From this year on, children are frightened

When I came to Pondicherry in 1990, the main vehicle was the cycle. I thought that all efforts should be made to keep it that way. People exercised, the air was clean and the traffic not dangerous, apart from the buses. My reasoning was that city development should be organized to emulate that of Holland, a fairly advanced country at that time, in terms of environment management.

I did not voice my opinion. Firstly, I belonged to a “rich” country and secondly, India was beginning to liberalize its economy and develop economically. All errors that had been committed by others would be imitated. India succeeded superbly, New Delhi being one of the most polluted capitals on earth.

After thirty years in this country, I lived the life of a middle-class Indian and I feel I can now say something, without being accused of neocolonialism: it is time to change the way we use energy.

Greta Thunberg, a 15 year old girl from Sweden, stopped going to school this year, because she knows this:

The less than 2 degrees warming in 2100 of the Paris agreement is 5% likely. We are likely to reach 2 to 4.9 degrees increase with the median of 3.2 degree (Raftery et al. 2017) – with horrendous consequences such as the burning of the Amazonian forest, crops failure and hundreds of millions people migrating. Agriculture in India will suffer.

This will be accompanied with: ocean acidification, water depletion, soil erosion, deforestation and habitat loss.

Xu and Ramanathan (2017) have defined risks categories for climate change. The categories are: more than 1.5 °C is dangerous; more than 3 °C is catastrophic; and more than 5 °C is unknown, implying beyond catastrophic, including existential threats to civilization. Today, we are in the “catastrophic” to the “unknown” categories… about to happen.

These statistics do not talk to us of course. Yesterday we went to work, did our business, sent the children to school and visited our relatives. Tomorrow will be the same. But what predictions say, I am afraid, is that this is about to end in a decade, two decades, half a century? In other words, your children or your grand-children have no future if we continue to use energy the way we do. This is why Greta did not go to school.

It is always possible to act. If not for us, for our children.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

Poison in, poison out: bon appétit

It killed plants, birds, insects, but it’s good for you!

On our trip to France, we decided to drive through the small country roads to reach our destination crisscrossing farmlands, villages and patches of woodlands. We stopped now and then to admire the beautiful villages, churches and agricultural landscapes which seemed deserted compared to India with its over one billion people. Soon I started to notice something odd: everything was too quiet. We did not hear the chirping of the birds, see fluttering butterflies and other insects. We stayed with a friend at Uzès, a small picturesque village in the south with remarkable historical monuments preserved over the ages. The evening descended and the air was filled with chirps of hundreds of birds coming to the avenue trees to roost. These were flocks of starlings. They had left by morning and raucously announced their return at dusk. However, in the countryside, again there were too few birds. Since it was late September I thought that perhaps this was normal, but Jean-Philippe remembered much more life from his childhood.

On return to India, I asked Dr. Raphaël Mathevet, Head of the Department of Ecology at the French Institute of Pondicherry, about the paucity of avifauna in rural France, particularly in agricultural landscapes. He wrote back stating that scientists at CNRS and the Museum of Natural History in Paris had recorded a catastrophic decline in avifauna particularly in agricultural landscapes https://www.lemonde.fr/biodiversite/article/2018/03/20/les-oiseaux-disparaissent-des-campagnes-francaises-a-une-vitesse-vertigineuse_5273420_1652692.html. They have noted an 80-90% decline of some birds since the mid 1990’s that they attributed to agricultural practices such as pesticide and herbicide usage that decreased the number of insects for insectivorous birds, and wild plants for seed eating birds. Agricultural intensification, particularly practices such as spraying pesticides, fertiliser use and weeding was associated with biodiversity loss in European farmlands (https://www.wur.nl/en/show/Effects-of-agricultural-intensification-on-biodiversity-and-ecosystem-processes-on-European-farmland.htm) and destruction of pollination services.

The Europeans may be getting more tolerant of large mammals due to supportive public opinion (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/346/6216/1517.full) but they are killing their small biodiversity. In India, large carnivores survive in human dominated landscapes due to the tolerance of people to wildlife presence. However, with agricultural intensification, we will be following the same way as Western countries. Poison in the environment and in the food. Can it be tolerated?

Priya Davidar

 

Murphy’s law in conservation

Engineers have the Murphy’s law. Ecologists didn’t have anything similar since evolution through natural selection optimizes ecosystem functioning: if anything goes wrong, it is eliminated. This was before managers came in. At present, in our modern world, we must manage nature. Some problems are addressed and the outcomes are surprising. Here are a few examples:

In certain areas, people are prey for tigers. It is site specific and in the reserves where it happens, not only does the Forest Department try to eliminate or remove the man-eating tigers, the administration also provides a substantial financial compensation to the family. The compensation does not heal people of their pain, but eases some of their difficulties at the worst time possible. Smart guys however, send their old parents to the forest hoping a hungry tiger will find the meal to its taste. And in case no tiger happens to wander into their vicinity, some even take the trouble of doing the tiger’s job. It’s not so simple to be a top predator and sometimes the reward is jail.

The Animal Husbandry Department of Tamil Nadu came to the rescue of the poor with a poverty alleviation program whereby goats were distributed. This should not have happened near protected areas for many reasons, among others: goats destroy vegetation, and herders put their lives in jeopardy getting close to elephants or… tigers. But the destruction was somewhat controlled: the boundless imagination of humans kicked in to resolve the ecological problem and make the poverty alleviation program a success. By stealing the goats, some smart thinkers ultimately help with vegetation regrowth and enrich themselves, till they hit the local TASMAC (the state distributor of alcohol) outlet. The state finally gets its money back and the financial transactions along the way are accounted as development. Everybody wins!

There is a fairly good system for providing rations in the countryside where a lot of people are poor. It avoids tremendous suffering, there is no starvation and it probably contains social problems that may occur if it did not exist. There are minor disadvantages, though: menial jobs can be used to just obtain extra perks from life. Petty criminality (over-harvesting of wood for example), generates extra-money to purchase alcohol. This devastates ecosystems and again, puts people in contact with problematic wildlife. A solution that has not be tried is to ration alcohol. Why not give it a try, after consultation with social-scientists and doctors? Since solutions often create problems, maybe some problems could create some solutions?

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

If you think India has a population of 2000 tigers, you are mistaken

Photo: Rémi Daudin

I follow Conservation Bytes (https://conservationbytes.com), a blog maintained by Dr. Corey Bradshaw, an Australian scientist. He specializes in mathematical modeling of ecological processes, in particular, that of population genetics. In a recent post (https://conservationbytes.com/2018/04/03/why-populations-cant-be-saved-by-a-single-breeding-pair/ and https://theconversation.com/au), he warns that animal (or plant) populations should not become too low, otherwise the species will be lost, even though some individuals remain alive.

The basis of calculation is as follows: a population of 250 to 500 is needed to obtain fifty effective individuals, i.e., those who can breed. However, to retain evolutionary potential – to remain genetically flexible and diverse – the IUCN criteria suggest that at least 500 effective individuals are needed, which requires a population of 2,500 to 5,000.

Variation exist from species to species. But, is seems a “huge” number of individuals are needed for species to survive forever (say thousands of years). As you may know, most tiger and Asian elephant populations are lower than 2,500. If the Asian elephant population in and around the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (the largest in the world) seems to be of an adequate size, the tiger population of this region (also the largest in the word for this species) is only about 600 individuals.

The sad reality is that most tiger and Asian elephant populations are too low and the tiger is on the verge of extinction. The 2,000 tigers or so remaining in India is just a number of little importance. The number we should remember is that the largest population approximates 600 tigers, which means that the species is hanging by a thread. Other large populations in India and abroad are badly needed if we want to keep these species.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

Human wildlife conflict: a perpetual state of emergency

Buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. The state of emergency: the reserve is already overgrazed by domestic cattle.

A paper (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13099/abstract;jsessionid=3DF215276B3C5DAEDB135ED3C6C99422.f03t01) recently published in Conservation Biology caught me by its title: “The perpetual state of emergency that sacrifices protected areas in a changing climate”. The paper says that some protected areas in the USA will be used to alleviate farmers’ problems due to climate change. The question one might ask is: “why can’t farmers find new places in order to make a living?” But of course, there is nowhere else to go.

