Category Archives: From the Field

Semal in the city: A month of Semal!

For the month of March 2018, I photographed and observed a Semal (Silk Cotton tree). What a looker this tree is. It had bright red flowers, lots of birds, and plenty of little dramas. All down here!

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Only once a year, a tall tree with thorny bark bursts dramatically into blossom. In red, orange and yellow variants, the flowers seem to be on a cheerful rebellion against Air Quality Indexes above 200, apathy and road-widening stresses. The Silk cotton or Semal tree defies the expectations you would normally have of a tree in the city. Not only is this native tree doing wellin struggling, dry Delhi, it heralds spring – through the annual phenology of its blossoms – bringing scores of birds out and about.

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Tailorbird on Semal: tinier than the flowers!

Once the tree is done with flowering, it breaks out into cotton pods, which waft magically in the clogged air. If a large flowering tree is a keystone in the ecosystem, equally it can be a harbinger of a sense of place.

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Grey Hornbill on Semal.
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A flock of riotous Rose-ringed Parakeets!

I took pictures of a semal tree in Vasant Kunj for over fifteen days at the same time each day –between 6:30 to 9:30 AM. The tree I chose was a representative of Delhi – growing upright in a human-dominated, nutrient-poor environment. The findings confirm what I thought as a child – the semal has an effervescent quality of attracting not just human admirers but also several birds and insects. Observing the semal is also understanding ecology and inter-relationships – I spotted more than ten bird species, but I also saw interactions between different bird species.

The collective noun for crows is murder. Murders of crows were regularly spotted, but despite their snarky reputations, the crows did not harangue other birds – like various kinds of mynas, pigeons and barbets. There were several types of starlings or mynas on the semal – common mynas (with a bandit like yellow band on their eyes), brahminy mynas (named after the ‘choti’ or tuft of hair they have, similar to the one some male brahmins keep), pied mynas (black and white with orange bills) and rosy starlings (rosy pink, white and black), who migrate to India from Europe. There were two types of barbets – the brown-headed barbet and the coppersmith barbet, and two types of pigeon – the yellow-footed green pigeon (a tree-loving bird) and the blue rock pigeon (which nests closer to people, and usually on buildings). Grey hornbills, rose-ringed parakeets, oriental magpie-robins, paradise flycatchers and rufous treepies also visited. The size range of birds the semal supports is wide – from the tiny purple sunbird and oriental white-eye (8 centimetres long) to the huge peafowl. While several birds fed on the semal flowers, others used the crown of the tree as cover, while negotiating their way through the built landscape.

For me, the semal is a sense of place, which is otherwise marred by a shifting baseline. While certain remnants of ecological heritage and knowledge remain in Delhi – such as people selling coconut cream and water and cooling ‘chiks’ on the side of the road – most other ‘natural’ recollections are now just memories. Growing up in Delhi, I saw vultures which have now completely disappeared, and sparrows that have sharply reduced in numbers. Studies have confirmed the worst suspicions – we are witnessing several local extinctions and plummeting populations of species. In the houses I grew up in, wasps made white nests in plug points, crickets and termites flew giddily inside our rooms after monsoons. I don’t see crickets, blister beetles, and the wasp and ant diversity that I saw as a child. One thing that has remained though, is the semal.

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The iridiscent Purple Sunbird on Semal.

Grey hornbills dart in and out of the semal in the ancient Humayun’s tomb complex. In central verges and road dividers exhibiting Delhi’s plummeting Air Quality Index and Respirable Particulate Matter, the semal manages to grow – and thrive. In places where trees branches have been carelessly lopped off – to make way for signboards, lampposts or red lights – it survives. It may not outlive all of Delhi’s infrastructure plans though. Close on the heels of a contested proposal for ‘redeveloping’ Pragati Maidan, which will involve cutting hundreds of trees, more road-development projects are being executed. Citizens have fought to save old trees on Aurobindo Marg which the government wants to cut for road-widening, a proposal which may still come through. Another plan is in the offing is to cut over 2,000 trees – including the cheerful semal – between Dhaula Kuan and the international airport. Still, as planners hasten to widen roads, the semal shelters an arboreal arena of life.

