This blog is a little a-typical for the Sigur Nature Trust because it is about a paper on marine birds. Notice how fast the fisheries are crashing in the Bay of Bengal. It should prompt immediate better management. Apparently, it does not. Too bad for our food safety.
Seabirds are top predators and an important component of the marine food web, and their abundance and diversity can indicate the condition of marine fisheries, upon which millions of people depend. According to the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, marine fish catch from India declined 9% in 2018 compared to the previous year, mainly due to reduced catch in West Bengal, Karnataka and Maharashtra (https://www.financialexpress.com/market/commodities/marine-fish-catch-falls-9-in-2018/1642588).
There is paucity of data on sea bird and cetacean abundance and distribution in the Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME). To assess the abundance and diversity of these two taxa, which are critical for the functioning of marine ecosystems, a team led by Ravichandra Mondreti and David Gremillet carried out at-sea surveys within the Bay of Bengal from 2012 to 2014 (link to paper here). The surveys were conducted from 39 vessel-based observations where all seabirds and cetaceans were recorded over a linear distance of around 4,722 km. A total of 2,697 seabirds from 17 species and 1,441 cetaceans belonging to at least 8 species were recorded. Sooty Terns Onychoprion fuscatus (n = 2,282, 85% of all birds) and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters Ardenna pacifica (n = 327, 12%) predominated, whereas cetacean numbers were dominated by Spinner Dolphins Stenella longirostris (n = 772, 54% of all cetaceans) and Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins Tursiops aduncus (n = 533, 37%). Dolphins and Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins, accounting for 93% of cetacean sightings.
The abundance and diversity of both groups was low compared to other tropical areas. This could result from low ocean productivity caused by stratification in the Bay of Bengal, human impacts such as disturbance, overexploitation of marine resources and long line fisheries, where seabirds form a significant bycatch. There is also a paucity of breeding sites for pelagic seabirds. Therefore conservation efforts need to be stepped up in BOBLME to maintain the viability of marine ecosystem functioning.
Some of our colleagues and friends who are social scientists think of us conservationists as neocolonialists and/or pro-capitalists when we say that forests should be more protected. They often view forests as an ill-managed resource because for them (i) forest management is inherited from the British colonial rule, (ii) the poor need to have control over their environment and (iii) if local people do not manage their environment, other forces will.
I am originally from working class and I am systematically grieved to find myself clubbed with bad guys proposing to rip-off the poor of their scant resources. It is funny that these views often originate from fairly privileged left-wing people. Not that there is anything wrong to be left-wing and privileged. But whether from working class or more privileged extraction, there is a danger in creating a narrative on the basis of self-righteousness and paucity of data. The examples of locally protected forests that demonstrate sufficient size and ecological viability are by far too rare. We have however access to ample scientific data showing beyond doubt that the biosphere is getting destroyed at a rapid pace. If the forest was really cut for the poor, then it would be a lesser evil.
I never believed that access to forest resources would carry the poor out of poverty. In the early 1990s, it was clear to my colleague Jean-Pierre Garrigues and I, that landless laborers were working for “rich” farmers to extract manure, fodder and non-timber forest products from the forest. A simple way to “help” the poor, would have been to provide regular jobs. But even today, thirty years later, many people have lost their income because of the COVID-19 lock down: there are still daily wage workers.
Where do the resources generated by deforestation go? Thomas Picketty, the author of “Capital in the Twenty First Century”, a must-read book, may have an answer. If you look at the figure below (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/03/pikettys-new-book-explores-how-economic-inequality-is-perpetuated/) you can see that economic inequality has increased since the 1980s (and probably earlier). The figure shows the share of total income by the top 10%. This trend is of enormous magnitude with astounding social consequences.
It would be tempting to correlate the decrease of primary forest cover (for example here) with the increase of inequality. And I have a suspicion: like most economic activities, forest destruction may benefit the poor only marginally. This would be the ultimate tragedy of the commons.
Greta Thunberg, the teenager from Sweden who became a climate change activist, does not need any introduction. Everyone knows that she stopped going to school in 2018 because she thought she has no future since “nothing” was done to fight climate change. According to her, climate change may de-stabilize our civilization. She has established herself as a leading figure of protests worldwide.
Extinction Rebellion may not be so well-known because it is still limited to Europe, Australia and a few countries. This is a civil disobedience movement that attempts to force governments into action in order to protect species (including us humans) from extinction due to excessive environmental degradation.
Greta Thunberg is a heroine for many and a puppet for others. She is pictured in some media as acting for the “rich”. Extinction Rebellion, a movement of young people is labeled “cult”, “doomsday worshipers” and many other names. Even though Extinction Rebellion is attempting to remain peaceful, governments give stronger and stronger responses to their actions.
One may say that these movements by the youth are fashionable group reactions. Others argue that if we examined the situation rationally, we would not follow such extremes. This is ignoring the fact that government agencies have been looking rationally at climate change for 50 years. Appeals to change the business-as-usual routine have been by-and-large ignored. Most countries adopt minimal budgets to address climate change. Conservation is of lower priority. No amount of data, interpretation and demonstration has convinced decision-makers to act forcefully on the clear and present danger ensuing from the systematic destruction of the biophere.
