Monthly Archives: August 2012

2012 Ravi Sankaran Memorial Lecture by Mahesh Rangarajan

As mentioned here recently, the inaugural Ravi Sankaran Memorial Lecture was given by historian Mahesh Rangarajan during the Student Conference in Conservation Science in Bangalore a couple of weeks ago. The entire lecture is now available on youtube for those of us who were not able to attend in person. It is a long video, but well worth the listen, so settle down with this when you have an hour or so free:

Here is my own tribute to Ravi, written during the immediate pangs of grief when he died.

Imagine (a guest post by my 12year-old daughter)

A portrait of the writer Sanzari (and her henna tattoo) by her 7-yr-old sister Nilavi (who started 2nd grade today).

The following is a brief reflection by my 12-year-old daughter Sanzari Aranyak, who just started 7th grade this week. She wrote this a few weeks ago, during her summer break, and has been asking me to share it on my blog. She wrote this when she discovered the following and other music videos in the “Playing for Change” series on YouTube with some friends and was somewhat taken aback by their responses:


The world is an unhappy place. Religion is one of the major causes for unhappiness. Politics is not a nice thing but people want leaders, so, they get them. It is the people who vote who choose the leaders and if they are not happy with them then it is their own fault. If no one voted what would happen? Would we not have republic? We would still have leaders. We would still have politics. Or would we? Imagine. Imagine no religion. Would the world be so unhappy? We would still have war. Would we still have stupid wars? It be interesting to see. The world today is sad. There is a program called Playing For Change. They play songs like Imagine by John Lennon

and War/No More Trouble by Bob Marley

A girl saw these videos and asked why they didn’t sing Katy Perry. Songs these days are all love songs there are no meaningful songs like there used to be. What a time to be living. People have created amazing devices but don’t use them to do anything worthwhile. People watch tv and play video games when they could change the world. Why don’t they? Is it hard to change the world? Not rule it, change it. Starting with something small and ending up changing the world. Making dreams a reality. Just Imagine. Why do people have to invent ways that the world came about. Why do they defy science. Say math is stupid. What is wrong with this world? Why am I afraid to change it? To stand out and help. Why fit in? What is fitting in. Being the same is awful. Stand up and help. Defy the norm. Undermine the status quo. You are one in seven billion but you can change the world. Imagine.

Between Leopold and Asimov: we need a new land ethic for an urban planet

The following is a slightly expanded version of an essay that was read sometime last year on “The Moral Is“, Valley Public Radio’s program of essays written by faculty from my university. While the program’s webpage has recently been redesigned and contains links to recent audio recordings in the series, older programs do not appear to be archived there yet. Since I am immersed in helping edit “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook“, a new global assessment of urban biodiversity for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity this week (while continuing to tweet facts from the CBO), it seems an appropriate time to dig up this year-old essay and share it here.


In the 1940s, Isaac Asimov invented Trantor, the center of a Galactic empire where his brilliant Foundation series of novels unfold. At its height, Trantor was a planet whose land surface was entirely covered in metal domes enclosing subterranean metropolises inhabited by 45 billion humans. An entirely urban planet with an (eventually fatal) dependence on 20 other worlds for food.

No room for bare dirt, let alone natural spaces, within that Galactic capital! Not surprising, given that Trantor sprang from the imagination of a quintessential New Yorker, in a period of technological optimism about human potential for limitless growth to conquer the universe.

Recently, as humanity nears 7 billion, we passed an urban threshold: over half of us now live in cities sprawling over the Earth’s landscape. Cities whose alienated dwellers depend on food from ever distant farmlands. But we remain far from traveling to another planet, let alone establishing galactic empires. Instead, as climate change and rising oceans begin to drown our most vibrant cities, we worry about sustaining even current human populations.

Meanwhile, an alternative vision of humanity is found in the writings of Asimov’s contemporary Aldo Leopold who, in “A Sand County Almanac”, also written in the 1940s, gave us the “land ethic”: a natural extension of ethics, an evolution of our moral sense of just behavior towards the rest of the natural world. He wrote:

“A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Trantor, with its eradication of nature, would be deeply unethical. Indeed most of our cities seem to lie on the wrong side of this ethical line, containing more concrete and asphalt than biota. Yet cities are also centers of human culture supporting much of the integrity, stability, and beauty of human communities.

Is it possible to reconcile human communities with those other biotic communities as equal citizens of Earth? We need an urban land ethic to guide our actions, find ways to preserve the integrity and beauty of the whole, human and non-human, and avoid destroying the living fabric of Earth’s biosphere before we self-destruct.

As humanity continues to grow and build cities, our hopes of avoiding urban collapse lie in growing movements for green roofs, urban farming, alternative materials, and landscape designs that soften our hard-urban edges, making cities more permeable to nature.

Even Asimov, in sequels written decades later, recognized the hubris and ecological folly of a metallic urban planet, adding farm sectors open to the air, and even dirt and trees growing atop the metal domes!

We must heed Leopold and spare our planet the fate of Asimov’s Trantor.

Tales from the Concrete Jungle: a symposium on urban biodiversity at ESA 2012

Are you in Portland for the 97th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America (or following along in the twitter backchannel via #ESA2012 or, even tripping on the tweetbeam)? Are you interested in urban biodiversity? Want to know how much of the earth’s biodiversity still occurs in cities, how we influence species interactions, and how we might better manage our cities to support more species on our increasingly urban planet? If so, then today is your lucky day, because this afternoon (Portland time!), we have a symposium for you covering just these topics:

SYMP 15 – Tales From the Concrete Jungle: Understanding and Sustaining the Earth’s Urban Biodiversity From Local to Global Scales

Wednesday, August 8, 2012: 1:30 PM-5:00 PM

Portland Blrm 253, Oregon Convention Center


Myla F.J. Aronson


Mark Goddard , Madhusudan Katti , Frank La Sorte , Christopher A. Lepczyk , Mark McDonnell , Charles H. Nilon , Paige S. Warren and Nicholas S. G. Williams


Myla F.J. Aronson

The rapid urbanization of the world has had profound effects on global biodiversity. The increasing number of people living in cities and towns, coupled with the magnitude and intensity of human activities has resulted in significant impacts for local, regional and global environments. The creation and expansion of cities produces new types of land-cover and environmental conditions. These changes in land use and land cover result in native habitat loss and landscape fragmentation, toxification of the biosphere, loss of ecosystem function, the introduction of exotic species, and the loss of native species. The predicted increases in the number and size of human settlements, especially in developing countries, over the next 20 years, coupled with the predicted changes in climate has created an unprecedented call for scientific information to guide management strategies and mitigation options to create sustainable and habitable cities and towns for the future. Despite recognition for the importance of urban biodiversity by the Convention of Biological Diversity and an emerging base of science on the biodiversity of urban areas, a general synthesis on biodiversity is in a fledgling state. A comparative approach to urban biota is needed to produce comparable methodologies to understand, preserve, and monitor biodiversity in cities. The design and construction of urban infrastructure can create novel habitats for plants and animals that can supplement remnant habitats for species and communities in cities and towns, or that can provide habitat that has been destroyed in a region due to human development of the landscape. This symposium will bring together an international group of urban ecologists to identify: 1) global patterns of biodiversity within and across cities; 2) their environmental and social drivers; and 3) opportunities for using ecological knowledge to develop effective biodiversity management, restoration and planning strategies. The symposium will be structured into two parts. The first will address the patterns and drivers of biodiversity within and across cities in order to provide a general synthesis of biodiversity. The second part of the symposium will address design and planning of cities for biodiversity from the micro-scale (green roof ecology) to the city-scale.

The symposium grew out of a working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) we convened throughout last year, to compile a global database of urban plant and bird diversity, and address questions about the patterns and processes governing urban biodiversity. Till date we have species lists of plants and/or birds from more than 150 cities from all continents (except Antarctica, of course), and continue to add to this database. Putting together this big database (the biggest one on urban biodiversity of which we are aware) and playing with the data on our computers is the most fun thing I’ve done in recent years! We are pretty excited about what we’ve found so far (first manuscript is in review) and expect others will be interested as well. This symposium is the first big public forum where we will share results of our broad global synthesis (tale #2 by Frank La Sorte, in particular). Many of the collaborators in the working group are also presenting results from their own more local research, focusing in greater detail on the processes governing the big patterns, as we continue weaving the tales together towards capturing a richer tapestry of urban biodiversity. You can find the full list of talks, with links to abstracts on the symposium page. Members of the NCEAS working group who are in Portland (which is no longer actually supported by NCEAS since our funding ended) will meet this weekend (after ESA2012 is over) to work on further analyses, and discuss ways to continue building on this growing network of urban biodiversity researchers. If you are interested in finding out more, and even joining our network, please leave a comment below, or email/tweet me and I will be happy to help in any way I can.

Meanwhile, alas, having helped bring together these tales from the concrete jungle, I can’t hear them in the room myself because I’m in faraway Stockholm! Which means I will, of course, be lurking in the twitter backchannel especially during this symposium (the #BiodiverCity). There I hope to see lots of the participants’ faces/avatars pop up in the tweetbeam as they relay the proceedings to distant participants like me.

Live-tweet this session for me, won’t you?

Changing lawns to waterwise landscapes with citizen scientists – a poster at #PPSR2012

This weekend, the good folks at the Citizen Science Community Forum (which has grown out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science programs) is holding the 2012 Conference on Public Participation in Scientific Research (#PPSR2012 on twitter) in Portland, Oregon, as a prelude to the Ecological Society of America’s 97th Annual Meeting (#ESA2012). It feels a bit odd for me to be writing about both of these meetings from half a world away, but as it happens I will be present in more than just spirit at both these meetings! For I am a co-author on several presentations, and even helped organize a symposium. Seems foolish to not be there in person after all this, but such is life.

Here’s the abstract of the first item my name is on: a poster Kaberi will present today at the PPSR conference in Poster Session 3 (1:00-2:30PM if you happen to be there and want to see it):


waterwise landscape, citizen science, urban habitat, Fresno, water

Kaberi Kar Gupta, Fresno Audubon Society, California State University-Fresno

Steven Jones, Fresno Audubon Society, California State University-Fresno

Madhusudan Katti, Fresno Audubon Society, California State University-Fresno

Fresno has been facing challenges in water conservation. Between the coupled effects of industrial agriculture and home yard maintenance, extraordinary demands have been placed on the region’s water resources. While water scarcity is a complex issue facing the entire California, Fresno city did not have residential water meters until mid 2012. Of the total residential water 70% is used for irrigating yard. This study is a collaborative, volunteer-driven, residential landscape project in Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan area (FCMA). The Main focuses of this project are to understand the perception of homeowners and the effect of residential water use on urban biodiversity.

Specific goals are to understand the needs of people; increase the native vegetations; reduce non-native grass and monitor the plants, birds and arthropod diversities in residential yards. Focus groups with homeowners and mapping of yards are currently ongoing. Bird, arthropod and plant surveys in existing grass and non-grass yards will be measured. This project will build a dynamic and active coalition of local government, homeowners, community organizations, educational institutions, and environmental groups helping to create a sustainable environment. This program will help homeowners install water-conserving plants in their yards, providing enhanced biodiversity and new habitat for birds and insects.

via Posters | Citizen Science Community Forum.

In case you are not able to see the poster live during the session, you can also view it in PDF form on Scribd. If you do see it live in Portland, and happen to drop by here afterwards, please give me a shoutout in the comments below!

More on my ESA presentations over the next few days.

Cities and Biodiversity: prepping a #BiodiverCity twitter campaign

As you may know, I am in Stockholm, Sweden this summer, working with colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC) where we are compiling a global assessment of urban biodiversity for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Here’s a blurb about the project:

Cities and Biodiversity Outlook

A Global Assessment of the Links between Urbanization, Biodiversity and Ecosystems

The “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook” (CBO) will consist of a global assessment of the links between urbanization, biodiversity and ecosystem services. Combining science and policy, scientists from around the world will analyze how urbanization and urban growth impacts biodiversity and ecosystems, delivering key messages on the conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources to decision-makers. Cities, local authorities and sub-national governments will have the opportunity to showcase their practices on sustainability and biodiversity and learn from existing experiences how to incorporate those topics in their agendas and policies.

via Cities and Biodiversity Outlook (CBO).

If you explore the links on the above page, you will find drafts of the CBO, to the latest version of which I made some contributions. If you are more televisually inclined, here’s Thomas Elmqvist, the Scientific Editor of the CBO (and my host here this summer), explaining what it is about:

The CBO will be officially launched on October 16, 2012, at a City Summit organized by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) during CBD’s 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11) meeting in Hyderabad, India. I will write more about that over the coming weeks, including information about some side events being planned to publicize the CBO.

As part of the goal to make the CBO an effective tool for communicating the significance and value of urban ecosystems for biodiversity, Maria Schewenius (also here at SRC) has been collating a list of 100 Facts About The Nature of Urbanization which will be part of the report. Seeing her list immediately made me think: twitter campaign! Maria and Thomas liked the idea, so we ran it up the UN flagpole (this being my first serious involvement in a UN scale effort, I’m learning about the opportunities and constraints for communicating science at this level), and we got the thumbs up a few days ago.

We are now preparing to launch the twitter campaign using the hashtag #BiodiverCity (which I was pleasantly surprised to find hitherto unused!) starting on Monday, Aug 6, 2012, which is 70 days before the launch of the CBO in Hyderabad. It would’ve been better to start tweeting 100-facts 100 days before the launch, of course, but I got in late on the act, so here we are with 70 days, which actually allows us to start with one tweet/day and ramp up the frequency as we approach the launch date.  The complete list of 100 Facts will be available on the CBD’s CBO website (see links above) along with the rest of the report, and I will also storify the tweets, and any responses they generate.

So, dear reader, if you are interested in urban biodiversity, and are also a citizen of the twitterverse, here’s who you should keep your eye on:

It goes without saying, of course, but: Please RT!

[Updated on Aug 6 with several more twitter accounts added to the list.]

Inaugural Ravi Sankaran Memorial Lecture in Bengaluru on Aug 2, 2012

Ravi Sankaran and his dazzling smile light up a lectern.

If you happen to be in Bengaluru this week, check out the inaugural Ravi Sankaran Memorial Lecture, tomorrow evening at the IISc campus. I’m sorry I cannot be there, for Ravi was my first hero/role model on this path that led me to birds, animal behavior, and reconciliation ecology, and I miss him very much. I’m hoping they will be able to record and share the lecture online for those of us not able to be there.

Here’s a reminder announcement from Aparajita Datta on Facebook:

As many of you know, Dr Ravi Sankaran, one of India’s leading ornithologists and champions of conservation, passed away suddenly in January 2009. To quote from the obituary by TR Shankar Raman and Divya Mudappa (BirdingASIA, 2009, 11:126-127):

“Ravi’s life and work were marked by a deep passion for conservation of birds and natural areas, an unbridled exuberance and enthusiasm for his work, and the fire of a pioneer spirit that made him take on the most challenging, difficult and remote assignments. This took him from the deserts of western India and the swamps and grasslands across northern India to the snow-clad mountains of the Himalaya (Nanda Devi Expedition) and the dense forests of both north-east India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. His well-honed field skills and adventurous exploits, wading into mangroves and walking the beaches, exploring caves and remote forests, enduring heat and cold in the desert, rain and flood in the rainforest, and battling multiple bouts of malaria, made him a legend among field biologists in India.”We are pleased to announce an annual Ravi Sankaran Memorial Lecture in honour of his memory. This first lecture in the series will take place at the JN Tata Auditorium, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore, on 2 August 2012, at 5:30 pm.

Prof. Mahesh Rangarajan will deliver this lecture, titled “Conservation as if democracy mattered”. The lecture will be preceded by a brief introduction to Ravi’s life and work, for the benefit of those who did not know him well.

This memorial lecture is organised by the Ravi Sankaran Foundation in association with the Student Conference on Conservation Science–Bangalore. All are welcome to attend and help honour Ravi’s memory and celebrate his life.

This lecture series is the second major event set in place in Ravi’s memory, the first being the fellowship programme run by the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation.

We look forward to seeing you on the 2nd of August.

On behalf of: Ravi Sankaran Foundation & SCCS-Bangalore