As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

The semal means so much to many species. An important source of food and sustenance as the days get hotter. Yet it may be just another trunk to be cut for road-widening projects or another statistic for ‘compensatory plantation.’ As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

This post first appeared here.

All photos by Neha Sinha. Please do not use without permission.

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Why Spring is the Birding Season!

Tuk, tuk.

The sound is insistent and almost metallic.

You can hear it in most Indian cities. Under trees, next to your office window, while out on a walk, from your balcony.

The sound comes from a bird with whiskers — a bird coloured green, red, yellow and black. The small, energetic Coppersmith Barbet, bashing on with the cheer of a tuk-tuk on a colourful street; its call heralding the coming of summer.

For summer is almost here, and spring is ongoing. The fingers of heat will run through your face, bringing memories of heat exhaustion, but it is not unbearable yet. And this is the best time to get out there and go birding.

Let’s start with the coast. Coasts are not for everyone. In high summer, the sunlight prances on the water, and the whole world seems like a prism of blinding, broken glass. Early mornings at this time of the year are just right. You can take a boat and go into the sea, or you could hide out on the beach. There will be Brown-headed gulls, flying and hunting together, having come from Central Asia and Mongolia.

gullsforaging-copy_022418014501.jpgGulls foraging for food. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

They are bold birds, fine-feathered, looking impossibly smooth for all their watery pursuits. And if you look really hard, you can find Little Stint and Temminck’s Stint on beaches and on coastal wetlands. These tiny birds have feathers that look like fine, mottled mud — like the colours on ancient, well-worn pottery. The Little Stint is tiny, and that tiny bird makes a long migration to come to India — the ones we get here come from arctic reaches of Eurasia.

Go to the desert, and there too you will be delighted. This is the time of the year to see thousands upon thousands of Demoiselle Cranes that come to Rajasthan. They congregate chiefly at Khichan village, where villagers proudly feed these stunning, stately birds.

parrot-copy_022418011237.jpgRose-ringed Parakeet at a nesting site. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

Over the years, man and Crane have grown together. The cranes have learnt that they can to go to Khichan , generation after generation, for both refuge and food in winter. And it is a date that they keep regularly, the magic of migration combined with peer-learning in the flock, remembering routes in the sky over the desert.

Part of the desert is in Delhi too. The Aravalli ranges start from Rajasthan and come to Delhi. The Aravallis are not moist and evergreen. Rather, like the capital, they are tough, thorny and spindly. A remarkable natural feature that requires much more love. Asola sanctuary in Delhi is full of birds. The area takes getting used to.

asola-copy_022418010744.jpgIndian Scops Owl. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

Many native species of shrub and tree in the Aravallis dry forests have thorns almost an inch long. The grass is brown rather than green, and old rocks are worn with time. Thorny plants, well-adapted to Delhi’s heat and dryness, grasp on to it little pinches of dust between the rocky crags. You have to walk carefully, avoiding thorns.

Learning to embrace this tough, old place is rich in its rewards. In between the grass and rocks, you can find the stunning, quaint-as-a-button Painted Sandgrouse which is regularly seen in Asola. And you have the sedate looking, long-legged Indian stone-curlew which is a resident there. In the wetlands of Asola, you will find migratory birds hunting for food and fish — Bar-headed Geese, Mallard ducks and Northern Shovelers.

indian-hoopoe-copy_022418010924.jpgHoopoe on a tree. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

And apart from the birds, this is also the time to watch flowers. The Flame of the Forest is beginning to bloom all over central India. In the Himalayas, the blood-red rhododendron, which may be impacted by global warming, has begun blooming early, in winter and spring.

The impacts of climate change are evident in many phenologies — that is early or late blooming of flowers, changes in when insects or bird eggs hatch, among others. But spring is a time of celebration that is hard to ignore. It’s a time to get out there and look at the sky and the sea, the bough and the boulder. You’ll never be able to predict what you find.

