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UNESCO World Heritage Biodiversity Programme : Sundarbans

Background Note

Conservation and a reverence for all life is part of India’s cultural and religious legacy.
Hence, the country takes special pride in celebrating its successes in wildlife conservation
and environmental protection. India has demonstrated the feasibility of large mammal
conservation in a land of more than one billion people. It is home to Asia’s largest
populations of the elephant, rhinoceros and the tiger. Indian environmental activism
protected a tropical rainforest being submerged by a reservoir in the Silent Valley in
Western Ghats as early as in the 1980s; the Ghats is now a globally acknowledged
biodiversity hot-spot. India, due to its ingrained sense of internationalism, democratic
zeal for helping the under privileged and respect for nature and wildlife that has deep
historical and religious roots is an ideal testing ground for achieving the delicate balance
between biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

India, one of the earliest signatories to the World Heritage Convention has five key
Protected Areas currently on UNESCO’s World Heritage List – Kaziranga and Manas in
Assam, Keoladeo (also sometimes referred to as Ghana) in Rajasthan, Sundarbans in
West Bengal and Nanda Devi in Uttaranchal. The five sites satisfy natural heritage
criterion (iv); i.e. they ‘contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-
situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of
outstanding universal value from the point of view of science and conservation’. Hence
they are critical to the preservation of globally significant biodiversity (for natural and
cultural heritage criteria used in identifying World Heritage areas and associated integrity
conditions see Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage
Convention (UNESCO, 2002).

A strong potential therefore exists to build and strengthen the constellation of India’s
World Heritage Biodiversity (WHB) sites in ways that are exemplary and beneficial for
the larger network of protected areas (hereafter abbreviated, at times, as Pas) in India, and
elsewhere. The World Heritage Convention offers a unique possibility in India to link
nature and culture in innovative ways to promote conservation of species like the tiger
and the elephant at a nation-wide scale. India presents the greatest challenge anywhere in
the world for integrating conservation and development on a grand scale, and success
here could have major implications for other parts of the developing world.

The WHB sites seek to conserve the earth’s most spectacular examples of natural and
biological heritage. Four of the five WHB sites in India that are the foci of several
activities described in this proposal represent a unique combination of natural landscapes
and biological diversity. Kaziranga National Park, for instance, is a prime example of
unusual beauty and unique habitats for some of the last examples of world’s rare animals
and plants, including the Asian rhino. The Manas National Park includes some of the
most diverse stands of evergreen forests and several species of rare mammals.

The Keoladeo National Park is an internationally, acclaimed wetland harboring over 300
avifaunal species; it is the wintering ground for many migratory bird species including
the Siberial crane. The Siberian crane is unfortunately nearly extinct; birds immigrating
to winter in Keoladeo, India were indiscriminately shot and decimated during the various
wars that have been fought in Afghanistan and other places of West Asia. Currently,
captive breeding efforts to restore Siberian crane populations are underway in Keoladeo.
Nanda Devi protects a wilderness zone of the Himalayan ecosystem and provides habitat
for the highly endangered snow leopard and its associated prey species.

The fifth WHB site of India that is not included in t his proposal, namely the Sunderbans
National Park abuts the Sundarbans of Bangladesh and both are World Heritage sites and
together they protect a representative sample of the once extensive Sundarbans
ecosystem. The two Sundarbans together protect the world’s largest population of the
Royal Bengal Tiger.

The WHB sites and other protected areas in India, however, remain highly vulnerable to
degradation. As islands, these areas are surrounded by harsh biophysical landscapes and
alienated local communities. The history of protected area management and local
community relations in India has been conflict ridden and frequently violent; co-
operation between local communities and site-staff, a necessary condition for effective
protected area management is not practiced in all of India’s protected areas even today.

The management of the park is not fully equipped to deal with the growing threats to the
parks. The staff is poorly trained in the enforcement of laws protecting wildlife and in
building mutually respectful and supportive relations with local communities. In some
cases such as Manas in the northeast, field staff has been demoralized, by repeated
episodes of insurgencies in the area since the early 1990s. Moreover, the field staff in
many places has neither access to good communications nor to facilities for health for
themselves and their families or educational facilities for their children.

Attitudes of local communities to site-management regulations can often be antagonistic,


particularly in sites where communities harbor grievances from the past such as eviction
from their land for the establishment of the park. In other places community/site
management relations can be harmonious; but park staff are not always well trained in
skills and techniques to consult with communities or take the community perspectives
into appropriate consideration in planning alternative livelihood and eco-development
schemes intended to benefit the local communities.

At higher levels, the park management has been unable to fully incorporate concepts of
conservation science and wildlife management in developing management plans. Because
parks represent habitat islands surrounded by dissimilar habitats with high densities of
human populations, changes inside the park due to intrinsic and extrinsic factors are
inevitable. However, there is no effort to take a systems approach to anticipate and
predict future changes. Continuous assessment and monitoring of biodiversity are almost
non-existent.
The “island” status of the World Heritage sites also makes them highly vulnerable to
anthropogenic pressures. Although these islands are connected in varying degrees with
other natural habitats there have been no comprehensive efforts to examine the feasibility
of establishing habitat connectivity in areas containing the WHB sites. Since the areas
surrounding the sites are even more vulnerable to human pressures than the WHB sites, it
is critical to examine the potential of connection among natural areas wherever these sites
are located and to bring these areas under effective conservation and management.
Addressing wildlife and biodiversity conservation needs outside of legally protected
parks and reserves may create serious conflicts with communities and has to be addressed
through appropriate management interventions.

Local communities in many cases remain hostile to the idea that the parks cannot be used
to meet their grazing, fishing, fuel wood and non-timber forest products needs. Wild
animals from the parks also pose a danger to their livestock, crops and houses; and crop
raiding elephants at times trample and kill humans exacerbating the conflict and forcing
difficult choices to be made in favour of humans and killing of troublesome animals.
Local communities perceive conservation legislation as a threat and a constraint to
improving their livelihoods. Economic benefits from conservation such as ecotourism
rarely accrue to local communities. Park management while it must enforce laws needs to
also find ways to work together with the communities and enable them to access
necessary resources and networks to plan and implement alternative livelihood schemes
that communities themselves choose voluntarily. While the principles of community
participation in the management of protected areas are widely acknowledged, successful
cases of integration of biodiversity conservation and livelihood improvements are rare to
come by. Addressing these conflicts in a manner acceptable to all stakeholders concerned
shall be one of the challenges that this project will face, both in and around protected
areas and in its ambition to improve habitat connectivity between such areas.