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A “Wild” Tale of Two Nations

Conference of the Parties by laura c carlson, mixed media on paper, 2019.

“The coronavirus pandemic has made abundantly clear that if life is to thrive on this Earth, human and nonhuman, we need cooperation at all scales—global, regional, binational, within a nation, interstate, and in our local communities. And we need to learn how to coexist with and have compassion for our nonhuman relatives—and acknowledge in the midst of this pandemic that bats are not our enemies.”

[Note: this is Part II of a two-part reflection on biodiversity crisis and conservation during this COVID-19 pandemic published by Species in Peril. Part I is “COVID-19 Lights Up Biological Annihilation.” We are encouraging and granting permission to re-post this article along with the original drawing, Conference of the Parties by artist laura c carlson. We only request that you acknowledge the publisher as Species in Peril and provide a link back to this page.]

India, February 2020: I was seeing large billboards all over Ahmedabad, Gujarat, with various messages announcing Trump’s upcoming visit to India that Modi was to host. “Two Dynamic Personalities” are coming together on “One Momentous Occasion” in the “Land of Mahatma Gandhi” to unite the “World’s Oldest Democracy” with the “World’s Largest Democracy” at the “World’s Biggest Cricket Stadium” to build “Stronger Friendship For a Brighter Future.” It wasn’t clear what kind of “brighter future” and for whom.

Trump, for his part, had told his supporters during a campaign rally in Colorado before his India visit that “10 million people” will be lining the streets of Ahmedabad to greet him on February 24 when he arrives. One national TV channel in India, however, pointed out that according to the last census, the total population of Ahmedabad was about 5.5 million. Modi, for his part, was busy building a “brick wall” in the city along the road on which Trump would travel—to “hide” India’s poor—from Trump’s view.

Modi and Trump were coming together to discuss and develop economic cooperation and trade relations between India and the United States.

As I traveled north towards Gandhinagar (about 15 miles from the Ahmedabad city center) I was welcomed by a different set of billboards. These announced a global biodiversity summit: the 13th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS COP13). The CMS operates under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme. The sprawling state-of-the-art Mahatma Mandir Convention and Exhibition Center in Gandhinagar hosted the CMS COP13 from February 17th through the 22nd.

Having worked in species conservation for two decades in the United States, where I live and work, I had come to Gandhinagar to learn more about species conservation in India, my country of birth, and compare and contrast the politics of conservation in these two nations—and its relation to global species conservation.

Bringing together India and the United States to think about biodiversity made sense because these two nations had established the first set of legal frameworks to protect nonhuman species. However, only one of those two gets the recognition in the U.S.

According to a legal scholar the United States became “a global front-runner in the protection of biodiversity by passing the Endangered Species Act, which has been a model for other species protection efforts around the world.” The analysis fails to mention what India had done in this regard, perhaps falling prey to the myth that U.S. is always #1 in everything and refusing to look elsewhere.

It is a “Wild” Tale of Two Nations instead.

In 1972, India established the “Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972” (WPA), and the following year, the United States established the “Endangered Species Act of 1973” (ESA).

It makes sense to assess nearly half a century later where India and the United States are on wildlife conservation as the biodiversity crisis continues to deepen.

Both nations rank high on biodiversity and also on the number of species that are in peril. India and U.S. are among the 17 countries that are identified as megadiverse. According to that assessment, 70% of the world’s flora and fauna exist in these 17 countries (in alphabetical order): Australia, Brazil, China, Columbia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, South Africa, United States, and Venezuela.

And on biodiversity crisis, India and U.S. are among the top 10 countries in terms of the number of species in peril. While the population of India is four times more and land area about three times less than the U.S.—being a tropical nation, India provides home to more than six times animal and plant species (about 136,000 species total) compared to the U.S. (about 21,715 species). And yet, in terms of the number of species in peril, according to the IUCN, the U.S. ranks #3 and India #9, with Ecuador and Madagascar taking the top two spots.