All photos by me.

This piece first appeared here.

Its Migratory bird season – and here is where you can find some birds!

For Delhi: Basai, Najafgarh and Mangar. And read on also to know why these places are under threat.

There is a sense of oldness in natural places.

The earth before you will have evidence of being freshly trodden- the many-grooved footprints of birdwatchers in their field shoes, tracks of Nilgai, three-cleaved marks left by hopping birds. The marks may be new, the smell of fresh animal droppings stinging the air. But the place itself feels both new and old; new because you see something unseen each time, old because there is something primeval about natural spaces. These are places shaped not by the human hand, but by sun, wind, water, birds and animals.

If you’re standing under trees in Aravalli’s Mangar forest, the leaves dapple the sunlight, leaving chequered shadows on the ground and on your face. The colour of the light, and so your immediate world, may become a greenish yellow, sieved through the leaves; on the ground, shadows shift as the leaves move, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. If there are Nilgai nearby, say in the Delhi Ridge, you may be standing on a path made by them. If you are in a wetland – like Basai or Najafgarh, the levels of the water are different in different seasons, and the land around the water shifts accordingly. You could be a completely bone-dry spot that becomes aquatic at other times. Water shapes the place, migratory birds mould its character. The oldest things on earth — birds that are actually living dinosaurs, water that whips terra firma — create the place.

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When Delhi talks about being an “old” city, we mostly refer to fifteenth-century monuments and tombs, the sun warming their stone on winter afternoons. We think of Old Delhi’s ancient bazaars – still selling spices and silver, flanked by solid wrought iron pillars which have seen the times of kings. We think of the feeling of Delhi, an old capital, a centre of power, the sense of government flags, corridor whispers, red beacons, which are hints in the air — power was and is here. But very few think of Delhi as an old city through its natural spaces.

Maybe that’s why Delhi-NCR’s spectacular natural spaces are under threat.

We are at a remarkable moment in the story of the city – citizens are fighting, under duress, to preserve Delhi’s history, for its future. Of the many struggles going on in the city — to preserve avenue trees, to save the trees at the iconic Pragati Maidan from getting axed for redevelopment, and to conserve lakes, three stand out in scale.

One is the pitched battle to save parts of the world’s oldest mountain range, the Aravallis. It may not be enough to say that these hills and ridges are ancient geological heritage; it may not even be enough to say the Aravallis act as a safety net for Delhi, protecting it from complete desertification from the Thar. Clearly, these arguments are not enough for developers and a determined state government bent towards hacking away Aravalli’s trees, levelling the ridges, and to sell green-view apartments, which certainly won’t have a “green” view for long.

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A concerned citizen has moved the National Green Tribunal against the cutting of more than 6,000 trees in the Aravallis in Faridabad. While the Haryana forest department says all of the Aravallis are deemed forest, trees were cut all the same. Not only does this fly in the face of environmental concerns, it is a denial of the fact that the Aravallis too — and not just apartments — are part of cultural and lived heritage for Delhi, Faridabad and Gurgaon. Delhi’s Paharganj, derived from “Pahar” or hill, is named such as it was a hilly area, and today the Delhi Ridge (named as the area undulates with Aravalli hills, ridges and streams) is a forest that gives lungs to the gasping city.

Another chapter of forgotten history, lost through tomes of city master plans, is Delhi and Haryana’s Sahibi river. “Cartographic assassination” is what rivers and wetlands face, as they get described in public record and maps, says urban ecology and planning expert Manu Bhatnagar. What was once Sahibi river has today become Najafgarh naala. In this naala too, Delhi and Haryana show reluctance to recognise the old Najafgarh jheel, which hosts flamingos, and migratory birds from Tibet and other high altitude regions.

