Tag Archives: conservation

The Conscience of an Asteroid

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (hear my previous essays in their archives, or read them here) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition a couple of weeks ago. Here’s my original, extended version of the essay, before it was pared down for broadcast. You can imagine me reading it in your head, or listen to the broadcast version recorded in my voice.

Artist's impression of asteroid slamming into tropical seas near Yucatan.

Painting by Donald E. Davis depicts an asteroid slamming into tropical, shallow seas of the sulfur-rich Yucatan Peninsula in what is today southeast Mexico. More info: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/files/images/captions/p45062.txt

Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid crashed into the earth near modern day Yucatan, setting off a chain of geological and climatic reactions that wiped out the dinosaurs. Nearly 70% of all species alive on that day disappeared forever.

This was the last known mass extinction event in Earth’s history. It was the fifth time that such a mass extinction has occurred on our planet. As far as we know.

The history of these extinctions is quite literally written in stone, in the fossils trapped in layers of rock. Like the pages of an ancient and incomplete book, these layers are inscribed with the story of the plants and animals and bacteria that have lived and died here since long before us.

The tools of paleontology help us decipher these stories written in stone. We can read of the long age of bacteria and other single-celled organisms; of the time when the air held no oxygen because no one had figured out how to make food from sunlight; of the first time that living organisms changed the global climate by releasing oxygen, likely triggering the first mass extinction of species who couldn’t breathe the air that sustains us now.

A later chapter tells of the age of carbon, when dense forests covered the land, before getting buried deep under it to be transformed into coal and oil. Now we burn the solar energy captured in carbon by those ancient forests to enrich our short lives. In doing so, we have transformed the earth’s climate yet again, dangerously.

The first stirrings of plants and animals on to land make for thrilling reading. We particularly love the tale of the plucky fish caught in tidal pools which began breathing the air and crawling around on land! How they eventually gave rise to the land mammals we call our own kin.

We discover pieces of our own story everyday, from humble origins as apes that stood up in Africa and spread out of that continent probably to escape a changing climate, and eventually occupied the entire planet.

Five times during the past billion years, this riveting story is interrupted by unspeakable horrors as some terrifying series of unfortunate events conspired to wipe out most species. Each time, the survivors got a fresh start to evolve on a mostly empty planet.

The Great Dying at the end of the Permian era 250 million years ago was the worst one yet, driving more than 90% of species extinct, including many among the otherwise hardy insects. But it cleared the way for reptiles and mammals. We don’t quite know what caused the Permian mass extinction, but massive, perhaps sudden climate change may have a played a big role.

The asteroid that took out the big dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous was a mere lump of rock drifting in orbit around the sun until it fell to Earth and wiped life’s slate almost clean for the fifth time. Driven by sheer gravity, that asteroid had no conscience or remorse about the horrors it would unleash. Nor any notion that humanity would eventually evolve in the absence of dinosaurs to become another force of mass extinction.

Now we find ourselves on yet another brink, where our own industrial civilization threatens a Sixth Great Dying. Within the past century, we have increased the pace of extinction, willfully or unwittingly, to a level last seen only in the wake of that asteroid. We have come so far, in building our diverse cultures and technologies, achieved so much worth celebrating given our humble origins. Yet our biggest legacy may end up as the epitaph for the sixth mass extinction on Earth, which will doom us just as surely.

We like to think of ourselves as creatures of conscience, infused with a morality and an intellect that allows us to understand and appreciate our kinship with other creatures. But as drivers of this sixth extinction, how different are we from that asteroid? Will our conscience give us pause and pull us back from the horrors we have unleashed? Or will we let our own chapter end abruptly, wiping the slate clean again, just like that remorseless asteroid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The street is no place for a dog.

