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Keywords:

  • biodiversity;
  • climate change;
  • ecosystem services;
  • education;
  • humans dimensions;
  • human–wildlife conflicts;
  • pollution;
  • protected area;
  • tiger

Summary

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Contemporary ecological challenges
  5. Infrastructure and human resource: problems and prospects
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
  1. India, a mega-diverse country in terms of both biodiversity and people, is battling environmental problems on many fronts: chronic dependence on natural resources, dwindling ecosystem services, declining environmental quality, effects of climate change and a biodiversity crisis.
  2. We review the current focal areas and infrastructure for ecological research and education in India, along with the surrounding legal and policy aspects of related socio-economic issues.
  3. Currently, ecological and applied research is predominantly focused on charismatic species within protected areas. This scope could be broadened beyond organismal biology towards functional landscapes and ecosystems; the education system also needs to promote ecology as a career choice for scientists. Expectedly, many environmental challenges are generic in nature, occur in other regions of the world, are primarily biophysical in origin but extend into human dimensions; some challenges are socio-political and have implications for biodiversity conservation.
  4. Synthesis and applications. India's environmental concerns include, but are not restricted to, the biodiversity crisis. The biodiversity crisis, in turn, includes, but is not restricted to, the most charismatic species. Greater integration and alignment among the mandates of government agencies, scientists, policymakers and educators are needed to meet contemporary environmental issues.

Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Contemporary ecological challenges
  5. Infrastructure and human resource: problems and prospects
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

In the present era of global change and globalization, ecology and related disciplines are the foundations for sustainable management of earth's resources and life support systems. As the second most populous country in the world, India has a large impact on the global environment, especially under the current scenario of rapid economic growth. So, it is timely to appraise the different environmental challenges facing the country and assess whether these are unique to India or whether they are more generic and experienced by other parts of the world.

India has experienced a long history of environmentalism (Gadgil & Guha 1993) that extends beyond cultural reverence for certain species. The colonial period, particularly between the 18th and 20th century, witnessed unprecedented pressures on natural resources, especially forests (Gadgil & Guha 1993). These pressures continue in contemporary times due to a large human population and drive the demand for timber, pasture, minerals, crops and numerous services that feed rapid industrial development, which, in turn, feeds back and drives new pressures on natural resources (O'Brien et al. 2004). Unsurprisingly, the last few decades have coincided with precipitous declines in environmental quality, shortage of a variety of natural resources and ecosystem services, as well as the loss of biodiversity in many ecosystems. For example, declining environmental quality has been linked with over half of the country's burden of disease (Taylor & Rahman 1996). Other facets are evident as shortage of water (Briscoe & Malik 2006; Tiwari, Wahr & Swenson 2009), soil degradation and erosion (Bhattacharyya et al. 2007), decline in forest cover (Puyravaud, Davidar & Laurance 2010) and biodiversity loss (Varughese et al. 2009).

Public opinion and policy awareness over these issues have remained strong and are increasingly gaining strength (Sivaramakrishnan 2011). However, there is a great uncertainty regarding the roles scientists, educators and policymakers, among others, must play to arrest, if not reverse, this unabated environmental decline. Legislative instruments existed even in ancient times (e.g. the edicts of Emperor Ashoka from second century BC); with more contemporary statuettes including the Elephants' Preservation Act of 1879, Indian Forest Act of 1927, Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, and Marine Fisheries Regulation Act of 1983, among others (Sivaramakrishnan 2011). Game reserves were maintained by several princely states during the colonial period, and these provided avenues for legal protection to continue in the form of sanctuaries since 1920s that have now increased tenfold in number and area (Fig. 1a–c). Legislation has evolved on wildlife conservation, water and air pollution, biodiversity protection and environmental impact assessment for development projects. India is also a party to most multilateral treaties such as the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), Convention of Biological Diversity, Convention on Migratory Species and protocols on climate change (Montreal-1987 and Kyoto-1997). Notable social-environmental movements have occasionally resisted developmental initiatives (Rangarajan 1996), such as Silent Valley in 1973 to save rain forests from submergence under a proposed hydroelectric project (Oza 1981) and Chipko movement against deforestation (Shiva & Bandyopadhyay 1986). Other prominent government initiatives include Project Tiger, Project Elephant and related efforts (Panwar 1982), Joint Forest Management (Sarin 1995) and more recent debates on tribal welfare (Sekhsaria 2007).

