are ostensibly protected within them.

But after looking at Chundawat’s maps of biodiversity distribution in Jammu and Kashmir, “I remember thinking, these animals are all over the place, even outside the Protected Areas,” Bhatnagar said.

National parks like Hemis were “the result of the earlier conservation ethos that emerged in India in the 1970s,” Bhatnagar added. “The fact that the animals were not restricted to the boundaries of these areas points to the limitations of that model.”

Chundawat explained that when these protected areas were created, “the philosophy that everyone believed was that tigers and wildlife need inviolate spaces. The problem was that we didn’t have any conservation-oriented research. So how big the parks were supposed to be, we had no information.”

The meeting between Chundawat and Bhatnagar would prove to be a significant moment for the evolution of conservation sciences in India. Bhatnagar and two colleagues, MD Madhusudan and Charudutt Mishra, went on to create an organisation called Nature Conservation Foundation in 1996, which would seek to address the problem with the field, with a particular focus on the snow leopard.

Their approach, which looked at a landscape in totality, and included people in conservation efforts, formed part of a still-evolving strain of conservation called landscape-based conservation. While this approach had had proponents across the world for around two decades, Bhatnagar and his colleagues were its pioneers in India.

This model treats landscapes as mosaics shared by both people and wildlife, and stresses on the need to improve livelihood as a basic tenet of conservation. Despite its radical departure from earlier modes, this approach has quickly gained acceptance among the scientific community – though it has yet to see wider expansion on the ground in India, owing to bureaucratic hurdles and a paucity of funds.

As with any science, conservation in India evolved through a variety of approaches over the years. The story of Indian conservation as we know it today began exactly 50 years ago, when the Indian government passed the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972; a year later, the government launched Project Tiger, the single biggest conservation effort in the world at the time. But its roots go deeper, to the time when India’s forests were the domain of maharajas and British administrators.

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The first people to try and protect Indian wildlife were the rulers of princely states and, later, British administrators. But they were chiefly concerned with maintaining viable hunting populations of animals, as the historian Mahesh Rangarajan writes in India’s Wildlife History. To do this, they took steps such as banning grazing from certain forested areas, and eliminating predators of animals that they wanted to protect.

The historian Michael Lewis notes in Inventing Global Ecology that by the first half of the twentieth century, under the British, these forests had also become the sites of some academic studies. These were largely taxonomical in nature, focused on the collection and naming of species.

In 1883, with funding from the British government, a group of British and Indian nature enthusiasts founded the Bombay Natural History Society, an organisation that would go on to play a pivotal role in the growth of conservation science in India.

It was here, Lewis writes, that a young Salim Ali was trained. Ali first approached the society as an amateur enthusiast, and then began to work closely with it. Since he did not have a formal degree in zoology or botany, he started out, in 1924, as a guide for the Prince Wales Museum’s natural history section, which the society managed. But he would go on to conduct a range of surveys and other research under its aegis, and establish himself as the country’s first conservationist trained in the then new science of behavioural ecology.

In the 1930s, Ali traveled to Germany to study under the ornithologist Erwin Stresemann, a move that would prove to be a turning point for him, and for conservation sciences in India.

After Salim Ali travelled to Germany and studied under Erwin Stresemann, he returned to India and introduced behavioural ecology into the country. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

The ecological sciences were far more developed in Germany than in the United Kingdom. While researchers in the United Kingdom focused on collecting, identifying and naming species, German scientists were developing the ideas of behavioural ecology, studying species within their environments, and the interactions between the two. Stresemann was a leading practitioner of this new field.

Ali returned to India in 1930 and, employing his newly gained knowledge, published two influential studies in 1931 and 1932, in the BNHS’s journal. The former was on the nest-building habits of Baya weaverbirds, and the latter on the role birds play in flower pollination.

Once the British left India in 1947, Ali took charge of the BNHS. But with the exit of the British, the funds that they had supplied to the society’s projects were also gone.

The shortfall didn’t last long – as Lewis notes, ecologists in the United States had by this time developed an interest in the tropics, and recognised that the BNHS could offer foreign scientists valuable support in matters such as logistics, translation and other local knowledge. Soon, many American scholars from different universities travelled to India to conduct research, and partnered with the BNHS for such assistance, bringing much needed funds with them.

