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Animals have swag

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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It’s World Water Week. Why India’s new Wetland Rules have it all wrong.

The 2017 Wetland Rules limit monitoring and omit important wetland types

Earlier this year, a judgment by the Uttarakhand High Court, stating that Ganga and Yamuna rivers are “living entities”, captured the national imagination. It is worth noting that wetlands, the other major water-based ecosystem apart from rivers, are at a moment of policy transition in the country. This year, a new legal framework for wetlands was passed, the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017, replacing the earlier Rules of 2010. Also this year, the Supreme Court passed an order directing States to identify wetlands in the country within a stipulated timeframe.

Going forward

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Sambar and Chital at a stream in Pench Tiger Reserve.

The 2017 Wetland Rules have been criticised for doing away with strong wetland monitoring systems and omitting important wetland types. At the same time, the Supreme Court order directs States to come forward and notify wetlands. What then could be the way forward?

The 2010 and 2017 Rules for wetlands both emphasise that the ecological character of wetlands ought to be maintained for their conservation. ‘Ecological character’ refers to processes and components which make the wetland a particular, and sometimes unique, ecosystem. For example, as lagoons like Chilika (Odisha) and Pulicat (Tamil Nadu/Andhra Pradesh) are characterised by a mix of saline and fresh water, the flows of each type need to be maintained; river flood plains contain wetlands that require conservation so they can re-fuel the river with fish and other aquatic life during flooding.

In the 2010 Rules, some related criteria were made explicit, such as natural beauty, ecological sensitivity, genetic diversity, historical value, etc. These have been omitted in the 2017 Rules. There are a few reasons why this is problematic. First, there is multiple interest around wetlands. Multiple interests also have governance needs, and this makes it absolutely necessary to identify and map these multiple uses. Leading on from this, and second, it is crucial to identify ecological criteria so that the wetlands’ character can be maintained. The key to wetland conservation is not just understanding regimes of multiple use — but conserving or managing the integrity of the wetland ecosystem. Finally, restriction of activities on wetlands will be done as per the principle of ‘wise use’, determined by the State wetland authority. Whether wise use will include maintaining ecological character remains to be seen. Under the new Rules, no authority to issue directions, which are binding in nature to desist from any activity detrimental to wetland conservation, has been prescribed to State wetland authorities.

Salt pans are an example how one use (of making salt) has trumped the other (of environmental balance). Salt pans as ‘wetlands’ have been omitted from the new Rules. They were identified as wetlands in the 2010 Rules, as they are often important sites of migratory birds and other forms of biodiversity. The omission in the 2017 Rules suggests that while saltpans do exist as wetlands, they do not require any conservation or ecological balance. The inference can also be that it would be acceptable to tip the environmental balance or integrity of such a wetland, which could lead to damage and pollution.

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Forest wetland in Asola Sanctuary, Delhi.

The case of Deepor Beel

The issue of wetlands being multiple-use areas — and subsequently being abused due to clashes of interest — found centre-stage this year with the observations of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in the case of Deepor Beel.

Deepor Beel is a Ramsar site and a part of it is also wildlife sanctuary in Guwahati, Assam. (‘Ramsar Sites are designated because they meet the criteria for identifying wetlands of international importance.’) This wetland harbours a wide variety of biodiversity, and also suffers from intense man-made pressure — the city’s municipal waste is dumped close to the Beel. Large, meat-eating storks (Greater adjutant storks) are ironically found eating from the mountains of garbage at the site. Potential impacts of contamination or poisoning from the garbage are still unknown. This January, 26 storks died. The fact that Deepor Beel (Beel means water body) exists as a wetland does not prevent garbage dumping; this is a fate faced by many wetlands. The NGT’s observations on Deepor Beel are interesting and symptomatic of what is happening in several wetlands. In an inspection done by the judicial member of the Tribunal, it was noted that waste was being dumped “not beyond the site but within it,” and “demarcations are made by drying out areas or cutting off water sources”. These are classic ways of killing a wetland and turning it from a wet to a dry ecosystem; or from a lake to a garbage dump or cesspool. The Tribunal has now asked for the “traditional” spread of the wetland.

