Two steps back (on Overpopulation) -DAWN

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IF there’s any sphere of operations where the aphorism ‘One step forward, two steps back’ is visible, it is in the field of conservation.

Flora or fauna, Earth’s natural conditions and species come under threat overwhelmingly because of the growing numbers and expanding activities of humankind. We flourish, God’s other creations shrink. To provide them space, conservationists and activists do a praiseworthy job, often in situations that are not black and white — where neither Nature nor Man can be given absolute rights.

A case in point is a story from Islamabad, published recently in this paper, concerning the leopard population of the Margalla Hills. For years, the expanding geographical spread of the city and human footprint has meant that local fauna have had to adapt. Some, such as the monkey and boar populations, have learned to become almost intertwined with humans in a relationship that is not unlike that of remora.

The Margalla monkeys are now sadly addicted to the joys of potato-crisp packets and other unhealthy titbits flung for their consumption out of car windows. This has rendered them dangerous to the point that they have been known to try to attack vehicles. They also come down to forage in residential areas bordering the foothills.

The leopard population is again vulnerable.

The native wild boar population, similarly, has over the decades learned that there is ample food to be found where humans live. Through the year, travelling through the city’s greenbelt network that provides somewhat safe access to the settlements of E-7, F-7, F-6 etc, they come down in families, rooting through garbage dumpers and digging through plant-beds. After chaand raat in F-7’s Jinnah Market, for example, human revelry is followed late at night by wild boars.

The monkeys and boars may have learned to coexist. More reclusive animals such as the Margalla Hills leopards fare very badly and reach a point of nearly being wiped out.

Conservation efforts over recent years, though, in particular by organisations such as the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB), the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation and the Margalla Hills Wildlife Park management, have meant that the leopard population has started to become more robust. The numbers are growing, but that leads to its own problems.

As per the news item, the leopard population is again facing growing vulnerability because they are deliberately being poisoned. The growing clan has higher food requirements, and is therefore forced to prey on domesticated animals. Thus, to protect their livestock on which the livelihood/food requirements of many humans depend, locals are throwing down in the forest meat laced with poison.

The news item contained accounts from several villagers who have been thus affected. They claim that in the recent past, over a dozen animals have been preyed upon by the big cats, and ask that the authorities establish a compensation fund. For its part, the IWMB says that it has increased surveillance and started an awareness campaign, but there are no mechanisms for compensation to villagers against loss by the leopards’ hunting activities. Neither is there any provision in the law to impose fines on those who kill leopards — even if it were possible to identify the individuals.

But the situation doesn’t have to be so sad; in comparable cases, the wheel need not be invented anew. Before us lies the ready example of the conservation of snow leopards in the northern areas. The Islamabad-based NGO the Snow Leopard Foundation has for years very successfully been running the ‘livestock insurance’ programme. Recogni­sing that the loss of livestock is often the straw that (financially) breaks the camel’s back for these already impoverished communities, the programme mitigates damage by giving villagers access to compensation for animals lost through the local community managing an insurance pool operated at the village level.

The Snow Leopard Trust provides the funding for a strong financial base; participating herders contribute premiums for the animals they want to insure, and so, over time, the programme has become self-sustaining. Herders suffering a loss submit a claim and receive reimbursement, with the fund as well as the reimbursement process being managed by the local community. Participants in the fund sign a conservation agreement pledging to protect snow leopards and other wild-prey species, and communities also agree to leave more food for the snow leopards’ prey by setting aside graze-free areas; violators may no longer participate in the insurance programme. A small annual bonus is paid out to the participant that loses the fewest animals due to predation, creating financial incentive to herders to stay vigilant and put livestock protective measures in place.

This model has for a while been working well in the north. The Margalla wildlife protection authorities would do well to take a hint.