Tag Archives: India

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

Dear Most Powerful Democracy(TM) in the World,

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

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

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

What took you so long?

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

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

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

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

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

Media Coverage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to live with elephants, in the modern wired world

Coexistence is a journey… not a destination”

That useful reminder comes from the main human protagonist of this beautifully told story (see video below) of how elephants and people can coexist, even in places with a relatively high density of people sharing habitat with a small but resilient population of elephants.

Over the course of but a century and a half, less than two elephant lifetimes, a rainforest-clad mountain in southern India known as Anamalai, the Elephant Hills (in Tamil), has become a mosaic of tea plantations, coffee estates, and the settlements of people laboring in those “working landscapes”. The original rainforest habitat of thousands of native species now clings to the interstices of this mosaic, with a few big patches under protection, but many smaller ones facing the vagaries of “mixed use” by humans and non-humans alike.

In most places on Earth, I daresay, this would seem like an unlikely place for a population of elephants to persist. Especially when you consider how their kin in Africa have been slaughtered in recent years even in far less populated places, to slake distant markets for ivory. Yet, here in southern India, a different dynamic is at play, for the local people worship the elephants even as they work their habitats to satisfy other human needs. The elephants too have discovered that there is often more food to be found in the human plantations than in the diminished forests.

Conflict is inevitable when two dominant species compete to appropriate the primary productivity of any landscape. When one of the species is Homo sapiens, the inevitable outcome is seldom a good one for the other species. Yet a cultural reverence for the elephants has combined with the relatively low price placed on ordinary human lives in this part of the world to allow for a tenuous coexistence of sorts. With 39 human lives lost in the past two decades, the elephant god has extracted a bigger sacrifice than might be tolerated in places like the United States.

Now Ananda Kumar and colleagues from the Nature Conservation Foundation (an organization with which I am proud to be associated since its inception, through bonds of friendship and collaboration) tell the story of this coexistence between humans and elephants, and how they have worked to find ways to reduce that human toll and keep both elephants and humans out of harm’s (i.e., each others’) way. And this step forward in the journey of coexistence has been made possible by harnessing some of the very technology that so many of us nature-lovers love to deride as alienating us from nature: cable television and mobile phones!

Watch the story (filmed by my friend Saravanakumar) of how Ananda Kumar and colleagues found ingenious ways to use modern communication technologies to facilitate an ancient coexistence between two species who have long shared habitat in southern India:

Living in harmony with nature – that phrase evokes romantic notions of indigenous people living off the land in lives we imagine to be wonderful and harmonious and wise, but may in reality have been closer to “nasty, brutish, and short”. Nature lovers and conservations love to hate modern technology and blame it for many of our social-ecological ills. This project, and its success in saving human and elephant lives, shows us that we can, in fact, reconcile human development through technology, with the conservation of nature in the constant journey towards coexistence. It is a journey that requires sacrifice, and coexistence may have to be paid for in blood, but technology can soften the blow, even for the most vulnerable among us.

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.

Embedly Powered

via Flickr
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.

Embedly Powered

via Flickr
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?

Embedly Powered

via Flickr
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.

Flying Tiger, Crouching Mahut (on Elephant), and some worries about protected areas in India

Its been a lean time here as far as my writing on this blog goes. I’m hoping this winter break somehow takes me over the hump and releases some pent up words, which, hopefully, will flow across this blog once again. Meanwhile, just to keep you hooked, allow me to share some more videos, like this one featuring a ferocious tigress.

You may be wondering, why is leafwarbler (yes, the same, who wrote this polemic against tigers) suddenly sharing videos of lions and tigers? Well, that lion getting tossed by a buffalo was obviously worth sharing as a fantastic bit of natural history! This one below is particularly interesting because it puts one of the most viewed viral videos—you must have seen that clip of a tiger leaping right up to the top of an elephant to attack the Mahut riding on its back, haven’t you?—within the proper broader context of the ongoing conflicts (and potential reconciliations) between tigers and people in India.

What do you think of that key point hammered in at the end of the video, about the importance of protected areas for tiger conservation? Hard to argue against that when dealing with a large carnivore which obviously needs large territories, and has such obvious potential for conflict. Yet, I have my doubts (which may be more suitable for another proper post) about the over-reliance on protected areas, and have often (most recently in India earlier this year) found myself arguing with conservationists in India about the need for more of a reconciliation ecology approach to at least augment the reservation ecology framework that has been enforced for some decades now. Protected areas, I feel, have done about all they can offer in a land full of so many people. Yet tigers—and even more, leopards—continue to “stray” outside their sanctuaries and national parks, and manage to persist in the surrounding human-dominated landscape matrix for various periods of time. These farm / village / suburban landscapes and what these animals do in them have only recently begun to attract the attention of researchers and conservationists alike. Much to think about and many stories to be told from this zone of conflict/overlap and potential reconciliation between humans and tigers (and leopards and elephants and…) but for now, it is good to have at least one dramatic visual story being told in its proper context.

