A farce in the name of World Environment Day

So, it is that day of the year today (World Environment Day), when the global environment gets a little more prominence in the whole scheme of things. Considering that we have a specific day of the year allocated to talk about the environment, many people feel an almost compelling urge to project their hopes or despondence on how things are. And it is not just people, even government bodies and non-governmental firms join the band-wagon with much enthusiasm. Now, when everyone else is on board, how can our conscientious corporates remain far away?world environment day 2016

Thus, June 5 has effectively become a day of extensive promotions, wherein people, governments, NGOs and corporates, profess their love for the flora and fauna of this planet, without really much thought or idea on how to go about it or what to do about it.

A brilliant instance of that mindlessness is how the theme of World Environment Day 2016 runs. “Go Wild for Life” is how it goes, highlighting the need for protecting the wildlife from illegal hunting (poaching). A brief note on a specially created website tells us the following:

This year’s theme for WED – Go Wild for Life – encourages you to celebrate all those species under threat and take action of your own to help safeguard them for future generations. This can be about animals or plants that are threatened within your local area as well as at the national or global level – many local extinctions will eventually add up to a global extinction! Whoever you are, and wherever you live, show zero-tolerance for the illegal trade in wildlife in word and deed, and make a difference.

There’s even a report that has been released the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL, according to which the value of environmental crime is 26% larger than previous estimates, at $91-258 billion today compared to $70-213 billion in 2014.

Given that fact, the theme for this year’s World Environment Day seems perfectly plausible and pertinent. Where’s the mindlessness here? After all hunting (or rather poaching) is a big issue, isn’t it? Sample this:

  • At the beginning of the 20th century there were a few million African elephants and approximately 100,000 Asian elephants. Today elephants are now considered endangered; there are about 450,000-700,000 African elephants and 35,000-40,000 Asian elephants
  • In 2012, 668 rhinos were poached in South Africa. As of January 2013 it increased to 946, these animals were being poached at a rate of 2 per day
  • Bear gall bladders get top dollar for Chinese herbal remedies. And big-horned sheep antlers can fetch $20,000 on the black market
  • Tigers are primarily killed to supply underground black markets with its organs, pelts, and bones. This includes: the eyes, hair, internal organs, even tiger penis – which is used in a soup as an aphrodisiac
  • A 2010 United Nations report suggests that gorillas could disappear from large parts of the Congo Basin by the mid-2020s
  • Approximately, 63 tigers have died in 2016 in India, of which 30 have been poaching related. Similarly, some 200 leopards have died in India, of which 64 were poaching deaths.

Yet, illegal hunting is only a part of the picture, and not the complete one. The fact is, humans are causing a massive extinction of species on this planet, on scale and size that has never been witnessed before. According to scientists, world environment day 2016the modern world is experiencing a “Sixth Great Extinction” of animal species. The rate of extinction for species in the 20th century was up to 100 times higher than it would have been without man’s impact, as stated in an article in the Guardian.

Here’s how bad things are. Just to illustrate the degree of biodiversity loss we’re facing, let’s take you through one scientific analysis as published in Panda.org:

  • The rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate.*
  • These experts calculate that between 0.01 and 0.1% of all species will become extinct each year.
  • If the low estimate of the number of species out there is true – i.e. that there are around 2 million different species on our planet** – then that means between 200 and 2,000 extinctions occur every year.
  • But if the upper estimate of species numbers is true – that there are 100 million different species co-existing with us on our planet – then between 10,000 and 100,000 species are becoming extinct each year.

The reason for this extinction is primarily driven by the human race. With a burgeoning population that is adding thousands of people on a day-today basis, things like over-harvesting, pollution, habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species (such as new predators and food competitors), over-hunting, and other influences have become world environment day 2016rather common. The hunter with the gun is of course destroying the beautiful wild of this planet, but so is the farmer with the plough and the herder with his cattle. And while the choice between the plough and the gun is obvious, it does lead to some very uncomfortable questions, just like the killing of the 17-year old silverback gorilla Harambe in Cincinnati Zoo after a three-year-old boy slipped into Harambe’s enclosure. Poor Harambe had to pay with his life, even though he did not deserve to die.

In this light, when you look at the detail of this year’s World Environment Day, and it’s almost exclusive emphasis on illegal hunting, it is kind of disturbing. After all, to save the wild (or to Go Wild with Life), the guns need to be silenced and so must the plough be stopped. To give in instance, wild orangutans are found in only two places in South East Asia, Sumatra and Borneo. Yet, every hour 300 football fields of precious remaining forest is being ploughed to the ground across South East Asia to make way for palm oil plantations. In the last 20 years, over 3.5 million hectares of Indonesian and Malaysian forest have been destroyed to make way for palm oil. Almost 80% of orangutan habitat has disappeared in the last 20 years. We are world environment day 2016losing over 6,000 orangutans a year.

The story is pretty much the same across the globe, be it Amazon Rain Forest lost to logging, or the Great Barrier Reef being destroyed by excessive shipping. Across the globe we are destroying the natural habitat at an unprecedented rate. In the near future, there will be much little wilderness that would be left, let along wild life. As Sir David Attenborough said, “Within three human generations, man has totally exterminated one hundred different kinds of animals and this thoughtless slaughter, far from coming to an end, is rising to a crescendo.”

Thus, are we not focusing too much on the “tip” of the iceberg, when we reduce the issue of wild-life destruction merely to illegal hunting?

And if this reductionism was not sufficient, there is also a darker aspect of hunting that the global agencies like UNEP are brushing under the carpet.

