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.
The Sigur Nature Trust recently sponsored and participated to the meeting on “Future of Nilgiri Mountains” organized by Mr. Venugopal, coordinator of the Save Nilgiris Campaign (SNC). This event, held in Ooty on 3rd February 2017, gathered a small but dedicated audience. Remarkably, the journalists present at this event made a very good job at reporting what was discussed. The article in the Hindu can be found here:
The essence of what we propose for the future of the Nilgiris is based upon a general observation on the local economy and our experience in landscape ecology.
When you want to develop an NGO, a product, a company, a town, a region or a country, you need an idea of what is “marketable” and focus on it. All other issues, whatever their importance, will be settled as long as there is a strong focus on what matters most. Since tourism is the largest industry in the world, and since the region is unique for its biodiversity, it makes sense to promote tourism in the Nilgiris as the top economic priority. Moreover, like it or not, tourism will grow exponentially in India and the Nilgiris will be flooded by visitors. But if not properly organized, tourism kills its market by over-exploiting it, and the present trends on water deficiency, soil, erosion, land degradation and wildlife loss, shows that this is exactly what is happening now.
In parallel, the Sigur Nature Trust and several other NGOs and research organizations, are working on landscape level analysis of wildlife dynamics. As of today, a fair amount of knowledge exists on where wildlife is found and what are its requirement to survive forever. As an example, we recently published a scientific article in Animal Conservation (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acv.12314/abstract), that automatically “calculated” the elephant corridors locations and the core areas for the elephants. This information can help to decide what to do where, without interfering with the biology of the elephant. The same approach can be utilized for the tiger or any other species of plant or animal.
Merging a clear development direction with good knowledge of the resource base (biodiversity, water, soil, space, etc.) dynamics, can be a major boost to the region. For example, large theme parks can be installed on the outskirts of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, providing a sense of wildlife “adventure” without even touching the sensitive ecosystems. Smaller facilities can be allowed to exist in towns or the countryside, with a tourism dedicated to nature, culture and discovery. In the sensitive areas, only a relatively small number of tourists can be accepted in the form of ecotourism. If quality is the common denominator of these different forms of tourism, all other activities, including plantations, agriculture, small industries, will also increase their standards and the region could effectively become an island of sustainable development.
Such a scheme cannot be “parachuted” on the population from above. All communities in the Nilgiris must see the interest, which is basically higher income for the bulk of the population. Plus, this sort of scheme promotes democratic functioning, information sharing, quality at all levels (health, education, waste management, resource management, etc.), and proper governance.
To engage in this kind of vision, there is no other way than to discuss about it, be involved, participate and then impose it.
The Sigur Nature Trust with other partner organizations recently published a paper (doi:10.1111/acv.12314) identifying corridors in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.
Till now, elephant corridors were located by experts. There were several problems with this. Firstly, experts can’t go everywhere in a given region and secondly, they tend to choose corridors on the basis of their own experience.
Landscape ecology (ecology at the scale of a landscape), does not have these problems. Corridor evaluation is done automatically over an entire region. Large areas are covered in their entirety and there is no choice by anyone over where the corridors are detected.
If you observed maps with expert corridors, you would see a few corridors spread and sometimes it was be difficult to understand how they would work. It was the equivalent of describing blood circulation with some arteries here and some veins there. Landscape analysis on the contrary gives a full view of the entire system. Corridors form a network in and out of protected areas.
This kind of study is very important because it shows that a species’ life is not only individuals but also how these individuals CAN move to feed and reproduce. If corridors are not maintained or restored, small populations become separated and the chance of extinction is higher.
Please do not hesitate to ask information or advice (firstname.lastname@example.org) on elephant (or any other species) corridors.
We recently published a paper in Gajah (here) that suggests that an elephant may have changed his behavior after being fed by humans. In general, wild elephants that are habituated to be fed become a permanent nuisance. But left alone, this particular elephant slowly went back to his old feeding habits. Actually, more recent observations apparently confirm our conclusions. Rivaldo, the elephant in question, when not fed, tends to avoid villages.
This is rather good news: this indicates that if we humans are willing to stop encouraging elephants for any reasons (tourism, “friendly” behavior), some elephants may simply stop being problematic. This is why it is very important to respect the law regarding feeding animals.