Monthly Archives: February 2011

Do human beings who have lived in tiger habitat for generations really need to be tossed out to save tigers?

At the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC last week, I had my fair share of irritating moments listening to speakers on topics that (in my humble opinion) they knew not much about, yet had a symposium platform to pontificate on at a conference with more media coverage than any I have ever seen at any scientific gathering. Most of the irritations came during talks about conservation and natural resource governance issues, which didn’t get as much media coverage as some other topics. Aside from occasional tweets and a question or two that seemed to catch the speakers off guard, I kept my irritations to myself. I am reminded of one such moment, however, by an excellent article by Janaki Lenin on “The best laid schemes of tigers and men” (published also in Governance Now under a duller title but may not be accessible there), which begins thus:

The media leaves little doubt about the dire straits that we find the tiger in today. Millions of dollars are raised at home and abroad to secure the future of this magnificent beast. But the people who are paying dearly for the conservation of the charismatic big cat are the unglamorous local people who have had to quietly forsake their homes and traditional livelihoods to make way for the tiger.

This reminded me of a discussion at the end of a session on “Changing Climate, Changing Approaches: Conservation in the Face of Climate Change“, when the rather hapless discussant said something about how amazing the US Endangered Species Act was as a conservation tool, and asked why no other country in the world had emulated the US in adopting such an exemplary law? Seriously – that’s what he asked!

Granted, I had missed half the session (having foolishly gone to another even more frustrating talk on caste systems…), but this discussion did seem to be banging on a bit too much about the Endangered Species Act, which surprised me given the rather broader discourse I expected based on the title of the session. So when the above question was posed, I couldn’t help but raise my hand and point out that the US wasn’t really all that exemplary and that other countries – like India – also had strong laws (and, occasionally, strong ministers pushing to implement the laws), so the problems lay elsewhere. John Mathews of Conservation International (who had given a good talk just moments earlier) then chimed in as well to talk about how India had a history of protecting sacred forests (i.e., whole ecosystems) thousands of years before the ESA was invented to save individual species. As my friend Eric Johnson tweeted in the moment:

“India has sustainably managed sacred forests for 3,000 years. Americans are smug about protecting one fish: A to Q by @leafwarbler #AAASmtg”.

Its hard for Americans not to feel smug about themselves, though – but Indian tiger-wallahs can surely match that smugness with their own breast-beating about how the tigers are beset upon by “too many people”, as evidenced by an immediate response to Eric’s tweet from @dyingtigers:

“India has laws, but not enforced. 99% of tiger habitat is GONE!! India has too many people + tigers don’t vote”.


How can one have a rational conversation about real solutions when caught between hubris and hysteria? Janaki’s thoughtful article is how! She provides an excellent (and balanced!) perspective on India’s rather well-intentioned laws and how we have stumbled and bumbled in our interpretation and implementation of said laws. And how, in doing so, we are failing both the tigers and the poor marginalized human inhabitats of tiger habitats who have lived with the beasts for generations only to find themselves in the conservation crosshairs now. As Janaki concludes:

“In this day and enlightened age, can we rightfully protect the tiger by impoverishing the people who have lived with it until now? Ironically, conservationists bemoan that the public is not more engaged with protecting wildlife and yet, they condone an undemocratic system that serves to turn any wildlife-tolerant tribal into an ardent opponent. Is it really so difficult to save the tiger without being unfair and callous to fellow human beings?”

Excellent questions indeed that must be answered by all of us, from government officials to conservationists to ordinary citizens, from Washington, DC to New Delhi and everywhere in between.

Can patriotic greedy bastards succeed where birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers have failed with climate change solutions?

Nice reframing of the climate change conundrum and possible solutions in this trailer. I’m intrigued and look forward to seeing the whole film – wonder if this way of packaging the inconvenient truth will go down better with conservative deniers of climate change than Al Gore’s slide show.

Also makes me wonder: whatever happened to the precautionary principle? Isn’t that essentially a conservative idea?

The Rap Guide to Evolution returns to Fresno State! March 4th! Be there!!


Tri-Beta is thrilled to welcome Baba Brinkman and his acclaimed peer-reviewed hip-hop show “The Rap Guide to Evolution” back to the Fresno State campus once again. A regular performer at Fresno’s Rogue Festival, Baba first came to the valley with his Rap Canterbury Tales,  catching the attention of some of my English faculty colleagues who brought him to campus to perform to a limited audience. I first heard about his rap when he came back to the Rogue shortly after the Darwin Bicentennial to give us one of his early public performance of The Rap Guide to Evolution. We managed to bring him to campus where he rocked the house (although I don’t know if rappers rock houses, what with my general ignorance of musical genres). This modern-day bard, this Rapconteur, has since made quite a name for himself with his hip-hop takes on such erudite subjects as evolution, medieval poetry and human nature.  The Rap Guide to Evolution won the prestigious Scotsman Fringe First Award in Edinburgh in 2009, was written up in the New York Times,  and went on to tour the USA, Australia, and the UK, including appearances  at the Hammersmith Apollo in the UK, off-Broadway, and a TV appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show. Baba’s hip-hop tribute to Charles Darwin is set to transfer to New York City this spring. As I blogged here recently, Baba is currently producing a DVD version of the Rap Guide to Evolution, complete with fancy hip-hop videos of every number in the album and additional material.
He is back in the valley next week to perform on our campus and at the 2011 Rogue Festival where he will do his new show as the Rapconteur – you will want to catch that show as well, so check out the schedule in that link. But before he kicks off his Rogue show, we will get to see him on our campus, on Friday, March 4th, at 7:00 PM in the Peters Auditorium within the new Student Rec Center near the Save Mart Center. You can read/download/print the full flyer about this event attached below. Note also that this is a free show for students, faculty, and the general public, sponsored by the Tri-Beta biology student club, who continue to bring fascinating lectures and performances to our campus, like the recent Darwin Week festivities. So if you know any of the club members, or run into them somewhere, do give them a shoutout to thank them for enriching campus life for all of us! (Disclosure: I happen to be faculty advisor to the club and have played my role in instigating them to do all this stuff).
I look forward to a full house next friday joining in to chant I’m a African with Baba…

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Join the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend!


Its happening this weekend: the 2011 Great Backyard Bird Count. And you can join in this fun citizen science project as well. I will miss doing it in our new backyard in Fresno, unfortunately, because I will be attending the AAAS meeting in Washington, DC this weekend – although I may try to do a count there if possible. Besides, my partner in last year’s count is in India with her mum and sister, so how could I do it in our backyard by myself? Check out our report, with pictures, from last year’s GBBC. And do drop me a line here if you decide to do a count.

Here’s an excerpt from the GBBC press release:

February 8, 2011—Blackbirds made
the headlines when a flock of thousands fell from the skies in Arkansas
on New Year’s Eve. Now bird enthusiasts across the continent are
counting the birds—not just blackbirds, but birds of more than 600
species—in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. During February 18–21
the event will create an instantaneous snapshot of birdlife across the
U.S. and Canada for all to see.

Anyone can help by tallying birds for at least 15 minutes on any day of
the count. At, you can enter
the highest number of each species seen at any one time and watch as
the tallies grow across the continent. Coordinated by the Cornell Lab
of Ornithology, Audubon, and Bird Studies Canada, the four-day count
typically records more than 10 million observations.

Last year’s participants reported more than 1.8 million American
Robins, as well as rarities such as the first Red-billed Tropicbird in
the count’s 13-year history.

“Sustainable Economic Growth” and other oxymorons

Dr. Amartya Sen was puzzled to find himself part of a debate on India’s economic growth that he didn’t remember ever joining, but I am glad it has prompted him to join in now with a sharp critique of the country’s obsession with economic growth rate as an end in itself. The Nobel Laureate economist points out that growth itself is less important than what society chooses to do with the fruits of said growth: a common sense lesson that should be blindingly obvious to anyone who professes to care about the quality of our lives, yet so often, and easily, brushed aside by those in power and the middle classes who get some share of the current growth. While chasing after China’s double-digit growth rate, Dr. Sen points out that India is actually doing worse than not just China, but also Bangladesh in many social indicators that are far more important, such as infant mortality, children’s health, life-expectancy, literacy, and women’s empowerment. Bangladesh is doing better than India in all those areas despite having only half the latter’s per-capita income! Shouldn’t India aspire to do better by all of its people before trying to race China to the top of the economic growth index? Dr. Sen’s op ed piece in the Hindu ends on this much-needed cautionary note:

The central point to seize is that while economic growth is an important boon for enhancing living conditions, its reach depends greatly on what we do with the fruits of growth. To be sure, there are large numbers of people for whom growth alone does just fine, since they are already privileged and need no social assistance. Economic growth only adds to their economic and social opportunities. Those gains are, of course, good, and there is nothing wrong in celebrating their better lives through economic growth, especially since this group of relatively privileged Indians is quite large in absolute numbers. But the exaggerated concentration on their lives, which the media tend often to display, gives an incomplete picture of what is happening to Indians in general.

And perhaps more worryingly, this group of relatively privileged and increasingly prosperous Indians can easily fall for the temptation to treat economic growth as an end in itself, for it serves directly as the means of their opulence and improving lifestyles without further social efforts. The insularity that this limited perspective generates can even take the form of ridiculing social activists — “jholawalas” is one description I have frequently heard — who keep reminding others about the predicament of the larger masses of people who make up this great country. The fact is, however, that India cannot be seen as doing splendidly if a great many Indians — sometimes most Indians — are having very little improvement in their deprived lives.

Some critics of huge social inequalities might be upset that there is something rather uncouth and crude in the self-centred lives and inward-looking temptations of the prosperous inner sanctum. My main concern, however, is that those temptations may prevent the country from doing the wonderful things it can do for Indians at large. Economic growth, properly supplemented, can be a huge contributor to making things better for people, and it is extremely important to understand the relevance and role of growth with clarity.

Much as I like this critique, there are aspects of the economic analysis that trouble me nevertheless. Enough to compel me to leave a comment below the article on the Hindu’s website. While that comment is awaiting moderation, I thought I might as well share my thoughts here – so here’s what I wrote:

A sharp, insightful, and much-needed critique of the national obsession with the economic growth rate. What we do with the fruits of the growth is indeed far more important than mere growth for its own sake. As an ecologist, however, I must express my continued puzzlement at the use of the term “sustainable economic growth” which Dr. Sen also uses several times here. Isn’t the term an oxymoron? How can one possibly “sustain” such “growth” for any significant period of time in a world of finite resources? I know from his other writings that Dr. Sen recognizes the environmental ramifications of our economic activities – so it is doubly puzzling for me to see him use this phrase. How long can the nation possibly sustain this economic growth? We are already seeing (but turning a blind eye to) an ongoing collapse of the ecological foundations upon which this current economic growth very much depends. Not only must we temper the mania for growth with questions about what we are doing with the fruits of that growth for the majority of the people in the country, we must also ask how this growth is ripping the nation’s ecological fabric apart, and what we need to do to repair this fabric, the very basis for our long-term sustainability – without perpetual growth. It is well past time we start working towards a steady-state economy (rather an an ever growing one) which may then bear truly sustainable fruit that does not come at the expense of more lives, human and non-human, which really make life worth living.

Remembering Darwin on the Sky Harbor Trail

On Darwin Day 2011, the 202nd birthday of Charles Darwin, a group of about 20, students and faculty, members of Tri Beta Biology Club and the Fresno State Nature Club, participated in a celebratory hike along Sky Harbor trail above Lake Millerton just north of Fresno, on the San Joaquin river. It was a glorious day, with the impossibly blue skies typical of this part of the world (although too often obscured by what we pump up into the central valley air these days). Signs of Spring well under way were everywhere: in the songs of the Oak Titmouse and the Towhees, in the drunken bees buzzing about the flowers dotting the lush green slopes everywhere, and in the warm afternoon sun that set everything ablaze with a wonderful light. This was a hike good old Charlie would surely have enjoyed. As it is, my hat is off to you Charlie, on this your day and everyday, for so thoroughly deepening my appreciation of nature’s tangled banks and my own wonderful place within. Thank you. And Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin.

Posted via email from Darwin’s Bulldogs

Hanging with Mr. Darwin @ Fresno State

As part of Darwin Week at Fresno State, the local chapter of the Tri Beta Biological Honors Society organized Darwin Hour at noon on Feb 9, 2011. Dr. Paul Crosbie of the Biology Dept. dressed up as a youngish Mr. Darwin, circa 1961 to talk about how he came to write his most famous book, and answered questions about what his theory means for us.

[Pictures taken on an iPhone 3Gs, hence the low resolution]

Posted via email from Darwin’s Bulldogs

Evolution & Science Education: A Panel Discussion for Darwin Day @ Fresno State

Evolution & Science Education
A Panel Discussion for Darwin Day

Biology Colloquium
Friday, February 11, 2011
3:00-4:00 PM
Science II, Room 109
Fresno State campus

Do American high school Physics teachers still tiptoe around—or avoid discussing altogether—Copernicus’ radical observation that the earth is not the center of the universe? Do they address Newton’s laws, or gravity, as “mere theories” that must be balanced with alternative viewpoints? No? Why then, do 60% of American high school Biology teachers (according to a national survey published in the journal Science last week) feel uncomfortable about teaching Evolution, the facts and the theory of which form the very foundation of modern biology? Why do 13% of them actively teach creationism in the science classroom, despite court rulings that creationism is not a science and does not belong in the classroom?

This Friday, on the eve of Charles Darwin’s 202nd birthday, join us in a discussion with a panel of high school teachers and biology professors to address these important questions about the state of science education in the US, its relevance to the state of science literacy and education here in the central valley, and what we may do about it.

Scott HatfieldScience Teacher, Bullard High School
Bruce WillifordScience Teacher, Fresno High School;
David AndrewsDirector, Science & Mathematics Education Center, CSU-Fresno
Paul CrosbieProfessor of Biology, CSU-Fresno
Madhusudan Katti (moderator), Associate Professor of Biology, CSU-Fresno 

See the flyer attached below for more information, or contact the Biology Department.