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Figure 1. India's protected areas for biodiversity conservation in form of National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. The number (a) and area (b) of such reserves has increased over the last nine decades, and maybe approaching a point of saturation. Data source–Environmental Information System (ENVIS) India. Land covered by protected areas (c) in India relative to different countries (data from Chape et al. 2005). Land affected by different rates of soil erosion (d) in India (data from Singh et al. 1992).

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Despite the existing legal instruments (Sivaramakrishnan 2011), India faces a plethora of inter-related challenges such as pollution and its consequences for health, declining ecosystem services related to soil and water, deforestation and biodiversity loss, climate change and human–wildlife conflict. We review the major questions that currently engage India's ecologists, and we visit the degree of alignment between the pressing environmental challenges and the ongoing research programmes. We also discuss the infrastructure for training of researchers, and other human resources, to mitigate current and projected challenges.

Contemporary ecological challenges

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Contemporary ecological challenges
  5. Infrastructure and human resource: problems and prospects
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Environmental quality and health

Air pollution and water contamination have historically posed several risks to human health. To avoid waterborne diseases from surface water, large human populations switched to the use of groundwater (Fig. 2) but are now faced with other serious consequences such as arsenic poisoning (Guha Majumder et al. 1988; Nath et al. 2008). This hazard was initially identified in the 1980s in eastern India but has subsequently spread to adjoining regions and is receiving considerable attention from scientists as well as civic authorities (Bagla & Kaisar 1996; Nath et al. 2008). Arsenic contamination is a serious problem in over 20 countries, but Bangladesh and eastern India are among the worst affected (Smedley & Kinniburgh 2002; Mohan & Pittman 2007). For instance, 12 of 19 districts in the state of West Bengal, covering an area of 38,861 km2 and a population of about 50 million, show >50 μg L−1 of Arsenic in groundwater (http://www.soesju.org/arsenic/wb.htm). The northern states of India face a similar problem with uranium (Singh, Singh & Singh 1995) and mercury in groundwater (Zahir et al. 2005). While most attention has been focused on rural settings, there is an increasing awareness about challenges faced by India's rapidly urbanizing population. Densely populated urban centres not only face a wide spectrum of health and environmental concerns (Kandilkar & Ramachandran 2000; Dasgupta 2004) but also create sizeable problems such as waste management (Purkait & Chakrabarty 2011), similar to other developing economies such as China (He, Huo & Zhang 2002) and Brazil (Pereira et al. 1998). Contaminants also pose threats to a variety of wildlife (e.g. Singh & Chowdhury 1999), of which the decline in vultures has received considerable attention (Shultz et al. 2004), and draw parallels with many other countries–such as morbidity in marine mammals of North America (Ylitalo et al. 2005) and persistent organic pollutants in arctic predators (Leat et al. 2011).

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Figure 2. Statewise distribution of (a) human population in Millions (http://www2.wii.gov.in/publications/researchreports/2011/tiger/mee_tiger_2011.pdf), (b) number of protected areas (http://moef.nic.in/soer/list.html) including national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, (c) forest cover (http://www.fsi.org.in/sfr_2011.htm) in 2011, (d) change in forest cover (http://www.fsi.org.in/sfr_2011.htm) between 1999 and 2009, (e) distribution of forest officers (total 3033 officers, http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/KALA%20committee%20report%20IFS.pdf), (f) and groundwater extraction (data from Rodell, Velicogna & Famiglietti 2009).

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Degradation of soil and water resources

Rapid industrialization in India is not only driven by consumption of its own natural resources but also from a number of other countries (Bawa et al. 2010). Soils are paramount for agricultural production to support India's large population and produce products for export, as well as for carbon sequestration to counter rising greenhouse gas emissions. But impoverished soil in response to intensified agriculture is gradually becoming a concern. Following the green revolution, India's agricultural policies may not have been detrimental for soil quality, but increasing levels of soil carbon derived from inorganic sources are being detected and this could be an early warning of chronic geochemical degradation (Bhattacharyya et al. 2007). In a global context, other studies have also suggested that a review of agricultural policies is desirable, as soil degradation can compromise food security for a number of developing countries (Scherr 1999). Official estimates suggest that about 130 Mha of land in India is affected by serious soil erosion (Department of Land Resources, http://www.dolr.nic.in/wasteland2010/wasteland%20Introduction-%20forword%20.pdf). First approximation of countrywide patterns (Fig. 1d) revealed that although less than 1% of the country experienced severe erosion (>80 Mg ha−1 year−1), about 31% of the country's area is affected by heavy erosion (10–80 Mg ha−1 year−1) with the north-western mountains, Western Ghats and the black cotton soils of Peninsular India being primary concerns (Singh et al. 1992). India has one of the largest populations of livestock in the world with about 529 million heads (Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries, http://dahd.nic.in/dahd/WriteReadData/Annual%20Report%202010-11%20English.pdf). Gradual conversion of natural landscapes for livestock production has also been detrimental for soil fertility, and this can impact human livelihoods, particularly in the arid and semi-arid tracts (Bagchi & Ritchie 2010) – a scenario comparable with other regions such as central Asia (Tong et al. 2004) and Africa (Ehui & Pender 2005).

Agricultural intensification may have more serious consequences for water resources as India is subject to droughts and floods in a monsoonal climate (Briscoe & Malik 2006). Engineered solutions to counter the spatial mismatch between droughts and floods, an elaborate scheme for re-distributing river flow, are currently being considered. However, this is expected to impact a large number of aquatic habitats (Lakra et al. 2011), many of which are already threatened, and some ecosystems are still recovering from the effects of the tsunami in 2004. Many important areas for food production are among the most heavily irrigated in the world, where groundwater levels have been depleted at a rate of nearly 30 cm a year, particularly in the northern states (Rodell, Velicogna & Famiglietti 2009; Tiwari, Wahr & Swenson 2009; Fig. 2). Although per capita water consumption is relatively low compared with global patterns, per capita contributions to water pollution are high, and India is also a virtual exporter of large amounts of water to other countries through its trade relations (Hoekstra & Mekonen 2012).

Deforestation, biodiversity loss and human–wildlife conflicts

About 21% of India's geographical area is forested and it ranks 10 among the countries with the largest forest cover (Ministry of Environment and Forests, http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/Report%20to%20the%20People.pdf; FAO Global Forest Assessment Report 2010, http://www.fao.org/forestry/fra/fra2010/en/). Although such figures are influenced by choice of definitions (Puyravaud et al. 2010), India's forest cover has remained stable at around 64 Mha for nearly 3 decades (Ravindranath & Sukumar 1998) although forest distribution is highly variable, with most located in the central- and north-eastern states (Forest Survey of India, http://fsi.org.in/sfr_2011.htm, Fig. 2). Afforestation and reforestation efforts have influenced over 251 000 ha year−1 between 1990 and 2010, resulting in a net gain in forest cover (FAO Global Forest Assessment Report 2010). Secondary forests and agro-forestry, even outside protected areas (Bhagwat et al. 2008), can have high biodiversity value for a wide range of species in different parts of India (e.g. Anand, Krishnaswamy & Das 2008) and also provide important ecosystem services such as pollination (Krishnan et al. 2012).

