Mr. Rohan Premkumar, journalist for the Hindu, was kind enough to ask our opinion about plastic pollution in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. Here is the article:
It must be noted that ITC (the Indian Tobacco Company) in Ooty has a huge facility where they store plastics. The plastic wastes are then sorted, cut into small pieces and added to tar to build roads!
Here at the Sigur Nature Trust, whatever plastic is used is sorted, washed, reused and if not reused, all efforts are made to bring CLEAN to ITC. Best would be to use no plastic but, when you shop, sugar, eggs, rice, etc. are stored in plastics. It could certainly be reduced.
We recently participated in a scientific article published in the prestigious journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA” (www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1714977115). The paper entitled ‘a phylogenetic classification of the world’s tropical forests’ was about the classification or relatedness of trees in the tropical forests of the world. For most of us, a forest is a sum of trees, like say, a plantation. In reality, forests are very complex and have different species composition in different parts of the world. Forests of Asia are different in tree species composition than the forests of South-America. Trees may belong to different genera and different families. For example, the mango tree, Mangifera indica, a native of the Indian subcontinent, belongs to the Anacardiaceae family and the eucalyptus (from Australia), belong to the Myrtaceae family. Looking at many forest plots and the species they harbor, it is possible to detect differences in forest species composition. Our paper shows that the world’s tropical forests can be divided into five major floristic regions (Indo-Pacific, Subtropical, African, American, and Dry forests) and not the traditional neo- versus paleotropical forest division (America vs Africa-Asia). Why should it be so?
Because of the movement of continents at the surface of the earth, a huge continent, Gondwana, split into south-America, Africa in the west and Australia, Antartica, India in the east. The timing of the split of continents tends to explain how closely related trees are globally. In general, the closer trees are in space, the closer they tend to be genetically. The split of Gondwana and not just the formation of the Atlantic Ocean explains vegetation patterns. This is an amazing finding that shows again how important the unique geology of the earth is, for vegetation.
To obtain these results, the main author, Dr. Ferry Slik of the University of Brunei, put together a large database contributed by approximately 150 scientists. The dataset originally included 439 locations containing 925,009 individual trees! Such large networks are more and more frequent in ecological research and help analyze information no individual or laboratory could gather otherwise. It is unfortunate that in spite of all the efforts to know better the biosphere, we continue its destruction at an ever accelerating rate. This may not be wise because the biosphere is our only habitable world.
We have been busy with house repairs this year. Fifty years of weathering and termites (and elephants) have had an impact. Now we are as good as new. Elephants have seen and approved the repairs. Their way of doing so may be questionable. Repaired, the Trust will continue to be a place of peace for wildlife.
For years, we have seen enormous destruction of forests in the Sigur Range, a prime elephant and tiger habitat – by name. But the forest is gone. Not just the forest, the soil as well. Elephants are starving and we learned that hundreds of cows have died of starvation. The ultimate cause of this catastrophe is a poverty alleviation program that encouraged the distribution of goats and sheep to poor people.
Let us say at this juncture that we are not against poverty alleviation programs. On the contrary, we encourage policies that help people out of difficulties. But two questions must be asked about any poverty alleviation program: (i) is it effective and (ii) are there hidden consequences?
About the effectiveness of this poverty alleviation program, it is difficult for us to speak, not being social-scientists. The only knowledge we possess is rather general. Firstly, it is unanimously acknowledged that poverty is reduced primarily through quality education. Secondly, very small enterprises are usually sustained by “nurseries” where people are taught how to become self-sufficient and can manage their small “business” properly. There is no indication that the present program has had any such precaution introduced.
The “hidden” cost of this program in our region is plain obvious. In a few years the forest has vanished. The Forest Survey of India cannot fail to detect the deforestation with remote sensing technology. How such rapid degradation is possible?
Goats and sheep eat leaves. These small animals can easily detoxify tree fodder. As we have wild herbivores and a large number of cows, there is very little to eat on the ground. In these circumstances, the goat herder must provide tree fodder. Consequently, the entire day, the herders will cut branches, take fire wood and eventually, lay traps for wildlife. After a few years of such treatment, a forest that produces little wood and fodder will start to collapse. Trees become rarer and do not reproduce. Since there is no dead wood, the soil become less fertile. It losses its capacity to retain water. Some areas have already become semi-desert. What will be the consequences?
