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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When we first settled into Cheetal Walk in the 1960’s, the favorite activity of my siblings and myself, encouraged by our father of course, was catching fish in the Sigur River or Sigur Halla. There were all sorts and sizes of fish. My father used to go to the larger pools with a bamboo rod, line and worms dug up near the kitchen, to catch some carp for dinner. In fact, the tribal woman working for us said quite sadly one day: “poor man is catching fish so that his family can eat.” Those were the fish those days, sometimes reaching a few kilos in weight.
In 1968 everything changed: the river went dry. This was because of the construction of the Pykhara dam in the upper reaches of the river, increasing agricultural activity and diversion of water downstream. There were fish of all types and shapes and colors flopping around on the sand or dying in the pools. The river was fetid with the smell of dead fish. Many animals enjoyed this special treat, but the elephants were distraught by the lack of clean water. They dug wells in the river bed and waited patiently for the water to rise up to drink. We went fishing with the tribal children and caught some of the larger fish. We even caught an enormous eel well over a meter in length weighing about 10 kg.
The Sigur Halla started drying up every year and the fish disappeared. After the rains I would go to the river and see fingerlings emerging from the eggs that had been deposited in the sand. This continued for a few years and we enjoyed fishing with bedsheets, catching the small fish and putting them in an aquarium. My brother Mark used to have two aquaria in the 1990’s with some of the river fish. We used to put some in our well. Our well held water even in the dry season, although the level was very low. We had not been to Cheetal Walk for many years except for short spells, and when we moved there in 2013, the river had just become a storm drain with red muddy water only flowing during the rains. When peering into the well, I noticed one fish: a species of murrell (Channa spp.) also called snakehead, at the surface of the water. Seeing its sad lonely life, I thought it was the sole survivor of the fishes we had put inside the well. There were several species of murrell in the river, but now I never saw even one. During the rains this year I looked again for fingerlings. No luck.
I was determined to find a companion for our lonely murrell, so I asked our cook, who is a tribal person from this region, to find me some river fish. He said that none of the rivers in the region, Anaikatti, Sigur or Mavinhalla had even one fish. All had disappeared due to the drastic change in flow patterns. This got me really worried. He reiterated that there were plenty of fish forty years ago but all had gone. About 25 or more fish species became extinct in the Sigur Halla.
Then a few days ago we wanted to clean the well and noticed more than one fish in the well. What joy! The Murrell was not alone. Maybe we need to examine old wells and other permanent water bodies (if any) in the region to re-stock the Sigur Halla if it ever recovers from the colossal negligence and indifference it has suffered from human hands. To make the River flow again, we need to be sure there is a minimum amount of water at all times, and young ecologists who take its future in their hands.
It is now more than two years that we have been in charge of the Sigur Nature Trust. The experience was at first exciting: to be in the middle of elephants and wildlife is something irreplaceable. But then I started to understand what is going on in the Sigur Region and this silenced me for some time. I was busy as well, but ultimately traumatized because I have lost hope that we can improve conservation of species.
Everyone has seen or read “The Lord of the Rings”. Sauron could revive because the corruption of men. To end evil seemed impossible because every time anyone got Sauron’s ring, fell to his power. The task to destroy Sauron was impossible. But the fairy tale happy development was due to a lucky accident: the addition of two “greeds”, that of Frodo and that of Gollum, lead to the destruction of the ring.
I know a lot of good people in the Sigur Region among all segments of the population. But these people don’t matter. The general consensus by those who matter, is to make money. Everyone, in all administrations use the law to this purpose. Patrolling and enforcement are non-existent, unless useful to get bribes or when absolutely required by circumstances. This is not due to a lack of training, lack of funds or poverty. What you observe is an insane waste of resources, erosion of ecological processes by the enrichment of a few at the expense of the others.
The addition of “greeds” cannot logically nurture a happy ending in reality. The elephants are going down again with poaching and us with them: look at the conditions of the planet. We are not in a fairy tale and the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat are poisons. How to stop a mindless search for gold when the world itself is all rust?
If more people don’t get involved in the state of the world, eventually the world next door, we will have difficult awakenings. The Baghavad Gita said something like: the most astonishing about men is that they live their lives as if they were eternal. A modern version could be: the most astonishing about men is that they live their lives as if their impact on the world never mattered. This is a quasi-total denial of Karma particularly by people in power. And I am afraid we will have to split humanity in two: those who fight without hope and those who live happy in hell.
