A Bird, a Dam, and a Belief.

The Nyamjang Chhu dam will inundate Zemithang valley, the winter home of the Black-necked Crane that’s sacred to Buddhists. Can development override nature and faith?

This month, an Australian court declined environmental clearance to industrial group >Adani for coal mining in Queensland, Australia. The reasons for this have been made clear by the court: the proposed project is likely to harm a skink and a snake species found in the area.

That a skink, a shy, skittering reptile, could stop a mega project may appear unbelievable to many people, particularly those who believe in rapid industrial growth. But the court has, in fact, squarely put out a message that a country needs to take care of its species. More than morphology, glamour or specification, the emphasis is on the very existence of the species.

There is something similar playing out in India’s North-east for the vulnerable black-necked crane. Magnificent, wild, flamboyant and territorial, the black-necked crane is a central force in Buddhist mythology.

Found only in China, Bhutan and India, one of the crane’s few global wintering sites is in Arunachal Pradesh, and it has chosen two places here for its winter migration: Sangti and Zemithang Valley. Zemithang, a remote area, nurtured and conserved by the Buddhist community for years, will get submerged by the proposed Nyamjang Chhu dam.

BNC
Black-necked Cranes at the project site

Case against the project

There is an ongoing case in the National Green Tribunal against the project. The legal team that is arguing in favour of the hydroelectric project claims that the numbers of the >black-necked crane are too low to merit stopping the project. On the other side of the argument is not just the existence of the crane at Zemithang, but also the belief in its presence and in its wilful choice of Zemithang as a wintering site.

The case brings to light several dilemmas: one, whether the presence of black-necked cranes and other biodiversity at Zemithang is ‘good enough’ to stop a project. Two, whether projects need to be appraised in the light of spiritual, altruistic and religious concerns. Three, whether the environment impact assessment (EIA), which lead to environmental clearances, need to be re-conducted after these concerns come to light. The EIA has been scrutinised by the local group, ‘Save Mon Region’, and it does not mention the black-necked crane.

The bird is a restricted species, which favours cold, high-altitude spots, overlapping with countries and regions that follow Buddhism. In Buddhist lore and mythology, this elusive but magnificent crane is a companion to the lamas.

In ecology, the crane has been recorded in just three places in India: it breeds only in Ladakh (about a hundred birds), and it has only the two wintering sites in Arunachal Pradesh, which are themselves part of less than 10 global wintering sites.

In court, the lawyers for the project team argue that the crane “perhaps” visited the site “years ago” but that this is an insignificant point to stop the project. Meanwhile, the Buddhist community that lives in and around Zemithang as well as organisations such as WWF-India have photographic evidence of the crane’s visits. Only about 5-7 birds visit Arunachal Pradesh each year, and their visits are eagerly awaited by local communities.

“Apart from the black-necked crane, the area also has other endemic bird species, such as the Satyr tragopan, the Mishmi wren-babbler and the Beautiful nut-hatch ”

In a sense, then, the case of the dam site in Arunachal Pradesh is similar to that of the Carmichael mine. The Yakka skink, the conservation of which the Australian court upheld, is a restricted-range species, found only in Queensland. Like the black-necked crane, the species is still visible, but only due to the conservation of a few and spatially small sites.

EIAs, a precursor to environmental clearances, are meant to give details of flora and fauna at the site of the proposed project, as well as the impact on that flora and fauna by the project in question. In the case of the Nyamjang Chhu dam, which proposes to generate 780 MW of power, the primary impacts will be the submergence of the crane’s habitat in a biodiversity hotspot. This is not acknowledged in the EIA.

BNC with juvenile

Wonders of nature

In the late 1980’s, a tiny group of Siberian Cranes still visited India, in a small dot of a sanctuary, Keoladeo in Rajashan, which spreads over a modest 29 square kilometres. Amongst very many other wetland habitats India had to offer, the Siberian Cranes chose Keoladeo to repeatedly winter in each year. Scientists can only guess why birds, especially rare birds, choose certain areas over others. The right ecology, absence of human disturbance, places to both feedas well as and hide in, are all determinants. Like people choosing a certain colony or favourite watering-hole, territorial and choosy cranes select certain spots they return to year after year. For India, the Siberian Cranes were both a tourist attraction, as well as an enigma. Through mysterious migratory clockwork, a clock run by nature, they came around the same time each year, and India could call itself part of the Siberian Crane’s range. In the early 2000’s, the Siberian Cranes stopped coming, and have not returned since. The memories of the birds, and the hope that they will return, have however not abated.

The spirituality associated with the black-necked crane is not just because of its impressive beauty and its call, but also because of its very elusiveness and the anticipation built around its appearance, ideas that seem to be a metaphor for the wonders of nature.

