As India Grows Rapidly, Conservationists Seek New Strategies

By Jon Gorey, December 19, 2023


With more than 135,000 species of plants and animals, including rare and charismatic cats like Bengal tigers and snow leopards, India is an ecological treasure. Its forests, wetlands, grasslands, deserts, and other ecosystems comprise just 2.4 percent of the world’s land area, but host up to 8 percent of its biodiversity. That same land also holds over 17 percent of the world’s human population, so conservationists are looking at a variety of strategies to ensure ongoing prosperity for humans and wildlife alike. 

Protecting natural habitats is a challenge anywhere. But in a fast-growing place like India—the second-most populous country on Earth—land is under particular strain from development and agricultural pressures, and is also subject to complex legal restrictions.

To better understand those challenges, and some of the efforts to overcome them, a team from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s International Land Conservation Network spent two and half weeks in India earlier this year. Their goal, says Chandni Navalkha, associate director of sustainably managed land and water at the Lincoln Institute, was to learn more about land conservation practices and policy in India, and to make connections that will support ILCN’s efforts to expand its network in Asia. Navalkha was joined by Henry Tepper, advisor to the ILCN and strategic conservation advisor at the Chilean land trust Fundación Tierra Austral, and Marc Evans, founder of the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust and advisor to the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

While private land conservation is commonplace in Western countries and throughout much of the Global South, including in several African and Latin American countries, it’s less well known and practiced in South Asian countries, Navalkha says. In India, that’s partly because of strict government regulations on private land ownership, which limit how much land an individual can own, and how that land can be used, especially when it comes to forested and agricultural lands. Nonetheless, Navalkha says, the country has an active civic conservation movement that works to complement government-led conservation efforts, which the ILCN team learned about by meeting with conservation leaders, legal experts, organizations, and networks. One such leader is Belinda Wright, a noted conservationist and executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, who played a key role in connecting the ILCN team with legal experts and civic conservation practitioners and in providing important context for understanding land conservation efforts across the country.  

“What was really inspiring to us was to see that, in a unique context for civic efforts for land conservation, there were a huge number of initiatives and people who are making their best efforts using the laws and policies in place to protect the places that they love,” Navalkha says. “There’s so much good work happening, so much intact, amazing landscape and wildlife to protect.”

For example, the group visited a 40-acre forest reserve bordering Ranthambore National Park, one of the world’s best-known Bengal tiger sanctuaries. The reserve was created piece by piece, through persistence and passion, by wildlife photographer Aditya “Dicky” Singh and his wife, Poonam Singh. The couple first visited and fell in love with the area in the late 1990s; over the course of two decades, they purchased parcels of farmland bordering the national park and set about cultivating the land with native trees and shrubs, creating more habitat—and even watering holes, as the new greenery helped retain rainfall—for the park’s famed tigers.

Dicky Singh passed away unexpectedly in September, at age 57. But his efforts to celebrate and protect India’s wildlife will leave an enduring legacy. “Aditya was a passionate conservationist and photographer, whose love of wildlife is a beacon for youth in India,” says Balendu Singh, former honorary wildlife warden of Ranthambore National Park, who helped the ILCN group connect with conservationists in Rajasthan.

Land ownership is highly regulated in India, and many private and civic conservation efforts are similarly small in scale. But one sentiment the ILCN team heard repeatedly, Navalkha says, was that the country’s extraordinary biological diversity, set against a backdrop of relentless development pressure from a population of 1.4 billion and growing, “makes every effort at land conservation important, no matter how modest.”

Recognizing Informal Land Conservation

Between 7.5 percent and 22 percent of India’s land is formally protected in accordance with criteria established by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But many additional areas could be considered conserved through a designation known as “other effective area-based conservation measures,” or OECMs.

These areas aren’t formally protected the way a national park or wildlife preserve would be, but still provide enduring conservation and biodiversity outcomes—even if protecting nature isn’t their primary objective. Examples could include a sacred grove, or the watershed around a community reservoir. Since these lands lack formal recognition as conserved spaces, they typically don’t convey clear benefits to landowners. “The concept of an OECM, ideally, is that you’re recognizing protection that already exists, but that has not been recognized or supported,” Navalkha says. “I think that’s valuable, especially in a country like India.” 

