Tag Archives: conservation

Hamsadhwani: an inner dialogue contemplating humanity’s swansong on earth

Anirban Mahapatra (aka Bhalomanush, a good man I have come to know on Twitter) recently (well, a month ago) shared with me a thought-provoking essay he had written contemplating some of the deepest questions in conservation: where do humans fit into the rest of life on our planet? Is it hubris on our part to think we can save the planet or that we are even superior to other species when we have all evolved from a common ancestor? What does it matter if species go extinct, when we know that most species that have ever evolved are already extinct, and everything must die eventually? Questions that certainly haunt me as I try to find meaning in my own research and educational efforts aimed at conserving biological diversity on this little blue dot we inhabit. The essay, written in the form of an inner dialogue in the author’s mind, resonated with me immediately. Yet Bhalomanush said it was among the least read of his blog posts! Surely, this contemplation deserves more attention, so I offered to share it here to try to reach a broader audience interested in reconciliation ecology. He was kind enough to send it to me as a guest post! The essay is titled after a well-known “raga” from Indian classical music, the name of which literally translates as “Swansong” – an appropriate title, I think. I hope you like it – and if you do, please pay the author’s own blog a visit and let him know.

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An almost apocalyptic image of the fiery sky at dusk earlier this week at Morro Bay beach in California. via flickr.com

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Hamsadhwani

by Anirban Mahapatra

I cannot recall when I first heard someone say that humans should try to save the earth from imminent destruction. It may have been written on a sign, or I may have read it in column. It is a common argument: humans need to act now to save the earth or we might propel the planet toward destruction.

The possibility that one day we will inflict the full force of our ruthlessness on the earth is quite real. At some point in our history, we may succeed in pushing the climate to a point of no return, we may annihilate ourselves through a cold and dark nuclear winter, or we may generate a grave pestilence against which we have no defense. But can we really destroy the earth?

No. The earth needs no saving.

But how can you say that humans are not capable of destroying the earth? That our planet needs no saving? In a very short span of time, humans have put a physical mark on the landscape like no other species before us. We’ve lit up the night sky and etched wonderworks which are visible from space. We’ve climbed the tops of mountains and dived into the depths of the oceans. 

For the earth is not just any planet. It is the only one we know which teems with life. The myriad life forms on earth are as much a part of the planet as the oceans, ice-shelves, and canyons. And we’re killing these life forms off at an alarming rate. If we continue to impact the environment, won’t that threaten living organisms which are a constant part of this earth? As for anthropogenic climate change and nuclear war – wouldn’t events such as these be cataclysmic for the planet?   

The earth does need saving.

Here is a hypothetical scenario: if someday the technology that aliens in science-fiction novels use to pulverize the earth becomes a reality for our descendants, would they contemplate using it? There is not an iota of doubt in my mind that they would. For all of our skills, we are still capable of extremely short-sighted suicidal tendencies. We don’t lack the impudence to think about destroying the planet: we lack the technical ability. The earth will survive because we can’t destroy it, regardless of how hard we try. At worst, we are a  pesky comet or a supervolcano. We are not a heating sun or a supernova. Life, as it exists on our planet is supported by the alignments of the planets, the precise temperature of the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon, and other planetary and geological wonders which we cannot violate.

Speaking of extinctions, most species that existed on this planet – by some estimates, 99% or more – became extinct before we could contemplate our place here. We helped death along by precipitating the demise of the passenger pigeon and the dodo. Before we become extinct, we will continue to kill off other species. Perhaps, in our final dying moments, the number of species which are wiped out will spike. But the earth will survive as it has in the past. We are in a hurry to modify our surroundings because our lifetimes are short, but evolution does not follow human timetables. With time, traces of the ugly abominations we erected will vanish and new life forms will develop and cherish this wonderful planet. Maybe they will be wiser than us? We will never know. When our time comes, we will go. The earth will still survive.

Are you saying that if the earth is physically destroyed that would be a tragedy, but that the extinction of life around us is inevitable? If the earth changes because of us, then we have failed to save it. You can’t deny that humans have modified the planet like no other single species before us. If we don’t save the wondrous life around us, wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Don’t you feel a pang of sorrow when you see a polar bear stranded on shrinking ice knowing that it might be too late to save the species? When you know that there are plants in the Amazon River basin that are dying because of massive deforestation to feed our so-called progress? We can do something about it. We should do something about it. We’re an advanced species with the gift of conscious thought and the power to make decisions that impact our planet.

I never condoned inaction. We’re currently in the middle of a mass extinction, no doubt. This worries me immensely and I wince to think about how many forms of life we are destroying each moment, some perhaps, without our knowledge. The fact remains that the earth is the only planet I will ever know. I wish I had many lifetimes to study it, to observe it, and to simply be filled with wonder. I’ll do whatever I can to save the polar bear, the panda, and the tiger, even though for some species it may be too late. I do not attempt to explain why I feel this way logically, but I consider this part of what makes me human. Our descendants deserve to enrich their own lives by knowing the life we have around us; by killing it off, we’re failing both our ancestors and our descendants.