A monk living in Arunachal’s Tawang Valley told me that it was not the number of cranes visiting Arunachal that was important, but the very fact that they came to the State. If Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh had not been inaccessible, high-altitude areas, many more people would see the bird and hear of its associated mythology, he said.

Which leads us to the final question: how does belief and faith inform our planning and development decisions? For Buddhists, the black-necked crane visiting their remote, snowy home is living proof of their belief and faith. For conservationists, birds that traverse long migratory distances to transform landscapes in winter are part of a more secular belief system, one that valorises Nature and its surprises.

Whether a major dam gets built on Nyamjang Chhu river is not the only question. The question is also whether such a project can go ahead without taking into account certain complex realities.

EIAs that conceal facts should not be the only bulwark for deciding what to do with our landscapes. And, finally, questions of faith certainly should not be just a numbers game. The numbers of black-necked cranes in Arunachal Pradesh might be small, but faith has never relied on numbers.

BNC with local

This first appeared in The Hindu.

Photos Courtesy: Save Mon Federation

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On Being a Woman in Wildlife Conservation in India

“So, what do you do?”

The guy leans forward, all city slickness, adding, “You look like a designer.”

“Actually, I am a wildlife conservationist,” I meekly say, keeping up with the ping-pong game of what-do-you-do conviviality.

“A what conservationist?” incredulousness is writ large on the questioner’s face.

“Wildlife.”

“Oh, dogs and cats.”

“No, tigers and falcons. In the forest.”

“But you don’t look like a wildlife conservationist,” he expertly avers.

“How does a conservationist look?”

“Like… more wild… more tough.”

woman-embed_030816064348.jpgLeeches bite, a lot, in the forest. But nothing that a woman can’t take.

At which point I put down my rum and coke with a lemon twist and move away from the man, because what he means – and what many other men and women mean – is that a wildlife conservationist should look more like a man.

When I was thinking of what I wanted to do, wildlife conservation was not some expertly gendered feminist choice. I love wild animals, I love the forest, I love wild spaces, and I decided to study a science degree in the field and work in wildlife conservation.

It was a personal calling, rather than a statement. But conversations around a woman taking on an “unconventional choice” because she is a “free spirit” and doesn’t care about “triple bottomlines” are invariably comical, and perpetually stereotyped.

Cut to the road leading to the Sariska tiger reserve, circa 2008. Me and a photographer friend, both of us female journalists at that time (also seen as an “intrepid field” for women, sigh), were headed to Sariska to cover a story.

The road stretched between fields on both sides, with towering and impenetrable trees, grasses and crops skirting us. We were admiring the birds in the skyline, who were settling down to roost at dusk. When suddenly, a knocking sound in the engine brought us to a juddering halt.

woman-embed-2_030816064403.jpgThe leech in question, after biting the author.

The phrase “in the middle of nowhere” was probably written for the rare occasion when you are stranded in the middle of fields leading to a forest. Our car was completely out of commission, and we got out to make some calls. As we were standing with the tough task of making sense over call drops, a group of bikers came down the road, jeering.

It’s when they came back a second time that we decided we needed shelter, and we moved down the road. Many calls to Jaipur later, a car came to pick us up. The driver had golden-dyed long hair, glass earrings, and had music playing, and blindingly-flashing blue LED lights in the interior of his car.

We got in, ruing the garishness which was completely out of sync with the surroundings. We told him our destination, and he started the car, wordlessly. His stack of CDs rocked from side to side as he took us, not too gently, down the bumpy road. At the first petrol pump he saw, he stopped his car, filled up the tank and then spoke his first words to us, asking us for a couple of thousands. “You can’t fill your tank without asking us,” I protested. “We are not that far from Sariska, there was no need for a full tank!”

My colleague added darkly that this was not professional, and it would just not do.

The man just heard us out, some incomprehensible emotion passing through his face. Finally he spat out, “I am a Rajput. I don’t talk to women.”

It was the beginning of the end. Throughout the drive, he would sigh audibly, appalled that his customers were two sharp-tongued women. Under many threats (which were grimly unanswered by the gent in question) we were taken to Sariska, but he left his car and escaped with the keys the next day. We called his boss, who called his mother, who called the driver, interestingly threatening to slap him and deny him her homemade rotis. He finally came back. But he would not speak to us for the next three days.

Not speaking may perhaps be better than blurting out prejudice. In my years in the forest, in villages, and in the middle of nowhere, I have heard the oddest of things, many of which would make Fair and Lovely proud. “Aap jaisi ladki jungle me kya kar rahi hai?” (what is a girl like you doing in the forest?) a divisional forest officer will ask.