I got this image from ConservatioBytes.com, the blog of an eminent ecologist, Corey Bradshaw.
It originated from Bill Gates’s blog, from WHO data and various other official agencies, with wide margin of errors. Bill Gates is interested in mosquito borne diseases, we are interested in elephants.
If the figure had taken pollution (the outcome of some people’s greed) into consideration, then millions of people are killed every year by other humans, according to a study in Environmental Research Letters (doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034005), which makes us and by far, the most dangerous animal species on earth. Sorry for the mosquitoes.
These considerations help us to bring the human-elephant conflict back to reality. In general, this problem is presented out of proportion by the media. Why? Not because of its relative importance but because of its populistic appeal: “the authorities called experts to address the problem”, do we read. It looks serious and elephants are easy targets.
The most important causes of mortality like pollution, rash driving and various forms of safety issues (lack of warnings on road repairs; live electric wires on pavements, distribution of unsafe water, lack of application of buildings norms, unhygienic restaurants, etc.) are ignored because it would fix responsibilities on the perpetuators. And laissez-faire is the rule if you don’t want to punish the (human) culprits.
Laissez-faire is also the rule for elephants because we don’t want to punish the (human) culprits either. If you believe that the hundreds of human deaths by elephants are due to the nasty nature of these animals, you are mistaken. Many “conflicts” are “accidents” where people did not respect the law (you can’t enter into protected areas for example, but this is not strictly enforced) and many other “conflicts” are the consequence of the lack of management (unregulated constructions in corridors, inappropriate agricultural practices, forest encroachments). Very few people are killed intentionally by “vicious” elephants, although it does happen. In the region where we live, human deaths due to elephants are mostly because due to carelessness.
The consequence of the lack of application of the law is the eventual extinction of the Asian elephant. It is the easy way to avoid our responsibilities.
There is a TV program called “Man versus Wild” were one or two guys run around frantically in remote places to “survive” in the wild, with a TV crew around them to ensure the show goes according to schedule. I wonder how imaginative the producers must be, to find such fantastic (fake) stories to tell, because tribals in India live or used to live in the wild and don’t have half the problems this show seems to unearth in the face of a decidedly adverse nature.
I live in the jungle (with moderate comfort) but share some of the experience of the natives. Most of my life is quiet, peaceful, with animals who know me, interspersed with a few rare moments of tragedy when a prey is caught. I frankly see no opposition between man and nature, on the contrary, deep, beautiful bonds that reach some of our wild friends, a few mongooses, elephants, babblers, one or two wild boar.…
Now I just come from my second home, Pondicherry, with a trip to Chennai. There, I find noise, terror on the road, constant anger, absurd competition, and struggle in an ugly, polluted world. Then TV displays unbridled violence with virtual killing of millions, interspersed with reminders from the industry that it is okay to be greedy, jealous, unnaturally muscular, permanently “beautiful”, but that we can stuff ourselves with junk. And as if we needed to be even more insane, we have at your disposal many channels where superstition and money are worshipped together.
The reason we have to make and watch programs such as “Man versus Wild” is because our perception of reality is so altered that we can’t even accept nature as it is. We have to make is as bad as we are with our fabricated banal sensationalism. We are losing our marbles and we should call this particular program “Mad versus Wild” to regain some senses.
Rivaldo made it to the national news in this article: Tusker won’t leave village that treated him.
Rivaldo is a friendly elephant. Too friendly. Rivaldo has been habituated and fed long time ago by people who did not know what they were doing and then used this elephant for their entertainment – and income. Like most habituated elephants, he became confident with humans, probably visited a house and got its trunk cut. He could have died but he was treated. Other elephants were not so lucky: Roberto Carlos was fed – and shot in the leg. Cafu was fed – and shot. There is very little reason why Rivaldo should be grateful to humans, because he got his share of stones and fireworks. If we could teach him, we would ask him to stay as far as possible from humans. Even though journalists are trying to show elephants in a good light (elephants are nice), sensationalism gets the better. Unfortunately, it turns out that this was not such a heart-warming story. It is another banal, chilling example of human idiocy, cruelty and cynicism. Rivaldo is slowly becoming a circus elephant, fed by anything tourists will leave behind. His territory has become small and instead of roaming the jungle like his ancestors did, he explores wastelands. If you love wild animals, leave them alone. In the photograph attached, admire Rivaldo sleeping and see for yourself: we don’t disturb him. He comes and goes as he wishes and we don’t feed him. He is our wild friend and we respect his freedom. He is not our pet.