Philantrophy: The Last Word On Shooting Endangered Rhinos To Save Them

Black Rhino - reflection

Black Rhino – reflection   Photo under Creative Commons license by Frank Vassen on Flickr

I can’t imagine that I would ever look at a magnificent beast like the one above, reflecting in a Namibian watering hole, and wish I had it in the sights of a rifle. Don’t think I could ever bring myself to want that huge head mounted on my living room or office wall. Nor would I ever want to cut off that impressive horn and crumble it into my tea or potion to boost my virility or cure some other kind of ailment.

I might want to have my camera along, instead, with a telephoto lens, so I could take a picture like the one above. Take the photo from a distance so I don’t disturb the beast. And sit and watch it for a while, for it is one of the rarest among the many rare mammals on our planet (no small thanks to us): the highly endangered Black Rhino. I’d like to bring home a souvenir, of course, but in the form of an image and a memory, while leaving the real thing free to roam the grasslands as long as it can. For that to me is the point of a Rhino.

Others, however, clearly disagree on the point of a Black Rhino.

Many think its extremely condensed hair-clump of a horn is imbued with all kinds of magical medical properties, and have therefore driven the species to the brink of extinction. The rarer it gets, the higher its price, in the free market of wild animal body parts, and the higher the incentive for poachers to go hunt another one, and another, until they are all gone. Hard to blame the locals who engage in this poaching as a livelihood in an otherwise harsh thrid-world economy, when there is such a lucrative market for rhino horns.

Others would rather have the whole head, horn still attached, but separated from its torso, stuffed and mounted on a shield to hang from the walls of their dens or man-caves back in Texas. And unlike the poachers—or their local helpers—who may be trying to eke out a living, these trophy hunters are willing to pay top dollar for a chance to go shoot one of these rare behemoths in Africa. And the rarer they get, the higher the price these hunters are willing to pay in the free market of wild animal body parts.

So there is money to be made in killing a Black Rhino – either by the poachers who must do it on the sly, risking their own lives for a high payoff, or by the governments (of Namibia among other habitat countries) who control the rhino’s habitat and thereby claim ownership of the animals too, to be disposed off as the managers see fit. The money from this second group of gun-toting rhino consumers, i.e., the legally-permitted hunters, will be used (among other things?) to fight the gun-toting rhino consumers from the first group, the illegal poachers!

One group seeks to sacrifice the rhino and mutilate its dead body at the altar of male virility as dictated by an antiquated medical belief system. The other group seeks to sacrifice the rhino and mutilate its dead body for private display in a temple of male virility as apparently also dictated by an antiquated system of men showing off their prowess. One difference: the latter carry out their killings in the name of saving the species from the former’s depredations. And often enough, conservationists tell us, they are actually successful and can help save the endangered species.

Meanwhile, those of us from a third group, who merely want the Rhino to live out its natural life, obviously don’t bring enough money to the table to have much of a say in how this game of Save-The-Endangered-Rhino is played. For money, after all, is now the ultimate arbiter of all of our lives, to be used to measure everything from the value of an “old post-breeding male” rhino to the life of a poacher’s family, to the “services” provided by an entire ecosystem in Namibia. In this calculus of goods and services measured in dollars, and numbers entered into balance sheets, where is the room for any inherent right to life that that rhino might claim?

And so the Dallas Safari Club, from the great American state of Texas (famous for its advocacy of the right to (even unwanted) life in our species), is openly auctioning off the right for someone to go shoot one of these “old, post-breeding” granddaddy Black Rhinos in Namibia. And many pragmatic conservationists, managers, and scientists support this auction because it may fetch as much as three-quarters of a million dollars, or more, which can go to support on the ground conservation programs which are desperate for dollars.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a vegan animal rights fanatic nor a Jain monk who would never hurt an animal. I understand hunting animals for food, when regulated by local communities to ensure sustainable populations of the animals, or when there are too many animals for degraded habitat patches with limited carrying capacities. Hunting, culling, have a legitimate role in wildlife management, I’ll grant you, even though it would kill something in my own soul to pull the trigger on some wild creature wandering in its own habitat. Hunters have collectively, when legitimized, also contributed much to conserving many habitats and species in the US and elsewhere. But the slope between hunter and poacher is a short and slippery one, and as long as the market remains strong for the products sold by the latter, it will be difficult to let the same market forces tap the former group to help save the endangered trophy beast.

