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Sustainable forestry and wildlife conservation towards maintaining ecological balance

Each forest of the world has its own charisma, something very unique to itself. And this is not with respect only to its physical characteristics, but in terms of the very soul of it. The sounds, smells, whisper and the air of each forest is different. So is true for its residents. Robert Louis Stevenson had aptly remarked that “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” The eternal relation between humankind and trees need no introduction. But unfortunately, the forest cover of the world is declining every day, thanks to technology advancements, urbanization, increased mining and agriculture. And if mankind continues to be fascinated by modern technology to the extent that surrendering the future generations’ wellbeing becomes immaterial, it is not difficult to imagine that forests will vanish some day. Environmentalists today are increasingly concerned about the Climate Change – the increase of Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Out of various reasons attributable to this deadly phenomenon, deforestation is one, and this, few of us know. In fact, a fifth of the greenhouses gases results from deforestation, more than that caused by automobile pollution all over the world. Doesn’t this sound really alarming? Many decades back, Mahatma Gandhi had said “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” Nobody could have possibly put this concern in a better phrase. Those who have spent childhood or at least a major period of life in the vicinity of forests can tell you that forests are not gloomy or fear provoking. Rather it is the city that looks naked – ugly because shades of green are absent. The Global Concern Since forests constitute an integral part of sustainable development, the role of forests is gaining importance in international conventions on biodiversity and climate change. Increased attention is also being paid to sustainable forest development in international trade of forest products. In some parts of the world there is increased preference amongst consumers for buying products obtained from sustainably managed forests and manufactured by environmentally acceptable processes. Conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests worldwide have now emerged as priority items on the international policy agenda, particularly in the context of the United Nations Conference in Rio, first held in June 1992, followed by Rio+10 at Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002 and Rio+20 again held at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 2012. Policy-makers at the national and international level are concerned about reconciling the role of forests in meeting national socio-economic and environmental objectives as well as the global environmental and socio-economic interests of the community of nations. Failure of Five Year Plan targets in India As per India State of Forest Report 2001, 20.6% of the total land area in India was under forest cover and another 2.5% of land in the country was under tree cover. This amounted to a total of 23% of the total land area of the country out of which about 61.7% was categorized as dense forests. The Tenth Five Year Plan had proposed raising the forest and tree cover to 25% by 2007 and to 33% by 2012. This implied bringing additional area under forest and tree cover by afforestation and tree plantation. It called for joint efforts for maintenance and expansion. However, the target miserably failed. The India State of Forest Report 2011, revealed that forests and tree cover as in 2011 was only about 23.81% of the country’s geographical area. The main reasons attributable to this failure, as per the report, were prevalence of shifting cultivation practiced in the forests of North East India, illegal timber trade and smuggling and rapid urbanisation. Sustainable Forestry Management and its stakeholders Innumerable attempts at Sustainable Forestry Management around the world have failed because adequate attention was not paid to the various stakeholders involved and their particular interest. The local populace dwelling in the forests, local farmers, the private sector deriving benefit out of forests and the government departments, national and international policy makers and planners are the stakeholders in sustainable forestry management. Proper management calls for a cooperation in sharing the burdens and benefits. The stakeholders are those who have a stake in the exploitation and management of the forest resource. Each stakeholder is expected to have different but conflicting interest regarding the usage and management of forest resources and these differences may be vital. Exploitation or conservation initiatives imply that some stakeholder stand to lose while some stand to gain. It is the failure to identify this conflict in interest of the different stakeholders that has often led to local resistance to government policies and development initiatives. In effect, these fail to meet their desired objectives. However, despite the various conflicts at different levels, countries should be more proactive to promote sustainable development. As for instance, the local forest dwellers mostly rely on wood fuel for their cooking needs. Hence, for subsistence, they need to cut trees. The introduction of solar cookers among these dwellers would go a long way towards reducing deforestation. In addition to these usage of solar lighting among the forest communities, that do not have access to grid power, is expected to answer their inherent developmental needs. Man-made disasters For maintaining the ecological balance, it is very important to identify the associated evils which need to be uprooted or converted into sustainable practices in a phased manner. Government regulations are essential to this effect, but so are individual initiatives. As long as each individual is not aware of his / her own contribution to ecological instability and climate change, so to say ‘Damage Per Person’ (DPP), it is difficult to curb the evils and move towards sustainable development. Some of the man-made disasters contributing to damage to ecology are discussed hereunder. Suggestions to improve them and remove the harmful effects are also provided. Urbanisation Perhaps there cannot be a bigger evil than urban development stretching beyond limits and trespassing into the areas reserved for forests. The increase of population and improvement in the standard of living of people are both pushing the urban boundaries. With increase in urban cover, forest cover is diminishing. While development is essential for meeting human needs and for progress of humankind, sustainable development is essential for long term gain. To reap the benefits of sustainable development, therefore, there has to be a trade-off between development and forest conservation so that forest can contribute meaningfully to sustainable development in the country. Putting this trade-off between development and forest conservation and management in proper perspective will lead us to the emergence of stakeholder participation in ecologically sound development strategy, which should emphasize harmonization of economic, social and environment concern in the process of development. Forest Tourism The flora and fauna of the wilderness beckon us and we often seek refuge under the starry sky. While forests and wilderness in Africa are treasure troves of wildlife, India is also blessed with diverse geography and climate and consequently a varied range of flora and fauna. It offers a diverse platter of sights and wildlife experience for enthusiasts. While animals, birds and reptiles can be protected under the care of experts in zoos, there is no substitute for protecting them in their natural habitat. The 550 National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Reserves