My earliest visions of forests and wildlife came straight out of comic books, inspired by the likes of Tarzan and Phantom. My first steps into a forest in the 1960s, as a young boy along with my grandfather, left a lasting impression. For my grandfather, a visit to the forest was like a pilgrimage, laden with respect for the many lives it housed. It was a recurring theme I would hear through the 1970s and 1980s; of people acknowledging, despite the attacks on livestock and people, or crop damage by wild animals, that they felt connected. They were all part of nature.

As a conservation biologist, my appreciation for nature only grew; I recognised how natural ecosystems of all types (including scrub, wetlands, grasslands, deserts and much more) are the very harbingers of life, ensuring both water security and food security. Besides, all natural ecosystems play a critical role as carbon sinks, critical for mitigating climate change.

This World Wildlife Day, my thoughts turn to wildlife conservation and the complexities associated with it. Throughout my years in conservation, despite my vocal defence of their rights, I’ve seen many attempts to pit wildlife conservation against the rights of the local forest dwellers who have been dependent on them from time immemorial. Much of India’s post-Independence conservation efforts have excluded forest dwellers, completely overlooking the important role they play. Naturally, the word “conservation” now comes to haunt the forest dwellers.

Worse, even as these stewards of their own forests are displaced, the government ends up paving the way for some form of “modern” development often led by big corporations, which are far more invasive and destructive.

Money matters

In general, India has done very well when it comes to wildlife conservation, especially in the context of the challenges we face. But we can do much better. It is also a fact that since the 1990s, successive governments have contributed a lot to the fragmentation and destruction of wildlife habitats in pursuit of developmental goals. In the last fiscal year, the National Democratic Alliance government was criticised for reducing funds to Project Tiger by 13%. This year, the government has allocated Rs 300 crore for tiger conservation – a jump of 80%. The money for this is supposed to come from the Clean Environment Cess on coal of Rs 400 per tonne, which was Rs 200 per tonne last year.

This is a contradiction as the environmental destruction caused by coal mining are well known, and it will have devastating impacts on wildlife as well as local communities. A Greenpeace study in 2012 showed that more than a million hectares of forest is under threat from coal mining, only within 13 coal fields in India. What would really help wildlife is preventing these important forests from being diverted for coal mining, instead of collecting insignificant amounts as tax. With that in the background, the increased financial allocation for tiger conservation seems to be a welcome move, but it reflects the government’s double standards. But will these funds really see the light of the day?

The Clean Environment Fund, previously called the Clean Energy Fund, was set aside for development of renewable energy. Unfortunately, not much was done in that direction. We need to be vigilant to ensure that the funds to Project Tiger are released in a timely manner. More importantly, we also need to ask how the government plans to use the funds allocated for conservation?

Will it continue with ill-advised exclusionary conservation policies or sincerely partner with local communities especially by using the provisions of the Forest Rights Act? Other challenges include ensuring that science and traditional knowledge are integral to planning and implementation of wildlife management, wider participation of civil society in wildlife management and conservation, and very importantly, independent monitoring/auditing of wildlife management.

Legal role

Today, forest inhabitants – plants, animals and humans – are under threat from linear development projects (construction of roads, rail, pipelines) for which authorities need not seek consent of forest dwellers prior to forest clearance. The government’s lack of interest on inviolate/ no-go areas also puts large chunks of biodiverse forests at threat from industries like mining. Inevitably, such projects end up fragmenting forest areas, become barriers for animal movement, and create ground for further human-wildlife conflicts.

The Forest Rights Act has the potential to be the strongest Indian conservation law, especially the provision for establishing Critical Wildlife Habitats, and a strong tool in the hands of communities fighting to preserve their forests. Tragically, till date not a single Critical Wildlife Habitat has been established. This is not to suggest that there are no challenges. When I served on a Joint Ministerial Committee set up by the Ministries Tribal Affairs and Environment and Forests in 2010 to review the implementation of Forest Rights Act, we found significant gaps in the implementation of the Act (lack of awareness and apathy being amongst the major ones), leaving the Forest Rights Act open to both disuse and misuse. Fortunately, things have improved since then but there is still a long way to go in achieving the full potential of the Forest Rights Act both for the rights of local communities and also for nature conservation.

I do have grounds for great hope: a little over a year ago, massive resistance from the local community in the Mahan forests of Madhya Pradesh forced the shelving of plans for a proposed coal mine (allocated to Essar Power and Hindalco Industries). The Mahan Sangharsh Samiti successfully used the Forest Rights Act to save the ancient sal forests.

There are other examples too: In Chhattisgarh, when the state government recently revoked community forest rights, 24 villages together pledged to develop a wildlife sanctuary on their own in 2014; in Karnataka, the BRT Tiger Reserve stands testimony to the fact that wildlife populations can flourish with resident local communities and that they can indeed play an important role in wildlife conservation.

Widen the scope

I believe that India is the last hope for many species – this is both a matter of pride and onerous responsibility. So far, Indian conservation of wildlife and habitats has succeeded largely because of our culture, our inherent reverence for the natural world, our tolerance for wildlife presence in human-dominated habitats and the importance accorded to it both by the government as well as civil society. In this sense, we are the envy of world.

A tiger in an Indian wildlife reserve is as protected by law as it is outside of it (unlike many other countries). A significant proportion of Asiatic lions in and around Gir can be found outside the protected area. Our challenge is to continue in this spirit, build on this conservation success while enabling sustainable, healthy development based on partnerships involving local communities, government, civil society and all interested stakeholders. We also need to widen the scope of our conservation projects to include all endangered and threatened species and habitats so that they get the much-needed attention which has long been absent due to our obsession with large mammals, especially the tiger.

It seems particularly fitting then, that the theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day be articulated as "The future of wildlife is in our hands". It most certainly is… except it’s not a VERSUS story, it’s an US story.

Ravi Chellam is the Executive Director of Greenpeace India.