We have the same kind of resource-related problem near the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. People get killed by large wildlife because animals such as the elephant, the gaur (Indian bison) enter human settlements. By and large the cohabitation is peaceful, but accidents happen. Here, the question is: “why don’t we kill the problematic animals?” The answer is because the Asian elephant is an endangered species and the gaur a vulnerable species. In other words, the survival of both species is in jeopardy. Again, the “resource” (the animals we are talking about), have become rare, too rare to attempt something drastic with them.

In 1960 when the world human population was 3 billion, scientists were already warning of the potential catastrophic outcomes of over population – the transformation of the biosphere into a wasteland. In the 1960s, it was still possible to target “problematic” animals, even to allow hunting (the British already had a heavy hand on “pests” in India though). This possibility has now vanished. As a civilization, we haven’t avoided this nightmare where margin for solutions are narrow or nonexistent. At present, all solutions are “tough calls”. Or we lose a precious human life or a job, or the last individuals of threatened species or some ecosystem. We will “lose” as long as our population does not go down, and it may be too late for our children to recover a decent biosphere.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

Protected areas: speed limits for show!

The road between Masinagudi and Ooty crosses the core of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. The speed limit is 30 km per hour to avoid accidents with protected wildlife that includes the endangered tiger. But it does not make any difference. People do what they like.

It takes 11 m to stop a car going at 30 km per hour (http://www.random-science-tools.com/physics/stopping-distance.htm). I personally go in third gear at no more than 50 km per hour, when the stopping distance is 24 m. I feel I am safe with wildlife because the visibility is good. It happened to me to avoid spotted deer rushing out of the jungle. Having said that, don’t imagine that I am a rash driver. I am the slowest driver in the region. With our old Bolero I overtake only when a city car is slowed by a speed breaker. Otherwise buses are going faster (maybe 60 km per hour, or 32 meters to stop), jeep taxis and small buses are going faster (put 70 km per hour or 42 meters to stop) and tourists, well put often 80 km per hour (or 53 meters to stop).

Anyone can kill a tiger and if they were not already so rare, it would happen.

This is a typical instance where the law is strict but totally ineffective. Firstly, it does not make sense and 30 km per hour is an exaggeration put in place by someone who forgot to think. It does not serve any purpose and as a proof, the speed limit in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve is 40 km per hour. Secondly, even though this law is strict, it is never implemented. I have never witnessed anyone getting a ticket for over speed and I guaranty every car goes above the speed limit. Thirdly, it can be used to criminalize anyone. For example, if you drive at 80 km per hour on this road and rush to give this opinion piece to the police, I could be getting a ticket for over speed! Isn’t the world beautiful?

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

Do or do not. There is no try – Yoda

Political ecology, to my knowledge, does not exist in India at least in the mainstream parties. It exists in France but the (supposedly) democratic decision-making process, personal ambitions and the theoretical hair-splitting differences have neutered the movement. To manage the environment better, politics doesn’t work and education doesn’t perform much on this front: we are destroying our world and us with it seemingly without any possibility of correction.

If large-scale social consensus is unachievable, maybe we should aim at the smallest possible entity – us, individuals. This proposal is anarchism. Usually depicted as violent, anarchism is actually supposed to rest on individual responsibility, not on violence. It is consequently maybe the highest form of political involvement. Anarchists are not the only ones to insist on personal responsibility. The Indian philosopher Krishnamurthi was saying that any individuals must become his/her own savior. This is very much in alignment with the concept of Self, except that Krishnamurthi, contrary to tradition, shunted the idea of guru. If you take things in hands, you save yourself and the world!

You may tell: “biodiversity is getting destroyed, I don’t know anything about it, but I would like to act personally.” My suggestion is to follow your preference, biodiversity offers plenty of choice. If you like birds, insects, plants, anything wild, then try to document something you like. Wherever you are, in a city, a garden, a park, there still may be some life. Keeping it is a challenge and most of the time, we don’t know anything about it. To become knowledgeable, you can start probing the internet. When you become familiar, you can purchase books on the topic, take picture with locations and whenever possible, identify. After a few weeks, you will meet people with the same passion, and who knows, maybe a desperate NGO will be able to use your documentation to make a point and save a few square meters of valuable ecosystem.