What do you mean sir, a girl like me, I politely ask, my hackles raised. “Mera matlab aapko toh shehar me hona chahiye, jungle me aap kaali ho jayengi” (You should be in the city, you will become dark in the forest). Sometimes the firebrand in me wants to say I am more than a skin colour, but I usually end up laughing and talking about tigresses who don’t give a shit.

Another friend of mine, also a young wildlife conservationist, is often asked, “What do you eat in the forest?” followed by the priceless “How come the tiger hasn’t eaten you yet?”

I remember the time I was camping at the edge of a tiger reserve and a fellow female researcher asked me to quietly ask a field assistant to burn my used sanitary pads. Why? Because none of the male researchers should know that such a thing as menstruation happens each month.

And secondly, hyenas would come to scrunch up my pads. I wasn’t in favour of burning anything, but ultimately had to. The secrecy bothered me though. My concern was about hygiene and pollution, not shame and guilt. A couple of years down the line, I am happy to report that we now have the she-cup, which is not polluting and will have no hyenas (or city dogs) coming for it.

langur_030816064419.jpgA langur sits in Pench tiger reserve. These are naughty monkeys, carrying away lingerie and rotis with equal relish.

There was another time when a langur ran away with my bra. My field assistants were not sure if they could laugh audibly or feel deeply embarrassed. They ended up making strange sounds. But I thought it was just as funny as a monkey running away with a pair of boxers.

Because ultimately, forests and animals do not discriminate between men and women. Though natural history has been penned by men, and the forest has traditionally been seen as a masculine space, forged, hunted in, and conquered by valiant men, or pious male missionaries, reality in the forest is far from being so gendered.

One of the best things about being in the forest is the lack of discrimination, and the lack of sexism. The trees arch above our heads, and nature is the most ruthless leveller. Animals regard us all as irritants, or as another species, not as men or women. Tribal societies in many forests are egalitarian, and in the mountains, many women work harder (and are stronger) than men.

So while history says wildlife conservationists should be like men, or more offensively, always look like men, there is a veritable army of women proving this wrong. Each time I hear I don’t look like a conservationist, I say, that’s because I look like me.

Many of us don’t want to look either like a man, or like a supermodel on a forest shoot. We don’t want the men in our lives to draw hearts around us and fill us in with hot pink, drawing us into glass cages of butch or model. If I look delicate, it doesn’t mean I can’t live in the forest. And vice versa for women who don’t give a fig about looking delicate.

Many of us didn’t get into natural history or sciences to make statements or become superheroes. The forest doesn’t see us as breasts and wombs; it doesn’t see us as intrepid and amazing, or masculine and crazy. It sees us as neither the exception nor the rule. It looks at us with its green eye, judging us only by our actions, not by our looks, or body, or hue of cheek. Time men followed suit.

IMG-20180528-WA0008_2

This first appeared in my column for DailyO here.

It was also reproduced in Sanctuary Asia, here

 

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.

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

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

Culture Vultures

DSC06912 (2).JPG

Silently, vultures watch us.

Their quiet gaze is cautious.

As we lace their food with diclofenac,

they watch us.

As we race over wild forest wetlands,

they watch us.

They watch, but they don’t judge us.

They expunge and expire, with no fuss.

 

(Vultures at Pench tiger reserve, photo by me)

Great Beasts III: how WE are driving Human-Wildlife conflict

What causes a gentle elephant to die on a railway track or go on a ‘rampage’? What stops the tiger from crossing the road?

Little-understood environmental clearances (roads, railways, highways), pigheadedness (making expensive walls elephants can break to keep them in) and an exclusively human-centric approach is increasing human-wildlife conflict throughout India.

Earlier this month, a leopard entered a school in Bangalore, injuring three people who tried to catch it. A few days later, an elephant tore through Siliguri town, breaking walls and smashing vehicles. Both incidents involve animals creating havoc where it was least expected: in places where people lived. And headlines suggest that we are in the deep throes of a human-wildlife conflict that consistently puts human lives at stake.

Other animal encounters are imperilling people’s livelihoods as well. For instance, in high-altitude villages in Ladakh and Spiti, snow leopards eat people’s livestock while posing no threats to the people themselves. “The snow leopard has eaten my donkeys which are crucial for my income,” says Nyamgal Lobsang, a villager who lives in Rumbak village in Ladakh’s Hemis National Park.

And the last few months have seen many moves by the government to declare species that impact livelihood as vermin: the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has asked states to report on which animals should be declared as such and culled. Many states have also named wild boars as pests; the state of Goa is considering declaring these animals as well as peacocks as vermin. In several instances, leopards, elephants and tigers have been forcibly caught and relocated away from places of conflict.

The clashes are rampant and often serious. Studies by Barua et al (2012) suggest that such interactions with wildlife entail direct financial losses as well as hidden costs, including the toll of fear, lack of social standing, loss of sleep, missed school attendance, and so forth. When Lobsang first lost his donkey, for instance, he recalls his utter frustration at not knowing whom to blame.

So, is successful conservation and the persistence of species leading to more conflict with people? “Certainly,” says Qamar Qureshi from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous institution under the MoEF&CC that works on wildlife research and management. “But the fundamental problem is not an increase in species numbers but the fact that we still do not have any policies to deal with animals outside protected areas,” he says. “We do not think about their dispersal, or the wider landscape. We manage protected areas and forget about the animal once it leaves the sanctuary.”

The human dimensions of conflicts

Blackbucks (shown here in a field in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh) often feed in cultivated fields, causing crop damage. Credit: Neha Sinha

The Kanha-Pench corridor in Madhya Pradesh is a good example. It serves as a hub between the Kanha, Pench, Satpura and Bor reserves. WII released a report on tiger corridors and detailed those used by tigers to move between these reserves, calling for their especial protection. But a proposal for widening National Highway 7, which bifurcates this area, has been cleared by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the MoEF&CC without even acknowledging the presence of tigers. Specifically, the FAC report says “no tigers” were found in the project area.

The ‘human’ in ‘human-wildlife conflicts’ suggests that many drivers of conflicts are the result of poor management, misguided clearance decisions and apathy. One of the worst recorded conflicts between elephants and people occurred  in the Alur area of Karnataka, where a herd of elephants killed several people in July 2014 and ate their crops. Genetic analyses of their droppings suggested that the animals were a non-traditional herd, with many of its individuals unrelated among themselves. The inference was that non-related females and males had colonised the herd and that the herd itself was created under high conflict situations. Following the deaths, twenty-three of these elephants were caught and relocated. Was the problem solved?

Far from it. “After the elephants were taken away, there is still loss of crops by other elephants. We look at the elephants as the problem and consider that taking away the elephants will solve the problem,” says T.R. Shankar Raman, a scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). But instead, we may be creating more problems. “The elephants that are there now have not killed people. So, the area is no more under the scanner. But what have we left the local people with?” he asks. “Who will address the other dimensions and reasons for conflict?”

If we looked beyond the allegedly offending animals, there lie other factors determining the context of people’s encounters with the animals. For example, the people in Alur had asked for better lighting and school buses to transport their children; a casual night-time stroll is capable of surprising both humans and elephants. But none of these demands have been met.

Apart from conflicts involving one side having gone ‘rogue’, the data suggests that there are hotspots that are spatially specific as well. Numbers put together by the Wildlife Protection Society of India, an NGO, on animal mortality as a result of collisions with trains showed that between 2011 and 2015, tigers, bisons, elephants and nilgai, and even birds like vultures, were killed. Topping the list were elephants. In 2011, trains had mowed down 13 elephants; and then 20 in 2012; 29 in 2013; six in 2014; and 11 in 2015. However, a majority of these deaths were on a single railway line: the Jalpaiguri broad-gauge. There are reports that 48 elephants have died on this line alone since 2004.

Trying to dismiss the problem

People track an elephant along the Jalpaiguri line in North Bengal. Credit: Aditya Panda

The behavioural ecology of the elephant is such that it needs to be able to move to its sources of water and food. And because of their tendency to move around in herds, more than one elephant is injured or killed in accidents. And as highways and railway tracks fragment habitats, herds are also trapped within pockets.

In Odisha, a herd of elephants is currently trapped between the Chandaka and the Kapilash wildlife sanctuaries. The elephants started venturing out of Chandaka in 2002, but the corridors since then have been eaten away by roads and factories, leaving the elephants with no means of reaching Kapilash. Meanwhile, authorities started the construction of sturdy stone walls around the same time to prevent the animals from leaving. One such wall on the northern side has actually prevented Athgarh’s stranded elephants from returning into the sanctuary. Only this year, with parts of it broken, have they managed to return temporarily.

The problem once again lies with treating the symptoms and not the disease itself.

“Watchers have been employed to chase the elephants when they come too close. The forest department appears to have decided that Chandaka should not have elephants again,” remarks Aditya Panda, an Odisha-based conservationist. “The real solution is habitat restoration but this is unglamorous and no one wants to do this. Thus, chasing off elephants temporarily is paraded as a solution. Here, a sanctuary, protected on paper by law, is being lost to apathy. In other places where government wilfully diverts wildlife habitat, what does one do there?” he asks.

The reason the elephants left Chandaka in the first place was human disturbance. “Chandaka was encroached by five villages from northern Odisha. Till 2002, there were about 85 elephants. By 2006, all but 15-20 were left. The herds have dispersed to other parts of the state that are inhospitable. Many have perished.” And those that have survived are now refugees repeatedly coming in conflict with humans. Additionally, according to Panda, the calves born into such herds have a higher chance of growing up like children do in war-zones: confused, traumatised, and likelier to participate in future conflicts.

Operating in denial

A closer look at the way environmental clearances are granted shows that the impacts of projects on wildlife have been consistently ignored. Despite the Jalpaiguri elephant deaths, the Sevoke Rangpo line, to be laid in the same area, was cleared in 2015. It will cut through the Chapramari-Kalimpong-Mahananda elephant corridor. Clearance for coal mining in the Parsa Kante-Basan coal blocks in Chhattisgarh, densely populated by elephants, was also given by the MoEF&CC, with no mention of mitigation strategies for elephants (but was struck down by the National Green Tribunal in 2014). While authorities refused to accept the presence of elephants in the area, it was eventually established by examining records of compensations provided in the aftermath of human-elephant conflicts. “Under the Environment Impact Assessment process, even studies done by institutes of repute, wildlife is just not considered,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta. “If a wildlife sanctuary is involved, then the animal will be mentioned. Otherwise, in most cases, there is complete denial of the animal even being near the project site.”

Simply put, denying the existence of a potentially dangerous animal leads to conflict, even if solutions exist and have been mooted. In 2010, the report of an Elephant Task Force was submitted, while a background paper for the National Board for Wildlife was submitted in 2011. Both recommend that trains should slow down while passing through known animal corridors and that sensors should be installed. These recommendations have not been implemented – and elephants continue to lose their lives in these areas, hit by trains. In Jalpaiguri, seven elephants were killed by a train travelling at 80 kilometres per hour in 2013, following a similar incident two years prior.

An important issue that causes humans and animals to become proximate to each other is food – rather, its availability and sources. Garbage attracts animals and is a determinant in conflict. The dog population has exploded due to more garbage. Leopards (and even tigers) have been known to eat dogs that forage on garbage. So, to prevent leopards from coming into cities, garbage has to be managed better. A collaborative project around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Maharashtra educates people on how to avoid leopards and what to do if the cats are indeed encountered; this includes keeping dogs well protected, decreasing open garbage dumps and not crowding around the animals.

In our environmental decision-making landscape, there are various technicalities related to environmental indicators but no proper wildlife impact assessments. “We keep encountering EIAs that do not mention species. Instead of pretending there are no animals in the landscape, let us start by acknowledging their presence,” says Dutta. “We need to create staging areas where animals can safely cross railway lines, highways, etc. And we need to look at the landscape and how it is used in its totality.”

Something for the people

Tourists in Rumbak village, Leh. Credit: Neha Sinha

Another important aspect is focusing on the problems that people have. “Different state governments want to cull wild boars and other animals that may be declared vermin. In Uttarakhand, they may kill the boars for a year, but then what?” questions Vidya Athreya, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society of India. “The focus is on the animal when it should be on the people – we have to develop proactive methods of preventing livestock loss and crop loss using traditional knowledge and new technology.”

People also suffer due to other synergistic factors, sometimes dubbed ‘human-human conflicts’. In Rumbak, a village in the Leh tehsil of Jammu and Kashmir, for example, the issue of donkeys being occasionally killed by snow leopards exacerbates the already hard life of the villagers, which includes battling the elements and cultivating stony, hard soil for the barley grown in the area. By way of compensating for snow-leopard kills, an NGO called the Snow Leopard Conservancy set up an eco-tourism initiative in the village from 2003 (and which the forest department took over in 2008). The department extended help by providing solar panels, popularising the initiative in the area and by setting up home-stays. After first getting off to a rocky start, villagers like Lobsang recognised that the efforts were to offset the losses in livestock. The initiative seeks to address people’s aspirations and not just incidents of conflict. “The animal will still eat my donkeys,” he says. “But tourists come to see the snow leopard.” Lobsang now makes some extra money through home-stays and leasing out his donkeys to tourists for carrying provisions.

As more natural habitats get usurped by human activity, conflict is likely to increase. The ‘Make in India’ programme will be creating hundreds of kilometres of highways and roads in addition to those already stumbling through reserves and sanctuaries – so it’s only fair that wildlife impact assessments should be done at least in biologically rich areas, a longstanding demand by conservationists.

This piece first appeared in The Wire.

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