The area also has what is considered one of the biggest heronries in North India – more than 200 birds have created communal nests in a clump of trees. Heronries are classic features next to wetlands, reminiscent of the sight of squawking chicks-in-a-row at heronies in the world heritage site, Bharatpur. Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage (INTACH) had filed a case in the NGT for the conservation of Najafgarh jheel, though the lake is yet to be officially protected. Birdwatchers and citizens have been rallying for the conservation of the area for years, even as flats in Gurgaon inch closer to the wetland, and have swallowed its basin.

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Finally, there is Basai. It is known in bird watching circles as Delhi-NCR’s finest wetland. It lies unassumingly in a corner of Gurgaon, shoved uncomfortably close to construction sites. This incredible site, hosting nearly 300 species, designated an “Important Bird Area” due to its avian wealth, is created by sewage water. But ecosystem processes sieve and save the water, creating not a filthy cesspool but a resounding arena of life. This is one of those rare places where you will find both the migratory goose in the water and the resident eagle in the sky; where you have a wet grassland merging into a wetland, creating a green-and-blue, grass-and-water mosaic one normally sees in far more “remote” or “wild” spaces.

In less remote, urban spaces, which ironically jostle for both breath and water, wetlands often turn to wastelands, quite literally so. The Delhi Bird Foundation, helmed by avid birdwatchers, has approached the NGT against waste going into the wetland –a construction and demolition waste plant is coming up next to Basai wetlands. Fifteen-year-old birdwatcher and Delhi resident Maitreya Sukumar explains why: “It is a wetland home to many birds. It is a thriving ecosystem. It gets rare birds each year and should definitely be preserved,” he says. Maitreya’s mother is one of the petitioners in the case.

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All over the world, natural spaces in crowded cities are cherished as islands of succour. These are not just points, but “places”, which hold deep meaning for those who visit, an ongoing relationship of belonging between person and place. These places carry a sense of being old, timeless, and un-changing in the surrounding echelons of chaos and noise. New York’s Central Park is not famous because it is a park, but because it is in one of the world’s busiest, fastest-paced cities; the park itself is maintained more as a wilderness than a fully manicured area. The Nara Park in Japan holds several deer; the deer come out and stroll through the city of Nara, walking between people, an unsaid conversation between hooves and heels.

Closer home, Sikkim has recently passed a unique legislation to increase fraternal bonds and personal relationships with trees, allowing a person to adopt a tree as a child: the Sikkim Forest Tree (Amity and Reverence) Rules 2017.

Delhi’s own amity does not lie only in its buildings. Delhi’s geological and ecological history has shaped the names of its places, the quality of local life, and resilience — an ancient story of Nature’s survival in a harsh, polarised environment and environs.

It would be imperative for India’s national capital to not forget where it came from.

This piece first appeared here.

IndiEnvironment: July 2017 Issue

The second issue of IndiEnvironment discusses Haryana’s Mesquite trees (Prosopis Juliflora) which have been cut down by the thousands, on the pretext that they are invasive. Should Mesquite be cut down simply to make buildings? Also, a brief look at the problems with writing on human-wildlife conflict.

Image and PDF below.

Feedback most welcome!

IndiEnvironment July 2017

 

IndiEnvironment_July 2017

Ballerinas of Najafgarh

Flamingos have found an unlikely habitat in a squalid Delhi ‘drain’

If you ask a farmer in South West Delhi’s Najafgarh where the ‘Najafgarh jheel’ is, chances are he will quizzically ask, “Kaunsi jheel (Which lake)? Aap naale ki baat kar rahen hain (Are you talking about the drain)?”

At first sight, the Najafgarh wetland looks forbidding. An impenetrable olive-green mat of water hyacinth, an invasive weed, envelops a portion of the water. You can almost taste the rancid water from its smell—the sour, lingering stench of sewage. Dusty, under-construction high-rise buildings peer down at the wetland, threatening to swallow it up. Electricity lines criss-cross the sky.

Images: Chinmoy Banerjee

And yet, there is a touch of the ethereal here. A dab of unreal pink. An estimated 2,000 greater flamingos came to Najafgarh this winter. Some have stayed on through spring and summer. Where these flamingos come from is unclear. Some ornithologists guess that they come from breeding sites in Gujarat; others say they may have migrated from Iran or Africa.