“Where the mind is without fear…”?

Rabindranath Tagore’s hopes for India, from his Gitanjali

Today is India’s independence day, for 66 years ago the country freed itself from British rule, and for the first time actually became a nation, even as its people were torn asunder in one of the bloodiest, but somehow least talked about passages of violence in the history of the incredibly bloody 20th century. A nation whose history, for all its Gandhian non-violence, started in blood, and remains quite bloody with wars aflame both within and without. A nation that is a multitude of nations, where your identity starts with your language, your caste, your village, your region, yet one where a resurgent militant nationalism is being hammered into us from all directions on this independence day. I can hear the chants of Vande Mataram from the windows of my sister’s flat in Thane, where citizens of the housing society are milling about celebrating this independence day with a local flag hoisting and performances and competitions among local children.

Yes, it is Vande Mataram echoing through the windows, a chant that since its inception has been used by gatherings of people to “work themselves up into a patriotic fervour by shouting the slogan “Vande Mataram”, or “Hail to the Mother(land)!“, originally a challenge to “Hail to the Queen”! A chant that also started out as part of an invocation of Goddess Durga, and an expression of Bengali nationalism. Which is largely why the secular minded leadership of the Indian National Congress only accepted the first two verses as a national song, and eventually adopted Rabindranath Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana as the official national anthem. Tagore, who was one of the first to sing Vande Mataram in the context of the Indian freedom struggle, at the 1896 Calcutta Congress Session, later offered this nuanced critique of the song:

“The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman [Muslim] can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’ [the nation]. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram—proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate. When Bengali Mussulmans show signs of stubborn fanaticism, we regard these as intolerable. When we too copy them and make unreasonable demands, it will be self-defeating.”

And so Tagore’s song became the national anthem for a nation with secular aspirations, and remains a reminder of that legacy. Yet the spirit of its sibling national song seems to resonate more now in an India many of whose citizens seem eager to shed that cloak of secularism and embrace a more militant Hindu nationalism. Meanwhile the official national anthem too is used, in a manner Goebbels would have approved, to whip up patriotic fervor everywhere, from the cinema multiplex in Bombay’s malls to the television in our living rooms. It has been the law (intermittently) in some states to play the national anthem before every every movie screening, in between advertisements for dental hygiene products and the latest masala fare whipped up by B/T/H-ollywood. Recent versions are accompanied by über-jingoistic visuals that start with scenes of army jawans hoisting the flag in the snowy wastes of Siachen where far too many of them have also shed blood for far too little but nationalistic pride. And the expectation during these cinematic renderings of the anthem is that everyone in the audience stand up in respect, or be subject to abuse, even if they are not citizens of India. One has to wonder how effective this has been, however, given the ill-will and strife prevalent between different communities and regions within this nation.

Meanwhile, on the telly, this independence day started with speeches (from the Prime Minister on down) and parades designed to show off the nation’s military might. Never mind that today’s jingoistic military display came in the wake of a horrific tragedy last night when the fully armed torpedoes in an Indian navy submarine accidentally blew up in Bombay harbor killing 18 crew members. Not exactly the kind of fireworks that should have lit up the skies of south Bombay for independence day.

Independence day fireworks over Bombay harbor? Not exactly…

Interspersed among news coverage of the parades and last night’s tragedy, and “independence day special” broadcasts of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”, in between commercials for axe body spray and “red bull gives you wings”, even the telly exhorts us to stand up for the national anthem many times throughout the day. I wonder how many people actually stand up in their living rooms in front of the idiot box, welling with patriotic pride…

I can’t help but think we would have been much better off as a people, as citizens of a peaceful, inclusive republic, had we heeded the other thoughts Tagore had on the concept of nationalism, for instance in his speeches in America over a century ago:

In spite of our great difficulty, however, India has done something. She has tried to make an adjustment of races, to acknowledge the real differences between them where these exist, and yet seek for some basis of unity. This basis has come through our saints, like Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya and others, preaching one God to all races of India.

In finding the solution of our problem we shall have helped to solve the world problem as well. What India has been, the whole world is now. The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a great cause.

He went on to add:

A parallelism exists between America and India – the parallelism of welding together into one body various races.

In my country, we have been seeking to find out something common to all races, which will prove their real unity. No nation looking for a mere political or commercial basis of unity will find such a solution sufficient. Men of thought and power will discover the spiritual unity, will realize it, and preach it.

India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.

Alas, in the more than hundred years since he spoke these words, we have progressed, if anything, farther away from his ideals, and deeper into the slumber from which he hoped this nation of many nations would awake “into that heaven of freedom“:

WHERE THE mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action-
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

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.

Inventing novel food webs for a brave new world

Professor Michael Rosenzweig, who coined the term Reconciliation Ecology, defines it thus in his book Win-Win Ecology:

Reconciliation Ecology is the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work or play.

It starts in part with the recognition of the fact that humans are and have been inventing, establishing, and maintaining new habitats for our own benefit, and such habitats where we live, work or play now overwhelm most of planet Earth. The key to conserving species diversity then is figuring out how to transform our invented habitats into ones where other species can also thrive – and this is where the science bit comes in. This blog (and my research) take inspiration from this to explore what science says about our ability to reconcile our civilization with the diversity of the rest of life on earth, and how other species respond to what we do.

I’m sure though, that Prof. Rosenzweig, who has studied species interactions and communities in wild and human-dominated places throughout his career, never imagined a food web quite like this one:

Vandalur Zoo Food Web“Clearly the lion is the king of the jungle!” –  observes Abi Tamim Vanak.

My friend Abi Tamim Vanak shared the above astonishing image of a billboard he found in Arignar Anna Zoological Park—locally known as Vandalur Zooin the Indian megacity of Chennai. Abi adds:

It’s just a random signboard at the Vandalur zoo along one of the walking trails. They should have also included bread in the food web, as thats what they feed the LTMs [Lion Tailed Macaques].

How about adding a baby in the chain leading up to the “eagle”?

Vandalur Zoo happens to be the first public zoo to open in post-colonial India, in 1955, and remains one of the premier zoos in a nation that wants to be a global leader in wildlife conservation, as in everything else. A nation that is proud of its national parks and sanctuaries which have managed to hold on to the last viable populations of tigers, and other charismatic megafauna, amid a bustling population of over 1.3 billion people. And a park that is officially run by the same Forest Department in charge of running all of the country’s famous protected areas.

Ponder all that as you try to unravel this food web. Imagine yourself as a 7-year-old, on a family or class trip to the famous zoo, staring up at this fantastic diagram depicting something you may never have heard about before: a food web! How much would you, could you, learn about the natural world in this place? The zoo—any zoo—is at the top of my 7-yo daughter’s list of places to visit in any new town, as I’m sure it is for many other children. Oh the things they can learn and take away from the famous Arignar Anna Zoological Park!

Vandalur Zoo is not too far from Pondicherry, the location of the fictional zoo that is the springboard of a fantastical tale you can now see in your local cinema multiplex in 3D glory, The Life of Pi. That tale starts in a similar zoo (with the cinematic one located in Taipei) but ends up (I’m told, because I never could read the novel past the first scenes set in that zoo) with a different sort of food web:

The hyena eats the zebra and the ape. Parker [the tiger] eats the hyena. That leaves Parker and Pi. If they are to survive, there must be a god.

While critics were perplexed, readers felt differently.

I too am perplexed—by the popularity of that tale, and how god enters into that food web—and now even more by the Vandalur zoo’s food web. But maybe there is a different lesson in both that I am missing.

If they are to survive, there must be a god.

When more and more of our children are growing up starved of access to nature in our cities, the zoo may be one of the few places to offer some sort of connection to the diversity of species who share our planet with us. Our re-engineering of earth’s habitats has already torn apart many a natural food web, as we continue to play god. In severing our connections with natural food webs, we have also lost our knowledge of natural history. In this brave new urban world, does it really matter what we call any of these species, or how we arrange them into fanciful food webs?

When computer generated 3D tigers take your breath away on giant screens.

…and film students can fool the world’s top newspapers (and even some naturalists) with a CGI video of an eagle snatching up a baby in an urban park in Montreal,

…what is a real species anymore, and how do we know what other species it may or may not eat?

Maybe I’m looking at this Reconciliation Ecology thing, with its goal to invent, establish, and maintain new habitats, all wrong…

If they are to survive, there must be a god. m

I don’t believe in an external supernatural god who may or may not manifest himself on lifeboats inhabited by curious food webs, but here on earth, If the diversity of species on this planet are to survive, we must be the gods, and we will arrange them as we please.

Right?