Stork beak locked in plastic- and we are to blame.

A rescue team near Gurgaon is looking for an unusual subject – a black-necked stork unable to open its mouth, as it has a plastic ring around its beak.

Images of wildlife with plastic fatally stuck to them are becoming increasingly common. There are marine turtles with plastic rings around their neck, there are albatross chicks dying with bellies chock-full of plastic, there are whales and elephants dying agonisingly with plastic bags in them.

The bird is unable to open its mouth because of the ring. The bird is unable to open its mouth because of the plastic ring. Photo: Manoj Nair

Who would write obituaries for these ancient races filled with symbols of the modern age? The wildlife die unloved, unmourned, detected on coastlines and forest areas, in various stages of decomposition — and only if someone finds them. Most importantly, they die because of us.

Many of these animals are found in remote locations — islands, tiger reserves and coastlines and thus, it doesn’t seem like our problem. At least two things in the case of the stork show us this is our problem.

Firstly, Basai Important Bird Area (IBA) is in our backyard — Gurgaon — and shows the devastating impacts of plastic waste. Ironically, we are in the middle of a Clean India movement, and on World Environment Day on June 5, PM Modi called for an end to single-use plastic.

Secondly, this incident proves just how badly our natural areas are treated. Wetlands become wastelands, and rivers become sewage drains. I wrote earlier how some of Delhi’s biodiverse wetlands, Basaiand Najafgarh, are under imminent threat.

A construction and demolition waste plant is coming up next to Basai wetland, something the Delhi Bird Foundation has been fighting against in the National Green Tribunal. Not only does Haryana not recognise Basai as a wetland, making a waste plant near this wetland is likely to have terrible impacts on the biodiversity – such as debris, further water pollution, wetland dumping and filling.

marine turtles with plastic rings around their neck, or their nose. Photo: Reuters/FileMarine turtles have been found with plastic rings around their neck, or their nose. Photo: Reuters/File

The stork with its beak encased in a plastic ring is just an early sign of what litter and pollution tragedies take place when waste is dumped in wetlands and wildernesses.

Birders from NCR and the Haryana forest department have been trying to rescue the stork, which is doomed to die without intervention. “The bird was spotted today but could not be caught. There is a huge mountain of plastic bottles dumped next to the wetland,” says naturalist and birdwatcher Abhishek Gulshan. Till June 11, a team comprising conservationist Rakesh Ahlawat and the Haryana forest department were still looking for the bird.

Meanwhile, the Municipal Commission of Gurgaon has asked the company that dumped the bottles to immediately clear the area.

The problem of haphazard and harmful municipal waste dumping and management in NCR though, is far from over. Plans to make a landfill site on the Yamuna river plain, near Sonia Vihar, are afoot.

This could be yet another way of ensuring plastic and leachates reach our gravely imperilled Yamuna river. The problem is the colonial mentality—which saw wetlands (which did not earn revenue) as “wastelands”. Dumping in wetlands also dries up the area, leading to encroachment.

Plastic is killing our rivers. Photo: PTI/filePlastic is killing our rivers. Photo: PTI/file

“Wetlands are not wastelands awaiting “development”. Dumping of municipal solid waste and debris has been the most insidious way of reclaiming the wetlands by vested interests. Plastic is the latest despoiler. The sad plight of the stork is a tight slap on the face of civilised humans. If only the stork too could poke our faces!” says Manoj Misra, convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, and petitioner in several cases for river and wetland rejuvenation.

Less than a week ago, PM Modi had said on World Environment Day: “The choices that we make today will define our collective future. The choices may not be easy. But through awareness, technology, and a genuine global partnership, I am sure we can make the right choices. Let us all join together to beat plastic pollution and make this planet a better place to live.”

What is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste? Photo: PTIWhat is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste? Photo: PTI

One of the ways to do this is to cut down on plastic trash by not using plastic bags (the kind you’d find in a whale or elephant’s stomach), plastic can holders (whose rings you may find around a bird, dolphin or turtle’s neck or mouth), and plastic straws (found recently inside the nose of vulnerable Olive Ridley turtles), to name a few.

That’s on the individual level.

On the collective level, we have to make our waste — and how it is dealt with — an election issue. No more can our waste go into “wastelands”, “behind the colony”, “in that pond” or “next to that river”. These are not places for our waste. The idea is not just to get waste collected from our doorsteps but to ensure they don’t poison our last wild places and to place accountability for these urgent public health issues. What is a municipality for if it cannot systematically deal with our waste?

Poisoning our last wildernesses — which have their own range of ecosystem services — would be like putting a plastic bag over our heads as we roam about in NCR’s critically polluted “air”.

Meanwhile, a stork awaits its fate — metaphorically holding its breath, without opening its mouth.

This first appeared in my column for DailyO, here
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What shall we do with feral dogs?

The most successful animal on earth is the human being. The second most successful animal is the human’s best friend, the dog.

Cuddly, loyal, loving, playful, enthusiastic, forgiving: those are usually the richly intense terms that people use for dogs. There’s no companion animal like the dog — the domestic dog has co-evolved with people and considers humans to be part of its pack. If treated as pets, dogs will love and protect “their pack” — their human family. Pet dogs have given their lives for their owners, and will stick by their pack through thick and thin. Unlike any other animal, people talk about dogs like they are people — for most, the loss of a dog is the loss of a family member.

Yet, dogs also hit the headlines for much more gruesome reasons — 14 children have been killed by dogs in Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh. Some others have been injured. This is not an isolated incident: dogs are increasingly chasing down both people and livestock. Dogs are also the third biggest mammalian predator of  wildlife — they chase, hunt, disturb and transmit disease to wildlife, eating up birds, antelopes, hares, turtles, deer, eggs, and anything else they can find.

There are two questions here: one, how do “cuddly” dogs become predators, and two, what do we do about it? These two questions need to be looked at together, because the answer for both is the same. In clear words: people are wholly responsible for the dangers that dogs pose today.

dog-with-blackbuck_052318125313.jpgA dog with a Blackbuck kill in Haryana. [Photo credit: Neha Sinha]

The first question first. Do dogs kill? While one may find it hard to believe that dogs can hunt down people or other animals–similar questions have been asked on the Sitapur incidents, blaming “mysterious animals” for the killing — the biological fact is that the dog is both a predator and a carnivore. If not taken responsibility for, a dog can and will hunt, with increasingly lurid consequences. Biology does not point fingers — animals are what they are, and predators will predate — that does not make them any worse than say, a vegetarian bunny that munches on grass and flowers.

A follow-up thought would be: many animals kill people, how does that make dogs any different? The answer is enmeshed with the question of what we must do. The domestic dog was created by people, domesticated from the wolf. The edge the dog has over other predators is the familiarity it feels with people, honed over thousands of years of co-evolution. A dog can hunt at nearly any time, and regardless of the physical closeness of human beings. It often has a lack of fear of man. Compare this to any other wild animal which does not have the benefit of familiarity — even a tiger known to kill people will stay away from groups of people.

So, what do we need to do?

blackbuck-chased_052318125356.jpgBlackbucks being chased by dogs in Haryana. [Photo credit: Neha Sinha]

Dogs that hunt people and wildlife need complete removal from site. Sterilisation does not help in such cases. Sterilisation of dogs proven to hunt may lessen the numbers, but not the threat.

This leads us to an associated issue — what of free-ranging dogs that are partially fed by people? If you tell someone her friendly Browny or Tommy is hunting birds, you may face complete incredulousness. It’s like telling a parent their kid does drugs on weekends. But free-ranging dogs do often hunt, even if they are fed. Having dogs on the road, given food but not a home or hearth, also leads to puppies getting run over and exposure to temperature extremes and disease. For those who love dogs with passion — this author included — the answer lies in taking responsibility for dogs.

“The goal of any policy for the management and welfare of dogs — for that matter any domestic animals — should be to ensure that the only dogs that exist should be those owned by people. We cannot have ownerless dogs. There should be a piece of paper linking each owned dog to a person to hold that person accountable for the actions of the dog. We need to take responsibility for the dogs we feed. These dogs need to be confined. If they are hunting, they must be immediately captured and confined,” says wildlife conservationist Aditya Panda.

Some would say not all dogs hunt. This may be true. But enough dogs are hunting.

dogsonbeach_052318125454.jpgDogs hunting on a beach in Mangalore. [Photo credit: Neha Sinha]

Dogs that hunt will need to be put down or confined. For some others, people can adopt and take responsibility, individually or with the help of a community. For the rest, the humane solution would be to open nationwide shelters and give dogs lifetime care, post sterilisation. This will require huge investment, but can be accomplished through crowdfunding, individual and government-led investment. On priority should be problem dogs.