Despite the increase in secondary forests, India contains only 1% of the total primary forests globally; about 1 Mha of forests burn annually and about 25.5 Mha are affected by grazing by domestic livestock. Studies document persistent and chronic deforestation and biodiversity loss in several regions (Fig. 2), particularly in the biodiversity hotspots of the Himalayas and the Western Ghats (e.g. Jha, Dutt & Bawa 2000; Pandit et al. 2007; Lele & Joshi 2009). Accompanying land-use changes are known to have had negative consequences for mammals (e.g. Pillay et al. 2011) and birds (e.g. Raman 2001). Local extinctions, even in protected areas, are often linked with human pressures similar to scenarios in other parts of the developing world (Brashares 2003); recent studies have highlighted extinction patterns of large-bodied mammals (Karanth et al. 2010; Pillay et al. 2011), but other taxa have not received much attention. Among tropical countries, India's forests are second only to Indonesia in containing threatened mammalian species (Dirzo & Raven 2003). Many other taxa are likely to be at high risk, but quantitative information on their populations is fragmentary; particularly for amphibians and reptiles whose taxonomy, systematics and biogeographical patterns are receiving due attention (e.g. Kamei et al. 2012). Some forms of degradation have also been linked with management interventions that can inadvertently favour invasive species (e.g. Prasad 2009; Srinivasan et al. 2011), which have generally not received much attention (Inderjit, Callaway & Kaushik 2006).

Different types of human–wildlife conflicts, often the consequences of loss of natural habitats and land-use change are on the rise. These include, but are not restricted to, mortality and morbidity of humans due to bears Melursus ursinus, leopards Panthera pardus and lions Panthera leo (e.g. Bargali, Akhtar & Chauhan 2005), loss of livestock to snow leopard Uncia uncia, tiger Panthera tigris and lion (e.g. Saberwal et al. 1994; Bagchi & Mishra 2006), damage to crops and other property by elephant Elephas maximus and other herbivores (e.g. Kumar, Mudappa & Raman 2010). These create general resentment towards conservation efforts (e.g. Athreya 2006; Bhatnagar et al. 2006), even when they involve species that are otherwise culturally revered (Barua, Tamuly & Ahmed 2010). Annually, conflict-related mortality is estimated at 400 people and 100 elephants, and about 500 000 families are affected by crop damage (Ministry of Environment and Forests, http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/ETF_REPORT_FINAL.pdf). Other, more chronic forms of conflict involve local extinctions of many species due to several forms of resource extraction including ethnobotany (e.g. Kala 2005), pastoralism (e.g. Bagchi, Mishra & Bhatnagar 2004) and hunting and poaching (e.g. Datta, Anand & Naniwadekar 2008; Aiyadurai, Singh & Milner-Gulland 2010). Many forms of conflicts prevailing in India also exist in other parts of the world: carnivore-related conflict in nearly all continents (e.g. Australia – Greentree et al. 2000; South America – Mazzolli, Graipel & Dunstone 2002; Europe – Merrigi & Lovari 1996; and Africa – Ogada et al. 2003), indicating that ameliorative measures developed elsewhere can be adopted with site-specific adaptations and vice versa (Madden 2004).

Illegal wildlife trade surely exerts a heavy cost on India's biodiversity through products such as mongoose hair, snake skins, rhino horn, tiger and leopard claws, bones, skins, whiskers, elephant tusks, deer antlers, shahtoosh wool, turtle shells, musk pods, bear bile, tortoises and freshwater turtles, medicinal plants, timber and pet trade in birds (Sodhi et al. 2004; TRAFFIC 2008). While all south-east Asian countries are signatories to CITES, nearly 300 million wild-caught animals, from 300 CITES-listed species, were estimated to be traded from this region to major markets in Europe and Japan between 1998 and 2007, and the volume of illegal trade is thought to exceed these figures (Nijman 2010).

Climate change

Climate change is a global concern, and India is feeling its share of problems attributed to changing weather patterns. India is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) and accounts for about 5.3% of global emissions, which is about a third of the emissions from China and USA. Energy, industry, agriculture and automobiles are prominent sources of GHG. The energy sector, at around 200 GW, is the fifth largest in the world, and over half of this fuelled by coal. However, India's reliance on coal for energy is lower than countries such as China, Australia, South Africa (WCI 2012), as renewable sources contribute about 29% of total energy (Ministry of Power, http://www.powermin.nic.in). Together with emissions through land-use change, India emits 1.7 billion tons of GHG (Olivier, Janssens-Maenhout & Peters 2012), but, per capita GHG emissions at 1.5 tons of CO2 equivalent, are considerably lower than the global average of 5–6 tons (Olivier, Janssens-Maenhout & Peters 2012). Emissions from automobiles are rising steadily as the number of registered motor vehicles has increased from 5.4 million to about 72.2 million between 1980 and 1981 and 2003 and 2004, and these are estimated to collectively emit over 220 Tg of CO2 (Ramachandra & Shwetmala 2009).