There is no market it seems for saving the Black Rhino for its own sake. All there is, in this bean-counting world of conservation in the free-market, is Philantrophy, an apt neologism coined by the geniuses at The Colbert Report. So we might as well get a dark belly laugh in, while the life of some poor old Rhino is auctioned off in Dallas:

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What, in the end, is the point of a rhino?

“Hey Biodiversity! F*ck You!!” – Homo sapiens

As far as “Fuck You”s to the environment, biodiversity, and endangered species go, this one is pretty spectacular: Fill a boat with 11 tons of illegal endangered/threatened Pangolins (click on the name for my blog post for World Pangolin Day recently), and crash it into a protected coral reef in the Phillipines. Well done, my Chinese “fisherman” friends. Well done indeed. The earth should be getting the message loud and clear now.

Fuck you too, Humans, it probably says to us all.

Pangolins on a grill

The photo isn’t from the boat—I don’t think—but it illustrates the nature of the problem.

[UPDATE: The above photo is from 2011, when Indonesian officials caught another haul of pangolins being smuggled there, and burned all the poor carcasses.]

What did the poor Pangolins ever do to us humans to deserve such a fate?

“Hey, Fuck You, Pangolin! Go Fuck Yourself!” – says Homo sapiens

:-(

Can we save the Pangolin by forgetting about it?

Yesterday was World Pangolin Day. Here’s my slightly late offering to mark the day:

Indian Pangolin

I took this photograph in 2004, in Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in southern India. I was studying the winter ecology of Phylloscopus leaf warblers on Mundanthurai plateau at the time. One day the Mundanthurai Forest Range Office hollered for me and Kaberi (who was just beginning her research on slender lorises at the time) for expert advise: someone in a village on the fringes of the Reserve (in the buffer zone) had caught some strange animal. Would we go pick it up and bring it back for release it into the forest within the reserve?

I went along with several of my field assistants to discover this lovely prehistoric looking beast sitting in a cage: a young Indian Pangolin. We brought it back up to the plateau and released it into the mixed Teak forest near the river. Watched it for a while as it went to explore a nearby termite mound. This being in the days of analog photography, and film being quite expensive and hard to come by out there in the boonies in the middle of a long field season, I could only afford to spare a couple of frames for this beautiful animal. The Fujichrome Velvia came through rather well through my trusty, field-worn Nikon 8008 camera. The above scan doesn’t entirely do justice to the image, but it is the best one I have at the moment.

The Indian Pangolin is classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. Also known as the Scaly Anteater, the major threats to this unique specialist mammal is hunting. People throughout its south Asian range hunt it for meat and for its keratinous scales which are thought to have—what else—aphrodisiac properties!! How is that supposed to work then? I mean, I can sort of see how the visual appearance of a rhino’s horn might make some insecure men think it might work to solve their sexual inadequacies. But the scales of a Pangolin? Is it the keratin that is supposed to be aphrodisiacal?

At least the hunting pressure appears to be largely local, with the meat being used for food and other parts used as well. Apart from the scales powdered down for “medicinal” use, the skin is also turned into leather for boots and bags. So far, though, it appears that there is little international trade in the parts of this animal – although I wonder how much we can be certain of that. While it has gone extinct in many localities throughout its range, leading to its appearance on the Red List as Near Threatened, the Indian Pangolin continues to occur in many protected areas, and patches of forest nearby. They seem like hardy little creatures, and with ants being plentiful in most places, they may be able to hang on for a while, if in low densities, as long as hunting pressures are reduced.