In 1997 E.R.C. Davidar wrote a book (Cheetal Walk, living in the wilderness, Oxford University Press) that synthetized his naturalist knowledge about the Sigur Region, north of the Nilgiris, India. It was not a scientific book but sufficiently documented to provide valuable ecological information. Today the book is used to conserve ecosystems in the Nilgiris. Consequently, individual passion about life works and helps conservation: we know it from experience.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

A better future

When you go to work today, you will be believing in a better future. Your job slowly pulls you out of poverty, you live in a decent neighborhood and you made your flat or house a little paradise where it is good to come back in the evening. Your children will be well educated, will have good professions, good jobs. You hope to have grandchildren, who again will be happy. Life, for you and your beloved ones will keep on improving.

When you go back to work the next day, you may be in the same frame of mind. But to maintain the belief in a better world, you will have to ignore a few things. In one day, between 24 and 150 species vanish from the surface of the earth and more than 100 km2 of native forest are being cut. More than 20,000 tons of plastics find their way in the oceans and 3 billion fishes are killed. In the same day, 30 km2 of arable land are lost to erosion and 30 million tons of carbon are emitted in the atmosphere. The earth harbors 220,000 more human beings.

You will have to ignore that the aggressiveness you see in people around you and your own aggressiveness is due to overpopulation. When back home and when you use some appliance, you will need to forget that their fragility is not only due to marketing tricks. Our plastics, metals, woods are of poor quality because of a generalized abundance of cheap material. Your next holidays are likely to be in a suburb in spite of the advertisements that promise a “thrilling adventure in the heart of nature”.

Can you ignore an enemy that wants to destroy you and say: “this won’t happen, he will be reasonable and I will continue to live happily”? No, you won’t have a better future unless you fight. The environmental destruction of our planet will ultimately shatter your illusion. It is time to be real: your paradise is in danger.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

The Forest Department: conserving nature starts at home

This article appeared in IndiaWilds (http://www.indiawilds.com/diary/indiawilds-newsletter-vol-9-issue-v/)

Even though biodiversity conservation is also needed outside protected areas, most of it happens inside protected areas. Since protected areas are under the responsibility of the Forest Department, we conservationists / photographers / wildlife lovers, have to deal at one point or another with this administration.

The history of the Forest Department is old and complex. Created during the British occupation, it originally helped to extract resources from the subcontinent and “protect” the forests against villagers who saw their traditional rights denied. Since the Indian Forest Service continued to safeguard the same areas as the occupants, there was a management continuity from the British rule that helped promote the idea that the Forest Department is functioning on the principle of colonialism. The second problem faced by the Forest Department was its narrow foundation in forestry. Forestry tended to consider tree monocultures as “forests” and grasslands as “degraded ecosystems”. According to this logic, any area covered with trees is good, anything else is bad and anyone thinking differently could not be taken seriously. This is how “restoration” programs resulted in ecological disasters, where grasslands for example, were covered with invasive exotic tree species. The disconnection between society and the Forest Department attracted and still attracts criticism. In some parts of India, for example, tribal groups are opposed to conservation on the basis of a condemnation of “colonialism”. Now and then, scientists also complain of difficulties in obtaining research permits. There has been evolution however, the Forest Department personnel is now better trained in ecology, conservation or social sciences. There are also efforts made in involving different stakeholders in the management of forests.

On the other side of the Himalayas, another country comparable in human population, China, offers insights on a different system where resources were accessible to all for the sake of egalitarianism and later for the sake of development. China has lost most of its ecosystems and is now actively promoting the restoration of whatever natural heritage remains – because it needs them. It may be that without the Forest Department tenaciously controlling a significant part of the territory, India would be in the same situation as China. Moreover, if one considers that ecosystems and biodiversity are particularly useful for the poorest segment of the population and represents a capital in terms of ecological services for now and the future, certainly, the Forest Department has some utility.

So there are elements of schizophrenia or mixed feelings regarding the Forest Department. On the one side, the Forest Department is useful, not to say indispensable, on the other side, it has its own peculiar culture that we have to deal with. One could wait for this Administration to modernize or one could attempt to induce some changes in favor of better management of protected areas. We must underline some difficulties caused by society itself in order to act effectively.