Many scientists of various disciplines understand the peril posed to civilization. They are becoming more vociferous because deniers get most attention in the media. Biologists, who generally are not inclined towards activism are warning us clearly, on paper, against the environmental catastrophe which is unfolding now. This warning available here is signed by 23,000 of them from 180 countries. This should look more worrisome than Greta Thunberg and our children in the street but it is ignored.
Reason is one of the most powerful and likable qualities of the human species. It works very well in self-inquiry, debate and science. For example, science depicts a fairly good picture of the condition of our environment. However reasonable discussion does not work when one side only pretends to pay attention but does not care – for decades. When a debate proves to be impossible, other forms of interactions come into play even though they do not satisfy anybody.
Contrary to what is advertised, nature lovers might be a bit lost in Coorg.
We just published this paper “Deforestation Increases Frequency of Incidents With Elephants (Elephas maximus)” available here, in Tropical Conservation Science. It may be the first paper that shows a correlation between the intensity of deforestation and increased incidents with elephants.
The region this paper focused on was Coorg or Kodagu, in between the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve and the Badra Tiger Reserve. In approximately 50 years, most private forests were transformed into coffee plantations. The Indian Forest Act did little to halt the degradation of forests. Today, the corridor between the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve and the Badra Tiger Reserve is gone. Elephants remaining in this landscape are terrified, hungry and lost. They kill people and provoke destruction. To add to people’s difficulties, the price of coffee sometimes goes down, which is a reminder that monoculture may not be the best way to wealth. With global warming, the monsoon will probably become weaker, bringing less water and the “cleaning” of the forest may not bring the expected economic returns.
We avoided to use the word “conflict” to prefer the word “incidents”. Elephants are not in conflict with humans. They just attempt to survive in their former habitat that happens to be in between protected areas. The term “conflict” is convenient whenever we want to prove that elephants are responsible for a situation. But as we show in this paper, the only conflict is what we want to do with our world.
We recently have published a paper: ‘Point intercept method for estimating biomass of invasive lantana (Lantana camara) in the Nilgiris, India’ in the Indian Forester (here). This paper is part of our student Muneer Ul Islam Najar’s Ph.D. thesis on the population dynamics of lantana in the Nilgiris Plateau.
I was astonished by the number of request for this paper. This study represents a good effort to estimate biomass with a bizarre method: it consist in counting the number of contacts a vertical pin will make with the plant in several sampling places. The number of contacts is proportional to the plant’s biomass as shown in this study. This method, quite cumbersome, can be used to estimate the degree of infestation of an area. There are other methods based on allometry (plant proportions) for example.
The interest in any publication on lantana is understandable. Lantana is originally from Central America and had invaded the jungles of India. Consequently, many people are interested in lantana, including us. A reaction we often get when we start with a conservation question is: “so and so is doing the same thing”. To be translated into: “why do you bother at all since someone else is already working on the problem?” Many students get cold feet when they hear such feedback and abandon their ambitions. In many ways, the question is valid: why reproduce someone else’s work? Science proceeds rapidly, it is better to focus on discoveries. Conservation moreover, does not receive a lot of money from governments and it is crucial to be effective. But science needs competition, conservation must have different voices and management often requires site-specific information. The chance of being totally redundant is consequently small.
Are we going to resolve the lantana invasion with this research? No. However, Muneer needed to measure the degree of infestation and he did it by exploring a new method. He also realized that in the Nilgiris, tree plantations, if managed properly, could become less infested. A student trained in plant population dynamics and new suggestions to planters and the Forest Department make a modest but useful contribution to a better environment management. So why not do it?
The villages of the Sigur Region, in the heart of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, are located within a network of reserves. These reserves harbor open forest that produce little wood due to a dry climate. Many people rely on firewood and wood collection tends to further reduce the productivity of the forest. As a consequence, wildlife and ultimately people suffer from the severe forest degradation.
Understanding the rationality of energy choice and the willingness of communities to find solutions is essential for a regional plan for improved livelihood and environment management. To our knowledge, little has been done on this issue in this very important region for the conservation of emblematic wildlife. Specifically, the questions to be addressed revolve around the following:
- Type of energies available and their cost
- Consumptive and productive use value of the different types of energies
- Socio-economy of users and the motives of their energy choices
- Difficulties (cultural, economical, etc) to abandon biomass as energy
- Willingness to participate to management programs
On the 15th September 2019, the Sigur Nature Trust will provide a small grant (Rs 60,000 maximum) to document these issues
The grant is exclusively reserved for students. Candidates should send:
- their biodata
- a proposal (maximum 3 pages)
- a budget (1 page)
- a scan copy of a certificate of registration in an Indian education institution
The successful candidate should be fluent in Tamil and have excellent quantitative skills from any suitable discipline.
By accepting the grant, the successful candidate also agrees to share data and provide a report to the Trust in a convenient format chosen by the candidate (M.A./M.Sc. thesis or Ph.D. thesis or report or preferably, a scientific publication). The Trust can provide additional support such as data analysis should the candidate request it. The Trust will first disburse half the grant value and the second half will be disbursed after a review conducted at the grantee’s convenience.