Many of the environmental problems listed previously may be further exacerbated by climatic changes such as increased frequencies of droughts and floods (Menon et al. 2002), which may impact food production, water supply, human health and energy use, forestry and biodiversity (Ravindranath et al. 2006). Changes in monsoonal patterns and changes in sea level can threaten coastal cities (Shukla et al. 2003). The large rural, primarily agrarian, population is slowly awakening to the reduction in water sources, changes in monsoon, loss of snow cover on mountains, phenological changes in crops and emergence of new agricultural pests (Chaudhary & Bawa 2011).

Bioclimatic projections also suggest a change from dry-to-moist forests in northern and western India and from moist-to-dry forests in the southern region, indicating a turnaround of forest types within the next seven decades (Ravindranath et al. 2006). Some global circulation models project warmer and wetter future conditions in India due to intensified summer monsoons (Shukla et al. 2003). However, as increased evapotranspiration could reduce soil moisture, the impacts on agricultural production remain uncertain (Kumar & Parikh 2001). Few studies have attempted analyses of multiple climatic stressors on agriculture, and these projections indicate that the north-western semi-arid region is not only the most vulnerable but also possesses low adaptive capacity in biophysical and social dimensions of future adaptations (O'Brien et al. 2004). Simulations for wetter parts of the country, involving a variety of model algorithms and parameters, indicate slight-to-moderate increase in crop production under future climate scenarios, if N inputs are carefully managed (Aggarwal & Mall 2002).

Several vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, chikungunya and elephantiasis are prevalent in India, and climate change is likely to influence their transmission (Dhiman et al. 2010). Estimates suggest about 1.48 million cases of malaria occur annually in India, and 1173 deaths were reported in 2007 (National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme 2007, http://www.nvbdcp.gov.in/). Models suggest that, with changes in climate, the northern Indian states may develop year-round suitability for malaria as in the southern states. Likewise, dengue, which is predominant in the southern states, may spread to the northern parts of the country with changes in temperature and rainfall (Dhiman et al. 2010). Although developed countries emit more GHG than developing countries, the latter are likely to be disproportionately affected by the consequences of vector-borne diseases, and India is likely to contribute substantially to the global burden of infectious diseases in future climatic scenarios (Shuman 2010).

Infrastructure and human resource: problems and prospects

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Contemporary ecological challenges
  5. Infrastructure and human resource: problems and prospects
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

The above-mentioned problems pose a formidable challenge to India's ecologists, urban planners, health workers, social scientists, educators, media, administrators and policymakers, among others. Ecology can have a major role to play in mitigating all of these challenges, especially the ones that are of biophysical origin but extend into human dimensions: for example, biodiversity crisis, human–wildlife conflicts and climate change. This calls for coordination between India's ecologists, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and educators. Other challenges, which probably originate from human dimensions but have ecological consequences, also require attention. Multidisciplinary approaches need to be developed which step up methodological (cleaner production, waste management, vaccination, awareness, etc.), technological (health, pollution, climate change) and law enforcement strategies (for poaching, wildlife trade, pollution, environmental clearance of developmental projects), as issues of social justice, food production and poverty, can also have direct and indirect links with biodiversity issues (Adams et al. 2004; Adams 2012). Below we emphasize problems and prospects that are primarily of biophysical origin, but can spill over into the human dimension and require attention from ecologists and policymakers. Admittedly, there are social and judicial concerns that have implications for biodiversity; the nature and extent of this gap is highly heterogeneous and requires in-depth analyses by experts in the human dimensions. In addition, as many of the identified problems may require extensive dedicated reviews, we have selected biodiversity conservation to expand upon.

