From this year on, children are frightened

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.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

Rarity of forest trees

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.

Priya Davidar

Poison in, poison out: bon appétit

It killed plants, birds, insects, but it’s good for you!

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 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 ( and destruction of pollination services.

The Europeans may be getting more tolerant of large mammals due to supportive public opinion ( 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?

Priya Davidar


Murphy’s law in conservation

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?

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

The Art of War with wildlife

Elephant blinded by stones

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.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

A child could tell you

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.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

If you think India has a population of 2000 tigers, you are mistaken

Photo: Rémi Daudin

I follow Conservation Bytes (, 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 ( and, 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.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

Human wildlife conflict: a perpetual state of emergency

Buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. The state of emergency: the reserve is already overgrazed by domestic cattle.

A paper (;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.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

Plastic pollution in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve

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.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

Forests of the world

Classification of the tropical forests of the world

We recently participated in a scientific article published in the prestigious journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA” ( 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.

Jean-Philippe Puyravaud