Gazing upon graziers

Understanding wildlife conservation and pastoralism

India’s preservationist wildlife conservation policy aims at curtailing consumptive use of resources in areas designated as wildlife reserves. In the context of livestock grazing, this is easier said than done

Conservation with PA's

India’s preservationist wildlife conservation policy aims at curtailing consumptive use of resources in areas designated as wildlife reserves. In the context of livestock grazing, this is easier said than done; India has the world’s largest livestock population of 449 million. Although wildlife reserves constitute less than 5% of the country’s total area, three-fourths of them are grazed by livestock. 

The few restrictions that the Government has been able to impose on resource use in wildlife reserves have resulted in local hostility and absence of local support for conservation programmes. Against this background, the merits of the preservationist approach in India are being increasingly questioned on social, ethical, and even ecological grounds. 

Yet, the ability to make informed decisions on conservation policy remains handicapped due to poor understanding of the way local people use resources, and the impacts of such resource use on wildlife. How does livestock affect wildlife? Do livestock and wild herbivores compete for food? Do pastoralists keep too many livestock? How many is too many? Can there be harmonious coexistence or is there always conflict between pastoralism and wildlife? Can there be effective solutions to such conflicts? Time and again, the Indian scientific community has been reminded of its responsibility to work towards a better understanding of pastoralism and its impacts on wildlife. 

Wildlife outside PAs

Our pioneering research project on livestock grazing and its impacts on wildlife in the Indian high altitudes was the first comprehensive step in understanding this important issue. Based on studies in the high altitude rangelands of the Spiti Trans-Himalaya that have a grazing history of over three millennia, we attempted to understand an agro-pastoral system and its conflicts with wildlife, with the ultimate aim of guiding conservation policy and management. We asked how harmonious the coexistence between pastoralism and wildlife was. 

Our studies found that at the level of the family, which is the basic unit of production, the agro-pastoral system in Spiti appeared to suitably maximize production while mediating environmental risk. However, the families faced substantial financial losses due to livestock depredation by the snow leopard Panthera uncia and the wolf Canis lupus. The endangered carnivores are persecuted in retaliation. 

Our vegetation studies showed that the rangeland vegetation was at different stages of degradation due to intensive and pervasive human use. Animal production modelling and analysis of stocking densities revealed resource limitation for large herbivores at the landscape level, with a majority of the rangelands in the 12,000 km2 study area being overstocked. 

Implications

Our studies on the diet of bharal Pseudois nayaur, a wild mountain ungulate, and seven species of livestock, revealed substantial resource overlap. This, together with resource limitation, resulted in resource competition. We found that bharal get out-competed in rangelands with high stocking density, where reduction in bharal density is brought about by resource-dependent variation in fecundity and neonate mortality. 

Theoretical analyses revealed a consistent morphological pattern in species body masses in the Trans-Himalayan wild herbivore assemblage, arguably brought about by the interplay of competition and facilitation. The analyses also suggested possible competitive exclusion of several wild herbivores by livestock over the last three millennia. 

We decided to undertake this work as livestock grazing is pervasive in the Trans-Himalaya, and because of the existing lack of understanding of its impacts on Trans-Himalayan wildlife. Our work established that this conservation concern was, after all, not misplaced. It has led to the recognition of livestock grazing being the most serious conservation issue in the Trans-Himalaya. It has also led us to develop effective on-ground conservation programmes.

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