By MANEKA GANDHI
District Forest Officers and rangers are not trained in ecology. Ecology means the interrelationship of all things – what happens to the whole when one part is affected. They don’t know about plants or animals. In fact, this entire service should be disbanded because all they do is an illiterate kind of policing. And for the most part they don’t do that either. Many of them are the fences that eat the grass: they use their positions to cut trees illegally and many are involved with animal killing mafias.
All the bureaucrats of the forest department are generalists: one day they are secretaries of steel and another they head the forest and wildlife department. The Chief Wildlife Wardens come by attrition to their jobs. One of them has just suggested that we take all the tigers out of the forest and put them into zoos. Another had all the wild boars in Chandrapur shot and then took out killing warrants against the hungry tigers. Yet, another has recommended that all the fallen trees of the forest be removed manually. All of them agree that the forest floor should be burnt annually “to prevent further burning”. The ones in Kerala and Tamil Nadu see nothing wrong in a Schedule One animal like the elephant being beaten to death by the temples. The teachers in the so-called forest and wildlife institutes are chosen from these worthies and so they teach what they know – nothing. The number of animals killed by this service would probably be equal to the damage that poachers do. Unfortunately, since most of the forest ministers are joyously self-proclaimed illiterates in this field, they bring nothing to the table except more misery – simply rubber stamping the diversion of huge tracts of forest for unnecessary and outdated technologies like dams. I have yet to meet a minister who even understands what an elephant corridor is. In fact, the “most loyal” politician is usually made the forest minister – because he puts up no resistance to any “development” project, like a cement factory or a five star hotel, in the heart of the forest. To all of them, a natural forest can easily be replaced by mono cultural plantation, and the animals in the forest can be replaced by a zoo.
The day the rain controls us – in either its fury, as in Kolkata, or in stopping totally, is the day we will realise that we needed a specialist service. But by then it will be too late.
The favourite targets of these politicians, bureaucrats and forest service “timepassers” are wild boar, nilgai and rhesus monkeys. So, let me tell you what will happen if you remove all three.
The single most important animal to the forest is the wild boar. He is a major seed and fungi spreader and, through his constant rooting, he increases the forest and provides biodiversity. He reduces insect pests and carrion. He is the only species that eats the large fern, called bracken, which otherwise would not allow seeds to come up. All the studies on the impact of wild boar on the ecosystem (soil, water, plants, fungi and fauna) show that the species has very high ecological importance and significantly contributes to the characteristics, as well as development, of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. He is a major food source for large carnivores. All these benefits are overlooked, and the wild boar is treated as a pest species for no reason except that farmers want to kill and eat wild pork. When all the wild boars have been hunted down, the forest and all the large cats in it will disappear. It is time for someone sensible in the forest hierarchy to objectively evaluate the importance of this animal.
Nilgai is the largest Asian antelope, found all the way from the Himalayas to the state of Karnataka in the south. Nilgai eats grass, leaves, flowers and fruits, surviving long periods without water. They are mixed feeders, even eating the woody plants in the dry tropical forests of India. The nilgai can tolerate interference by livestock, and degradation of vegetation in its habitat, better than deer possibly because they can reach high branches and do not depend on surface vegetation.
When a species becomes threatened or extinct, this removes a check and balance in the food chain. If Nilgais are removed, the area of grassland, on which they graze, will increase hugely. A 1994 study drew attention to the ecological value provided by the Nilgai in ravines lining the Yamuna River. In summer, the faeces of the antelope contains nearly 1.6 percent nitrogen, enhancing the quality of the soil to a depth of 30 centimetres. Seeds in their droppings germinate easily and assist in afforestation.
States like Himachal Pradesh are extremely brutal in their treatment of monkeys and have, in fact, killed thousands in the last ten years. Monkeys are prey, predator, and mutualist species in food webs, and influence ecosystem structure, function, and resilience. Their evolution, feeding ecology, and geographic distribution are closely linked to the diversification of flowering plants, herbaceous plants, shrubs, grasses, and most trees, a principal source of food for many animals and humans. Monkeys are highly frugivorous, and their relatively large size enables them to disperse small and large seeds over long distances, enhancing forest regeneration. In the absence of their seed dispersal, plant populations and their genetic heterozygosity will decrease. For example, Madagascar lemur’s gradual extinction is causing certain Malagasy tree species to disappear. The population collapse in the heavily hunted forests of Amazonia has severely degraded forest dynamics and the sustainability of many hardwood tree species, with implications for their carbon-storing potential. Similarly, the hunting of gibbons in northern Thailand has had a negative effect on the demography of the lapsi tree which depends on them to disperse its seeds. The loss of primate seed dispersers has demonstrable impacts on human populations. For example, 48% of the plants whose seeds are dispersed by primates in the western regions of Côte d’Ivoire and 42% in Uganda have economic utility to local human inhabitants. In southern Nigeria, rural people rely on gathering primate-dispersed fruit and seed species.
In a study published in February in the journal Oryx researchers found that many tree and plant species in the Congo rely exclusively on monkeys for seed dispersal. In the LuiKotale forest, where the study was conducted, 18 plant species were completely unable to reproduce if their seeds did not first travel through a monkey’s guts. According to the paper, if the monkey disappeared, the plants would also likely go extinct.
The research, by biologist David Beaune of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, found that monkeys eat for about 3.5 hours every day and travel a mean of 1.2 kilometres from meal sites before defecating and depositing the seeds that have passed through their systems. The monkey has two major functions here. First of all, many seeds will not germinate well unless they have been “handled” (as scientists call it) by another species. Stomach acids and intestinal processes weaken a seed’s tough external coating, making it more able to absorb water and later sprout.
Secondly, many seeds won’t succeed if they remain too close to their parental trees. Beaune found that the seeds that fell to the ground near their parents either did not germinate, or the seedlings did not survive. According to Beaune, no other species in LuiKotale have travel patterns sufficient to serve the same dispersal service as monkeys.
Unfortunately, monkeys face a constant threat of poaching and official killing. If the monkey disappears from any of its habitats this will create a cascading extinction cycle. Not only will the trees disappear, but so will many of the other species that rely on the trees for food or shelter. It’s a condition known as “empty forest syndrome”—the forest itself may still exist, but its biodiversity levels will crash, leaving it a pale shadow of its former self. There are so many forests like that in India – Brindavan, for example, in which the monkeys have disappeared and so has all other life.
(To join the animal welfare movement contact firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)