Biodiversity Conservation Projects in India

The UNDP/GEF Small Grants Programme is currently being implemented in over forty countries. The apex body which has the over all responsibility for sanction of projects is the National Selection Committee (NSC) constituted by the Government of India. The NSC Members comprise Government Officials, UNDP (the implementing agency in India) and representatives from NGOs. A National Coordinator looks after the activities of the SGP in India. Development Alternatives was the National Host Institution and has housed the National Coordinator supported by a small secretariat, since the inception of the programme in 1995, till recently. The first phase of the GEF SGP was setup with an initial outlay of approximately US $ 300,000 to provide funding assistance to projects to be implemented by NGOs. Projects included in the Pilot Phase (1996-98) focused on Biodiversity Conservation and Climate Change Mitigation. Three of the projects are briefly described below as samples of projects undertaken for Biodiversity Conservation.

The project titled "Protection of the Olive Ridley Sea Turtles by the Use of the Turtle Excluder Device (TED) of the Orissa Sea Coast" was implemented by an NGO called Project Swarajya located at Cuttack in Orissa. The sea turtles, often called the living fossils, have wandered around the oceans of the world for more than 150 million years without undergoing any significant morphological or physiological change. There are seven existing species of sea turtles in the world today including the Olive Ridley, Green Hawksbill, Leatherback, Flatback, Kemp’s Ridley and Loggerhead. The sea turtles migrate from ocean to ocean and seem to have no particular habitat of their own except that the pregnant female turtle instinctively returns to the same beach year after year for laying its eggs as if equipped with an accurate radar to guide its breeding habits. The other peculiarity about this living fossil, which feeds basically at the bottom of the ocean, is that it breathes air and must periodically come to the surface of the ocean to replenish its supply of oxygen. These two features make the sea turtle highly vulnerable from being drowned in trawler nets or killed by predators including man while laying its eggs in the coastal sands. Altogether, five out of the seven species of sea turtles are found in the oceans of the Indian sub-continent, the Olive Ridley being the most populous amongst them. As is well-known, the Gahirmatha Beach on the coast of Orissa, along the Bay of Bengal, is by far the largest site for Olive Ridley turtles to lay eggs. Thousands of them turn up at night during December to February every year and lay eggs enmasse at Gahirmatha Beach. This arribada (Spanish word for mass nesting) of Olive Ridley is an amazing natural phenomenon. Not only, Gahirmatha but the entire coastal stretch of Orissa is endowed with numerous big and small estuarine eco-systems providing ideal mating, nesting and hatching grounds for the Olive Ridley sea turtles. This amphibian nature requiring Olive Ridley to come to the surface to breathe and to its natal beach for laying eggs once a year, is the cause for its vulnerability resulting in it being declared as an endangered species under the Indian Wildlife Act of 1972. One and a half decades of mechanised trawling and gill netting have killed more Olive Ridley sea turtles than centuries of fishing by traditional methods. The problem has been compounded by widespread collection of the eggs laid on the coast for human consumption.

In the mid-‘70s in the US a simple gadget originally called "Trawling Efficiency Device" was designed which when fitted into the trawl nets, allowed unwarranted objects like sharks, dolphins, turtles or even inorganic trash to escape while still harvesting the shrimp. The turtle excluder device, as it is now called, is a simple grid like structure made of steel, aluminum or even iron having inter-spaced bars and a flap made of net attached to it, thereby creating an exit hole for the turtle and other undesirable objects to escape while allowing fishes, especially shrimp, to pass through between the bars into the bag of the trawl net. While several models and prototypes of TED have evolved over the years, six of them are now prescribed for use in different coasts of the world. Georgia Jumper is one of the simplest of the hard TEDs suitable for most of the coasts of the world including the Orissa Coast. Admittedly, the use of TED results in a loss of fish catch by 10-15%. In view of this, the natural reluctance of trawl operators to use this device requires counteraction by extensive environmental education to convince them to use this device and prevent the extinction of the species. The project holder, a grassroots NGO, successfully transferred the technology of TED from the National Marine Fishery Services, Government of USA, to the local artisans and net binders of the Orissa Coast. The project also involved enhancing public awareness about the actual operation of TED in sea fishing and also lobbying for enactment of laws, both at the Central and State level, to make it mandatory to use TED in mechanised fishing. Although, this has yet to happen what has happened is the notification of the Gahirmatha Turtle rookery and its adjacent areas as a Marine Turtle Sanctuary.

