Category Archives: nature

Presenting the first fruit of a sabbatical – “Cities and Biodiversity Outlook: Action and Policy”

As regular readers (and friends/followers on Facebook and Twitter) may be aware, I am currently on sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities, and am trying to make the most of this year to maximize my productivity in terms of research, catching up with paper writing, and science communication, here on the blog and elsewhere. The blogging has been rather light over the past few months as I have been traveling and getting involved in some fascinating collaborations which haven’t left me much time to write. I hope to make up for that over the coming weeks and months, especially now that I’ve moved my blog to be part of this Coyotes Network. Nice to be part of so many exciting and invigorating collaborations on all fronts! I was so ready for it after 8 years of the teaching and scholarship grind…

My sabbatical started with a lovely two months in Stockholm, working with my friend and colleague Thomas Elmqvist to put together the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook (CBO) for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). A Professor of Ecology at the Stockholm Resilience Center, at Stockholm University, Thomas is also the chief scientific editor of this effort bringing together some 150 scientists and practitioners from the urban ecology disciplines (yes takes multiple disciplines to study the ecology of cities) to make the first comprehensive assessment of the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services in cities throughout our increasingly urbanized world. Here is Thomas explaining the mission and context of the CBO:

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It was quite an inspirational and productive way to begin my sabbatical – to go to a city that was so different in so many ways from Fresno, to explore a new country, to meet some fantastic new colleagues and friends from distant lands, and to engage in such a stimulating exercise as assessing the world’s urban ecosystems to help identify ways to better manage them for long-term sustainability. I may write more about these experiences and share photos from the trip as time allows.

By the end of my nearly two months there, we had finalized the text of the CBO’s first major document: the Cities and Biodiversity Outlook: Action and Policy. This is our distillation of the current scientific understanding of urban ecosystems and biodiversity, and various ways cities can and are addressing the challenge of managing cities for sustainability. We synthesized insights and case-studies from the collective expertise of our 150-odd collaborators to produce a document that is intended to help ordinary citizens and urban planners, policy makers, and non-government practitioners grapple with the challenges and opportunities of global urbanization. As such, it is a relatively concise, well illustrated document written for non-expert readers – something for which my blogging had prepared me rather well, I realized. A more detailed Scientific Assessment, comprising of chapters covering different aspects of the urban ecological challenges, and detailed case-studies, written by the world’s leading experts in urban ecology, is currently being compiled and will be released sometime in spring 2013, as a print and an open-access e-book. Stay tuned for announcements about that.

Meanwhile, after spending a couple of weeks in Germany attending conferences, giving research talks, and catching up with some old friends, I wound up in India preparing for the official launch of the CBO at the 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11) of the CBD. The first public presentation of the CBO was a keynote talk by Thomas at the 2012 Urban Biodiversity and Design Conference in Mumbai on 10 October 2012. Then we moved to Hyderabad where the CBO was formally launched at last on 15 October 2012, at the Cities for Life Summit organized as part of COP 11. Here is Thomas (in the middle with the CBD Executive Secretary Mr. Braulio F. de Souza Dias on his left) showing it to the media at the launch press conference:

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That was when I finally got to see our work in print – quite nice colorful print too – and was pleasantly surprised to find myself listed among the 10 lead authors of the CBO! I honestly hadn’t really paid attention to the authorship of this report because it had been such a rich community exercise. In addition, since COP 11 was in India, and a large contingent of government officials, biodiversity scientists, and NGOs from all over India were in attendance that day, we simultaneously released another document: Urbanization, ecosystems, and biodiversity: Assessments of India and Bangalore. A smaller group of us (primarily Harini Nagendra, Maria Schewenius, and I) wrote this during a frenzied few weeks – and through an insane flurry of emails – after the CBO: Action & Policy had gone to the printers. Our initial print run of a 1000 copies of both the documents was exhausted within the hour, with journalists at the press conference fighting for the last copies of the India Assessment! I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for such an enthusiastic reception – but it has certainly reenergized the team working on the Scientific Assessment to complete the overall CBO mission.

A few hours ago, I had the opportunity to present an overview of the CBO at the December 2012 meeting of the Central Valley Café Scientifique in Fresno, to a very interested local audience of science enthusiasts and concerned citizens. Here are the slides from my presentation (adapted from Thomas’ keynote talk in Mumbai):

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I was once again surprised, and gratified, by the keen interest and sharp questions and comments from the audience in the vigorous discussion that followed. But I really shouldn’t be surprised – after all, we are all city dwellers, so who among us wouldn’t be interested in learning about the state of our own home ecosystem? I hope the key messages (the CBO has 10 of them) we worked so hard to craft over the summer in the Stockholm archipelago, will percolate and spread beyond last night’s immediate audience and start to reach those involved in the governance of Fresno and Clovis (and other cities). I am now hoping to meet the mayors of both cities so I can present them with copies of the CBO: Action and Policy.

We urban ecologists have done our best to put together this report – now we must ensure that our messages translate into real world action in cities worldwide if we are to contain some of the alarming trends of urbanization’s impacts, and create better habitats for ourselves and for other species on an urban planet. Let me leave you with that thought, and with some links for further reading and action:

Chimpanzee: a nature film where story matters. For our cousins. For ourselves.

It is something else to look into the eyes of a Chimpanzee staring out of a giant movie screen, the rainforest canopy reflected in those intent pellucid mirrors so like our own.