The ties between India and the United States only deepened after Ali developed a close friendship with the American ornithologist Sydney Dillion Ripley, who would fund many of Ali’s studies. Ripley was a former employee of the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the Central Intelligence Agency in post-war America, and went on to head the Smithsonian Institute.

As Lewis notes, the relationship between the countries was also boosted by funding that the United States supplied under a legislation called Public Law 480. Under this law, in the 1950s and 1960s, India and other developing countries received significant imports of food from the United States, with the understanding that payment could be made later.

But the United States soon realised that the countries would not have sufficient funds for the foreseeable future. Thus, the US Congress amended the repayment process to instead allow importing countries to fund research by American scholars in those countries – this way, money would remain within them, while also being used to produce knowledge in the United States. Ali himself secured funds for a large-scale project of bird-banding in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, from this source, data from which he shared with the Smithsonian Institution.

American scholars had, by the 1960s, imbibed German behavioural ecology. Several students of Stresemann who had studied with Ali, like Ernst Mayr, had by this time moved to American universities like Harvard, where the new science was further developed. So when George Schaller, a renowned wildlife ecologist, came to India in 1963, to conduct research in Kanha National Park, he brought with him an approach that had evolved beyond mere observation.

“There was a fundamental difference between Ali and Schaller,” said MD Madhusudan, the conservational biologist who co-founded Nature Conservation Foundation. “Ali was still looking at birds and observing their behaviour. But with Schaller, some statistics start coming in. So, Schaller would observe tiger behaviour, and write things like nine out of ten times, the tiger’s hunting attempt was successful.”

By the 1960s, American scholars had been influenced by German behavioural ecologists, and developed the field further. Scientists like George Schaller then introduced these new ideas to India. Photo: George Schaller

But, as Lewis writes, the Americans also brought with them an idea of nature that was culturally rooted in the country’s colonial history. Over centuries, the colonisers had violently wiped out populations of indigenous people through massacres and other means. What remained as forests were large tracts of spaces without people, which were referred to as “wildernesses”.

By the end of the Second World War, these areas had been explored and catalogued. After the war, when American ecologists ventured to the tropics and other parts of the world, it was this idea of the wild, as spaces devoid of permanent human presence, that they took with them.

Lewis notes that the dominant theoretical ideas that underpinned wildlife conservation at this time were drawn from a field developed by the biologist EO Wilson in the 1960s, called, “island biogeography.” This field treated ecological systems as isolated, and analysed factors such as population growth and inter-species dynamics based on this assumption.

Though Wilson had developed his theories around actual islands, scholars began to use them more broadly in areas that had been isolated for conservation, such as parks and sanctuaries. Thus, the ecological research that scientists undertook during this period often treated forests as areas free of human disturbance.

But this was a skewed view for India, Lewis argues. Though the Indian Forest Act of 1927 sought to keep out grazers, and fuel and fodder collectors, millions continued to live in forests – and do so even today. These inhabitants hold deep spiritual connections to the land – the source of many rivers are within forests, and there are invariably temples at these locations, even when they are deep within protected tiger reserves.

Lewis notes that, “Slightly fewer than twenty-five thousand people have been moved from all sanctuaries between 1968 and 1995.”

The view of forest dwellers as encroachers resulted in policies that were both unscientific and deeply unjust.

Lewis notes that the ban on grazing, for instance, was based on the idea that cattle competed for food with ungulates like sambar and deer, which were tiger prey, and drove down their population, thus affecting the tiger population. It was only in the 1980s that scientists realised that cattle are grazers, who pull out grass from the roots, while ungulates are browsers, who do not eat the whole plant – the two sets of animals, in fact, feed on different plants and do not compete over resources.

There were other, more brazen examples of unscientific conservation. In the early 1960s, Juan Spillett, a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University, took up a project to conduct an assessment of all the parks in north and south India within six months. According to Lewis, Spillett did not study the impact of grazing on these parks. But in his assessment, which BHNS published in a special issue of its journal, he boldly recommended that the government ban grazing due to its negative impact on the parks. Lewis noted that these recommendations were based not on actual observations in Indian national parks, but on his earlier studies in the temperate Rocky Mountains.

