Draw­ing the maze

Bound­aries are some­times mere arte­facts, and ecol­ogy is gov­erned by dif­fer­ent rules


A new book analy­ses how hu­man ac­tions are al­ter­ing eco­log­i­cal spa­ces

Win the An­thro­pocene. A E LIVE ge­o­log­i­cal epoch where hu­mans are the most per­va­sive force of global eco­log­i­cal change and the in­creas­ing num­ber of our species has pushed out and hemmed in wild na­ture into ev­ers­maller pock­ets. In­dia, a coun­try of 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple and grow­ing, per­haps epit­o­mises the ten­sion be­tween hu­man as­pi­ra­tion and na­ture’s bounds. Whether na­ture will sur­vive this hu­man takeover, is a ques­tion that many ask to­day. Na­ture with­out Borders pro­vides us a glimpse of the pos­si­ble an­swers.

From dry deserts to high moun­tains, spa­ces have been tamed in the In­dian wilder­ness. Yet, as we draw borders that sep­a­rate the wild from hu­mans, na­ture re­draws the lines. Pro­tected ar­eas are one such line. The book is a col­lec­tion of es­says and case stud­ies writ­ten by em­i­nent ex­perts that en­cour­age us to un­der­stand how some wildlife and eco­log­i­cal pro­cesses func­tion at scales be­yond pro­tected ar­eas.

Wa­ter and wildlife

Some­times, hu­man and eco­log­i­cal are but one—so­ci­eties and liveli­hoods are in­te­grally en­twined with the ebb and flow of na­ture’s tides. Wa­ter knows no bounds, nei­ther does the wildlife that flows with it. As Lobo and Arthur de­scribe the im­pacts of com­mer­cial trawl­ing in In­dia’s oceans, hu­man de­ci­sions about the use of our ocean’s piscine re­sources will also de­ter­mine the sus­tain­abil­ity of mil­lions of fish­er­folk’s liveli­hoods. Sav­ing marine wildlife from the ra­pa­cious de­mands of mod­ern mar­kets and din­ner plates is also an at­tempt to ease the brunt of in­dus­trial fish­ing on small-scale ar­ti­sanal fish­er­folk.

Nachiket Kelkar and Jagdish Kr­ish­naswamy’s piece on fish­er­folk and the highly en­dan­gered Gangetic river dol­phins in the Vikramshila Sanc­tu­ary of Bha­galpur in the Ganga de­scribes a sim­i­lar so­cial-eco­log­i­cal sys­tem. Pro­tected ar­eas are but nom­i­nal; dol­phins and hu­mans even­tu­ally meet at the same spots for the same re­source—fish. As a re­sult, the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial forces that gov­ern hu­man use of this river sys­tem also de­ter­mine the in­tegrity of dol­phin habi­tats. These sys­tems ex­em­plify that bound­aries are some­times mere hu­man arte­facts, and ecol­ogy is gov­erned by dif­fer­ent rules.

Sea­sons, wet­lands and wildlife

On land, the cy­cle of sea­sons in the arid land­scapes of the Dec­can plateau en­twine no­madic herders’ lives with pas­toral re­sources in grass­lands, forests, and agri­cul­tural fal­lows. Space use is ro­tated be­tween crops, sheep, wolves and black­buck.The au­thors high­light the irony of wolves to­day be­ing sus­tained by live­stock. This con­tra­dic­tion un­der­scores a grim re­al­ity. Species like black­buck, the wolf ’s nat­u­ral prey, and other grass­land spe­cial­ists like chinkara and bustard are be­ing lost due to land use choices in a chang­ing econ­omy. Our for­est-fo­cused con­ser­va­tion pol­icy and our ob­ses­sion with the pris­tine have led to a ne­glect of wildlife and eco­log­i­cal pro­cesses in hu­man-dom­i­nated sys­tems.

K S Gopi Sun­dar’s es­say on the Sarus cranes in rice-wheat land­scapes of the Gangetic flood­plains not only un­der­scores the in­ex­orable hu­man dom­i­nance, but also shows how some species can ben­e­fit from it. The charis­matic two me­tre tall en­dan­gered crane lives in wet­lands, and thrives in the ar­ti­fi­cial wa­ter­bod­ies of these agri­cul­tural fields. Lo­cal tol­er­ance and tra­di­tional preser­va­tion of wet­lands has sup­ported their num­bers. But, land use prac­tices and farm­ers valu­ing wet­lands will be con­tin­gent on eco­nom­ics of these pro­duc­tion ar­eas. The au­thors ar­gue that do­ing away with con­ser­va­tion bound­aries may in­crease farm­ers’ mo­ti­va­tion to main­tain Sarus crane habi­tats.

