Reports published in the past year about the state of global biodiversity are grave: a 27-year study of the weight of insects collected at fixed-point light traps in 63 nature reserves in Germany found that the population of flying insects had reduced by around 75%. Another study on mammals by the Worldwide Fund for Nature suggests we have lost over 60% of wildlife since 1970. There is as yet no explanation for this alarming drop, but widespread use of pesticides, habitat destruction and urbanisation are suggested as potential causes.

In India, a steep drop in wildlife is obvious, even though no quantitative figures exist. Unfortunately, we do not know the extent of the drop since we have little idea of the current status of wildlife outside protected areas like national parks, sanctuaries and reserve forests. Even in those areas, our knowledge is patchy, restricted mainly to the tiger. We have no figures for important mammals like the four-horned antelope, which is unique to India, or even the black buck.

The roots of the Indian biodiversity crisis – and indeed there is one – lie in ruthless exploitation and a cynical approach to conservation and restoration. First, India is a land where even the poorest villager expects to have hot meals, generally two a day. The traditional fuels were wood and charcoal, later supplemented by coal. With a growing population, pressure was exerted on forests. When the Crown took over British India in 1858, the need for a forest department was felt, to place the exploitation on a sustainable level. Large-scale exploitation of forests for railway sleepers and export saw forests being felled on an unprecedented scale. In 1865, German botanist Dietrich Brandis was invited to set up what is today the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. He examined Indian forests first hand and established a network of reserve forests and initiated wood production from plantations on European lines.

After Independence, the system continued but large new areas of the erstwhile princely states came under the control of the Forest Ministry. This was exploited ruthlessly, until by the 1970s, it was clear that such exploitation could not continue. Not only were the forest departments of the states exploiting forests – giving rise to people’s movements like the Chipko Andolan, the tree-hugging campaign to save forests from destruction – but the fodder, fuel and firewood needs of the expanding population were also being unsustainably met from village and state forests.

There is little information on the current status of wildlife outside protected areas. Even in those areas, knowledge is restricted mainly to the tiger. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Forest fires

The WWF report suggesting wildlife populations have dropped by 60%, which was published in October, rules out hunting as a cause. In India, this is especially so, since hunting was banned for unknown reasons in 1972, with the promulgation of the Wildlife (Protection) Act. So, other factors caused this drop in populations. The use of pesticides, urbanisation and agriculture are valid reasons in certain areas, but there are large tracts that do not face these challenges, yet are unnaturally poor in biodiversity.

The protection of wildlife became a cruel joke from around 1984 onwards when Indian forests were set afire twice a year during the dry season. No one paid much attention, because the persons responsible for protecting the forests claimed these were natural fires and invented a palliative of “fire cycles” for different types of forests. In fact, many states put in demands for funds to douse the fires, usually in crores of rupees. For many years, these sums were paid and spent, with no visible result. All that was required to quell the forest fires was to apply the existing law to forest arsonists, a cheap and effective method that has proven successful, as is obvious in the reduced number of fires since May 2016.

A study I published in 2011, the only study on the effect of forest fires on insect populations, noted how the butterfly populations I was studying at the time in a reserve forest in Uttarakhand were wiped out in the wake of two consecutive forest fires. The situation was so bad that there were no butterflies left to study and I had to shift my study area to an unburnt village forest.

Butterflies were the subject of that study, but the effect of the fire was equally devastating on other insects, shrubs, bushes, birds and mammals. Given that there were over 20,000 reported forest fires in India during the summer of 2016, it is obvious that fires are the biggest threat to Indian biodiversity. Entire landscapes were being set afire, which means the biodiversity of entire landscapes was being destroyed, year after year. No natural system can take such punishment for long and it is not surprising that good birding areas are few and far between, as are areas supporting good insect populations. In between such islands of biodiversity, there are green deserts that stretch for hundreds of kilometres and are burnt every year.

There were more than 20,000 reported forest fires in India in the summer of 2016. (Credit: AFP)

The fires destroyed insect and bird populations as well as herbivorous mammals and smaller carnivores. The omnivores, namely rhesus macaques and wild boars, managed to survive and thrive by shifting their feeding base from forests to village crops. With the Wildlife (Protection) Act prescribing jail terms for killing either of these species without the permission of distant officials, it became impossible to protect the crops, spelling doom for subsistence farmers and villages that had been inhabited for millennia.

Plantation of forests

Now that forest fires are not considered a natural phenomenon anymore, the next challenge to Indian biodiversity is the “plantation of forests”. This pernicious practice has been passed off as a logical solution to the problem of degraded forests. In practice, not a single “forest” has been successfully planted to the point of not requiring further plantation in the decades since Independence. The reason is obvious: the moment a “forest” is successfully planted, there is no need for more funds to be expended on it.

Therefore, the practice of planting forests turns out to be one of the major factors inhibiting the restoration of healthy forests, which is why I call it a pernicious practice. As long as there is “unhealthy” forest, there will be a need for “planting forests”. The day all Indian forests are healthy, there will be no more funds for “planting” them.

In order to restore Indian ecosystems, they need to be allowed to grow back on their own. In other words, all that is really needed is protection, not plantation. Perhaps the old Chinese practice of paying a doctor in health and stopping payments in periods of sickness would help strengthen the resolve of state forest departments to protect the forests entrusted to them by the Indian public. Certainly, the plantation of forests model is a failure, helping keep Indian forests degraded to ensure the continuity of funds for planting them.

Tackling the crisis

With the re-establishment of forests, grasslands and other natural habitats, the biodiversity crisis will pass, for it is fire and monocultures that are at the root of India’s perceived biodiversity crisis. We have not had a single recorded extinction of any life form in the post-Independence period except for the cheetah, which was last seen in 1948.

Despite our large human population, we have the area and the means to ensure a vibrant biodiversity in the foreseeable future. It is only effective management that is required. Once forest and other ecosystems support original communities of plants and animals, crop pests like the wild boar and macaques will have something else to feed on besides agricultural produce, groundwater will be recharged, shrubs and bushes will re-grow, insect populations will recover, the nutrient cycles will be re-established and the biodiversity crisis will become history.

It is true that with a huge human population, a large part of the land will be used by humans for humans, but there is a very substantial area that is not cultivated, which can certainly be returned to health.