The scientific links between India and the United States began to weaken with the India-Pakistan War in 1971. The United States extended support to Pakistan, which angered India – in response, the government stopped approving study proposals by American ecologists under PL 480. Even a giant in the field like George Schaller, who wanted to work in the Indian Himalayas in the 1970s, was denied permission by the government. Similar requests from Spillett were also denied.

Even as this scientific relationship frayed, the Indian government began to take greater charge of conservation research and policymaking in the country.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, research in India had been driven by independent ecologists, unaffiliated to the government, though occasionally supported by it. From the 1970s, the central government began to take on a greater role in this process, designating a greater number of forests as protected areas, and overseeing their management, as well as research that was undertaken in them. With this, the Indian bureaucracy became the primary force shaping the country’s conservation agenda.

Prime Minister Gandhi had been fond of wildlife as a child – Mahesh Rangarajan writes that the Nehru household had two tiger cubs and a red panda, and that the young Indira was a member of a birdwatching club in Delhi. Perhaps it was unsurprising, then, that Indian conservation found a powerful supporter in her, after she took office in 1966.

Given that Indira Gandhi had grown up with animals in her household, it was perhaps unsurprising that wildlife conservation was a cause close to her heart. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But before she extended this support, Gandhi had political battles to fight.

The late 1960s were a troubled time for Gandhi, as the journalist Sagarika Ghose recounts in her biography of the leader. She had split the Congress in two in November 1969. Although 310 of the total 529 Congress members in both houses of the Parliament backed Gandhi and her Congress (Requisitionists), she lost her majority in both the houses. That same year, the rival Congress (Organisation) introduced a no-confidence vote in the Lok Sabha, which Gandhi only defeated with the help of Left parties and regional parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

It was against this backdrop, in December 1969, that the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN, of which India is a member, organised its 10th General Assembly meeting in New Delhi. At the meeting, the organisation adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on the killing of tigers, until the animal’s ecological status was established through research.

Following this meeting, the Indian Board for Wildlife advised all states to ban tiger hunting for at least five years. Gandhi put a ban in place in July 1970, only risking alienating the small constituencies of princely rulers and tiger hunting safari operators. Bigger conservations measures would have to wait till her political fortunes saw an upturn.

When the next general election was held in March 1971, Gandhi won with a two-thirds majority.

Her political position secure, on September 10, 1971, Gandhi called a meeting of conservationists and bureaucrats to discuss the future of wildlife conservation in India.

Those who attended the meeting included Kailash Shankhala, a biologist and conservationist; Billie Arjan Singh, a hunter turned conservationist; Karan Singh, the son of the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir and the head of the Indian Wildlife Board, which was set up in 1952; and Anne Wright, founder-trustee of the World Wildlife Fund.

Billie Arjan Singh was among the conservationists invited to meet Indira Gandhi in 1971. Singh demanded straight answers from Gandhi about her commitment to conservation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

MK Ranjitsinh Jhala, a bureaucrat and wildlife enthusiast from the princely state of Wankaner, in Gujarat, was also among those invited to the meeting.

Jhala said that Gandhi was concerned about the preservation of wildlife, but felt constrained by the fact that it was a state subject at the time. “We are telling the states, but they are not complying,” he recounted her saying. At this, he added, Billie Arjan Singh rose and spoke to Gandhi, demanding straight answers. “What priority, Madame Prime Minister, do you have for wildlife in your scheme of things?” he recalled Singh saying.

To this, Gandhi replied that she loved wildlife, and believed that it needed to be protected, “but not at the cost of the people.” According to Jhala, “There was the politician talking!”

As the attendees continued to press Gandhi for an answer, she grew agitated. At this, Jhala himself intervened. “I told her, madame it’s not so hopeless,” he recounted. He pointed out to Gandhi that as per the provisions of the Constitution, if two states bestowed the power of legislating on a state subject to the centre, it could do so. Such laws would only apply to those states, but Jhala assured her that this could be a start to the process of framing a wider conservation law.

Karan Singh objected to this, arguing that no states would give the centre this power – but now Gandhi assured the gathering that she would personally write to the states to ensure that they did.

Gandhi’s pronouncements on the matter did not remain consistent: at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm nine months later, in June 1972, she expressed concerns about people paying a price for the conservation of animals.