Mark Twain famously said: “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”

This is true. Dogs are incredible creatures. The fact that they hunt does not mean the entire species needs to be demonised and clubbed to death in acts of revenge. It does mean though, that we need to find solutions to a problem we have created. Not taking responsibility for Canis lupus familiaris is shunning tens of thousands of years of shared history. It is also an act of immense cruelty — to both dog and man.

This first appeared in my DailyO column, here

You can also read the piece in Hindi, here.

Trees of Storm: How we can prevent trees from falling

“On the afternoon of March 17, 1978, the weather took an odd turn in Delhi,” writes Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement.

“I had just passed a busy intersection called Maurice Nagar when I heard a rumbling sound somewhere above. Glancing over my shoulder I saw a grey, tube-like extrusion forming on the underside of a dark cloud: it grew rapidly as I watched, and then all of a sudden it turned and came whiplashing down to earth, heading in my direction… [later] I was confronted by a scene of devastation such as I had never before beheld. Buses lay overturned; scooters sat perched on treetops; walls had been ripped out of buildings, exposing interiors on which ceiling fans had twisted into tulip-like spirals.” This is Ghosh’s description of a cyclone which hit North Delhi in the 1970s, leaving 30 dead and 700 wounded.

The feeling of devastation may sound familiar to those who faced and survived the recent surge of dust storms in North and Western India. “Dust storms” usually are not synonymous with death — that understanding is reserved for floods and earthquakes. But consider the figures: 125 people died in a dust storm on May 3. In a fresh round of dust storms on Sunday, May 13, more than 60 people died in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. Yet another dust storm came today, in the wee hours of May 16. Damage was caused by a slew of frequently occurring and common factors — collapsed buildings, collapsed poles, lightning, falling trees.

del-body_051618123704.jpgA palm tree trunk came crashing down on cars during Sunday’s dust storm in New Delhi. [Credit: PTI photo]

Through the dust storms, 189 trees fell in Delhi, though the actual numbers must be higher. The Metro also had to halt functioning because a tree fell on it, and cars and property was damaged. It doesn’t take much to comprehend that falling trees can damage property and injure people. What can we do about it? The short-sighted answer would be to declare trees as dangerous and further confine ourself to a hellish, short-on-oxygen city. The more intelligent answer to explore is: how do we prevent trees from falling?

The question is even more important as we are in a lived state of climate change, where baselines of what are normal is shifting: what Ghosh calls the “great derangement”. Dust storms for instance, are often caused by heat waves, which are caused by a changing climate. So, expect more storms. Also, expect an unchanging storm of denial on the change we are in the middle of.

bada-peelu-1_051618123812.jpgA Bada Peelu tree at the Qutub complex. A slow growing tree, this one must be centuries old. [Credit: Neha Sinha]

In Delhi, studies say trees are stressed. In fact, the NDMC even runs a tree ambulance. The Delhi High Court has said soil should be left free around tree roots, at least to an extent of six feet by six feet, and all trees concretised around roots should be dechoked. But this is not followed, particularly in colonies and newly made footpaths. Orders often turn to farce — so while some colonies have made complaints and asked municipalities to come and break concrete around trees, in other parts of Delhi, newly made roads and pavements continue to cover tree roots. Pouring concrete right up to tree roots is a classic clash of the urban ethic encountering the wild — it yields a few more inches of neatness, land grab, and parking space. What it may also lead to though, is a fallen tree, destroyed property and a destroyed arboreal inheritance.

A major part of Delhi’s character is its trees. You have feathery-leaved, stately Tamarind trees flanking Tilak Marg, gold-blossomed Amaltas on Amrita Shergil marg, quirky Sausage trees on Copernicus Marg, Semal trees in Humayun’s tomb, gnarly and ancient Bada Peelu trees in the Qutub complex, young Banyans on some central verges, old Neems in the NDMC avenues.

crowded-semal_051618123907.jpgA Semal tree, concretised up to its roots in South Delhi, still throws up some blossoms. [Credit: Neha Sinha]

We urgently need to decongest the area around trees. We need to desist careless lopping of canopies in monsoon or winter, because that disbalances the tree. You too have the power to create change — in places where the tree is choked by concrete, you can call your local divisional forest officer or Delhi’s Tree helpline and place a complaint.

