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Environment: How valuable are India’s forests and wildlife habitats?

Environment: How valuable are India’s forests and wildlife habitats?


– By Abhilash Khandekar *

 (First of a two-piece special articles on the International Tiger Day, July 29).

Can you think of putting ‘monetary value’ to a tiger reserve or a sprawling, verdant forest in India? If so, how would it be valuable? In other words, how can we calculate the monetary value of a forest or wildlife reserve?

Answers to such out-of-the-box questions have begun to emerge now. And India’s 50 Tiger Reserves (TRs) are going to get a price tag, something the foresters and wild lifers probably never thought of.

Last year, on the International Tiger Day (July 29), Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a study of 10 Tiger Reserves, supported by the Global Tiger Forum and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for evaluation of their economic worth. The complex and lengthy process of this kind of evaluation is likely to continue for the remaining reserves also.

In the business parlance, a company’s worth is calculated on the basis of capital investment, manufacturing capabilities, product range, market capitalization, branding etc. But to have it for a tiger reserve was unheard of. Until recently.

So, the Simlipal TR in Odisha was valued at a staggering Rs 16030.11 crores per annum and Melghat, in Maharashtra, got a price tag of 12349.36 crores per annum for the ecosystem services as per the Stock and Flow Framework used by the researchers. According to Prof Madhu Verma, the lead author of the study, who now works as chief economist with World Resources Institute (WRI), New Delhi, the flow values refer to real feasible flow of benefits while the stock value refers to potential supply. Stock value included standing timber and stored carbon in a tiger reserve, while other services, including carbon sequestration, employment generation, water provisioning and soil conservation etc., are the flow values, she added.

The Tiger Reserves

In an earlier and shorter exercise of Phase-I, six TRs (Kanha, Corbett, Kaziranga, Periyar, Ramthambore and the Sundarbans) had been economically evaluated       (A value + Approach) by a team consisting economists and tiger experts. In the second, elaborate exercise, using better mathematical models, 10 tiger reserves have been evaluated and a price tag attached to them, triggering a debate on the pros and cons of such valuation exercise. The 10 TRs were: Annamalai (Tamil Nadu), Bandipur (Karnataka), Dudhwa (UP), Melghat (Maharashtra), Nagarjunsagar (Andhra Pradesh), Palamau (Jharkhand), Pakke (Arunachal Pradesh), Panna (MP), Simlipal (Odisha) and Valmiki (Bihar). Apparently, these tags prove how much is the worth of a particular reserve where laymen go for tourism and conservationists visit to study range of species of biological diversity and know about the health of forests.

Tiger is a key species that sits at the very top of the food chain. Globally, tiger experts believe that this endangered animal has a chance of survival only in India where exceptional conservation measures in the past three decades have shown success on different parameters. And with conservation techniques improving by the decades, new ideas are also coming into play what with manifold growth in the interest of common people for the national animal. Valuation of the tigers’ abodes is one of the latest ones aimed at bolstering conservation.

Even after the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched the Project Tiger in 1973, the big cat remained endangered for a long time. Poaching was rampant despite the PM’s personal interest in the majestic animal.

Things, however, changed rapidly after the Sariska debacle in 2005. The Project Tiger was converted into NTCA, established after the report of Tiger Task Force headed by well-known environmentalist Dr Sunita Narain. But the next tiger census of 2006 shook the nation with only 1,411 tigers found in the wilds.

Around this time the census methodology was also changed for the first time, traditional pug mark counting was junked and camera-trap technology was introduced to ensure accuracy. Over the next 15 years, NTCA worked hard and used multiple strategies together. The number of the beautiful big cats gradually increased, bringing smiles back on the faces of countless conservationists, tiger experts and wildlife lovers. Today, India proudly possesses 2,967 tigers, about 400 more than the last census of 2014.

The Valuation

The brief background was necessary to underscore the increasing importance being given to tiger conservation and the habitat protection in India. Modi had said in April 2016 that “tiger conservation is not a choice, it is imperative”, demonstrating his government’s top priority to the issue.

When the Project Tiger was launched in 1973, only nine large chunks of wild areas were declared as protected tiger reserves across the country. Now they stand at 50. The number of individual animals has also grown substantially, and so does the vast area under protection.

Some people do ask: Why save tigers? Why protect their habitats? In this economics-dominated era, it is indeed a novel idea to present your case with a strong financial tag attached to it. Economists have thus provided a solid argument for saving our precious forests and their inhabitants. WWF India CEO Ravi Singh says that economic valuation does provide a new dimension, not known so far, and feels it is definitely going to help conservation movement.

Before the tiger reserves were economically valued, certain large forest patches were also valued on the directives of the Supreme Court. The apex court wanted to know the estimated valuation of protected forest land before diversion for other uses such as industrial, road construction or railways etc., especially when the environment lobby vehemently opposed such diversions for non-forest use.

Valuation of ecological services or ecosystem services, however, is not a very old concept. When this particular study was done between 2016 and 2019, a total of 27 services that are supposed to be extended by a particular forest (TR) to the human kind, were listed. The benefits that human society derives from nature and environment was well-known to our forefathers but the idea of such quantification in monetary terms actually gained momentum in the late 1990s across the world. Forests of Himachal Pradesh were valued in the year 2000 and those in Madhya Pradesh in 2005 by a team of the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal. The researchers were led by Ms Verma who was then with the IIFM.

As far as tiger reserves are concerned, Prof Verma gives credit of starting the assessment exercise to the then NTCA chief, Dr Rajesh Gopal, an eminent tiger expert of international repute.

A team of researchers visited all TRs and saw for themselves natural water purification process, sediment retention, gene pool protection, pollination, cultural heritage etc., of each park to analyse the functions and process of nature and then using mathematical models, put a price for each one of them.

SP Yadav, NTCA member-secretary says: “The (vital) study addresses the utility of Ecoservices Mapping, modelling and valuation to communicate the diverse values embedded and are emanating from tiger reserves, using InVEST. It is an open source modelling software, designed under Stanford University’s Natural Capital Project”.

“More than 500 rivers either originate or pass through our tiger reserves and if they are not protected, India would face water security issues as forests are the natural water conservation sources”.

(*The writer is a veteran journalist who writes on politics, environment and urban issues. He can be reached at kabhilash59@gmail.com and at his Twitter @Abhikhandekar1)



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