Amidst the extravagant obscenity of the Ambani pre-wedding in Jamnagar last month, there was, for me, one bright spot of hope. It was news of the establishment of Vantara, the “world’s largest private zoo”, spread over 1000 acres in which more than ten million trees have been planted, in Jamnagar, Gujarat. According to a very well researched article by Ayaskant Das and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta in Newsclick [An Amazing Zoo Story, 29.2.24] the facility is a personal venture of one of the Ambani scions, Anant Ambani, and contains 1461 endangered and 3889 non- endangered species of animals, some of them imported. Vantara has a long history of litigation, objections and questions raised by animal activists. There are issues like: Is it (as it claims) an elephant rescue and rehab centre under the Wildlife Protection Act? Have wild elephants been shifted to the zoo in violation of the Act and rules? Have the rules been tweaked to accommodate the Ambanis? Are private zoos permissible at all?

These questions will no doubt wend their way through our tortuous judicial system, and I am not commenting on them because they are not the focus of this piece. What I find welcome is that, perhaps for the first time in India, a prominent corporate entity has taken an interest in a matter relating to the natural environment, and in rehabilitating essentially wild species of animals. Even more heartening is the fact that this initiative is being partly funded by CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) funds which are otherwise disbursed more on political grounds than anything else. This may be the first baby steps towards the conservation and rewilding of our diminishing natural eco-systems, including their wild life.

Rewilding is a concept and initiative which is gaining traction in many parts of the world, though it is yet to arrive in India in any meaningful way. What it seeks to do is to revive degraded habitats and their indigenous biodiversity which is being destroyed by mindless “development” (in India, think Andaman and Nicobar mega container/tourism/power/township project, the 20000 acre solar plant in Ladakh, Aarey forest in Mumbai, four lane highways through National Parks and tiger habitats, continued decimation of the green cover in the Western Ghats, just for starters). Restoring these areas is no favour to Nature, it is in our own interest. For wildlands provide four essential ecosystem services that sustain all life on this planet: provisioning (timber, food, medicinal plants), regulatory (climate moderation, water flows, carbon capture), cultural (sacred groves, tourism) and supporting ( nutrient cycles, pollination).

[ No architect can replicate the beauty of this canopy ]

There is an urgency to the “wildlands philantrophy” because forests and bio-diversity are disappearing at an alarming rate. Globally, 10 million hectares of forests are lost every year, about the size of Portugal. 30% of the Amazon rain forests are gone. India has lost 2.33 million hectares of tree cover since 2000 [Global Forest Watch]. 500 animal species have become extinct, and animal populations have plummeted by 70%, in the last 50 years. It is estimated that one million species of all life forms are staring at extinction, primarily due to anthropogenic interventions, including climate change. Rewilding could be a means to reverse these trends.

The job is too big for governments to do, even if they had the political will or aptitude to do it, which they don’t. In India, particularly, our colonial minded forest departments, badly funded and poorly led, are ill equipped to meet this challenge. Just to provide an example, take our flagship conservation programme, Project Tiger: the NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority), which oversees 52 Tiger Reserves, has an annual budget of Rs. 50 crores, as compared to the Delhi Horticulture Deptt. which is provided Rs. 125 crores every year! Ranthambore National Park has just about one fifth of the number of Forest Guards it actually needs. It is no different in other countries, which is why the initiative for rewilding globally is being adopted and pushed by individuals and corporate entities.

There are many dimensions to, and models for, rewilding, including creation of National Parks, Wildlife sanctuaries and marine sanctuaries; removal of dams and allowing the rivers to flow freely again leading to revival of fish populations and restoring livelihoods of people who have traditionally depended on them(European countries have removed almost 700 dams in the last two years, according to figures compiled by Dam Removal Europe; the USA has removed 2119 dams since 2012); creating nature habitats in urban areas as more and more natural and farming habitats are taken over by sprawling urbanisation. Needless to say, India is an outlier and laggard in all these initiatives, except perhaps the first. Our governments are content to trot out fudged figures of forest cover and tiger populations, and to maintain that our forest area is increasing every year. Whereas the truth is that dense forests have been declining at an alarming rate and what has increased is open forests and scrub land, according to the Forest Survey of India reports. To maintain this statistical charade the definition of “forest” is being regularly diluted: the current one defines any area of 2.50 acres with a tree cover of 10% as Forest! As pointed out by conservationist Aditya ‘Dickie’ Singh, that would mean that both the Bombay Gymkhana and Delhi Golf Club are forests! (With the mandatory watering holes, of course, to cater to the wildlife which gathers there).

[Continued in Part II next week]

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