Tiger Troubles

18 02 2008

tiger litho

For the first time in a large number of years, I will not be attempting to participate in any animal censuses this spring/summer. The reasons are mostly personal, but I am still feeling very bad about my nonparticipation as this is a critical year for India’s overall conservation effort.

It had became obvious a couple of years ago (especially after the IUCN study) that India’s forests had reached a crisis point. Our top predator, the Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris) was at a population nadir. The known numbers of tigers had been suddenly found to be less than half of what it should be. Even more frighteningly, in certain important tiger zones like Sariska, the tiger has completely disappeared. The extinction of our tigers stares us in the face.

The government has come up with various ‘explanations’ including increased poaching, but the most disingenuous reason put forward for the sudden dearth is that the tigers were never there in the first place! The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and their minions in “Project Tiger” now wants us to believe that poor counting technique is to blame for an earlier “inflated” statistic. They argue that now that proper camera traps have been placed, and things are being done in a “more scientific” manner, we should all acknowledge that the tiger popultion has not actually fallen much – that the population always was less than half of what we had projected…

I say that this is disingenuous (i.e. bullshit) for a couple of reasons.

1) Long term forest dwellers, the tribals and the Forest Department personnel themselves in each forest, get to know their animals very well indeed. Larger animals like the elephants or bisons and certainly both the leopards and the tigers in each of our forests are easily recognisable and identifiable as individuals.

2) The census methods used in the past, though rough and ready, are yet certainly scientific enough. When censuses are based on physical evidence such as scats and the plaster casts of paw prints, then there is absolutely no way that someone can claim that the populations so determined are inferior to that of phototrapping. I would argue that in fact the phototrap is a ridiculously unscientific way to determine absolute populations when compared to the older methods!

In fact we are left to surmise that if one takes the trouble to go through the physical evidence that had been gathered over so many years of painstaking censusing, our tiger populations have long been declining – steadily and now quite drastically. The problem then lies with the MOEF/state Forest Departments’ perennial habit of inflating the actual counts in order to satisfy the powers that be, and in order to pacify the many and vociferous critics of the government’s very many inadequacies in this regard.

In other words they have been cheating on the numbers for quite some time, and quite systematically too, and now that they have finally been caught out, the easiest recourse has been to point the finger at the supposedly faulty methodology of the past.

But why has the tiger declined and is it only the tiger that is in trouble?

The short answer is  NO! It’s not only the tiger that has troubles. The forests as a whole have been grossly overexploited.

A case in point in the present instance is the debate on allowing forest dwellers to continue to occupy their niches within the confines of the many forests of our land. Persuasive voices say that here is a major factor in the degredation of our prime habitats. I personally believe that it is not the tribals themselves who are to blame. Many have found it easy to manipulate and utilise the unique rights that tribal forest dwellers have, to indirectly reach into and steal the forests’ wealth. Well there is little left to steal now and the tribals are left holding the bag on having to live in forests that can no longer sustain their needs.

There are many other factors too. Take a look at the great number of private estates that sit squarely within our forest areas. They are certainly doing their bit to destroy the forests around them for one thing, with their use of fertilizers and pesticides and for another the exploitation, contamination, and pollution of the forests’ precious water resources are all having a disastrous impact. Then we have our MOEF’s penchant for suddenly granting mining and even forage/fodder licenses in our few remaining forest areas. They will then even come up with environmental clearances for these absolutely destructive projects and all in the name of ‘development’!

But these issues, though important, are not yet the worst of the culprits. The forests as a whole are under great threat due to lopsided and simplistic mismanagement over many decades. We know that our hardwood fig “strangling”trees are being poached along with our sandalwood. Trees such as the rosewood and mahogany are simply never seen within our ‘Reserve’ or National Park Forests. If we can’t protect these huge trees that are so difficult to transport out (where the take per tree is less than 200,000 rupees now for the illegal logger) , then where is the question of our being able to protect our leopards and tigers? A tiger will earn a poacher not less than a million rupees and all that it takes is a well placed wire trap or some poisoned bait – and a buyer.