The deadline for the submission of proposals is the 1st of September 2019. Applications should be sent in PDF at the e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today is the second time I was seriously charged by an elephant because of the irresponsible behavior of people.
The first time was on 25th January at 10:20 am (these things tend to stick to memory). The personnel of a nearby school at Vazhaithottam came to the river near our house throwing loud fire crackers. I went to let them know they were elephants around and was charged very seriously by Cortes. This happened because I was looking for him on the wrong side and I could not see him early enough. I was probably three seconds from being killed if my wife hadn’t shouted at the top of her voice during the charge and also risked her life by running towards the elephant. Elephants get confused when they hear loud noise and tend to lose their focus of the target.
It happened again today. We saw a group of seven people and a dog walking near the river again at 10:00 am coming from the Mavinhalla village. I went to advise them to leave. I barely had the time to ask them who they were and where they had come from, when I saw an elephant charging. I only had the time to shout “run”. Luckily, we all managed to reach the house safely, but if I had not gone at the risk of my life, they would have been casualties.
Recorded human deaths due to an elephant charge due to human disturbance inflate the statistics of human-elephant conflict (HEC). However, as we can see here, there was no conflict. In the first case, a few local people wanted to have a good time near a stream across from a Reserved Forest. In this place they are bound to meet with elephants. In order to do what they want, they regularly disturb threatened species – in a protected area. In the second case, the group of tourists came from a house that operates as an illegal guest house and absolutely everyone knows about it. Illegal business do not trouble themselves with visitors’ safety and environment regulation.
The question is: when is the law going to be enforced before someone is killed?
Children from the center of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve paradoxically have little incentives to know about their exceptional environment.
On the 15th September 2019, the Sigur Nature Trust will provide a small grant (Rs40,000 maximum) to undertake an awareness project in a local school (Mavinhalla or Masinagudi or Kargudi). The awareness project will describe the process of ecological succession. The project will also highlight the danger of overgrazing and overharvesting, and will emphasize the benefits derived from the knowledge and propagation of useful plants for medicine, art and income.
The grant is exclusively reserved to students or individuals with a track record. Candidates should send:
- their biodata
- a proposal (maximum 3 pages)
- a budget (1 page)
- a certificate of registration in an Indian education institution for students
By accepting the grant, the successful candidate also agrees to provide a report (maximum 5 pages) to the Trust in a convenient format chosen by the candidate. The Trust can provide additional support such as documents, photographs and videos should the candidate request it.
The deadline for submission is the 1st of September 2019. Applications should be sent in PDF at the address: email@example.com.
The Sigur River, flowing through the heart of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, provides water to a dry region of significant importance for the conservation of wildlife. The Kamarajsagar dam was constructed across the river in the 1960s. From a perennial river supporting over 30-species of fish, became seasonal and flowed only during the rains. This led to undocumented ecological destruction. There was no fish left in the river after 2000. In 2017 a minimum flow was restored, ensuring the re-establishment of conditions appropriate for ecological restoration.
On the 15th September 2019, the Sigur Nature Trust will provide a small grant (Rs 60,000 maximum) to document the ecological changes. The objectives are to compare the fish diversity of the Sigur River to that of other streams, assess the speed of fish colonization and provide guidelines for long-term management, including food security of local communities.
The grant is exclusively reserved for students. Candidates should send:
- their biodata
- a proposal (maximum 3 pages)
- a budget (1 page)
- a scan copy of a certificate of registration in an Indian education institution
By accepting the grant, the successful candidate also agrees to share data and provide a report to the Trust in a convenient format chosen by the candidate (M.Sc. thesis or Ph.D. thesis or report or preferably, a scientific publication). The Trust can provide additional support such as data analysis should the candidate request it. The Trust will first disburse half the grant value and the second half will be disbursed after a review conducted at the grantee’s convenience.
The deadline for the submission of proposals is the 1st of September 2019. Applications should be sent in PDF at the e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following opinion about our paper on tiger gene flow (ref here) was circulated in a Whatsapp group and was therefore, public. Parts of the text were questionable, but I limit my response to technical issues. The text says:
“… If you look at the resistance map closely, you will find that tiger can move through city of Mysore.
…they should have looked at other features…
And it is surprising to see from the data that the forest cover has also improved from open to dense forest…”
The paper should have been read carefully. The legend in figure 2 is clear. There is a decrease in forest cover, not an increase.
Again, regarding “features”, the paper should have been read carefully. We took several variables (the same as other similar recent studies) and simplified to obtain the minimal adequate model. The minimal adequate model is different from other models and this may be due to the tiger genetic make-up, the genetic markers used, the landscape or everything together.
