One poisoned carcass, Fifty Five dead vultures

NEHA SINHA

Gyps vultures are a critically endangered species, having faced a 99.9 per cent population decline in the last decade.

Of the few Gyps vultures left in India, some are in Assam.

In Assam, the only known breeding colony is in Sivsagar.

And in Sivsagar, a single poisoned carcass has led to the death of 55 vultures. 

Vulture death Sivsagar Assam2

Photo: at the site, about 110 kms of Jorhat. By Mayur Bawri

The BNHS vulture team was informed about the death of more than 55 vultures. Villagers discovered the bodies on 24 January, lying all over the grass, most of them dead, and some of them just about to die.

Also found was a carcass of a cow, which had been laced with poison, presumably to kill stray dogs. The vultures fed on this single carcass and died. Tragically, killing the vultures may not have been the intended outcome. With the world’s last few Gyps vultures struggling for survival, breeding colonies– areas where vultures are known to roost and raise hatchlings–are precious. Disturbance, poisoning, or presence of diclofenac, the drug fatal to vultures, deals a staggering blow to the populations.

Of the 55 counted vultures,  22 were critically endangered White-backed Vultures. Four were critically endangered Slender-billed Vulture, and rest were the vulnerable Himalayan Griffon Vulture.

Vultures are dangerously close to extinction. Breeding sites are the last bastions for them, and here, battles are mounted to avoid poison entering their food chain. Vultures die immediately after consuming diclofenac, a banned veterinary drug; despite being banned, diclofenac is still being used, at the cost of the Gyps vultures. And like any other animal, vultures will also die if fed other poisonous chemicals.

This episode also shows us how a single carcass, poisonous for vultures, can kill so many of them. As vultures are community feeders, they eat together. And this is not the first time that vultures have died en-masse, after innocuously feeding on poisoned carcasses. Carcasses are poisoned because people want to illegally poison a tiger or leopard, because they want to eliminate dogs, or because they treat their cattle with banned diclofenac. Diclofenac is a pain-killer, not even a life-saver for the cattle. In so many ways, vultures are dying.

Is this their Last Supper?

Photo below: Always a fighter: acclaimed artist Raja Ravi Varma’s depiction of Jatayu vulture defending Sita

Jataya Vadh Raja Ravi Varma

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Turtles and Oil Spills: Just One Shell

One shell is not enough: turtle researcher Chetan Rao on the disastrous effects of an oil spill on turtles.

Beaches and rivers belong to turtles too
Beaches and rivers belong to turtles too

Just One Shell

By Chetan Rao

Terrible things happened last month. More or less December has been a month of barbarism; terrorism attacks and ecological disasters.

On 9th December 2014, a tanker, Southern Star7 carrying 92 gallons of bunker oil capsized after a collision with another vessel inside the Sunderbans in Bangladesh. The result is a large tract of the estuary cloaked in a black viscous layer. This could well be warranted as South Asia’s black plague. . Almost 90% of the oil has been spilled on the mangrove estuaries meandering its way into the fragile intertidal ecosystem.  This is the worst news. And I will tell you why.

Mangroves are formed at the delicate boundary where the fresh water from the deltas empty into the sea. The result is a nutrient rich soil that acts as a nursery grounds for inter tidal species such as crustaceans, planktons and fish which act as prey base for larger threatened species such as the saltwater crocodiles, tigers, river dolphins and reef sharks. Not to forget that the Sunderbans is one of the few places where Bengal tigers occur in large numbers. This rich ecological treasure trove is now going to be covered in a thick dark slime of oil and oil is bad.

The Sunderbans also host breeding grounds for a whole range of freshwater turtle species and also provide breeding beaches for sea turtles such as the Hawksbill, Green and the widespread Olive Ridley Sea turtles. These last remaining beaches harbor the interesting Bay of Bengal population of Ridleys. The genetic studies of these Ridley populations suggest that these have been ancestral populations of Olive Ridleys worldwide.

Ridleys nest extensively all along the Indian subcontinent and two sites in the state of Odisha in Eastern India are well known mass nesting sites! Olive Ridleys are known to exhibit synchronizing nesting where they arrive on the nesting beaches in large numbers. This phenomenon is known as “arribada” meaning arrival in Spanish. Prior to nesting, large scale congregations take place along the coastlines. These aggregations are susceptible to any sort of disturbance either natural or manmade will have significant impact on nesting numbers. Oil spills leave turtles stranded and create massive health problems such has lacerations, starvations and internal organ failure. Oil affects hatchlings too. One in ten hatchlings survives to adulthood. These hatchlings seek the support of sargassum weeds which act as a nursery for these neonates. Due to oil spills the seaweeds wither, leaving these neonates without any cover in the open water.

Some of the most known threatened freshwater turtles are known to occur in the Sunderbans such as the Sunderbans Batagur, narrow-headed softshell turtle, Leith’s softshell turtle and the crowned river turtle (Source: TSA). These species only occur in the Gangetic and the Brahmaputra deltas. Like their marine cousins, these turtles suffer similar fatalities due to the toxic nature of the oil. Such drastic fluctuations in source populations of these turtles can cause stochastic changes in global populations of these chelonians.

Human carelessness has grown over the years, and has grown toxic. Turtles only have a shell to protect them, which is helpless against our careless crusade. Let’s not forget this.

Chetan Rao is a post graduate in wildlife science from the Wildlife Institute of India with a penchant for reptiles. His research interests are in reptile ecology and evolutionary biology.

Bush and Meat

Wild rats for sale on a highway in Nagaland.

Hunting is illegal in India, but it does take place, perhaps in no place more than the Indian North East. Here, the issue isn’t just of being dependant on wild animals. It’s also of culture, adventure, and sport. Hunting is a cultural past-time, deeply embedded in the ‘this is what we do; this is what we have done’ sentiment. The question is, shall we look at all India bans, or should we make exceptions for bushmeat hunting of taxa like rats, many of which are classified as vermin?

Is sustainable non-target hunting even possible? Is sustainable a fantasy? Or should we enforce conservation idealogies on the hunting tribes of the North East, hoping for generational change?

Rats on sale, Nagaland. Photos by Neha Sinha

Rats on sale, Nagaland. Photos by Neha Sinha

Five things I’d take with me if the World was Ending!

Hi! Recently, like the rest of the world, I watched Chris Nolan’s Interstellar.

While it was very much a cautionary tale, of a world in the future riddled with climate change, with disease, monstrous dust storms, and basically no future on earth; the film was also about all that you hold most dear. It got me thinking: if I were to settle on a new planet, what would I carry with me?

Here is my list of five, mostly from the natural world. The Five things I can’t live without: birdsong, the cheerful Marigold, a mythical dragon (in reality, a large mammal), animals in their natural element, and books (not chargeable kindles. Real books). I for one, cannot stay on a planet without trees. While grasslands and deserts are amazing, there’s nothing quite as reassuring as standing under an immense tree, with its arms wide one. And not hearing birdsong in the morning, would be a lonely existence indeed. What’s your list? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

This first appeared here.

Every little girl and boy has entertained the thought, at least once, about being an astronaut. Wear a space suit (or a form fitted muscle hugging customised uniform), float in a gleaming chrome spaceship, and find new worlds. How do you get through space, that big expanse of asteroids, planets, moons and we-know-not-what? Using a great ship, a time-warp or a blackhole (the last being a link between two parallel universes, with one good and one evil). And if you’ve watched Chris Nolan’s Interstellar, you will also know that you can get through space through wrinkles, or worm holes. I won’t reveal the whole story. But the movie, hailed universally, is about finding new worlds, because in the future, Earth is dying, diseased and riddled with climate change. The protagonists want to search for, populate and colonise new worlds. But as American poet Robert Frost said, “Space is lonely”. Or as Star Trek quips, space is the final frontier. So, what would you take with you, if you had to fill out a new planet? Here is my list of five:

1) Birdsong: If you wake up before seven in the morning at most times of the year, you can hear a new language. It’s the language of the birds talking to each other, a dawn din that starts from a tree and spreads over the neighbourhood. Warblers warble, larks burst into songs, parakeets trill, some birds cheep, and crows caw. We don’t know why birds sing their happy song in the morning, pre-historic Pharrell Williams, if you may. But each day, the dawn chorus has a new dimension, some new aspects. Not quite predictable, and not always melodious, but always uplifting. If we had to live on the moon, would we have to live without trees? The thought is frightening. On a new planet, I would take birds with me, so I could have birdsong. A random programme can’t give me the varying orchestras that real birds — tiny and fragile, but big, generous singers — do. If you haven’t heard birdsong, get up this Sunday just after dawn, and give it a listen.