Nevertheless, that same year, 18 of the 22 states, including one non-Congress state in the north-east, gave the centre the power to frame a wildlife preservation law. The law, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 was the first central law of its kind.

Jhala said that while he worked largely on his own in drafting the act, he did study wildlife legislations in other countries. “I borrowed from the Kenyan and the Tanzanian act, and also from the Maharashtra Wildlife Act that was there at that time,” he said. He had incorporated the idea of providing monetary compensation for the loss of cattle in the act, – this he got from his uncle, Lakshman Singh, the Maharaja of Dungarpur, who had initiated a similar scheme to conserve tigers in his princely state.

The next year, Gandhi launched Project Tiger, at the time, “the world’s largest single wildlife conservation programme”, according Rangarajan.

Jhala explained that the idea behind the project was to inculcate a reverence for one species, which could then lead to larger measures to protect its habitat. “Indian are idol worshipers and I tried to use that to preserve Indian ecosystems,” he said.

The project’s task force, which presented its report to the government in 1972, recommended the creation of eight tiger reserves, which would be devoid of human disturbance, or “inviolate”. That the science behind these decisions was far from thorough was apparent from the fact that at first, the task force sought 2,000 square kilometre of land for every 300 tigers – it only later realised that it would not be able to locate such large expanses, and settled for smaller areas.

With Project Tiger, launched in 1972, the Indian government sought to create protected areas for the animal that were inviolate, or free of human presence. Photo: Reuters/Vijay Mathur

Though Project Tiger was hugely ambitious in scope, many believe it was excessively bureaucratic and did not live up to its potential to further conservation science. “Many of the research posts in Project Tiger reserves remained unfulfilled,” Lewis wrote. “Of those that were filled, many were occupied by foresters, whose attention was diverted by having to assist in the running of the reserve and by conducting annual tiger counts.” Apart from counting tigers, he noted, “most research officers conducted no formal research.”

He added, “I have been unable to find any scientific publications in referred journals on tigers in India from the 1970s to the mid-1980s.”

The excessive bureaucratic control over the project and its weak scientific foundations would have some tragic consequences, as in Keoladeo Ghana National Park, a famous wetland and an important migratory bird nesting site in Rajasthan, which was declared a national park in 1981.

The national park notification included a ban on grazing, though residents of villages bordering the wetland had been using it for grazing for generations. In October 1982, Lewis writes, the Indian Board for Wildlife, headed by Gandhi, ordered the enforcement of this ban.

Villagers resisted. Police fired on protestors, killing nine. The ban was implemented soon after.

But by 1986, Lewis writes, the number of migratory birds in the park started declining. BNHS and Ali quickly conducted a study and realised that a few weed species were choking the wetland, leading to a decline in the fish population, and thus the number of migratory birds that fed on the fish.

The weeds had earlier been kept in check because locals used the area for grazing. Now they were free to colonise the entire wetland.

Even as the exclusionary model of conservation was being implemented in India, the field was continuing to evolve in the West. Lewis writes that EO Wilson, whose ideas of biogeography were key to the decision to create inviolate protected areas, in India and elsewhere, had begun infusing the science with mathematics, primarily to perform statistical modelling.

Till the mid 1970s, ecologists had steered clear of the use of mathematics and mathematical models in their work. With the changes that Wilson introduced, behavioural ecology metamorphosed into mathematical ecology. At the forefront of this new sub-discipline at Harvard University, where Wilson taught, was a PhD student named Madhav Gadgil.

EO Wilson's ideas of "island biogeography" were deeply influential to the model of conservation that India adopted, though its principles were not always consistent with Indian realities. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Gadgil returned to India in the mid 1970s, and in 1983, set up the Centre for Ecological Studies at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, to implement his ideas of mathematical ecology. This marked the beginning of a truly Indian ecological studies, which comprised research carried out by Indians, into questions that were rooted in Indian realities.

If the tiger was the animal most associated with the earlier phase of Indian conservation, the species often seen as representing this phase was the elephant. And among the scientists who broke this new ground was Raman Sukumar, who undertook a study of elephants for his PhD thesis in 1980.