I don’t know if I will ever get the chance to really look into the eyes of our closest cousins, the Chimpanzees and Bonobos, in their natural habitat in the wild. I have seen them in captivity, and lingered around their captive groups, which appear not entirely unhappy in modern zoo habitats enriched to sustain their social behaviors. I have also seen them in a number of documentaries on the television, usually with the familiar face and voice of Jane Goodall (Jane-didu or Grandma Jane to my daughters) accompanying the story. Those have been the best avenues available to most of us wanting to understand something about the lives of these cousins of ours. Most of us will not be able to see those lives up close in person in the wild – and that is a good thing. It is enough, for the most part, to know that we still continue to share this planet with these evolutionary siblings of ours, even though their numbers have dwindled and we continue to ravage their habitats. As a wildlife biologist, I do hope/dream of someday making it to Africa to see them in person. I don’t know if that will ever happen.

In the meantime, I will take this incredible peek into their lives on the big screen at my local multiplex:


More about the campaign tying this film to chimpanzee conservation at

We saw the film a few hours ago, on opening night at the behest of our youngest, N, who can’t help but squeal in fangirl excitement every time she hears Jane Goodall’s voice or sees her face. N had already watched her appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (yes, my 6-year-old is also a big fan of Stewart and Colbert) earlier this week, delighted by the anticipated chimpanzee greeting they exchanged, and listening rapt to the story of the film as told by Jane. The moment N heard that a portion of the ticket price would go to the Jane Goodall Institute during opening week, it was decided: we were going to see it on opening day!

I went in with a fair bit of trepidation, given that the film comes under the DisneyNature (yes, its their own copyrighted version of nature) banner, and aware that the proliferation of nature shows has also dragged down the quality of these films in recent years. As George Black wrote in that pointed critique just a couple of weeks ago, …we’ve kept the thrills but we’re losing the story… … Think of it as nature porn. So I was wary of this film, and even said to my girls while heading to the theater that I wish we had the option to turn off the audio in such films and just enjoy the visuals.

As it turned out, I need not have worried. Because soon after the beginning, as the camera took us (slowly, without jump cuts or shaky cam effects) into the rainforest of West Africa, immersing us into the dark green world beneath the mist-shrouded canopy, giving us our first glimpse of the chimpanzees, it settled down to look into a pair of those pellucid eyes, letting the face fill much of the big screen – and I was lost.

As you can see from the two videos I’ve shared above, the film crew stumbled upon a truly remarkable story in the adoption of the orphaned Oscar by his troop’s dominant male Fred. I am glad, therefore, that the director and scriptwriter did not succumb to the tendency to overly dramatize such events, and bury them under a layer of schmaltz. They trusted the story, and let it unfold for us, taking the time to build a full picture of life as a chimpanzee in that rainforest: with remarkable footage of tool-use in the course of daily foraging, a thrilling sequence of Fred leading his friends in a well-coordinated colobus monkey hunt, and insights into the social dynamics of chimpanzee society both within and between troops. Yes, they labeled the neighboring troop as villains of the piece, but given that it appeared to be composed largely of males, with no young chimps (was this really the case, or merely a result of careful shot selection?), that bit of dramatic tension too hit the emotional mark.

I have seen such drama up close among bonnet macaques at my field site in southern India, and thought then that that would make for great soap opera. This film rises above even that, and tells a truly touching, thought-provoking, ultimately heart-warming tale, Even the voiceover narration stayed in the right zone, I thought, with just enough silly humor mixed with pathos that did not dissolve into sap even at the most poignant moments. It helped that the voice was not that of God (Morgan Freeman) but of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). And the anthropomorphisms too did not seem out of place – for these are, after all, the most anthropomorphic of animals we have left on the planet. Watching the complex behaviors, and the facial expressions of the chimps, it seemed perfectly natural to view them as our kin, whom we might actually be able to understand using some of our own framework of thinking – even as they may shed light on our own social evolution.

The anthropomorphic tone, which had seemed jarringly over-the-top when applied to penguins (by God, no less), is much more appropriate with chimps. Especially when the tale unfolding has such resonance for our own social lives: the mother-infant bond, the social bonds and anxieties of living in territorial groups, the culture of learning complex behaviors including making and using tools for various tasks, the orphaned young chimp trying to find a place in the troop, which is met with the truly remarkable altruism of the big alpha male, showing his tender side, adopting the child when even most females had rejected him. Why did he do it – the evolutionary biologist in me (fresh from teaching kin selection theory earlier in the day) wonders? Was he the father? Perhaps – but how could he be sure of that in a promiscuous society? Was he thinking ahead to the longer-term need for more male allies in his troop (seems far-fetched)? Or did he simply feel it was the natural, right thing to do? The human thing to do. Isn’t it?

N’s favorite scene was when, weeks into the growing relationship between Oscar and Fred, we see the little boy reach into the big male’s hand, and grab a bit of nutmeat from just in front of his mouth – just like she loves to do with me!

Who needs to amp up the drama when life is full of such moments? I’m glad the filmmakers didn’t yield to that base media impulse, instead choosing to deliver the first real dramatic story (at least the first I’ve seen) from the life of another species, projected on the big screen at our neighborhood multiplex.

Go see the film, for it has a “triple thumbs up” from N! I’m certain we will be adding it to our home library when it comes out on disc. But right now, if you can, see it during the first week to send some of your ticket price towards actual Chimpanzee conservation, or visit the Jane Goodall Institute for ways to make even more of a difference to this planet of us apes.

Just look into those eyes, on the big screen, and tell me that saving chimpanzees is not a crucial part of saving ourselves.

Posted via email from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

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

What Was Lost in the Fire: A Conservation Memorial

On the all too rare mornings when the Central Valley’s dirty air has been cleansed by a winter storm—and before the Tule fog has set in—I find myself fortunate enough to be gazing out upon the snow-topped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains from my office window, my view bracketed by two amazing National Parks: King’s Canyon (with Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states of the US) at the southern edge, and Yosemite to the north. As a hiker and rock-climber in my youth, I spent many hours poring over photographs of these places in books checked out of the American Center Library in Bombay. I dreamt of visiting Yosemite, a mecca for rock-climbers, imagined myself walking through the fantastic landscapes captured on film by Ansel Adams, feeling the granite under my fingers. Rock-climbing gave way to bird-watching as I grew into an ecologist and a conservation biologist, and Yosemite assumed even more significance as one of the holiest places in any conservation pilgrimage of the US, indeed the world. What a model for nature conservation this National Park was, is. How wonderful the wilderness I could picture in these places in the writings of John Muir and others. And how lucky I am now to be living so close to such places. When I gaze out at the mountains, or visit Yosemite as part of the throngs of millions that flood its beautiful valley every year, I try to imagine what the place might have looked like a century or two ago—a fantasy we all share, those of us who despair over the state of the natural world. In my dreams now, though, I don’t see it as a “pristine” wilderness untouched by humans, but a home to a community of native people, the Ahwahneechee who once thrived there, but whose existence has been sought to be erased from our collective memory and imagination, as a centerpiece of the still prevailing notion of a National Park as pristine wilderness, a place where human beings don’t belong (and therefore never did), except as visitors who may be allowed to look and to listen, but scarcely to touch anything.

Today, I am pleased to share with you the following essay by Eric Michael Johnson, who reminds us of the human history of Yosemite, and what we in the conservation community have lost in seeking to airbrush humans out of our imagination of what Nature is supposed to look like, “unspoilt”. We must reclaim that history too if we are to reconcile our existence on this planet—not apart from, but as active participants in, Nature. This guest post is part of Eric’s Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or by following Eric on Twitter.

The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California’s San Joaquin river. Soft orange light had just begun to spill over the craggy peaks of the eastern Ahwahnee mountains causing the jagged minarets to ignite like still burning embers from the Indian campfires below.

All remained still inside the wigwams of the Ahwahneechee camp. But an attuned ear would have noticed that the early morning trills of the hermit thrush were strangely absent. A disturbed silence had entered the forest, broken only by the occasional clumsy snap of twigs as if from an animal unfamiliar with its surroundings. There was also the faint smell of smoke.

Suddenly, fires roared to life throughout the camp as multiple wigwams were engulfed in flame. White men quickly scattered from the light and into shadow. A party of vigilantes in the company of Major John Savage had used smouldering logs from the Indians’ own campfires to set the shelters ablaze. It was a tactic that those with experience in the Indian Wars knew to inspire panic and the crucial element of surprise. Dozens of Ahwahneechee fled their burning wigwams as the fire rapidly spread to the surrounding forest. Thick plumes of smoke were bathed in the same searing glow that was now descending from the rocky peaks above.

“Charge, boys! Charge!!” bellowed the gravelly voice of Lieutenant Chandler. A heavy drumbeat of foot falls now joined the sound of crackling pine. Thirty men, many wearing identical red shirts and crude suspenders purchased at the mining supply depot, dashed from the surrounding bushes with their rifles.

“So rapid and so sudden were the charges made,” wrote the chronicler Lafayette Bunnell, “that the panic stricken warriors at once fled from their stronghold.” Savage’s men fired indiscriminately into the Ahwahneechee camp, a people who had called this valley their home for centuries.

“No prisoners were taken,” recalled the witness to these events, “twenty-three were killed; the number of wounded was never known.” All in all, it was a successful mission. However, the author noted that even more “savages” could have been hunted down and murdered had the fire not raged so out of control as to spread down the mountainside endangering their own camp. As the ragtag militia fled downhill to rescue their supplies the Ahwahneechee survivors escaped further into the mountains, little knowing that they would never be able to return home.

One month later, on January 13, 1851 by order of the governor and through a special act of Congress, the Savage militia received federal and state support to “punish the offending tribes” in the region now called the Yosemite Valley. For the leadership of California’s newly established government the approach for dealing with the native population had become a “war of extermination.” For more than a decade afterwards the land between the Merced and Tuolumne rivers remained under permanent military occupation until it became the first state park in US history to be ceded by the federal government.

I was raised in the mountains of Northern California and walked the trails near the site of this tragic massacre as a child. But I had never heard of John Savage nor the terrible events that lay behind the formation of Yosemite National Park, a picturesque symbol of the conservation movement and a vacation resort for millions. Rather it was John Muir, that noble wanderer and founder of the Sierra Club, whose name was synonymous with this national treasure. When my brothers and I climbed out of the family station wagon to witness the majesty of this glacier carved valley, it was Muir’s name that adorned the signs along the manicured trails and the celebrated volumes in the gift shop. If the indigenous population was mentioned in any of the brochures or trail guides I have no memory of it and I left with no indication that the region had once been inhabited. The impression I received was that Yosemite had always been a pristine wilderness, as sparse and pure as the Ansel Adams portraits that hung on my family’s wall for years afterwards.

But it was this skewed interpretation of wilderness that John Muir had successfully promoted, a vision that has haunted the conservation movement ever since. In his famous nineteenth century travel writings in the Sierra Nevada mountains Muir described Yosemite, not just as a picturesque marvel of nature, but as something divine that was beyond human frailties. The landscape of the “Sierra Cathedral Mountains,” was a “temple lighted from above. But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” he wrote. It was a place that was “pure wildness” and where “no mark of man is visible upon it.”

[T]he main canyons widen into spacious valleys or parks of charming beauty, level and flowery and diversified like landscape gardens with meadows and groves and thickets of blooming bushes, while the lofty walls, infinitely varied in form, are fringed with ferns, flowering plants, shrubs of many species, and tall evergreens and oaks.

It’s not that Muir didn’t encounter native peoples in his travels, he did, but he found them to be “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.” For a wilderness as pure as his holy Yosemite “they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” But, ironically, these “strange creatures” as Muir described them were the ones responsible for many of the features that gave Yosemite Valley it’s park-like appearance, the “landscape gardens” that Muir so valued. It is this forgotten legacy that has undermined many of the successes in the global conservation movement today, one that traces directly back to John Savage and John Muir and the first protected wilderness site that later became the model followed around the world.

Yosemite Valley / Image: Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t only Muir who was struck by the ordered beauty of Yosemite Valley. Lafayette Bunnell, the New York physician who accompanied Savage on his exploits in 1851, recalled that “the valley at the time of discovery presented the appearance of a well kept park.” Likewise, Galen Clark who was the state guardian of the Yosemite Grant after it was ceded to California, remembered similar conditions when he first visited in 1855.

“At the time,” Clark wrote, “there was no undergrowth of young trees to obstruct clear open views in any part of the valley from one side of the Merced River across to the base of the opposite wall.”

However, these conditions didn’t stay that way for long. Forty years later he found that Yosemite’s open meadow land had all but disappeared, estimating that it had been “at least four times as large as at the present time.” The reason for this, known in the nineteenth century but little appreciated until recently, were the many ways that Yosemite’s first inhabitants had transformed their environment over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Chief among these was the strategic use of fire.

“Native Americans’ uses of fire pervaded their everyday lives,” explains UC Davis ecologist M. Kat Anderson, whose research appears in the edited volume Fire in California’s Ecosystems. These ranged from setting fires to keep the land open and aid in travel, a wildlife management tool to burn off detritus and increase pasturage for deer, as well as for fire prevention purposes.

“Native Americans thoroughly understood the necessity of ‘fighting fire with fire,'” Anderson says. “Their deliberately set fires were often designed to preclude the kinds of catastrophic fires that regularly devastate large areas today.”

These fires may also have played an important role in promoting biodiversity. In 1996 Anderson wrote the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project’s final report to Congress (pdf here), co-authored with CSU, Fresno archaeologist Michael Moratto. In their report the authors state that most plants useful to the tribes of the Sierra Nevada were shade-intolerant varieties that required regular burning in order to thrive. These species included deer grass for use in basketry, edible native grasses, as well as a variety bulb, corm, and tuber species. By setting intentional fires throughout the forest “gaps or grassy openings were created, maintained, or enlarged within diverse plant communities,” the authors wrote. “The result was that plant diversity was maximized.”

However, for Muir, as it was for many conservationists in the nineteenth century, these fires were “the great master-scourge of forests” and extinguishing their fury would be his divine mission. “Only fire,” he wrote in 1869, “threatens the existence of these noblest of God’s trees.” It wasn’t enough to simply keep loggers and shepherds from degrading the forest. They needed strict and unyielding protection. To that end Muir would advocate federal forest protection and fire suppression measures with every politician and government official who might listen.

At times, as friends noted, Muir’s zeal to protect forests overshadowed all other concerns. In a revealing moment described by his close friend Mary Louise Swett, written to Muir’s fiance four days before their marriage, Mrs. Swett impressed upon the young woman her future husband’s intensity.

“I hope you are good at a hair splitting argument,” she wrote. “You will need to be to hold your own with him. . . He told Colonel Boyce the other night that his position was that of champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was in regard to Indian extermination.”

In contrast to Muir’s advocacy of exclusion and suppression, Yosemite Park officials praised the logic of regular controlled burns “when the Indians were Commissioners” and stated that “absolute prevention of fires in these mountains will eventually lead to disastrous results.” But, for Muir, “the best service in forest protection — almost the only efficient service — is that rendered by the military.” Without enforcing the power to seal off protected forests from encroachment Muir feared that his ultimate goal of preservation would fail.

“One soldier in the woods, armed with authority and a gun,” he wrote, “would be more effective in forest preservation than millions of forbidding notices.”

In the end Muir’s position won out, supported as it was by such figures as then-New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, General William Jackson Palmer, and Captain George Anderson, the military official recently charged with protecting Yellowstone National Park. For those critics who still maintained that Indian-style fires should be employed in Yosemite, Muir had an alternative solution as he made clear before a meeting of the Sierra Club on November 23, 1895.

“Since the fires that formerly swept through the valley have been prevented,” he said, “the underbrush requires much expensive attention that will call for the services of a skilled landscape artist.” However, these funds never materialized to the extent that Muir imagined. As a result, the once park-like expanses of the Yosemite he had heralded soon became overcrowded through unchecked growth. At the same time, the United States was saddled with the high costs of suppressing every fire that ignited because the build up of fuel on the forest floor now threatened to wipe out the entire region.

Yosemite Valley in 1866 and 1961.

The conservation decisions of the nineteenth century have left a lasting legacy that is still felt today. In a study that appeared in the March, 2010 edition of Ecological Applications (pdf here), Penn State researchers Andrew Scholl and Alan Taylor published their analysis of how successful this fire suppression policy ultimately was. The authors sought to test the claim that intentional fires had been a widespread feature of Native American stewardship. To accomplish this they collected data throughout a 2,125 hectare region of the Yosemite National Park including the number of different species, the density by which trees were packed together, and their age as revealed through boring into trees to remove core samples.

These core samples that Scholl and Taylor collected revealed the environmental history of every tree in their survey. Because tree ring shows evidence of environmental conditions at the time that section was exposed to the outside world, by analyzing these tree cores they were able to identify both when a fire took place and how widely it had spread based on the fire damage recorded in the rings. Furthermore, if one region contained significantly younger trees than another, it would indicate evidence of a serious fire that had wiped out entire sections of forest. In the end, the researchers were able to construct a map of forest change between the years of 1575 – 2006 and the impact that fire had on forest biodiversity.

The results of this analysis were highly significant (p < 0.01) and found that shade-tolerant species such as White fir and incense cedar had increased to such an extent that Yosemite Valley was now two times more densely packed than it had been in the nineteenth century. These smaller and more highly flammable trees had pushed out the shade-intolerant species, like oak or pine, and reducing their numbers by half. After a century of fire suppression in the Yosemite Valley biodiversity had actually declined, trees were now 20% smaller overall, and the forest was more vulnerable to catastrophic fires than it had been before the United States expelled the native population.

However, based on the rotation of historic burn sites throughout the forest, it left no question that the fires had been intentionally set rather than the result of random lightening strikes or other accidental burns. Native American groups had profoundly altered the landscape of the Yosemite Valley in ways that were both advantageous to them as well as to the local ecosystem as a whole. They were successful stewards of the forest, not because they had no impact on the environment, but because the forest was their home and they relied upon it for every aspect of their lives. In support of these findings two additional studies, one also in Yosemite and one along the California coast, came to similar conclusions. Despite John Muir’s passionate desire to protect Yosemite’s magnificent trees, after 100 years of conservation the overall density among the 14 most abundant large-diameter species had declined by 30%.

For Muir and his nineteenth century contemporaries, conservation meant “government protection should be thrown around every wild grove and forest on the mountains.” This continues to be the standard model for conservation around the world. However, as in Yosemite, the global conservation effort has focused their attention on the idea of pristine wilderness to the exclusion of all other concerns, including those of the people who have lived there for centuries.

In 2003 the harmful effects of these policies were denounced by indigenous delegates from around the world when they presented a joint declaration before the Fifth Parks Congress then being held in Durban, South Africa.

“The strategy to conserve biodiversity through national parks has displaced many tens of thousands of very poor park residents, transforming them into conservation-refugees,” they announced. “First we were dispossessed in the name of kings and emperors, later in the name of state development, and now in the name of conservation.”

However, just as there could have been for the Ahwahneechee in 1851, there is also an alternative today. Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, along with her colleague Tanya Hayes at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, conducted a study in 2007 (pdf here) that compared vegetation patterns throughout 84 forests in 15 separate countries, only half of which were under national protection. In a direct rebuff to the claims of conservationists, they found no significant differences in vegetation density between forests that were protected and those that were not. However, there was one criteria that made a difference: the direct involvement of local and indigenous populations. Those regions where local groups were able to define the rules for how their forest was managed had significantly higher vegetation densities than those that didn’t, regardless of their protection status.

Vegetation Density Associated with User Group Right to Make Rules.
From Ostrom and Hayes, 2007.

“The above findings clearly contradict the belief that protected areas are the only way to conserve forests,” they wrote. In so doing they offer an opportunity to change course on a policy, well intentioned though it may have been, that led to the expulsion of native peoples and the commitment to an expensive conservation strategy that has had little result. In other words, it’s time for the exclusionary approach of John Savage and John Muir to be tossed on the fire.

In July, 1929, seventy-eight years after the Ahwahneechee people had been driven from their homeland, a frail, elderly woman quietly processed acorns on the valley floor. Her weather worn face appeared thin, yet firm like crumpled paper. She was a living record of the trials her people had suffered ever since they were herded into open air prisons at the point of a bayonet. As she sat, pulling back broken shell from acorns like damaged fingernails, a curiosity-seeking tourist offered her a nickel if she would serve him. I can only imagine the lifetime of rage she must have felt in that moment.

“No!” she cried. “Not five dollars one acorn, no! White man drive my people out–my Yosemite.”

Her name was Maria Lebrado, but she had once been known as Totuya. She was the granddaughter of Ahwahnee Chief Tanaya, a revered leader who had attempted to shield his people from harm only to witness the murder of his son and the loss of everything he held dear. Now the last remaining member of her tribe, Totuya had returned home in order to die.

During her brief stay she was interviewed at length by a Mrs. H.J. Taylor and given a tour of the lands she had not seen since she was a child. However, as she looked out upon what her beloved Yosemite had become, she cast her glance down in disapproval. What had once been a wide open meadow used for games by her entire village was now an overgrown field, pockmarked with thin trees and scrub brush.

 “Too dirty, too much bushy,” she explained sadly. After centuries of care the land she cherished had been allowed to lay dormant and unused, the fire needed to bring this valley to life having been extinguished long ago. Her beloved Ahwahnee was lost.

Rush Hour in Yosemite: the American Wilderness Experience

Yosemite National Park is an enduring symbol of the American “wilderness“, a textbook example of how National Parks protect Nature by holding at bay the rising tide of humanity’s demands on natural resources. National Parks are instead meant to be a different medium for us to experience and enjoy those natural resources – as aesthetic ones to be protected for posterity. If you’ve ever been to such a place as Yosemite armed with a camera, go back and look at your images (as I just did) and ponder how much you edit your own experience of this wilderness! How do you frame your pictures, when you attempt to capture the beauty of nature and wildlife? Do you include our fellow tourists, our conspecifics (not counting the obligatory family vacation shots), as part of that nature? If not (and I don’t often enough), why not? Do you find yourself wishing there just weren’t so darn many people out there, tramping through this wilderness, and spoiling your own serene immersion into it? Ignoring the rather inconvenient factoid that you are also but one among that teeming mass of humanity that wants this experience for its collective soul! But isn’t that what a National Park in a democracy is meant to be: a way to share the experience with everybody, rather than an elite few? How then do we accomplish that sharing without destroying that which is being shared, the very wilderness we all want to experience?

What would you get if you pointed your camera the other way – at the c.3.5 million people who visit Yosemite every year? Steven Bumgardner, a videographer for the National Park Service has done just that to produce this remarkable time-lapse video of people in Yosemite one July (which is effectively the rush month for that park):

People in Yosemite: A TimeLapse Study from Steven M. Bumgardner on Vimeo.

Yosemite is bigger than Rhode Island at almost 800,000 acres, but it receives about 3.5 million visitors each year, and most of them spend time in Yosemite Valley. This project was shot back in 2005 after purchasing a Sony Z1U. This was my first HD project (ok, fine, HDV) and I spent about a week in Yosemite during the busy month of July. The footage was all shot in real time, and then sped up in post.

I chose busy places during busy days to show the effects of this mass of humanity. I could have just as easily pointed my camera in another direction and shown nothing but plants, animals and wilderness. Yosemite is popular, but it’s also still a relatively wild place.

I’ve lived and worked in National Parks for almost 20 years, and as much as I love landscape photography, I also like looking at the human footprint and the human experience in our national parks. Some of this footage helped me get my current job in 2006, as a videoographer for the National Park Service and the photographer/editor/producer of the web video series “Yosemite Nature Notes”

The music is from Peter Gabriel’s “Passion” (a.k.a. the soundtrack from Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”)

Crepuscular companion from my youth…

Long tongue on the gecko

…how I miss having you around the house now!

Back – waaay back – in the days when I was a suburban kid without much access to “nature” and no television (yes – imagine that kids, no TV!), I spent countless hours staring up at the ceiling and walls watching the drama of our household population of geckos! Emerging from their daytime roosts under the fluorescent light fixtures, the geckos, small and large, would wait for a smorgasbord of insects to arrive as night fell, especially during the monsoon months. Big ones would chase little ones who might escape by dropping their tails to distract their pursuers and scuttle across the wall or ceiling. Occasionally one would drop, with a soft plop, sometimes down one’s shirt collar or trouser leg (happened to an uncle once! hilarious!!), sometimes onto the dinner table, but for the most part, amazingly, they managed to cling to the surface even at top speeds. And sometimes one would get overambitious and try to bite off more than it could chew – a large beetle, or mantis perhaps (although I never got lucky enough to see a battle royale like Gerald Durrell did) – and provide a different kind of amusement. Endless unscripted entertainment for a curious kid on those warm humid evenings. I miss having these critters around the house here in north America… I wonder what they’d make of the black widow spiders ruling the roost on our back porch now.

The young gecko in the above picture, which is my submission to this week’s Weekly Wildlife, Nature and Conservation Photography Challenge, I encountered on a wall of my in-laws’ house on the outskirts of Kolkata a few years ago. A few more images of this little fella are in this flickr gallery.

Meanwhile, it seems someone got lucky enough to spot (but not run into) a mountain lion just on the outskirts of Fresno earlier today! I hope they let the poor beast be and not hunt it down as a public menace…

Explore the Nature Blog Network, now featuring Reconciliation Ecology!

A little while ago, when giving this blog a makeover, I also submitted it to be part of the Nature Blog Network, an excellent collective of 876 blogs (as of today) where people write about all aspects of nature. For us bloggers, it brings in readers, and also provides some tracking tools to monitor traffic. But more importantly, as the blurb on their main page says, Nature Blog Network is “a nexus for the very best nature blogs on the net. If you’re looking for outstanding blogging about birds, bugs, plants, herps, hiking, oceans, ecosystems, or any other natural topic — or if you blog on those topics yourself — this is the place for you!” So its a great place to discover blogs covering topics of interest to you but that you may not know about (like this one!). So go explore the nexus.


In addition to the listings of blogs in a top list, and among various categories, they also showcase individual blogs as part of a weekly series of Featured Blogs – and this week, they’re featuring Reconciliation Ecology! What an honor to be featured among “the very best nature blogs on the net”! So if you want to read an interview with yours truly, head on over there to learn more about me and why I blog. And while there, you may get lost in a wide range of other nature writings.

If, on the other hand, you’ve come here after reading about this blog on the network: Welcome! I invite you come in and explore as you walk through some of my earlier writings – and hope you like enough of it to want to come back and walk with me from time to time.

Watershed 2009: Environmental Poetry Festival (also this saturday)

For my friends in the Bay area, and those from the valley who might head that way this weekend: you may want to look in on this event I learnt about via River of Words:

Watershed 2009 Environmental Poetry Festival


Berkeley–Saturday, Sept. 26–12-4pm Free

Join Robert Hass, Mas Masumoto, and other poets, writers and performers for a day of poetry, music, dance, art activities, literary and environmental exhibitors and more.

River of Words youth poets will read at 1pm.

Please visit the River of Words booth to see our wonderful art, books, and say hi.

Civic Center Park, Martin Luther King, Jr. Way between Allston & Center. The Farmers’ Market will be open, too!

View Announcement on Facebook

And visit for more information.

Imagining and imaging wildlife and nature in the city

[These are my reflections on urban wildlife after participating as a guest commentator in a wildlife photography contest on Facebook last week. A version of this was also posted in that group’s notes.]

House Sparrow's perspective

For most people, the terms wildlife or nature will rarely conjure up images of animals in cities. And if people like us (i.e., those concerned about how we share this planet with other species, us conservationists and naturalists) do think of urban wildlife, the thought comes with many a dark foreboding. Cities, we tend to think, are bad places that any creature (except, of course, us) would want to shy away from. Species that remain there are likely to be stuck there, with few other choices, survivors of human onslaught on them and on their habitats, living off the crumbs we leave for them in the interstices of our ever-sprawling urban jungles. And a handful that are not stuck there, that are perhaps more numerous in cities, bumping into us all the time, are often dismissed as nuisances or resented for collaborating with us in driving out other, better species. Urban landscapes are not often discussed in terms of their natural beauty either. Nature and City are, in our minds, quite mutually exclusive conceptual categories. And this dark, dystopian vision of the city as a sort of purgatory for wildlife, with the artificial (i.e., human-made) elements driving out the last vestiges of nature, is prevalent not only among the lay public, but often among my ecologist and conservationist colleagues. The scientific literature in these fields, that small (but growing) fraction of it which addresses urban habitats, is quite rich with papers looking for, and often finding and documenting, the bad things that happen to good species in the city: habitat fragmentation, ecological traps, competition from urban generalists, loss of nesting sites, habitat disturbance, air pollution, water pollution, weeds, invasive species,… the list goes on. Oh, and don’t forget the cats! The villainy of cats has been written about at great lengths – especially on the internets – and comes second only to our own selves among things that many a conservationist would like to rid this good planet of, for the greater good of biodiversity!

Why is it that we fear/loathe/resent/mourn/lament the place where most of our own species now prefers to live? By most accountings, humanity has passed the tipping point on that, with more than 50% of us now living in what we call urban areas worldwide. This is, then, shaping up to be the urban century, when cities are our primary habitat, with their effects cascading through the surrounding countryside into the very (few, dwindling) wildernesses of Earth. And I think it is fair to say that most of us involved in ecology and biodiversity conservation, be that within or outside academia, likely grew up ourselves as kids of the city; but took the first opportunity to run away from it, chasing after the diminishing frontier of real nature, where we could catalog biodiversity, study how it worked, photograph it, protect it, keep it safe from all that pesky human interference. And we continue to nurture the dystopian vision of the city, of human habitats, as sterile places devoid of any meaningful biodiversity. The city that nurtured and sheltered us, gave us the museums and universities that prepared us to appreciate nature; the city that provides better refuge to the poorest and most dispossessed among us than any other habitat; that very city, our birthplace, has become a symbol of everything that destroys what we now love – nature! Ah bittersweet cognitive dissonance… but lets leave the psychoanalysis for another day, shall we?

And let us also leave aside the other side of this metaphoric coin of the city: the many million more humans who may not quite share our apprehensions; who love the city for all its wonderful human artifacts and culture; who hate that pigeon for crapping on their cars, and resent that tidal flat and mangrove swamp for harboring mosquitoes and holding back human progress; who would rather pave over most of that pesky real nature and replace it with carefully manicured lawns and golf courses, dotted with hand-picked swans that can hold a pose for our cameras, and clean multi-colored pigeons we can feed; and in some parts of the world, a troop or two of well-behaved monkeys and an occasional snake we can worship during the appropriate holy season. Those people vastly outnumber us, but I’d argue that they too share the basic dichotomy of our vision, separating the city from nature; in that they remain our kin, even if we work at cross purposes,

The real trouble is: we are at a point where we can’t keep nature separate from us, what we do, not really. Not when we know that the smoke from California’s raging summer fires colors the dawn/dusk skies hundreds of miles away, and the burnt particles in that smoke may be deposited in snows atop mountains or in the arctic; not when the plastic garbage we throw out – whether in Baja or Alaska, Hawaii or Japan – ends up floating in the middle of the Pacific ocean, endlessly circling some hidden drain; and most definitely not when the fossil fuel we burn is changing the entire planet’s very climate! So we begin to turn around, and take a good look at our own habitats, especially that city we love to hate, to try and see if we can find any nature still lurking in there, and perhaps to devise ways to bring nature back. And this too is happening, among amateur naturalists, conservationists, and even academic biologists like me who are turning the tools of our trades to focus on studying urban wildlife and habitats.

It is high time (perhaps even a bit late) for us to re-imagine the city, not as a metaphor for all that is bad in us, but for the possibility for good that also still resides in us. Instead of running away from the advancing city, trying to save the remaining wildernesses with our backs to the wall, it is time to advance, to charge back into the city and start reworking it in ways that make it a better place for more of us, and also more of other species, perhaps finding more common ground to work with the rest of the human horde that loves cities. And, most exciting for biologists like me: let’s look at the city itself as a wonderful laboratory, with many different replicates, where we have set a number of evolutionary experiments in motion, altering behaviors and genetics in strange and exciting new directions! If you know my recent research, and my capacity to ramble on (exhibit A stretches back all the way from here to the top of this very page!), you know that I could go on (and on) about urban evolutionary ecology for quite a while – but I’ll stop now!

Let me instead ask you to join me in celebrating one specific small shared enterprise: an exercise in reimagining the city by imaging some of the wildlife we do find in cities, and sharing them through the Weekly Wildlife, Nature and Photography Contest on Facebook. As I wrote last week, I was invited to participate in this social networking experiment as a guest commentator, or a friendly native guide of the urban jungle if you will – for the week’s theme was “Creatures in the City”! I had a lot of fun viewing and discussing the 90-odd images that were shared in the group this week – so much so that I think it is rather a shame that most of the images and their attendant comment threads had to be deleted at the end of the week under the rules of the competition, leaving only a handful of “winners” and “special mentions” in the group’s gallery! Rather a shame, and something the moderators of this wonderful social experiment might want to think about changing (perhaps by using Flickr or other social networking site with better options for managing networks around images).

For what a lovely array of images of diverse creatures were shared by this growing group of nature enthusiasts! We had vertebrates and invertebrates (“creatures” I suppose, precluding any plant life); the former group was well represented by birds (most frequent and diverse, not surprisingly), mammals (squirrels, bats, cows, macaques, langurs, an elephant, sea lions, and a moose), and reptiles (a couple of lizards and several snakes; but no amphibians?); and among the latter: spiders, butterflies, moths, caterpillars, bees, ants, a dragonfly, a millepede, a crab, and even a cockroach (half eaten) and a fly shot up close! While the diversity of species was (hopefully) eye-opening for anyone who may consider cities depauperate of living things, even more interesting were images capturing interesting behaviors and novel ecological contexts that had me scratching my head spinning hypotheses and calling up expert colleagues to shed further light upon! I’m sure I will keep thinking about many of these pictures, and some may even spark a research project or two. (Which is another selfish reason why I wish the pictures and attendant discussion could remain archived somewhere!) The winners will, of course, be archived and remain available, even if the discussion generated around them disappears (really?!), so let me recap pictures and themes that particularly struck me:

  1. Breakfast with sparrowsBirds were the most common and diverse group – not surprising given how conspicuous they are and how many people they recruit into nature watching. Lovely images of crows, pigeons and starlings (of course), a sunbird, kingfishers, parrots, gulls, pelicans, grackles, munias, a swallow and a bee-eater. But, surprise, surprise (and alarm?): no House Sparrow! Are we so used to this commensal, so inured to its charms, that no one thought to share an image? Even though this species is declining throughout most of its Old World urban range? We can’t let it disappear from our collective imagination too! So let’s hope it makes a come-back and rebuilds its numbers if we can lend it a hand – all it may need is the right habitat being left alone/rebuilt. May they come back like the Flamingoes have, to Mumbai’s creeks, lending that dash of bright pink to the dark mangroves (recovering nicely in some parts despite urban growth) and grey concrete.
  2. An amazing image of ordinary looking high-tension power lines near the hills of Mumbai – but with hundreds of Amur Falcons perched all along the wires! These migrants from Siberia and Mongolia pass through the city en route to winter quarters in southern Africa, and make landfall – or wire-fall in this case – on November mornings like this one when Shashank Dalvi captured this image.

    The Search
    Click on for larger version of this image

  3. Two other avian images stand out for interesting behaviors and contexts: a White-throated Kingfisher perched on a water pipe in front of a train compartment, with no “natural” habitat in the frame! What does it feed on, I wonder – fried fish from the vendor on the railway station?! And a group of Indian House Crows, in their smart two-toned suits, commuting atop a speeding bus in Mumbai! Notice how they remained dapper and cool on the roof while the humans were probably sweating it out in the crush within the bus? And we think we are the smart urbanites…
  4. Given that the Facebook group comes from the Nature Conservation Foundation in India, with most members from that region, most pictures were from also from there. Which, of course, means monkeys! Cute and mischievous, juxtaposed with their mythological counterparts, and being fed by women at temples – macaques and langurs made their presence felt. And there were cows, squirrels, a donkey and an elephant; but there were also a couple of bat pictures, and the surprise mammal was probably the moose outside a trailer in Alaska! So even some large mammals can manage to persist in cities then. I’d have liked a few more carnivores too (I don’t think a skin of one on someone’s wall counts!).
  5. Urban snakes are always interesting (if not frightening), and the winner (or special mention) among them, a cobra, was even caught performing an ecosystem service – eating a rodent! And it was surrounded by a gaping mob of people too!! Then there was a flowerpot snake, a rat snake or two, and several lizards – but no gecko, oddly enough!

    The Search

  6. Among the invertebrates, the most interesting image (special mention, ergo in permanent gallery) was of a bee sucking nectar off of another dead/dying bee that had been fogged out of its urban nest by intolerant humans! A poignant image of what man had wrought – but one that also had us marveling at the remarkable behavior of the bee that had survived. Another striking image was of a dragonfly perched on a high-rise balcony overlooking an urban tableau of more high-rises with patches of greenery.

    The Search

Many of the descriptions and comments were interesting too – but what got me thinking (and rambling on in the first half of this post) was that the majority of people were down on the city as habitat, despite the lovely evidence to the contrary seen in the very image they were commenting on! Yes, the city is sprawling, trampling over habitats everywhere, dirtying the air and water, and depriving most of us from meaningful contact with nature – but look at this natural beauty you have captured within cities? Surely not all these species are suffering! If anything (as my own research suggests) many actually like cities, and are thriving amid our enterprise! So the trick really is understand how they do it, what works for them, and figuring out ways to offer the same urban (or non-urban) life choices to other species too – and working on reducing our urban footprints on this planet too.

Can we, therefore and at last, really begin re-imagining, rebuilding, and reorganizing our cities in ways that let in more of nature’s beauty and complexity while improving our own urban existence? For that is really at the heart of reconciliation ecology!