Cattle and Conservation at Bharatpur

Few subjects can polarize a group of conservation  practitioners more quickly than grazing in protected areas. For generations of ecologists and park managers throughout the world the destructive nature of livestock grazing on natural systems was so apparent that it never even needed to be discussed. In contrast, villagers and various social ecologists often see grazing as essential to individual (and village) economies, and an acceptable and traditional use of protected landscapes. While many conservationists can intuitively sense that overgrazing can destroy an ecosystem, and that there is a carrying capacity for even the most heavily modified pasture, the reverse proposition – that a complete ban on livestock grazing might be harmful in an ecosystem that has evolved in the context of grazing – is not so self-evident.

In response to the assumptions of conservationists, and only rarely based upon scientific study, national parks throughout the world have been created as cattle-free sanctuaries. This applies equally in India, where the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 defined Indian national parks as cattle-free zones. This law created a universal standard for Indian national parks, forbidding grazing even in places where it had been occurring for centuries. In some parks and places in India, domestic grazing has caused a great deal of harm. In almost all protected areas, overgrazing is a threat. But is it possible that in at least a few national parks, some low level of domestic grazing is perhaps necessary for ecosystem stability?

At Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur, cattle removal did not have the desired effect of improving the health of the ecosystem. When cattle (as well as local fodder collection) were banned in 1982, a Bombay Natural History Society study showed that the park’s habitat and endangered bird populations began a slow decline. The waterways began to be clogged by a few weedy species (the non-domesticated herbivores would not eat them), and the grasslands were subject to repeated wild fires that were fueled by the abundant and ungrazed grasses. In conjunction, this reduced the suitable habitat for the birds (such as the Siberian crane) that had made the park so famous.

This case study challenges the assumption that conservationists can apply seemingly universal truthssuch as “domesticated cattle are always harmful” on local landscapes. The attempt to use ecological insights from one scientific study or one region of the world to devise universal conservation practices is highly problematic, fraught with risks, easily politicised and frequently ineffective. Concretely, this suggests that protected areamanagement needs to be based upon careful ecological study of each specific protected area, and that conservation advocacy (and legal frameworks) should allow for this. All too often though, conservation occurs in the midst of a crisis, and there does not seem to be time for local study. But as Bharatpur illustrates, the price of acting too hastily, and on the basis of non-scientific assumptions, is sometimes the very ecosystem crash that conservationists are trying to prevent.

Originally published as:

Lewis, M. 2003. Cattle and conservation at Bharatpur: A case study in science and advocacy. Conservation and Society 1(1):1–21.

This article is from issue


2007 Jul