Given all the modern uses of wetlands, or the use of the wetland only for its land, looking at traditional cartography may be one way to understand catchments of wetlands. It may also be a way of restoring some modicum of ecological character, identity or ‘rights’ to wetlands, as the river judgment suggested. There are challenges ahead in identifying wetlands – multiple and competing use is just one of them. Understanding the historic spread and ecological character will be an important bulwark for the way forward. Setting clear governance systems would be the next. Without either, we are looking at a complete dilution of wetlands in the country.

This first appeared here.

How Citizen Scientists help Wildlife

Every winter, the thousands of wetlands that dot India transform from muddy slips of water to raucous bird parties. Ducks and geese from Ladakh and Tibet swim through aquatic vegetation, waders on stilt-like legs forage for grubs on squelchy, half-submerged banks, and sinuous Oriental darters spear the water for fish.

The two-week Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) that surveys sites across 25 countries in Asia and Australasia, including India, began last month.

While the data is still pouring in from this huge citizen science initiative, the census over the years has pointed to some clear trends. India has the biggest species diversity among the regions sampled by AWC. The survey tallied a mean figure of 1.8 million waterbirds over 300 sites in the country between 2008 and 2015.

Odisha’s lagoon, Chilika Lake, they found, supports a staggering half-a-million waterbirds. Many of the waterbirds that winter in India’s wetlands are of course migratory: like the bar-headed goose, which breeds in Mongolia, Tibet and Kyrgyzstan and crosses the Himalayas and Hindu Kush to reach India.

Decline in species

But the picture isn’t all rosy. There has been a notable decline in several species: the Oriental darter, better known as the snakebird for its long neck, which was once a common sight in many wetlands, numbered just 4,000 in the sites surveyed. The Indian skimmer, with a bright orange bill — the lower mandible longer than the upper one so it can ‘skim’ over water to snap up fish — were just 300. As for the sarus crane, the world’s tallest flying bird, often found in pairs or small groups near wetlands, only 100 birds were found in several years.

But wetlands, cherished equally by local residents, birdwatchers — and real estate developers — are in peril. The National Wetland Atlas, prepared by the Indian Space Research Organisation in 2011, found that India has over 2,00,000 wetlands. But a vast majority had not been notified as wetlands thus running the risk of being destroyed.

The many cases being heard right now in courts across the country reflect the wetland’s precarious existence.

In Delhi-NCR, birdwatchers have filed a case to protect the Basai wetland, which is fed by sewage but continues to harbour almost 300 bird species. A similar case was recently filed to conserve Najafgarh jheel, a riverine wetland in Haryana. Kolkata’s iconic East Kolkata Wetlands, designated a Ramsar wetland of international importance, is being steadily eaten up by construction, and a case has been filed with the National Green Tribunal. This wetland, like many in and around cities, plays an important civic role: it acts like a giant sieve for the city’s sewage, thanks to the fish and aquatic vegetation.

What’s not a wetland

Committees are also examining the condition of Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh, Deepor Beel in Guwahati, and the lakes in Nainital, all choked by sewage, garbage and encroachment. To make matters worse, the new legislation for wetlands, the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017, unlike the Wetland Rules of 2010, implies that manmade waterbodies (such as tanks) and salt pans are not wetlands. In reality though, salt pans and tanks not only support birds both in coastal and peri-urban areas, they are also an essential part of the local cultural fabric.

“A simple assessment of (bird) count information indicates that several waterbird populations in the Central Asian flyway (comprising migratory routes) are declining. Urgent national and regional action is needed to reverse this trend,” says Taej Mundkur, Regional Coordinator of the AWC with Wetlands International.

While hundreds of wetlands in India are in need of identification and notification, at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals last year, the Central government offered to consult with other countries to operationalise the Central Asian Flyway Action Plan to Conserve Migratory Waterbirds and their Habitats.

The action plan hopes to reduce threats to waterfowl and conserve wetlands while also tackling threats such as power lines and windmills. This plan is now being created with civil society and other experts. “It should be recognised that better management of our productive wetlands for waterbirds also provides a wide range of benefits to people. So it is a win-win situation,” says Mundkur.

Yet, one thing is clear. While wetlands are clearly in legislative, administrative and physical peril, the citizens of India are standing up for them. The AWC, a simultaneous and widespread count over two continents, would not be possible without the active involvement of citizens. This effort — coming from nature lovers, forest departments, and networks like the Indian Bird Conservation Network — harnesses the spirit of volunteerism. And the observations of these intrepid citizen scientists, who count birds year after year, sometimes in places that are dismissed as nothing more than a sewage line, give hope to the world’s waterfowl that today must cross both geographical and metaphorical mountains.

All images: The Hindu.

This piece first appeared here.

And quiet flow the rivers…

Multi-crore announcements, damming failures and the ‘birth’ of a new life form – if there’s one thing that has disrupted grandiose governmental plans this year, it has been rivers.

If rivers could speak, they would have a lot to say to us Indians. But since they can’t, the Uttarakhand high court feels they should at least be represented. This year, in a landmark judgment, the court declared the Ganga and Yamuna rivers and their tributaries in Uttarakhand to be ‘living entities’.

There are scores of living entities in our natural and built worlds that don’t always get justice or representation. These include endangered species and species that are imperilled but aren’t yet known to be so, for instance.

But a river is a collection of species rather than just one living being. It contains within itself sentient, appealing species like dolphins as well as lesser known varieties of molluscs, fish and plankton. In its body, a river is a collection of living beings, giving life, habitat and conduit to life. But in calling the river itself a living thing – perhaps in ontological fashion – the high court seems to suggest that the Ganga and the Yamuna should be represented in court if their ‘lives’ are found to be in danger. This also suggests that they have rights and that such dangers should be quelled.

How do Indians really feel about rivers? For one, we know that their ‘lives’ are in danger and yet we seem unconcerned. A CAG report in 2017 pointed out an attitude of almost-complete neglect towards the Ganga: “There was overall shortage of manpower, ranging from 44 to 65 per cent during 2014- 15 to 2016-17 in the National Mission for Clean Ganga. In [state-level program management schemes], the overall shortage ranged between 20 to 89 per cent.”

River rights are violated as well: remember that our ‘holiest’ rivers are also our dirtiest. It is also true that while activists and government departments call for ‘nirmal, aviral dhara’ (‘clean and uninterrupted flow’) and for restoration, notably of the Ganga, other plans involve dredging rivers such as through the National Waterways Act, piping their water for irrigation, creating ‘highways’ on rivers routes and preventing river water from going into the sea in their otherwise natural estuarine form. The Uttarakhand judgment has since been challenged at and stayed by the Supreme Court.

River interlinking – the act of artificially forcing rivers to join – for providing water for irrigation or other use has on and off been the agendas of various governments for decades. Under the present government, it has found vocal support in River Development Minister Nitin Gadkari. “Thirty river-linking projects have been approved, out of which work on three projects – Ken-Betwa, Par-Tapi Narmada and Daman Ganga Pinjal – will begin within three months,” he had said. The swiftly approved National Waterways Act, which envisages the construction of ‘river highways’ by dredging and channelling without environmental impact assessments, is afoot. Some tenders have already been approved.

If the Ganga is a living being, then one must wonder what she would have to say about being dredged and jetty-fied. While the river silently trundles on, carrying both garbage and trashy plans that don’t abide by environmental safeguards, it appears to manifest our bipolar outlook towards them.

On the one hand, there are dreams of the virginal, nirmal, aviral Ganga, a river that will not be touched, barraged or dammed – though rivers have already been irrevocably changed. On the other are the hyper-engineering plans that view the river exclusively as a body of water waiting to be piped, dammed or dredged.