Lewis writes that Sukumar’s PhD was the first ecological study in the world to focus on the conflict between humans and animals – in this case, elephants. It brought to light, for the first time, why elephants raided crops and why this sometimes led to the deaths of humans.

Sukumar found that raids were only carried out by a few isolated male elephants in the state of musth – a periodic surge of reproductive hormones in bull elephants. For an elephant to sustain the state of musth, and thereby increase its chances of mating, it had to increase its nutritional intake. It did this by raiding agriculture fields that lined the fringes of forests. And since an elephant in musth is aggressive, these crop-raids sometimes led to human casualties. Sukumar went as far as suggesting the culling of problem elephants to prevent this conflict.

Sukumar’s study was path-breaking in its use of knowledge generated in the West (mathematical ecology) to answer questions based on Indian realities.

Apart from insights into elephant-human conflict, the study also provided new insight into the population of elephants in southern India, and their home ranges, or the areas utilised by animals in their lifetimes.

“My study found that while the accepted home range area of elephants was considered to be around 100-200 square kilometres, it actually ran into several hundred kilometres,” Sukumar said. This, he added “was important in the recommendations that we made as part of the Elephant Task Force report created between 1989 and 1992.” Based on these recommendations, the Indian government launched Project Elephant in 1992, which aimed at conserving elephants and reducing conflict with humans.

Project Tiger focused on creating islands of protected areas in the form of tiger reserves. Project Elephant also took into account the idea of “corridors” that connected protected areas that also needed some degree of protection. It was an idea Sukumar had encountered earlier in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Further, the project did not seek to evict all humans in a protected area, but rather to regulate human activity.

With Project Elephant, Indian conservation began to shift away from the idea that protected areas had to be discrete islands, from which humans were kept out. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Apart from these advances in the field, Lewis notes that conservation sciences in India also received a boost with the setting up of the Wildlife Institute of India in 1982. With the frosty relations between India and the United States having thawed by now, the institute became a crucial centre of formal scientific cooperation between the two countries.

This renewed relationship also brought India funds and equipment, such as camera traps and radio telemetry systems, which revolutionised data collection in wildlife studies. “Radio telemetry and camera traps really improved our understanding of migratory behaviour and home ranges of animals,” Chundawat said.

“In Panna, where I did my radio telemetry study on tigers, it was found that what was earlier considered four tigresses, was actually just one,” he added.

Lewis notes that focus was also shifting from charismatic species like the elephant and tiger, to less famous members of the animal kingdom, like the great Indian bustard and peninsular wolves. Both of these were grassland species that are known to co-habit with humans, with some conflict in the case of wolves and herders.

Conservation science that took into account interactions between humans, animals and habitats, was further developed in the 1980s and 1990s by new science and advocacy organisations, such as the Pune-based Kalpavriksh and the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, or ATREE.

A study by Nitin Rai for ATREE, for instance, examined traditional fire management practices of Sholiga tribals in Bandipur, which involved periodically burning underbrush. This was banned by the government – but the study found that the practice helped clear the forest of invasive species like lantana, and helped prevent the breakout of larger fires.

The emergence of new ideas in conservation was also aided by a shift in the country’s political realities. The growth of regional parties led to less centralisation of power, and a greater pushback against central diktats on inviolate areas and eviction. In the 1980s, according to Rangarajan, one in five national parks and wildlife sanctuaries reported instances of physical clashes between the authorities and residents.

At an international level too, discontent with the model of protected areas as fortresses was becoming vocal. “There were debates around people’s inclusion in conservation in the IUCN itself by the 1980s,” which emerged from human rights discourse in Africa and Latin America, Ashish Kothari, the head of Kalpavriksh said. Discussion now moved away from the management of Protected Areas, to questions of who should govern these areas.

There were other signs that the old model was failing. Rangarajan notes that poaching and smuggling of wildlife reached new highs, unprecedented since the 1970s. In August 1993, authorities seized around 400 kg of tiger bones, after which it came to light that as many as 600 tigers had been poached in a period of four years. Rhino and elephant poaching was also rampant.

It was in this context that the next major shift occurred in conservation sciences in India, centred around the snow leopard. The environment ministry, which had been created in 1985, first attempted to set up Project Snow in 1988. The project failed to take off, according to Jhala, because the Planning Commission did not set aside funds for it. Bhatnagar noted that earlier efforts stalled because the project was focused around Jammu and Kashmir – a massive meeting had even taken place in Srinagar. But with the emergence of militancy, as well as the economic crisis of 1991, the project took a back seat.

