Topics in biodiversity: students spend Spring Break in India

Kate Welch spent Spring Break in India. Photo courtesy Kate Welch.

By Taylor Allyn

Over spring break, Kate Welch and seven other students in Professor Royal Gardner’s Topics in Biodiversity class, Jaclyn M. Clark, Jessica L. Dewolf, Amika M. Jeffries, David A. Weiger, Maria C. White, Jennifer N. Winn and Hannah M. Yoder, traveled to Pune, India, to present at the Wildlife Law and Enforcement Conference hosted by the Wildlife Trust of India. The conference was created as a memorial for the man who established the Wildlife Trust and created modern wildlife crime enforcement in India, Ashok Kumar.

Welch is no stranger to India, having spent the summer after her first year working with the same trust focusing on elephant protection and habitat restoration. The non-profit organization is working to establish and secure 101 elephant corridors that protect elephants by ensuring safe passage between conservation areas. Rapid urbanization in India has interfered with elephant migrant routes, prompting unique solutions to human-elephant conflicts, said Welch.

“Sometimes [a solution] is elevating a highway so that animals can pass underneath it. Sometimes it’s building a land bridge over the highway so other animals can go that way. Sometimes it’s making sure that speed limits are really low at night so that people can see when animals are crossing,” said Welch.

Welch presented at the Wildlife Law and Enforcement Conference. Photo courtesy Kate Welch.

At the conference, Welch presented on the fates of endangered animals after they are intercepted by authorities and taken from wildlife traffickers. Most of these animals end up in zoos, aquariums, or conservation missions, but many are so sick or injured that they die before they can be rehabilitated. Surprisingly, the most heavily trafficked endangered species is corals, making up 40 percent of all seizures by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

One of the goals of the Wildlife Trust is to raise money for wildlife enforcement in India. According to Welch, there are strong protections in place for animals but little funding to enforce those protections. The organization raises money to train rangers how to track and intercept wildlife traffickers and to gather evidence for prosecution. Consequently, animal protection and habitat conservation often overlap with other environmental issues related to land, air, and water.

“If you can make sure [animals] have a pristine habitat, then a lot of other things are going to be affected like less deforestation and cleaner rivers,” said Welch.

After the conference, Welch and the group traveled to Kanha National Park in search of tigers, sloth bears, and swamp deer. The weather was not conducive to tiger viewing but they had the chance to see the latter two species which are unique and native to India. When the national park was first established, several villages and native tribes had to be relocated to maintain a suitable habitat for protected animals. However, it can be difficult to reconcile the needs of native people with the needs of endangered animals.

“You have to strike a balance because you want people to have this connection with nature that they’ve always had but you also want to give animals their space,” said Welch.

In the future, Welch said that she would like to work abroad or with an international organization.

“I want to encourage other people to take up opportunities, especially your first summer,” said Welch. “Do something that you find interesting. Find something new.”

To learn more about environmental law at Stetson, visit the Institute for Biodiversity Law and Policy.