In India, funding for wildlife and nature conservation has been driven largely by public money. Now, a new model of conservation on public land using private funding is being promoted by the government. Funds are being solicited from private and government business establishments to manage certain species and their habitats. At present, few such small-scale experiments exist and most are on private land.
The Central government had initially constituted the programme, “Assistance for Development of National Parks and Sanctuaries”, to support activities within protected areas (PAs). Later, in 2009, this was extended to back wildlife conservation efforts outside PAs and the scheme was rechristened as the “Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats (IDWH)”. This was considered necessary as some wildlife species such as the sarus crane, the endangered snow leopard and the grey wolf are predominantly found outside PAs, while others like the leopard and the sloth bear are found in significant numbers outside such areas. Similarly, some of the habitats in which these species survive, such as grasslands, river systems and lakes, are situated largely within human-dominated landscapes. The goal of the IDWH is to recover critically endangered species and habitats outside PAs and areas of high biodiversity value as well as to protect corridors and areas adjoining PAs. Thus, for over a decade and a half, the Centre has supported various conservation activities outside PAs.
IDWH funds have, so far, been spent mostly on habitat-improvement activities and in developing measures to reduce human-wildlife conflict. A scientific, ecological assessment of these activities is the need of the hour as spending has, at times, been unfavourable to the species or habitats that it was intended to conserve. For instance, the conversion of grasslands to plantations or the development of water resources in areas that are inhabited by species that are facultative drinkers, such as the chinkara or the blackbuck, are not in tune with the ecological needs of the species.
The initial response to the current call for funding the IDWH seems to be from public-sector businesses — there has been little or no response from private business houses. In India, corporate social responsibility spending is usually channelled towards health and education initiatives. Large-scale wildlife conservation in partnership with the government has not yet been attempted. Some states, like Karnataka, have tried to raise funds for specific activities from corporations but have had limited success. This is the first time that requests for comprehensive funding for species-specific conservation have been initiated.
Though this model is a first for India, it is prevalent in other parts of the world. Conservation projects run privately (by individuals, foundations or corporations) and by civil society on both public and private lands exist in some countries. Conservation organisations and foundations as well as interested individuals have bought land for wildlife conservation in Latin America, North America and Africa. In some instances, thousands of hectares of such privately held conservation land have been donated to the government to be declared as PAs. Some of these philanthropic initiatives even include the development of land for a variety of uses such as socially beneficial agricultural restoration, organic farming and nature-based recreation. They include the development of public-access infrastructure to provide immediate benefits to society.
In South Africa, many areas which hold large mammals such as elephants, lions and hippos have been declared private reserves. Some of them are so large that they surpass some of our medium-sized PAs, such as Ranthambore and Nagarahole National Park in area. Several of these private reserves are contiguous with other larger PAs, such as the Kruger National Park. They are not separated by physical barriers like fences or moats, allowing wildlife to move freely between government and privately owned PAs.
The current proposal includes addressing species-specific conservation issues through a landscape approach, capacity building, research and other activities. As an important part of this initiative, corporations should insist on frontline staff (including temporary personnel) welfare, since they have been a neglected group in wildlife conservation in India.
It will also be important to ensure that certain broad, but critical, safeguards are in place in this funding process. In order to avoid any distrust or suspicion, it should be ensured that there are no conflicts of interest between funding agencies and the species and habitats that their funds support. There should be no compromise in giving wildlife, forest and/ or environmental clearances, if and when any of the supporting agencies need them for the areas they support or elsewhere in the country.
Public resources for wildlife conservation, particularly on public lands, should continue to be a priority for the government, just like public health or primary education. These sectors cannot demonstrate immediate, direct economic benefits — as in the case of commercially extractive industries — but have large-scale intangible benefits for society. Private funding could be a supporting mechanism, but a gradual, conservative approach is warranted. Scientifically evaluated ecological and social impacts should be the firm basis for its expansion.
The writer is a Bangalore-based wildlife biologist