Coming back to World Environment Day

Remember Cecil? On July 1 2015, the world woke up to the depressing news of how a famous a male Southwest African lion (named Cecil) who lived primarily in the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe, was killed by a Dentist from the US, Walter Palmer. The killing of Cecil caused an international uproar, and brought the issue of trophy hunting into the limelight.world environment day 2016

The brutal baiting and murder of Cecil, for some $50,000 was turning point of sorts. Over the past many years, many nations of Africa have been allowing hunting that is rather legal in nature. Under the auspices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention is a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals. Roughly 5,000 species of animals and 29,000 species of plants are protected by CITES against over-exploitation through international trade.

Yet, the convention lays emphasis on the control of trade, through varying mechanisms, not the eradication.

This has led to some very serious anomalies. For instance, the convention formulates a country-wise annual quota for hunting and export of selected species. Take the case of Namibia, which allows the killing of 180 elephants, 150 cheetah, 5 rhinos, 250 leopards, on an annual basis. All this hunting is done under the garb of “sustainable hunting”, wherein the licenses are bought at much high prices ($100,000 – $300,000). The logic is that this money helps in the conservation of the species. For instance, last year, when Namibia had sold a license for a rhino kill for some $350,000!

Sadly, much for the lofted goals of conservation through hunting, the reality is far from the painted scenario. According to research, only about 3% of trophy hunting money goes to local conservation, the bulk is pocketed by the license providers, government departments and so on.

world environment day 2016So does legal hunting of lions (like Cecil) help in the conservation efforts?

Dereck and Beverly Joubert, award-winning ‘Explorers-in-Residence’ with National Geographic, and the maker of the Last Lions tackle the issue on Mongabay.

It is much a larger impact than we all imagined. Today there are 20,000 lions, maybe at best 30,000, which implies around 4,000 male lions with manes that so attract the safari hunters. That is the resource. So, the US alone imports 550 a year. If you do the math at all, it’s clear that we cannot continue shooting male lions at this rate. The reported US figure is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. If those were the only male lions being killed I’d still be debate that it’s too many, but they’re also being poisoned by poachers, cattle herders, caught in snares, and their habitat is being chopped up! This is just not going to last. I also frankly think that it is a sad state when what is clearly declared a ‘sport’ can be defended so vehemently as a right, while the lions’ population suffers and the global community is being faced with a future not decades away, but years away without lions.”

Today in South Africa, there are these farms where captive lions are raised and available for canned hunting for as little as $15,000.

It is surprising that such hunts are “legally” sanctioned under the aegis of UNEP, the very agency that is asking all to Go Wild for Life. All this is done under the garb of conservation. As Jeff Flocken from International Fund for Animal Welfare says, “If you pay to take a human life and give to humanitarian causes, it does not make you a humanitarian. And paying money to kill one of the last iconic animals on earth does not make you a conservationist.”

Botswana can be a great example. The African nation banned commercial hunting in September 2000, especially in the Kalahari Game Reserve. Over the initial years, the numbers of lions declined, largely due to man-animal conflict. But thanks to the burgeoning revenues from eco-tourism (which has gone by more than 1300%). world environment day 2016Formerly one of the poorest countries in the world, today it is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with a modest standard of living and the highest Human Development Index in Sub-Saharan Africa. Botswana is one of Africa’s most stable countries and not surprisingly, is considered the least corrupt country in Africa ranking close to Portugal and South Korea.

That is the impact of eco-tourism.

In all the discussion of saving the wild life, can India be a role-model?

The nation with the fastest growing population is facing an unprecedented challenge in terms of wildlife conservation. India is home to some extraordinary diverse flora and fauna, the only country on the planet that boasts the presence of the big beasts, lion, tiger, rhino, elephant, and so on. Ever since the 1970s, India has been a global icon in protecting tigers, spending more resources and money than any other country. The challenges have not been less, from habitat loss and human encroachment to poaching, disease and pollution. Even still, India manages to keep about 70% of the world’s wild tigers on less than 25% of the world’s tiger habitat.

Every year scores of tigers (elephants and rhinos) are killed by poachers. But with the right policies, the tiger population has increased over a period of past couple of years. While, the numbers are far from optimum, yet, the policies have at least ensured that the tigers have not disappeared from India, like they have elsewhere.

In this regards, noted biologist George Schaller had told me once, “India has to decide whether it wants to keep the tiger or not. It has to decide if it is worthwhile to keep its National Symbol, its icon, representing wildlife. It has to decide if it wants to keep its natural heritage for future generations, a heritage more important than the cultural one, whether we speak of its temples, the Taj Mahal, or others, because once destroyed it cannot be replaced. If the answer is yes, then plans can be made and implemented.”

Fortunately, India seems to be paying a little attention to saving species, among all the other priorities that are there, like a mission to Mars, or electrifying the nation.

In the end, one has to be honest in the realisation that there are no real short-cuts in wildlife conservation. By emphasising on illegal hunting, UNEP is taking those shortcuts. If indeed, they are serious in Go Wild for Life; all sort of hunting/trading should be banned. There should be a big campaign for that. By keeping mum on “legal” hunting and talking big on “illegal”, there is a duplicity that seems a bit more evident and will not really solve the problem. Hence, all this WED 2016 euphoria seems pretty misplaced and disappointing. We today live in the times, when Cecil and Harambe are a sad causality of our ignorant machinations, and yet the global agencies like UNEP will not talk about them or raise their issue. At least on this day.

So, does not the World Environment Day seem like a farce? A big public relation farce for corporates, governments and agencies like UNEP that don’t really care about the wild, but will go all over the town tomm-tomming about it? Well, I will leave you to decide on that.

As for me, I am not really all that sure.

Shashwat DC



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