On a human scale, the plants we farm and the animals we’ve domesticated have changed irreversibly already. As natural surroundings change, so do organisms. Plants and animals should live unaltered according to my own convenient whim. But this is an anthropocentric view. My curiosity, my sorrow, my acknowledgement of the scale of tragedy of death has no bearing on what happened billions of years on this planet and what will happen for billions of years after my infinitely short life. What I can do is to try to prevent destruction in my own lifetime.

I’ve heard the argument that humans are an advanced species, but why do we take that at face value? How are we superior? There are other organisms which exceed us in numbers: there are many more tiny bacteria in the human body than “human” cells.  There are organisms which can live in more extreme environments like the boiling cauldrons of sulfurous springs. Many species of bacteria can replicate in the span of minutes. Tortoises live longer than us by decades.

And species we consider primitive? If all living organisms trace their roots back to common ancestors that arose several billion years ago, if we all evolved over the same billions of years in a constant struggle to survive in our changing niches, how are any more advanced or primitive than others? The dodo was no less suited for its environment than the monstrously-oversized chicken is in an assembly line farm where it thrives. We precipitated its demise. Who is to say that someday some other organism doesn’t precipitate our own? Neither is the sloth lazy nor the snake vile, in an absolute sense. For all of our superiority, a minor change in atmospheric temperature might wipe us out, without causing the least discomfort to a unicellular bacterium.

That is not to say that humans are not unique. We possess intellect. We can manipulate tools. We can record our histories and archive our collective thoughts. We have certain skills which no other organism possesses. We can analyze and learn from our mistakes, when we choose to do so. To be able to express emotions, record abstract thoughts, and attempt to understand surroundings are both collectively and individually a blessing. I am grateful for the written words on this screen, longevity due to modern medicine, notes of Hamsadhwani, the frescoes of Ajanta, bitter dark-chocolate, and comfortable walking shoes, among countless other gifts.

But, quintessentially, in our minds humans are the most advanced species on the planet because we are human. Perhaps, since I am a member of the species, I find nothing wrong with this prismatic viewpoint. But, increasingly I believe that the earth was not created for us and will not perish with us. There is nothing divine about us. We are not the Chosen Ones.

If this world is all we have- and there is no compelling reason in my mind to believe otherwise- there is nothing more spiritual than trying to preserve it. Especially with the sobering knowledge that ultimately it is an impossible feat.

In reality that is what saving the earth is about. It is about saving ourselves and the life we know and value.

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George Schaller on reconciliation ecology as a way to save big cats

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OK, he doesn’t quite use the phrase “reconciliation ecology”, but this is exactly the approach George Schaller describes as the only solution to saving the world’s big cats, in his sidebar to the latest National Geographic feature article on tigers.

George Schaller is a truly iconic hero to wildlife biologists, especially of my generation. Well before discovering the excitement of evolutionary ecology (and its heroes like MacArthur and the Grants), I was enthralled by Schaller’s The Deer and the Tiger, a classic account of the very first studies of the tiger and its prey conducted by him in India. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one of my classmates (in the first batch of the brand new Wildlife Sciences Masters program at the Wildlife Institute of India) who read that book multiple times, cover to cover, and really wanted to follow in his footsteps. Some did, and continue to work with big cats and other charismatic wildlife; I got sidetracked upon discovering the broader domains of evolutionary and ecological theory, and the hidden wonders of less charismatic species such as leaf warblers. Yes, I did write a polemic against the overemphasis on conserving tigers while neglecting the “lesser” species; in today’s parlance, you could say I was advocating on behalf of the 99% of the species which don’t get as much love as the warm-n-fuzzy, cuddly/fierce charismatic mammals. I love the big cats too, and count my few encounters with wild tigers among the highlights of my life – but, my main point was, and remains, the imbalance in conservation priorities. I have in recent years expanded my thinking to develop the broader approach of reconciliation ecology, of finding ways to conserve all of biodiversity not merely within remote protected areas, but across the real context of our human-dominated planet, while improving the lives of people who share a disproportionate burden from our protected areas. As Schaller illustrates in this thoughtful piece, that exclusive “reservation ecology” approach has failed even the most charismatic of megafauna, our beloved tigers and their sister big cats. Here’s how he describes his own move towards reconciliation ecology:

When I began fieldwork, it was with the aim not only of studying a species but also of promoting its safety within a protected area. Both such efforts remain essential. But I have had to change my mind-set. Most countries now lack the space to set aside large new areas to support a population of, let us say, 200 snow leopards or tigers. Most existing reserves are small, able to sustain only a few of the great cats—and these may become extinct due to inbreeding, disease, or some accidental event. And as ecosystems shift with climate change, animals will have to adapt, migrate, or die.