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2) Genda phool: All the magic of the world lies in one seed. A seed produces a humble shrub or a mighty tree, and James Cameron’s Avatar had the Vitraya Ramunong tree at the centre of all its planet’s neural magic. But all seeds have magic, the promise of life, even on our world. If I were to pick a seed to take to the planet, it would be the marigold, the humble genda phool. It’s ubiquitous, dotting the fringes of a smutty roadside dhaba, or adorning a sweaty politician’s corpulent neck. It hasn’t been given the status of a neat red rose bud, à la Nehru jacket style, and it’s not as swish as a violet orchid people like to make their wedding garlands from. But the genda phool has spirit. It is cheerful, lasting seasons, thrusting its ruched yellow head on to pollution, population and congestion, and sticking out its tongue at bad circumstance. It’s considered holy, but it blesses more than the moneyed devout with its presence. What better burst of Indian spirit!

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3) Khaleesi’s dragons: If I were to pick a fabulous beast to take with me (one that doesn’t quite exist), the competition is hard. I like Alice in Wonderland’s ugly, drooling but amazing Bandersnatch. I like the stern hippogriff of Harry Potter (helps that it can help one fly around). I love the beasts of The Lord of the Rings: the olliphaunts with more trunks than elephants, the huge flying eagles and the swift horses. But the dragons fromThe Game of Thrones series are something else. They love their mother, the fiery Khaleesi, but they also love their freedom, their hunt, and their own damn free will. Drogon, Khaleesi’s biggest dragon, is big, mean, and occasionally loving. It seems almost that author George RR Martin is making an analogy for all wild carnivores: people who share spaces with wolves, tigers and bears will tell you that these animals are fierce but intuitive, predatory but discerning. A large obligate carnivore is never an easy sight to behold. A wolf pauses and howls, and this can be bloodcurdling or thrilling, depending on how you look at it. Tigers and leopards are sleek and silent like the onset of the night: you never know they are there, until you actually see them. Drogon, Khaleesi’s biggest dragon, is wild, and never quite predictable, enigmatic to a fault. For me, he is nature itself. He would be a fitting mighty presence on a mighty new planet. Also, a dragon defying gravity would be a sight to behold.

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4) Gravity: It is different on different world; and so is the concept of time. For those who haven’t watched Interstellar, this the chief takeaway message. For experiencing these things, I’d like to have a few options. A kangaroo, to see how it would bounce on a planet with different gravity. A gypsy horse in a tesseract with me, to see how its hair would swish in a time warp. A giraffe, to see how it would lope through a strange new world with a different sense of time coursing through. Dragonflies, doing their maniacal zigzag flight in the air, in an air that may have a few weird thermal currents. And a spotted whale-shark in the water, bigger, but gentler, than a tidal wave.

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5) Books: Finally, I’d take more than a book or two with me. You see, if you’re reading this column, you probably love reading. And I don’t need to tell you that books are more than just paper, more than the stories they have to tell. Because they have a presence. And the smell of a book is a homecoming, and the feel of a book is tactile and palliative. You should probably know that you have no chance with me if you offer to buy me a drink at a bar, but you have half a chance if you offer to buy me a book at a bookstore. And apart from the feel of the book, its scent, its presence, and the ideas it has, which are bulletproof; here is the penultimate winner for the times we live in: a book isn’t ever going to run out of batteries.

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Is the Great Indian Bustard the modern Dodo?

If someone calls you a dodo, you shouldn’t be flattered. You’ve just been called dumb, as someone who does not heed warnings.

The Great Indian Bustard, whose last viable population is in India, is now declared extinct in the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. This adventurous bird does not ‘heed’ conservation plans made for it, flying outside protected areas. (But really, is that the bird’s fault?) With its steep local extinction curve, are we looking at the modern dodo? Leave your comments below.

This is a follow up to my previous piece.

There was once an Indian bird It asked us for a word,

Or two: “do grant me grass and do save me the farce”.

The Great Indian Bustard has gone extinct in Madhya Pradesh. Let’s take a step back: I won’t blame you if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Let’s look at the name again. This is a bustard, presumably some sort of bird, or perhaps just a misspelling of a favourite English abuse used in old Hindi movies.

Well, it is a bird, it’s obviously Indian, and it’s also “Great”.

Yes, and no.

Impressed by its large size — it’s one metre tall, up to 14 kilos in weight, ornithologists of yore called the Indian Bustard “Great”. But really, there is nothing great about being the Great Indian Bustard. Critically endangered, the GIB is down to the last 150 birds in India, and this is possibly the last viable population on earth. For the past two years, GIB have disappeared from Madhya Pradesh, after going extinct from Uttar Pradesh and other states.

Why, you ask?

Well imagine there is a classroom of naughty animals. Some are wilder, and more unpredictable than others.

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There are birds such as crows and animals such as Nilgai, which eat a whole range of things, and can exist in a whole bunch of places. They are doing fine, going forward and proliferating. Then there are birds like the GIB, which is found in a place no one really cares about: grasslands and scrub forests. They fly long distances, secretively, and unpredictably. They don’t stay in the protected areas which have been made for them. Crazy, did I hear you say? Dodo, do I hear another person say?

It’s ironic that among people, “disruptive” thought is sought after for the best fellowships on earth. People who think out of the box are the leaders of tomorrow, the mad geniuses, the chosen ones. Not true for a big bird that flies out of the box of protected areas.

Consider this. The GIB inhabits grasslands and scrub forests, which look bone-dry and not even green, very different from the lush emerald forests Indian wildlife and wilds are associated with. Grasslands and scrub forests are often classified as “wasteland” in governmental record, which goes to show that they are considered productive only if they are annexed and changed. The GIB was in the running for national bird of India, but anecdotes say that it lost out, because its name was considered too reminiscent of “bastard”.

Apart from linguistics, the GIB also presents a pulsating conservation challenge. It really combats the box, and asks for the box to be kicked at and utterly dismantled. The GIB doesn’t stay in protected areas: it flies outside designated reserves like Karera (Madhya Pradesh) and Great Indian Bustard (Maharashtra) sanctuaries, foraging in private fields, meeting real people who may or may not care about a harmless, rather hefty bird. This presents a defiance to the forest department: protecting this bird is a classic conservation challenge.

For any GIB conservation plan will have to consider private land, many players, people’s fancies, and the bird’s whims. And that’s why GIB conservation has failed absurdly. In some places such as the Great Indian Bustard sanctuary in Solapur, people’s needs — such as building bigger houses — have been curtailed so ridiculously that they have begun to hate anything to do with the Bustard.

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In Karera, protection of wild animals has been so successful, that swiftly breeding Blackbuck have destroyed adjacent crops. Even while there is no increase in GIB numbers. Here as in elsewhere, non-traditional management decisions have to be taken.

So there you have it: an elusive bird, which defies plans. No half-hearted, just-on-paper attempts will do for it. It asks instead for smart and adaptive management, something we are just not good at.

But again, consider this: if we learn how to conserve the GIB, then we would be able to tackle many multi-faceted and multi-tailed, sweaty and sticky environmental problems. The forest department will need to engage outside its constituency, ie start talking to the farmer as priority. Conservationists will have to stitch together plans with goals that are not fixed, but constantly appraised and updated adaptively.

There is a thing known as generational amnesia. It’s where the new generation forgets what the earlier one knew as truth. For instance, children from the USA think milk comes from cartons (whose heard of cows?); and children in Delhi think house sparrows are rare species (even though their parents grew up with the ubiquitous, charming sparrows).

The dodo is used as a euphemism for a stupid creature. But was the dodo, not-shy of humans and thus readily hunted — stupid, or were the people who hunted it, wanton and indiscriminate? There may be a time wherein the GIB will remain a pretty picture on an Indian stamp; permanently elusive and permanently extinct. And will the GIB, in its defiance of neatly-set out conservation plans, be known as the modern dodo?

Once upon a time, there was an Indian bird.

Not that Great being a Great Indian Bustard

Telling the story of a bird that doesn’t seem to want to conserved. It flies where it wants– that is, outside protected areas– it shows itself only on a few days a year. More reason for us to conserve the enigma that is the Great Indian Bustard! What are your thoughts?

This piece first appeared here.

Not that Great being an Indian Bustard

NEHA SINHA

The Great Indian Bustard

The Great Indian Bustard

Unorthodox models of conservation are needed to save this elusive and magnificent big bird

“Have you seen the Big Five?” That’s the question you will invariably be asked if you visit the East African states. The Big Five, Africa’s largest, and thus most prominent, mammals — the lion, the rhino, the leopard, the buffalo and the elephant — have dominated camp fire stories, tourist expectations and the growth of conservation.

Across the world, big animals have a lure that is unmatched — they inspire knee-knocking fear, awe and wonder. The Galapagos tortoise, weighing over 400 kilograms, is also called the Galapagos “giant,” the Indian Rhino is also called the “Great” Indian Rhino, and the elephant is often called the “gentle giant.” In India, much like in Africa, we share habitat with a range of veritable giants: the tiger, the largest of all big cats; the lion, also called the “king” of the jungle; and the brown and black bears, possibly the largest of all carnivores in this country. Yet, one giant has missed out, even though its very name gives away both its endemism as well as its size: the Great Indian Bustard.