Reflecting on the circumstances of the animal in the above photograph, I am struck by something of a paradox upon which may hinge the survival of this species. It has been hunted by local tribes and villagers throughout its range, suggesting people know where to find this creature and how to catch it. Yet, this fellow had turned up only to startle some villager outside one of India’s largest Tiger Reserve – and wasn’t immediately recognized! Part of that may be because the species is rare. But I also suspect that people had forgotten about this species—it had become rarer in local memory than in reality, possibly because few now depended on its meat.

How much attention do we pay to local wildlife that does not have a direct bearing on our daily lives? This kind of ecological knowledge is an organic thing, which flourishes only when we have reason to care about knowing. Not knowing what this strange creature was when it turned up near a village, not even recognizing it, is an example of another kind of extinction: of memory. Even as many of my academic colleagues lament the decline of taxonomy and natural history knowledge in the curricula of many of our university programs, some of the local traditional knowledge many of us rely upon while doing field work in remote places may be slipping away as lifestyles change and become unmoored from earlier ties to local biodiversity in this globalized world. After all, kids growing up in some of these Indian villages these days may be more familiar with meerkats and other exotic animals they see on their television screens than the fascinating species in their own immediate surroundings. This sort of disconnect, a growing ecological knowledge deficit in our culture, is something we all have to worry about even more as more and more people become urbanized—either by moving into distant cities, or having their own villages grow into cities.

Paradoxically, though, this particular Pangolin may owe its life to the same loss of ecological memory! Luckily though, the people who found it didn’t kill it out of fear (the other all-too-common instinctive response) but remembered to call in the Forest Department. Makes me wonder: how many species—especially those we have tended to kill and consume for misguided or outdated reasons—might we save by simply forgetting about them? Can we erase the notion of animal parts conferring magical aphrodisiac properties, for example, from our collective cultural memory banks? Forget about the poor creatures and let them live out their lives in what little space we have left them in the interstices of our civilization—can that work?

Hope you had a happy Pangolin Day yesterday. Find out more about their status and what can be done to better conserve from the IUCN/SSC Pangolin Specialist Group. It is good to know that creatures such as these continue to find some space within humanity’s massive footprint enveloping the Earth.

How to make the elephant want to leave the room

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen you pack over a billion people into a relatively small subcontinent containing several globally important biodiversity hotspots, and many species of large, fierce, charismatic megafauna, the challenges of conserving all that biodiversity while meeting human needs are not simple. You find that solutions invented in other places, in simpler contexts, seldom work. Some simple seeming problems require complex solutions while other seemingly intractable problems may be solved in surprisingly simple ways. There are also, of course, other problems, larger political / social / economic ones, like managing global warming, that we are afraid to address even in the face of disaster, and find ourselves tiptoeing around as long as possible, the proverbial elephant in the room.


Landscape that dwarfs elephants“, image by Arati Rao

Sometimes though, the elephant in your metaphorical living room may be an actual real live Asian Elephant in the middle of a human landscape. Quite possibly rampaging through some farmer’s crop, high on musth gland secretions. Or camped out in the middle of that montane estate from which you get your morning cup of tea, its dark bulk rising “like a large boulder above the low tea bushes” as my friend Janaki Lenin described in an astonishing article in The Hindu a couple of days ago.

A crop-raiding elephant is most likely a solitary male, though, possibly in musth, but out in the open playing a high risk strategy to try and maximize his gain in that ancient evolutionary game of reproductive fitness. The risk of running around in the middle of human habitation is obvious, for humans are the most dangerous animals on the planet, liable to kill you for a variety of reasons. And elephants, with their social smarts, and their long memories, are particularly qualified to learn about these risks. Indeed, the females, in social groups with their sisters and their young ones, do tend to stay away from humans as much as possible.