So how does one go about protecting big cats, which need space (and, don’t forget, meat)?

Instead of focusing just on discrete, isolated protected areas, conservation has enlarged its vision to manage whole landscapes. The goal is to create a mosaic of core areas without people or development where a leopard or jaguar can breed in peace and security. Such core areas are connected by corridors of viable habitat to enable a cat to travel from one safety zone to another. The remaining area of a landscape is designated for human use.

Easier said than done, of course. While we can paint idyllic pictures of reconciled landscapes with tigers and cattle and peasants living in harmony, the reality of implementing any action towards such an idyll are daunting. Schaller reminds us that the real big hurdle is political will, for:

In the final analysis, conservation is politics—and politics is killing the big cats

Given the failures of the more punitive bureaucratic approaches used so far to protect the big cats, let’s try alternatives:

I wonder if a positive approach might be more effective: Pay communities to maintain healthy great cat populations. After all, it is painfully clear that good science and good laws do not necessarily result in effective conservation. Communities must be directly involved as full partners in conservation by contributing their knowledge, insights, and skills. Aware of this, I have in recent years focused less on detailed science, something I enjoy most, and more on conservation. I have tried to become a combination of educator, diplomat, social anthropologist, and naturalist—an ecological missionary, balancing knowledge and action.

Schaller goes on to write (you really should read the essay in its entirety):

Our greatest challenge is to instill national commitments to save the great cats. It’s everyone’s task. Communities need incentives to share their land with such predators. Benefits need to be based on moral values as well as on economic ones. The jaguar is a representative of the sun, the protector of all that lives among indigenous societies of Latin America; the tiger in China was an emissary of heaven and in Hindu India a force for good; and Buddhism stresses respect, love, and compassion for all living beings. Conservation is based on moral values, not scientific ones, on beauty, ethics, and religion, without which it cannot sustain itself.

That last sentence could be part of a manifesto for reconciliation ecology, a reminder to us wildlife biologists of the broader context within which we must place our endeavors to conserve biodiversity.

 

The Sad Plight of the Silky Sifaka

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/25109845 w=480&h=270]


Green: Science

Lemurs are in trouble. The cute wide-eyed primates have been threatened for decades, but their situation has recently worsened. Over the last five years, political instability and corruption in Madagascar, their only native country, has led to extensive deforestation and habitat destruction, even in officially protected areas.

Some estimates place the current loss of Madagascar’s forest cover at almost 90 percent. What’s left has come under increasing pressure from armed gangs of criminal loggers.

While hundreds of lemur species call Madagascar home, the silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus), a timid white fluffy variety, is at most risk of extinction. Estimates on the remaining number of silkys, known as the “angels of the forest” for their white fur and tree-hopping acrobatic abilities, range from 300 to 2,000. The silky is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates.

The silky’s plight is documented in an online documentary called “Trouble in Lemur Land.” The film follows an American primatologist named Eric Patel, who is trying to save the silky or to at least learn as much as possible about the animal before it goes extinct.

Read the rest of the article by Erik Olsen on the New York Times’ Green Blog

Austin’s urban bats pour out into the warm summer night

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=injnpYJnQyM]

One of the factors attracting almost 4000 ecologists to downtown Austin in the middle of a hot Texas summer, I’m sure, are bats. Urban bats. Not the high-tech gizmo-laden kind from comic books, but tiny furry creatures that emerge from their urban lair in the heart of Austin every summer night to wreak vigilante justice on insects! Its a remarkable phenomenon: a breeding colony of some 1.5 million bats roosting under/inside the heavily trafficked Congress Avenue bridge smack-dab in the middle of the city.

What an amazing example of reconciliation ecology in practice! A bridge retrofit in 1980 resulted in structural changes that created crevices underneath the bridge which led to hollow spaces inside. Perfect habitat for the Mexican Free-tailed Bat, which soon discovered the swank new dwellings—a rent-free, safe, roomy dwelling, overlooking a fabulous river view, plenty of food nearby, and a safe environment to raise kids n teach them how to catch bugs; what’s not to like?—and moved in in droves. After initial fears and concerns about these seriously misunderstood creatures, fears that were allayed by Bat Conservation International, Austinites settled into an easy coexistence with the little creatures, which have continued to return to the bridge every spring from their winter homes in Mexico, to raise new broods by the hundreds of thousands. BatCon’s website has more about this colony’s history and social / economic significance.