In other words, if we can not protect our trees, there’s no way that we can claim to be adequately protecting our precious tigers. Combine the losses to poaching with the ridiculously bioinverse policy of planting large tracts of monocultures of “economically important” species such as teak or bamboo – and of course these then have to be harvested – and you do indeed begin to have the recipe for the disaster that we have been cooking up.

Once the forest’s precious tree diversity is gone, the forest itself gets degraded and becomes a poorer and poorer habitat that will soon not be able to support top predators like the tiger. Biodiversity is undermined at all levels. Other critical large-animal populations, notably the elephants, leaopards and bison, will then have to start wandering out of the ‘protected’ zones in search of food and water, and that will lead to increasing incidences of man-animal conflicts in the forest’s surroundings.

One final point for today’s debate: The earmarked, and presently “protected”, territory is very inadequate. Tigers roam over huge areas of range (as indeed do elephants). They spread out so that they do not much have to encounter one another. I have twice seen wild tigers while hiking in scrub jungle, well outside the confines of the nearest reserve forest. Clearly we need to expand the buffer zones around the “core areas” of our remaining tiger populations. We also have to eventually find the funding to fence the forests and forest denizens in (and the poachers out).  Ever thought about what it would take to fence-in an elephant?

In the meantime, if we can start by adequately expanding the buffer areas and perhaps even provide linking corridors between nearly contiguous stretches of forest, this in itself will start to make a fantastic difference!

Environmentalists and forest watchers who care and who have raised their voices of protest have been silenced by committees of armchair scientists, most of whom have never even seen a real live wild tiger to speak of. It’s up to us now, the common folks of this great land of the erstwhile Royal Bengal Tiger, to keep the issues alive and to make the careless of officialdom accountable for the precious heritage that they are allowing to be destroyed before our very eyes.

IF YOU CARE AND WOULD LIKE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE:

Let your voice be heard.forest strata

Make the protection of our forests a major issue of national importance.

Teach your children well, for the future is in their hands.

Publicise (write to the editor or to an investigative journalist of your local paper), document, and protest each and every incident of forest abuse that you see or find out about. Keep a weather eye out for stuff like this!

Get personally involved; participate in animal censuses, take up projects to help forest tribals become independent of the forests, talk to your friends about the plight of our forests and encourage one another to become activists for the sake of saving the little that still remains.

Let’s not leave our kids with just this:tiger rug

Let us instead come together to fight to preserve what we still do have left!

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Animal Census – excellent response

17 02 2007

There has been a heartening response to this year’s call for volunteers to trk the forests and do the count this year. People have come from far and wide to participate.

The Forest dept. has done their best  and in spite of a few bobbles things have gone well. I will be posting on the collated results and we will soon know whether our conservation efforts are bearing fruit or not.

In an exciting finish, the elephant count has been extended by a day and for the Topslip Range a bird count has been thrown in for good measure. The new dates are Feb 20 – 21 for any who missed the announcements.

Ponnvandu is taking 15 volunteers  for this last phase! A number of kids from SKCAS are coming along with official permission! And that is a very big deal.





PREMEDITATED OCEAN RAPE

13 01 2007
The Gulf of Mannar lies just East and South of the temple town of Rameshwaram on the S.E. coast of India. The region has been declared a biosphere of great importance to the entire Indian Ocean and was the very first declared UNESCO recognised biosphere reserve (1989). It may well qualify as the world’s richest area of marine biological resource. There is a particularly rich diversity of ecological niches including 21 uninhabited islands, with estuaries, beaches, forests of the nearshore environment, with marine algal communities, sea grasses, coral reefs, salt marshes and mangroves!
The sea cow, Dugong dugon (related to the manatee), with child – a very rare sight these days

There is a combined flora and fauna of more than 3,600 species represented here within an area of 10,500 sq km. Many of these species are endemic to this particular area of shallow ocean and include a number of critically endangered species (see the Red List). Just one example on the island of Kurusadai, less than a kilometre from the Indian mainland, is the world’s one and only outpost of a subspecies of Ptychodera – a hemichordate (‘acornworm’) found nowhere else! New species and subspecies are constantly being ‘discovered’ in this area while simultaneously a number of previously common endemics seem to have completely disappeared.

The area also traditionally provides a rich and renewable source of food and livelihood to over 3 million native fisherfolk along our Indian coastline. Over the last decade, mechanised trawlers and biodegredation have been driving many of these families into penury.
Right through the heart of this precious and already highly stressed zone, our wise government proposes to carve out a channel, wide and deep enough to allow large, ocean going vessels easier access to India’s ports. The ships will therefore be able to completely bypass the trip around Sri Lanka.
The Tsunami did its share, coming as a boon to the promoters of the ‘S’ project because the native fisherfolks, who were the most vociferous objectors, have been effectively driven from their villages and are reduced to living off handouts. And this does not take into account the coastal population on the other side of the gulf where lies Sri Lanka (Ceylon), who are even worse off due to the ongoing civil war there that compounds the devastation left by the Tsunami.
The Sethusamudram project further calls for continuous dredging of this canal which will result in huge quantities of silt continuously being spread throughout, destroying not only sea grass but corrals and algal growth also. The algae,plants, and corrals are the backbone of the whole food chain – with all opposition silenced we are staring at a scenario of total destruction of entire livelihoods, habitats and ecosystems.

The fact is that organised overfishing and almost no protection for the fragile reserve has already resulted in massive destruction of corral and mangrove, the two most precious ecosystems, which together account for 90% of the area’s biodiversity. Unrestrained blasting and harvesting of corral to feed hungry cement plants, overfishing mainly due to the extensive use of trawlers by multnationals (for export) and specific destruction such as the targeting of sea cucumbers, ornamental fish, crustaceans (prawns, lobsters, crabs), turtles and sharks (both for soup!), have all taken a heavy toll on this unique and irreplaceable “biosphere”.

Perhaps most shocking is the studied silence of the U.N. and almost all organisations involved in promoting conservation / biodiversity. Our government claims to have extensively studied the project’s environmental impact but in the face of their winking at the daily destruction one wonders what it is that they have been claiming to conserve!

The fact is that mega projects like this one mean mega bucks for all the private and governmental players. In the face of such gross shortsightedness (not to mention greed), the world’s bioinversity can only multiply apace.

After carefully studying the issues I urge you to

OBJECT TO THE SETHUSAMUDRAM PROJECT!

PLEASE JOIN TOGETHER TO OPPOSE THE RAPE OF THE GULF OF MANNAR and of any of our oceans in whichever corner of this globe you may happen to be…

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Stunted Palm, Hefty Fern? No, it’s a CYCAD!

23 11 2006

We were so excitedly lucky to see a stand of native Indian cycads – Cycas circinalis – in the Anamalais Hills recently (top).

My second year at college and I was in a quandary. The unlikely result was a course in plant morphology! I thought I knew a lot about plants and thought them much less interesting than animals but soon discovered the depths of my ignorance.
One of the fascinating groups of plants that Dr. Jerry A. Snider introduced to us was the Cycadales. Cycads, as they are commonly known, seem to have been around for at least 300 million years! They were an important part of the flora of the Carboniferous and Permian periods and formed a portion of the vast forests that we now mine as coal. The dominant plants back then included the Lycopsids (club ferns – some small relatives still survive), and other ‘fern allies’ including the Seed Ferns (now extinct, illustrated here, left and right) along with early relatives of the Gymnosperms (Pines and connifers).
Cycads are considered to be “living fosssils” along with Gingko, Araucaria and fern allies like the club ferns, horsetails, Sellaginella and so on…
Cycads seem somewhat in-between the ferns and the connifers / flowering types, which we often think of as ‘higher’ plants.
Most wild Cycads are rare, even in tropical lands but especially so in temperate areas, so it was a great pleasure to see healthy Cycas circinalis in these forests.
The commonest Cycad is a gardener’s favourite, Cycas revoluta.

Odd looking creatures that resemble stunted palm trees, the cycads are often mistaken for palms. They have male plants and female plants that produce the most fascinatingly unusual male and female ‘cones’ for reproduction.

Another strange feature is that the fronds (leaves) unfurl very much like a fern’s fronds do – what botanists call circinate vernation. It is beautiful to see little shoots like stumpy fiddleheads slowly unrolling into magnificant full-scale fronds. Supposedly a sign of ‘primitivity’, such unfurling is also shared by some connifers like Araucaria (Newfoundland Island Pine) and the ferns allies.
Along with other rare and beautiful species (like tree ferns – see Cyathea, below) that occupy the understory of ‘old’ forests, the cycads are dying out due to deforestation.
Bioinversity marches on!
The cycads are even more endangered as they are very, very slow growing. Something a meter high may be 100 or more years old! Once a few are destroyed they will take literally centuries to regrow!
Wonders of God’s creation and signposts of biodiversity, these are creatures to be treasured!

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Treetops and Topslip

3 11 2006

Getting into the forest is the most rejuvenating experience possible!

Topslip is the main outpost of the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, A national park administered by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department in the Western Ghats Catchment area of the state, bordered on the West by the Parambikulam sanctuary in Kerala and on the East by the Anamalai hills.

The entire complex is a very precious reservoir of biodivarsity for an ecosystem that includes one of the only remaining regions of tropical rainforest, truly unique shola forests and medium montane grasslands. The last real populations of the Nilgiri Tahr (a type of mountain sheep/goat – Nilgiritragus hylocrius) are to be found in the upper reaches of these very habitats in isolated pockets of the Western Ghats biosphere.

Arriving on Wednesday, we spent one night at the Chital Forest Lodge and the next morning were given a rare oportunity to experience the newly built Treetops Suites. These are real treehouses placed, seemingly precariously, on stilts of living teak trees, the suites are comfortable and include functioning bathrooms and even hot water!
The evenings were misty and with the onset of the monsoons, we had periods of heavy rain followed by intervals of light drizzle. The spotted deer and wild boar were out in force and the population of the Nilgiri Langurs (Trachypithecus johnii) seems to be very healthy in this forest but they are endangered due to habitat loss and poaching as it is rumoured that their flesh has aphrodisiac properties.
We were surprised by a herd of the endangered Kaattu Erumai (Gaur, Indian ‘Bison’ – Bos gaurus) who wandered through the camp on the second day. These are massive beasts with the bulls weighing in at over a ton, beautifully marked, generally shy and found only in deep forests, it was a treat to watch them calmly walking through.
The nights were very special. A serenade of insect, tree frog and barking deer calls, with lowering mists and very faint moonlight filtering through. The barking deerMuntiacus muntjak) were obviously tracking larger predators, either leopards or tigers.

Oh, the smells! Delightful wafts of wildflowers, honey, ripe fruits and spices; clean healthy air to relish breathing.

All of our attempts to enter the Karian Shola were dashed by the spells of pelting rain. This patch of Shola is very special as it is one of the last resorts in India for the Ceylon Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) a fascinating bird that mimics dead leaves so perfectly that it is hard to spot even from a few feet away!

Just as we were getting ready to leave, Sellamuthu, the Treetops’ Forest Guide, pulled us out to watch a pair of giant malabar squirrels (Ratufa indica) gambolling in the tops of the nearby teak trees. They were having fun chasing each other around and making incredible leaps from branch to trunk completely oblivious to the fact that they were a good 100 ft up.

Even in these aparently rich forests man’s ravages are very evident. Large plantations of teak tree monocultures have replaced a highly diverse forest ecosystem. Attempts to propagate the forest species of trees have been failures and it is becoming obvious that climate change is inimical to the original habitats. The planted seedlings simply don’t survive.

In oder to try to promote diversity, species of bamboo have been introduced but introduced species usually create their own imbalances.

We are witnessing bioinversity in action.

So, we take our children to these forests, knowing that our grandchildren will not see anything resembling them at all.

Thanks to Pandiyan for the nilgiri langur pic.

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