Indeed, such complaints have led to action. Delhi’s Preservation of Tree Act, 1994, restricts the cutting of any tree without requisite permissions. And if permission is granted to cut trees, the Tree Act also says more trees need to be planted: “Every person, who is granted permission under this Act to fell or dispose of any tree, shall be bound to plant such number and kind of trees in the area from which the tree is felled or disposed of by him under such permission as may be directed by the tree officer.”

With rising, apocalyptic air pollution, trees are a natural buffer we will literally choke without. And with heat wave conditions, we need the shade of trees to create temperature gradients. In Delhi’s temperature extremes, it is not even possible to stand at a red light if you don’t have a tree’s shade giving asylum from the maddening heat. People always say that the fury of nature are acts of God — at least now we know much of it is human-induced climate change.

Even interpreting weather is not fully in our control. The government declared May 8 as an evening school holiday based on predictions by the Met department, which said that there was possibility of thunderstorm, squall or hail, “with winds to the tune of 50km per hour”. That day, no major storm came to most of Delhi. The WhatsApp joke doing the round was that children were running around in the house at a speed faster than the predicted wind speed. We don’t know when the storms will come — but we certainly know they will.

And as time progresses, we will all become familiar with words like squall and dust storm. Trees of Delhi will become storm survivors. The time to protect and dechoke trees is now, now, now.

And while de-choking trees doesn’t mean trees will never fall, allowing them to remain choked, in the face of hail, squall and storm, means they certainly will.

This first appeared in my column in DailyO

Trains are killing elephants- and so is our Apathy!

What we do now to mitigate the impact of linear projects will determine how elephants – India’s National Heritage animal – will interact with the new India.

On Monday, four elephants died in Odisha after being hit by a train.

There is perhaps no large wild animal that dies unnaturally in such large numbers in single events as do elephants due to collisions with trains. Most of the deaths are in Central and Eastern India. Thirty elephants were killed after being hit by trains between 2013 and 2017 in West Bengal. One of the worst incidents was in Jalpaiguri in 2013, when six elephants were killed in a rail collision. In December 2017, five elephants died in Assam while crossing a railway track. An elephant and a fortnight-old calf also died in a similar way near Ranchi in 2016. On the last day of 2012, five elephants (including one that was pregnant) were killed in Ganjam in Odisha after being hit by a train.

One reason why elephants die en masse is that the herd tries to save other members from the train.

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Young elephants die very often on collision with trains and vehicles on highways. Here: forest department elephant in Central India

The National Board of Wildlife recently announced that all projects in sanctuaries, national parks and eco-sensitive zones around these sanctuaries should have a funded mitigation plan to prevent mortality due to linear projects such as roads and railways. However, a more immediate need is to identify mitigation measures in all conflict hotspots, not just near protected areas.

letter drafted in February 2018 by the Sanctuary Nature Foundation (to which the author is a signatory) to Piyush Goyal, the Union railway minister, states, “Elephants are impacted in the East-Central India belt of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh because of devastation of elephant habitat and corridors by iron ore and coal mining and industrial development.”

As a mitigation measure, the letter suggests levelling steep mounds along railway lines, which can otherwise hinder escape attempts, and clearing vegetation around bends so train drivers and guards can see elephants moving.

There is evidence that this kind of mitigation can work. It takes two forms: built mitigation, such as underpasses or tunnels, and preventive mitigation, such as patrolling and clearing escape routes. A railway line through Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand had killed several elephants until some basic measures were installed. A patrolling team looked out for elephants, warning signs were erected, embankments were made less steep and vegetation was cleared.

Mortality hotspots can also be identified; this is important because the presence of a hotspot indicates that trains might be moving faster through that area. A study published in 2017 noted that “broad gauge allows trains to reach higher velocities, making it harder for elephants to avoid a moving train,” and that, “after gauge conversion, the maximum speed of trains increased from about 60 kph to over 100 kph.” Apart from hotspots, the study found that most accidents happened at night, suggesting that limiting train operations after sunset and making underpasses or tunnels for crossing could reduce casualties in the area.

In practice, however, the only institutions paying attention seem to be the courts. The National Green Tribunal had directed the Assam government to curb highway roadkills, and the state recently said it had dedicated Rs 11 crore for mitigation in Kaziranga. Among other measures, a sensor system installed in the park now throws down a barrier in the path of a train when a large animal like an elephant is crossing.

However, the real danger lies in elephant passageways outside protected areas. This month, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to find a solution to reduce elephant deaths in corridors. “We cannot tell the elephants where they should go… they must have a corridor,” an apex court bench observed.

The other immediate challenge is posed by the fact that the number of railway lines and other linear infrastructure is set to increase in the country. On the question of built mitigation to help animals cross railway tracks, we need to build build overpasses and/or tunnels as well as install monitoring systems to see if such mitigative measures actually work.

The upcoming Sevoke Rangpo line in Sikkim will go through Mahananda sanctuary and elephant corridors in the area. So this line should not be built without accompanying mitigation efforts, and hotspots for elephant activity will need to be identified beyond protected areas.

Linear projects also take a toll on other wildlife. ‘Roadkill’, a new crowd-sourced citizen’s science project, documents wildlife deaths due to linear projects. In the last 100 days, apart from elephants, as many as 25 leopards and one tiger have been reported killed after being hit on roads and railway tracks.

View image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on Twitter

Roadkills India@RoadkillsIndia

20 elephants, 25 leopards, 1 tiger due to linear infrastructure in a span of 3 months. @SanctuaryAsia @BittuSahgal @ParveenKaswan @prernabindra @bahardutt @dipika_bajpai @nehaa_sinha @prernabindra @anishandheria @WCT_India @GargiRawat @NGhanekar @aathiperinchery

What we do now to mitigate the impact of linear projects will determine how elephants – India’s National Heritage animal – will interact with the new India.

This first appeared in The Wire, here.

Indian Draft Forest Policy should involve people in forest documentation

A register by the people

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Leopard in Pench forest. Photo by me.

The draft National Forest Policy identifies threats to forests, but does not provide systems for public involvement

 Neha Sinha

India recorded a marginal increase in forest cover, according to the India State of Forest Report 2017. Around the same time this report was released, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change released a draft National Forest Policy, 2018, which calls for increasing forest cover, involving communities in forest management, and creating plantations for industrial use. Before formulating such a policy, a question that needs to be asked is, how much forest cover does India actually have?

Growing and losing forests

The State of Forest Report says that forest cover had increased in India by 0.21% in 2017 from 2015, and that some areas had become ‘Very Dense Forest’ in this period. At the same time, the Ministry itself admits that between 2014 and 2017, India lost, or legally diverted, 36,575 hectares of forest area towards 1,419 development projects. So, two things are clear: even if forest cover is being increased, it is also simultaneously being lost, and new forest may also be subsequently lost.

Crucially, the claim of new forests being created is questionable. In several consecutive forest reports, an absence of ground truths has meant that areas that look green, such as tea estates and commercial plantations, have been counted as forests. Environmentalists stress that it is difficult to believe that India’s forest cover has become more dense in the last two years simply because this process takes much longer. The point is that there is a need to create mechanisms to calculate our actual forest cover and natural wealth, and this should form the basis for a forest policy. For this, we need a more rigorous integration of the forest policy with other existing environmental legislation and policy. This, in turn, will help decentralise information on forests.

The Biological Diversity Act, 2002, calls for setting up a Biodiversity Management Committee in each local body. The Committee will prepare People’s Biodiversity Registers (PRBs), with tribals as members or people living in natural areas not classified legally as forest. The Registers entail a complete documentation of biodiversity in the area — plants, food sources, wildlife, medicinal sources, etc. They are meant to enable the creation of local biodiversity funds for conservation, and aid in decision-making.

A good PBR will not just be a powerful text, it can also help to trace how habitats are changing, and to understand and estimate parts of our forests. Being a bottom-up exercise, it is also a means of understanding the overlap of cultural and natural biodiversity. For instance, several Endemic Birds Areas, like in the Western Ghats, are those where tribals like the Todas live. These communities have specific ways of interacting with the environment and have helped conserve it in a sustainable way. Outside protected forest areas which are under immediate threat, PBRs will help identify forests that require conservation.

A golden chance of setting up a system of efficient natural area monitoring will be lost if PBRs and Biodiversity Management Committees are not integrated into the heart of the draft Forest Policy. The policy should take forward an existing legislation to achieve that elusive blend of tradition and modernity and also create digitised maps with truths from the ground.

DSCN4889
Sanjay Van.

Decentralisation

Traditionally, the view of forests in India has been that of a natural resource which requires management and effective commercial use. This is a largely centralised, government-run exercise. Forests are managed by forest departments, and their estimation and range is calculated by government agencies. While the draft Forest Policy talks about increasing forests, including for commercial purposes, through public-private partnerships, it does not create a mechanism for including those who live around forests.

The draft identifies threats to forests but does not provide systems for community involvement. It says: “The various threats to Forests due to encroachments, illegal tree fellings, forests fires, invasive weeds, grazing, etc. will be addressed within the framework of the approved Working Plan/Management Plan and also by ensuring community participation in forest management.” A major concern is that existing forests should not be used for industrial use, as diversion is one of the biggest threats to forests. A move towards decentralisation of forest wealth — wealth which is beyond commerce and embraces cultural values and oft-forgotten knowledge — will provide transparency as well as an actual and felt recognition of our heritage.

This first appeared here.

Looking for Sparrows on World Sparrow Day (and everyday)

I had just reached home from school, and he was sitting there, eyes glittering, cheeping at me with all the painful anguish of a little one with a little voice.

The sparrow looked suited and booted, like he was wearing a very black tie over a ruddy brown coat. In all my school-child importance, I had imperiously flung my bag aside and was ready to peel off my sweaty nylon socks so I could put my feet up on the sofa. I owned the drawing room: it was my grandparent’s drawing room, but unlike the school, I could do what I wanted here, and for a few hours each day, this was my kingdom. The old ceiling fan, cavernous coir sofas, oil paintings on the wall, a stack of curios on the old bookshelves – this was my empire. But the sparrow kept cheeping. He had an important message for me. The window was not open enough for his mate to come in, especially when she was carrying twigs. They had important business to do: a house to build behind my grandfather’s handmade oil painting. The sparrow wife, her mouth full, stared at me balefully from the branch of a scarlet bougainvillea.

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Each summer, the sparrows made their nesting preferences clear, asking for space. Sometimes, they would nest between the tube-light and wall. Many years, behind paintings. And most annoyingly, on the cup the ceiling fan hung from. Coming back home on hot summer days, I could arrogantly peel my hot socks off, throw away my bag with practised carelessness, but I couldn’t put the fan on, for more than speed “2”. The sparrow couple were always around, feeding their chicks in the ceiling fan. I had my heart in my mouth each time the female sparrow would dodge the whirring fan; I admired her grudgingly even as sweat ran down my face.

Sometimes the sparrows would quarrel. Sometimes they would fly away for longish periods and I could hear the chicks yelling their protest. They seemed to be such noisy children, like me. The drawing room was no longer just mine. The hot summers were a bit hotter. But I had company. And I had surprise, with the sparrows pulling a variety of unpredictable capers all afternoon long.

Today is World Sparrow Day. The most natural reaction would be to assume that the sparrows are still around. But they’re almost not. March 20 is remembered as World Sparrow Day as sparrows – especially house sparrows – are declining everywhere. What happened? When did it happen? How did the charm of cheep-chirp leave our lives?

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There are so many reasons: with insecticides being used everywhere, soft-bodied insects, the young sparrow’s food, have disappeared. In our extreme manicuring tendencies for perfect, manufactured order, grass – which supports nesting material as well as insects – is being mowed too short in lawns.

In residential facades, ledges, of no use to anyone but a little bird, have gone out of fashion and are being replaced by sleek modern buildings. Inside our houses, windows have been shut and ACs have been switched on. The oil paintings still hang, but there are no sparrows to flit behind the paintings.

All over the world, there are assorted movements to bring house sparrows back. In some places, architects are leaving bricks missing, so sparrows can have a nesting place. In others, parts of gardens are being left wild, for grass, insects, and sparrows. In India, a massive movement to give sparrows a space in gardens, homes, and hearts, is ongoing.

Today, sadness washes over me for the sparrows. I hope they will come back. Once, they took over my kingdom – and our collective afternoons, so many vestiges of domestic existences. Today, we ask them, beg them, cajole them, to return. So many sparrows have been lost in the humdrum and banality of urban life. But what we have lost, in the companionship of a little, stubborn, brave bird, the “nanhi gorayya”, is incalculable and perhaps much worse.

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

World Tiger Day: How Roads are Killing Tigers

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

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

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The tiger, photographed while alive.

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

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Tiger was later killed by a speeding vehicle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also read – When wild elephants go on rampage and viral

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

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

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

Also read – India is not a Republic for all species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This first appeared in the DailyO.

Culture Vultures

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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)

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