We have often been told: “this place is sacred, keep it as it is” about Cheetal Walk. In a way, it reveals that people associate pristine nature with sacredness. Cheetal Walk however is nothing like pristine. For millennia, people have inhabited this area, hunted, cultivated, cut trees and herded cattle. It looks pristine today because it remained untouched for a few generations, and because we have decided to protect it.
Einstein, I believe, once said something like: “or everything is sacred or nothing is sacred.” People may consider nature to be sacred because it is the source of our very lives. Wild animals are beautiful, natural landscapes are absolutely gorgeous and intelligence seems to flow from every corner. The more we learn, the more we see how the law of nature produces a machinery compared to which our modern technology is child’s play.
But the same people who appreciate nature’s “sanctity” (maintained by private people, communities or governments), find no contradiction in getting into their SUVs, driving back on mad roads into overpopulated cities, work in small offices and live in boxes. This is modern lifestyle, you cannot do anything about it, there is no choice…
The problem is not so much that life is difficult in a polluted, inhuman reality. We are all there. The problem lies in the schizophrenia we have developed about nature, the separations we have built. On the one side, we have our busy cities where we are active, smart and make money, and on the other side, we have a “pleasant” stetting to unwind and relax. Today, the holy-day (also supposed to be dedicated to the sacred) is used to consume the remaining wild, to desecrate our world a little more with activities that do not differ from our routine: I want money, I want to achieve, I want to see a tiger, I want a selfie with an elephant, I want a bonfire, I want to see a charge, I want to see animals at night, I want a good road to get there, I want a spa, etc.
Now, if you consider everything to be sacred, then your office is sacred, your flat or house is sacred, your car is sacred. From all these gadgets, emerge a relationship with nature. So why not use a little bit of your hard-earned money to help conservation? Why not put some (rustic) tomatoes to grow on your balcony? Why not purchase a convenient car that pollutes less? Why not preserve an untouched space in your garden? Why not have a holy-day in a good eco-resort that tries to preserve nature instead of destroying it (this is hard to find and if you check, you will see that this industry has abysmal records to the point of destroying their very source of survival).
Next time you tell a guy that nature is sacred, if you do this, he will consider you to be a saint instead of a worshiper of futilities.
As I am often far from Pondicherry where we live, my wife purchased three ducks for company. One male duck is territorial and charges. I have seen our servant giving him a good whack with a stick (she was told not to hit the duck) because she is frightened of him, even though he is a perfectly innocuous animal. Its bite is nothing more than a tickle. However, I was also charged and observed that I felt a strong reaction. A duck weights two kilos and a human-being sixty kilos. A human-being is thirty times heavier than a duck. In the same manner an elephant is tens of times bigger than a human being, but would feel a bolt of emotions if anyone goes directly towards it.
In my opinion, there are four situations pertaining to encounters with elephants or other wildlife: the animal is unaware of human presence, aware but comfortable, uncomfortable, and sufficiently disturbed to flee or charge. I am talking of situations instead of distance because one can be very close to animals but undetected if our scent does not waft towards them. Response distances also varies with sex and conditions. Female elephants with babies are extremely aggressive and will be uncomfortable with humans as soon as they detect them.
With wildlife, responsible people will not go to the extent of disturbing animals. It is unethical to ask jeep drivers to provoke an elephant to charge, and photographers should not disturb birds roosting or nesting. Wildlife observation by itself provides sufficient pleasure when animals are left to their own devises. Beautiful encounters happen only when their behavior is natural, when they are not threatened in any way.
Many television programs disregard ethics to be sensational. Professional people disturb animals only I they must. For example, animal surveys create disturbance, but still need to be carried out if we want to know how many animals are present in a reserve. Beyond absolute necessity, no one should take the liberty to provoke additional stresses to species that are on the verge of extinction, because it endangers them further. Moreover, it is dangerous and too many people are killed by “accident”, that are not really accidents but involuntary or voluntary provocations.
The Pope’s Encyclical is a welcome wake-up call for the Christians, particularly Catholics of course, and some Protestants and maybe other people of other faiths as well. It reminds the Catholics of the importance of the environment and of other forms of life, a welcome move since to the Christian view, Man is the lonely apex of creation.
