Category Archives: science

Conversation biology: eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

In a recent email exchange with a journalist I greatly respect, I wrote:

I am personally ashamed at how little we (as scientists) have done to either study carefully or explain the issues or even share our experiences in the public domain. The op-ed was just my small attempt to get some of those thoughts out for public discussion and criticism.

The op-ed I referred to was titled The Culling Fields. In it, I wrote about the recent notifications issued by the Central government and some states in India to list certain wildlife species—nilgai antelope, wild pig, and rhesus macaque—as ‘Vermin’ under the Wildlife Protection Act. The notifications were spurred by a belief that populations of these animals had boomed and were responsible for serious damage to crops in rural areas, coupled with a perceived lack of better management options for what has been labeled ‘human – wildlife conflict’ involving these species.

Moving species that earlier received protection in the Wildlife Act into its Schedule V (V as in five, for V as in Vermin!) allows anyone to kill those species in the respective states. Already, hundreds of animals have been killed by shooters, often from other states, in a manner that has no scientific basis, design, or monitoring. Videos also suggest a distressing lack of attention to basic humane norms to prevent animal suffering (see this IndiaTV video episode around 0:55 – 0:60 and 1:30). This is no scientific ‘culling’ or research-based wildlife population management. This desperate measure unleashed on unsuspecting animals is simply slaughter.

As a debate on culling emerged, I wrote about why the ongoing killing may not just be the wrong answer to the conservation issue, but a consequence of framing the wrong question. I do not intend to repeat those arguments, or what Sindhu Radhakrishna and I wrote in another piece, here. Nor do I intend to respond here to other articles or the few thoughtful demurring responses I received from people who had written in support of culling. Nor is this the place to discuss why widespread killing of wildlife in other countries, such as coyotes in the US, for example, makes little sense and is evidently less effective than non-lethal methods.

What I would like to do here is talk about another concern: the silence of scientists. Why have scientists in India—particularly conservation biologists and social scientists—for whom human – wildlife conflict is today a major area of research, hardly joined in the discussion to support or rebut or provide nuanced perspectives on culling as a solution? Leave alone participating in the debate, scientists are hardly even part of the backdrop.

As expected, the space is then taken up by well-meaning animal welfare groups and activists, who adopt a more immediate task of resistance, alongside the task of questioning. When activists in India queried the states where culling was allowed under the Right to Information Act (RTI) on whether the culls were based on scientific research studies, they learned that the orders were not based on any scientific studies. When the central government was asked, under RTI, how culling could be permitted without scientific studies, the activists were informed that no new research was required on the issue of conflict. Even with culling underway, questions asked on whether there was any monitoring of number of animals being culled, elicited only this response from the central Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change:

No such information available in the Ministry.

All this should have a sobering effect on the dozens of scientists and students I know across the country (and possibly many more that I don’t) who have spent months and years in the field studying human – wildlife interactions including conflicts. Some of them have spent years engaged in scientific research and efforts to reduce conflicts, often successfully, by working with local people and forest departments. My own work in this field has been relatively minuscule, but I have tried to keep up with the research and approaches to conflict mitigation because they have a direct bearing on wildlife conservation and human welfare. And yet, many of us have hardly spoken up in public to share our learnings to inform or influence policy, practice, and public opinion. One environmental journalist went a step further in analyzing this and wrote that perhaps wildlife conservation scientists don’t really care:

…while the animal welfare lobby has been quick to cry foul, there has been an ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community. This is where the wildlife scientists must step up to the challenge. The truth is that most wildlife biologists would rather spend their time doing pure science, that is studying species deep in the forest and learning new aspects of their behaviour. There is no charm in ‘managing’ human-animal problems. It’s also true that since most of the animals listed are not endangered, most conservation biologists have little or no concern in saving them.

I disagree with much of what that says and the way it is said: the pigeonholing of people who may have real concerns on animal welfare into a “lobby”, the oversight that many wildlife scientists now work outside reserves and in human-use landscapes, and the failure to note a growing scientific concern over common species as much as the rare and endangered. But what I do agree with is what the writer calls the “ominous silence from the wildlife conservation community” (leaving aside my personal opinion that those concerned with animal welfare are part of the same community).

Why are the scientists silent? And why is it important to ask this question? Not because science and scientists are infallible or represent the sole arbiters of truth—or other absurd claims on those lines. Not because I believe that science should form the bedrock of policy and governance—there are other aspects of society, politics, and asymmetries of power at play that are probably equally or more relevant. It is because one can envision a supportive role for reasoning—public reasoning—within the framework of any democracy. For citizens of a democracy facing various complex and shared problems that have no single or simple cause or solution, an atmosphere of open reasoning presents various possibilities, ideas, and information, and has the potential to cultivate collective—yet diverse and evolving—consciousness, attitudes, and actions.

I believe this is a discussion worth having because this is not the only issue in which the silence of scientists, including myself, rings louder than the gunshots.

So here are my “eight reasons I am a silent scientist”. These are reasons I have said out loud, just given myself, or heard expressed by colleagues. Instead of expanding on each, I am just going to toss this list out there with a brief line each, hoping that it will provoke you to go right down to the comments box and

  • add your voice and thoughts in the comments to say yay or nay or go take a f.f.a.a.r.d. (Vonnegut 1969) OR
  • add other reasons in your comments that I’m sure I’ve missed in this post.

Eight reasons why I am a silent scientist

1. My research does not address the relevant issues and places

This could be read as a polite way of saying I don’t really care or This doesn’t concern me as it ain’t in my backyard. Still, I wonder, if we study or teach population theory or political ecology or ungulate habitat use somewhere else, say, is it really irrelevant to the issue?

2. I don’t have enough data—my study is not good enough—to say anything yet

Don’t we love this one? Read it as you will, as humblebrag or a noble call to arms issued to one’s peers. But how many of us have not slipped this in at the end of our papers: we need more research?

3. I cannot make statements given the scientific uncertainties

All research is beset with some level of uncertainty. But isn’t dealing with, and reducing, uncertainty integral to science? Climate scientists have led by example on how to acknowledge uncertainty while communicating scientific findings and advances. But are we as conservation scientists content, instead, to say we need even more research until the level of uncertainty becomes acceptably low before we speak up?

4. All I have to say, I say in my peer-reviewed papers and technical reports

In other words, I’d rather not write or speak in public. As something I am culpable of and sympathise with in others, this raises the issue of access to our scientific findings. What have we done to make our research findings, data, publications more openly and publicly accessible?

5. I have spoken up—in government committees that I am a member in

Why bother with the messy and contentious public domain, when I can pick up the phone and call an influential person, a politician or government officer perhaps, or sit on a powerful committee and tell them that this is what science says must be done? (Of course, I asked for the minutes of the meeting to be made public, its not my fault that they haven’t been transparent about it.)

6. It is time to hear other voices, other world views

This one has a lot going for it, if it means actually shutting up in order to listen to other voices, especially of people affected by wildlife. Yet, complete silence on our part could be a lost opportunity for a conversation, for a dialogue or discourse, to share what we have done, learned, and what science, warts-and-all, has to reveal. This could, however, simply degenerate into Let them vent their problems, although they really don’t know what they are talking about, better listen to me instead.

7. This is not about science, it is about politics

A dirty business plagued by environmental illiteracy, corruption, and cronyism, isn’t that what politics and politicians are all about? Heck, if it was about inter-departmental wrangling, squabbling for funds and tenure, or seeking credit over other scientists and institutions, I am an expert on politics. But this is  real world politics in India’s villages, towns, and cities. So let me not say anything to reveal any more of my ignorance.

8. I am a scientist, not an advocate or, heaven forbid, an activist

The tension between science and advocacy persists in conservation biology, with at least one case of an editor-in-chief of a leading conservation journal being ousted due to her position on “removing advocacy statements from research papers”. Yet, if one reads advocacy as giving voice to the voiceless aren’t conservation scientists committed to conservation by default? And if action and resistance can be achieved through non-violence, can inaction perpetrate violence or perpetuate oppression? I don’t want to be an activist, but what does that make me: an inactivist?

