India’s shrinking animal ark needs more parks, corridors

A study on the past extinction of large mammals in India by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Duke University, and other groups has found that country’s protected area system and human cultural tolerance for some species are key to conserving the subcontinent’s tigers, elephants, and other large mammals.

According to the study, the long-term survival of many large species in the midst of rapid economic growth will require improving existing protected areas and establishing new protected areas and corridors.

The paper — recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society — is authored by: Krithi K. Karanth of Duke & Columbia University; James D. Nichols and James E. Hines of the USGS Patuxent Research Center; K. Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society; and Norman L. Christensen of Duke University.

“This study provides us with a roadmap for next steps for conservation in India,” said Colin Poole, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia Program. “As India develops into a world economic power, it is critical that conservation planning is part of that expansion.”

“India’s rich diversity of wildlife is one of the country’s great assets,” said Krithi K. Karanth, the study’s lead author. “Our work highlights the perilous state of wildlife in India and conservation priorities must help conserve the nation’s natural heritage.”

The researchers created models to estimate extinction probability for 25 large mammal species, determining current species distributions along with more than 30,000 historical records from natural history, taxidermy and museum records dating back 200 years. The models were used to gauge how factors such as protected areas, forest cover, elevation, and human demographics, and cultural attitudes impact extinction predictions.

The results of the analysis found that all 25 species would experience some level of local extinction due to a variety of factors such as habitat loss and human population growth and development. The study results confirmed that species do benefit from protected areas, especially large carnivores such as tigers and other forest-dwelling animals such as Sambar deer. The species with the highest probable rates of extinction were large-bodied animals such as the wild buffalo (66 percent), habitat specialists such as the goat-like Nilgiri tahr (71 percent) and the swamp deer (90 percent), and rare species had higher probabilities of extinction such as the Asiatic lions of Gir Forest (96 percent).

Factors such as human densities did increase the probability of extinction for many species with the exception of adaptable animals such as wild pigs, jackals, and blackbuck.

The authors point out that many species, including ones that exist outside of protected areas (mouse deer, four-horned antelope, sloth bear, wolf and others) and species that now occupy a tiny remnant of former ranges (gaur, elephant, rhino, Asiatic lion, tigers, etc.) will require new protected areas to ensure their persistence.

“Our results highlight the need for an expansion of conservation planning to complement land use decisions and development,” added Karanth.

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