After a review of the environmental problems and its associated sociological problems, the Encyclical comes with a more theological chapter on Christianity and its understanding of our relationship with nature. Another chapter attempts to go into the root cause of environmental problems, i.e. the technological paradigm. The Pope considers it to form a set of beliefs that over-rides all other beliefs, in particular the notion that Man’s well-being (in a holistic, spiritual understanding) should be the aim of all activities. In economy for example, we are promised future happiness in a world with infinite resources. Optimist technocrats also prophesy solutions to all our problems with science and technology. This attitude percolates into all our lives with a conception of progress that pushes people to “go forward” without thinking twice. And in the Christian perspective, this is considered a sin because this mindset causes a shift from God, the source and the purpose of all existence on whom our focus should remain. This false “wealth” god creates environmental destruction and I must agree with the Pope that our planet is in dire straits. At last a leader is courageous enough to say it.
I don’t believe in happy technological endings and I don’t see the Eldorado some economists promise us. We are richer, maybe. Are we happier or better off? See in your own city how people are ready to kill early morning, stuck in traffic jams. As an ecologist I believe in frugality and in God, depending upon the airline, the weather, and the experience of the Captain. Otherwise, I am a rationalist, empirical sceptic as Nassim Taleb (a trader turned philosopher) puts it. With this prudently laid disclaimer, I would humbly disagree with the Pope on the source of the problem. To me, the source of all problems is political. Even in democratic regimes, we just don’t have abandoned our judgements (sold our souls) regarding technology. We have abandoned our very responsibilities in delegating our power. When we delegate our power with a vote, we hand over responsibilities to professional politicians who do what want their rich sponsors. They become kings. They form dynasties. Early democratic experiment in Greece had citizens taken for a short time at random, to write the Constitution (the law of the law). In that way, common people kept control of the law without conflict of interest. No one could be the king but everyone was involved in the public life.
What would happen to the environment if we dare try empower citizen to write and control the law? This, I believe, could save our planet and is worth trying. Amen.
I came to know about Dame Daphne Sheldrick through our book Giant Hearts. She graciously offered to write the preface and I discovered the extent of her work in Africa. I also discovered this picture of her on the web and somehow, this fragile old lady holding a young African elephant that looks absolutely overpowering and affectionate, made me wonder. This is supposed to be, with the Asian elephant, the horrible beast source of conflicts.
Now, if you consider the Greeks and the Turks, the Chinese and the Japanese, the Zulus and the Boers, the English and the French, etc. you see that we humans, are impossible to live with. Elephants are “in conflict” with us because of our inability to co-exist.
Some may say: “but farmers really suffer from elephants.” This is true. But, first remove the illegal settlements and reduce the provocations (like stopping a car near an elephant). And second consider the fact that nothing is done to organize activities at the regional level (like advising farmers on which crop to grow and helping them to shift to a better kind of agriculture). From my experience, when elephants are undisturbed and not attracted by our food, they are calm and peaceful animals. We see them every day crossing the Trust’s property not bothered one bit by our presence (we slowly come indoors), our noise or even low conversations. Not once in two years have I felt threatened.
As many in conservation biology say, the conflict is actually mostly a human – human conflict and not really a human – wildlife conflict. This is true with all of wildlife all over the world. As far as the elephant is concerned, conflict has a lot to do with management. But can we manage biodiversity if we can’t tolerate our neighbor? Can we do it if we don’t want to help the poor farmers?
We live near the Masinagudi – Ooty road, coming from Mysore. It is a small road because it crosses protected areas. However, getting out of the jungle on the road, is being caught in a worse type of jungle. During the week, the first vehicle you are likely to encounter is a jeep taxi rushing madly, honking all the way, carrying people who are probably not in a hurry. Your next vehicle will a “vegetable express”, a small truck whose mission in life seems to be providing the Ooty market with unripe material: the speed at which they go prevents any cabbage from reaching maturity. During the weekend, you will meet medium sized buses and SUVs. Which is the most dangerous is difficult to say. Small buses are dangerous by nature because the tourists (who are probably not in a hurry either), need to be offloaded in Ooty for reasons that have been forgotten long ago. Lately, I found that the Toyota Fortuner drivers were particularly bad because, like elephant or tiger experts, they seem to think that the qualities of their pet toy -big, fast, powerful- are transferred to them. They take up the middle of the road, to be skillfully avoided by civilized people.