Rajasthan’s lead

Found only in India and Pakistan, the sole viable range and population of the Great Indian Bustard is now in India. Here too, the bird, which weighs between 18-20 kilograms and the size of a terrier, has lost more than 90 per cent of its habitat, and is down to a miniscule population of 200 individuals. Thus, it is possibly one of the most critical of all critically endangered bird species in India. Last year, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued guidelines to start a Centrally sponsored plan called “Project Bustard” in the bustard range States — a much delayed clarion call for three neglected types of bustards, of which the Great Indian Bustard is numerically the closest to extinction. On the lines of Project Tiger and Project Elephant, other Great Indian Bustard States such as Rajasthan, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra have been invited to submit species recovery plans to the Centre to avail of funding and start long-term conservation programmes. Last month, the Supreme Court called for the operationalisation of the National Wildlife Action Plan and specifically directed the Government of India and the Union Environment Ministry towards starting species recovery plans for the bird. This month, on World Environment Day, Rajasthan became the first State to declare Project Great Indian Bustard. This is the first time that the west Indian State has announced a landscape plan for its State bird. While we need more range States to actively pursue Project Bustard, we will have to move away from traditional approaches to Centrally sponsored conservation schemes and look at a truly unorthodox protection regime for this unorthodox bird.

Ecological and social niche

The Great Indian Bustard is one of the heaviest flying birds on earth. With its head turned up at a characteristic 45° angle, it gives out a deep “hoom” call, which can be a heard up to a kilometre away. Its local names, Godawan and hoom, are derived from this booming call, an indication of the way its presence has built up in local consciousness. In the 1960s, ornithologist Salim Ali proposed that to “focus interest and solicitude” on a bird that represented the country, the bird should be chosen as the national bird. Despite this consideration and its prominent size, it has since been relegated to complete neglect, perhaps because of the habitat it lives in: semi-arid grasslands, which to untrained government eyes, is an epithet for a wasteland. The only habitat protection law that India has is the Forest Conservation Act (1980). And therefore the question is: are grasslands “forests”? Biologists argue that grasslands should be legally considered as forests, for the purpose of conservation of both the habitat and the unique assemblages of species they hold. The only species that went extinct in independent India was the Cheetah, also a grassland species. In its report of the Task Force for Grasslands and Deserts, the Planning Commission notes that species closest to extermination are grassland species, found in dry, wet and high altitude grasslands, such as the lesser florican, the pygmy hog, the Bengal florican and the Nilgiri Tahr. Forest “management” has led zealous forest departments, trained to raise forests and nothing else, towards burning grasses, ploughing soil, and planting trees where grasslands once swayed.

The Great Indian Bustard, with most of its habitat range lost, today poses one of the most pressing challenges to conservation design and management. Despite being such a huge bird, it is a cryptic giant. It converges before the monsoon at sites where it displays for breeding, enlarging its neck and “moustaches.” But where it goes in the non-breeding season is a mystery. With the display season now on, Gujarat, for the first time, has granted permission to the Wildlife Institute of India and others to satellite track the Great Indian Bustard (in the way tigers have been tracked before) to understand its foraging and dispersing ecology. Conserving this bird will mean both legal protection of breeding and display areas, and joining hands with communities over a large, legally unprotected landscape where the Bustard “disappears” to. Herein is the biggest challenge — to help create ownership towards the last few individuals of this wandering, vagrant bird, the very last evolutionary dregs of a species whose habitat is now an anachronism. It will, in effect, mean creating a vibrant social niche among people, for a bird which is near forgotten.

Community-driven

Where semi-arid grasslands are not available, the Great Indian Bustard is found in pseudo-grasslands — traditional cropping areas of traditional crops, such as millets and sorghum. Here, it has also been found to nest. If arid and semi-arid grasslands — both natural as well as pseudo — can escape land-use change, the other pressing concern is to allow some areas to retain their traditional Great Indian Bustard friendly crops.

Instead of a strictly protectionist or legally-enforced approach, we will need a management approach, most of which will have to be self-enforced by communities. Conservation planning will have to involve new players, like district commissioners, the revenue department, agricultural officers and gram sabhas. All of them have to be roped in to identify and protect revenue and private lands that bustards forage on, and to encourage natural agro-biodiversity.

If we can save the Great Indian Bustard from extinction, it will mean a triumph against the fatal end, but also a template for facing the typical problems of contemporary conservation today: working with whatever habitat we have left, using principles of restoration ecology to safeguard ecological baselines, and creating reconciliation with dense human communities who hold rights to these areas and are a reality in wildlife conservation today.

(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. The views expressed are personal. E-mail:n.sinha@bnhs.org.)