Unlike some other developing countries, majority of land under natural vegetation cover is under public ownership in India. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (www.envfor.nic.in) currently oversees all official policies and their implementation related to natural resources such as the lakes and rivers, biodiversity, forests and wildlife, animal welfare and the prevention and abatement of pollution. Biodiversity conservation is implemented through the Indian Forest Service in the different states. Forest officers are trained in a variety of disciplines ranging from forestry to administration; biodiversity conservation and wildlife management initially comprises about 6.94% of total time and effort for trainees (Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy). Each state can subsequently encourage mid-career officers for further training on biodiversity issues (http://www.ignfa.gov.in/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=BHIihca%2bymc%3d&tabid=322; http://www.ignfa.gov.in/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=7HAXOHcumGU%3d&tabid=322) (Wildlife Institute of India, http://wii.gov.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=378&Itemid=363). Unlike other countries, such as the USA, there is no administrative or research wing dedicated primarily towards wildlife and biodiversity concerns. Recruitment of forest officers has varied with time, with about 369 during the 1970s, an increase to 1165 during the 1980s, 449 in the 1990s and again 331 in the 2000s (Ministry of Environment and Forests, http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/KALA%20committee%20report%20IFS.pdf). Differences in forest cover among the states could be a factor in the distribution of forest officers across the country (Fig. 2).

The Forest Department for each state is also responsible for management of protected areas, and other administrative units. Perhaps, as a reflection of this administrative infrastructure, biodiversity conservation has remained almost exclusively focused on the protected areas, with considerable interest shown in demographic studies on the most charismatic species. While there are many potential benefits of this approach, such as generating public awareness and interest among the media for broader outreach, it can also divert attention away from other equally important issues. Charismatic species were intended to be representatives of their respective ecosystems but much emphasis is currently focused on their symbolic value and cultural significance instead. For instance, biodiversity conservation is frequently reduced to a debate over wildlife vs. people (Sekhsaria 2007), rather than the ecological and societal benefits of protecting natural landscapes. There has been a long debate over population status of certain species, such as the tiger, as the official figures were not supported by independent research conducted by scientists. This debate seems far from settled as different methodological approaches are yet to be reconciled and has been re-invigorated after the recent increase in tiger poaching (Karanth et al. 2011). Parallel debates have raged over estimates of forest cover, and rates of deforestation and recovery, where scientists have questioned the official figures (Puyravaud, Davidar & Laurance 2010). Other aspects, such as bureaucratic hurdles for research, have also caused acrimony between India's scientists and administrators (Madhusudan et al. 2006). While some administrators and bureaucrats consider research to be incompatible with conservation, others consider it to be essential (Bagla 2012), highlighting the need for a coherent nationwide vision over biodiversity issues.

Globally, about 104 791 protected areas cover over 20 million km2, or about 12.2% of the world's land surface (Chape et al. 2005), of which about 668 are in India, covering 4.9% of the country's area (Fig. 1d). These protected areas differ greatly in their effectiveness due to a variety of socio-political reasons, such as presence of extremists, conflicts with the local communities and control of poaching. However, the official preservationist policies have been remarkably successful in preventing the extinctions of a large number of species against heavy odds, and the protected areas serve as refuges for many populations despite facing a plethora of pressures. Among the large-bodied animals, the cheetah Acionyx jubatus and pink-headed duck Rhodonessa caryophyllacea have become extinct in the last few decades, while several other extinction-prone species have survived, albeit precariously, in the different reserves. This is despite that life histories of large-bodied wildlife: elephant, rhino, buffalo, tiger, lion, dolphins and many primates, among others–being incompatible with many forms of human presence. These preservationist policies contrast with other countries that have experimented with conservation through sustainable management approaches (Dickson, Hutton & Adams 2009), for example, community-based trophy hunting programmes in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America (Shackleton 2001; Heberlein, Ericsson & Wollscheid 2002; Lindsey, Roulet & Romanach 2007). Official attempts to relocate tribal communities to reduce pressures on the reserves have had mixed success due to heterogeneity in the socio-political landscape (Rangarajan & Shahabuddin 2006). Often, the management objectives of protected areas are envisioned and defined within administrative boundaries and reflect the constraints imposed by manpower, equipment and other logistics, rather than an overarching scientific vision. This leads to inevitable mismatch among mandates of administrators and researchers (Madhusudan et al. 2006) and can only be ameliorated through more effective communication and integration towards regional targets whose scope transcends administrative boundaries.

India's extensive coastline, totalling over 7500 km in length, houses diverse marine and coastal ecosystems. But marine protected areas, or reserves dedicated to aquatic ecosystems, are underrepresented. Currently, 31 marine protected areas account for only 4% of area under legal protection and cover about 1% of the country's continental shelf (Singh 2003). Overfishing and problems associated with bycatch are of world-wide concern (Jackson et al. 2001; Davies et al. 2009) and have serious ecological and economic implications for India (Lobo et al. 2012). Recent studies have documented that watersheds of terrestrial protected areas benefit adjacent aquatic ecosystems and fisheries (Abraham & Kelkar 2012), thus highlighting the need for evaluating protected areas as functional landscapes, in addition to their role in biodiversity protection.

The above-mentioned constraints may also funnel conservation attention towards the most charismatic species, and biodiversity outside protected areas has received little attention even though its importance is now well known under a variety of settings (Cox & Underwood 2011; Sundar 2011) and to adopt landscape-level approaches for conservation (Singh & Milner-Gulland 2011). Urban biodiversity remains inadequately explored, although it can face severe conflicts (e.g. commensal primates in cities and villages, Radhakrishna & Sinha 2011). Recent analyses of protected areas in tropical forests have implicated changes occurring outside reserves as a major factor in ecological degradation (Laurance et al. 2012), and this is broadly relevant to India as well. In reality, the interface between humans and wildlife and the scope for resultant conflicts are greater in multiple-use landscapes and necessitate a search for innovative solutions to generate conservation incentives (e.g. Mishra et al. 2003). Additionally, the scope for declaring protected areas and the ability to effectively manage them perhaps needs more attention as discussed over the recent disappearance of tiger from some reserves (Wildlife Institute of India, http://www2.wii.gov.in/publications/researchreports/2011/tiger/mee_tiger_2011.pdf, Fig. 1). In practice, biodiversity value of protected areas and their surrounding land-use matrix (e.g. Mishra et al. 2003; Sundar 2011) and ecosystem services they provision (e.g. Williams-Guillén, Perfecto & Vandermeer 2008; Bagchi & Ritchie 2010), need to be better integrated with emerging paradigms of conserving functional landscapes (Singh & Milner-Gulland 2011). There are encouraging signs that agricultural and pastoral landscapes can function as strongholds for various taxa (e.g. mammals, Bagchi, Mishra & Bhatnagar 2004; avifauna, Sundar 2011), and recent innovations in community-based programmes in multiple-use landscapes (Mishra et al. 2003) can also foster ecosystem services with resultant benefits for human livelihoods, but these connections are yet to influence policy (Bagchi & Ritchie 2010; Bagchi, Bhatnagar & Ritchie 2012).

There is also a need for integration and alignment among the mandates of the government agencies, state departments, NGOs and educators. In terms of investment in manpower, a large fraction of research and monitoring activities is done by state departments. In most cases, these data target locally relevant concerns, and often do not appear in the peer-reviewed literature and are not readily available to broader audiences. Similarly, scientific research has also contained traditional biases in terms of taxa and geographical location; often focusing on organismal biology of charismatic species. Greater attention to topics that are broadly relevant to both the state departments and for a scientific understanding will be more effective in bridging the gap between how scientists and administrators perceive their roles in meeting contemporary challenges. Detecting and understanding changes in populations and ecosystems requires robust monitoring, but unlike Europe and North America, there is only a single established site for long-term ecological studies in India (Sukumar et al. 1992). Impacts of pollutants and climate change on ecosystem dynamics and resilience, epidemiology, essential ecosystem services such as clean water and pollination, have received little attention from India's ecologists. There is a need for research on these topics to formulate future national level policy and preparedness on environmental issues. Experimental and field studies on climate change and its impacts on agriculture, forestry, biodiversity and ecosystem dynamics are rare in India. On the other hand, India's innovations in space research have yielded state-of-art instrumentation in climate monitoring and remote sensing, which can provide high quality data on meteorological measurements, disaster management and land use and natural resource mapping, that can complement experimental studies (National Remote Sensing Centre, http://www.nrsc.gov.in/; Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, http://www.iirs.gov.in/).