Despite the challenges of not only extreme poverty and high population but also rapid urban expansion and ever-increasing middle-class consumption—India appears to be doing a lot better than the United States on ensuring well-being of species.

How is this even possible?

The Gandhinagar migratory species convention presented a perfect opportunity for me to find some answers.

With the 2019 UN biodiversity assessment—that 1 million animal and plant species are facing extinction—as the impetus—a number of high-profile global summits on biodiversity were planned for this year. It all started with CMS COP13 in Gandhinagar, which successfully “kicked off” what has been called the “ super year” for biodiversity. The next big one on the list was the IUCN World Conservation Congress in France, and the concluding ones were going to be a UN Summit in New York and the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, where a new global biodiversity agreement (akin to the Paris Agreement on climate) was expected to be drafted and adopted. But due to the coronavirus pandemic those gatherings have already been postponed and will likely happen next year.

Isolation, Non-cooperation, Separation

The Gandhinagar gathering was “the largest ever in the history of the Convention” and was attended by 2,550 people representing eighty-two Parties and five non-Party countries, according to CMS. The United States was missing at the table as a nation because it is not a party to the CMS, which is the only United Nations treaty that addresses conservation of migratory species.

Presence of international media was also crucial to amplify the conversation. According to CMS over 100 members of both national and international media attended the Gandhinagar convention. However, no article on CMS COP13 has been published in the United States. By contrast, Trump’s visit to India was covered by many U.S. mainstream newspapers, including the New York Times, Guardian, and the Washington Post.

The United States as a nation, and its mainstream media as the vehicle for public communication—were missing at what we now know was both the “kick off” and the “concluding” global summit for this “super year” for biodiversity.

It is also important to mention here that United States is the only UN member state that is not a party to the larger Convention on Biological Diversity, and consequently does not have a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, unlike other nations like India.

And as I wrote in Part I (“COVID-19 Lights Up Biological Annihilation”) of this two-part reflection, that beyond missing at the table in the global scene of biodiversity conservation, Trump is also violating binational cooperation for species conservation in the northern- and southern- borderlands of the United States, with Canada and Mexico respectively.

And if you think about the U.S. national strategy of species conservation—it is grounded in “separation” and not coexisting with wild animals. This has been achieved by setting aside protected areas with a rather hard conceptual boundary between animals and humans, where the animals largely become a spectacle to be photographed or viewed through a binocular. Even though the Indigenous peoples of North America consider nonhuman animals as their relatives and have built complex multispecies relations and cosmology—almost none of that traditional ecological knowledge and practices ever percolated into a national biodiversity action plan.

The United States has isolated itself from the global community; is not cooperating with its own neighbors; and the national model of species conservation is grounded in separation. Once considered a pioneer of species conservation, the U.S. has not only fallen from grace but has become a black sheep, a disgraced member in the global collective and cooperative effort to mitigate biological annihilation—all due to its zealous protection of capitalism.

My assessment here is in no way meant to dishonor the ongoing important work that Indigenous peoples, scientists, conservationists, grassroots organizers (this writer included) and policy makers in the U.S. have been doing to mitigate the biodiversity crisis. What is lacking is any kind of a national vision or plan that would connect to the continental, hemispheric and the global efforts.

There appears to be a glimmer of hope with recent legislative proposals introduced by U.S. Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico and his colleagues in the U.S. Congress (which I reported in Part I of this two-part reflection).

Honoring the Overlooked, Ignoring the Stewards, and Specieswashing

Visual communication of global ecological crisis matters a lot. Early on, the climate crisis adopted the charismatic polar bear as a symbol of peril, which appeared, in 2006, on the cover of TIME magazine and in the Academy Award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth.