in India are home to an incredible number of fauna varieties, some of which are endangered while some are to be found only in this country. These protected areas of India abound in more than 350 species of mammals, 2100 varieties of birds, 350 varieties of reptiles and countless species of insects. This goes to make India an ideal location for viewing wildlife as well. However there are pros and cons. Revenues generated through wildlife tourism can be effectively utilized for the betterment and protection of wildlife. But by mindless and careless tourism, we stand the chances of endangering the wildlife. Forests often suffer the negative impacts of tourism in the form of deforestation caused by fuel wood collection and land clearing by trekkers. Throwing of garbage is another evil and so is the enhanced pressure on endangered species and increased chances of forest fires. Excessive tourist activity may also result in degradation of the ecosystems of forests. Over-commercialised wildlife viewing programmes have been proved to bring about stress to the animals to the extent that they alter their natural behavior when tourists come too close. Safaris are invariably accompanied by noise created by over-excited tourists chasing wild animals with their cameras. This puts a lot of pressure on animal habits and degradation of their natural habitat. The present day urban dwellers, in an attempt to survive today’s growing competition and meet the ever increasing demands for commitment, often fulfill their passion by switching on the television and remaining glued to wildlife channels like Discovery, Animal Planet and National Geographic. And then, when you get the much awaited holiday, but naturally you opt for the wilderness, the irresistible urge almost invariably gets the better of you and you escape. For majority of us, the call of the wild is almost impossible to resist. Visiting the forest areas opens up a whole new world to city dwellers, giving them the chance to unravel the wildlife treasures, be closer to nature and breathe fresh air. So long as the eternal desire of mankind to explore the natural habitats of animals does not result in damage or destruction of their habitat or threatening the existence of endangered species, so long as humankind shoots the animals with camera and not with guns, and so long as all other associated activities are sustainable and harmless, there is absolutely no harm in wildlife tourism. In that manner we can also avoid a number of other associated evils. For tourists, travelling is a chance to broaden the mind, explore the world, meet new people and see the unseen. In order that we continue to get the chances to, a sustainable practice is the need of the hour. As a part of initiative towards sustainable forest tourism, to ensure that vehicles entering forests do not disturb the peace there, the introduction of battery-driven electric vehicles (BEV) may be considered. The number of safari elephants may be increased so that they are not forced to work against their will. And strict actions need to be taken against the hoteliers encroaching on the forest land. Poaching for monetary gains The forest cover of the world has been shrinking over the centuries. This also has an impact on the population of animals worldwide. Existence of animals is vital for maintaining proper ecological balance. Poaching is another evil that has been continuously on the rise. It is the illegal hunting, killing or capturing of animals in order to get animal products like hides, furs, horn, teeth, ivory and bone. These are illegally traded for handsome amounts of money and in turn are used in the making of attires, fashion accessories, home décor and medicines. Despite the conscious efforts by the government, the continuous poaching of animals for monetary gains has been quite alarming. The list of endangered animals over the years has been expanding. The 2012 Red List updated at Rio+20 Earth Summit lists 132 species of plants, birds and animals in India including the Asiatic lion, Indian elephant and Royal Bengal Tiger as endangered and a few more including leopards and black bucks as threatened. It is saddening that so many species of animals have already become extinct from the face of the earth. However the silver lining is that the awareness for the world’s forests has been increasing over the last decade or so due to the combined efforts of animal rights activists and environmentalists. The positive awareness has also been augmented due to the role of forests in the global carbon cycle and their capability of mitigating the climate change. But individual enlightenment and conscious efforts towards animal conservation is also very important to stop the evils of poaching. Conclusion Forests are abundant renewable natural resources that bring to mankind a variety of economic, social, environmental and cultural benefits and services. The global demand for their products and services is ever increasing with the growth of population. Unfortunately, the growth of forest resources has not been impressive mainly due to deforestation, conversion into other landforms, overharvesting, some traditional types of cultivation like Jhum and degradation resulting from air, water and soil pollution. Forests are also often exposed to evils like forest fires which have devastating effect on the ecosystems. These not only adversely affect the climatic stability, they also contribute to excruciating poverty because forests are home to about 60 million people of the world and they depend upon them for their life and subsistence. They live on and derive their survival needs from a variety of forest products like fruits, vegetables, oils, roots, spices, herbs, meat, bark and clothing material like animal fur and skins, building materials, gums, dyes and medicinal plants. Needless to mention forests promote sustainable development and also help to stabilize greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere. Forestry leads to sustainable development in numerous ways. Of these the most important are environmental, social and economic benefits arising from forests. To maximise these benefits broader land management plans are required. For city dwellers an escape from the monotonicity of routine city life is essential from time to time. But this many of us eager tourists fail to keep in mind while traversing their lands. Consequently, a necessary evil that has come to be associated with the tourism industry is the rapid destruction of the fragile ecosystems due to overuse, degradation of forests due to their trampling under the feet of ill-concerned tourists and pollution of scenic location due to throwing of garbage by vacationers. The increasing intensity of such unsustainable tourism has led the authorities in many countries to rethink the overall efficiency of tourism industry as the economic benefits arising out of it seem to be grossly outweighed by environmental degradation and cultural destruction. Indian forests are treasure troves of wildlife and there should absolutely be no problem in people wishing to visit those to see their wild friends in their natural habitat. All that is required is proper care and appropriate regulations in place. The government of India has been taking necessary steps for the conservation of forests and preservation of the critically endangered wildlife species. To help make its efforts successful, initiative is also required from the citizens. Our ancestors have seen much more of forests than us. For decades we have been constantly told that forests are to be conserved if we want to give the gift of a good future to our children. It is one of those important investments one would like to make for the coming generations. There has perhaps never been a time as important as the present. So, if any steps are to be taken, NOW is the time!

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