Project Snow Leopard got off the ground only after advocacy by Indian ecologists like Bhatnagar and Charudutt Mishra, who were the third generation of the field. “In 1988, the conception of Project Snow Leopard was still very much along the exclusionary lines of Project Tiger,” Bhatnagar said. “It was only after we tried to revive it in the late 1990s, that, based on our decade-old research and understanding in these ranges, we pushed for an inclusionary approach.”

Tsewang Namgail, director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy Trust, which partnered with NCF in the development of the new model, noted that wildlife in mountainous regions “is not restricted to protected areas, because the vegetation is sparse, and herbivores have large grazing areas. The carnivores, following them, also occupy similarly large areas.” These were among the reasons that the groups adopted “a people-centric approach for snow leopard conservation”, he said.

Now, scientists drew on fields traditionally considered outside conservation, such as political economy. Mishra, who began work on a PhD in ecology and natural resource conservation in the 1990s, designed an innovative insurance scheme to compensate livestock owners for animals they lost to carnivores. A village level corpus fund was created, of which 50% could be used each year for giving out compensation – the rest would be get carried over to the next year, building a substantial corpus over the years.

At the suggestion of locals, higher insurance premiums were instituted for animals like the yak, which are more expensive and graze in open pastureland for longer durations, making them harder to monitor. Traditional livestock sheds, or corrals, were improved keeping the villager’s needs in mind.

“An insurance scheme where people paid made everyone an equal stakeholder,” Bhatnagar noted. People preferred this to the government compensation which only paid “a pittance compared to the market value of the animal lost” Bhatnagar said, apart from being “embroiled in red tape”. He added, “Because people’s losses were significant, they wanted a more reliable mechanism, and therefore they put money into the corpus.”

To address the livelihood needs of locals, the project also collaborated with them to set up home stays for tourists who were interested in visiting the region and trying to sight snow leopards. The idea emerged from a pilot program that the Snow Leopard Trust had run in 2002.

Project Snow Leopard, formally launched in 2009, was founded on the idea that human welfare and livelihood had to be a key part of any conservation effort. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

The growth of these new approaches to conservation was helped by the infusion into the field of methodology from the social sciences – researchers now often spent long stretches of time immersed in the environments they were studying. “Many of us who went and stayed in the villages surrounding wildlife habitats for as long as four or five years, started to appreciate the importance and realities of their life,” Bhatnagar said. “For instance, you cannot understand the importance of fuelwood to keep warm unless you are shivering in the cold at around 4,000 meters above sea level in Ladakh. Then you do not see it as a luxury that can be done away with, but as a necessity of life.”

Efforts to get Project Snow Leopard off the ground began in the 1990s, but it was only in 2009 that it was formally launched, with five states (which are now four states and two union territories) signing on. The Project Snow Leopard National Steering Committee, met regularly till 2013, and then did not meet again till 2018.

More than a decade after it was launched, the project has still not spread widely on the ground.

Under the terms of the project, Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh were to identify territories for snow-leopard conservation, and draw up management plans. So far, only Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have identified these landscapes, and only the former has created a management plan for the project. It is also the only state which has done an assessment of the numbers of snow leopards.

“There is no coordination between the centre and the states,” a former environment ministry official said. “Unlike Project Tiger or Project Elephant, where there are project cells which act as points of contact for the states with the centre, there is no such body in the case of Project Snow Leopard.”

In fact, the official added, in 2018, a forest department official from Sikkim “told us that he wasn’t even aware of the project.”

According to Bhatnagar, the sluggish pace of the project’s implementation is also due to the loss of institutional memory. “When we were reaching out to the environment ministry for a project on snow leopard in the late 2000s, we had already done state level and national level meetings with all stakeholders, including state and ministry officials,” he said. “The recommendations from these meetings were appreciated by everyone, and got the government excited about the project.”

After the project was launched, Bhatnagar himself “got busy in central Asian countries” with other snow leopard conservation efforts. During this time, he said, “People changed in the ministry and the states, and the project went into cold storage.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.