The Hand-winged Animal

We don’t yet know the precise role of bats in the Nipah outbreak

Most bats fly high/ Swooping only/ To take some insect on the wing; But there’s a bat I know/ Who flies so low/ He skims the floor; He does not enter at the window/ But flies in at the door. In his poem, ‘The Bat’, Ruskin Bond recounts the tale of a ‘crazy’ bat — albeit a fairly benign one — that made itself cosy at the foot of his bed on a lonely night in Mussoorie.

But ‘benign’ is certainly not the reputation bats have: superstition has them down as bad omens; science has proven they are carriers of disease — they are linked to the spread of SARS in China, MERS in Saudi Arabia, Ebola in Africa, and most recently debated as the possible cause of the Nipah outbreak in Kerala; the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, lists them largely as vermin. And blood-drinking Dracula hasn’t helped the creature’s cause.

The bat is something of a chimera: it has wings like a bird, the furry face of a mouse, it often flies zigzag or flits giddily like a moth. It belongs to the taxonomic order ‘Chiroptera’, derived aptly from the Greek words for ‘hand’ and ‘wing’.

Thinning dwellings

I’ve been spooked by bats too, mostly because their movements are so inscrutable. While looking for a white barn owl perched on a lamp-post in Delhi one night, I was startled by a large flying fox that swooped down from the sky, it’s membranous wings translucent against the street light. I was convinced it was coming for my face, though of course, the frugivore was headed for a fig tree behind me.

India has no less than 128 species of bats — yet very little is known about their population status, their behaviour, or their role in the spread of zoonotic disease. Most species are listed as ‘data deficient’ in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. What we do know, however, is that many species are likely under enormous threat.

A colony of flying foxes in Odisha’s Badagaon.

A colony of flying foxes in Odisha’s Badagaon.   | Photo Credit: Lingaraj Panda

For instance, found in just one cave in a Karnataka village, the Kolar leaf-nosed bat is threatened by granite mining. Because of its very small range and a population of 200 or less, it has a high risk of extinction and is classified as critically endangered in the Red List. Salim Ali’s fruit bat, which also has a very small range in the tropical forests of the Western Ghats, is classified as endangered.

Research has shown that bat diversity has reduced in Delhi. Species once found in the crevasses of old buildings and in the Humayun’s Tomb complex are no longer found there. Humayun’s Tomb used to be known for its colony of Megaderma lyra, or the greater false vampire bat, distinguished by its long ears. And once found in several old buildings was the Tadarida aegyptiaca or the Egyptian free-tailed bat, which feeds on insects while in flight or while crawling on the ground with equal ease.

“Neither species is easily spotted in Delhi anymore,” says Sumit Dookia, Assistant Professor, University School of Environment Management, Guru Govind Singh Indraprastha University. Today, there are only four generalist bat species that remain in Delhi, he says: the fruit-eating Indian flying fox and the Leschenault’s rousette; and the insectivorous greater Asiatic yellow bat and the least pipistrelle bat.

Apart from habitat loss, bats are also prone to fatally colliding with wind turbine blades — and several wind power projects are coming up in India, particularly in Gujarat and in the Western Ghats. Greater mouse-tailed bats have been reportedly killed by wind turbines in Kutch. Concerns have also been raised about turbines impacting the movement or local migration of bat flocks.

Natural history has largely overlooked bats. As for the Wildlife Act, it names just two bat species for protection — Salim Ali’s fruit bat and Wroughton’s free-tailed bat. The Act does not name other bat species except the generic ‘fruit bats’, which are listed in Schedule V, where they find themselves in the company of ‘vermin’ such as common crows, mice and rats — species that can be legally removed or killed. Fortunately though, as bats are considered ‘wild’ animals, they must, at least in protected areas, remain protected and cannot be driven out, unlike feral dogs or buffaloes.

The only instance the animal got its due in terms of formal conservation was when Karnataka declared the Bhimgad forest a sanctuary to protect Wroughton’s free-tailed bat.

More than spooks

But much remains to be done. Bats, after all, provide huge ecological and economic services, says bat biologist Rohit Chakravarty. “Without insectivorous bats, farmers would lose billions to pest insects. Fruit bats are also important pollinators and seed dispersers in tropical forests. For example, the durian is mostly pollinated by bats.”

Chakravarty, like many others, believes that bats must be removed from the vermin list, because their populations could take time to recover from losses. “Bats are long-lived, slow-breeding species. A small 5 gm insectivorous bat is capable of living up to 30 years and gives birth to one or two pups a year. So, killing them indiscriminately can wipe out large chunks of their populations.”

Several organisations have recently asked for environmental impact assessments of wind energy projects, with a focus on impact on bats. Chakravarty adds, however, that we also need to find an urgent, cost-effective solution to mitigating fruit damage by fruit bats in orchards.

It is not yet clear if bats are responsible for the Nipah outbreak. While some bats have been tested — and found free of infection — those were insectivorous bats, not fruit bats. Further testing, and a greater understanding of the movement history of infected people, should bring clarity.

In his 1902 book The World of Animal Life, Fred Smith describes bats as ‘hand-winged animals’, ‘rendering good services to farmers’ by eating pests. It is a 117-year-old reminder that bats are in dire need of conservation focus; and that they deserve adjectives far better than ‘spooky’.

Fruit Bat Bhawani Das
Flying Fox, attributed to Bhawani Das or follower.

This first appeared in The Hindu, here.

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Snapshots of Summer.

It’s terribly hot. The heat is like a net you have to walk through: you can’t really see it, or escape it, but it leaves marks on your skin, and a feeling of being trapped.

But there are some things which add colour, life, and cock a snook at the unbearable heat. Wildlife is courting. Birds are calling. The arena of life drums on, beautiful, unaffected and resonating. Here are some snapshots from May:

Blackbucks.

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Blackbucks are courting in the sizzling heat.
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Blackbucks in Haryana

Blackbucks

 

Barbets.

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The Coppersmith Barbet Calling. When it calls, it makes a sonorous sound in its throat (you can see the action here), without opening its mouth.
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When birds feel hot, they often open their beaks like this, something like a panting dog.
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Coppersmith Barbet in Delhi.

 

Dressing to Impress.

While the Sunbirds have finished courting, the lizards are just emerging in their finery:

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Garden Lizard in breeding colours: what an orange that is! Haryana.
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What an embellishment on the tree!

 

Endemic birds you must know about!

If you were to describe native things about India, you could talk about the particular texture of hand-pounded coconut chutney, the inky vegetable dye splash of kalamkari, art deco buildings merging with Mughal style domes which merge with glass-fronted malls. You may speak of food, fabric, folklore, festivals.

To this, I will add: what makes India a very particular and special place is endemism in wildlife. We have over 100 bird species found only in India, and more than another 100 that are native to South Asia.

Species evolve differently owing in part to unique landscapes – for instance, the Palghat gap, a valley in the Western Ghats, has helped create endemic species like Sholicola Ashambuensis, a Shortwing bird. The small but ecologically significant Thar desert holds a breeding population of the Great Indian Bustard, a large bird found only in the Indian subcontinent – and now believed to be found only in India.

The remoteness of the Andaman and Nicobar islands have created birds that are very much Andaman and Nicobar versions. Endemics include Andaman wood-pigeon, Andaman Woodpecker, Andaman Bulbul, Nicobar Pigeon, Nicobar Bulbul, Nicobar Sparrowhawk, and many more.

Today (May 5) is Endemic Bird day. Here are six endemics you must know about:

The Indian Peafowl

It’s nice to find a total showstopper, looking like it has a hundred eyes on its tail, dancing in forests and also sitting on a roadside tree in the National Capital. In times of political turmoil, diminishing species, and conflict between communities, one national symbol still remains national in range and occurrence.

peacocksemal-2_050518020032.jpgThe Indian peafowl [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The Indian peafowl, a South Asia endemic, is not a bird shy of drama. Greek myth says the peacock was a watchman for Hera – with a hundred eyes on its tail. This bird doesn’t just shine, it glitters.

The tail of the peacock is effortlessly glamorous, and its dancing to attract females is the stuff of lore. It also manages to strut its stuff in the oddest, most protocol-ridden places. There was a peafowl nest in India International Centre, which the staff nurtured, rather than destroyed. There are peacocks at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

peacocksemal17mar_050518020102.jpgA peacock with its effortlessly glamorous tail. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

There are peafowl in crop fields and near old monuments. But we don’t know how many peafowl we have in India, and we should start counting, because peafowl regularly die in crop fields after pesticide poisoning. Peafowl is also being poached.

peacock-wooing-1_050518020126.jpgPeacock trying to woo potential mates [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The Great Indian Bustard

The thing about a species being named after India is that you expect to be able to see this bird. Sadly, for the GIB, its magnificence has not granted it protection. Found in Thar desert, scrub land, grassland and crop fields, the GIB is close to extinction, a death by a thousand cuts. At the time that India became independent, the GIB was found in a range of states – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and others. Today, the only significant populations are in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

The bird has lost out on habitat – farmlands are laced with poison, and skies are full of wires, and grasslands are taken over. This large, heavy bird collides with wires and dies instantly, with wires being a new, urgent threat.

Upcoming solar farms and intensifying lattice of transmission wires in the Thar desert and the Kutch area have killed several GIB in the recent past. India may be the last country on earth to hold the GIB – some were found in Pakistan, but their status now is unknown. It would be a chronicle of a death foretold if this critically endangered species, down a global population of a paltry 150 birds, went extinct.

There are plans for captive breeding, and stopping habitat loss. While the plans continue to get made, the bird is in shock – and disappearing because of it.

Indian Pitta

Native to South Asia, the Indian Pitta is a truly beautiful bird. “Pitta” doesn’t describe the bird the way its Hindi moniker, “navrang”, does. This forest bird has nine colours, and a presence that ricochets through the forest. It likes a thick understory, and has a distinctive, sweet, two-note whistling call. Usually, you won’t find the Pitta in open areas. The bird is also a marker for good forest cover, and with forests getting diverted everyday, you won’t find it in every forest.

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indian-pitta-2-1_050518020159.jpgIndian Pitta, a bird many may never have heard of. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The colours of the pitta are emblematic of the kind of hues associated with India – a deep yellow, a flaming orange, turquoise, emerald green – bold, unapologetic colours, the sort you’d find on the houses of village walls, and saree pallus. The Pitta calls with its head up towards the sky, often together or in pairs, charming the woods with sweet music.

Green Avadavat

You may never have heard of this little bird. If you see it though, you won’t forget it. The Green Avadavat is in big trouble, partly because it is good-looking. It has a crayon-red, perfectly triangular beak, zebra like stripes on its flanks, a green upper body, and a yellow lower body. The bird is a part of the illegal cage trade, which has pushed this bird to being listed as a species vulnerable to extinction. This is a shame, because this bird breeds only in India, and is a true Indian endemic.

It lives in scrubland and grassland, which development projects also like. The future of the bird lies in India and we must hasten to protect it, before desire wipes it out. A caged avadavat will not sing, and does not have much of a future.

Nicobar Megapode and Narcondam Hornbill

Of the many island endemics, there are two every Indian should know of, chiefly because ill-conceived plans threaten their existence.  The Narcondam Hornbill is found only on the tiny, wind-swept island of Narcondam in the Andaman sea. This island is all of 7sqkm. The bird has nowhere to go, and no other place to hide. The government has given permission to make a radar station and a power station on Narcondam island.

If construction does happen, this further imperils the bird, already facing the threat of invasive species like rats and goats, which have been introduced by policemen residing on the island. The Nicobar Megapode is considered related to the chicken. It has a major breeding population on Tillanchong island. Here, of all things, the government is making a missile firing station. One can hardly think of a more negligent way to deal with birds that India calls its own. As this headline says, the government has put bombs before birds.

India’s locales, mountains, islands, shrubs and forest have contributed, painstakingly, century after century, feather by feather, to create these species.

Let’s be mindful, let’s be proud. Let’s learn our endemic names. And let’s learn to protect them.

This first appeared in my DailyO column. 

Flamebacks Forever!

The heat is killing, and you are convinced all the wild animals are sleeping in the forest. Then, like the beat of a little drum, like the sound of a very precise hammer on a very particular nail, you hear it.

Tak, tak, tak, takk..

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A doctor chiseling away at a tree, a sculptor, an artist. Flamebacks are woodpeckers who weave holes in trees to prise off insects. I say weave, as they often leave patterns on the wood. They start from the bottom and make their way up, in spirals.

Like a golden gyre, which you can see only if you are quick enough, conscious enough, of the ways of Treeland.

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Flameback on a mature tree. Pench.

And sometimes, very rarely, you will find a woodpecker on the forest floor!

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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.

Sunbird Series

Sunbirds are tiny, but mighty. Always on the move, ever on the look out for larger predators. The male glitters like stardust, and the female is like a pixie. Here’s my little pictorial ode to a Sunbird couple in Delhi.

Sunbirds

Sunshine, starbright,

Bedazzling glitter.

Iridiscent, Stardust-

You must stay forever,

In Delhi’s unworthy dust.

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A jewel on my Hibiscus!
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A Rufous-Tree Pie flies past a Purple Sunbird. Notice the size difference!
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Purple Sunbird on my Hibiscus
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Female Sunbird on Aparajita flowers
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Female Sunbird poised expertly on Tecoma flowers!
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The tiny Purple Sunbird on a Semal tree!
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A slightly different view of a singing Sunbird!
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The Sunbird’s beak looks like a well-aimed spear in this one!

2018. All photos by Neha Sinha

Please do not use without permission.

The things a Purple Sunbird has to do to get a Lady

I’ve been watching this courting pair of Purple sunbirds over Spring in Delhi. Here’s the male with his bright red and gold shoulder patches, which he eventually dropped.

This image is from March 10. Notice the bright, unmissable embellishments!

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On March 23, the shoulder patches are noticeably less bright:Sunbird Shoulder Patch

Image from earlier today, March 30. The patches seem to be gone.

Sunbird on Semal Mar 30

And that’s because… drumroll.. he’s found his girl! Presenting the female sunbird!

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And here’s one last image of the Sunbird singing his heart out:

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

And quiet flow the rivers…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece first appeared here.

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

 

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

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