Written by Divya Vasudev, photograph by Chaitanya Krishna

The most recent additions to the masses gathered in the shadow of Anna Hazare seem to be the tiger and his buddies. Recently, Hazare called out to the State Government of Maharashtra to cease illegal encroachment into forest lands. This may as well have been directed towards the rest of the Indian states as well as the centre: increasing limelight on forest clearances has exposed the eagerness of the department entrusted with protecting the forest, to facilitate projects that at best displace forests, and at worst cause serious threats to existence of already endangered species. Recent exposures on the working of the Forest Advisory Committee and the National Board of Wildlife by non-official members not only supports this fact, but also details the farce that has become the protection that we, as a country, are willing to extend to our natural heritage.

So how rife is corruption within forest officials? At some point, we are all willing to accept some amount of corruption, some level of hand-oiling, so long as the job on hand gets done. The question therefore becomes, is the job on hand, that is, protection of forests and their constituent wildlife, accomplished? Rama Lakshmi, writing for the Washington Post, on the green leanings of former Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh seems to indicate that the afore-mentioned Minister has, in fact, done such a commendable job as to put the brakes on development. In March this year, the media assuaged all apprehensions the public may have had about our national animal, the tiger. Their numbers have gone up; we have seemingly protected them from the rampant poaching that conservationist whistle-blowers had warned us about. Not so long ago, the then-Chief Wildlife Warden for the state of Assam spoke in a public forum of increasing elephant crop raids, which he interpreted as booming population sizes. Superficially then, we deserve a pat on the back for our efforts at protecting our natural treasures. So why are conservationists still up-in-arms screaming out doomsday predictions?

If we, as intelligent and interested citizens are willing to take a closer look at this apparently rosy picture, we might find cause for the conservationists’ concern. In two years, the Ministry of Environment and Forests have cleared nearly 1500 projects of unmeasured consequences on forest land. The government has set up the National Board for Wildlife and the Forest Advisory Council, two committees aimed at attaining knowledgeable and democratic decisions on projects involving forest land. However, the National Board for Wildlife is ignoring their mandate to protect the forests under their care, and doing so in the most undemocratic manner, according to conservationists and former non-official committee members Shekar Dattatri and Praveen Bhargav. Furthermore, rather than taking knowledgeable decisions, the Forest Advisory Council is posed with issues on which information is lacking, or when present, visibly unreliable, state Ullas Karanth, Amita Baviskar and Mahesh Rangarajan, eminent wildlife scientists and environmentalists. These committees then, are but serving as an eyewash to the public.

While we touted the reported 20% increase in tiger numbers between 2006 and 2010 (12%, removing regions that were not sampled in 2006), an important finding slinked by, which was a 22% decrease in areas tigers occupied. With declines in the lands that house tigers, increases in population numbers are but temporary respite. And what of other animals? A report on the status of the Asian elephant shows that, rather than the purported increase, their numbers may be declining, but estimates are too uncertain to say either way for sure. The close evolutionary link that gibbons share with humans has not saved them from their fate. Listed as one of 25 most endangered primate species in the world, the western hoolock gibbon is precariously hanging on in the last few evergreen forest patches that have not succumbed to the human footprint. When we are unable to save species we empathize with such as the tiger, elephant and the gibbon, what then could be the fate of other, less charismatic species? Herpetologists opine that we are soon to lose innumerable species of frogs, many without even knowing of their existence. The same is true of millions of herbs and plants, some of them contents of the ‘green’ cosmetic products we cocoon our body in. Stories and optimism aside then, the reality is that the government is failing miserably to do its job where forests are concerned.

What lies to gain? It is now common knowledge among the conservation world that trade in wildlife and constituent parts ranks third only to arms and drugs, a reality that somehow escapes the public. Timber and land are also extremely valuable, making logging and encroachments financially attractive. When the forest officials are ready to turn a blind eye within their forests, and security forces a blind eye at international borders, these illegal acts become all the more lucrative. In fact, cases have been filed against security personnel themselves for illegal felling of timber from forests under their watch. As long as corruption rather than salaries are the bread and butter of the supposed saviours of our forest, we need not expect any Superman acts. It is laudable that the ministry has promised to “make any course correction that is required” (as quoted by environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan to the Times of India) and that foresters “fully support long overdue systemic reform” in procedures (as quoted by V. K. Bhaguna to the Pioneer News). But when the ‘systemic reform’ is largely identified as unfilled job vacancies, and accusations of incompetency are defended by unreasonably lashing out at the ‘lack of expertise and professionalism’ of world-renowned scientists, the situation does not hold much promise. Tigers, frogs and gibbons will flock towards the India-against-corruption movement for that is their only hope for survival.

This is an edited version of the article originally published in The Hindu, Magazine section, Nov 5 2011, accessible at http://www.thehindu.com/arts/magazine/article2597659.ece