Now, figure 2 does not say that tigers can move through Mysore city. A gene flow resistance map is different from a resistance map extrapolated from movement. Without going into details (found in the paper, which again should have been read carefully), this is how it goes:
We found the same important variables (with correlation coefficients) as in other papers regarding gene flow (terrain, human disturbance, land use, etc), but some, such as land use were not significant. However frustrating it was, land use (vegetation, agriculture, settlements) was discarded. The lack of significance, again, may be due to sampling, markers, etc. But statistics caution that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
We were finally left with two significant variables (terrain and human disturbance). The effect of terrain on gene flow was different from that of Central India, but you have to remember that tigers are excellent dispersers and the effect of terrain is in any case, moderate. Then, tigers seem to avoid the “sight” of humans since the human disturbance variable has great effect at low intensity (a non-linear response with a small exponent to the variable).
Now we come to the interesting interpretation: are there tigers in Mysore? No. Except, maybe in the zoo. The figure 2 has its merits however. Viewed from the genetic make up of the genes sampled, and after systematic selection of variables, land use and cities have not been strongly “registered” by the genes. The genetic make up “does not see them”. This is surprising because radiotelemetry would have given entirely different results. But why is that so? Maybe natural selection has not allowed enough time to adjust to land use, since land use changes are recent when natural selection operates on a different time frame. Moreover, how can a species such as the tiger, being systematically killed outside reserves can evolve and adapt to human-dominated habitat? So the landscape seen “through the eyes” of the studied genes is similar to that of the ancestral line of the tiger. The extrapolation of results beyond the study area gives this very strange view of the landscape that only terrain and the sight of humans matter. This is not so outlandish and we do not say that tigers cross or should be reintroduced in Mysore.
This extrapolation was not the purpose of our paper. The paper discussed the difference between Central India and Southern India tiger gene flow in the view of maintaining population connectivity among reserves. The methods used there are solid and every year progress is made in the statistical model selection process. We may have learned something new here. And if it is wrong, it will be discarded by further studies.
Saying gene flow happens differently in different landscapes is rather rational and our paper, commented here by Ruth de Fries (who is an eminent landscape ecology specialist), was not interpreted otherwise.
Our call for support is now closed, since our generous sponsors – overshot the target. We thank Ms. Naheed Carrimjee, Ms. Priya Nehrurajan, Mr. Raian Irani, Mr. Rémi Daudin and Mr. Rustom Mehta for their generous, invaluable support.
We just published the paper “Spatial variation in the response of tiger gene flow to landscape features and limiting factors” in Animal Conservation, available here.
With this paper we were interested in how landscape features affect tiger’s gene flow. What we observed was that the tiger is an amazing animal, not much bothered by obstacles – in rural landscapes or in reserves. But human disturbance, even diffuse, is always a problem. Our paper highlights that tiger preference for dispersal vary depending upon human occupation history. In central India, tigers prefer to disperse along ridges (untouched by agriculture), whereas in southern India, tigers are comfortable in valleys because the main national parks (Bandipur, for example) were set long time ago, on a plain adjoining the Western Ghats.
When I was working on the paper, this difference between central India and southern India bothered me and I could not explain why it should be different. However, a couple of tigers came to mate near the river 200 m from the house. I had THE experts right in front of my nose to confirm that tigers were meeting on flat grounds (the most comfortable for heavy animals to move around). The irreplaceable experience that comes from the field provided the evidence that there was no error in our methods.
As a rule of thumb, tigers can cross human-dominated landscapes as long as no permanent closure (city, highway, etc.) exists. But corridor design and location may depend on regional history, a fact that was unknown earlier.
Following the 2017 drought, when many elephants died in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, there was attempts to reassure the public regarding this particular situation (https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-and-biodiversity/elephants-in-drought-hit-karnataka-tamil-nadu-die-to-hunger-thirst-57661).
Indeed, we have just published an article based on thousands of observations in India and Nepal. With the lead author Dr. Rajapandian Kanagaraj an alumni of the Wildlife Institute of India, and currently at the National Museum of Natural Sciences at Madrid, Spain, this paper shows that global warming will destroy half of the elephant habitat in India. A first modelling technique detected the relationship between environment and elephant range. Then a second set of models proposed range changes under different climate change scenarios.
The results show that by the end of the century, 42% of the present elephant range will be lost because of global warming and land use changes. The temperature increase will affect the vegetation to provoke irreversible ecological damages and make ecosystems unusable by elephants. With impacts of this magnitude, we would also be wise to accelerate adaptation of farming practices because crop and animal production will certainly be badly affected as well.
The view of “business-as-usual” with wildlife – and our world – is an attitude of the past. We enter a period where all efforts possible to protect and mitigate global warming must be made.
Plant conservation is driven by local protection and science. We have published a paper in the New Phytologist (soon to be available), on the organization of plant conduits (called xylem). Understanding the anatomy and physiology of plants has plenty of uses, including predicting reaction to global warming and species success in ecological restoration.
Astonishingly, the maximum xylem size (Dmax) of each organ showed similar scaling with plant size and consistent widening from leaf mid-vein via stem to main root across species, independently of growth form, relative growth rate and leaf habit. We also found strong coordination of Dmax with average leaf area and of stem xylem area with whole-plant leaf area. It appears that seedlings of ecologically wide-ranging woody species converge in their allometric scaling of conduit diameters within and across plant organs. These relationships will contribute to modeling of water transport in woody vegetation that accounts for the whole life history from the trees’ regeneration phase to adulthood.