In spite of the attractive notice boards of the Forest Department: NO parking, NO cooking, NO photography, NO feeding animals, people do just the opposite. Each time we travel to Masinagudi (8 km away), we see a violation of some rules. The speed limit, scantly indicated, is 40 km per hour, to avoid road kills. In an area where tigers seem to be recovering from extinction, no driver is aware that, beyond the speed limit, he can kill a tiger crossing the road. Over speeding is so common that I came to believe that we own the slowest vehicle in the region. People also park their vehicles to picnic the jungle, preferably in front of the NO boards. They leave their trash behind, tease animals and risk their lives. With the present violation of laws, the respective departments can easily earn Rs 1,00,000 per month in fines between Masinagudi and Ooty.
Why being repressive when people need a little bit of freedom (and pay taxes to enjoy the reserves)? With dangerous and at the same time fragile wildlife, there is nothing much to do but apply the law (it is not right now). This brings us to the other part of the question that we must ask as conservation biologists: where are the lucrative infrastructures, activities and locations where people can have a little bit of freedom and fun without creating problems for the environment?
I recently went for the pollution control test in Ooty, the Queen of the Hills, in the center of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. Our jeep is 8 years old and, it is good to know whether or not we choke people when we go to the market in the already over polluted Ooty. Elephants kill approximately 500 people per year in India, but atmospheric pollution results in hundreds of thousand premature deaths in India every year. Consequently, checking vehicles is very, very important. At the testing center, there was a tractor, a new car and our Mahindra jeep. Very nice people, congenial atmosphere, pleasant. A picture was taken of the car’s plate, I paid my Rs 120 and off I went, I was in a hurry. Only driving back to the city center did I realize that no check whatsoever had been done. The emission levels I have on my form are fake. None of the vehicles were actually checked for pollution. These are the news for this week from one of the most important biodiversity hotspots of the Earth.
Je suis allé récemment faire le test anti-pollution à Ooty, la reine de la montagne, dans le centre de la Réserve de Biosphère des Nilgiris. Notre jeep a 8 ans et il est préférable de savoir si nous enfumons les gens lorsque nous allons au marché dans la petite ville super polluée d’Ooty. Les éléphants tuent environ 500 personnes par an en Inde, mais la pollution atmosphérique provoque des centaines de milliers de morts prématurées. En conséquence, vérifier l’émission des véhicules est très très important. Au centre de test, il y avait un tracteur, une nouvelle voiture et notre Boléro. Des gens très gentils, atmosphère détendue, plaisante. Une photo de la plaque d’immatriculation fut prise, j’ai payé mes 120 Rs et en avant, j’étais pressé. Ce n’est qu’en retournant au centre-ville que j’ai réalisé qu’aucun contrôle n’avait été fait. Les niveaux démission sur mon formulaire sont inventés. Aucun des véhicules n’a passé un test. Voilà donc les dernières nouvelles de la semaine, d’un des plus importants ‘points chauds’ de biodiversité de la planète.
I am writing those lines after talking to an elephant. It is rather rare these days to talk to a wild elephant: or one lives far away from the jungle or one is fearful in such an encounter. Casius is an elephant I don’t know particularly well. He used to come when he was young to smell the verandah at night. This evening he came at nightfall, a beautiful elephant weighing more than four tons. I started to talk to him. He stopped to listen. For a few minutes he explored, smelled, listened. His body language showed he was relaxed. He trusted me. A human being, in general so aggressive, was telling him he was welcome. He understood. This exchange that is so peculiar, happened, a common understanding that cannot be expressed by words of course. Then he went on to feed. Elephant eat most of the time… I am wondering whether my species will be grand enough to preserve his descendents for another thousand years. I doubt it and I am not proud to be a human.
J’écris ces lignes alors que je viens juste de parler à un éléphant. C’est plutôt rare de nos jours de parler à un éléphant sauvage : soit on vit loin de la jungle, soit on a peur pendant ce genre de rencontre. Picotti est un éléphant que je connais mal. Il venait lorsqu’il était jeune renifler la véranda pendant la nuit. Ce soir il s’est approché la nuit tombante, un bel éléphant de plus de quatre tonnes. J’ai commencé à lui parler. Il s’est arrêté pour écouter. Pendant plusieurs minutes il a exploré, senti, écouté. Ses mouvements montraient qu’il était détendu. Il avait confiance. Un humain, en général si agressif lui disait qu’il était le bienvenu. Il a compris. Il y a eu cet échange si particulier, cette compréhension qui va au-delà des mots bien sûr. Il est parti se nourrir. Les éléphants mangent pratiquement sans cesse… Je me demande si mon espère aura la grandeur de préserver ses descendants pendant encore mille ans. J’en doute et je ne suis pas fier d’être un homme.
