Hello listeners, welcome to the Sustainability weekly Podcast. I’m Samarth, your host, and today I’m in conversation with Prakriti Srivastava. Prakriti is the Country Director of Wildlife Conservation Society [or WCS]-India since 2018. She has been with the Indian Forest Service for the past 27 years while serving on the Kerala cadre as well as various capacities in the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. During this time she was renowned both for her unflinching support to wildlife and forest conservation and for her ability, often at a great personal cost, to catalyze a wide variety of tangible and profound conservation successes. Prakriti along with her very committed team and with support from Forest Department and the Government, has many achievements including catalyzing innumerable tough law enforcement actions against illegal encroachers, wildlife traffickers, timber smugglers and illicit timber factories in some of Kerala’s most important landscapes for wildlife; working with key government colleagues to create four new national parks and to improve the protection status of many other forests; initiating in collaboration with local communities a highly successful Olive-Ridley Turtle conservation program; framing the Government of India’s highly pro-conservation policies for CITES, CMS and other wildlife conservation policies for the country including those for the National Board of Wildlife. Welcome to the Podcast Prakriti.
While the work WCS does has given rise to a series of Podcasts which will follow this one, I’ll quickly set the tone for today’s episode. India, is home to about 7.6% of mammal, 14.7% of amphibian, 6% of bird, 6.2% of reptilian, and 6.0% of flowering plant species across the globe. India's forest lands nurture about 500 species of mammals and 2000+ bird species. A compilation by a non-government organization Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has said that India lost 110 tigers and 491 leopards in 2019. While a third of the tigers that is, 38 were lost to poaching, majority of them died owing to rail or road accidents.
Prakriti, you have talked about how the scenic beauty of nature in the schools you attended inspired you towards a career in conservation, what do you think is the role of schools/educational institutions in inculcating values of conservation among students?
I would like to tell you a little about my background. My father was an Air Force officer. He was posted as the Principal of many Sainik Schools such as Ghorakhal(near Nainital) Amravathinagar in Tamilnadu, Imphal in Manipur and many other scenic thickly forested areas such as Shillong. There was no television in the times I was in school. So we found entertainment and solace in books and nature. Seeing a pitcher plant in the wild in Shillong was such a wonderous moment. Collecting fresh pine nuts amongst the tall pine forests in Ghorakhal; the snow clad mountains in the Himalayas, the cobras we often almost tripped over in Amravithinagar, the crocodiles lying like rocks in the dam in Amravathinagar, had such a strong influence on me while I was growing up.
My father being the Principal in the Sainik schools I studied in, ensured that his students visited most National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. I grew up visiting Jim Corbet, Bandipur, Mudumalai, Nagarhole, Panchmari, and many many more such Protected Areas. (PAs covers wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, and conservation reserves)
While I naturally gravitated towards studying Zoology and joining the IFS, I wish I could generalise and say that every person should be exposed to the beauty of nature and wildlife roots for conservation. However, you should be aware that environmental Science was introduced as a subject in schools after I left school. If learning about conservation makes people more committed to conservation, why is it that so much of diversion of our natural lands have taken place in the past twenty years?
I have attended many high level meetings while in the Central government where discussions prior to the official agenda has revolved around how senior officers look forward to vacations to National Parks and sanctuaries to see the beauty of nature, tigers and other wildlife. And as soon as the official agenda has started, these same officers have gone hammer and tongs after their diversion agenda and as to why the forest personnel often obstruct developmental projects for dams, roads, etc! I was always struck by this dichotomy!
I think that it actually depends on what we value as a society. Conservation, visits to PA’s etc is seen as a hobby/ vacation while it is macho to earn a big salary, drive expensive cars, have lots of people saluting and kowtowing to you. From this sentiment comes the desire to have high tech super speed trains and live a jet set life which sadly decimates our natural habitats and wildlife. We need to change this paradigm. As a country, a society we need to think that we are successful individually as well as collectively if we conserve our natural places and its associated biodiversity. Till we have the existing value system in our country we are going to be marching down the path of destroying our forests and wildlife. I hope this Covid 19 pandemic should be an eye-opener for all of us ,especially our policy makers as to what should be valued and the message they need to send through their actions.
However don’t get me wrong. I do reiterate that conservation of our forests and wildlife has been due to our government’s efforts as well as our cultural ethos and what our society values, but we surely need to do much more and prioritise conservation.
Could you tell us what inspires you to be in the field of wildlife and conservation? How has your journey as an IFS officer in Kerala been?
My inspiration for conservation still comes from the same feeling that I had when I was growing up. The beauty and majesty of nature and that every living being present and future have a right to their life and as a human being to be able to experience our natural world and enjoy the benefits that we get from nature, fresh air, water, comfort and a sense of well- being.
Before the lockdown I had gone to Nagarhole where we saw a tiger come out of the forest and walk to a water-hole and drink water. What majesty and grace! The memory of it is enough to overcome the darkest moments and gives meaning to what My team and I do every day. That amazing tiger moment has been captured in photographs which are on our website too! There are so many such experiences, the black panther sighting, the charge of the wild elephant, the heard of gaur in the moonlight of Waynad Wildlife Sanctary! I could go on endlessly!
My journey as a forest officer in Kerala as well as at the centre and now heading this wonderful NGO, WCS-India has had impacts at many levels. Personally, it has transformed me from an ordinary person to realising that core of strength and commitment that only my field of work could bring out. The majesty of the Western Ghats in Kerala and my ability to contribute to its conservation as well as many more conservation efforts and the ability to garner support from so many stakeholders is humbling. That I could be of help in many younger colleagues being inspired and committing to conservation makes my journey worthwhile.
I remember my 7 days in Corbett about 10 years ago, where we stayed at different places like Birjrani, Dhikala & Ghariyal and spotted a tiger only on the 7th day and that too for a fleeting moment, we were unlucky then to not be able to capture the moment, but I get your point of the tiger being a majestic cat and seeing it in its habitat is an absolute treat!
What is a ‘wildlife corridor’ and what is its significance? Could you also tell us the measures you have implemented in your career for the establishment and conservation of these corridors?
Sure, Samarth. You probably are also aware that historically our country was densely forested. But with the growth of civilization and development of infrastructure, our forests became fragmented and lost their contiguity. You may be surprised to know that we have as many as 650 plus PA’s in our country. It is a natural conclusion that when there are so many, they must be small and fragmented. However, there are still fragments of disconnected forests between PA’s such as in the Western Ghats. Often the continuity between PA’s is completely lost due to agriculture, roads, dams, industries, etc coming in between forest patches.
However retaining or restoring connectivity between PA’s and forests is of greatest importance. Ensuring connectivity between forests and PA’s is what we call corridors. Loss of connectivity between forests results in human wildlife conflict as wildlife especially long ranging animals such as elephants and tigers come out of the forest into human dominated landscapes that result in crop raiding, damage to life , property and live-stock causing animosity towards wildlife on part of communities residing adjacent to PA’s and forests. Lack of connectivity also often results in local extinctions of species, lack of genetic diversity and non-adaptation to climate change.
While there have been many measures taken in the field, by me and my team when I was in the forest department. My efforts for promoting country-wide impacts to secure habitats and connectivity for wildlife were during my tenure in the Ministry of Environment and Forest, where we laid out the policy for Elephant, tiger and wildlife corridors, establishment of eco-sensitive zones around PA’s, voluntary relocation, especially funding of voluntary relocation from Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary which is now a model for funding of voluntary relocation from National Parks and WLS, and also the establishment of Critical Wildlife habitats in PAs.
How does a wildlife corridor mitigate human-wildlife conflict and what are the major threats to wildlife corridors in India?
When there is no other route for movement between landscapes the animals try to move through human dominated landscapes which often leads to conflict with the animal getting killed, loss of life, livestock or property. Due to lack of habitat for wildlife to move, human-wildlife conflict with tigers, leopards, elephants, wild boars and other ungulates are on the rise. From the perception of wild animal, areas of human settlement or agricultural lands are nothing but part of the larger habitat that existed in the past.
A major threat to corridors and connectivity of wildlife habitats is the growing linear infrastructure network in the country, especially due to our strong development agenda. Mining and irrigation projects pose another major threat to corridors.
Therefore, restoring connectivity between forest patches will allow a way for wildlife to be able to move safely without having to come in contact with humans, their infrastructure, livestock etc. However, it is also a fact that human -wildlife conflict is here to stay and we can only give a big push to mitigate and minimize it.
You have been a strong proponent of this concept and have talked extensively of the National Wildlife Highway, could you please elaborate on this?