Transferring seedlings as part of a reforestation effort at Aravalli Biodiversity Park, a former mining area in the city of Gurgaon, Haryana, India. The 390-acre site was named the country’s first OECM (other effective area-based conservation measure) in 2022. Credit: Vijay Dhasmana via Wikimedia.

OECMs represent a fairly new approach to tabulating conserved spaces; the term was only formally defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2018. But many countries are exploring the role OECMs can play in accomplishing the ambitious global conservation goal known as 30×30—a commitment to conserving 30 percent of the world’s land and oceans by 2030—which 190 nations signed on to at the United Nations COP 15 biodiversity conference in 2022. India is “really ahead of the curve working on identifying, designating, or recognizing OECMs,” Navalkha says.

One challenge, however, is that benefits to landowners and communities for their stewardship efforts are not well established or understood, crucial as they may be to the country’s conservation goals. Navalkha says some kind of incentive program could help to align the motivations of conservationists and government.

“I met three or four different people who are undertaking conservation efforts that would not meet any of the categories of the IUCN’s protected area, but may meet the criteria for an OECM. And there’s still some debate by those individuals about whether being designated as an OECM does anything for them,” Navalkha says. “What benefit does being designated give to a landowner who has helped to create this conservation area and keep it protected?”

Another takeaway from the trip, Navalkha says, was the important role that protecting wildlife—particularly tigers and elephants—plays in India’s land conservation efforts. “A lot of the conservation planning and programming is about human-wildlife conflict, and mitigating and preventing it, to protect these key species,” Navalkha says. In that context, the priorities for the landscape are different and need to be large-scale, community-centered, and multifunctional.

An Array of Approaches

Navalkha and Tepper visited several land conservation initiatives in northwestern and central India, and spoke to other practitioners while attending the fifth Central Indian Landscape Symposium, convened by the Network for Conserving Central India at Kanha National Park. These reserves varied in size, landscape, and approach—some were intended to protect wildlife or create biodiversity corridors, others focused on restoring degraded landscapes—and the team found that no two were alike, except, perhaps, for the amount of work it took to establish them.

The Singhs’ preserve was hardly the only one that took decades to establish. In the foothills of the Himalayas, for example, researcher Subir Chowfin created the Gadoli and Manda Khal Wildlife Conservation Trust to manage several hundred acres of family-owned forestland, with a focus on conservation and scientific research. It took a lengthy legal battle before Chowfin could legally manage the land for conservation purposes; in 2022, the United Nations Development Programme recognized the sanctuary as one of 14 potential OECMs in India.

The boundaries of the Gadoli and Manda Khal Fee Simple Estates, former tea estates in the Himalayas that were once owned by the British East India Company. Now privately owned, the land is managed by a conservation trust that focuses on biodiversity conservation, ecological research, and sustainable agriculture. Credit: Gadoli and Manda Khal Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Indeed, every situation the team encountered was unique. “One of the things I heard that really struck me was that, in India, there’s no such thing as a model,” Navalkha says. “No single approach is going to be replicable across states or places, as every project or initiative is navigating its own unique complexities and contexts. Every single civic land project that we saw was structured in a completely different way.”

Navalkha says she heard, often, of a need for someone to perform a legal analysis across the 28 states and eight Union territories of India to understand the role and opportunity for civil society efforts in particular places. Beyond the complex legal landscape, conservation groups also face funding challenges for land stewardship and management—and it’s not always for a lack of willing donors. Foreign funding is tightly regulated “for conservation, and for land purchase, and even for philanthropic donations,” Navalkha says.

Navalkha says the team returned from India feeling optimistic and excited about the work occurring there, and looks forward to connecting with Indian conservationists who expressed interest in engaging with the ILCN. She hopes some of them will attend ILCN’s next Global Congress, to be held in Quebec City in 2024. “This is the beauty and promise of a truly dynamic ILCN global network,” she says, “especially one with increased geographic representation.”

Jon Gorey is a staff writer at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Lead image: A Bengal tiger at Ranthambore National Park. Credit: eROMAZe via E+/Getty Images.