Financial commitment to ecological research and an accompanying educational infrastructure are prerequisites for future advances. Much has already been written about the rapid improvements in India's scientific infrastructure, and its rising prowess in space research, engineering, and bio-medical disciplines (e.g. Stone & Bagla 2012). In comparison, ecology remains less attractive as a career choice for India's scientists. India has three national academies of science, but ecology features only sporadically in their official publications. On the bright side, there are a few regional and international journals dedicated to environmental issues–viz., Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, Indian Forester, Tropical Ecology, International Journal of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and Conservation and Society, as well as several media outlets for popularizing environmental topics. But most of these do not necessarily differentiate between pure and applied research. Indian students receive basic discourses in ecology and environmental topics in school, but the emphasis declines at upper levels. While most universities offer a few courses, very few offer an undergraduate degree programme that enables students to specialize in socio-ecological disciplines. Similarly, while there are a few options at the postgraduate level, most of these are targeted at organismal biology. Nevertheless, India produces a number of doctorates in ecology and related sociological disciplines, and many become employed by government agencies and NGOs, where their focus often gets diverted away from primary research.

Future directions

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Contemporary ecological challenges
  5. Infrastructure and human resource: problems and prospects
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

India has made substantial progress in addressing applied ecological issues at research (e.g. conservation incentives, Mishra et al. 2003), policy (e.g. conflict resolution, Karanth & Gopal 2005) and legislation levels (Sivaramakrishnan 2011), and more research funding and new infrastructure has been promised by the government (Stone & Bagla 2012). It is evident that under-represented topics of research need attention, especially ecological problems that spill over into socio-economic and socio-political realms. The interface between ecological and social sciences is increasingly acknowledged in other countries. For example, new initiatives in USA (http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=13681&org=NSF&sel_org=NSF&from=fund) and UK (http://www.nerc.ac.uk/research/programmes/list.asp) have dedicated research funding for socio-ecological research. If India is to address all aspects of the environmental crisis and develop new technologies, strategies and approaches to deal with it, a greater emphasis is also needed on basic and applied ecology. For biodiversity conservation, the research agenda needs to be broadened from species-centred studies of organismal biology towards functional landscapes. The prevalent preservationist approach towards biodiversity conservation has numerous co-benefits that can help address issues over ecosystem services (Bagchi & Ritchie 2010), and perhaps, even ameliorate environmental quality. The education system also needs to include ecology as a mainstream subject and provide more opportunities for undergraduates to pursue ecology as a career. The heterogeneity in socio-political landscapes also needs to be accounted for; management planning and conservation, in general, should look beyond protected areas. Such multi-disciplinarity of environmental conservation as a prescriptive science requires thinking across social and ecological dimensions (Adams et al. 2004; Jepson, Barua & Buckingham 2011; Adams 2012) and calls for more sustained engagement with the social sciences and ecology in India (Shahabuddin & Rangarajan 2007).

New innovations in community-based conservation in India may influence policy decisions in ways that are perhaps unmatched elsewhere (Mishra et al. 2010). These demonstrate that administrators and scientists can, in fact, align their mandates through effective communication, and undertake both proactive and reactive approaches which also encourage long-term monitoring that increases synergy between ongoing research programmes. It is apparent that although some problems, their intensity and extent, are unique to India, many occur globally and highlight a scope for exchange of applied ecological information.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Contemporary ecological challenges
  5. Infrastructure and human resource: problems and prospects
  6. Future directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

We received support from the thematic programme for Wildlife and Foresty at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (NJS), Texas A&M University (SB), and NISER (SB) while preparing the manuscript. Y.V. Bhatnagar, P. Trivedi, K. Danell and M.D. Madhusudan offered valuable suggestions. We are grateful to the editors and the anonymous reviewers for critiques on earlier drafts. Authors declare no conflict of interest.

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