CMS COP13 adopted a different visual strategy to communicate the biodiversity crisis. The mascot for the convention was the Great Indian Bustard, abbreviated and affectionately called Gibi, literally standing in for “all the endangered species that need our love, care, and protection.” Even though Gibi was accorded the highest protection status under India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, there are apparently only 4 female Gibi left in Gujarat, 3 female birds in Andhra Pradesh, and less than 100 birds of both sexes in Rajasthan. The race to save the species from extinction is on.

It was wonderful to see that a critically endangered bird, the Great Indian Bustard, whose name sounds too close to a despicable person (it was once “a runner for the title of national bird” but apparently the name proved problematic at the time), or a Near Threatened mammal, Asiatic Wild Ass, whose name conjures an unruly and unpleasant human being—were among the species that were honored prominently with art, photographs and helpful natural history information on posters and/or on the tall pillars in the open courtyard of the convention center—and not merely the usual charismatic tigers and elephants that have both helped and plagued species conservation initiatives in India. The convention logo, featured alongside Gibi in the main poster, also did not include tigers and elephants. It was a beautiful circular design based on the traditional geometric Kolam art form of southern India and included whales, turtles and birds—connecting water, land and air. By featuring overlooked and underappreciated species, CMS COP13 pioneered a new path for visual communication of the global biodiversity crisis.

The manner in which CMS COP13 honored overlooked species brought to mind the “Life Overlooked” project of the Humanities for the Environment (HfE) global initiative, spearheaded by professor Joni Adamson and her colleagues from around the world. Life Overlooked is a compendium of portfolios with images and narratives created by “citizen humanists” who are well informed by scientific data and creatively examine overlooked and common backyard species.

“We cannot achieve conservation and wellbeing for people and planet unless we respect and value the rights of indigenous peoples,” Grethel Aguilar, the IUCN Director General wrote in a statement last year. “For centuries, indigenous peoples across the world have preserved much of Earth’s biodiversity.” Aguilar’s statement honors Indigenous peoples as stewards of biodiversity by explicitly referring back to a 2008 report which assessed that, “Traditional Indigenous Territories encompass up to 22 percent of the world’s land surface and they coincide with areas that hold 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.”

So, one would have expected that CMS COP13, which was deemed as the “kick-off” event for this “super year” for biodiversity—would not only include but foreground Indigenous voices. That did not happen.

“I’m here only because my state asked me to,” Bano Haralu, an award-winning journalist and Indigenous conservationist told me at the Gandhinagar convention. She lamented that the CMS COP13 organizers didn’t bother to invite many Indigenous peoples, community organizers and local NGOs, who have so much to contribute to this dialog.

There was only one panel in the entire conference where we heard from Indigenous voices. The speakers were bundled and rushed toward the end of the session and each speaker was given a maximum 5 minutes to present their work. But because of that panel I met such inspiring conservationists as ecologist Dr. Purnima Devi Barman from Assam who is working to protect the Greater adjutant stork, an endangered bird that apparently is not very charismatic, and journalist Bano Haralu from Nagaland whose pioneering grassroots work led to the protection of the migrating Amur falcons. That one panel made evident that Indigenous women are at the forefront of some of the species conservation initiatives in India, not unlike the Indigenous women conservationists in Arctic Alaska, including Sarah JamesRosemary AhtuangaruakBernadette Demientieff and Enei Begaye, to name a few.

I knew about corporate “greenwashing” but at CMS COP13 I witnessed something more specific. Inside the exhibit hall at the convention, booths of various Indian states and a few national and international conservation NGOs lined the outer edge, while much of the center of the hall, other than the India Pavilion, was largely given over to various prominent industries: oil and natural gas (ONGC), coal (Coal India Limited), industrial chemicals (Tata Chemicals), and large dams for thermal power (Sardar Sarovar Dam). It was embarrassing to see that the very industries that are responsible for contributing significantly to the escalation of the biodiversity crisis—were given so much prominence at a global biodiversity summit and so unabashedly. The booth for Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) was an exemplary spectacle of what I can only describe as “specieswashing.”