In other words, something as simple as vessel size in plants (measured in standardized conditions), tells a lot about the tree species ecology and allows comparisons among species, that can be used in a variety of applications including conservation action and restoration.
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.
We have recently published a scientific paper (here) on rare tree species in the Western Ghats of India with colleagues belonging to different institutions.
In general, rarity is of interest to conservation biologists because rare species tend to be at greater risk of extinction than common species. The Western Ghats rain forests have a high proportion of endemic trees (around 64% of evergreen trees ≥10 cm girth at breast height), found only in this biogeographic region. Therefore rare species that are endemic are doubly vulnerable. We estimated that around 48% of 514 species were rare, of which 28 endemics were found in only one site. Rare species had narrower ecological amplitudes, being restricted to particular regions such as the southern Western Ghats and montane forests. Rare species with broader geographical distributions tended to be both wide ranging and locally sparse and narrow ranging and locally dense, and some from single species families could be relictual. Rare species were more likely to be threatened, although 39% have not been evaluated by IUCN. Rarity and endemism increased with increasing family size, indicating that the Western Ghats wet forests are both a cradle of new species (which are rare) and a museum of disappearing species (which are also rare). These forests have been the source of major crops (mango, jackfruit, pepper, cardamon) and should be properly protected because of their unique evolutionary history and biodiversity.
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?
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?
Psychologists know this, I believe: if you are angry at something, your response to situations coming your way is likely to be violent. The term ‘conflict’ puts us in a violent disposition.
We have just published a paper (here) on the appropriateness of the term ‘conflict’ (as in Human-elephant conflict) in wildlife management. Our view is that ‘conflict’ should be used sparingly and not generally to describe any type of negative interaction, as it is today. It is nothing more than a dangerous buzzword.
Before the emergence of this term, neutral concepts were used in ecology, such as ‘competition’, ‘predation’, ‘consumption’, ‘damages’, etc. Science, in general, avoided anthropocentric terminology that suggested intentions to animals. In the case of a conflict, adversaries agree at least on the issue of fighting. But a lion attacks because he is hungry, otherwise, it sleeps. It does not strategically target humans to harm their interests.
The term ‘interest’ takes us a long way from our fundamental relationship to nature, to the market economy. When we perceive that our interests are at stake, we end up in the same emotional state than if our very life was at stake. The Western ideas of exacerbated competition, black and white views, and profit has created a Homo sapiens that calculates potential benefits constantly. Protecting our interests has become part of our lives, at home, at work, purchasing vegetables, and on the world scene. It is natural for us to have defense industries that could destroy the planet several times. It even seems rational.
Not only is the term ‘conflict’ vague, it also comes from our violent culture, loaded with extremely negative connotations. It provokes instinctive responses of defense even if no physical attack is to be feared.
In spite of these dangerous attributes, ‘conflict’ is satisfying to populist decision-makers because it offers easy short-cuts to please voters. Whenever people complain about animals, pre-packaged hard solutions are available: culling, translocating, fencing, isolating, ultimately, driving species to extinction. What works better than a seemingly decisive action in favor of people? If we forget that most of the time, conservation biologists had called for action decades before a situation developed, we could delude ourselves in believing that someone cares, at last. What is actually implemented is a bad policy that comes too late. Similarly, as far as climate change is concerned, one day, most politicians will call for serious action – that is when hundreds of millions of people will already have fallen victim to immense suffering. Hell is paved with good intentions of the laissez-faire philosophy.
The best experts on conflict are soldiers and we militarize conservation without their opinion. Not all decision-makers have read Sun Tzu’s Art of War, unfortunately. There, it is explained that the greatest skill for a general is to win a war without even fighting. I wish we end-up having policies to win without fighting in wildlife management and I hope this paper will point to the existing problem.
Till then, I consider that the term ‘conflict’ endangers further the already threatened wildlife and should be avoided like… conflicts.
I was invited to discuss with 5th standard children at Hebron, Ooty, about the elephant corridors of the Masinagudi-Sigur Region. I was surprised by this choice, but many children live in and around Ooty and are familiar with the difficult issue of maintaining passages for elephants. Their teacher asked them to define an action plan and my role was to help them understand some of the technical issues. The class was curious about the identification of corridors, which is done with field data, maps and whatever relevant document put together in a geographic information system (GIS). We also watched our video Maximus (link here) in order to help them realize that a corridor’s width depends on human activity. Whenever humans are discreet, corridors can be narrow, whenever humans are causing disturbance, corridors must be wide so that animals can move around. After a week or so later, I was requested to rate their action plan. I was not disappointed.
All the children had concluded something like: “elephants are harassed, the Government should remove anyone in the way of the animals, punish encroachment, night safaris, flashing wildlife, etc.” At first, I was surprised and smiled of the innocence borne by these statements. But I could not find anything wrong with them. The children proposed solutions that targeted people who mostly, are in the wrong. So what should adults be doing? Should we teach children to compromise and continue to destroy a world that will soon belong to them, or should we learn from them? The truth is that many scientists are concerned that if we continue to damage our biosphere the way we do, humanity will face enormous problems. These problems have the potential to ruin our civilization. It is strange that children sense potential solutions when we, adults, cannot. My only explanation for this amazing state-of-affairs is that greed and compromise haven’t destroyed their power of reason yet. And actually, when you think about it, we humans show very little reason in the way we manage our planet.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 loss of ecosystems and species in India is incremental. We are used to small losses, whereas natural resources disappear bit by bit. What can we do about it? Where are the heroes that will save us from this state of affairs?