What Aldo Leopold wrote in the Round River is  probably as true of science as it is of the ‘harmony with the land’ he wrote about:

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.

 References Cited

Vonnegut, K. (1969). Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

Integrating ecology and economy: five lessons

“One of the hardest things in politics,” US President Barack Obama said in a recent interview, “is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away.” Obama’s words are pertinent not only to the rules proposed on June 2 by his administration to cut future carbon emissions by US fossil-fuel power plants as a step to address climate change. They are also relevant to the other great democracy and its spanking new government on the other side of the planet: India.

The science whose central concern is the long term and leaving a healthy environment for future generations is ecology. And within ecology, on a planetary scale, it is the science of climate change. So when India’s new government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, renamed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) appending ‘and Climate Change’, it was a timely move. It signalled that even as the government pursues its stated policy of industrial and infrastructural expansion for economic growth, it would place tackling climate change firmly on its agenda, along with the protection of environment, forests, and wildlife.

But a slew of media reports belie this interpretation. According to these reports, the MoEF, in its new avatar, plans to redefine what an inviolate forest is so that more forests can be opened for mining. It proposes to dilute environmental norms and procedures to bypass existing legal requirements for large infrastructure and defence projects. The government announced plans to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam, raising concerns over the rehabilitation of 250,000 people, even as a ‘leaked’ Intelligence Bureau report attacked civil society NGOs for working on ‘people-centric’ issues. Meanwhile, the MoEF has been silent on other pressing needs: releasing the long overdue India State of Forest Report 2013, acting to save critically endangered species such as the Great Indian Bustard (now down to less than 300 individual birds in the wild), or implementing pro-active measures to combat climate change. Within hours of taking charge as Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar said with unsettling brevity in a TV interview: “… India needs a window for growth and emissions and other things.” To his credit, Mr Javadekar has promised to ensure that environmental protection and developmental activities will go together. While it is too early to assess promise against practice, this is as good a time as any to recount five lessons from ecology on why environmental protection should concern India’s new government and 1.2 billion plus people.

Thinking long term

Obama’s words point to lesson one: ecology takes the long view. Development projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs for people and nation. The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in its 10-year tenure allowed the conversion or loss of over 700,000 hectares of forest—an area the size of Sikkim—for development projects and non-forest uses. Natural forests of diverse native tree species function as watersheds, wildlife habitats, and sources of livelihood for tribal, farming, and fishing communities, contributing to long term human well-being in ways not captured by indices such as annual GDP growth.

The science of restoration ecology attests that such diverse natural forests and the living soils they spring from, once destroyed are difficult and costly, or infeasible to bring back, and appreciable recovery may still take decades to centuries. This is not adequately factored into the estimation of net present value (NPV) of forests that tries to approximate economic losses over a 20-year period, by which time the losses are ‘recovered’ in compensatory afforestation sites. A project developer pays out the NPV—at current rates, a maximum of Rs 10.43 lakhs per hectare for very dense forests in the most biologically rich regions such as the Western Ghats—and flattens football fields of forests for the price of a mid-range SUV. Furthermore, compensatory afforestation, if carried out at all, frequently involves raising plantations of one or few alien tree species such as eucalypts and wattles. Such artificial forests are no substitute for the more diverse natural forests of mixed native species, including centuries-old trees. This is why, as the Modi government worries over its 100-day report card, ecologists will be concerned about its 100-year fallout.

Minding the connections

Lesson two is that ecology is a science of connections, of food chains from plankton and fish to sharks and men, of energy flowing from sun through grass to deer and tiger. Pluck the hornbills out of their forest home and forest trees whose seeds the birds disperse begin to decline. Destroy forest remnants amidst coffee plantations and farmers suffer as coffee yields dip due to the loss of pollinating bees. Strip the oceans of sharks and predatory fish with industrial fishing and entire ecosystems and livelihoods of artisanal fishers unravel in what ecologists call a trophic cascade. So, the wholesale construction of 300 large dams in the Himalaya as proposed by the government would not just generate power, but have other negative consequences radiating down the chains and webs of life, including to people downstream. When these are taken into account, implementing fewer and smaller projects or alternatives appears more attractive.

The third lesson, the mandala of ecology, is that ecology closes the loop. Nature recycles, without externalities, wasting little. If the government applied this to everything from recycling municipal waste to curtailing pollution by industries, it could generate jobs and induce growth without leaving behind irredeemable wastes. Ecology is replete with such cycles. One sees it in the organic farmer practicing rotational shifting agriculture on the hillslopes of north-east India, in the cycle of water from earth to cloud to rain and river, and in the dung beetles and fungi and vultures that help return dung and vegetation and carrion to the elements.

Fourth, ecological processes transcend political boundaries. We pump CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the common pool of our atmosphere anywhere and affect people and the earth’s fabric of life everywhere. The migratory warbler that picks the insects off the plants in our gardens may depend for its survival on protection of its breeding grounds in China or Central Asia. To conserve tigers and elephants in protected reserves, we need to retain connecting corridors and forests, some spanning state or international boundaries. Development and infrastructure projects can be designed and implemented such that they do not further disrupt fragmented landcapes, but instead help retain remnant forests or reconnect vital linkages.

On the road to development?  Destructive project promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation.

On the road to development? Destructive projects promoted for short-term gains may have unaccounted long-term costs to people and nation (Photo of logs lying along the Andaman Trunk Road).

The science of home

Finally, ecology teaches us that humans are not external to nature. Land and nature are not commodities to buy or sell recklessly or reduce to a packaged spectacle for tourists to gawk at. They form the community we belong to: we are part of nature, it is home. In the debate over ecology versus economy, we must remind ourselves that both words originate from the Greek word oikos, meaning home. The science of our home environment (ecology) must inform the management of our home resources (economy).

What is often forgotten, in the debate falsely caricatured as environment versus development, is that for almost every destructive project, there are often alternatives and means of implementation that cause less harm to environment and local communities, and can provide overall long-term benefits. For instance, roads can be routed to avoid wildlife sanctuaries and provide better connection to peripheral villages, thus helping both people and wildlife. Decentralised village power generation systems that use biomass, solar power, and other renewable sources can help reduce reliance on mega power projects plagued by corruption and requiring long powerlines that suffer transmission losses and cause forest fragmentation. Mining can be carried out avoiding areas valuable for conservation or local people, after due environment and forest clearances, and keeping aside topsoil to ecologically restore even these areas later.

There are already many promising examples of ecologically sensitive development. If ecologists, engineers, and economists synergise their efforts, and the government chooses to exercise its electoral mandate to take the long view, there can be many more. The integration of ecological considerations into economic development is vital and valuable if, in the pursuit of profit, we are to ensure the long-term well-being of people and planet.

An edited version of this article appeared in the op-ed pages of The Hindu today. The longer version with links and images is posted above.

The enduring relevance of Rachel Carson

It is tough for a single publication or its author to have an impact across nations, cultures, genres, and disciplines. It is tougher still for their appearance on the world stage to spark a social movement, rekindle human values and awareness, and create new mandates for action. And toughest of all is when the author is a woman, a scientist, who must overcome the prejudices of her time−of gender, of notions of progress, of the omnipotence of untrammelled industry−to articulate a clear-eyed, renewed vision of a better world, a cleaner environment, where people do not merely live, but flourish.

If I had to pick one exemplary work from the environmental canon that does this and does it well, it would be the one that burst on the scene on this day, 16 June, all of 52 years ago, in the United States of America and then swiftly encompassed, in its scope and sweep, the rest of the world. The book, Silent Spring, and its author, marine biologist Rachel Carson, are widely credited to be the sparks that lit the fire of the global environmental movement. Carson, whose 107th birth anniversary came and passed quietly on May 27, with little fanfare other than a commemorative Google Doodle, died fifty years ago after a battle with breast cancer. Why should we bother to remember Rachel Carson and Silent Spring? What could a woman, a book, from over five decades ago have to do with the enormously changed world we live in today? Yet, over the last few weeks, during fieldwork and travels in India’s northeast and the Western Ghats mountains, I thought frequently of Rachel Carson and her prescient words in Silent Spring.

Google Doodle on Rachel Carson's birthday, 27 May 2014 (Courtesy: Google)

Google Doodle on Rachel Carson’s birthday, 27 May 2014 (Courtesy: Google)

27 February 2014, Chawrpialtlang peak, Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram. Slicing through the air over crackling-dry grass on the peak, a black-tipped arrow streaks past, plunges down the sheer cliffs, swerves around the mountain, and is gone. For one rushing moment, the ripped air appears to shimmer, as if in sudden clarity, then closes in the fleeting wake of the bird. A Peregrine Falcon. Windswept and breathless, I stand on the peak and think of Rachel Carson. For it was in Silent Spring that she described and I learned how the chemical pesticide, DDT, sprayed or dusted into the environment, entered water and soil and animal tissue as a persistent organic pollutant, and travelled up the food chain, accumulating from pest to predator to top predator, into birds like Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles, thinning their egg shells, making the brood crumble instead of hatch in the nest, bringing down populations, endangering the species itself. Only when awareness of this issue soared after the publication of Silent Spring and concerted efforts including a DDT ban were made did raptor populations recover, so that the birds could wing and scythe through the air again.

20 March 2014, Mamit District, Mizoram. On the outer wall of bamboo hut after hut, in village after village, in one of the most remote and malaria-prone corners of India, I see inscribed in chalk: “DDT 15/03/14“. The date varied a little from village to village, but it took me only a moment to realise that this was just a marker that each of those huts, the homes of Mizo and Riang tribal peoples of the state, had just been sprayed with DDT. And DDT is the one chemical for which Rachel Carson’s work is most known for and most frequently and unjustly vilified. Carson, using a growing body of research, highlighted the environmental and human health consequences of excessive DDT use in Silent Spring. The book along with the growing tide of awareness led ultimately to a ban on DDT and consequently, or so the accusation goes, it became unavailable for use in malaria control and led to the death of millions. In reality, DDT was banned for use only in agriculture and unrestricted aerial spraying, while it is readily available and continues to be used for malaria control across the world. And here was evidence, decades later in Mizoram, that this accusation is untrue: DDT continues to be used for malaria control as a public health measure. In Mizoram, as in other states in India, the government has an Indoor Residual Spray (IRS) programme of DDT, usually twice a year, coupled with distribution of deltamethrin insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets. DDT was banned for agricultural use in India in 1989, but even this was not a complete ban, as it carried a rider allowing the use of DDT under ‘very special circumstances’ for plant protection from pests, under the supervision of the State or Central government. In 2006, an Indian government order permitted the use of up to 10,000 tons of DDT annually for public health and vector control measures. In Mizoram, where I knew malaria was still frequent (it knocked me down for two weeks during my fieldwork here in 1994), there were more pertinent issues than these false debates and vilification of Rachel Carson. Loss of effectiveness of DDT due to overuse and dependence on the chemical, the need for better public healthcare facilities, and the fact that more than 90% of the local people prefer insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets over indoor DDT sprays, all seem more important issues to be discussing.

23 May 2014, coffee and tea estates near Sakleshpur, Western Ghats. As our car speeds past the gate of the coffee estate, I cannot help recalling the troubling moment inside in 2011, while doing a diagnostic audit for a company that was planning to go for Rainforest Alliance certification of their coffee production. There, beside a small pond, a group of workers had been preparing a pesticide concoction for spraying on the coffee bushes. In the group, helping mix and spray the chemical on coffee bushes, without any protective equipment to cover her face or exposed hands, was a 12-year-old girl. Even as the child was exposed to the chemical, the pesticide tub overflowed and spilled into the pond. Decades after Silent Spring, after knowing the effects of pesticide pollution on the natural environment and learning more and more about how pesticide exposure affects human health, it is a pity that in many of our plantations and agricultural fields, so little is done to reduce or prevent pollution, to minimise or avoid exposure to agrochemicals.

A young girl mixing chemicals without protective equipment beside a pond in a coffee estate, Western Ghats

A young girl mixing chemicals without protective equipment beside a pond in a coffee estate, Western Ghats

Later, in a tea estate, I listen to a manager describe how their chemical sprays had failed to control a pest, the red spider mite, because, he said, the chemical sprays killed the natural predators of the mite such as ladybird beetles. Again, I recall how in Silent Spring Rachel Carson had explained how insecticides had the counterproductive effect of increasing spider mite infestation: by not affecting them directly, by killing instead mite predators like ‘ladybugs’, and by scattering mite colonies that now focused on increasing their reproductive output as they had no need to invest in defence against predators because the people with the chemicals were inadvertently doing this job on behalf of the mites. I suggest to the manager, like Carson did to her readers, that perhaps the best way ahead is to change cultivation practices, foster more biological diversity in the farm landscape, and reduce their reliance on agrochemicals. He nods, but I am not sure he is ready, as yet, to agree.

26 May 2014, Highway to Valparai, Anamalai hills. All along the highway, the vegetation on the sides of the road lie slashed. Beautiful ferns, orchids, wild balsams, and a number of wildflowers that added grace and beauty to the road, now lay withering on the tarmac, crushed under the spinning wheels of speeding vehicles. The Highways Department had been ‘cleaning’ the roadside again and scraping the soil, leaving brown strips beside grey tarmac and concrete. Soon, the exposed earth would be taken up by invasive alien weeds, changing the roadside aesthetic from the lush green of small native plants and wildflowers to dour greys and browns and weeds. Seeing this, Rachel Carson’s words in Silent Spring again came to mind, for she wrote also about the beauty of wildflowers along the roads, criticizing “the disfigurement of once beautiful roadsides by chemical sprays” and “the senseless destruction that is going on in the name of roadside brush control throughout the nation.”

Whether it was wildfowl or wildflowers, Rachel Carson’s insistence in Silent Spring that scientific understanding of the environment should integrate ethical and aesthetic values struck a chord with readers. The book did not merely inform them, it affected them, and spurred them to act, thus catalysing the birth of a movement.

* * * * *

The environmental movement, as philosopher Arne Naess once remarked, was one of the three great movements that marked the twentieth century; the others being the movements for world peace and social justice. Among the three, the ecological or environmental movement is relatively nascent. One can trace roots of environmentalism, at least in its modern form, to early concerns over nature conservation and vanishing species, but it was really in the latter half of the last century that the movement really took off.

In the aftermath of World War II, with the development and testing of atomic weapons, concerns over the perils of nuclear war and radioactive fallout was widespread. Still, there remained unbridled optimism over the promise of new and powerful technologies in the post-war industrial world. At the same time, rising pollution of air and water following industrialisation and consequent effects on human health spurred early efforts to curb pollution beginning in the 1950s, culminating in laws enacted over the ensuing years and decades in various countries. In the 1960s, the great phase of dam-building was also in full steam. As the environmental historian J. R. McNeill recounts, on average one dam was built per day around the world during that decade. Construction of dams and the displacement of thousands of people by reservoirs was also bringing growing awareness of the alteration of entire landscapes by human action, and about harmful impacts on the environment and livelihoods of people living in the catchment area and downstream.

Still, this was a period when the industrial juggernaut rolled on, backed by a specific vision of development based on technology and large, so-called infrastructure projects. It was a period, in India and elsewhere, when impacts on environment or the lives, lands, and livelihoods of local peoples could be brushed aside on the basis of a grandiose, little-questioned development trajectory. Besides, India and other countries stood at the cusp of a major transformation of agriculture into intensive cultivation dependent on a slew of chemical fertilizers and pesticides: the Green Revolution.