Why then do the males stray into those crop fields, and tea estates, the occasional country distillery, and even suburbia, taking on these enormous risks? Because their reproductive success depends on access to females, for which they must compete with other males, and that contest usually goes to the biggest male in the ‘hood. So any young male elephant must try to become as big as possible to ensure his evolutionary fitness, for such are the pressures of sexual selection in this species. And for that, the males must eat. A lot.

When your natural habitat is fragmented, though, converted by humans for other purposes, and your traditional migratory pathways are cut off, where can a young male find enough food to grow big and strong? Not within the small “natural” areas humans have supposedly “protected” for them, especially when such areas are small and shrinking.

But hello, what have the humans done with the former elephant habitat? Why, they’ve converted them, from productive natural diverse forests and grasslands into even more productive monoculture grasslands (and other crops)! And the ‘grass’ is even sweeter and richer in energy ever since the clever humans figured out agriculture! What’s more, the humans then also harvest the best parts of the plants and pile it up in convenient storehouses in their villages and towns. So, if you are willing to take the risk, maybe even use your bulk to some advantage against the puny humans—as long as they don’t come back at you with guns and ammo—you have a potentially very high payoff from feeding in those crop fields and village barns.

This high-risk strategy can work—has worked—especially in the south Asian context because the human societies there have developed religious cultural traditions of worshipping elephants (and other animals) and generally leaving them alone, even if they are raiding precious crops. Some of these odd humans have been willing to make that offering to the elephant gods, and accept even the occasional human sacrifice as a routine cost of farming in elephant country. As the human population has grown, however, their patience with wildlife has also worn thin, and so we have one of the biggest challenges for wildlife conservationists: managing this recurring human-elephant conflict.

Given the cultural status of elephants, and their conservation status as an endangered species, managing these “rogue” crop-raiding elephants is a huge headache. One strategy commonly used is to simply capture the offending elephants, one at a time, and relocate them to where we think is suitable habitat for them. A new paper in PLoS One this week presents the first comprehensive study of this strategy to reduce human elephant conflict (HEC). Fernando and colleagues tracked a dozen such relocated elephants (some relocated more than once) using GPS-fitted radio-collars that could be monitored via satellite. What they found is not encouraging: 

All translocated elephants were released into national parks. Two were killed within the parks where they were released, while all the others left those parks. Translocated elephants showed variable responses: “homers” returned to the capture site, “wanderers” ranged widely, and “settlers” established home ranges in new areas soon after release. Translocation caused wider propagation and intensification of HEC, and increased elephant mortality. We conclude that translocation defeats both HEC mitigation and elephant conservation goals.

So basically, you create more problems than you solve by trying to relocate elephants. First, it is not easy to move the elephants far enough away (at least in Sri Lanka where the study was conducted) to keep them from trying to get back to their original home range. Second, you don’t simply solve the conflict, you merely displace it to another location, often escalating it to the point that the elephant ends up getting killed. It seems that more often than not, the poor elephants will, ultimately, always be at the losing end of that game. So the authors recommend abandoning the relocation strategy, and conclude that:

In the long term, attention needs to be shifted towards preventing the genesis of ‘problem-elephants’. Such a strategy requires eliminating elephant management and crop protection methods that promote elephant aggression and increase HEC, and implementing land-use plans that minimize crop raiding.

Meanwhile, Janaki, in her article published on the same day as the PLoS One paper, raises a different, intriguing possibility, based on another aspect of human relationships with elephants: domestication. While humans have been taming the landscape and transforming elephant habitats into farms for our own use, a handful of communities in India have also mastered the art of domesticating the elephants and using them for a variety of purposes, mostly as labor, but also as cultural and religious icons.

Janaki’s tale revolves around one particular attempt to use domestic elephant males (kumkis) to physically drive a “rogue” elephant out of a tea estate, and back into more suitable habitat. This elephant drive though, turned out to be a far less organized and much more chaotic affair than she had imagined. You really have to read her article all the way to its remarkable punchline though, to consider the possibility I am contemplating.