Sure. National Wildlife Highway is a catch-phrase to exhort all stake-holders to establish and restore connectivity in the form of corridors between forest patches and PA’s. We can achieve this through a number of ways like, interlinking fragmented wildlife habitats through voluntary relocation, land purchases, conflict mitigation, community participation and policy interventions.
We need to do this in many innovative ways. We should prioritize purchase of lands between two PA’s to restore connectivity. Use of CAMPA – a particular central fund which can be used for restoring forest or taking initiatives to better our forest cover in the country - and other funding should be used for these purposes. Similarly focussed funding for well implemented voluntary relocation from PA’s should also be prioritised. Notifying forest patches between PA’s and consolidating them with PA’s and purchased land will go a long way in establishing connectivity and corridors.
Innovative interventions such as growing crops around forests that are not palatable to herbivores, advance payments for wildlife conflict areas, compensations for keeping agricultural lands fallow, keeping livestock in pens at night, lighting up community areas, awareness, are some areas where we should invest in.
Taking a concerted decision not to divert lands in corridors will go a long way in establishing and maintaining these wildlife highways. To weigh in on the development versus conservation debate, may I say that we have just about 5% as PAs and around 11% as high forests. Our biodiversity and the human existence depends on this. Can we not leave this undisturbed as far as possible?
I do believe that we should strengthen and modernise our existing infrastructure, realign it so as to give space for our wildlife, find innovative methods of wildlife movements in the form of under-passes and over-passes for existing infrastructure to allow connectivity for movement of wildlife.
We need commitment and the will on part of all stakeholders to make this a reality as this is the only way forward for humans and biodiversity to co-exist in the future.
Let me just also give one further clarification. When we talk of highways, we are not just speaking about making under-passes or over-passes, we are talking about actually consolidating forest areas and restoring it so that connectivity is established between two bigger patches of forest areas which would allow wildlife to move. That is the concept of a wildlife highway.
What are the efforts done by WCS-India towards developing and conserving wildlife corridors?
WCS-India has done a lot of efforts and it has been doing for the past 30 years and our organization has been working on many aspects that I have detailed before. We provide post- voluntary relocation support for communities and families that avail the government funded voluntary relocation scheme. We also support the government in identifying and notifying corridors and other suitable areas as PA’s. We facilitate privately funded land purchase within PA’s for families voluntarily willing to move out of the PA. These lands are then handed over to the Government to notify and integrate within the existing PA network.
We have many more ideas and plans to expand our work for establishing connectivity and corridors for our precious wildlife which we – as an organisation- look forward to implementing very successfully in the future.
For us as common citizens, how can we help in your efforts?
That is a nice question. For that I would say that mostly what I have already described is something that is very participatory and requires the full involvement of people and communities and they should really believe in the cause. We need to change our paradigm of success that is something that we should look at. The more we can conserve our biodiversity, wildlife and natural spaces, I think that should be one of our marks for success individually and as a society. I think that would be a change that could really help the cause of conservation and that would actually come from being aware of issues. So, that’s what I suggest that everyone should take the effort to become aware of the cause of conservation and how it impacts each and every one of us and our society as a whole.
Once you have sensitivity towards it and understands it is for my good, for the survival of humankind, and therefore the efforts will be very real and very genuine and long-term. And then a simple way that we could actually make this happen is, say no to buying any type of land or setting up any type of industry in an identifies corridor and someplace where restoration of a corridor is going on. So, these are simple tips that we can actually do. Lastly, when you are aware and you can get that message across to your policy makers and politicians, this is what is the will of the people. That is something which is very powerful and can actually find its way in policy and also find its way in actions government and other stake holders take. That is how a common man or the society at large can help in this effort.
Great, Prakriti. I think this was quite an enriching experience for me to go through the podcast and go through the research of the entire scheme of things about what exactly WCS does and as I said in the beginning, this is going to be series of podcasts wherein we are going to talk about various different issues in association with WCS.
To my listeners, it becomes extremely critical if you are in a PA or if you are somewhere close to a forest zone, ensure that there is no illegal land buying happening around and ensure that your forests are protected. WCS has been forthcoming in helping out various of these issues and if I may, I am more than happy to connect you all with WCS for any help that you may need.
Thanks for tuning in and thanks a lot Prakriti for being in this podcast.