Compassion, Coexistence, Cooperation

Is there much wildlife still left in India given there are so many people and so much poverty over there? Variations of this question I encounter occasionally in the U.S.

It is indeed a miracle that India still has tigers, lions, elephants, rhinos and so many other charismatic and overlooked species. This was not meant to be.

In the late 18th century, the colonial British government offered special rewards in India for killing tigers, elephants, wild buffalo, and the Indian one-horned rhinoceros, with “larger rewards were given out for killing tigresses, and special prizes for finishing off cubs,” eminent historian Mahesh Rangarajan writes in India’s Wildlife History. Within a century the British government had assessed “the best method of exterminating wild animals” from India. Rangarajan also points out that the scale and speed of wildlife massacres executed by the British was unprecedented in India’s wildlife history.

But why such massacre?

It was imperative to rid India of dangerous beasts, to make the forests safe, so that trees and other biological life and mineral resources could be extracted without hazards for the accumulation of wealth and for advancing colonization in the name of civilization. Fortunately, the plan of extermination by the British, and later by India’s elites—did not work as intended.

According to IUCN, with only 2.4% of the world’s land area, India provides home to 7-8% of all recorded species on Earth. And a large part of Indian wildlife is in human dominated landscapes that surround protected areas. Living with large carnivores is something unthinkable in the western world. I learned how all that looks like on the ground when, last August, I visited the Sundarban and the Western Ghats in the middle of heavy monsoon rain, with my sister Sudakshina Sen, a passionate photographer of wildlife.

Monsoon came late last year but was in full swing with fury. Extreme flooding happened across the country that killed hundreds of people and displaced millions. Not only people but also tigers, elephants, and rhinos died. Images of charismatic wild animals trying not to die-from-drowning were circulating widely: an exhausted tiger is resting on a bed inside a shop; a bewildered male elephant standing on a rock in the middle of a raging river; eight exhausted rhinos resting on a small patch of elevated ground in the Kaziranga National Park. Beyond the “sure-shot imprint” of climate change, New Delhi-based wildlife journalist and conservationist Ananda Banerjee had offered another compelling explanation of the struggle the Kaziranga rhinos had to endure while trying to reach higher ground above the flood level: “once a smooth getaway for wild animals to the highlands, the animal corridors are now a cramped space with proliferating human habitations, hotels, illegal encroachments and tea estates.”

We made it to Sundarban, the largest mangrove delta in the world and home to the fabled Royal Bengal Tiger—mere hours by road from where I grew up in West Bengal. It is situated on the confluence of three great rivers, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna, on the Bay of Bengal spanning India and Bangladesh.

The inspiring and influential poacher-turned-conservationist Anil Mistry generously hosted us. Over the past two decades, Mistry has worked tirelessly to save the tiger and reduce the conflicts between tiger and his people. He has built an unlikely alliance between two adversaries: the federal and state authorities responsible for the protection of the Sundarban and its tigers, and the villagers who call Sundarban home and have built a complex relationship with the place and the tiger.

Mistry wanted me to see the place where the tiger and the people come to close proximity, the village of Shamsher Nagar. The yellow-nylon barrier to (presumably) keep the tiger in the forest, and people’s homes in the village—are separated by nothing more than a narrow canal, not really an effective barrier that can keep a tiger at bay. The battery-powered van-rickshaw driver who took us to the end of the canal spoke of the tiger with deep adoration. “Tiger is not the problem, we are, we encroach in their territory all the time,” he said with lament.

I consider Mistry’s work as an exemplary case of “long environmentalism.” His work addresses the difficult task of tiger conservation while also attending to the financial and cultural needs of the villagers.