The Forest Department is constantly under the pressure of VIP’s to dance to their tune. Officials are at the beck and call of politicians: when a Forest Minister wants an official to come to his office, there is no effort whatsoever to enquire about the schedule of the official himself otherwise it would be perceived as a loss of face. The bosses give orders and it is up to the lower ranks to obey. Consequently, officials cannot organize their time effectively or even prioritize issues to be addressed. All is done in a haphazard manner, scrambling all attempts at organization and probably costing millions to the country in useless trips. Next time you want to take an appointment with a DFO or a Field Director, know that the appointment system does not work at all at the highest level of the hierarchy: how can you expect it to work with your officer? Worse, officers must attempt to prevent protected areas to be used as private parks by politicians and their families. It is common practice to descend on forest lodges and occupy it at the expense of the persons who had made reservations following the proper channel. It also happens that the same people demand to have access to core areas, at night, in their four wheel drive, to experience the thrill of a night safari in the most illegal manner. Lastly, it is not the secret that for such crooked hosts, everything must be free, actively promoting the practice of corruption. When the lowest ranked personnel must generously attend to the food and drinks of a party, they do intend to recover their expenses on other illegal visitors.

The field personnel is overstretched by a variety of issues, the worst being maybe encroachment or illegal structures, where again, the hand of politicians can often be seen. When say, an illegal resort is built, the field personnel does not have sufficient authority to address the problem. They can be threatened or mocked or purchased. Even though we have a centralized system to pay taxes, there is no centralized system to book offenders and create a permanent record in a protected database. If a ranger wants to punish a tourist who has stopped his car in a national park to observe elephants, the offender will call an influential relative who will find a way to cancel the punishment. Basically, the Forest Department personnel is left without the support of their administration unless their superior has the power or the guts to go against a generalized practice of coercion, at the risk of his/her career.

The field personnel is also exposed to criminals such as poachers and some live in constant threat. I have met rangers with bullet wounds who were very dedicated to their work in spite of earning a small salary, getting little acknowledgement and minimum help when it came to pay the hospital bills. The rangers and guards who put their lives in the line of fire to protect, deserve our admiration and even better, our support.

Even obtaining research permits can be difficult. The officers supervising files may not have the training to decide whether a study is needed or not. In order to get help, they request the opinion of academicians. But here, unfortunately again, there is a lot of murky activities. The experts, forgetting their scientific ethics, often are negative about their competitor’s proposals, and reutilize them with cosmetic change to get clearance of the Forest Department through their acknowledged eminence.

In conclusion, there is a lot to say about the Forest Department, but major difficulties are social evils. It is therefore our role to be involved in a positive manner, by imposing better standards on society, bringing solutions, offering training, and participating instead of just sitting on the other side of the fence, waiting. Each time we correct something wrong, chose a good representative, demand transparency in our cities, we may promote conservation in a faraway land.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud.

Not so sure it is not a jumbo crisis

In a recent article the Indian Express (http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/1207661/The-New-Indian-Express-Coimbatore/15052017#page/2/1), elephant conservationists attempted to reassure the public about the present fate of elephants. The 2016-17 drought has affected farmers, ecosystems and wildlife alike. Among the various impacts of this drought, the noticeable deaths of wild elephants has alarmed the public. Experts explained that mortality is higher during some years which regulates populations, and the above average mortality has positive impact in the sense that it reduces density.

One can only agree that populations are naturally regulated by mortality. However, what none of the experts have said is that Asian elephant populations are small. Whatever their size (4015 for the discussed region in 2012, according to the article), elephants in single populations are no more than the population of a human hamlet. Since mortality may alter the species’ genetics, excessive mortality should always be worrisome and treated as dangerous for an endangered species.

Secondly, experts should emphasize more strongly that elephants don’t live under natural conditions anymore due to loss and fragmentation of their habitat, excessive human disturbance, livestock grazing pressure, invasive species reducing forage, combined with limited access to water and food resources. The “let nature take its course” philosophy is no longer possible because unfortunately we have inherited a wild world that requires our management. A close scrutiny of mortality and the understanding of its cause practically in real time, is required.

Even though it is difficult to put any accurate numbers on mortality before the elephant census is over, the hypothetical doubling of mortality may be symptomatic of new ecological conditions, which the experts failed to mention. We cannot ignore the fact that the drought we just witnessed might be the beginning of climatic extremes that will become more prevalent in the future as predicted by climate scientists. In this case, the supposed excessive mortality would become the norm. Therefore, the public has very good reasons to be concerned about our jumbos.

 

Priya Davidar.