This morning I had gone out early to see the bats return to roost in the dawn. I returned in the evening, with my iPad, to see the more remarkable phenomenon of mass emergence at night. The above video is the result – watch it full screen in the highest possible resolution (480P) for the best view. The clip starts a bit slow as I was waiting for the show to start along with a patiently sweating throng under the bridge. The bats started streaming out from the below the far end of the bridge first, so they are a bit hard to see – squint at the lowest strip of the sky near the lower-middle of the screen to see the stream. Keep watching, though, because soon enough more bats came out from right over our heads, and I managed to catch multiple streams pouring out into the evening sky, and a nice view of the sunset too! You’ll also hear the clicking of the bats as they navigated their way around the struts of the bridge, and squeals of delight and amazement from the watching humans.

Watch closely, and you might also notice a curious pattern to their flight under the bridge – the bats on the northern end of the bridge (where I was) wend their way around the struts and pillars supporting their bridge all the way to near the southern end where they then take to the sky as part of the main stream of traffic! I wonder why, except for once or twice during the peak of flow, they don’t just leave the bridge at once instead of joining that single stream. Mysterious and fascinating.

Later, talking to a volunteer docent from Bat Conservation International on the bridge, I learnt that the numbers were probably at the highest for the year because mama bats had weaned their pups of this spring, and were bringing them out to sample the night’s delights!

What a wonderful experience to watch this remarkable natural phenomenon happen right in the middle of a major urban area. And how amazing to see the wonder on the faces of humans crowding the bridge (some 8 million come to watch them every year, I’m told) for a glimpse of bats on a hot day. If this is possible in the middle of Texas, with all its rattlesnake-round-ups and evolution-denying schoolboards, surely we can find other ways to accommodate other wildlife in the midst of our own habitats now blanketing most of the land.

Watching the bats, mamas, pups, and all, drawing such a human crowd, with many a child gaping in awe… what a perfect way to end the ESA meeting, which had as its main theme: Earth Stewardship! There may yet be hope for our species and cohabitants of spaceship Earth, it seems…

The oceans rise, even as they decline… so long, fish!

ResearchBlogging.org

Two interesting, alarming reports this week about what’s happening (no small thanks to us) to the dominant habitat on this watery planet. First, that habitat is becoming even more dominant: a paper in PNAS meticulously reconstructs global sea-levels over the past two millenia to show that the oceans have been steadily rising, in concert with climatic changes, and that their rise has accelerated in recent years. This figure ought to worry you:

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Meanwhile, though, that dominant habitat is also becoming emptier of inhabitants, as we continue to deplete marine wildlife in alarming ways.

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So concludes an international panel of marine scientists convened by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO). Even though conservation biologists have a reputation for being alarmists, this statement from one of the panelists, should worry you:

“The findings are shocking,” said Alex Rogers, IPSO’s scientific director and professor of conservation biology at Oxford University.

“As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realised.

“We’ve sat in one forum and spoken to each other about what we’re seeing, and we’ve ended up with a picture showing that almost right across the board we’re seeing changes that are happening faster than we’d thought, or in ways that we didn’t expect to see for hundreds of years.”

There’s more:

“The rate of change is vastly exceeding what we were expecting even a couple of years ago,” said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coral specialist from the University of Queensland in Australia.

“So if you look at almost everything, whether it’s fisheries in temperate zones or coral reefs or Arctic sea ice, all of this is undergoing changes, but at a much faster rate than we had thought.”

But more worrying than this, the team noted, are the ways in which different issues act synergistically to increase threats to marine life.

Those “different issues” include, of course, overfishing, pollution – especially from nasty plastics – ocean acidification, and warming. All adding up to the next mass extinction, one we are living through, unprecedented in being caused largely by a single species – us. So what are we to do?

IPSO’s immediate recommendations include:

  • stopping exploitative fishing now, with special emphasis on the high seas where currently there is little effective regulation
  • mapping and then reducing the input of pollutants including plastics, agricultural fertilisers and human waste
  • making sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Sounds simple enough, right? Clean up our act and take responsibility? So, we may know the way to back away from this rising, empty tide. Do we have the will?

Reference:

Kemp, A., Horton, B., Donnelly, J., Mann, M., Vermeer, M., & Rahmstorf, S. (2011). Climate related sea-level variations over the past two millennia Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015619108

 

Audubon Women in Conservation 2011: Sigourney Weaver

Actress Sigourney Weaver received one of two Rachel Carson Awards at Audubon’s recent Women in Conservation luncheon. Audubon magazine sat down with the actress to discuss what it means to be a woman activist, what environmental issues concern her, and how we can all play a part in protecting the planet.

Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

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

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

This warblers vs. tigers polemic, though, keeps coming back. Recently, a newfound friend on the internets, Arati Rao, wrote to me about going back to re-read it, wishing she could own a copy, but that the original book is now out-of-print. At her behest, therefore, I am reproducing the article below, and hope it finds new readers. I have scanned the original print version and you can read it here. Meanwhile, here the text of the original essay, with it’s original title:

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