Greater flamingos can look like ballerinas standing on one leg—in fact they can hold this pose for hours; they even sleep and preen this way. Recently a paper revealed they can do so because their joints lock into place, and their knees don’t flex. They use their large hooked beaks to sift up microscopic food from the water. At Najafgarh, these birds are hard to miss, shining softly in the sun against a mosaic of fields flooded with the capital’s sewage. But if you train your eyes, it’s not just flamingos in the water. Other birds—ruffs, bar-headed geese, godwits, little stints and various kinds of ducks—can be seen at this wetland during winter too.

The wetlands conundrum

Why do these birds choose a dusty, semi-agrarian patch of land bullied by Haryana’s high-rises? The answers lie in history, as well as in a bit of the present. Before Najafgarh wetland was summarily dismissed as a ‘drain’, it was (and still is) a stormwater channel. Over the last few decades, it became a recipient of Delhi’s sewage and industrial waste. The beleaguered channel winds 50 kilometres through Delhi and Haryana, and forms a jheel or lake on the border of the two states. If not for the human waste, this piece of ecological history would have still been pristine.

Until this year, Haryana did not acknowledge Najafgarh jheel as a wetland. Wetlands in India are often caught between dream and desire—birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts dream of a habitat with lyrical reeds and flocks of wading migratory birds; planners desire wetlands for the land they envelop.

Among India’s kitty of environmental laws, the Wetland Rules of 2010 call for wetland protection; but the same Rules also state that only wetlands identified and notified by the State will be protected. It is perhaps no surprise that Najafgarh wetland, a refuge for birds though it is, is not notified as a wetland by the real-estate hungry Delhi or Haryana governments.

For years, a small but committed group of birdwatchers has been visiting Najafgarh to document its birds. This year, they found a particularly high number of flamingos. In the past few years, it also appears that flamingos have been choosing Najafgarh over Okhla, a bird sanctuary on the Yamuna between Delhi and Noida in Uttar Pradesh. While they look picture-postcard delicate, flamingos are resilient birds. Not only do they visit Delhi and Mumbai, two cities with some of the most polluted waters, they are largely able to adapt to these noisy cities.

Confusing jigsaw

For hundreds of flamingos flying to Delhi, the city must look like a confusing jigsaw, bifurcated by River Yamuna, tortured by land acquisition and pollution. Najafgarh jheel, however, has somehow endured. While government books may not commit to the protection—or even identification—of the lake as a wetland, for birds, this site is important.

Birders have counted more than 150 bird species here, and a half-day count during a recent bird race yielded 120 species—some of them migratory birds from Tibet and the Greater Himalayas. “Over 1,000 bar-headed geese come here to spend winters from the Tibetan plateau. Other wintering waterfowl, numbering several thousand, include the northern pintail, Eurasian wigeon, northern shovelers, common teal, ruddy shelduck, gadwall, common pochard and gargeney. Uncommon species seen here are the greater white-fronted goose, ferruginous pochard and common shelduck.”

“We observed flocks of over a 100 great white pelicans and large congregations of waders in the wet fields adjacent to the drain,” says Kanwar B. Singh, a Delhi-based birdwatcher.

Trees and fields around the wetland create a semi-agrarian wilderness. Black-naped hares bound across them; urn-shaped nests made by baya weavers hang from trees. Birds of the northern plains—quick-witted green bee-eaters, reptilian-looking black and glossy ibis forage in the fields; birds of prey—the oriental honey buzzard and black-shouldered kite hover above. Heronries—colonies where waterbirds breed—have formed here. The trees, the reeds, the soil and rain come together to filter and sieve away the worst of Delhi’s filth.

Najafgarh is not an idyll. But if spared the ravages of real estate, it can be so much more. And if you need evidence that this is indeed a wetland, it comes in the form of flamingos, in the migratory sojourns of birds crossing the Himalayas, and in the calls of birds and beasts that inhabit all year round.