We arrived at the Western Ghats, one of the 34 global biodiversity hotspots. The sinuous state highway SH-78 includes 40 hairpin bends as it rises up the Anamala Hills, or Elephant Mountains. To the east is Anamalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, and to the west is Parambikulum Tiger Reserve in Kerala. Large herds of elephant cross back-and-forth between these protected areas following their traditional migration routes. We stayed at a hotel inside the Injipara tea estate on top of the hill. Even though there are occasional human casualties (including one that happened about ten days before my sister and I arrived) from human-elephant encounter—no one is out to kill or confine the elephants. They are free to move anywhere, at any time and as they please.

The knowledgeable and helpful tea estate manager S. Arun told us that the entire tea estate including the adjoining human habitation is considered an extended habitat for the elephants (and other wildlife), known as “buffer zone.” Over a century of coexistence with elephants, people have figured out how to reduce human-animal deadly encounters by adopting various free or inexpensive early warning systems, like strong smell of elephant dung and urine, and most recently “SMS for elephants,” which Ananda Banerjee reported.

All along SH-78 there were also large signs of elephant crossings. We also saw a sign attached to a bicycle, an exemplary case of visual communication of species conservation from below. The sign includes an image of a male and female lion-tailed macaque, a primate endemic to the Western Ghats and is endangered. A few words written in both Tamil and English (GO SLOW – LION TAILED MONKEY CROSSING) accompanies the image—a plea for accommodation. It was raining hard; a fallen tree had blocked the road.

The sign on the bicycle in the Tamil Nadu / Kerala border in a buffer zone where wild animals and human cross paths on the Elephant Mountains between two tiger reserves—brings to mind the signs of animal crossings (Mexican Grey Wolf, Jaguar and Ocelot) in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands that Jemez Pueblo artist Jaque Fragua of New Mexico created for the exhibition Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande.

From the visits to the Sundarban and the Western Ghats, I learned what compassion for and coexisting with tigers and elephants and other animals look like.

At the conclusion of CMS COP13, ten migratory species were added to a “Global Wildlife Agreement,” which included the Asian Elephant, Jaguar and the Great Indian Bustard.

I had come to CMS COP13 with Ananda Banerjee. One morning, Ananda and I paid a visit to the House sparrow memorial in Ahmedabad (one of its kind in the world)—a cast concrete wall relief in two parts, one with an image of a house sparrow surrounded by foliage and flowers and the other with an inscription that reads: “During the 1974 Roti Ramkhan (Navnirman Movement) in Gujarat, on 02-03-1974, 5:25 pm, an innocent sparrow was killed here in reckless police firing.” The memorial was on a wall of an old building along a narrow alley with modest homes. That humble memorial also made-visible for me why there is still a lot of wildlife left in India: compassion for and coexistence with nonhuman relatives.

The third element on how wildlife conservation works in the Global South is—cooperation with your neighbors.

At the convention, there was a very informative panel, “Elephant Conservation beyond Borders,” where multiple neighboring nations, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, and India are cooperating to save the endangered Asian Elephant. What was striking is that this cooperation, in the case of Bangladesh, also requires building bridges between elephant conservation and the plight of the Rohingya refugees who were resituated on the migration route of elephants. The bringing together of wildlife conservation and human rights efforts was thoughtfully articulated by two panelists, Raquibul Amin of IUCN Bangladesh and Andrea Dekrout of CMS.

Grassroots Mobilization with Citizen Science

Citizen science, or public participation in scientific research is also an effective way to raise awareness about the biodiversity crisis and spark conservation efforts for mitigation.

Dr. Suhel Quader is a passionate advocate of citizen science and is an avid birdwatcher. He was trained in animal behavior and evolutionary ecology. At the convention, while showing a map of India with a thin white outline and the inside filled with small yellow dots, Suhel pointed out that collectively the yellow dots created the map profile and the white outline was only placed afterward—which meant to highlight the extensive citizen science participation and coverage across the country. “10 million observations” from India’s eBird platform contributed by 16,500 birdwatchers provided the essential data that led to a pioneering multi-institutional 50-page report, State of India’s Birds 2020, which is the “first comprehensive assessment of the distribution range, trends in abundance, and conservation status for most of the bird species that regularly occur in India.” It was released at the convention, and in which Suhel is a contributor.