We live in the jungle, one kilometer away from the village of Valatottam. For each religious festival, call for prayer and formerly sermons from the other village Mavinhalla, we get DAYS and sometime NIGHTS of noise pollution, up to 60 dB. It is as if someone is with you and talks nonsense to you loudly for hours and hours. This is against the Supreme Court rules because sound affects children in school (100 m from the source), elderly people, sick patients, and increases blood pressure of other victims. It is a permanent disturbance for wildlife and tourists who pay expensive eco-lodges to get the “authentic experience” of a life in a noisy suburb. Regulations are just not implemented and the majority of people suffer in… silence. Look at the video:
Nous vivons dans la jungle à un kilomètre du village de Valatottam. A chaque festival religieux, appel à la prière et sermon provenant, il y a quelques années, de l’autre village Mavinhalla, nous subissons NUIT et JOUR la pollution sonore, mesurée jusqu’à 60 dB. C’est un peu comme si une personne vous accompagnait toute la journée et vous parlait à haute voix. Ces pratiques sont à l’encontre des jugements de la Cour Suprême, car le son affecte les enfants à l’école (à 100 m de la source), les personnes âgées, les malades et augmente la pression artérielle des autres victimes. C’est une perturbation permanente pour les animaux sauvages et les touristes qui paient à prix fort les éco-lodges qui leur font partager une “expérience authentique” de la vie de banlieue bruyante. La loi n’est pas appliquée et la majorité des gens souffrent en… silence. Regardez la vidéo:
The center of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. Last week I went to the next village Masinagudi and ate in a “hotel”. The restaurant is attached to a resort promising to arrange “your next jungle adventure” and it belongs, I believe, to a rich guy. I ate my uninspiring parottas with a cold bacteria-laced vegetable gravy, looking at posters of fake, suburban relationship with wildlife. Then, what do I see entering the restaurant? A man with a headload of wood. It was an epiphany: restaurants, resorts, and schools use wood: it’s free! It is official, everyone knows it! The local foresters cannot NOT know it. I paid my bill disgusted: I consumed bad food, paid for the gas (but the money would go in the pocket of a rich guy) and worse, I ate the jungle.
Le centre de la Réserve de Biosphère des Nilgiris. La semaine dernière je suis allé à Masinagudi et j’ai ‘mangé’ dans un restaurant. Ce restaurant dépend d’une chaine qui promet d’arranger ‘votre nouvelle aventure dans la jungle’ et appartient, je crois à un homme riche. J’ai donc mangé mes parottas discutables avec une sauce froide et chargées de bactéries en regardant un poster évoquant une relation frelatée avec la nature. Puis, qu’est-ce que je vois entrer dans le restaurant ? Une personne portant du bois. Ce fut une révélation : les restaurants, hôtels, écoles, brûlent tous du bois : c’est gratuit ! C’est officiel, tout le monde le sait ! Les forestiers ne peuvent pas ne pas l’ignorer. J’ai payé ma facture dégoûté : j’ai mangé un mauvais repas, payé pour le gaz (le bénéfice ira au patron) et pire, j’ai mangé la jungle.
In these pages, we will tell you what it is to live in the jungle. You may not know why we do this and if you are curious, look at our website. We are ecologists, biologists, to make it short. So what is it so special to live in the jungle? Well, the point is that there is nothing special. We take no risk and the adventures are that of peaceful, friendly encounters. The real thrill is not provoked by adrenaline but by exchanges. The elephant will know us by smell, the tiger will ignore us, the wild dog will growl at us, some mongooses will follow us inside the house, the spotted deer will graze peaceful, the wild boar will look at us attentively, the babbler will beg for food. We are friendly but always free.
