During Wildlife Week, the government has recognised the impact of climate change in two key initiatives launched to conserve wildlife and Himalayan landscapes

Climate change poses a threat to the endangered snow leopard (Photo by Pixabay)

Climate change poses a threat to the endangered snow leopard (Photo by Pixabay)

The fact that climate change is a threat to wildlife has just got official acceptance in India. For the first time, the government has recognised concerns regarding climate impacts in its wildlife management plan and has gone a step further by weaving in the need for mitigation and disaster risk reduction actions.

The third National Wildlife Action Plan, unveiled by Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan during the Wildlife Week (October 1-9) will shape the contours of wildlife conservation in India till 2031. The first plan was put in place in 1983 and lasted till 2001, following which the second plan was implemented in 2002-16.

Conservationists have welcomed the emphasis on climate change. “The recognition that climate change will significantly impact our wildlife, mostly adversely, and therefore the need to address the threats is timely and welcome,” Ravi Singh, CEO, WWF-India, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. Singh had pushed for the inclusion of climate change and coping measures in the blueprint of wildlife conservation.

“The listed actions and identified priority projects, if implemented effectively and importantly in consultation with key stakeholder groups including local communities, will certainly aid wildlife cope better with the inevitable changes in their natural surroundings,” he said. “This plan is a regional leader and may well be adopted by other countries.”

Despite the launch, the complete wildlife action plan was not unveiled to the public. The environment ministry released only the highlights of the document, including the mention of a total of 103 conservation actions and 250 projects listed in the conservation plan.

“Some new action issues have been considered in the Third National Wildlife Action Plan,” Ajay Narayan Jha, Secretary at the Environment Ministry of Environment, said in a statement. “These issues include climate change and wildlife, wildlife health, inland, coastal and marine conservation and wildlife conflict mitigation.”

Major impacts

The draft plan released in February 2016 said, “Climate change is expected to make major impacts on global biodiversity through drivers such as carbon dioxide fertilisation of plants, changes in fire frequencies, insect and pathogen attacks, latitudinal and altitudinal shifts in species distributions, and altered community interactions resulting in changes in species abundances. The present-day boundaries of major terrestrial ecosystems or vegetation types would change significantly, while freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems would be similarly impacted.” The final plan is based on this draft.

WWF-India’s Singh says that different flagship species that represent different ecosystems may be impacted differently by the changing climate. “Virtually all our flagship species will be rendered more vulnerable due to the impact of climate change unless steps, in some cases drastic, are taken to address the threats,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Under a high emissions scenario, large areas of existing snow leopard habitat may be rendered unsuitable. Tigers which are believed to have high adaptation capacity may be able to persist despite climate change but with significant changes expected in habitat. For instance, the wildlife action plan states that one-third of the forested area of India could change in character from the existing type to another due to climate change coupled with existing stressors. This could threaten various species. In the case of Asian elephants, their large body size, physiological constraints to thermoregulation and low capacity to respond to deforestation by shifting range are likely to be a challenge.”

The action plan mentions rationalising boundaries of protected areas and the need for management plans to factor in climate change impacts. There is also mention of promoting assisted migration of wildlife, which is very relevant because wildlife corridors are under great threat, Singh said. “Challenges for water sources and hydrological flows, the need for forest conservation and increased tree cover, prevention of soil erosion — all these seek viable long term solutions, complementary with our national development priorities,” he said.

Securing Himalayas

This week, the government also unveiled a project called SECURE Himalaya, that will run for six years and focus on conservation of species such as snow leopards, land and forests of high Himalayan ecosystem spreading across four Indian states. The acronym SECURE stands for securing livelihoods, conservation, sustainable use and restoration of high range Himalayan ecosystems.

The project is going to work towards biodiversity conservation and uplifting vulnerable mountain communities in landscapes of Changthang in Jammu and Kashmir, Lahaul-Pangi and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh, Gangotri-Govind and Darma-Byans Valley in Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand and Kanchenjunga-Upper Teesta Valley in Sikkim.

“This is essentially GEF (Global Environment Facility) contribution for the GSLEP (Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection) programme,” Koustubh Sharma, senior regional field biologist with the Snow Leopard Trust, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “The Indian government had committed USD 11.5 billion for securing snow leopard landscapes. The only thing is that it is not limited to just GSLEP but goes beyond to the habitats that are downstream as greater focus is on community development.”

On August 24-25 this year, 20 snow leopard countries, including China, India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, met at the GSLEP Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where they presented a joint declaration to strengthen cooperation and commitment to preserve the wild cat and its habitat.

See: Saving the elusive snow leopard

The launch of this programme a month after the Snow Leopard Summit, where India was among the 20 countries to take up individual commitments, has brought hope for snow leopard conservation.

“This is brilliant and shows that people are coming together for the greater purpose of achieving GSLEP goals. What is really good is that the implementing agencies UNDP and the forest department are keen on making use of these resources for the GSLEP landscape and beyond. The modality of the project is similar to the Project Snow Leopard which is again good,” said Sharma.

The project will also seek to enhance monitoring and enforcement to keep a check on illegal trade of rare medicinal plants that are found in these Himalayan landscapes and on the verge of extinction.

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