Go read it now before I spoil it for you in the next paragraph!

Janaki writes about trying to figure out how the drive was organized, and who called the plays (so to speak) in deciding when and how the kumkis charge and herd the wild elephant, and in what direction. What she discovered in trying to work out the chain of command is truly remarkable. First she was told that Forest Department Officials decide on the path for the drive. The higher officers appeared to pass the buck on to the forest guards on foot patrol. The guards weren’t organized enough to be in charge either, so then she was told it was the mahouts riding the kumkis who were really calling the shots. But then, the big kumki in that operation had a mind of his own, and they had to fire shots in the air to get him under control. So who really runs the drive?


The clash of the titans. Chasing the interloper. Photo: Janaki Lenin, in The Hindu

As the responsibility of the drive moved down the hierarchy, I couldn’t be sure if it indeed stopped with the mahouts. But there was no one else below them.

A couple of days later, I met a senior official of the first organisation. He said, “You know an amazing thing about these elephant drives: It’s not people who make the decisions; it’s the kumkis.

They hear and understand the infrasound communications between the wild elephants. And the kumkis decide the best course of action.”

Astonishing as it may seem, it actually makes sense if you think about the social lives of elephants a bit. Especially what we are learning in recent years about the long-distance communication networks they appear to maintain using infrasound. At elephant camps in various forests in India, domestic elephants are often left alone at night to wander the woods when they are not working—albeit with a heavy chain they must drag around so their mahouts can find them in the morning. It is common for these domestic elephants to go consort with wild ones, and even make babies with them! So it may well be that the kumki in Janaki’s tale actually knew the “rogue” wild elephant personally, and decided to take aggressive tactics on his own. Which may be why it makes sense to let the kumkis take the lead in these elephant drives.

This raises a remarkable possibility that may be beyond the imagination of mainstream wildlife managers and conservationists, especially in the western countries wedded to the metaphor of control over nature. Let the elephants, the domestic ones, decide how to herd the wild ones to avoid conflicts with humans! That, of course, in addition to changing our crop protection and land use strategies in ways that avoid conflict in the first place, as recommended by Fernando and colleagues in PLoS One. Thus may we build a real partnership with the elephants instead of ongoing conflict. For the domestic elephant knows humans better than the wild one, and may be best placed to properly communicate the real risk-assessment in these increasingly fraught HEC situations.

It may seem ironic, sad even, that we turn domestic elephants against their own kind, use them to control their wild cousins. Just as we have used them in forestry operations to cut down the trees from their own former habitats. It need not be so, however, if we actually pay closer attention to elephant behavior, both wild and domestic, and establish better communication with them so we can actually work together as partners in this. We manage our farms and people to reduce temptation for the wild males, while the kumkis help us keep them in line, away from people. 

Most of India’s forests are gone, and forestry operations no longer really rely on elephants to haul logs. Their other uses, as beasts of burden and war making, are equally obsolete. Apart from offering rides to tourists, the future prospects for these forest-camp elephants seem dim. Why not give them a new purpose, as intermediaries between humans and their wild cousins, helping us negotiate a dynamic truce, if not a lasting peace?

For our part, we must abandon our dominant metaphor of control (even couched as stewardship) over nature.

 

Reference:

Fernando, P., Leimgruber, P., Prasad, T., & Pastorini, J. (2012). Problem-Elephant Translocation: Translocating the Problem and the Elephant? PLoS ONE, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0050917

Can we actually learn to live in concert with the sea?

Do we have a choice? is there still time? to change course, to find better ways? will we listen to the crashing waves? learn to ride them with the tide? stop trying to hold em back? trying to dominate the relentless ocean?

Can conservation, stewardship, reconciliation… work better in a fluid medium where one cannot draw lines on a map to keep nature bound and separate from us?

Questions I have aplenty… perhaps this film will offer some answers. Here’s a trailer for Ocean Frontiers: