Category Archives: India

Musings on the tinkling of glass from the almost shattered ceiling of American democracy

Dear Most Powerful Democracy(TM) in the World,

Congratulations on taking another step closer to having a woman break the ultimate glass ceiling in your country, with Hillary Clinton being declared the presumptive nominee of one of your two political parties. We look forward to welcoming you to the large community of nations that have been electing women leaders to head their government for decades now. It may surprise your citizens—especially those rooting for the big orange loudmouth presumptive nominee of the other party—to find that even a number of Islamic nations have elected women to their highest offices. But don’t be embarrassed about joining this group now. When it comes to matters of democracy and human rights and equality, “better late than never” always applies. Long arc of history and all that considering, you know?

I imagine you know that your presidential election tends to capture the attention of the rest of the world, and this one in particular has the world in its thrall like a spectacular car crash that one cannot look away from, even though the outcome may be disastrous for occupants of the cars and spectators alike. The popularity of the orange loudmouth with the strange hair alternately baffles and frightens the world’s citizens who can scarcely believe that so many citizens of this superpower nation, known for your leadership in science and technology, for crying out loud, are falling for the dubious charms of a globally well-known con-man. That one of your two parties, half of your entire political spectrum (seriously, America, how on earth do you do democracy in such a big diverse country with just two political parties? But let’s leave that question for another time!) has been hijacked by a narcissistic demagogue happy to use bombastic nationalism and xenophobia laced with racist and sexist slurs to score television rating in this election turned into reality show, is…incredibly depressing.

At the same time, though, what’s happening in the other party offers more hope for the world. A fierce battle over liberal/progressive ideology between, gasp, a woman and an old school socialist? Who could have even imagined this in America a decade ago? Now it appears that the woman may be winning the party’s nomination to become the first female presidential candidate ever in your long and storied history as the world’s leading democracy? And a majority of your citizens might well retain their senses to elect her to follow your first Black President? How wonderful of you to finally move into this new phase in this new millennium! (Let’s set aside, for now, the more touchy subject of how they both have continued to rain bombs on much of the world – but we must address that too, soon, after you send the lunatic orange man packing.)

What took you so long?

So many younger nations, often learning about democracy from your own history, have lapped you and surged so much farther ahead in how they run their elections now – you really should feel embarrassed. Looking at you from the polling booths of some of these younger nations might feel like looking at a venerable but arthritic old man who is too set in his eccentric ways and unwilling to adjust with the times to learn how to run things in this new millennium. We hope that you will pay attention to and build on the energy of your younger citizens, many of whom have been involved in this election campaign with no little passion, calling out the injustices of the really bizarre ways you still run your elections. Like it is still the 18th century and you are still an agrarian nation deeply mired in social, economic, and cultural inequalities spread across a vast and mostly depopulated continent.

But never mind that for now; let us be cautiously optimistic that you just might follow up on your first Black Man in the White House with your first Woman President! What a way to make another grand entrance on to the world stage, two hundred and forty years after your birth as a democratic nation! So please: don’t throw this opportunity away, and for Earth’s sake, don’t let the narcissistic con-man steal this election too, like his predecessor did at the turn of the millennium.

You still have much work to do in fixing your democracy and bringing it up to date though, all the way from the design of ballots to drawing of voting district maps to how votes are counted in different states to who actually oversees and runs your elections to these myriad and ludicrously convoluted ways your parties hold primaries… to who pays for the whole circus… the list is so long and so hilariously tragic! You really do have a lot of work to do – which may be why you show so little enthusiasm for actually cleaning up the mess! It is like the aftermath of a centuries old frat party (or democracy rave) in your living room when you just can’t summon up the energy to throw all the trash out and start a new day afresh. Yet that is what you need to do! And you might start with the odd thing that happened tonight, and keeps happening every election – when your media gives away the results of the game before the last votes have been cast! What’s up with that?

While we are getting ready to applaud this apparent imminent shattering of the glass ceiling in America, many of us are also baffled at how your much-lauded free press decided to declare the winner before so many states have even held the vote for their primaries! How does your free press, which is supposed to be such a crucial pillar for democracy in a free society, continue to undermine the most basic process at the heart of democracy: the casting of votes to elect representatives? How does this make any sense? I mean, sure, the press has an obligation – and more, a competitive drive – to report whatever it deems newsworthy, so some of the fault lies with those who release these results that can tip the electoral scales. Still, surely this is something that could be fixed by reminding the media of their serious responsibility and making them keep their megaphones switched off until the last vote has been cast? That’s how some other democracies do it, to protect the sanctity of every vote.

While there is much you should learn from studying how other nations run their elections, at least in this one instance, you might consider the Most Populous Democracy in the World: India. Did you know that the press there, while invited and encouraged to closely observe and report on the entire election, is nevertheless restrained from announcing any results until after all the votes are cast and counted? And mind you, restraint is not likely to be the first word—hell, not even among the first 100 words—to come to mind when one thinks of / observes the Indian media these days; they are a cacophonous, obnoxious, loud-mouthed, argumentative lot, are India’s TV talking heads, who seemed to have learned too well the ratings game from your television networks. Yet, when it comes to election results, they exhibit remarkable restraint (or pay the price of jumping the gun).

Media Coverage

In order to bring as much transparency as possible to the electoral process, the media are encouraged and provided with facilities to cover the election, although subject to maintaining the secrecy of the vote. Media persons are given special passes to enter polling stations to cover the poll process and the counting halls during the actual counting of votes.

Doesn’t that sound like something for your press to try, at least for the general election?

Do click on that link and look around the helpful website of the Election Commission of India: all the fascinating details of how that rambunctious cacophony of a democracy, with over a billion people scattered densely across a varied landscape with poor infrastructure and much less money than you, manages to run its parliamentary elections—featuring thousands of candidates from dozens of political parties vying for hundreds of millions of votes cast at nearly a million polling stations—with much less of a fuss and a bother. Imagine, for example, running your entire presidential election, from the first primary to the general election, in just a couple of months instead of the years-long and practically never ending campaigns you force your candidates to run now! Wouldn’t that be refreshing? And conducive to the actual business of governing the nation for the public good?

Of course there is much that is also wrong with the running of elections in India – just see who they elected Prime Minister in the last election. Has any nation figured out a fool-proof way to conduct the messy business of democracy? Shouldn’t they all be talking to each other and borrowing from each other the best ways to make things work most impartially and openly and fairly?

There is a great deal more we could tell you about how to improve and modernize your elections, to bring you up to date in the 21st century. If you really put your mind and considerable resources to it, you might even come up blazing the trail again for the rest of the world, showing us how to get it done properly. Many other nations would love to help you with that, even as you claim to be the designated driver of democracy around the world. It is past time you got your own house in order, and we would love to talk to you about that. Perhaps after you’re done with this most insane of your recent elections, and are able to take a breather. Hopefully.

For now, let us raise a glass to the sound of all that tinkling glass, beginning to fall down slowly from that almost shattered ceiling… the world may hold its breath waiting for the final blow that breaks it fully apart come November. Until then, you do you – in the best way you know how!

– from a humble representative of your friends and well-wishers, citizens of other democracies.

The humble auto-rickshaw gets a starring role in its own movie

As does the humble (or not so much) rickshawwallah. And what a lovely little animated movie it is, too, reminding me that sometimes you need foreign eyes to see the poignant beauty of everyday things in our mundane lives. Thus we have a European visitor, Xaver Xylophon, to thank for drawing and animating this day in the life:

The autorickshaw, of course, is no longer a part of my daily streetscape out here in California. Not that there aren’t days when I wish I could just walk over to the street corner and hop into one for a bumpy ride into campus. But I did get time to reacquaint myself with these three-wheeled beasts during the past year in India. Including in Bangalore where this film is set. Where I even saw, through their windshields and ducking my head out from the side, occasional Grey Hornbills and flocks of waterbirds flying low across the busy roads carving through the green spaces and lakes of that former Garden City.

I am old enough to remember when autorickshaws were new-fangled things in India, shiny little cars on three wheels that drove many a cycle-rickshaw-wallah out of business from the suburbs of Bombay and other larger metros, and into the narrower gullies of the less “developed” towns and cities. Just as their four-wheeled black-and-yellow cousins, the taxicabs, had driven horse-drawn tongas to extinction or a tourist curiosity a few years earlier.

Yet, contemplating peak oil and our post-carbon future, and picturing the fancier human-powered-rickshaws now running around in Europe’s old towns, I can’t help but think that the best days of the cycle-rickshaw may still lie ahead of us. For after all, we’re far from running out of human muscle power even as we deplete fossil fuel reserves. So the noxious black smoke spewing autorickshaw may not be long for our world, but the hard-barganing rickshaw-wallahs will sure continue to keep em running, held together by wire and spit as they may be, till the last possible ride.

And then may we come back to view this film with an extra touch of nostalgia…

Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

The above was the original title of an essay I wrote some 15 years ago, a bit of a rant really, in response to constant needling by some people wondering why I was studying tiny nondescript little warblers for my Ph.D. research instead of something more important… you know… like tigers. After all I was doing field work in a Tiger Reserve anyway, and there aren’t any warbler reserves, so why was I wasting my time? Hence, eventually, my response, outlining the greater importance of warblers.

That essay somehow landed on the desk of Joanna Van Gruisen, who happened to be editing a coffee-table book on wildlife conservation in India for the Ranthambore Foudation. She liked my contrarian essay well enough to want to include it in the book “In Danger” where most of the other contributions were about much more charismatic megafauna, including tigers! She did tone down the title, turning it into a question – see below. In the years since, I keep hearing from various people in India that they have read that article, which was also reprinted in a magazine, and more recently in another edited book on ornithological writings from India. Sometimes I get the sense that more people have read this article than have ready any (or all) of my academic papers. It is this kind of unexpected (honestly) response which encouraged me to try more science writing for nonscientists, eventually leading to this blog and other writing I am doing currently.

This warblers vs. tigers polemic, though, keeps coming back. Recently, a newfound friend on the internets, Arati Rao, wrote to me about going back to re-read it, wishing she could own a copy, but that the original book is now out-of-print. At her behest, therefore, I am reproducing the article below, and hope it finds new readers. I think I will scan the original print version also and post it online soon. Meanwhile, here it is:


Are Warblers Less Important Than Tigers?


Are Warblers less important than Tigers?

Now what kind of a stupid question is that?! Everyone knows that tigers are more important, being large predators, as apex species, at the top of the food chain, flagship species for conservation… etc. … etc. … etc.!!

These are arguments I have to face often enough when I tell people I am studying warblers—in Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve! For some reason, studying these tiny, nondescript, common birds is thought to be an entirely trivial, indeed arcane, academic pursuit of little practical or conservation value.

“What can studying little birds tell me about the habitat of large mammals, which are my primary concern?”—asks the reserve manager. On the other hand, if we focus on the larger mammals—the apex species philosophy of Project Tiger—and do our best to improve their habitat, other species will also naturally benefit. Given limited funds and manpower for conservation (research and action), is it not better to focus on the mega-fauna and let the mini- and micro-fauna take care of itself? The only small creatures one should worry about then are those that may form part of the food chain leading up to the larger focal species.

Before you accuse me of a biased perspective (which is undoubtedly true, for I make my living watching little warblers!), let me state that, in defending these little creatures, I am also arguing in favor of a broader ecological perspective in conservation—one that goes beyond the charismatic mega-fauna, and starts looking at species more in terms of their ecological role in the system, rather than their appearance/charisma, or tourism potential!

Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

So what is the ecological role of my favoured little leaf-warblers?

Leaf warblers (Genus Phylloscopus) must surely rank among the least glamorous vertebrates, so utterly lacking in charisma that even many die-hard bird watchers dismiss them lightly, scarcely bothering to try and even identify them to species level. Part of the problem is, of course, the fact that they are all small, dull-green coloured, and highly active in the forest canopy, making identification in the field difficult. It is only rarely—either when one is truly nuts about birds or when the fate of one’s Ph.D. thesis hangs on such identification—that one develops the eye for the subtle morphological, auditory and behavioural differences between species. These difficulties in identifying species, however, need not bother our busy manager too much, since they (the leaf-warblers) are all pretty similar ecologically as well—the role they play in the forest is largely independent of their taxonomic status, except insofar as structural aspects of their foraging microhabitat within the forest canopy are concerned.

All 18 species leaf warblers occurring in the Indian subcontinent are migratory, breeding in the temperate summers from Himalaya north to the Arctic circle, and taking over the peninsular (including Himalayan foothills, and much of Northeast India) forests from September through May. While each individual may weigh only 7-11 grams (range includes all species; give or take a gram), one may still emphasize the term take-over, when describing their relationship to their forest habitats: they number in the billions and form probably the most abundant avian guild in the subcontinental forests during our tropical winter. My study at Mundanthurai (in the southern western ghats) records a density of 6-8 leaf warblers (of two species) per hectare of forest—usually any given patch of forest may have 2-3 species, depending on the type of forest; and I doubt there is any forest habitat in India that does not host at least one species some time of year. Picking a random hectare from my 20 ha study plot at Mundanthurai, I find 6 leaf warblers (of 2 species) making it their home for 7-8 months— for these are territorial individuals that remain on site for much of the winter. And what do they do during this period? Well, eat insects, mostly! Humdrum as their lives may sound, they spend over 75% of their waking hours foraging for insects (and other arthropods—but insects predominate) in the foliage. Since they are not concerned about finding mates or raising young during this season, and want merely to survive in good shape for the next summer, their other activities—preening and maintaining territories through vocal and visual dialogue with neighbors—does not take much time. Hmm… a bunch of small, dull birds spending most of their day peering at leaves in search of insects—do I seem to be only weakening the defense? Not really…

Consider the fact that each leaf-warbler, on average, eats 3 insects every waking minute (this is averaging over all their activities throughout the day). Since they forage by picking prey off a substrate—mostly leaf, sometimes also twigs and flowers—the prey largely consists of herbivorous insects. In the case of my one hectare on Mundanthurai, it is mostly caterpillars eating leaves. A single leaf-warbler thus eats an average of 180 insects every hour, or about 1980 per day (assuming an average 11 hour working-day from dawn to dusk). The six individuals on our plot thus rid the plants of almost 12,000 insect pests—every day!! Multiply that with the number of days (200-250) that they are in residence on that one ha plot and you may begin to appreciate the service they render to all the plants. Now I ask you to consider removing these warblers from the study plot, since they seem to take away so much research and conservation energy from your more favoured mammals, and picture the forest as it may appear in a few weeks’ time…! The scenario could become even more dramatic if you (in your large-mammal chauvinism) remove all the other insectivorous birds from the plot as well: I estimate each hectare of Mundanthurai’s forest has at least 40 insectivorous birds, including other warblers and flycatchers (both resident and migrant), minivets, shrikes, drongos, babblers etc. The average number of prey may come down to just over 2 per bird per minute—which gives a total of about 5000 insects per hour, or 55,000 per day in every hectare of forest! Remove those insectivores: …and don’t be surprised if in a few weeks your plants start to appear ragged with their foliage tattered… and your endangered langurs become unhappy because so many leaves are now packed with toxic anti-herbivore compounds produced in response to caterpillar nibblings… and the plants make fewer flowers and fruits as they are forced to spend too much energy in self defense… in turn making the nectarivores and frugivores unhappy… and regeneration of the forest slows down as fewer seeds get produced and dispersed… and the ground starts to dry faster because the canopy is thinner and more sunlight gets in… I leave you to work out the rest of the ecological cascade effects on your own!! For now, I’d be happy if you simply pause to appreciate the job done by the nondescript little green jobs—the leaf warblers—and their insectivore colleagues that travel thousands of kilometers every year to eat all those insects.

Before you start protesting that you will never contemplate removing all those birds, and that I am just another doomsayer, consider the fact that 80% of the warblers (esp. the Green leaf warbler, which is the most common one here) as well as the next most abundant migrant (Blyth’s reed warbler) spending each winter at Mundanthurai come from the forests of the hill regions around the Caspian Sea, from Turkey east through Kashmir, including bits of southern Russia and Afghanistan. Now imagine that these hills—breeding grounds for so many migrant insectivores—are deforested on a large scale, either directly by us or through effects of global climate change, cutting down the bird population by 90%. Such declines is not very unrealistic, as those studying migrant forest birds in the Americas will tell you—though they worry more about forests in the wintering areas being cut down rather than in the breeding grounds. In fact, over the past two decades, Americans and Europeans are increasingly facing the prospect of another Silent Spring.  Not, this time, due to the factors mentioned in Rachel Carson’s clarion call in the 1960s—over-use of chemicals in agriculture at the height of the green revolutions—but to a suite of other human activities that have hit the habitat of avian migrants in both their northern breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds. Many species of migrant songbirds, which enliven the northern spring after the dreary and silent winters, have been pushed to the brink of extinction—some like the Kirtland’s warbler down to a few scores of breeding pairs—over the past two decades, even as my ornithologist comrades in the west are racing against time to figure out the causes of these declines, so we may try and reverse the process! The culprits are, of course, us humans: deforesting the tropical wintering grounds; fragmenting the temperate forests into suburban woodlots more accessible to human subsidized nest-predators such as domestic cats and other small carnivores (wild or feral) thriving on our garbage; and directly subsidizing populations of non-migratory nest-parasites like the north-American cowbird through back-yard bird feeders, enabling them to survive the harsh winter, and fool over 200 gullible species of songbirds into raising their offspring! We seem to be particularly adept at causing damage to the ecological fabric of this planet, even when we mean good—feed them poor little birdies in the winter, or the cute raccoons at night!!

Getting back to our continent, where we have no information on population trends of forest birds at all—whether resident or migratory, in tropical south and south-east Asia or temperate Russia, Mongolia and Siberia—declines paralleling those on the other continents are very much on the cards, if, indeed, they haven’t occurred already! Given the contempt that these migrants have for human geopolitical boundaries, their populations are subject to forces beyond the control of any one national conservation agency, let alone the manager of a single Tiger Reserve. And if their populations are found to be declining as drastically as many New World migrants’ have over the past several decades, mammal chauvinists may be reduced to haplessly watching the habitats of their favourite creatures getting degraded.

Do you think even the tigers might get worried about such a scenario??

Is it worth studying these warblers, trying to figure out what makes their populations tick, and how to save them—and ensure they continue to keep all those insects down?

Are warblers less important than tigers?? Isn’t the question itself meaningless?

“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.

You win some and you lose some – but too bad the environment is not a zero sum game!

Two news items today, of some significance in the ongoing battles between big multinational corporations vs. those speaking on behalf of the environment and indigenous human populations. Do you want the good news or the bad news first? I suppose convention says I should lead with the bad, end with the good so you don’t go away feeling depressed. But when it comes to the planet’s ecosystems, we’re not playing a zero-sum game where a win in one place balances out a loss elsewhere! So in what may be the environmentalists’ tradition, I can’t have you go away happy thinking all is well with the world after reading this post now, can I? So let’s start with the good, shall we?

The Hindu reports that the long-eared blue-skinned eco-smurfs have beaten back the mining corporations at least this once, with help from the Indian government, no less, who have an Environment Minister increasingly gaining my respect with his recent actions. Let’s see how long that lasts – but enjoy this while it does:

After a long-drawn consultation process, the Union government has finally pronounced its verdict against Vedanta Alumina’s $1.7 billion plan to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa.

“There has been a very serious violation of the Environment Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act and the Forest Rights Act,” said Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh. He blamed Vedanta, the Orissa Mining Corporation, and the State officials for the violations. “The clearance stands rejected.”

Mr. Ramesh accepted the recommendation of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) to withdraw the Stage I forest clearance, granted in 2008, and reject the Stage II clearance that the promoters had applied for. In the light of this, the environmental clearance will also become invalid.

In a further blow to Vedanta’s plans in the region, the Ministry will investigate the allegation that the bauxite for Vedanta’s Orissa refinery is being sourced from 14 Jharkhand mines, of which at least 11 do not have a valid environmental clearance.

The Ministry is also issuing a show cause notice, threatening the cancellation of the licence given to the refinery itself, which has illegally grabbed village forest lands and carrying out a six-fold expansion without permission. The appraisal process of the expansion has been suspended.

Elsewhere on our planet, the UN has decided to pardon the Shell corporation for 40 years of pollution, human rights abuses, and environmental malfeasance in the Niger delta. I bet BP is feeling pretty stupid right now for trying risky oil drilling off the coast of the US instead of some poor developing nation. Its far easier to blame the impoverished victims there, and to get away with almost anything. I’m sure BP’ll bounce back, though, as these big corps always seem to. And no doubt Shell shareholders are rejoicing.

A three-year investigation by the United Nations will almost entirely exonerate Royal Dutch Shell for 40 years of oil pollution in the Niger delta, causing outrage among communities who have long campaigned to force the multinational to clean up its spills and pay compensation.

The $10m (£6.5m) investigation by the UN environment programme (UNEP), paid for by Shell, will say that only 10% of oil pollution in Ogoniland has been caused by equipment failures and company negligence, and concludes that the rest has come from local people illegally stealing oil and sabotaging company pipelines.

The shock disclosure was made by Mike Cowing, the head of a UN team of 100 people who have been studying environmental damage in the region.

Cowing said that the 300 known oil spills in the Ogoniland region of the delta caused massive damage, but added that 90% of the spills had been caused by “bunkering” gangs trying to steal oil.

His comments, in a briefing in Geneva last week, have caused deep offence among the families of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogoni leaders who were hanged by the Nigerian government in 1995 after a peaceful uprising against Shell’s pollution.

Leopards test the Wildlife Institute of India’s commitment to conservation amid humans!

This rather overwrought article (click on the image/link for a readable e-paper version) points to an interesting problem facing my alma mater in the Himalayan foothills: what to do about a leopard (or several) that have made the WII campus part of their home range over some years, but may be becoming a bit too frequent for some people’s comfort? Its an interesting conundrum for an institution whose raison d’etre revolves around figuring out ways for wildlife (especially of the charismatic megafaunal variety) to coexist amid India’s thriving human population. While it is interesting to read about the internal debate within WII, I’m disappointed that the report doesn’t really address the potential impacts of whatever decision WII makes on ordinary people living around campus – despite the pictures of one such person! For in India the conflict is often sharper between advocates of wildlife conservation and people living in and around wildlife habitats than between wildlife and people! So I’m curious about that aspect of this scenario, and whether the administration of WII is responding to concerns about the leopards potentially threatening children not only on campus but off it too.

And I also wonder if there might not be a technological solution to this – or at least an opportunity to experiment with one. How about putting radio-collars (perhaps GPS enabled) on the cats and setting up an array of receivers across campus so their whereabouts can be monitored whenever on campus? One could take this a step further and link the automated monitoring to a real-time alert system that can tell people (perhaps via SMS on their mobile phones) when and where a leopard is on campus. Would make life easier for the parents if they can pull their kids inside whenever the cats appear, no? All while gathering interesting data on the behavior of the animals in such inhabited areas! Surely the WII has the expertise to do this, and someone is already be on this experimental path?

EclipseWatch: documenting animal behavior oddities during this week’s solar eclipse

This Friday (Jan 15, 2010) some parts of the old world will experience a solar eclipse – even an annular one if you are in the right place! Now you may have heard stories of wild animals behaving strangely during eclipses, getting disoriented perhaps, showing unusual movement patterns, or just plain going nuts (heck, we humans probably behave most strangely of all!). A new citizen science project in India (parts of which will see the eclipse) seeks to document instances of such behavioral changes in animals through crowdsourcing! So if you happen to be in the path of the eclipse, and see something intriguing, go to EclipseWatch and share your observation! Here’s the deal:

Have you wondered how animals and birds respond during a solar eclipse?

Here is a chance for you to contribute information based on your own observations during the solar eclipse on 15 January 2010! It’s very easy: just sign up using a simple form and map to indicate your intention to participate. Then download a data collection form (available on 14 Jan) with easy instructions, and fill it in with your observations.

EclipseWatch collects information about the flight of crows, kites, pigeons and bats; and the sounds of crows, sparrows, house lizards (geckoes) and dogs before, during, and after the eclipse. Please participate no matter where you are in the country, and no matter what the intensity of the eclipse will be in your area. The idea is to compare the reaction of animals across regions of different coverage of the eclipse.

Anyone can participate, so please join us in this unique India-wide effort to observe the natural world!

And if won’t be in the eclipse’s shadow, you can still help by spreading the word, so please retweet this / share it via Facebook / email anyone you know living in that region. It’ll be cool to generate a good database of anecdotes from which interesting patterns may emerge!

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Another veteran of wildlife conservation lost to India

Billy Arjan Singh, in his younger days, with his leopards

The new year began on another sad note for Indian wildlife conservationists with the passing of ‘Billy’ Arjan Singh, the Indian Jim Corbett. I never had the chance to meet this veteran old-school hunter-turned-tiger-conservationist (of a mold akin more to legendary figures from African wildlife conservation than from India, to my mind anyway) who lived with big cats at his home “Tiger Haven”, and helped create what is now Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. A brief overview of his life and accomplishments are here and in his wikipedia entry, and here’s a list of books and films by and about him.

Sanctuary magazine, which interviewed him at the turn of this century, solicits remembrances to be published alongside that interview. There is also a Facebook group remembering him.

Meanwhile, Pheroza Godrej (in the article accompanying the above picture) remembers how “his leopard was at my bedroom mirror”.

Billy Arjan Singh surely belonged to another era, in more ways than one…

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

In memoriam: SA Hussain

At year’s end, it comes to this – more sad news for ornithology and conservation in India. 2009, this wicked year, started off by snatching away Ravi Sankaran from us in January, went on to claim Alan Rodgers at the end of March, and has now rounded itself off by taking away another doyen of Indian natural history in the person of Syed Abdulla Hussain. Via Nathistory-India came news a short while ago that SA Hussain passed away on the penultimate night of this lousy year.

(images courtesy of Manoj Singh and Bharat Bhushan via Facebook)

I remember spending a month or so with him in Dachigam National Park, Kashmir one summer some 20 years ago. I was a tyro then, doing field work for my MSc dissertation (from the Wildlife Institute of India) on the bird communities of Lower Dachigam Valley. Luckily for me in my very first field season, SA Hussain arrived in the park just as I was beginning my transects to count birds. He came with a team of graduate students and Bihari trappers from the Bombay Natural History Society on a bird ringing project, and camped for some weeks. It was the first time I had the opportunity to observe and participate in an intensive mist-netting operation. I hadn’t the resources nor expertise to attempt any such thing for my own thesis work – and no one at WII did either! Hussain taught me how to remove small birds from the fine nylon mesh (you do it carefully), and the importance of always carrying a swiss army knife in one’s pockets (and, of course, wearing a birder’s vest with many such pockets!) when doing so. For the little pair of scissors sure come in handy at times when a bird gets badly entangled and you have to cut the net to free the poor beast! Especially things like small woodpeckers that tend to get their long tongues caught in a knot of nylon – not a pretty sight, and not for the squeamish. I particularly remember a lovely Wryneck we had one day (it was’t badly entangled), and how we marveled at its remarkably flexible neck! Skills he taught me then, even though I wasn’t formally his student, still stand me in good stead.

It’s been a while since I last heard from him, even on Facebook where we had become friends again over the past year. I had heard that he was ill some time ago, but wasn’t aware of the extent of his illness. It was good to see pictures of him walking around in the woods during the Great Himalayan Bird Count just last month where he also accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award (see full gallery on posterous for additional images). I didn’t think he was all that old nor that seriously ill, so this news came as a bit of a shock. I hope he didn’t suffer too much in the end.

My condolences to the family, to his students, to BNHS, which was his home for many years, and to the larger naturalist / ornithologist / conservationist community of which he was such a crucial part. He is the third figure I have lost this year from among my early influences in field biology, all in one painful long year.
May the new year bring us all better news, and good riddance to this pathetic one.

Greylag Geese and a conservation story for the new year

As we count down to the end of the noughties (which in so many ways have been quite dismal for biodiversity on our planet), it is nice to find some rays of hope, some silver linings, so we can look forward to the next year and the coming decade not entirely bereft of optimism. I am glad, therefore, to share with you, this guest post from Sumit K. Sen who offers just such a story of reconciliation ecology in action in one of the poorest regions of India:

Greylag Geese and a conservation story for the new year
The new year is always a time for good cheer and hope. It has been some time since I have found anything to cheer about in terms of conservation success as far as birds are concerned. All I have seen and read are about the struggle of selfless individuals against the forces of destructive development. But for me the best stories are the ones that are spontaneous – those that come from enlightenment and not mere education. To witness such spontaneous acts of conservation has been a life-enriching experience for me – and I have found some true conservationists in places like faraway Mizoram, and closer home at Santragachi and Rajhat.

Last Saturday, Bhaskar Das and I ventured on a 250 km drive from Kolkata to a small unheralded village in Birbhum District of rural West Bengal – to the agricultural settlement of Parulia. Parulia is an impoverished village living on the brink of existence. Its inhabitants, like most people of the district are a mix of tribals and other locals. All meat-eaters, and many partly hunter-gatherers. Little is known about Parulia except that it came into prominence in early 2008 because of the spread of bird flu in the district. There were talks of cull of migratory ducks and tales of local resistance – one villager being quoted as saying: ” The birds come here every winter. We love them.”  That was about all that was known about Parulia as a place for birds or about its conservation success.

The existence of Parulia and its association with birds would have passed into obscurity for us had it not been for Mr. Anup Kr. Dey. Mr. Dey is a bird lover and his passion for birds and birding was fueled by the internet and the presence of websites such as ‘Birds of India’ and forums like ‘Bird Photo India’ and ‘Bengalbird’. In these he found cyber companions to encourage and support his lonely  pursuit of birds of Birbhum District – and I was lucky that he chose to share his pent up passion with me over mail/phone. Being a District Engineer, Mr. Dey knows every nook and corner of his district, and it was his description of Parulia that urged our 4.30 am departure on a cold and foggy morning.

We reached Parulia by 9.30am, guided by Mr. Dey from Suri onwards. An agricultural landscape dotted with small ponds took us to a square irrigation tank 170 meters across. In it were about 400 Greylags – some  feeding,  others resting while the rest of the village went about their business ~ with some even washing utensils while the geese swam past. It was an unbelievable sight to us from eastern India – a sight which is proof that conservation is way beyond some forest guards doing their duty or some highly educated people making their passion and presence felt. This is grassroot conservation from the heart and I wish that there are many more like these.

I could not think of ending 2009 with a better story. Here is hoping that there will be more like this in 2010.

-End-

1. Parulia is here: http://bit.ly/Parulia . It is 3kms north-east of Santhia town.
2. Greylag Geese: Greylag Geese are winter visitors to India from eastern Europe and Asia from the Urals eastwards. Asad Rahmani & Zafar-ul-Islam in Ducks, Geese and Swans of India (BNHS 2008) estimate that about 15,000 winter in India. 1% population (150 in this case) in a single area is considered significant for conservation. This is the biggest known single site for this species in West Bengal at present times.