Protected areas: speed limits for show!

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

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

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

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

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

Do or do not. There is no try – Yoda

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

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

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

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

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

A better future

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

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

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

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

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

The Forest Department: conserving nature starts at home

This article appeared in IndiaWilds (

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud.

Not so sure it is not a jumbo crisis

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

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

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

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


Priya Davidar.

Unspeakable destruction of the Sigur Region

Near Mavinhalla: this is supposed to be a Reserved Forest. Where is the forest?

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?

In the Sigur Nature Trust, the remaining trees are now exploited: will elephant catch leaves?

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…

Again in the Sigur Nature Trust (this is why the vegetation is still abundant with dead material on the ground). We cannot protect any more. Imagine the Sigur Reserve Forest.

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?

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

Critically Endangered vultures need rivers with large trees

Critically Endangered Gyps bengalensis.

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.

Titi’s death and the black swan

Bommie, Bunta and Titi 12 Feb. 2017.

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.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

*If you find it is not objective to name elephants, read two paragraphs below and see what is worse: empathy or over-confident science.

A dead forest with no young trees.

Water for elephants – sponsor a tank!

Thirst at SNT

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.

First Forest Department water hole.

If you are willing to contribute:

  1. Very important: we can receive only donations from India.
  2. Our bank details: Sigur Nature Trust, Indian Bank, Masinagudi, Branch ID 00218, IFSC Code: IDIB000M018 [IDIB triple zero M zero 18], Account 564501164.
  3. Inform us by mail ( if you make a transfer.
  4. 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.

Second Forest Department water hole.

Once you contribute:

  1. We and the Forest Department personnel, thank you in the name of some ungrateful elephants.
  2. If you give Rs3,000, we will send you our book Giant Hearts (worth Rs1,000), within India.
  3. 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.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

Development meets landscape ecology: a vision for the Nilgiris

Landscape ecology can help organize tourism better.

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 (, 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.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud