A "Wild" Tale Of Two Nations

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A "Wild" Tale of Two Nations
By Subhankar Banerjee

India, February 2020: As I traveled north towards Gandhinagar (about 15 miles from the Ahmedabad city center) I was welcomed by a set of billboards that announced a global biodiversity summit: the 13th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS COP13). The CMS operates under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme. The sprawling state-of-the-art Mahatma Mandir Convention and Exhibition Center in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, hosted the CMS COP13 from February 17th through the 22nd.

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Having worked in species conservation for two decades in the United States, where I live and work, I had come to Gandhinagar to learn more about species conservation in India, my country of birth, and compare and contrast the politics of conservation in these two nations—and its relation to global species conservation.

Bringing together India and the United States to think about biodiversity made sense because these two nations had established the first set of legal frameworks to protect nonhuman species. However, only one of those two gets the recognition in the U.S.

According to a legal scholar, the United States became “a global front-runner in the protection of biodiversity by passing the Endangered Species Act, which has been a model for other species protection efforts around the world.” The analysis fails to mention what India had done in this regard, perhaps falling prey to the myth that U.S. is always #1 in everything and refusing to look elsewhere.

It is a “Wild” Tale of Two Nations instead.

In 1972, India established the “Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972” (WPA), and the following year, the United States established the “Endangered Species Act of 1973” (ESA).

It makes sense to assess nearly half a century later where India and the United States are on wildlife conservation as the biodiversity crisis continues to deepen.

Both nations rank high on biodiversity and also on the number of species that are in peril. India and U.S. are among the 17 countries that are identified as megadiverse. According to that assessment, 70% of the world’s flora and fauna exist in these 17 countries. And on biodiversity crisis, India and U.S. are among the top 10 countries in terms of the number of species in peril. The United States ranks #3 and India #9, with Ecuador and Madagascar taking the top two spots, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. 

Despite the challenges of not only extreme poverty and high population but also rapid urban expansion and ever-increasing middle-class consumption—India appears to be doing a lot better than the United States on ensuring well-being of species.

How is this even possible?

The Gandhinagar migratory species convention presented a perfect opportunity for me to find some answers. 

With the 2019 UN biodiversity assessment—that 1 million animal and plant species are facing extinction—as the impetus—a number of high-profile global summits on biodiversity were planned for this year. It started with CMS COP13 in Gandhinagar, which successfully “kicked off” what has been called the “super year” for biodiversity. The next big one on the list was the IUCN World Conservation Congress in France, and the concluding ones were going to be a UN Summit in New York and the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, where a new global biodiversity agreement (akin to the Paris Agreement on climate) was expected to be drafted and adopted. But due to the coronavirus pandemic those gatherings have already been postponed and will likely happen next year.

The United States as a nation, and its mainstream media as the vehicle for public communication—were missing at what we now know was both the “kick off” and the “concluding” global summit for this “super year” for biodiversity.

It is also important to mention here that United States is the only UN member state that is not a party to the larger Convention on Biological Diversity, and consequently does not have a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, unlike other nations like India.

And, beyond missing at the table in the global scene of biodiversity conservation, president Trump is also violating binational cooperation for species conservation in the northern- and southern- borderlands of the United States, with Canada and Mexico respectively.

And if you think about the U.S. national strategy of species conservation—it is grounded in “separation” and not coexisting with wild animals. This has been achieved by setting aside protected areas with a rather hard conceptual boundary between animals and humans, where the animals largely become a spectacle to be photographed or viewed through a binocular.

The United States has isolated itself from the global community; is not cooperating with its own neighbors, and the national model of species conservation is grounded in separation. 

Once considered a pioneer of species conservation, the United States has not only fallen from grace but has become a black sheep, a disgraced member in the global collective and cooperative effort to mitigate biological annihilation—all due to its zealous protection of capitalism.

By contrast, despite many challenges and shortcomings, India has adopted a very different model for species conservation. With only 2.4% of the world’s land area, India provides home to 7-8% of all recorded species on Earth. And a large part of Indian wildlife is in human dominated landscapes that surround protected areas. Living with dangerous animals like tigers and elephants is something unthinkable in the western world. 

I learned how all that looks like on the ground when, last August, I visited the Sundarban and the Western Ghats in the middle of heavy monsoon rain, with my sister Sudakshina Sen, a passionate photographer of wildlife.

In Sundarban, the inspiring and influential poacher-turned-conservationist Anil Mistry generously hosted us. Over the past two decades, Mistry has worked tirelessly to save the tiger and reduce the conflicts between tiger and his people. He has built an unlikely alliance between two adversaries: the federal and state authorities responsible for the protection of the Sundarban and its tigers, and the villagers who call Sundarban home and have built a complex relationship with the place and the tiger. I consider Mistry’s work as an exemplary case of long environmentalism. His work addresses the difficult task of tiger conservation while also attending to the financial and cultural needs of the villagers.

The sinuous state highway SH-78 in the Western Ghats includes 40 hairpin bends as it rises up the Anamala Hills, or Elephant Mountains. To the east is Anamalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, and to the west is Parambikulum Tiger Reserve in Kerala. Large herds of elephant cross back-and-forth between these protected areas following their traditional migration routes. We stayed at a hotel inside the Injipara tea estate on top of the hill. Even though there are occasional human casualties (including one that happened about ten days before my sister and I arrived) from human-elephant encounter—no one is out to kill or confine the elephants here. They are free to move anywhere, at any time, and as they please.

The knowledgeable and helpful tea estate manager S. Arun told us that the entire tea estate including the adjoining human habitation is considered an extended habitat for the elephants (and other wildlife), known as “buffer zone.” Over a century of coexistence with elephants, people have figured out how to reduce human-animal deadly encounters by adopting various free or inexpensive early warning systems, like strong smell of elephant dung and urine, and most recently “SMS for elephants.”

From the visits to the Sundarban and the Western Ghats, I learned what compassion for and coexisting with tigers and elephants and other animals look like.

The third element on how wildlife conservation works in the Indian sub-continent is—cooperation with your neighbors.

At the Gandhinagar convention, there was a very informative panel, “Elephant Conservation beyond Borders,” where multiple neighboring nations, including Bangladesh, Bhutan and India are cooperating to save the endangered Asian Elephant. What was striking is that this cooperation, in the case of Bangladesh, also requires building bridges between elephant conservation and the plight of the Rohingya refugees who were resituated on the migration route of elephants. 

The model of wildlife conservation in the United States is largely grounded on “isolation” (from the global community), “non-cooperation” (with neighboring nations), and “separation” (between human and nonhuman animals). The model of wildlife conservation in India, by contrast, appears to be largely grounded on “compassion” (for nonhuman animals), “coexistence” (with nonhuman animals, including deadly tigers and elephants), and “cooperation” (with neighboring nations). 

The no-end-in-sight coronavirus pandemic is shining a much-needed spotlight on the escalating biodiversity crisis. The tragedy is also making abundantly clear that if life is to thrive on this Earth, human and nonhuman, we need cooperation at all scales—global, regional, binational, within a nation, interstate, and in our local communities. And we need to learn how to coexist with and have compassion for our nonhuman relatives—and acknowledge in the midst of this pandemic that bats are not our enemies.

[Note: this is an excerpt from the Part II of a two-part reflection on the escalating biodiversity crisis and conservation during this COVID-19 pandemic published by Species in Peril, a publication of the University of New Mexico. Read the full article HERE. 

Subhankar Banerjee is an artist, activist and public scholar. 
(Featured Image credit: Laura C Carlson, Conference of the Parties, 2019, Mixed media on paper.)

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