From the Times of India, an editorial on the world famous Bharatpur bird sanctuary or what used to be a sanctuary. It has dried up. The sanctuary known as the Keoladeo National Park is an artificial wetland created in the mid 1700's as a hunting ground for Rajasthan royals and relies on annual release of water from various nearby rivers. Lately water that was meant for the wetland is being increasingly diverted to farmland, progressively drying up the park. The birds have already left for wetter pastures. If wetlands are not resorted soon, it will lose recognition as a world heritage site. What a shame! Below is an image of the Bharatpur wetlands.
In this image at low resolution there appears to be plenty of green within the park but take a look a a close up below.
The entire area is dry. Only in the vicinity of the green dot could I find some water. Few green patches indicate the presence of moist soil, but no water, no wetland and no birds. Looking at the close up one can understand how precarious the health of the wetlands always has been. Being an artificial creation, the boundaries of the wetlands are sharp and are surrounded by intense agriculture land use. The light colored rectangular quilt like pattern you see surrounding the central dark former wetland are farm plots. The conflict for allocation of water for people versus animals is a perpetual problem in India and the needs of the people win out.
Such degradation of our national parks is happening to various extents all over the country. Bharatpur is an extreme example of a small sanctuary whose support system has completely collapsed. Take another famous sanctuary, the Gir Forest National Park. This is world famous for being the last natural habitat of the Asiatic lion. Image below shows the Gir forest area.
At this scale all appears well, large green patches with no apparent disturbance. But image interpretation is about pattern recognition. Take a look the areas at the southern margins of the forest around the green arrows. The green patches around these arrows have a more speckled appearance compared to the green patches in the center. Close up below reveals all.
Again those rectangular patches you saw around Bharatpur, farmland making its ways into the forest following the water courses, small streams, water holes, the same water sources that wild animals use. A conflict in the making.
What is the future for India's wildlife and biodiversity? There are conflicting signals from the politicians. Yesterday the centre announced a package of Rs 600 crore for project Tiger, to be used for the tiger conservation programme. This for now should be seen as good news. On the other hand, political interference and interest in the exploitation of forests is alive and well. India Today recently reported on poaching rings in UP, and yesterday several Kashmir politicos have been accused of illegal exploitation of timber. The culture needs to change from viewing forests and wildlife as a resource to be exploited, as some obstacle to development, to one where our biodiversity is seen as an integral and important component of our development. Until then, tiger rescue packages notwithstanding, conservation plans will always be at the mercy of local political winds. I mean as a scientist I can well imagine the frustration of a senior forest officer who having carefully drawn conservation plans for a particular area is told by the local politico, oh-sorry no water for you this year!
Another big danger besides the increasing human wildlife conflict is climate change. Today's conservation plans are drawn on the assumption that the current ecological boundaries will remain so for the foreseeable future. But what if in response to shifting climatic belts, ecological boundaries also shift? This is an imminent danger facing India. Our current conservation plans are barely able to cope with problems of human encroachment into forest areas by rehabilitation and relocation plans for humans. What will happen if forests further fragment in response to climate change and ecological belts move? Where will the animals go?