Since we are talking about prime protected forests, wildlife is starving. Elephants for example, do not have grass any more, nor tree fodder, because the tree branches on which they could rely upon have vanished. The recent wave of mortality in cows was due to the drought and now, to starvation. Cows do not eat tree fodder and are at complete disadvantage against goats who also eat grass. Cows end up eating plastic bags dropped by tourists and die by the dozen. One of the undetected cost is therefore the collapse of the cow dung and milk production. By helping some people, the project has made other people poorer…
If this trend continues, the forest will entirely disappear together with the soil. Only a few invasive species will resist. Then, goat herders will themselves suffer from the ecological conditions because herd size will have to be reduced. The poverty alleviation program will turn out to be an unsustainable failure. The ecological cost of this program can probably be counted in millions of dollars and one wonders whether it would not be better to simply distribute this money directly to people instead of causing so much environmental damage and imagining an economic transition happening. What could be done?
It is important to remember that the law itself says that there should not be goat herding in the vicinity of tiger reserves or in elephant corridors. Goat herders should be helped to find alternatives to their present destructive occupation. There are plenty of solutions available. The reserve forests could be used to produce medicinal plants in an extensive manner – among others. By contributing to ecosystem restoration (there were plenty of native medicinal plants in this region), we could rapidly be in the position of generating income sustainably. This kind of possibility, should be taken seriously before irreparable damages are committed. But the question is: does anyone care about protected areas? And finally, because this is the real question: does anyone care about the effectiveness of poverty alleviation programs?
A week after the Electricity Board released water in the Sigur River, the Critically Endangered vulture Gyps bengalensis started perching on a large Terminalia. If the river flows, the Terminalia and the vultures will be preserved. If it does not flow, the Terminalia and the vultures will disappear.
We give names to elephants*. Titi was Bommie’s little calf. I thought he may make it this year, but yesterday (15 Feb. 17), Bommie came with Bunta, without the small one. He is dead. What caused his death?
His death was caused by the lack of water and food. Put simply, wood is cut, harvested and removed till the last branch. Cows overgraze the grass layer, and then goats and sheep eat all tree regeneration and foliage cut by the goat herders. There are no small trees (as we have on the Trust’s property), that could provide some food to baby elephants (they need fodder additionally to their mother’s milk). So they have nothing to eat.
With the worse drought on record in Tamil Nadu, we are facing a potential wave of elephant mortality that population models do not predict. Experts work with fancy mathematics that never take into consideration “unforeseen” events. If it could be expected, it could be modeled. And they go around saying there are too many elephants. But unfortunately, as Nassim Taleb explains in his book “the Black Swann”, the trouble is, we never know how ignorant we are. So when exceptional events happen in an over-exploited world, it can seriously affect the remaining elephant populations. We may encounter a black swan but hope some rain will prove us wrong.
In the meantime, we will miss Titi.
*If you find it is not objective to name elephants, read two paragraphs below and see what is worse: empathy or over-confident science.
Every year in the Sigur Region, the Forest Department provides water to wildlife during the dry season. In collaboration with this effort, we also provide water – every day of the year.
In general, we have only a few elephants and other animals coming. Right now, we have approximately 20 elephants per night, not mentioning the cheetal, the sambar, the sloth bear, leopard, birds, etc. As a result our open well got exhausted.
The reason we face this hardship is because this year is the worst drought on record in Tamil Nadu. Moreover, because of political uncertainty, the Forest Department does not have the possibility to provide as much water as it is used to.
We approached the Forest Department and the DFO gave us the green light to help. The Forest Guards and Rangers will deliver water to different water holes in the vicinity.
We will provide 6 tanks of 2,000 liters to the Forest Department every week. Additionally, we will purchase the same quantity. A water tanker costs Rs 500. Till the first rains, we will need approximately Rs40,000.
If you are willing to contribute:
- Very important: we can receive only donations from India.
- Our bank details: Sigur Nature Trust, Indian Bank, Masinagudi, Branch ID 00218, IFSC Code: IDIB000M018 [IDIB triple zero M zero 18], Account 564501164.
- Inform us by mail (email@example.com) if you make a transfer.
- We will follow donations every day and will inform about donations on our Facebook page. All donations will be used exclusively for the purpose of delivering water.
Once you contribute:
- We and the Forest Department personnel, thank you in the name of some ungrateful elephants.
- If you give Rs3,000, we will send you our book Giant Hearts (worth Rs1,000), within India.
- If you give Rs10,000, you can stay at the Trust (once the rain starts) 2 days AND get Giant Hearts. This is a unique opportunity but please contact us if you are interested because we have strict guidelines (maximum two persons, no children, relative silence, no wandering…).
Thanks in advance.