First published in The Hindu.

World Tiger Day: How Roads are Killing Tigers

On Saturday night, a young tiger was killed on a road near Dehradun.

You may think: are there tigers in Dehradun? Where was the tiger going? What were we doing on Saturday night – were we on a road, heading to a party, or on a leafy residential lane, propelling ourselves to a quiet, music-suffused evening at home?

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The tiger, photographed while alive.

For the more imaginative among us, we could remember tales of animals and beasts that crossed roads in our parent’s time, or the joke about the chicken crossing a road. For others, it may seem odd; after all, how many countries in the world can say a tiger was crossing the road?

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Tiger was later killed by a speeding vehicle.

There are many aspects that are amazing and diverse about our country. Those who use roads – or hate using them, is one of them.

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The forests near Rajaji, Dehradun, where the tiger was run over and killed.

There are many among us who think that a set of gleaming, black-topped roads, winding for miles, visible from a plane, is a sure sign that the nation is on the right track, the path to prosperity – literally.

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The ever-widening road which is cutting trees and shrinking cover.

And yet there are others for whom roads, built for cars – are not such good news. I have met tribal people who prefer cutting through forests than taking a road or a bus trip, because the walk through the forests, leeches et al, is shorter than traversing a dusty, noisy, pushy road.

The National Highway from Delhi, just before Agra, cuts a town in half, with a tall iron fence dividing the area into two. What do people do to cross the road? They run for their lives. Sometimes, they clamber over the forbidding fence in the mid-day northern heat. Sometimes they walk half a kilometre to find a crossing, broken apart forcibly, or at a red-light meant for cars.

Also read – Tiger is not the only animal that needs saving

In north Delhi’s Yamuna bypass, I often see women hitching up their sarees, sprinting wild-eyed across the road, denied dignity or safety. In Kolkata’s tragic flyover collapse this April which left 24 people dead, one of the most obvious lacuna in the much-delayed project was that the flyover was being made in an old, crumbling part of the city.

There was neither the passage nor the engineering rationale to build this gigantic structure, which was within arm’s length from century-old buildings. The purpose of this flyover, like many other roads, was to serve the car-using, motorised public, to the peril of all that was around this road.

Also read – What I discovered filming penguins in Antarctic’s icy wilderness

Now coming to wildlife. Wild animals do sometimes use roads. To be more specific, they are forced to use roads, as roads without speed breakers cut through national parks, tiger reserves, reserve forest, and eco-sensitive areas.

As in the case of Kolkata, the roads are built, widened and maintained oblivious to the ecosystem, human or animal, around it. On the Haridwar-Najibabad road, where the tiger was killed on May 8, three leopards also died earlier, after being hit by vehicles.

Also read – When wild elephants go on rampage and viral

A Facebook community “Roads to Nowhere” catalogues deaths of various animals on roads across the country. The species and individual animals may surprise you. The documentation of death includes tigers and leopards, known to be sure-footed and otherwise fearsome. Like all cats, indeed, like the metaphoric “deer in the headlights”, tigers freeze when light falls on them. The death toll also includes elephants, who move surely, slowly, and for long migrations, but are unable to escape a speeding truck or car. It includes birds, usually known to fly rather than walk – struck while flying low, or doing takeoff.

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In April, this elephant herd was seen struggling to cross the Palakkad road in Tamil Nadu.

It includes endemic animals like the Western Ghat’s lion-tailed macaque, which spends its life on trees, occasionally coming on the road to cross over to another forest. It includes tiny butterflies which seek salt from roads, incredulously unaware of a huge vehicle charging forward. It includes ectothermic snakes and amphibians, who come on roads seeking life-giving warmth. Basically, the death toll includes all sorts of wild animals.

Also read – India is not a Republic for all species

As more roads come up on our maps and under our cars, and as forests and wild areas shrink, the deaths will only increase. Are we to continue turning a blind eye to what roads do to those who are not using motorised vehicles?

