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80 years on a troubled planet of the apes, and still full of hope… Happy Birthday Jane Goodall!

That was Jane Goodall two evenings ago, introducing herself to an audience of c.2600 people in Bakersfield, California. Just one of the hundreds of stops she makes as she travels around the world, almost 300 days a year, speaking on behalf of her beloved Chimpanzees and the rest of Nature, and spreading her message of hope to new generations of young people, the roots and shoots that might help humanity grow out of its Anthropocene predicament.

Today, Jane Goodall turned 80. A long life made longer by the tremendous impact she has had on so many of us fortunate enough to be alive on this astonishing planet with her. An impact that will surely outlast her, and most of us, as she continues to inspire children all over the world to take care of this planet because we adults have really made quite a mess of things, and left it all for them to clean up.

My daughters have grown up referring to Goodall as Jane-didu, Grandma Jane, practically all their lives. Ever since our eldest automatically referred to her as didu upon first seeing a film about her, a film that continues to mesmerize them years later. They finally got to see her in person this week, along with several friends from Fresno. And to sing her happy birthday in a stadium full of several thousand people in the middle of the oil-town of Bakersfield.

I missed out on this trip, alas, but have been reflecting on the impact this one person, a most remarkable person, has had on so many of our lives, becoming almost a part of our family without ever meeting us or ever knowing anything about us. Such is the inspirational power of Jane Goodall, who shows more energy and enthusiasm at 80, than most of us lose by the time we are even 40.

At the recent ScienceOnline 2014 unconference, I was part of an emotional session (#sciohope, storified here) on how ecologists and environmental activists (and science communicators more broadly) can avoid burnout in the face of so much bad news we get every day, about climate change, extinctions, and a whole litany of environmental ills. I daresay the average age of the anguished participants in that conversation was less than half of Jane Goodall’s age today. She has likely seen far worse things than many young activists today, experience deeper grief from losses of chimpanzees she knew personally, and of their habitats. Yet here she is, 80 years young, no sign of burnout, in fact burning brighter than ever as a beacon of hope for all of us. Today, I can think of one good answer to the question asked in the #sciohope session: Where do we find hope and optimism and the energy to avoid burnout and keep going? Simple: follow Jane Goodall.

Here she is, in a fascinating, inspirational conversation with Sylvia Earle:

Happy birthday, Jane Goodall!

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Are you a welfare queen or an entitlement corp? A #GlobalPOV video

I just discovered The #GlobapPOV Project from Berkeley’s Blum Center through this video which raises (and answers) the above question (via Ikoe Hiroe on Facebook). It presents a brilliantly visualized analysis, by Ananya Roy, of global poverty, welfare, and entitlement schemes, starting with the US and broadening the POV to countries in the Global South which are also grappling with these issues and coming up with new solutions.

Watch:

And watch again. And think. And share…

Misplaced compassion and animal welfare – a guest post on the enormous free-ranging dog problem in India

The following is a guest post by Abi Tamim Vanak, Ph.D. Fellow, National Environmental Sciences Program, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, and Fellow, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. Dr. Vanak’s research focus is on the conservation of mammalian carnivores. His work addresses the huge population of free-ranging dogs in India and the challenge they pose to wildlife conservation. Here he challenges misplaced notions of compassion championed by animal lovers that can perpetuate and amplify the problem.

A pack of free-ranging dogs in Kashmir, where their numbers have doubled since culling stopped in 2008. Photo by Abid Bhat, via Tehelka.com

Young Maitreyi Sundar, a class VIII student living in Chennai, wrote a heartfelt letter, published in the Pet Pals section of The Hindu (26 Nov 2013), about the demise of her beloved dog Bambi that was unfortunately run over by a “monstrous large car”. This was clearly not an isolated incident. Everyday, hundreds of such dogs, some beloved, some less fortunate, meet a similar fate or are left painfully and permanently disabled. Who is to blame for this? Surely it cannot be the cars whose right it is to use these roads. Remember, roads after all are made for vehicles of transport and every automobile owner pays a road tax. Indeed, the flip side of this coin, are the hundreds of accidents, sometimes even fatal, that motorists and two-wheeler riders suffer while trying to avoid dogs.

Thus the onus to keep street dogs out of harm’s way lies squarely with the people who befriend them. Millions of dog lovers across India are highly responsible and nurturing of their pets. They treat their dogs as family members and provide them with regular healthcare, take them for regular walks, but do so on a leash, because they are mindful of the dangers that roads pose. However, millions more still, would rather take the easy way out and enjoy the supposed guarding benefits of street dogs, without owning up to any responsibility of maintaining and housing them. Instead, they pretend to be compassionate, and gain “punya” by feeding street dogs, rather than the actual responsibility of keeping a pet. This, combined with various other factors such as poor sanitation and garbage management, is why India has a free-ranging dog population of more than 58 million (Source: M. E. Gompper 2013, Free-ranging dogs and wildlife conservation, OUP).

Is this then the lot of Man’s best friend? To forever beg for the odd scraps of food from well-meaning but irresponsible residents, suffer from easily preventable diseases, become the targets of anger and stones of those who are less tolerant, while dodging the inevitable brush with death on the roads?  On the other hand, dogs are not a benign neutral presence.

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A man feeding dogs in the street. Click on image for original photo.

India still has the highest incidence of rabies in the world, and an estimated 20 million people are bitten by dogs annually. Going by recent surveys in rural areas, this is still a massive underestimate.

The public outcry following a dog attack on a child (often from a lower economic stratum) is quickly lost in the even louder outcry against catching dogs (usually from those who are economically well off). Thus it seems that a silent vast majority continues to suffer the detrimental affects, because of a highly vocal minority who champion the cause of street dogs.

Indeed, these negative effects are not limited to humans alone. More and more evidence is gathering that free-ranging dogs can be very detrimental to wildlife and endangered species, not just as predators, but also as reservoirs of disease causing pathogens.

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Free-ranging dogs chasing a Wild Ass in its sanctuary. Click on image for original photo.

Animal lovers and animal welfare activists often quote Mahatma Gandhi’s famous line about the greatness of a nation judged on how it treats its animals. Perhaps it’s time to turn his comment around. By keeping and perpetuating dogs on streets, are we showing true compassion, or instead, are we simply assuaging our own sense of guilt by throwing a few scraps of leftover food? What does it say about people who insist that their beloved friends are left to fend for themselves on the streets?

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A dog ranging freely in the wilds of Rajasthan. Click on image for original photo.

Few people know that in fact Gandhiji was strongly in favour of ridding streets of dogs. Writing in his weekly, “Young India”, he said  “…it should be a sin to feed stray dogs and we should save numerous dogs if we had legislation making every stray dog liable to be shot. Even if those who feed stray dogs consented to pay a penalty for their misdirected compassion we should be free from the curse of stray dogs.

He then went on to say “I am therefore strongly of the opinion that if we practice the religion of humanity we should have a law making it obligatory on those who would have dogs to keep them under guard and not allow them to stray and making all stray dogs to be liable to be destroyed after a certain date.”

It seems quite ironic then, that animal welfare organisations, many founded in western countries and funded generously by international donor organisations, continue to propagate massive falsehoods about free-ranging dog control. Countries such as England and Japan, have almost no street-dogs. This was achieved through massive and sustained culling campaigns in the early and mid 20th century. However, in India, Animal Birth Control methods are seen as being the only solution, although there is no scientifically valid support for this belief.

Recent studies have shown that to achieve a 70% reduction in population size over a 13-18 year period, it is necessary to sterilize 90% of the dog population. Less than 40% sterilization coverage will only maintain populations at current levels. In India, there is very little systematic and robust research to even determine the levels of sterilization coverage. Rough estimates based on reports suggest between <5% to 40% coverage, with only one properly documented case of up to 86.5% in Jodhpur.

If we want our streets to be free of dogs (which not everyone agrees with), then clearly what is required is a multi-pronged approach. This should start with (as Gandhiji suggested) a strict regulation on dog ownership, a penalty on allowing owned dogs to range freely, capture and confinement of free-ranging dogs, strict penalties for feeding dogs in public spaces, and finally, a concerted and sustained campaign that includes education, responsible pet ownership, trap and neuter and humane euthanasia where necessary, especially in critical wildlife habitats. Our best friends don’t just need our compassion, they also need a good home.

The street is no place for a dog.

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“It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works!” – Neil deGrasse Tyson brings Science to CNN and Colbert Nation

I don’t want to turn this blog into a Neil deGrasse Tyson fan site, but its hard not to share when he is so damned articulate about issues that concern me deeply, about the unnecessary yet ever-present culture war in America that is depriving generations of the beauty and wisdom that a scientific perspective can bring. Nobody explains this more clearly than Tyson, and in ways that should be understandable even to reasonable religious folks. I’m with him when he says that he doesn’t care what you believe—I keep telling my students the same thing—because you have the freedom to believe whatever you want in this country. But you must recognize also that your belief is not going to affect the reality that science allows us to perceive and understand. That reality, and the science of understanding it, “it’s true whether or not you believe in it!” Indeed.

So here are a few more clips from Tyson’s appearance on the telly this week, in the wake of his new fame as the host of the rebooted Cosmos. First, an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources where he challenged the journalistic notion of “balance” which can be quite false and unbalanced when it comes to presenting science in the mainstream media.

And then he made his 10th appearance on The Colbert Report (presumably walking right over from his CNN gig because he’s wearing the same outfit!):

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Q&A with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane after #Cosmos premiere

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premiered tonight in the US on Fox, National Geographic, and affiliated channels, and will air in many other countries worldwide over the coming weeks. I’m told it will air in India on March 16th.

This reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, helmed by his heir Neil deGrasse Tyson, had its Hollywood (and world) premiere a few days ago, in an event that was followed by a live streamed Question & Answer session with a panel that included Tyson, Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s widow and collaborator on the earlier show, and exec producer of this reboot), and Seth MacFarlane, Fox’s resident juvenile showman who produced the new show.

If you saw the reboot (as I did), you might want to follow-up with this recording of the live Q&A:

I was sufficiently impressed with the show—blown away by the visual effects—to recommend it strongly to everyone. While the broadcast on the commercial TV networks was predictably interrupted by adverts, some of which were going a bit far in trying to blend into the show’s mood (at least on NatGeo where I first watched it), I hope that getting the science in front of a huge audience on these channels, especially the Fox audience, is well worth the trade-off. Here’s what my third-grade science enthusiast daughter had to say when the visually spectacular segment where Tyson walked us through a cosmic calendar from the Big Bang to current human history was interrupted by a commercial break:

I hate these commercial breaks, but think the younger generation is savvy enough to get past them and focus on the substance of the show. I’m sure we’ll be getting the entire show in a box set when that becomes available later on. Meanwhile, we’ll watch the live episodes, record them, and re-watch them skipping commercials!

Did you see the show? What did you think?

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Prelude to Cosmos: Neil deGrasse Tyson interviewed by Bill Moyers

Cosmos featuring neil degrasse tyson

Tonight is an exciting night of television for anyone interested in discovering how the universe works. For those of us committed to sharing our understanding of the universe, it is particularly exciting and trepidatious to think about turning on the telly at 9:00PM tonight—tuning it to the Fox network (or National Geographic) of all places—for the reboot/revival, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, of one of the most successful science documentary series on television ever: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

You can watch that whole original epic series on youtube now, in case you are of a younger generation who missed it entirely, or if you (like Salman Hameed at Irtiqua) want to relive the moments of your youth when Sagan lit that luminescent candle in the dark, and perhaps changed the course of your life. I can but hope (with no little trepidation) that the new Cosmos lives up to that legacy, and indeed takes it further to light up a whole new generation (of Fox TV watchers, no less) to the wonders of science.

If Neil deGrasse Tyson was able to excite Seth MacFarlane—the “creative engine” of juvenile, puerile, sexist comedy (making a ton of money) for Fox, who came up with the boob song (for Oscar 2013) which still makes me cringe—into putting his considerable wealth and clout into producing this Cosmos reboot with a lot more showbiz whizbang, and getting Fox to broadcast it (alongside NatGeo), then there is hope for many of us already excited about science but frustrated by increasing public ignorance of, and hostility towards science. But I don’t want to burden Tyson, or one show, with too many expectations – just… take me on an astonishing ride. That is all I ask! And that is what this trailer promises, so buckle in:

As you wait for the series to premiere tonight, you might also want to revisit this recent in-depth three-part interview with Tyson by Bill Moyers, which aired last month, and ranged widely, tackling not just the show and a cosmic perspective:

… but the nature of science, its increasingly irreconcilable relationship with religion, and Neil’s relegation of God to “an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance”:

… to the dark politics of the US which has held back this country from remaining the leader of science in the world:

Join me, and enjoy the ride starting tonight!

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How the White-Crowned Sparrow changes its tune to be heard through the urban din

Last October, I was invited by Laurel Serieys (a graduate student at UCLA)  to present a paper at The Wildlife Society’s 20th Annual Conference in a symposium on how urbanization can cause wildlife populations to diverge by altering behavioral, physiological, and genetic aspects of populations occurring in cities compared to non-urban areas. This is an emerging field of research as we are beginning to build a better understanding of how different cities are as habitats for many species, and the different ways by which they may adapt to city life – or not. This approach is part of the research strategy which should help explain some of the broader patterns we are observing in the distribution of biodiversity in the world’s cities.

I spoke about the effects of urban noise on bird song, based on the excellent Masters thesis project by my (now former) graduate student Jenny Phillips, who studied migratory White-Crowned Sparrows spending the winter in California’s Central Valley. Jenny has since gone on to a Ph.D. program at Tulane University, working in the lab of Elizabeth Derryberry, who was on her MS thesis committee (and with whom I intend to continue collaborating to extend this research).

Photo of White-Crowned Sparrow sitting in a fence

A white crowned sparrow framed in the demarcated landscapes of California’s Central Valley. Photo by Madhusudan Katti, 2008.

I just remembered that TWS was recording talks and sessions throughout the conference, and went looking to see if my talk was recorded. Indeed it was! So if you are interested in hearing about some of Jenny’s and my work on urban bird song, have a listen to my talk on this page, which shows you my slides coupled with my ghati-accented voice:

Singing in the urban din: the effects of anthropogenic noise on song structure in urban birds

Note: the audio had glitches when I tried listening through Safari, but worked fine on Google Chrome; YMMV.

Here’s my abstract for that talk:

Female birds often use male song as an indicator of mate quality; thus the study of song provides insights into reproductive success. Song structure is constrained by the acoustic environment with selection favoring songs that transmit best through available channels given ambient noise and atmospheric conditions. Ecology_specifically those components of the environment that influence sound transmission_thus influences the cultural evolution of songs. One relatively new selection pressure on many birds’ song, is anthropogenic noise, from car traffic as well as industrial machinery and other urban sources. Urban noise resonates at low frequencies and has been shown to influence song frequencies in sedentary populations of song sparrows, great tits, and blackbirds. Increase in ambient noise has also been shown to diminish discriminatory ability in female zebra finches. I first present a brief conceptual overview of the potential and documented effects of urban noise on bird song and behavior. I then share results from ongoing studies of the effects of noise on song in White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii, a long distance migrant wintering in urbanizing areas of central California. Songs and noise were recorded across the urban-rural noise gradient in Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area and compared for acoustic differences in frequency and duration. Modulated note components of the song, the buzz and trill, decreased in bandwidth with increasing noise. The duration of the buzz portion can also be predicted by noise and habitat type. This trend towards short, pure tones in noisy areas is likely an adaptation to be better heard through the roar of the city. Playback experiments also found increased latency to respond to territorial simulations under high ambient noise levels. This may contribute to a breakdown of territoriality in urban habitats. Anthropogenic noise is likely to be an important driver of population divergence due to urbanization.