What I find surprising is that no such equivalent comprehensive report (for the public) exists for the birds of the United States despite the fact that there are so many more birdwatchers in the U.S. compared to India. Not to mention that the most esteemed avian research center in the world is Cornel Lab of Ornithology, and there is more than a century of avian conservation done by the National Audubon Society and its state and local chapters.

Does anyone even care?

The essential message in the State of India’s Birds 2020 report is grim: while the populations of a handful of species like Indian Peafowl have increased over the past few years, 52% species have suffered population declines since 2000, with 22% declining strongly.

Not all news on the status of species in India is grim though. Grassroots community mobilizations from the bottom combined with policy initiatives at the top can lead to meaningful mitigation of the biodiversity crisis. India’s “Project Tiger,” which started the year after the Wildlife (Protection) Act was established, aimed to save the tiger from going extinct. It is the longest running and widely regarded as one of the most successful species conservation projects in the world. Last July, India posted a record 2,967 tigers, a steep 33% rise in four years, which is a welcome news in the midst of otherwise mass species die-offs and extinctions.

The Real Conference of the Parties

The gap day of CMS, I spent at the eco-resort Rann Riders, situated at the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK), which is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a mere 2-hr drive from the convention center. Where, wildlife biologist Aditya Roy, co-founder of Soar Excursions, guided us through the LRK.

I must admit I lost all sense of directions and felt like I was back in the Arctic tundra. The LRK looked barren, lifeless, except the shrubs—until one after another species began to reveal themselves slowly—Short-toed Snake Eagle, mother and foal Asiatic Wild Ass, Short-eared owl, Chestnut bellied Sandgrouse, … I began to appreciate the LRK as an ecological wonderland. In the surrounding wetlands, I saw hundreds of majestic demoiselle cranes, and dozens of dalmatian pelican, great white pelican, and greater flamingo—as the sun began to set. The attentive naturalist and author of Common Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, Ananda, compiled a checklist of the birds we saw in that one-day whirlwind tour: a modest fifty-two! Apparently, it would have been twice that number if we did some serious birding, Ananda noted.

“These no-name wetlands in the midst of where people live and graze their cows and goats keep the diversity of life and the animal-people stories alive in India,” Ananda reflected pointing toward what he called “the real Conference of the Parties”—the gathering of cranes, ducks, geese, shorebirds, pelicans, and flamingoes.

The coronavirus pandemic has made clear that if life is to thrive on this Earth, human and nonhuman, we need cooperation at all scales—global, regional, binational, within a nation, interstate, and in our local communities. And we need to learn how to coexist with and have compassion for our nonhuman relatives—and acknowledge in the midst of this pandemic that bats are not our enemies.

I’m obsessed with Trump’s claim of “10 million people”! I stare at it daily. Taking inspiration from what Suhel and his cohorts have done with “10 million observations” for India’s birds—imagine this now: 10 million people came together to save 1 million species that the UN says are facing extinction. 10 people, anywhere on Earth, on average, helping to save 1 species from going extinct. That’s not a hard bargain, is it?

This article first appeared on Species in Peril.

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Subhankar Banerjee is an artist, activist and public scholar. He was most recently cocurator (with Josie Lopez) of the exhibition Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande. Editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point  (Seven Stories Press, 2013), Subhankar is currently cowriting (with Ananda Banerjee, with drawings by laura c. carlson) a book on biological annihilation to be published by Seven Stories Press, and coediting (with T.J. Demos and Emily Eliza Scott) a book on contemporary art, visual culture and climate breakdown to be published by Routledge. He has spent two decades contributing to the multispecies justice campaigns to protect significant biological nurseries and human rights of the Indigenous peoples in Alaska’s Arctic. Subhankar is the Lannan Foundation Endowed Chair and a professor of Art & Ecology at the University of New Mexico.

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