Dans ces textes, nous allons vous dire ce que c’est la vie dans la jungle. Vous ne savez peut-être pas pourquoi on fait ça et si vous êtes curieux, regardez notre site web. Nous sommes écologistes, biologistes pour faire court. Qu’est-ce qu’il y a donc de si spécial à vivre dans la jungle ? Eh bien, rien, c’est le point que l’on veut montrer. Nous ne prenons pas de risque et les aventures sont celles de rencontres paisibles et amicales. L’émotion n’est pas provoquée par l’adrénaline mais pas des échanges. L’éléphant nous connait par l’odeur, le tigre nous ignore, le chien sauvage grogne, certaines mangoustes nous suivent à l’intérieur de la maison, le cerf broute paisiblement, le sanglier nous observe attentivement, l’oiseau (babbler) quémande des graines. Nous sommes amis mais toujours libres.
A Saturday afternoon somewhere in British India, in September 1913, just one year before the Great War (as if it could ever be great), two Englishmen were talking:
-“What are you doing tomorrow, Jack?”
-“Nothing much, I thought about shooting a tiger or two.”
-“Don’t mind if I joined? I would be excited to go for an elephant myself.”
-“No, please, you are welcome, we will take along some brandy.”
A Saturday afternoon in September 2013 in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, one day before Kumar, a villager, was killed by a frightened elephant while taking tourists illegally into a Reserved Forest, this was the conversation between two IT specialists:
-“What are you doing tomorrow, man?”
-“Nothing much da, I thought of a night jeep safari and before, a trek from the eco-resort.”
-“You don’t mind if I joined? I would be excited to come close to an elephant.”
-“No, please, you are welcome, we will have some booze as well.”
In 1913 there were tens of thousands tigers and hundreds of thousand elephants in India. Today tigers are little more than 1,000 and elephants maybe ca. 20,000. The difference between sport hunting and predatory tourism is that – no wait, there is no difference. You end-up killing the last tigers by disturbing them, you put yourself in danger and worse, you get people killed. In wildlife reserves, avoid all activity that is not supervised by trained and authorized persons.
When you live in the middle of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, you need to be very careful with plastic because herbivores eat plastic bags and die of intestinal occlusion. In spite of the righteous boards “Plastic-free Nilgiris” placed on each road entering the Nilgiris, locally produced items are conscientiously wrapped in a layer of plastic and then delivered in a polythene bag thought to be cotton. Industrial products, of course, are almost always packaged in plastic. A single household produces maybe 1 kg of plastic per week.
I thought that, if plastic is produced in this region, it must be “treated”. As it happened, not at all. Plastic is burned by villagers or buried or left. Toxins released into the air contaminate plants, soil, surface water and groundwater. This can result in pollutants being absorbed by food crops, vegetation. Dioxins and furans occur as byproducts. Dioxin, is linked to cancer in humans, and dioxins and furans both accumulate in animal tissue. Reported effects on birds and fish, include increased mortality, decreased growth, reproductive failure and birth defects.
The “Plastic-free Nilgiris” campaign is supposed to suggest that this region forbids the use of plastic, which would be unattainable. But what it actually means is that the plastic problem is not addressed. It kills humans with cancer, pollutes the Ooty carrots and Nilgiris tea, and whatever is exposed to it. Who cares?
Plastic is a resource that can be reused and preferably less used. But as long as there is no real action, waste of resources, human lives and biodiversity will continue. The roads to Ooty with boards posting good intentions take us to hell. Too bad for the Biosphere Reserve.
Sharing food is natural among people who are close to each other, in the same family or not so close to each other, just because we belong to the same human family after all. Sharing food is a sign of friendliness. Most domestic animals were probably domesticated by sharing food with them. The trouble is that in some instance, it creates a lot of problems.
Elephants like any other animals become habituated to being fed. At the beginning, all is well. They go away. Then, they start demanding food. Elephants have a large appetite and need approximately 100 kg of food per day. Habituated elephants do not roam the jungle any more. As they find food in a particular place, they do not bother any more to explore as they normally do. They destroy all vegetation in their vicinity, accelerating their own starvation.
Habituated elephants lose their fear of humans and try to break into houses in search of fruits, vegetables and cereals. Not all people are welcoming to elephants. To defend themselves or just out of fear people will start screaming, and put their lives in danger. Alternatively, they may take a weapon and harm the elephants.
We have seen such development time after time. Our friend Rivaldo (see our videos) was extremely lucky. He became habituated, and probably went to a house where the tip of his trunk was cut. He was extremely lucky to survive. Without treatment, he would have died. Roberto Carlos was less lucky. A miscreant shot the animal in the leg and the he died of septicemia after weeks of atrocious suffering.
When you feed an elephant, you want to be friendly, but you invariably provoke the premature death of the animal. So never feed elephants.