The movies got us to think that the heroes are good looking, fair, intelligent, tough and accompanied by gorgeous women. The Mahabharata or the Greek Mythology have a different view: a hero is a person who strives after excellence as a duty towards himself or herself. He or she has no spectator.
Recently, I witnessed a quantum of progress in Pondicherry. In this city, migratory waterfowl, i.e. birds flying in from the north to winter in the lakes in and around Pondicherry, are trapped, hunted and illegally sold in the market place for large sums of money. This has been going on for years and we all thought nothing could be done about it. Dr. K. Muthamizh Selvan, of the Department of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, Pondicherry University, started recording facts and took pictures of the hunted displays at risk to himself. Somehow, the governmental authorities, including the highest in the territory, geared up and took action. The markets were raided, the culprits, both poachers and their customers arrested and fined. Right now, the public will think twice before purchasing and eating endangered birds and this winter the migratory species will find a little respite in this region.
This is what a real hero is: lonely, terrified, and doubtful. But he or she first takes a stand and this literally saves the world. Heroes have no spectator, but may have witnesses. Sometimes.
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.
In a 1985 classical paper, the scientist Michael Soulé defined conservation biology comparing it to medicine: “Its relation to biology, particularly ecology, is analogous to that of surgery to physiology…”
A year ago, I participated in a conference where a climate change expert proposed to manage a tiger reserve within the limits of an intermediate scenario of climate change. When he was asked why he would not consider the worse climate change scenario instead, he retorted that in this case, the effect would be so dramatic that no management option was possible. Our apathetical assembly continued with this explanation to elaborate plans that will not work. We were then comparable to a group of doctors treating a patient for flu, discarding the strong possibility of cancer under the pretext that in this case, they would be incompetent.
Such ethical approach would be torn to pieces in medicine because every day, scientists and doctors dedicate their lives to save other people’s lives, whatever the cost to their own comfort and theories. Patients and judges would not tolerate such defeating approach either: the precautionary principle would cry for other specialists’ opinion and action.
The reason for our questionable behavior was that our scientific gathering was simply not up to the mark. To the Indian citizen, who pay taxes to improve science, we were nothing else but a burden.
The truth is that most endangered species (tigers, elephants in particular) are severely stressed. Our conservation successes, if any, are tiny variations in population numbers. Even if populations doubled, these species would still be on the verge of extinction. When humanity’s madness will strike back in the form of severe climatic events, we will lose species because some experts remained lazy.
You are living in Chennai, Bangalore, New Delhi, passionate about wildlife, but have no technical knowledge about it. The question you may ask yourself is: “what can I do to help with conservation of biodiversity?” Let us start with a general statement valid for all of us anywhere in the world and then go to the three points.
Biodiversity and particularly wildlife, suffers from too many people consuming too much. Therefore what you can do very practically is: have less children and be very specific about any purchase. We are bombarded with ca. 5000 advertisements per day (in the street, on the computer and on TV) saying we can do what we want all day long, 365 days a year. It is good to remember this has adverse consequences.
Point 1: respect the rules when you visit a protected area. The Forest Department (FD) says: limit your speed, don’t horn, don’t take pictures (unless you have permission), don’t get out of your vehicle. Just do that. Most people drive too fast and kill animals. On weekends, the jungle looks like a suburb. If we simply behaved, then even a crowd would seem inconspicuous. Now, you might think: “why is this picture rule?” I must say I don’t know. I guess the FD does this to avoid having traffic jams on the jungle roads. If you are not happy with this rule, then you should write to the FD. They may be able to organize authorized parking spaces along the forest roads. They may be able to open some safe trekking routes. You should be part of the solution.
Point 2: don’t patronize activities and places that do not respect wildlife. Never go on an unauthorized jeep safari. Try not to go to hotels or restaurants that have no sense of environment management. Such hotels usually are within wildlife corridors, have barriers, bonfires, do not regulate noise or light pollution, and have no waste management policy. Now, again this is limiting: where to find the right places and what to do during a visit? I have no proper answer but with minimum efforts, you will find out. In some regions, the FD is not organized. Again, be part of the solution: write to the FD to complain (politely), to propose, to suggest and sometimes to congratulate. Without your adult contribution and involvement, nothing will move.
Point 3: get involved. You may not have much time, but you can join an organization, read, write, and suggest to the different administrations. You can also write to people like us, this is why I put our email at the bottom of this post. There are hundreds of organizations who can help. Some are serious, they can be found, just test the waters…
To conclude, there is a great effort to involve local communities in forest management. Who says you are not a local? It is also your forest. Take care of it.
If you are a chain smoker, heavy drinker, eating only junk food, no exercise, then your health is comparable to that of todays protected ecosystems. Ecologists and conservationists are like those foolish doctors who advise a drastic change in lifestyle for improvement in health. But no action is taken before it is too late. If you believe everything is good in nature, change your attitude: here is the view, I bet, most biologists will share1.
Myth: forests are huge areas protected for the questionable benefit of the conservation of nature.
Reality: 6.5% of the Indian Territory are wildlife reserves, the rest of the forests are production forests, hence meant to produce resources for the industry. Most of the wildlife reserves actually suffer from severe exploitation: overgrazing by cattle, wood harvesting, illegal hunting, illegal trade and export of material. If cattle were prevented from grazing in wildlife reserves, as the dung collection feeds organic agriculture, it is possible that it could induce the collapse of organic agriculture in some regions.
Myth: redistribution of reserved forest land to tribal people helps alleviate poverty.
Reality: it may in some cases. Tribal people need to be compensated when their land has been taken over. However, the land given to tribal households is often sold or leased to investors. Once the land is privatized, the new owner can do whatever he/she wants with it. Significant portions are immediately purchased at very low cost by wealthy persons who vociferously support the redistribution of forest land, having only their economic interest at heart.
Myth: allowing harvest helps the poor.
Reality: the poor rarely harvest for subsistence. Harvested forest products most of the time enter the market, for the more significant benefit of wealthier people. Wood collection for example, is hardly exclusively for the household but for buyers such as restaurants and resorts who therefore illegally acquire heavily subsidized energy.
Myth: natural ecosystems are nature at its best.
Reality: most of the forests are heavily degraded and pristine forests are extremely rare and isolated. Most of the forests seen from the window of a car, from a resort or during a trek have suffered or are suffering huge degradation in the form of harvest, cattle grazing, tourism, fragmentation by road, water pollution and waste. Most forests near villages do not have tree saplings, indicative of lack of forest regeneration. They are invaded by alien plants such as Lantana and Parthenium. Domestic animals such as dogs spread diseases to other carnivores (hyena, jackals, etc.), and livestock such as cattle to wild ungulates.
Conclusion: nature is in a really bad state, our health, economy, enjoyment rest on it. It is not as if we had two planets. Our personal responsibility is to understand what is at stake for us and our children, and act in the right direction. Now.
1The September 2016 IUCN Congress highlighted both good and bad news for the global environment. Although conservation efforts can save species, the number of imperiled species and habitats is growing daily. Many ecosystems are being eroded and stripped of their most iconic species.
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.
We recently wrote a paper in Oryx1 showing that a model proposed to cull elephants was flawed and should be discarded. This model was used to justify culling, giving it a sort of scientific imprimatur: “it is okay to cull the Asian elephant – theoretical biology says so.” Whatever. When we distributed our Oryx paper, some of our colleagues warned: “we must speak the same voice”, meaning: you publish what you like, but the correct attitude of (serious conservationists) is to be easy on culling in order to satisfy the public. Of course, we have no intention to change our tune which is: “let us manage the environment properly.”
Little did we know that at approximately the same time, a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society2, said that culling DECREASES tolerance towards wildlife. The lesson is: gather information and make your own opinion.
The superb picture of wolves (culled in North America) was from Science3, where the Royal Society paper is also mentioned.
1Jean Philippe Puyravaud, Priya Davidar, Rajeev K. Srivastava and Belinda Wright. Modelling harvest of Asian elephants Elephas maximus on the basis of faulty assumptions promotes inappropriate management solutions. Oryx, available on CJO2016. doi:10.1017/S003060531600003X.
A year ago, the Forest Department came to treat young Cesar, a wild juvenile male elephant. The elephant had a splinter of wood in his left hind foot and might have died of septicemia. He was immobilized with the help of two kumkis, treated and given antibiotics. We did not see Cesar anymore, maybe because he remembered the shock of being captured and avoided the surroundings. To our great surprise and pleasure, we saw Cesar again with other elephants. He has entirely recovered and challenges elephants that are still too big for him. Rescuing this elephant mobilized a big team and was expensive. However, as long as the sex ratio is biased in favor of females, it is worth investing in treating males whose life is endangered by superficial wounds.
We observed a spotted deer (Axis axis) with a plastic sheet around its leg. The sheet cut the skin and the poor animal is probably dead by now. The horrendous plastic waste pollution in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is a catastrophe. The article was published in the IndiaWilds Newsletter May 16, by the talented photographer and conservationist Sabyasashi Patra. You can get the article here:
I searched on the Internet for a “resort” in this region, and a travellers’ website caught my eye with its assessments. I opened the page, expecting sadistically to see abysmal evaluations on a “resort” I know. Darn, the resort (without quotes this time, because I developed some respect), got very good reviews mostly, with “nature at its best” form of literary appreciation.
I must be coming from another planet and a bit of soul searching was necessary at this point, which carried me twenty five years ago.
When I came to India, I saw in a newspaper the prize winning drawings of a painting competition for school children: “nature at its best”. Most drawings represented two hills, with a sun rising, probably inspired by the DMK’s (a political party) emblem. This was cute, it revealed lots of innocence, but I found it worrisome because all children had drawn what is ecologically a wasteland: ecosystems degraded to bare ground except for a few remaining trees.