Nearly every *katte* in south India is built under a ficus. Birds & squirrels confer above, people confer below.

To stress the point, roads are used by many, and they mean different things for different people – or animals. For a cyclist, a road can be a death trap, if it has no speed breakers and motorised vehicles zip down. For a child, a road can mean looking at the patterns it forms on the ground – a mosaic of cobbles and gravel in one part, a pugdundee in another.

We could have highways that connect not just cities but citizens. It is a choice we can make, like everything else.

For villagers living close to natural ecosystems, markers and milestones are usually a fruiting tree, a holy Banyan, or a big rock. For many, roads are what is around the road rather than on it: a meeting place, a tea-stall, a place to sit.

Roads take us to places. Roads are memories. A road, a lane, a path, a walkway, is an essential part of man’s existence. Roads join people; they also displace them, as in the case with the Mumbai-Delhi Industrial Corridor. Roads take us to tiger reserves, and they also kill tigers. All over the country, roads are being thoughtlessly widened, slashing down acres of forests, thousands of trees, homes and refuge for birds, animals, and shade for people who use these areas.

Also read – Why does nobody talk about intolerance towards wild animals?

Like every Indian, I want India to have good roads. No one should live in poverty and deprivation because there is no road to his home or to a hospital. But roads have to be built according to what is around them. They can’t just be planned in conference rooms and executed in isolation.

We must decide, for instance, to have roads with speed breakers in protected areas and sanctuaries. Here, the purpose is wildlife conservation; speed has to be regulated. In our ever-growing country, these reserves are minority land use; they seem invisible while decisions are being taken.

Also read – Inky the Octopus’ prison break reveals it’s smarter than you think

We must decide how many lanes we need in these areas- are two lanes not enough, going through forests? Do we need six? As car traffic goes up, as it inevitably will, shall we require sixteen lanes one day? We love the Fast and Furious, and every car ad shows a racing car. But what of the slow and guileless; that non-motorised vehicle, that troop of walking villagers, that elephant herd, that once-fearsome tiger?

The time has come to stop our obsession with cars, and build roads that don’t just encourage speed and width, but also suitability.

The road to prosperity is a long one. But prosperity also needs thoughtfulness. We don’t need more dead tigers and imperilled pedestrians to show us that roads need to adapt to those who are forced to use them; not just those who choose to use them.

This first appeared in the DailyO.

World Tiger Day: Miles to Go Before We Sleep

The barometer of India’s leadership in tiger conservation will be both in securing Indian wild tigers in our forests as well as diplomatic heft for Chinese captive tigers.

T-17, a.k.a. Sundari, a female tiger from Ranthambore, Rajasthan. Credit: Neha Sinha

In what distant deeps or skies/ Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand dare seize the fire?

Thus wrote the British poet William Blake on the Royal Bengal tiger. The powerful verse was mythical in its own way; Blake had famously never seen a tiger, but like many others, was grasped with the enigma of the animal. In the years since, poachers have successfully deconstructed this enigma, ‘seizing the fire’ of the tiger repeatedly – just this year, more than 30 tigers have been poached, greater than the poaching numbers in in all of 2015. Other than on-site conservation needs, this opens up new catalysts for tiger diplomacy.

Poaching takes place each year, with spikes and troughs. But this year, two further notable developments have taken place. Firstly, India has seized the opportunity of being the ‘natural leader’ of tiger range countries. India has about 2500 tigers, and others countries have lesser tiger numbers: Russia (leads after India with about 400 tigers), Indonesia (about 300 tigers), Malaysia (about 250), Nepal (about 200) Bangladesh and Bhutan (100 each approximately). China (7), Vietnam (5), Laos and Cambodia are also tiger range countries but tigers are considered functionally extinct here. The number of tigers in Myanmar, which ironically has the world’s largest tiger reserve, is unknown. With the most tigers, India has also institutionalised tiger protection (Project Tiger started way back in the 1970s) and is thus keen to project itself as a geopolitical leader in tiger conservation. So it was that no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened an inter-ministerial meeting on tiger conservation earlier this year.

