Thom Mathew director of the Conservation Asia Pacific program at the World Wildlife Fund spoke via telephone with reporter Toni Marshall on environmental conservation concerns in India.
Q: How do conservationists grapple with the idea of saving an endangered species in countries where starvation and poverty are rampant?
A: When one focuses on saving endangered species, it's more than just that; it's conserving a habitat that is vital for the species. Nurturing forest and marine areas bring back health to the land, which benefits the poor the most. It's the poor and the dispossessed in developing countries who live closest to the land and are affected most by destruction of natural resources. Conservation programs attempt to heal the land and its natural wealth, which brings back water supplies, forest and vegetation products to rural communities. In many ways, you are attacking problems of poverty when you are conserving natural resources.
Q: There are reports of farmers killing elephants that wander into their fields and destroy tons of crops used for feeding villagers. Should these farmers be controlled?
A: There are always conflicts in conservation and development work. The problem of elephants and their depredations on crops is a very important one, but there are a number of ways a person can look at it. In India, for instance, this is not a simple conflict. Elephants are a revered species that has been part of our culture, history, myths, legends, religions and so on. So there is a lot of reverence for a species such as the elephant or the tiger. There are many instances where farmers whose crops are destroyed adopt an attitude of fatalism because they feel it is the result of divine intervention. Of course, a lot of those feelings are going as Indian society modernizes.
In the case of elephants, what conservation programs try to do is minimize the instances where elephants come into conflict with human settlements. We can use electric fences or trenches or provide corridors for elephants to move so they don't come into contact with human population.
Q: The exploding population in Asia is placing pressure on land. What is the outlook for India?
A: In the 1960s, India was thought to be a basket case. They thought that in 20 years there would be no way for India to feed its population, and now 30 years later India is a net exporter of food.
That doesn't mean the problems of poverty and hunger are solved. In fact, in many cases the poor cannot afford to buy the food. That's why you have this surplus. But technology and the so-called Green Revolution and the other developmental approaches have enabled food production to keep pace with the growing population. …