It is in this context that one must view the publication of Silent Spring, first serialised in The New Yorker magazine beginning on 16 June 1962, and then published as a book by Houghton Mifflin on September 27 of that year. The book burst on the scene with a telling and convincing account, based on scientific evidence, of the perils that the chemicals used as pesticides and fertilizers brought to human health and the environment. Carson, a skilled writer, explained in clear but compelling detail the various kinds of chemical poisons used in agriculture and pest control, such as DDT, chlordane, and lindane, organophosphates, and carbamates. With care and clarity, she collated research findings published in scientific papers and recorded personal experiences of people around the US, and described the effects of the chemicals on human health, their persistence in the environment, and build-up (bio-accumulation) over time in the bodies of people and wildlife. She explained concepts such as how pests developed resistance to the chemicals, how that ultimately led to resurgence of pests, and to a vicious cycle of more potent poisons being created.

As Carson wrote,

The current vogue for poisons has failed utterly to take into account these most fundamental considerations. As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life—a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways.

By ignoring ecology, the agro-chemical industry appeared poised to fail in finding long-term solutions. Carson did not stop with careful explanation and evocative descriptions of the problem of increasing dependence on chemicals. She went further and described a way forward to sustain productive agriculture without recourse to the ‘chemical barrage’. In her words:

A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available…. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on an understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are already contributing—entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists—all pouring their knowledge and their creative aspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.

There were several reasons why Silent Spring was so effective upon its publication. Carson drew upon her earlier experience as a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service where she served as an editor in the Division of Information, reading scientific publications and transmuting them into readable and informative articles for citizens. Today, she would be called a leading science communicator in biology and the environmental sciences. What was remarkable about her writing was that even as she explained science to the citizen, she did not flinch from simultaneously interlacing into her writing moral values and the ethical consequences of environmental harm, which she was convinced was equally significant to her readers.

Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?’

Carson was a dedicated writer. She had always wanted to be a writer since her early childhood. When she joined the Pennsylvania College for Women (later Chatham College) in 1925 as an 18-year old, she enrolled for an English major, until a biology course in her junior year reawakened her “sense of wonder” for nature, another fascination since childhood. Later, she obtained her Master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, following which she taught zoology in Maryland and worked at the famous Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, Massachusetts. Her biological knowledge as a trained scientist, her field experience as a naturalist and keen observer of nature, and her literary talent came together as a potent combination in her books.

Although Rachel Carson is perhaps most known for Silent Spring, she wrote other books including a trilogy on the sea and marine life, a book for children titled The Sense of Wonder, and a number of magazine articles. Of the three books in the sea trilogy, Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea, Carson won the National Book Award in 1952 for The Sea Around Us. That book remained on the New York Times best sellers list for 86 weeks.

The success of Carson’s books such as The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring was at least partly due to the way Carson managed to meld scholarship and literary talent. As Carson said in her acceptance speech for the National Book Award:

The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.

… If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.

Still, there was more to Silent Spring than just scientific rectitude or literary flair. Carson recorded and used in the book many case studies and personal experiences of people who had witnessed the effects of aerial spraying and pesticide overuse. The Silent Spring metaphor itself, referring to a spring that goes silent as songbirds decline and disappear due to pesticide use, was inspired by a letter from a friend who noted dead birds lying around her house after an aerial pesticide spraying bout in her area, and who now wanted the spraying to stop. Taken as a synecdoche, it suggested that people were sensitive to environmental destruction and it had reached a point where they had had enough.

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (Photo courtesy: Environment and Society Portal)

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (Photo courtesy: Environment and Society Portal)

Silent Spring and its author were (as one would expect even today) attacked by Government agricultural scientists and companies with high stakes in the agrochemical industry such as Velsicol, a major manufacturer of DDT, and Monsanto. Velsicol threatened to sue the the publisher Houghton Mifflin and The New Yorker. Detractors and vested interests made personal attacks on Carson, asking why “a spinster was so worried by genetics”, and disparaged her as hysterical, emotional, unfair, one-sided, and as given to inaccurate outbursts. But, ultimately, the science behind Silent Spring withstood public scrutiny, including a congressional hearing, the author herself stood calm and dignified with her research, credentials, and explications, and the book, instead of being pulped as her opponents may have wished, went on to become a bestseller, sell millions of copies, and make history. The reactions and desire for change that the book triggered influenced environmental legislation and policies worldwide. The years that followed the book’s publication saw the first Earth Day celebration and the formation of US Environment Protection Agency in 1970, the gathering of representatives from 113 countries at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972, the enforcement of a ban on DDT in 1972, and other efforts around the world overtly inspired or tangentially influenced by Silent Spring. In that period, India, too, made several legislative and policy efforts, as the country enacted the Insecticide Act in 1973, laws to prevent water and air pollution and protect forests and wildlife in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Environment Protection Act in 1980 that also created the State and Central Pollution Control Boards and other authorities with environmental mandates.

The appearance of Silent Spring was one of the defining moments in the history of environmentalism, one that would irrevocably shake the complacency and complicity of state and industry in environmental harm. Today, one may quibble over the details of Silent Spring, over what the author chose to write about, or over how she wrote about it. But what one must acknowledge is that much of what Rachel Carson wrote about and the scientific and moral clarity she brought to it remains relevant over five decades later. From Maryland to Mizoram, then as now, the problems she described and the solutions she offered remain valid, apposite, and vital. In that respect, Rachel Carson and Silent Spring remain of enduring relevance.

Mizoram: bamboozled by land use policy

Two spectacular bamboo dances, one celebrated, the other reviled, enliven the mountains of Mizoram, the small northeastern Indian state wedged between Bangladesh and Myanmar. In the first, the colourful Cheraw, Mizo girls dance as boys clap bamboo culms at their feet during the annual Chapchar Kut festival. The festival itself is linked to the other dance: the dance of the bamboos on Mizoram’s mountains brought about by the practice of shifting agriculture, locally called jhum or ‘lo’. In jhum, bamboo forests are cut, burnt, cultivated, and then rested and regenerated for several years until the next round of cultivation, making bamboos vanish and return on the slopes in a cyclic ecological dance of field and fallow, of farmer and forest. While Cheraw is cherished by all, jhum is actively discouraged by the State and the agri-horticulture bureaucracy. Although jhum is a regenerative system of organic farming, Mizoram State, the first in India to enact legislation to promote organic farming, is now pushing hard to eradicate jhum under its New Land Use Policy (NLUP).

Labelling jhum as unproductive and destructive of forest cover, policy makers and industry now promote “settled” cultivation and plantations, such as pineapple and oil palm, claiming they are better land use than jhum. However, oil palm, rubber, and horticultural plantations are monocultures that cause permanent deforestation, a fact that the 2011 India State of Forest Report notes to explain recent declines in Mizoram’s forest cover. In contrast, jhum is a diversified cropping system that causes only temporary loss of small forest patches followed by forest recovery. Understanding this is crucial to formulate land use policy that is economically, ecologically, and culturally appropriate for Mizoram and other northeastern hill states and their tribal communities who live amidst extraordinarily rich forests.

An aerial view of the jhum shifting agriculture landscape in Mizoram, northeast India. Note extensive cover of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests retained in landscape even as cleared jhum fields of the current year lie drying in the sun.

Eagle’s eye-view: the jhum shifting agriculture landscape in Mizoram, northeast India. Note extensive cover of bamboo, secondary, and mature forests retained in landscape even as cleared jhum fields of the current year lie drying in the sun.

Organic jhum

Jhum uses natural cycles of forest regeneration to grow diverse crops without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Early in the year, farmers cut carefully demarcated patches of bamboo forests and let the vegetation sun-dry for weeks. They then burn the slash in spectacular but contained fires in March to clear the fields, nourish soils with ashes, and cultivate through the monsoon. In small fields, one to three hectares in area, each farmer plants and sequentially harvests between 15 and 25 crops—indigenous rice varieties, maize, vegetables and herbs, chillis, bananas, tubers, and other species—besides obtaining edible mushrooms, fruits, and bamboo shoots. After cultivation, they rest their fields and shift to new areas each year. The rested fields rapidly regenerate into forests, including over 10,000 bamboo culms per hectare in five years. After dense forests reappear on the original site, farmers return for cultivation, usually after six to ten years, which forms the jhum cycle.

Regenerating fields and forests in the jhum landscape provide resources for many years. The farmer obtains firewood, charcoal, wild vegetables and fruits, wood and bamboo for house construction and other home needs. The diversity of food and cash crops cultivated and ancillary resources provided by current and rested jhum fields complicate comparisons with terrace or monocrop agricultural systems. One-dimensional comparisons—such as of rice yield per hectare or annual monetary return—can be misleading, because one needs to assess the full range of resources from jhum field, fallow, and forest, over a full cultivation cycle, besides food security implications.

Comparing monocrops like pineapple or wet rice paddies cultivated using chemical inputs with organic jhum is not just comparing apples with oranges. It is like comparing a pile of pineapples with a basket containing rice, vegetables, cash crops, firewood, bamboo, and more. Inter-disciplinary, holistic studies, notably those led by Prof. P. S. Ramakrishnan of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, indicate that at cycles of 10 years or more jhum is, in his words, “economically productive and ecologically sustainable”.

Soon after the field is burnt, the first rains appear, and fields become quickly covered in green.

Organic farm: Soon after the field is burnt, the first rains appear, and fields become quickly covered in green.

Bamboo landscapes

In Mizoram, bamboos coexist with jhum in a dependent cycle that is often overlooked: where we only see jhum fires burning forests, we fail to see forests and bamboo regenerating rapidly after a season of cultivation. The 2011 India State of Forest Report estimated that bamboo bearing areas occupy 9245 square kilometres or 44% of Mizoram. For every hectare of forest cleared for jhum, farmers retain 5 to 10 hectares as regenerating fallow and forest in the landscape. Also, forests left uncut by jhum farmers along ridges, ravines, and other areas, contain bamboo species. Besides Mautak (Melocanna baccifera) that dominates in regenerating forests, over two dozen native bamboo species occur naturally in Mizoram’s forests and jhum landscapes.

Yet, government policy tilts firmly against jhum. The State’s New Land Use Policy (NLUP) deploys over Rs 2800 crores over a 5-year period “to put an end to wasteful shifting cultivation” and replace it with “permanent and stable trades”. Under this policy, the State provides Rs 100,000 in a year directly to households, aiming to shift beneficiaries into alternative occupations like horticulture, livestock-rearing, or settled cultivation. The policy has created opportunities where little existed earlier for families seeking to diversify or enhance income, for farmers whose harvest is insufficient to meet year-round needs, and for skilled and urbanising workers seeking other jobs and trades. Still, NLUP’s primary objective to eradicate “wasteful” shifting cultivation appears misdirected.

Even before NLUP was implemented, despite decades of extensive shifting cultivation, over 90% of Mizoram’s land area was under forest cover, much of it bamboo forests resulting from jhum. Recent declines in forest cover have occurred during a period when area under jhum cultivation is actually declining, while area under settled cultivation is increasing, suggesting that the land use policy has been counterproductive for forests.

Certainly, some areas may need protection from jhum. My earlier research indicated that remnant mature evergreen tree forests, as in the core of Dampa Tiger Reserve in western Mizoram, need to be protected for specialised and endemic rainforest species. But as forests regenerating after jhum support diverse plant and animal species, I had suggested fostering jhum in areas such as the buffer zone landscape surrounding the Reserve. From perspectives of agroecology, biodiversity conservation, and human – wildlife coexistence, jhum is far preferable to monoculture plantations such as teak and oil palm that now increasingly abut the Reserve.

Oil palm and forest loss

Oil palm, notorious for extensive deforestation in south-east Asia, is cultivated as monoculture plantations devoid of tree or bamboo cover, and drastically reduces rainforest plant and animal diversity. In Mizoram, 101,000 hectares have been identified for oil palm cultivation. Following the entry of three corporate oil palm companies, over 17,500 hectares have already been permanently deforested within a decade. Promoting and subsidising such plantations and corporate business interests, undermines both premise and purpose of present land use policies. As forest cover and bamboo decline, people in some villages now resort to buying bamboo, once abundant and freely available in the jhum landscape. If present trends continue, Mizoram is likely to be bamboozled out of its forest cover and bamboos.

Better land use: The jhum landscape mosaic of fields, regenerating fallows, and forests (on left) is a better form of land use and forest cover than monoculture oil palm plantations (on right).

Better land use: The jhum landscape mosaic of fields, regenerating fallows, and forests (on left) is a better form of land use and forest cover than monoculture oil palm plantations (on right).

Detractors of jhum often concede that jhum was viable in the past, but claim population growth has forced jhum cycles to under five years, allowing insufficient time for forest regrowth, thereby making jhum unsustainable. Reduction of jhum cycle is serious, but evidence linking it to population pressure is scarce. As Daman Singh notes in her book, The Last Frontier: People and Forests in Mizoram, villagers actively choose to cultivate at 5 – 10 year cycles even when longer periods are possible. In reality, jhum cycles often decline because of external pressures, relocation and grouping of villages, or reduced land availability. Village lands once open to local people for jhum are now fenced off under government or private plantations and horticulture crops often belonging to people who are wealthier or live in distant urban centres. But none of this implies jhum itself is unsustainable.

The science and sustainability of jhum is reviewed in a 2012 paper titled ‘Shifting cultivation in steeply sloped regions: a review of management options and research priorities for Mizoram state, Northeast India‘ published in the journal Agroforestry Systems. In it, the authors, Dr Paul Grogan of Queen’s University, Canada, and Drs F. Lalnunmawia and S. K. Tripathi of University of Mizoram, Aizawl, state: “… in contrast to many policy-makers, shifting cultivation is now considered a highly ecologically and economically efficient agricultural practice provided that [authors’ emphasis] the fallow period is sufficiently long.” The authors list options to enhance shifting cultivation, such as nutrient and water supplementation, optimising crop choice to extend site use period along with measures to further retain soil and fertility, and judicious use of commercial fertilizer coupled with organic inputs.

Clearly then, attempting to eradicate and replace shifting cultivation, as NLUP does, is inappropriate. Instead, a better use of public money and resources would be to work with cultivators and agroecologists to refine jhum where needed. The State can involve and incentivise communities to foster practices that lengthen cropping and fallow periods, develop village infrastructure and access paths to distant fields, and provide market and price support, and other benefits including organic labelling to jhum cultivators. Today, the State only supports industry and alternative occupations, leaving both bamboo forests and farmers who wish to continue with jhum in the lurch. Unless a more enlightened government reforms future policies in favour of shifting agriculture, Mizoram’s natural bounty of bamboos is at risk of being frittered away.

An edited version of this article appeared in the op-ed pages of The Hindu today. The longer version with links and images is posted above.

The Dance of the Bamboos

At first I thought it is the people of Mizoram who use bamboo to perform their celebrated dance, the Cheraw. After months of field research in remote forests of this small state in northeastern India, I know now it is the other way round. Through its intimate influence on the people, it is the bamboo that does its own dance on the mountains of Mizoram.

In March, Mizoram comes alive to the dance of the bamboos. Bamboos clap and clack to the rhythm of the Cheraw in the Chapchar Kut festival, bamboos are worked and woven into intricate handicrafts and other products in the state’s Bamboo Day exhibition, bamboos are cut and laid out to dry on the hill slopes where fields are being prepared for shifting cultivation, locally called jhum or lo. As bamboos are integral to jhum farming, and jhum forms the mainstay of agriculture across the state, almost everywhere you look, you find bamboos. Yet, after being inseparable from Mizo life and culture for centuries, bamboos face new peril as politicians in the state push hard for a new policy of land use that aims to cover the hills with settled agriculture and industrial plantations and end shifting agriculture for ever.

On the first Friday of March, Mizo people across the state celebrate Chapchar Kut, before the farmers begin another spell of jhum. To see the bamboo dance during Chapchar Kut, I travel to the state capital, Aizawl, from Dampa Tiger Reserve in western Mizoram. Here, as a wildlife scientist, I had studied the effects of shifting cultivation on forests and wildlife in the mid-1990s in a number of sites that I was re-surveying now almost two decades later. The sites include tropical rainforests with hoolock gibbons and hornbills as well as old jhum fields now covered with tall bamboo forests brimming with life. Leaving my research as a field biologist aside for a moment, I come to Aizawl for a glimpse into the cultural side of the bamboo story.

En route, on green, forest-covered hills, there are small jhum fields where slashed bamboos lie drying in the sun to be set alight later, even as smoke rises from other fields fired early, where the bamboos crackle and pop as they burn with consuming ferocity. Soon, in the ash-enriched soils, farmers will raise another season of crops, and when the spent fields are later abandoned for a new site the next year, the bamboos will rise again. The clearing of the forest is only temporary, the bamboo returns quickly and with vigour. My past field research showed that in five years, over 10,000 bamboo culms would regenerate per hectare (mainly Mautak, Melocanna baccifera) in the jhum fallows and the density of bamboo will increase even more if left uncut for longer.

On Chapchar Kut day in Aizawl, crowds pour into the Assam Rifles stadium, as young men and women who will perform the Cheraw stream onto the grounds below. The performers wear traditional dresses of bright red and green and black and white, striped and hatched with curiously bamboo-like designs, the men with dark cloth headbands patterned with perpendicular crossing stripes, the girls in bamboo-weave headbands topped by a ring of colourful red plumes.

The brightly-dressed youngsters carry stacks of green bamboo culms into the expansive grounds, placing them in sets of ten. Two culms about ten feet long placed in parallel a couple of metres apart set the bounds of the arena for the eight dancing girls; then, four paired culms are placed in perpendicular, to be held by eight crouching boys and clapped and beaten to the rhythm of the dance. As each group of Mizo girls and boys assembles at their placed bamboos on the open grounds, the sun-baked earth begins to bristle with colour and flicker with life.

The Cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut festival, (Aizawl, 7 March 2014)

The Cheraw performance at Chapchar Kut festival, (Aizawl, 7 March 2014)

It is nearly noon when the dance begins. Clap-clap-slap-slap: the bamboo sets the rhythm as the boys alternately clap the hand-held pair of bamboos and slap it on the culms on the ground. Arrayed in two rows of four each, the girls have the four spaces between the paired bamboos and the spaces outside to move in. And with grace, élan, and joy, they begin to dance, their feet stepping in and out of the culms, in sync with bamboo. The girls step and swirl and hop and turn, they toss their heads and swing their arms, face each other or turn away, dancing to the incessant beat of the bamboo culms worked by the boys at their feet.

To the clacking beat of the bamboo, the girls step and stomp and turn and toss, but inexorably each returns to the same spot where she started. The bamboo delimits the space they have to dance—step first here between the bamboo, and before the boys slap it shut, hop to the next space outside for the next steps, onto the space between the next pair of culms, and out, and back again. In my photographs the girls are frozen, heads aloft, long hair swinging, feet in the air, and the bamboo on the earth makes space for where they will land now, keeps space for later, and will make space once more where they began.

Watching the Cheraw, I begin to think it is not unlike jhum itself, in which bamboo plays such a pivotal role. Mautak bamboos making space for this year’s cultivation, reserving shifting spaces for the next few years, always with the prospect of return to place within the bounds of the bamboo.

Out in the hills of Mizoram, I tried to understand this cycle of shifting cultivation through field research and by talking to farmers. After a span of five to 10 years, when forest vegetation and bamboo have recovered sufficiently in old jhum fields, farmers return to the same site again. The bamboo forest that has sheltered the soil for years from sun and erosion is then cut, dried, burnt, and replaced by crops, forming the cycle of cultivation and regrowth practised for centuries that has helped maintain extensive areas under bamboo and regenerating forests in Mizoram.

A farmer's eye-view of the jhum landscape, through the window of a bamboo hut in a jhum field: slashed fields waiting to be burnt, the previous year's fallows, and slopes draped with regenerating bamboo forests forests.

A farmer’s eye-view of the jhum landscape, through the window of a bamboo hut in a jhum field: slashed fields waiting to be burnt, the previous year’s fallows, and slopes draped with regenerating bamboo forests.

For every hectare of forest cut for jhum, at least five to 10 hectares are retained as forest in the landscape. Furthermore, jhum farmers also leave uncut many uncultivable strips of forest on ridges, in ravines and valleys, besides areas that form boundaries between fields. For local people as for forest plants and wildlife these uncut spaces serve as small but significant resource patches, natural buffers, and refugia in the landscape. In these areas, besides Mautak, other bamboos may be found: the stalwart Rawnal (Dendrocalamus longispathus), the giant Phulrua (D. hamiltonii), the sturdy Rawthing (Bambusa tulda), and forest bamboos such as the elegant Sairil (Melocalamus compactiflora), and the beautiful Chalthe (Schizostachyum polymorpha).

The landscape of the dancing bamboos: a jhum fire burns the current year's field, in the foreground a bamboo hut in last year's fallow already covered in green regrowth. The landscape around has all stages of succession from young to old bamboo forests, secondary forests of bamboo and trees, and patches of mature evergreen forests with trees in ravines, ridges, and other refugia.

The landscape of the dancing bamboos in the buffer zone abutting Dampa Tiger Reserve. A jhum fire burns the current year’s field, behind a bamboo hut perched on last year’s fallow already covered in green regrowth. The landscape around has all stages of succession from young to old bamboo forests, secondary forests of bamboo and trees, and patches of mature evergreen forests with trees in ravines, ridges, and other refugia (Serhmun village jhums near Tuilut, March 2014).

Even as jhum fires consume bamboos, opening fields for cultivation and nourishing their soil with ashes, the bamboo springs up in fields of the year past, it endures in refugia and ravines, it leaps towards the sky in the older abandoned fields. On the hill slopes, in the blowing breeze and whipping winds spurred by the jhum fires, tall bamboo culms sway and clack and swing and dance, with grace and beauty, not unlike the girls of the Cheraw. The bamboos step aside temporarily for a farming season of a few months, only to return later and reclaim the land. As farmers move from bamboo patch to patch every year and return to each site after a few years, the bamboos first yield to farms, then reappear in the wake of the farmer, forming the perpetual cycle of field and fallow, of farmer and forest.

Now, the spectacular Cheraw at Chapchar Kut seems emblematic of jhum, symbolizing the life and spirit of Mizoram that shifting cultivation embodies.

(A slightly edited version of this article appeared in opinion/editorial page of The Telegraph on 12 April 2014 under the title Field and Fallow, Farm and Forest.) (1 May 2014: The post was edited to correct the spelling of ‘lo‘).

The PEST solution

In what is being heralded as one of the most visionary efforts in recent times to stem the extinction crisis, a collaborative effort by ecologists and economists from India, Brazil, and the USA has developed a novel solution for biodiversity conservation. Announcing this amidst great excitement today at a packed press conference at the Carneghee Lemon Hall at Park Avenue in Washington, D. C., senior scientist of the Natural Conservation Fund, Dr Ramon Gonsalves, said, “This is the solution. With this, the great wave of extinction will soon be behind us.”

The solution being proposed is a new scheme with an annual worth of 800 billion US dollars that has been given the moniker, Payment for Evolutionary Services and Technology fund (the PEST fund). Explaining the principle behind the PEST fund, Dr. Gonsalves said, ecstatically, “Species are the cornerstone of evolution. The extinction of a species signals the end of a long evolutionary process and deprives us of vital evolutionary resources that we could otherwise exploit for the benefit of mankind. In order to prevent the extinction of species, we have evolved a novel market-linked fund that will incentivise governments, private players, even individuals, to conserve evolutionary processes that make species what they are.”

Initiatives launched with the fund include a 10 million dollar grant to a field research centre in Ecuador to keep Darwin’s Finches evolving in the Galapagos Islands, a 2 million dollar community-based project that will enable villagers in Mexico to keep the mutualism between yucca and yucca moths going, and a seed-grant to an industrial consortium in Birmingham that will experiment with different kinds of air pollution to promote the evolution of different races of peppered moths in the region.

Keep evolving, my smothered friends! (Image courtesy: Khaydock, Wikimedia Commons)

Plea$e keep evolving, my $mothered friend$! (Image courtesy: Khaydock, Wikimedia Commons CC-by-SA)

Laboratory-based evolutionary scientists around the world are also overjoyed at the initiative as it earmarks a full 50% or 400 billion US dollars for direct payments to labs breeding populations of the ultimate evolutionary milch-cow that never seems to run out of milk: the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. An additional 5% allocated just for experimentation related to tinkering of Drosophila salivary glands has left competing scientists working on other aspects, such as growing legs on fruit fly heads, virtually salivating.

Financing the fund is the world’s behemoth financial institution, the Bank of the Earth, which is providing the fund on easy terms. For implementing institutions in developed nations, it is provided as a low interest loan, while emerging economies may obtain these funds as interest-free loans or straight grants. This would be decided by economists at the well-staffed Bank of the Earth Coordination Centres currently being established within the offices of Prime Ministers and Presidents in the latter countries.

As in the case of many such large and popular schemes, the PEST fund has led to controversies in academic circles. Trenchant criticism has emerged from rival players who have tried to establish payments for ecosystem services (such as clean air, water, and carbon capture). Besides the loss of a pithy acronym to a larger project, proponents of payments for ecosystem services are worried that PEST funds will actually work against their own limited achievements thus far. The rival group is led by a group think-tank called the Coalition Against Vitiating Evolution for Monetary or Economic Net profits (CAVEMEN). CAVEMEN spokesperson, Dr. Clubb Hunter, in a press statement said, “Many evolutionary processes unleashed by humans work against nature and ecology, such as the evolution of more virulent diseases resistant to our best drugs, the varieties of invasive alien species spreading on every continent, and the evolution of couch-potato genes among certain human groups. Should we really be paying for all this, and that too in hard cash?”

Climate change nay-sayers also receive a fresh shot in the arm as aspects of human endeavour leading to further climate change that is likely to drive adaptation and evolution in plant and animal species are now eligible for PEST funds. The beneficiaries may range from airlines spewing greenhouses gases and engine fumes into the upper atmosphere over polar regions, nuclear and thermal power plants emptying warmed-up coolant water in cold rivers with endemic aquatic fauna, to those raising high-yielding, high-belching methanogenic cattle on Amazonian pastures adjoining biodiversity-rich conservation areas, observers of the PEST fund have noted.

The PEST fund has, however, won support from an unlikely quarter: social scientists and anthropologists. “This scheme is founded on well-established theory in social and human psychology”, said Dr. Eliza Doomuch, a retired social scientist and farmer in Kentucky and an architect of social revolution in the American South. “People will value things only if they are paid to do so”, she said. Taking a leaf from this successful scheme, she has founded a novel movement that promises to rid the world of racism, torture, and genocide, among other things such as parent-offspring conflict and sibling rivalry. This initiative, tentatively labeled Payments for Decency, will provide direct economic incentive to any human who shows basic decency, as defined by the International Consortium of Decent Human Beings, to other humans. Knowledgeable sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated that keeping the future potential of this seminal idea to alleviate human suffering in mind, Dr Doomuch is already in the reckoning for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet, not everyone is happy. Among the first to raise questions about this trend to pay even for basic decency to other humans or to our planet is the Dixie Endeavor for Ecology and Population Solutions for Humanity In Transition, the only such NGO on the planet that does not use any acronym. When contacted for their opinion, this writer was told tersely, “We are refuse to accept this.”

None of these misgivings deterred the gala press conference in Washington, D. C., however. As Dr. Gonsalves said, in an euphoric tone, “We need to save species for human benefit. When humankind stands to gain so directly, it does not really matter how we do it, does it?”

* * * * *

Disclaimer: All future events even remotely resembling the above fiction are entirely coincidental and unintentional.

* * * * *

This post first appeared in 2009 on EcoLogic, blog of the Nature Conservation Foundation. I post it again here with a virtual hat tip to a recent paper on the idea of ecosystem services, which is worth reading: Lele, S. and others (2013) Ecosystem Services: Origins, Contributions, Pitfalls, and Alternatives. Conservation and Society 11(4): 343-358. DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.125752

 

The journeys of the elephants

It is just bad behaviour on my part, I must admit, when I, as a wildlife scientist, point fingers at other people’s ignorance about wildlife, issue unsolicited comments and corrections at errors they make, poke fun even. Still, it is hard to resist at times, especially when it concerns animals as wonderful and legendary, and, yes, as large as elephants. It is particularly hard to stay quiet when someone is talking or writing about Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, but uses a painting or photograph or example of the African species, Loxodonta africana. How can one mistake the Asian elephants, with their arching convex backs and smaller ears, their two-humped foreheads and trunk tips ending in a single finger-like lobe, a grand animal that looks like this,

Row of elephants

A herd of Asian elephants (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

for African elephants, with their saddle-like concave backs and much larger ears, their females carrying tusks like males, their sloping foreheads and corrugated skin, trunk tips ending in a pair of pincer-like lobes?

African elephant

African elephant

Still, it happens all the time. A website or newspaper reports on a serious issue involving elephants and people in the fragmented landscape of forests and fields and cities in southern India, but uses a photograph of a large herd of African elephants marching through open savanna. A tea producer in Assam brands its tea packet with an image, not of Asian elephants walking old migratory routes where huge tea plantations now exist, but that of a herd of African elephants, adding gratuitous insult: these are ‘raging elephants’. A reputed Indian scientist suggests making fences with disused railway tracks to separate people from elephants here in India because it has worked in Addo National Park in Africa, and the authorities take the suggestion and run to install another barrier in an already sundered landscape. To sell news or products or opinions, the African is pulled in place of the Asian, again and again and again. One baulks at the indifference, at the injustice and ignorance on display.

Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
~ Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind

One good thing about ignorance, however, which no one understands, or so wrote José Saramago in his novel The Elephant’s Journey, is that “it protects us from false knowledge”. The Elephant’s Journey is Saramago’s fictional retelling of the historical journey made by an Asian elephant, Solomon, gifted in 1551 by King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of  Austria. Saramago writes of Solomon’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna, through the Iberian peninsula and northern Italy and across the alps, with a “masterfully light hand” and tender humour. His words in this delightful novel came to my mind in the last few days, oddly enough, after reading about the results of a recent scientific study on elephants. A study probing more than three centuries into the past, pulling specimens out of museums, flipping open the pages of an historic book of the eighteenth century, in which Carl von Linné or Linnaeus, the father of modern biological taxonomy, formally classified the elephant, bestowing the scientific name Elephas maximus, for the very first time. In Saramago’s strangely appropriate words:

The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it’s not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear…

And when the elephant does appear before you for the first time, after the initial wonderment and fascination fades away, you might be tempted to conclude, like the European peasants do when the elephant appears in their village, that:

There’s not much to an elephant, really, when you’ve walked round him once, you’ve seen all there is to see.

The specimen Linnaeus used (Courtest: Swedish Museum of Natural History)

The specimen Linnaeus used (Courtesy: Swedish Museum of Natural History)

Sure, until someone looks even closer, like the scientists did in the recent study. The study in question, by Enrico Capellini of the University of Copenhagen and an international team of scientists, found that something long believed to be true about Asian elephants, their very identity as Elephas maximus established by Linnaeus in his historic work Systema Naturae, was the result of an error. Linnaeus described the Asian elephant from a ‘type’ specimen, an elephant foetus preserved in an alcohol-filled jar (a somewhat large jar, one presumes). The specimen—long considered as the first taxonomic specimen and permanent benchmark for Asian elephant—turns out to be (you guessed it!) that of an African elephant. Published in November 2013, the study weaves brilliant scientific and archival detective work, delving into ancient DNA and protein molecules, into museum records, artwork, and archives, to conclude that Linnaeus had it wrong. And Saramago says:

as elephant philosophy would have it, what cannot be cannot be,

Which means that Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758, as the species is named, fully and formally, refers at the first instance to the African elephant. Which means that I might now have to suppress my smug, superior erudition on telling Asian from African elephants and instead eat my own words. Which goes to show that you never know where you will be led when you dig into the past. Into history.

It is the idea of history itself, that Saramago examines from his fictional vantage point, using the lens of literature.

…but that is how it’s set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

Perhaps Linnaeus, in his enthusiasm to describe the elephant, paid insufficient attention to history. The elephant foetus that Linnaeus labelled was obtained at his behest by the Swedish royalty from the collection of Albertus Seba, a Dutch pharmacist interested in natural history and trader in animals collected from various parts of the world. Seba obtained the elephant foetus from the Dutch West India Company, which traded in Africa and regions west across the Atlantic. Linnaeus, however, believed and declared the locality of origin of the elephant as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which may have been the case if the source had been the Dutch East India Company. If Linnaeus had paid more attention to history, as to biology, one would perhaps have not had to wait 250 years for an analysis of ancient mitochondrial DNA to establish that the elephant originated in a part of Africa where Dutch traders were active in the 17th century. Linnaeus had, unwittingly, been looking Lanka instead of talking Togo.

As I said to you once before, the elephant is a different matter altogether, every elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he’s taught and another who insists on ignoring it all, … I realised that I’m just like the elephant, that a part of me learns and the other part ignores everything I’ve learned, and the longer I live, the more I ignore,

Fortunately for us ignorant retrospective liars about elephants, Asian and African, the taxonomists are still on our side. Waving their bewildering box of rules about names and naming of animals, called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, they have provided a face-saving way out. Out of the other specimens (‘syntypes’) of elephants that Linnaeus had seen, known, or used while describing the elephant, one can designate another specimen (a ‘lectotype’) to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the species’s name. To find and pin down the new name-torch carrier, the scientists have pulled out, not a rabbit from a hat, for that is not hip in science, but what is perfectly de rigueur: a skeleton out of a closet. A genuine Asian elephant skeleton, confirmed by anatomical and DNA analysis, which Linnaeus himself had referred to, will now be the specimen-designate for Asian elephants. The Asian elephant, thanks be to The Code, will remain Elephas maximus. It is as Saramago ordained,

because life laughs at predictions and introduces words where we imagined silences, and sudden returns when we thought we would never see each other again.

Where that skeleton came from is another remarkable story. One that takes the tale another hundred years into the past, into the mid 17th century. In 1664, John Ray, an English academic who quit Cambridge to pursue natural history and travel through Europe, saw and wrote about “…the skin and skeleton of an elephant which was shown in Florence some 8 or 10 years ago and died there”, a specimen that Linnaeus, too, was aware of. The skeleton remains today, much as Ray described it, in the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence. The scientists have verified from anatomical and molecular analysis that the skeleton is that of an Asian elephant. I applaud their patience, their achievement, but it is Saramago’s subtle humour that rings in my ear.

If your highness knew elephants as I believe I do, you would know that india exists wherever an indian elephant happens to be, and I am not speaking here of african elephants, of whom I have no experience, and that same india will, whatever happens, always remain intact inside him,

The skeleton was that of an elephant named Hansken. Hansken was a female Asian elephant, brought to Europe courtesy the right company this time, the Dutch East India Company, from Sri Lanka, with the fortuitous result that the type locality mentioned by Linnaeus for Elephas maximus can now remain the same. Arriving in Europe in the 1630s, she was taken as a travelling curiosity through varies cities, including Amsterdam, where in 1637, she was sketched by a person no less than Rembrandt!

This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy British Museum)

This is Hansken. This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy: British Museum via Wikimedia Commons).

Now, I cannot help wondering if Rembrandt and Linnaeus were aware of the other elephant that had journeyed from Sri Lanka through Europe, a century earlier in the 1550s: the Suleiman of history, the Solomon of Saramago’s story. (Is history and his story really all that different, for an animal with culture and memory like the elephant, for people like us? In Saramago’s part of the world, in Portuguese and Spanish and Catalan, is not the word for story and history the same? Historia! So it is.).

Still, after the conundrum posed by Linnaeus’s error, what a distinguished and artful conclusion to arrive at, for Asian elephants! A newly-designated specimen, the skeleton of Hansken, whose fleshed-and-blooded portrait was made by Rembrandt himself! Destiny, Saramago writes,

when it chooses, is as good or even better than god at writing straight on crooked lines.

Of Solomon, we know that he entered Vienna in early 1552 and died in less than two years. What we know little about is of the people who attended to him, particularly his mahout. Not so, of course, in Saramago’s story, wherein “to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost”, he invents a mahout with a peculiar eastern Indian sounding name, Subhro. As Solomon enters Austria, Subhro, too, is passed on with the elephant to Maximilian, who with a sort of Germanic disdain, renames the elephant Suleiman and rechristens his mahout, Fritz. What do we know of the life of Subhro-Fritz? Or of Hansken’s mahout? There are inscriptions and woodcuts, coins and frescoes, depicting Solomon in Europe, and Hansken is immortalised by Linnaeus and Rembrandt, but clearly the elephant is the centre of attention, not the mahout on its back.

The elephant 'Soliman' (Source: Felistoria, Wikimedia Commons)

The elephant ‘Soliman’  in Vienna, 1552 (Source: Felistoria, Wikimedia Commons)

One wonders. What is the fate of the keeper when it is the kept that garners all the attention? As Subhro himself says:

but, one way or another, dear friend, while your future is guaranteed, mine isn’t, I’m a mahout, a parasite, a mere appendage.

And what, one wonders, too, will happen now, to the poor African elephant foetus in the jar? Does it become a footnote to history, a museum relic, an anecdote, an aside? Now, to paraphrase E. E. Cummings, after the doting fingers of prurient philosophers have pinched and poked, and the naughty thumb of science prodded the elephant-that-never-was, now: will it rest encased in its alcoholic tomb? Will it be quietly mourned, yet spurned, like a miscarriage, spawned by Linnaeus, of an anonymous mother? Or will fade to obscurity again, for centuries, forever, like a misbegotten afterbirth? Will we conclude, as Saramago suggests, of this elephant’s journey, as we might of the life of the mahouts:

and that was that, we will not see them in this theatre again, but such is life, the actors appear, then leave the stage, as is only fitting, it’s what usually and always will happen sooner or later, they say their part, then disappear through the door at the back, the one that opens onto the garden.

Still, worse things could happen. The foetus could become a museum celebrity, to be probed and pinched and peered at further. It could become a case study: required reading in taxonomic textbooks.

Or perhaps, it will remain a mute witness, as the elephants do on their own journeys through landscapes of Asia and Africa, when we subject them to our scrutiny, amusement, benevolence, entertainment, affection, harassment, and exploitation. As they will continue to do while we struggle to come to terms with elephants with whom we have lived for thousands of years. Struggling to understand the elephants for who they are, to respect their identities and individuality, and to give them the admiration that they deserve, we continue to seek answers on our own terms. Perhaps we will find those answers yet, from patient science or great literature, or perhaps from wise Solomon himself, in The Elephant’s Journey:

For the first time in the history of humanity, an animal was bidding farewell, in the literal sense, to a few human beings, as if he owed them friendship and respect, an idea unconfirmed by the moral precepts in our codes of conduct, but which can perhaps be found inscribed in letters of gold in the fundamental laws of the elephantine race.

Further reading:

Callaway, E. 2013. Linnaeus's Asian elephant was wrong species. 
Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2013.14063

Cappellini, E., Gentry, A., Palkopoulou, E., Ishida, Y., Cram, D., Roos, A.-M., 
Watson, M., Johansson, U. S., Fernholm, B., Agnelli, P., Barbagli, F., Littlewood, 
D. T. J., Kelstrup, C. D., Olsen, J. V., Lister, A. M., Roca, A. L., Dalén, L. and 
Gilbert, M. T. P. 2013. Resolution of the type material of the Asian elephant, 
Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 (Proboscidea, Elephantidae). Zoological Journal of 
the Linnean Society. doi: 10.1111/zoj.12084

Medina, R. 2013. Ceci n’est pas un éléphant.
http://mappingignorance.org/2013/11/20/ceci-nest-pas-un-elephant/

Saramago, J. 2011. The elephant's journey. (Translated from the Portuguese by
Margaret Jull Costa.) Mariner Books.