But since the meeting and its several statements, the nexus and difficulties of poaching pressures have reasserted themselves. Thailand’s famous tiger temple near Bangkok, which caters to millions of tourists who take selfies with seemingly placid tigers, has been shut down under allegations of poaching. Following a raid by Thai authorities, 40 tiger cubs were recently found in a deep freezer at the temple, and a monk was charged with trying to get away with tiger parts. For many of those campaigning against the temple – on grounds of cruelty toward tigers as well as poaching – this was a vindication of many years of struggle against a powerful and popular tourist attraction. But does this impact or impede wild tigers in India?

Yes, it does, assert many Indian conservationists. Sanctuary Asia, a wildlife magazine based in India, led a campaign with the hashtag #tigertempletakedown, lobbying to shut down the temple. While countries like China, Lao, Thailand and Vietnam run tiger farms or zoos under domestic legislation, this is a front for poaching, it has been alleged. The nuts and bolts are complicated: some countries (China and Laos) allow a legal domestic trade of captive tigers under a permit system, though international trade in wild or domestic tigers is not allowed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). While Thailand and Vietnam allow tiger farms or zoos, trade in tigers, whether captive or domestic, is illegal – as evidenced in the tiger temple case.

Sanctuary Asia asked for Thailand’s tiger temple to be shut because it is believed that these places boost trade in tiger parts, thus also spiking poaching of wild tigers. “There is a coterie of Buddhist monks who have been infiltrated by the illegal narcotics and international, illegal wildlife networks. They are a disgrace to Buddhism,” Bittu Sahgal, editor ofSanctuary Asia, told The Wire. The other issue, Sahgal points out, is that it is much cheaper to kill a wild tiger than to actually raise or breed one.

An international movement to shut down tiger farms has been gaining momentum for years. “There are about 7,000-8,000 captive tigers, mainly in China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The fact is, tiger farms have massively expanded in the last few decades, even as the wild tiger population has declined by 96 percent in the last 100 years,” says Debbie Banks from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Ahead of a CITES meeting, 45 NGOs, including Indian ones, have signed on a statement drafted by EIA asking for the shutting down of all tiger farms. This would imply changing the domestic legislations of China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. At the same time, China is understood to be the biggest market.

“All eyes are now on the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting in Johannesburg from 24th September to 5th October,” Banks told The Wire. “It’s the perfect opportunity for the governments of China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to announce real action to end demand for tiger parts and products. We want all four countries amending legislation so that tiger ‘farms’ are phased out. That’s not just the massive battery-farm style operations [like in China], but also the facilities that masquerade as ‘zoos’ and centres for conservation across the region; the ‘tiger temple’ being a classic example.”

The question is this: can Indian negotiation rise to the seemingly impossible challenge of influencing domestic policies of countries that favour tiger farms and trade in their goods?

Modi’s speech on tigers at the inter-ministerial meeting included specifics on poaching: “The forest and its wild denizens are an open treasury which cannot be locked up. It is painful to learn about trafficking of body parts and derivatives of tigers and other big cats. We need to collaborate at the highest levels of government to address this serious issue,” he had said.

At the summit, then Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar also said India would give tigers to Cambodia to help start a new tiger population; a move meant to cement India’s leadership on tiger conservation. As gestures go in wildlife conservation, few things can be more culturally and diplomatically robust than more than India’s national animal, feted by poet and politics alike, being gifted to another country.

The real issue though, is still poaching of tigers, which is a pernicious, international and persistent problem. The barometer of India’s leadership in tiger conservation will be both in securing Indian wild tigers in our forests as well as diplomatic heft for Chinese captive tigers.

This first appeared in The Wire.

All photos by me.

More reading:

On CITES: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/shoots-kills-and-trades-in-animal-parts/article4472242.ece

On tigers and linear projects: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/who-gets-to-cross-the-road-a-truck-a-tourist-car-or-a-tiger/article7086410.ece