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Prerna Singh Bindra

Prerna Singh Bindra

Prerna Singh Bindra

Your book shows how alarming is the state of conservation in our country. What is the perspective you have taken on this ?

Yes, the subject is bleak. I would like to make it clear, though, that the book is not about despair, it is about hope. Ignoring the crisis is not the answer–burying our head in the sand only means we dig ourselves in deeper. The idea is to empower, to hopefully shake people up, to get a dialogue going. India has this incredible wealth of wildlife, but its current status is precarious, and this is why it matters to us.

What are the factors that have caused this endangerment?

One key cause of endangerment is poaching, which is ruthlessly exterminating wildlife. It is not just tigers or leopards. The market is driving many species to the brink—from turtles (for meat) to beetles (for private collections) to owls (used in black magic). The pangolin, an elusive, nocturnal animal also called the ‘scaly anteater’, is being trapped, snared, killed by the thousands to meet a demand for its meat and scales for international markets in Far East and Southeast Asia. The pangolin is the hottest ‘item’ in the market today, and driving it to extinction.

The problem is we haven’t taken the gravity of this crime on board–illegal wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar industry, and is linked to terrorism and arms smuggling. We are woefully unequipped to deal with an organised crime of this scale–on average, there is a 30% shortage of frontline forest; in some reserves like Palamu in Jharkhand, it is well over 90%! The agency to deal with it–the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau–is understaffed, and not very empowered, and conviction rates of poachers are less than 1%.

The other nemesis is habitat destruction and fragmentation. India has about 20% of land under forest cover, and this is pretty much the only land now available–for industry, real estate, infrastructure, and agriculture Just about 5% of India is under the Protected Area network, and these are increasingly islanded in a sea of people. Reckless development is fragmenting even this minuscule part of India, with railway lines, highways, canals, wires criss-crossing the reserves; plus there are villages, temples, townships, reservoirs, mines within these areas, and in their immediate vicinity.

There are other anthropogenic pressures. For example, Sariska in Rajasthan has about 200,000 heads of cattle within and around the reserve, which competes with other ungulates (hoofed mammals) and also increases human-wildlife conflict.
Forest corridors connecting these small, islanded tracts of forest are also being destroyed. For wide ranging megafauna like tigers and elephants, this signals trapped populations and a genetic dead-end leading eventually to human wildlife conflict, inbreeding and inevitable local extinction.

What are the species that have been affected the most? How grim is the danger?

Our planet is in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction of plants and animals.Do you remember when vultures disappeared? I used to see them every evening while jogging in Delhi’s diplomatic area in Nehru Park in the mid ’90s. We poisoned their carrion with Diclofenac, a popular anti-inflammatory painkiller used by vets. It was the fastest decline of a bird population anywhere in the world. Does it matter if they died? Yes it does—vultures cleaned animal carcasses of potentially lethal bacteria and fungi.
Or take the case of the Great Indian Bustard, hunted to near extinction but fighting for a comeback thanks to the efforts of conservationists and a certain doctor Pramod Patil, obsessed with its fate.

The world is moving towards alternate energy but you have raised questions over the use of the technology. Why have you mentioned this?
There is no doubting that renewable energy must be a critical part of our energy basket–but there is a need to reassess the way we are doing it. Renewable energy projects such as wind and even small-hydropower projects propagated as environmentally friendly are mostly exempt from Environmental Impact Assessments and public hearing–hence circumventing both environment and social scrutiny.

If we consider wind and solar energy, they are both very land intensive and have caused extensive damage in some of our most biodiverse areas–from the fringes of Bhadra Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghats to the Thar desert, and in the habitat of the last remaining Great Indian Bustards (GIB). Reports from Thar suggest that GIBs have abandoned the sites. Small hydel projects cause massive deforestation, pillaging ecologically vulnerable valleys–particularly in the Himalayas, the Western and the Eastern Ghats.

Why do you think that we are facing a sustainability issue?

India has 20 per cent of its land under forest cover (including protected areas that span just 5 per cent). This 20 per cent is practically the only land available in the country and thus much coveted; most of the rest of the country has already been used, built upon, fallowed, inhabited. So even when viable alternatives are available outside forests, powerful lobbies clamour for new forest clearances in order to acquire “ownership of valuable natural resources: land, water and minerals”

About the Interviewee:

Prerna Singh Bindra has been at the forefront of the battle to conserve India’s wildlife for over a decade. Prerna’s primary focus is protecting wildlife habitats and critically endangered species. She is guest faculty for a module for popular writing at the National Centre for Biological Sciences. She is a widely published author with over 1500 pieces on nature and wildlife. She has authored The King and I: Travels in Tigerland and edited Voices in the Wilderness: Contemporary Wildlife Writing. Her book for children, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Tiger, is a recent release. Prerna lives in Gurgaon but her heart, she says, resides in the forest..