Restora­tion, co­hab­i­ta­tion and con­flict

Hu­man-eco­log­i­cal de­pen­den­cies are less clear in land­scapes such as Val­parai in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu. Here, phys­i­cal bound­aries are stark—for­est and plan­ta­tion, roads and vil­lages.But an­i­mals will move and wildlife from sur­round­ing pro­tected ar­eas spill into this bowl of hu­man dom­i­nance. The chal­lenge in such places is to main­tain the larger land­scape so that bound­aries help and not hin­der the per­me­abil­ity of spa­ces for wildlife. Restor­ing de­graded and frag­mented forests and en­cour­ag­ing bio­di­ver­sity-friendly prac­tices in cof­fee and tea plan­ta­tions is a crit­i­cal part of this long-term ef­fort as de­scribed by Divya Mu­dappa, M Ananda Ku­mar and T R Shankar Ra­man.

Wan­der­ing wildlife also come into con­flict with hu­mans caus­ing loss of lives and prop­erty. Deal­ing with such con­flict is a crit­i­cal part of cre­at­ing re­silient land­scapes that can sus­tain both hu­man and wildlife needs. Yash Veer Bhat­na­gar and Charudutt Mishra high­light the im­por­tance of con­flict mit­i­ga­tion and their sim­ple yet ef­fec­tive com­mu­nity-based strate­gies for the suc­cess­ful con­ser­va­tion of Ti­betan wildlife. Keep­ing live­stock safely penned and pay­ing timely com­pen­sa­tion when Snow Leop­ards prey on live­stock are cru­cial to en­sure that lo­cal peo­ple re­tain a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to­wards wildlife.

Ecol­ogy in the city

As In­dia de­vel­ops, cities are wit­ness­ing the com­bined on­slaught of ru­ral mi­grants, mid­dle-class de­sire for up­ward mo­bil­ity, and the lux­ury liv­ing of the rich. In the process, nat­u­ral spa­ces like lakes and woodlands are be­ing lost to malls, high-rises, highways and air­ports. Or they be­come gi­ant garbage dumps. Harini Na­gen­dra, Ramesh Si­vara­man and S Subra­manya’s es­say on lake restora­tion in Ben­galuru is a telling tale of power and par­ity in ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. Lakes were com­mon prop­erty re­sources with their own so­cial-eco­log­i­cal history. Now they are tran­si­tion­ing to ne­glected state hold­ings, mar­ginal lands, or prime real es­tate, push­ing out those who de­pend on its eco­log­i­cal ser­vices.The citizen-led restora­tion of Kaikon­dana­halli lake re­veals the com­plex­i­ties of ne­go­ti­at­ing mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers and nav­i­gat­ing the maze of bu­reau­cracy to de­fine own­er­ship and en­sure pro­tec­tion of an ur­ban ecosys­tem. As crea­tures that cat­e­gorise and clas­sify, bound­aries and borders ap­peal to us. Pro­tected ar­eas and the laws that up­hold them will re­main para­mount for con­serv­ing na­ture. But, as our econ­omy grows and space be­comes even more tightly con­tested, we have to un­der­stand how an­i­mals and plants re­spond to the larger land­scape in which pro­tected ar­eas are em­bed­ded.

Learn­ing how bio­di­ver­sity will nav­i­gate hu­man spa­ces is the big­gest con­ser­va­tion chal­lenge. What kinds of species will man­age to cross into and live within hu­man-dom­i­nated ecosys­tems? What char­ac­ter­is­tics al­low them to sur­vive changes in their orig­i­nal habi­tats? How do com­mu­ni­ties—col­lec­tions of dif­fer­ent species within an eco­log­i­cal group such as trees or birds—change with hu­man in­flu­ence on habi­tats? How are eco­log­i­cal pro­cesses al­tered in hu­man-mod­i­fied land­scapes? Na­ture with­out Borders pro­vides a snap­shot of pos­si­bil­i­ties and ef­forts un­der way.

Learn­ing how bio­di­ver­sity will nav­i­gate hu­man species is the big­gest con­ser­va­tion chal­lenge

NA­TURE WITH­OUT BORDERS Edited by Ma­hesh Ran­gara­jan, M D Mad­husu­dan, Ghaz­ala Sha­habud­din

Ori­ent Black­swan Pvt Ltd | 280 pages | 595

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