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'Laws in itself are not enough to save a species'

While the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India has provided Rs 27 lakh to Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) for the giant clam studies in Andaman, the Whitley Fund has granted £70,000 (Rs 63 lakh) for the two-year programme in Andaman and Nicobar islands on June 13 this year. Excerpts from the interview with Deepak Apte:

Dr Deepak Apte
Dr Deepak Apte was awarded the Whitley Conservation Award by Shears Foundation for outstanding work in the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) of Lakshadweep, India in 2008. Pics Courtesy/Deepak Apte

What are Giant Clams and where are they found in India?
Giant Clams are the largest living bivalve mollusks that live fixed to a substrate and survive for over 100 years. They are extremely vulnerable to climate change. If monitored over generations, they can be a powerful tool for studying environmental changes. Ten species of giant clams are known worldwide of which in India --two species are found in Lakshadweep and five in the islands of Andaman and Nicobar. Three of them are in the Schedule 1 of Wildlife Protection Act.

Tell us about the Giant Clams in Lakshadweep.
For the past nine years, I have been conserving the Giant Clams in Lakshadweep. I was awarded the Whitley Conservation Award by Shears Foundation for trying a new model of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Lakshadweep, India in 2008. In some islands of Lakshadweep the giant clam population is so low that unless re-introduction is done, these can undergo extinction. I have been monitoring their erratic breeding patterns, and mortality rates. Each clam releases about 300-500 million eggs and sperms. At least 20-60 adult clams per hectare are required to have a recruitment of 1.5 juveniles per hect. The Agatti island has the highest density being 210.63 clams/ha increasing to 274.14 clams/ha from 2004 to 2012. Amini, on other hand, has the lowest density of 20.84 clams/ha declining to 13.66 clams/ha.

What work has been done so far to protect them?
For the first time in marine conservation in India, I have tried introducing co-management concept through the proposed Agatti Conservation Reserve by involving locals to work alongside officials. In 2003, when we started the project here, we first understood what the locals think about the species. With over 80 per cent literate, explaining science of conservation was not difficult. A set of recommendations have been prepared through the Agatti Conservation Reserve management plan on how they wish to conserve their coral reefs and improve their livelihoods.

What gaps did you find in the law?
During the legal consultations and boundary deliniation process however, major gaps/ambiguities in the Wildlife (Protection) Act played a major role in derailing the experiment of co-management. Due to the way in which 36 A (2) and 36 C (2) under clauses 27 (4), and 33 (b & c) are interpreted is a major hinderence to declare conservation reserve. Section 33 leaves control of management of the protected area entirely with the chief wildlife warden making co-management concept redundant. The Agatti Conservation Reserve proposal thus rests with the administration. 

How did this grant come about?
I got my first grant five years ago, for my work in Lakshadweep. The Whitley Fund for Nature does not support a cause as a one-time exercise. They recognise you as a leader in the particular field of research and conservation. Thus through its alumnifunding they offer long-term support for new and innovative ideas.

What is the reason for their endangered status?
Habitat degradation, climate change and trade for souvenirs. Volume of giant clam trade in India is very small and the origin of specimens is not certain. It is primarily attributed to reef degradation and unscientific lagoon and
reef management.

What laws are in place for Giant Clams? Is it enough?
The Giant Clams are in the Schedule 1 of Wildlife Protection Act, but this is of no use unless the species recovery plan prepared by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) is implemented. We have to work with local communities and educate them. Turn them into partners in the conservation.

What do you hope to achieve with this two-year programme?
There is no information on the Giant Clam populations from Andaman and Nicobar islands. The work is on to expand our understanding and research, gather more information on the species here, and collect data on their population and strengthen the giant clam species recovery plan.

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