The concept of ‘Umbrella Species’ took flight in the 1980s when biodiversity conservation strategies were being discussed.
Soon, the tiger in India was overwhelmingly considered an Umbrella Species that, if protected, would also conserve a host of other organisms and their habitats just as an umbrella would prevent everything under its coverage area from getting wet in the rain.
However, there were problems with this strategy of wildlife protection.
In the last few years, it is clear that while tiger numbers have increased, biodiversity and habitats in general are faring more poorly than when the umbrella species approach was implemented.
This is also true with another magnificent animal with a larger geographical footprint that has also been considered an Umbrella Species (along with other monikers such as ‘landscape species’ and ‘keystone species’) – the Asian elephant.
The Merger of the Two 'Umbrella Species' Project
Now, elephants and tigers are hardly similar.
Elephants range over much larger landscapes, are much less invisible, and arguably have a much more direct natural impact on a landscape than tigers do. So, the recent news of the merging of Project Elephant and Project Tiger into Project Tiger and Elephant (PTE) would have seemed like a case of strange bedfellows for connoisseurs of the single-species model of wildlife protection.
For many others, however, this is great news! Elephants and tigers often share the same landscapes, they say. And many mull, wasn’t Project Elephant already falling apart? Besides, the phenomenal success of Project Tiger would now be a great platform for elephants to piggyback on, many conclude.
However, India’s alert non-governmental wildlife experts have now rightly raised pertinent questions on the sudden and seemingly hasty decision to merge the two “umbrella species” projects.
They point to the lack of adequate funding and a not-so-formidable operational record of Project Elephant. They ask, not without merit, how would the complex differences in the biology and the economics of the two species be taken care of by a single PTE.
Some are rightfully concerned that the wonderful aspects that Project Elephant emphasised such as the protection of elephant migration landscapes with little forest cover that elephants used, such as farmlands and plantations, may now be completely ignored in the superstar aura of the tiger.
While every single one of these concerns is valid and needs thorough responses and perusal by the government, the only reality right now is that the merger of the projects into PTE is done and dusted.
The Need for a Paradigm Shift
We may argue for or against PTE as much as possible, but at some point, when it is clear that it will not be withdrawn, we will have to start working with this new reality of PTE.
Seen in this light, there are opportunities that PTE presents. If the concerns of experts are taken into account by the government and addressed well, especially ensuring increased and sustainable funding to PTE and bringing in dexterity and scientific expertise rather than making PTE a Gomorrah, the merging of Project Tiger and Project Elephant into PTE could provide an unprecedented stage to do something wonderful – a landscape-level management of wildlife habitats overseen by an apex government body.
As the protection of both the target species and their food sources is the goal, if executed well, PTE can focus on the entire trophic food web – from grasses to shrubs and trees, from deer to gaur, and from elephant to tiger.
However, this utopia of a PTE-driven, landscape-level conservation success will not be reached simply because elephants and tigers are umbrella species, but only if there is a paradigm shift in the tiger-and-elephant-centric mindset of officers in charge of the new PTE.
The path to this mindset change is non-trivial and a multidimensional one. Every single human resource in PTE must be fully invested in looking outside protected areas for opportunities for conservation.
Multidisciplinary science with ecology, social sciences, economics, and governance will have to become second nature of PTE staff. After all, the complex realities of movement corridors, dispersal areas, human-adapted animals, increasing conflict levels, Payment-for-Ecosystem-Services (PES), habitat restoration (and not just planting trees), etc. are not yet taught in the training of most of the current staff in our erstwhile Project Elephant and Project Tiger.
This may not be easy, but PTE is a golden opportunity to try to conserve biodiversity without disenfranchising communities, and not just increase tiger and elephant numbers.
There is a Lot at Stake
Unlike what the Jungle Book movie said, elephants do not create rivers with furrows from their tusks, but their role in habitat change and maintenance is matchless.
Tigers sometimes thrive in ‘islands’ of managed habitat, but if elephants are confined to patches of forest, those patches will dramatically change in character followed by relentless efforts by the elephants to find new areas of food and shelter. With elephants, the elephant in the room is not the elephant itself, but people. Both conservation success and failure can create a lose-lose situation of people-wildlife conflict.
Many Indian states have Elephant Task Forces (ETFs) to deal with incidences of such harmful people-elephant interactions. Post PTE, there is a lack of clarity on the fate of these ETFs and their funding too. This nebulous state of affairs will only create impediments to the success of PTE.
Elephants, which often attract the ire of multiple stakeholders such as the mining industry, the railways, and people living in elephant landscapes, will possibly take a body blow if the move to form PTE backfires and fails, either by neglect or by design. Thus, there is a lot at stake.
It is said the elephant rose to prominence as a god when people of yore couldn’t move past herds of elephants without praying to them. Thousands of years later, nothing much has changed.
The faltering conservation scene in India and the world needs not a single species to act as a saviour but the coming together of many such unlikely gods like the PTE that implore us to put all our faculties together to solve the complex issues affecting ecological functioning and human well-being.
For this, we now have to quickly and effectively transition into a multi-species, multi-habitat, people-inclusive model of conservation from the erstwhile tiger and elephant-centric ideas.
(Anup Bokassa is the Lead of Consevration at The Habitats Trust, a wildlife conservation coalition. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)