Now, the resort I was looking at on the internet, is in the middle of heavily degraded forests where plastics are discarded wantonly by tourists, and plastic rubbish is everywhere. The resort has bonfires for tourists from wood harvested illegally from the Reserved Forest. It has dug bore wells without permission. It has destroyed most of the trees on its land (and surrounding lands) and it represents a hotspot for invasive plant species. The “waste management” is a pit. Tourists flash powerful spot lights at night. The constant noise coming from the village loudspeakers was of no concern for the proponents of the oneness with nature. Does this deserves “excellent” and “very good” in the hospitality industry?
The medical profession is in the same pit as ecologists. Two or three generations earlier, the normal person weighted say, 60 kg (I did not check, so don’t start a diet on this). Today, the normal person weighs around 65 kg, for example. The problem is that our reference point has shifted due to the obesity epidemic. Same for the environment. It is so degraded that anything remotely green looks pristine, in the same way an overweight person will seem to be in good health compared to an obese person. But in absolute terms, our natural ecosystems have been mostly destroyed. Alarm bells are ringing internationally on the state of our planet.
The least we know, the more we are likely to reach a wrong conclusion. I personally won’t be so sure about the “nature at its best” thing.
Rivaldo might be captured as I write this blog.
If you know about our website, you are familiar with Rivaldo. To know even more about his recent story, have a look at this paper to be published in Gajah. It tells it all: when there is no will to implement law on conservation, elephants are the victims. The consequence might be one bull less for the elephant population.
But this elephant is not the problem. The problem is people feeding him with no action taken in years.
Sigur, 1 April 2016, breaking news.
Elephants and other animals roam the jungle uselessly. Ecotourists are bored without internet connection. In order to bridge the gap for productivity, the Sigur Nature Trust is proud to announce a new product: the tattoo advertisement for wildlife (TAW).
This great technique can help your company to boost its image. It is also a fantastic avenue for corporate social responsibility. Specialists are unanimously enthusiastic:
An elephant expert, said: “it is a win-win solution for private-wildlife conservation partnership, as the money could be used to build comfortable research stations inside reserves.”
A former IUCN high ranking official now working for the food industry said, under the cover of anonymity: “the rarer the advertising species, the higher the return on interest. The last individual of any species would be a fantastic medium for promotion of conservation: what a great idea!”
Mr. John Smith (not his real name), with experience in conflicts, said: “elephants and other wildlife have suffered enough from the hand of humans. A little more pain should be fine.”
The answering machine of the UNESCO head of Biosphere Reserve worldwide also approved the idea: “A Biosphere Reserve will always be a Biosphere Reserve, whatever.”
The concurrence of so many experts is the guaranty you can use this technology to build a better world for the generations to come.
Contact us to consult our catalogue.
I always loved the Sigur Region in the middle of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. People are nice and nature magnificent. You will find here a diversity of traditional cultures, beautiful jungles with tigers and elephants. Still, if you are interested in culture or nature and you envisage to visit this region, think twice.
The jungle is littered with plastics and replete with cattle. Loudspeakers are in all villages (a blatant ignorance Supreme Court orders) blasting their awful popular music up to three kilometers in the jungle, days and nights for weeks. Roads are loaded with speeding, honking or picnicking cars. For a few hundred Rupees (more), your driver can annoy a herd of elephants to make a female charge. You can flash a tiger at night, with the satisfaction that you have endangered this species more, a princely pleasure. Chance is that bonfires will be with forest wood or the “food” (it’s for tourists) you eat in the village has also been cooked with forest wood. If there is left over, you can throw it to an elephant.
If you like responsible ecotourism (I may be tired with continuous “music” for the last few days), wait and see if it improves.
It is an immense honor to announce that E. R. C. Davidar, the founder of the Sigur Nature Trust, has joined eminent foresters and conservationists in the Hall of Fame of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department.The inauguration of the Hall of Fame was organized on the 31st January 2016, in the Panagal Building and inaugurated by Thiru M. S. M. Anandan, the Minister of Environment and Forests, Government of Tamil Nadu, Thiru Hans Raj Verma, I.A.S, Principal Secretary to the Government, Dr. Krishna Kumar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and HOD, and Dr. V. K. Melkani, PCCF and Chief Wildlife Warden.
The Tamil Nadu Forest Department has opened a Hall of Fame at its headquarters in Chennai, where photographs and works of legendary forest officers and conservationists have been displayed.The team identified 20 officers and five well-known conservationists.
E.R.C. Davidar is remembered in particular, for undertaking the first survey of the Nilgiri tahr over its entire range, conducting the first study in India on elephant corridors and taking an active part in the protection of the Nilgiris.
Dr. Priya Davidar, Managing Trustee of the Sigur Nature Trust, participated to the inauguration. Following the example set by her father, she recalled that it is imperative to preserve wildlife if our civilization is to survive. In this effort, the involvement of society is crucial, as acknowledged by the Hall of Fame where distinguished foresters are in the company of dedicated citizens.
Times of India has dedicated an article to this event: