Friday, November 21, 2008

Saving Forests the "F" Way

I came across this website about 4 years ago when members of this group had sexual intercourse on stage during a rock concert, had even blogged about it then, giving it my complete support, to then allow it to fade into obscurity. But this is a very interesting, and perhaps, a very "innovative" way to raise money that might help save the world's remaining forests.
Fuck for Forest is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the world's remaining rainforests and "exposing" to the world the unnatural exploits of humans through what is perhaps the most popular way of gaining someone's attention. Pornography, or as the creators of FFF call it, Eco Porn. Self-proclaimed idealists, they seem to be able to garner enough funds (the seed money to set up was provided by the Norwegian government) to organize rock concerts and other rallies where members and the general public are encouraged into nudity and sexual expression of any form.

In the first year of it's existence, FFF was able to raise $100,000 after deducting legal costs, which was available to any organization/individual whose aim was to save the rainforests. Sadly, the money went to waste as collection was "questionable" and "controversial". Many organizations, including the WWF, refused the money as it was a result of "immoral" propoganda.

If the world is dominated by prudes, then easy money, like what FFF can provide, is an absolute waste. If there is an organization that is dedicated to conserving nature then why should it matter where the money is coming from. It is a legitimate organization more than willing to support good work, then what is the problem? In a world where sex sells, why cannot this form of self-expression be a part of the help that is so badly needed. Mullah, no matter where it comes from, is good mullah.

FFF, you have my support in the work you do, though I may not subscribe to public nudity for myself!

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Friday, April 06, 2007

The Last of the Asiatic Lions

First it was the tigers in Rajasthan, and now its the turn of what's left of the Asiatic lion, a subspecies of the once upon a time was found from Greece to Central India. The lions in India began to disappear way in the the early 1900s. Hunting was, of course, rampant. But the bulk of the population suffered due to a backlash of a severe drought that hit the western part of the country. So severe was the problem that the lions took to hunting humans and that brought them in direct fire. It is said that the census counts for 1910 was a few dozen lions, though that could be a complete underestimation.

The last refuge for the Asiatic lion is the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park that covers about 1000 and the number of lions is estimated at about 300 individuals.

The first incident was a small report in the Times of India onthe 1st of April about the death of an adult lion and a cub. Though the deaths were put down as "natural causes", there is room for doubt. After all, I don't think the government would be too keen on extending the true cause for death. The next day another report told the public about an arrest of a poacher, and the news of the 3rd of April was the arrest of another 3.

Poaching of the lions began more than a month ago, but it came under the limelight only when the arrests were made. About 9 lions have died since early February this year. Considering the numbers of lions is so low, this could pronounce the doom for this subspecies, the only surviving population being in the little pocket of Gir.

The boundaries of Gir have no protection, and it has taken the death of a lot of wildlife in the area for the Gujarat government to wake up. Though arrests have been made and the extra forces deployed, it could be expected that it would take the unwarranted death of a few more lions and other wildlife for someone with the power to do something to wake up and smell the possible disappearance of another animal from this country.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The World As We Know It

There are quite a few people around the world who are actively trying to do something for the planet. Most television channels broadcast advertisements whose theme is “Save the Planet, She is Home”. Many magazines and journals publish articles about the status of the environment or of wildlife. They make interesting reading but sometimes that is all they do. It seems to me that the vast majority of the public is aware of all environmental and/or ecological issues – deforestation throughout the globe, poaching, global warming and climate change, etc. – but what exactly is the reaction of the masses, one has to keep guessing. Yes, the slaughtering of stray dogs in and around Bangalore is unwarranted, but at the same time their spread has to be controlled. That story saw the public go up in arms, literally!

But what about the tigers that disappeared from Rajasthan, and the 5 lions that have been poached in the last month in the forests of Gir? Will the public do something about that too?

The conservationists and the environmental activists are striving to save what is left of the planet for the future generations and also for the current generation to enjoy nature as much as they can before it all is destroyed. They want people to experience nature’s hold on us, to see all the many sights and hear all the sounds of the world before they all disappear. But how many people actually feel the same way nature lovers do?

Then again, there is the debate about the term “nature lovers”. A lot of people love to go to hill stations and venture into nature reserves to “enjoy” nature. What needs to be seen is to what extent they enjoy nature. All said and done greenery is definitely enjoyable, but would your own garden be as enjoyable as acres and acres of forest cover, grassland or water bodies with millions of birds flittering about? That is, there is no comparison between a beautiful garden and the pristine beauty of a forest. Many folks venture into the Western Ghats, South India, to spend their holidays among some of nature’s wonders…. but these wonders (the Indian tropical rainforests) are now fragmented by plantations of tea, coffee, teak and eucalyptus in many places. The tea plantations in the Himalayas and in the southern hills do have an aesthetic effect. The flat bushes are compared to billiard tables and many a person has stood and admired them. But is that really what nature is all about? All ecologists will agree with me that that is not a naturalist would look for. And yet it satisfies the layman. After all, it is quiet and tranquil, a perfect holiday from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Wildlife tourism is a roaring business, providing for a large part of the national income in many African and Asian countries. It is always wonderful to see wild animals in their natural habitats, to see the things they do. But how many people really see what is around them, actually SEE and experience the openness and primeval existence of life. It is hard to explain to the layman about life, as it exists, other than human existence, that it is more than self-centered existence.

People around the world are fighting to save the remaining forests, but from personal experience I know that the layman, or rather the majority of people, would not do much about it. Education and media has the masses know that there is not much left of the original forest cover, but the response is passive. It has been noticed that unless and until the consequences of environmental/ecological disasters directly affect the people, they would not do anything about it actively. And by directly, I mean the direct economic effect or deterioration of health conditions that can be directly blamed on environmental conditions. Everyone talks of pollution, but not many would blame their lifestyle to it, and this is just a small example!

It is hard to explain what exactly I am trying to say, but to sum it up in just a few words – people would open their eyes to the “natural” problems of the world only when they come directly under the onslaught, but by then it would be too late.

How many schools tell the children that they can study and make a career out of the environment, and how many parents would encourage that. It still remains to be seen how well countries can handle the changes and yet come to amicable deals that would suit every nation involved.

There is no one easy solution to this problem, but there has to be efforts made to change that. So we come full circle again to the question of how to get the masses directly involved in keeping what is left of the natural world.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Another Look at the Man-Animal Conflict

Sifting through headlines on BBC that were published in December 2005, I came across a report stating that about 800 species of plants and animals are now threatened with extinction, unless something is done soon. And this report came at the wake of the discovery of a new species in Borneo, the civet-cat. Most of these species have been identified to be from the tropics, the most diversity-rich part of the globe, and in some places, the report says, it would cost less that $1,000 per year to save them. If the cost of saving our wildlife was so low, then how is it that we came to lose so much in the first place?

All the 595 sites that were identified is situated in what the West (and we) call the Third World countries. What it would cost the common man to spend his life in these places is way more than $1000. Man-animal conflict. That's what we ecologists call it and till date we cannot come up with any solution that would eradicate this problem once and for all. Community involvement and education, sustainable management and all that jazz. It has done something to reduce the pressure, yet the problem exists, the solution far from reality. We sit at our desks and analyze the problem, but we don't live with the problem.

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Weather and Ecosystem Changes

Weather patterns everywhere are changing. The El Nino effect is not what it used to be. The tsunami seems to have changed microclimates in some places. There are numerous reports and studies on global warming and how it is taking its toll. Every now and then animal census reports from around the world mention species whose numbers are falling.

Global warming will reduce Bangladesh's landmass by almost 17%, thats a large area of mangrove forests and all the life that they support, including human dependence on the mangrove ecosystem. The phenomenon is causing large scale extinction of several species of frogs. Global warming seems to be triggering off epidemics that have already taking away almost half the known species of frogs in the world. Frog skin is thin, that exposes them to even minor changes in temperature and humidity, even excessive rainfall can be fatal. High temperatures usually are effective in keeping a check on the diseases, but now with temperature cycles being moderate, that does not seem to help any more.

And yet, inspite of the rates of extinction increasing due to pollution and climatic changes across the globe, new species get added every now and then. Like the civet-like animal that was discovered in Borneo recently. For these animals to survive should not the weater patterns be stable? The rise in temperature in the Artics is helping the natural comeback of some species of mussels in the Arctic Ocean. But then again, this will not bode well for the Arctic ecosystem as we know it today. It will definitely be disrupted if their growth is not checked.

Could this be the beginning of a new cycle? We are headed to the next ice age, that cycle will continue. Weather patterns have oscillated over the last 150,000 years and ecosystems have sustained themselves through the changing conditions. When dinosaurs flourished, mammals were a minor part of the world. In this current age of mammals, a large number of them will go extinct as weather patterns continue to change. With these changes new species will develop. Speciation will result in animals that we may not be able to imagine today. Some scientists have made predictions as to what the future animals and plants will be like, and the represenations of those are scenes straight out of a sci-fi movie.

The change is inevitable. If the human race survives the next cycle, then who knows, our decendents would be digging up fossils of the animals we know so well today.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Grass Hills, Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary

I can't boast of being an avid traveler, there are certian restrains as to where I could go and what I could see. Work took me to some of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen, but one stands out and beckons to me every time I look at my old pictures.

The Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary situated in the Anamalai Hills of Tamil Nadu has some of the most varied terrain in the Western Ghats, including deciduous forest, wet evergreen and high elevation grasslands or "shola" forests. I spent about 4 months in this sanctuary and had an opportunity to visit the one section of the protected area that is now out of bounds for almost everybody.

Every year, the state forest departments organize a large mammal census in the protected areas, giving them some idea as to the health of the wildlife. The day the Nilgiri tahr census was announced in the Anamalais in March 2001, I jumped at it. It was my chance to see the one place I was itching to get up to and the one place in the area that even researchers needed special permits to go visit. Grass Hills. The most beautiful place that I have ever laid my eyes on, better than a picture postcard!

A 10km walk through rainforest and grassland awaited before we could get to the pitstop. The walk started along an old jeep track, through a tunnel of trees. The walls of soft rock at one side still oozed, long after the rains had stopped, forming trickles of water along the path. The biggest fear....elephants! In those parts, it could be hard to spot a herd in at close range. But for that day there no close encounters of the large, grey kinds. As the rainforest gives way to clearings, the first glimpse of Grass Hills left me in awe.

Before me stretched miles and miles, and hill after rolling hill of grass. All that I could see was grass, brown....being the dry season. The wind howled and whistled in my ear, at an elevation above 2000msl. Picture in your mind the sand dunes of the Thar or the Sahara (or any such place) with tiny patches of green thrown randomly among the dunes. That would be the best way I can describe it. In the horizon I saw some hills that were still covered in a blanket of green, but all around me, the brown grass danced to the music of the whistling wind. The patches of green? Well, montane rainforests. At that elevation, they are stunted and clumped into small fragments called the Shola forests. There was grass everywhere, undulating hills of only swishing grassheads! The wind was loud, almost eerie sometimes. You can actually hear the light whistles bounce of the cliff faces or the smooth hill side.

After a gruelling walk through tough terrain along animal trails (a definite "should not do" for the faint heated or anyone with the fear of heights), the forest closes in again. Another few minutes walk through a pine plantation and the vista opens out again. This time there's a house in the middle of nowhere. A tiny cottage, with a tiny garden! I've imagined myself living out in the countryside in small little cottage, with a brook bubbling nearby, a small garden and birds and flowers.....the romantic that I am. But never in my wildest dream did I think that the picture-perfect scene could ever exist. But it does. An image straight out of a story book.

Konlar Bunglow..."bunglow"? Wrong word, its a three room cottage....but that's what it's called. There flowers in the garden. There was a small brook running nearby, with a small, crudely built bamboo bridge across it. A little house nestled in the lap of the ancient overseers! The perfect, idyllic setting. That night the moon and the stars were the brightest I had ever seen. In the darkness, the hills looked formidable...a sobering experience.

Akkamalai, the highest peak in the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary. It sticks out like a huge rock among grassy hills. I had wanted to climb to the top of the peak. But as I approached it, I realized what a foolhardy task that would be. Smooth, conical rock, sticking out like a sore thumb among beautifully manicured fingers of grassy hills. I had to satisfy myself with having lunch on the next hill, looking at the peak for about 20 minutes before moving on to "grassier" pastures.

Walking through knee high grass is no joke. But the work makes it worth the while. The objective of the day's outing was to record every single sighting of Nilgiri Tahr as was possible. Locally these animals seem abundant, but through the Ghats, they are an endangered species. The most rewarding sight for a wildlife biologist is to be able to get a close of view of the animal one is pursuing. That day my team sighted about 250 individuals, which included adults of both sexes and the young ones. Other teams in different sections of Grass Hills had better luck, telling us that in that area the population was on an increase and doing well.

Indirect evidence of other animals was also recorded for personal interest. There was evidence of jackals and gaur, and troops of Nilgiri langurs were sighted, one enjoying time in the grass, suggesting that threat from predators is not as high as would be thought.

Once that area boasted of a tiger population, though now lone individuals may pass through. Leopards were the biggest predator that we saw evidence of. But sadly it has become a poacher's domain. The area is too large for the handful of forest guards to patrol and the entire region stretches across state borders. Fires are set sometimes and the forest departments have cleared circles of grass around the forest patches to keep them from burning down.

It would be a shame if unique ecosystems such as Grass Hills were lost. It was rumored that telecom towers were to be established on one of the peaks, though it has not yet become a reality. There are remnants of electric posts near the pine plantations, but none functional.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Leopards Clubbed to Death

Not too long ago I blogged about man-animal conflict, but it had not prepared me for what I saw on the news telecast today. NDTV reported the killing of two leopards in separate incidents today. A video shot of one of the incidents was available, it showed a group of men clubbing a leopard (apparently to death). Here is what happened.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Human Display at a Zoo

This bit of news is brilliant. The latest from Reuters science news - Humans put on display at an Australian zoo

A month long stay in an orangutan enclosure at a zoo in Australia doesn't really sound like a dream vacation, but apparently there are people who jumped at the chance to be Australia's latest zoo exhibit.

Considering this is the most novel idea I have come across to raise conservation awareness, I am at a loss of words to comment on this. The idea, though it might sound preposterous to some, unethical perharps, seems to me to be a brilliant way to catch the attention of people who look at a display in a museum or a zoo and walk away without so much as a second glance, a thought or any turning of the mind's wheels. The larger part of the population that visit zoos do so as a way to keep the kids happy, but now with this is one initiative, not only with the children question the adults more, its bound to be a thought-provoking display. The way I see it, this display should be a permanent one, and not just in one zoo, but at most of them.

If one wants the world to know more about primate conservation, what better way to do so than to put the one primate on display who's been responsible for the disappearance of the other primate species.

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Of Wild Horses and Black Bucks

The heat is blistering, rising up from the ground creating a mirage, the image reflecting off the salt encrusted ground. It's in the middle of February 2005, and the heat is searing. I'm there as a part of a group from an NGO based in Pondicherry to teach field techniques to a group of marin biology students from the US.

The place - Point Calimere.
Location - East coast of southern Tamil Nadu where the coastline takes a sharp turn to the west, with Sri Lanka about 43km to the south, across the Palk Strait.

An introduction to any place is exciting, its new and there's a sense of adventure in the air. But that soon evaporates due to the heat. Armed with dollops of sunblock and lots of bottles of drinking water, we set out to conquer the seaside sanctuary.

Its a beautiful place, as any place in its natural, pristine self is. Its also very small for a sanctuary, barely The beauty of the place lies in its vegetation. One half of the sanctuary is open grassland (with loads of Prosopis, an invasive plant) and the other half is the largest section of tropical dry-evergreen forest in South Asia (and the thickest that I have ever seen). Making this unusual place a home are spotted deer (which, by the way, do not belong there....they were introduced into the area years ago), black buck, the only population of wild horses in the Subcontinent, wild boar, jackals, a myriad of birdlife (migratory as well as residential), and of course, the almost feral cattle blissfully grazing on the salt encrusted grass.

We visited Point Calimere a couple of months after the tsunami. The entire grassland area was covered with a thick layer of algae and salt, rendering the surface extremely slippery. Along the beach lay a few scattered bones of the unfortunate casualties of the tsunami, washed ashore from other places in South Asia. The local authorities had cleaned up as much as was possible by them, burying most of the bodies. The animals found higher ground (the highest being barely 4msl), but human life suffered.

The forest section! To get to some of the places we needed to, we had to do the army crawl, and not one of us were left without torn clothes or torn skin....its a miracle that our measuring tape (used to measure girth of vegetation) suffered no damage from the deadly thorns! Crawling along on all fours also meant that some of us had to deal with fire ants too....not a very pleasant experience. But the forest was our only respite from the incessant heat.

And then there were the tidal swamps to deal with. Accessability to certain parts of the sanctuary meant having to wade through slimy, algal pools. Our sneakers weren't really enjoying the experience....whoever thought about inventing the water-shoe is a genius (but they don't come in my size). But it sure was a whole load of fun.

Walk northward to the shore and there stands the perfect little lighthouse. Its a scene straight out of Enid Blyton! Red and white, completely made of iron. It was set up by the British, but lies unused now. Climb up to the top and the view is breath-taking. Thats when you realize why the place is called a "Point". The triangular piece of land jutting out into the sea (look up a map, if you need clarification!). The narrow stretch of beach visible for miles and the beginning of the Palk Strait, the mirky, narrow and shallow body of water that separates Sri Lanka from the Indian mainland.

A century old lighthouse erected by the Chola dynasty, now stands as a stump....made smaller by the force of the tsunami.

Wait a while and you might be lucky enough to see dolphins, and maybe even turtles during the nesting season. The local forest department has set up a small artificial hatchery for the turtle eggs, as feral dogs and jackals posed a constant threat.

Flamigoes, pelicans, herons, terns and a variety of ducks can be seen across the road where the salt marches provide excellent habitat for them. The beach along the lenght of the sanctuary though narrow, boasts of some of the most beautiful shells that I've ever seen. A quaint fishing village (rendered not so quaint by smuggling across borders) provides an almsot perfect backdrop to the scene. Ignore the effects of the tsunami and its the perfect seaside sanctuary for anyone, human or animal.

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Ranthambore Tiger Reserve

Situated where the Aravalli and the Vindhya hill ranges meet, Ranthambore was one of the most celebrated hunting grounds of the Rajputs, the maharajas of Mewar and then the Mughals. With the backdrop of the the Ranthambore Fort, this wildlife sanctuary makes an impressive setting. Dotted with a few natural springs that sustain the wildlife through the year, it is home to some of India's most famous tigers. Filmed for a multitude of documentaries, the tigers here were the some of the most well-documented and studied.

Though Ranthambore lies in one of the drier parts of the country with some of the most severe summers, the animals here have learnt to survive through the long dry months. The permanent natural springs provide succor for the tiger and their prey, boars wallow in the drying pools to cool off, while the deer collect at the waterholes despite the threat from the few crocodiles that call some of these pools home. The park boasts of a large population of spotted deer or chital, hanuman langurs, rhesus macaques, sambar and a myriad of bird life.

Ranthambore is a land of contrasts. Summer brings in the heat that leaves the land parched. Trees shed their leaves and the yellowing grass provides ample camouflage for the tiger to stalk its prey. The sight that meets the eye during the summer months is that of parched desperation. But once the monsoons set in, the park is a splendid green.

For a land that is dry, Ranthambore is a haven for all living things. I have seen it in the dry weather and I have seen it right after the monsoons. For the life that it sustains (should I now say "sustained"?) it is no suprise that it became one of India's most famous tiger reserves. Of course, the sighting of a tiger there is always a matter of chance. But not any more. The sighting of a tiger is a matter of history. It was Sariska first. Reports started pouring in that tigers were disappearing. Noone seemed to know why. But it seemed evident. Large cats like that don't disappear into thin air. Common sense said they were poached. Every single one of them. The lucky ones are somewhere in the vicinity. Only time and indirect evidence will tell if there are any "lucky ones". Its almost the same story in Ranthambore. I have had friends who participated in the tiger census in 1999-2000 in the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. The numbers that were shared with me then by my friends did not tally with the numbers the Forest Department released, the official reports always had about 10-12 extra tigers. And then the tigers began to disappear last year. A handful remain, a population that may not sustain itself without human intervention. Animals have been poached ever since hunting was banned all over the world. The authorities in every country know about this and yet it cannot be stopped. The mafia is too strong and the authorities too few. The forest department is never on the priority list of any government, so money does not flow to support anti-poaching units. Salaries are so low that some officials would rather help than prevent. Money has always been more important. But what about the conservationists? Valmik Thapar always had a lot to say. For that matter Fateh Singh Rathore always claimed to be a hard-working field director of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Then why is it that the places where either had a role to play are the ones that seem to be losing tigers? I could be wrong, then am I one of the few that sees a connection? Rathore was accused of illegally occupying land around the sanctuary. The last time that I visited Ranthambore, he was still showing tourists around, running a private eco-tourism company. A little more than a week ago, the government passed an order to demolish the hotel that his son ran just outside the park. The reason? It was within 500m of the park boundry, a strip of land kept as a buffer. By the time the stay order was obtained from Jaipur, the 5 year old building was a pile of rubble. The Ministry of Environment and Forests had ordered independent probes into the disappearing tigers case. Soon we shall have concrete reasons as to what happened, or so I hope. But cannot the government do more? A lot more? That remains to be seen, after all our wildlife makes only a very small part of our economy.

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