The project on "Distribution, Behavior and Conservation of the Endangered Gangetic Dolphin, Platanista gangetica Roxburgh (Mammalia: Cetacea) was implemented from 1996-98 in the National Chambal River Conservancy, Kota (280 square kilometers) – a biographical area under the conservancy management of the forest department of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan States. This project was implemented by the District Development Society, Ajmer, a registered non-profit society of Rajasthan. The fact that the gangetic dolphin faces extinction resulted in the generation of the project which had been initiated to study the distribution pattern, behaviour and reproductive ecology specially in the context of formulating recommendations for sustainable management of the wetland river eco-system which forms the habitat for the species. Systematic extensive, intensive and exhaustive repeated field surveys of the eco-system divided in six zones was conducted from boats, motor boats and on foot to assess the relative abundance of dolphin populations, their nature of distribution, morphology, behaviour and reproductive ecology.

Extensive surveys, on foot, by boat and motor boats were made in the National Chambal River Sanctuary Area. Water samples collected from different points were analysed to study the water characteristics and its suitability for supporting the endangered dolphin. It was observed that the regular flow of the Chambal river had been checked by three dams, the Gandhi Sagar (Madhya Pradesh), Ranapratap Sagar (Rajasthan), Jawahar Sagar (Rajasthan) and Kota Barrage (Rajasthan), in the upper reaches of the Chambal river and was significantly influencing the water flow in the study area. This was the major cause of shrinkage of dolphin habitat. Population declines were attributed primarily to habitat degradation. It was also observed that around 58 mgd (approximate) of sewage and industrial waste from the Kota City found its way into the Chambal river through 25 nalas (drains) in a stretch of about 15 kilometers. The sewage and industrial waste significantly effected the physical and chemical characteristics of the Chambal river with adverse impacts on the river fauna.

Apparently, the construction of the dams and barrage for irrigation and hydro electric power generation, thermal power plants in the vicinity, untreated sewage inflow etc. had reduced not only the dolphin population but affected the habitat to such an extent that the dolphin populations now exist in small and isolated portions of the Chambal river. Use of pesticides and fertilizers were also adding to the pollution of the Chambal river. Quarrying for building stone on the Banks of the Chambal river was the primary cause of severe erosion. This was further aggravate by the mining of the Chambal river bed for stones and gravel. The disappearance of dolphins from certain stretches of the river was attributed to the above factors and the need to avoid shallow depths and/or move to other areas where dolphin populations existed for finding breeding mates. Seasonal local migrations were also noticed. The dolphins did not stay permanently at a particular place as they move about the river in search of fish which resulted in fluctuation of their numbers at different points. The project findings resulted in the formulation of the recommendation to upgrade the sanctuary into a National Park and enforce prohibition on catching of dolphins more effectively. It was also recommended that stringent measures be taken to reduce industrial pollution, water diversion, dam construction, over fishing etc. which were the major factors contributing to the decline of the gangetic dolphin populations in the Chambal river.

The project on "People’s Participatory Approach for the Conservation of Wildlife Corridors - Studies in the Sujalkuttai - Bannari Corridor (Periyar Dt., Tamil Nadu) in the "Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Southern India" was implemented between 1996-98 in six villages neighbouring the Sujalkuttai-Bannari Corridor in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR). The overall, goal of the project was to demonstrate the application of People’s Participatory Approach in the management of forests, small in extent, but critical to conservation at a regional scale. The Immediate Objective of the project was to reduce the impact of anthropogenic pressure on wildlife corridors in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve through People’s Participatory Approach. The project was implemented by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Six villages neighbouring the Sujalkuttai - Bannari Corridor in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve formed the target community for reducing anthropogenic pressures on the wildlife corridors.

As part of the project activities a transect of the corridor was carried out and data collected from 60 target wood cutters on the merits and demerits of the proposed alternative livelihood schemes, other assistance needed by the wood cutters, options for various forestry works etc. The District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) was mobilised to provide three drinking water borewells in the villages namely, Sujalkuttai, Pungar and Peerkadavu. The target community was also mobilised to implement afforestation activities promoted by the forest department through collection of seeds from dung piles of elephants. The alternative livelihoods promoted included animal husbandry, agriculture and working on the forest department's conservation schemes. These activities have significantly converted the "forest destroyers" into "forest protectors" and 80% of the wood cutters have abandoned their previous livelihoods for alternative professions and thereby significantly reduced the anthropogenic pressures on the forest corridor. While it is too early to conclude precisely the success of this strategic approach to prevent deforestation and thereby contribute to the survival, especially of elephants, it definitely is a promising innovative methodology for weaning away anthropogenic pressures on wildlife habitats.  q

Alok Guha

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