This image precludes the fact that the river is not just a body of water but also a body of life, home to several species that live through various depths and heights of the river bed. Gadkari has, for example, said that it is a ‘waste’ that a river flows into the sea. This argument does not consider that rivers create fertile and life-sustaining deltas as well as biodiverse estuaries in their denouement. This year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature changed the status of the Irrawaddy dolphin, found in the Sundarbans delta and Chilika lagoon, to ‘endangered’ from ‘vulnerable’. This means that the dolphin, with its severely disturbed habitat, is one step closer to being gone forever.

The prevailing idea seems to be to find engineering solutions rather than environmental ones for river ‘development’, and this idea has enjoyed overwhelming institutional support. Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer, wrote in April, “At the national level, the Ministry of Water Resources has been renamed as the Ministry of Water Resources, Ganga Rejuvenation and River Development. The priority of the Central government is clear: water is a resource to be utilised, rivers have to be ‘developed’ (that is, tapped and harnessed), while the river Ganga is the only river that needs to be rejuvenated.” There is also an excessive slant on rivers being ‘holy’ entities, a narrative the environmentalists Ashish Kothari and Shristee Bajpai have argued is ripe for the embracement by communal discourses.

Then again, there are some indications that a modicum of rights is being granted to rivers as natural, and not ‘engineerable’, beings.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has admitted an appeal against the Ken-Betwa river interlinking plan, which stands to drown 100 square kilometres of the Panna tiger reserve, because the water deficit and surplus figures have not been made public. The tribunal has also quashed a clearance granted to the Kashang river dam and asked Himachal Pradesh to take a sustainable approach towards building these megastructures. Interestingly, the body also said that the Gram Sabha should be part of the decision if it wanted a hydro-electric project.

The Uttarakhand judgment had suggested the chief secretaries and advocate generals, as stand-ins of the government, could be a river’s ‘parents’. Instead, could local governance institutions running on sound environmental principles be expected to assume this responsibility?

Beyond the courts and judicial activism, there is also evidence to suggest that rivers can be accorded rights or ecological integrity, even if by non-state actors. In 2017, a first-of-its-kind gazette for the Hindon river was created to deal with land use and river basin details. Its richness of detail recognises both the ecological character of the river basin as well as a representation of how land use has affected it.

The very-polluted Assi river is hardly discussed in the media but a pilot project has successfully cleaned up portions of it using coir logs and site-specific bioremediation techniques.

During deliberations by civil society and academia on ‘India Rivers Day’ in November, much of the discussion centred on wetlands that could be saved. Constructed wetlands have helped clean and restore water bodies. A notable example is in the ancient Neela Hauz lake near Vasant Kunj, New Delhi.

So despite enormous failures in cleaning or rejuvenating rivers, the discourse around these beings has stayed thankfully bifurcated; it’s clear that not everyone looks at a river and thinks “piped water source” or “highway for barges”, as a sterile and compliant entity. Through many small but significant ways, 2017 has shown that the idea of a river as a living thing is resilient and survives.

This piece first appeared here.

Also read: https://thewire.in/67748/ken-betwa-panna-tiger-reserve/

 

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.

Why are elephants at the centre of conflict in India?

Chased by people when trapped in fields, run over by trains, or hemmed in by walls – elephants are at the centre of a growing human footprint. Some elephant calves are like children born in conflict zones — insecure, aggressive, and unpredictable.

How elephants became refugees on the outskirts of Bhubhaneswar city

What is happening in Athgarh is happening in many parts of India — creating a situation which is dangerous for both man and animal.

In India, there are elephants we worship. There are elephants we beat for work. There are elephants we ignore. In India, we now also have elephants that are refugees. The calves of these elephants are growing up like children in conflict — confused, unpredictable and scared.

On the outskirts of Bhubhaneswar city, a herd of elephants has become refugees. They left the intensely disturbed Chandaka sanctuary, and tried to move towards other forest patches. However, human activity has now surrounded the elephants. Videos show how people chase the hapless animals, who seem to be only wanting to cross roads and fields.

In a first for Odisha, a campaign, Giant Refugees, has been started to protect the elephants and grant them safe passage. Video documentation shows that in Khuntuni range of Athgarh forest division, people are harassing the herd of elephants for no good reason other than “evening entertainment”, say activists.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s office has said that the CM cares for elephants, but it remains to be seen what action will be taken.

elebd_030117024532.jpgSurrounded by an ever-expanding human footprint, large animals like elephants are becoming refugees in a land that they once freely occupied.

Meanwhile, two trends are emerging.

Surrounded by an ever-expanding human footprint, large animals like elephants are becoming refugees in a land that they once freely occupied. Estimated to have 2,000 wild elephants, Odisha has a robust pachyderm population. But all of that is under threat.

Apart from poaching and disturbance in sanctuaries, elephants are also getting killed by trains. For instance in 2012, six elephants — almost an entire herd — were mowed down by the Coromandel Express.

While a large population of the national heritage animal still remains in this biodiverse state, one of the biggest ironies is this: elephants are accorded the highest protection for wild animals under the law. While they have some measure of protection in sanctuaries, the same animals are barely protected as they step foot outside these parks. With time, parks are changing — and so are the landscapes around them.

Many herds have already left Chandaka sanctuary, as it has become surrounded on three sides by people and habitation. In the 1960s, tigers went extinct here, followed by the extinction of leopards.

Second, in this setting, non-traditional patterns are emerging. Across India, not only are elephants and other animals becoming refugees, they are also coming together in confusion. Usually, elephants stick to their natal herds. Now, new herds are forming with straggler elephants coming together, with the glue of confusion and bewilderment. In Alur in Karnataka, a major human-elephant conflict hotspot, a similar trend is seen — non-related males and females have come together to form “herds”.

Elephants have complex sociologies and are deeply affected by the fate of their herd members. Usually, herds only have females and young ones. In Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, where several elephants have been repeatedly killed by trains, they have also died in trying to protect their calves from the incoming train carriages, earning the area the dubious distinction of being a “rail graveyard” for elephants. In Africa, studies show that elephants from herds which have witnessed trophy shooting become distraught and unpredictable.

elebd1_030117024655.jpgSeveral elephants have been repeatedly killed by trains.

“I have been observing elephants wandering in Odisha, having left the disturbed Chandaka sanctuary since the early 2000s. Entire herds of elephants have died in the press against people, mining, railways and habitat fragmentation. People say these are “nuisance animals” and “marauding jumbos” but the fact is that most of these elephants just want to have safe passage,” says wildlife conservationist Aditya Panda.

It’s not just elephants. If a refugee is someone who is evicted from its land, and thrown into conflict, it would not be an exaggeration to say that many species are being made refugees: captured and thrown out of habitat owing to poor decision-making and confused ecological initiatives.

Two “conflict” leopards were recently caught and castrated (though castration has no impact on aggression) in Sariska recently. Another leopard, which had no negative encounters with people, was picked up from Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi and sent to an undisclosed location. This leads many to believe that an animal, which is protected by law, and even if passive, is being treated like a thief, a criminal or a terrorist, and also subject to encounter killings.

The solutions are relatively simple, but need political will. And in areas outside protected sanctuaries, the solutions need more than the forest department’s involvement, as animals are being harassed, with objects or torches flung at them, opening the gates to potential fatalities on both sides.

“The state needs to send in policemen to stop crowds from harassing the elephants. As a long-term measure, better connectivity has to be provided between Chandaka and Kapilas sanctuaries and the Satkosia landscape. Prompt compensation needs to be given for crop damage,” says Panda.

The fact is, what is happening in Athgarh is happening in many parts of India — creating a situation which is dangerous for both man and animal. This conflict needs to be addressed on a war footing before more lives are lost. It is estimated that more than 200 people have been injured all over Odisha in conflict with elephants in recent times.

The problem cannot be solved only by chasing elephants away, or provoking them from the apparent safety of a group of people. To give the animals passage, forest corridors, that CM Patnaik said he has identified, need to be notified and conserved.

What Patnaik and the state decides to do now, as the problem escalates sharply each day, will determine the fate of the wild and human citizens of Odisha.

This piece first appeared here

The Amur Falcon Goes To School

On five years of our work on conserving the Amur Falcon in Nagaland- starring school children, bamboo dances, skits and song.

On his way to school this October, 13-year-old Seiminlen saw a ngeikang. He told the school’s eco-club that the first Amur falcon of the season had been spotted. The children gathered outside their school to watch, trying to count the birds, listening to their high-pitched calls. They perhaps didn’t know it, but these children have been at the forefront of bird conservation in the remote, hilly reaches of Nagaland.

Amur falcons fly in clouds over the Indian Northeast, particularly Nagaland and Manipur, where they migrate to from Siberia and China. These birds of prey — not much bigger than a pigeon — transform the landscape: they descend on paddy fields and forests, shrieking, darting, diving, in pursuit of dragonflies and termites and other bugs that make up their entirely insectivorous diet. In Doyang reservoir in Nagaland’s Wokha district, more than a million Amur falcons gather, the largest congregation of falcons in the world.

This year, Doyang was designated an ‘Important Bird Area’. The birds leave India around December, and fly over the Indian Ocean towards Africa. This oceanic journey, satellite tagged birds have revealed, is made without a stop — usually in five days flat. After wintering in southern Africa, the falcons fly back towards Siberia.

Amur Falcons

Photo: Amur Falcons in Doyang reservoir Important Bird Area.

Seiminlen lives in Lilien village, swathed in forests, fields and criss-crossed by streams. To reach it, you have to cross the Manglou river, which swells after the rain. People carve houses out of wood and ply rather than concrete, and live in the veritable lap of nature. Nature is not always benign — the village is often lashed by heavy rain, its roads in a constant state of disrepair.

Road to somewhere

This village also happens to be an important pit stop for Amur falcons. But until not very long ago several villages close to the Doyang ‘Important Bird Area’ hunted the falcon for sport and for food. Hunting is illegal, but these areas have had established traditions of hunting. The hunts were often unsustainable — in October 2012, an estimated 10,000 birds were hunted every day, for 10 days, in Doyang during the migration season. Several hunted birds were discarded, and the forest department had to work round the clock to stop hunting through arrests and notices.

Thanks to eco-clubs

But there has recently been a game changer for the little raptor. And credit for this change, goes in large part to children of Lilien and the surrounding villages. Thanks to eco-clubs started by the Bombay Natural History Society and Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust, students learnt to draw different kinds of fauna, look at wildlife around them, and most importantly, they learnt to name them. Soon, the children turned into advocates of conservation, especially of the Amur falcon. And soon, the attitudes of adults towards falcons changed too. The birds are no longer hunted in these parts: a sea change from previously held beliefs that Amur falcons came in inexhaustible numbers.

“Did you know animals go extinct?” 15-year-old Veineikim Hangsing asks her class at the Bongkolong eco-club. “Yes,” the students say solemnly.

In particular, the maps of Amur falcon migration fascinated the children. Many learnt about Russia for the first time. And about Africa. When they saw the migratory path of the falcon, the bird became a hero. Then they learnt the names of the insects the falcon ate. Soon, the students organised little skits about the falcon, and performed them at their villages.

The explosion of performance, music and dance that exists in Naga life has now found expression in eco-clubs. In the Pangti eco-club, students have penned a song for the Amur falcon, on the lines of the choir songs they sing. Eco-clubs are also run in Ahthibung and Jalukie villages. Over the years, more than 300 students have presented at community events in the area. Sometimes it is a skit with song. Sometimes, it is a bamboo dance — where dancers hop nimbly between criss-crossed bamboos that are moved to the beat of a drum. Often, the students depict traditional village songs and dances with conservation messages woven in. In Kuki, and sometimes in Nagamese, their message is to ‘pray’ for wild birds.

“I used to eat Amur falcons. They were tasty. A bit oily, but tasty,” says a 12-year-old boy from Sungro, who, like many other students once carried a catapult to hunt birds. “But now I really want them to reach Africa,” he says. “I want them to eat termites in Africa.”

This first appeared here.