Tag Archives: mammal

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.

[youtube T0kzdu_wTM0]

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.

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.

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


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.


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…

Fresno Audubon presents: “San Joaquin Kit Fox – Conserving A Valley Native” | Tuesday, Nov 9

San Joaquin Kit Fox – Conserving A Valley Native

Tuesday, November 9 – 7:30 p.m – Programs held at the University of California Center, 550 East Shaw Avenue(across from Fashion Fair Mall)

The San Joaquin kit fox is one of many endangered species inhabiting the San Joaquin Valley. Kit fox numbers have been reduced to a fraction of their historic levels, primarily due to the conversion of kit fox habitat to agricultural, urban, and industrial uses. Despite its diminutive size, the kit fox is the largest of the many listed species in the Valley. Thus, it is an icon for endangered species conservation in the Valley and serves as an “umbrella” species in conservation efforts. In this talk, Brian Cypher will review the species’ life history and current status, and describe some of the recent efforts being conducted to conserve and recover this species. In addition to the efforts on the part of humans, he’ll describe how the kit fox may be using its own adaptability to help itself!

Brian Cypher is the Associate Director and a Research Ecologist with the California State University – Stanislaus, Endangered Species Recovery Program. His primary research interest is the ecology and conservation of wild canids. His research experience includes work on wolves, coyotes, gray foxes, red foxes, kit foxes, and island foxes. Since 1990, he has been involved in research and conservation efforts for endangered San Joaquin kit foxes and other sensitive species in the San Joaquin Valley of California. He is also a co-editor of the recently released book Urban Carnivores: Ecology, Conflict, and Conservation (purchase it on Amazon or direct from the publisher via this discount order form). 

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Hunting Wolves, Saving Wolves from Now (which couldn’t save itself on PBS)

The above report is another reason why I am saddened tonight because the excellent PBS newsmagazine show “Now” has folded its tent after 8 years of bringing us stories like this one. I started watching Now right from its first episode 8 years ago, marking the return of Bill Moyers as well as responsible, intelligent, mature, and truly hard-hitting journalism, to American television. Coming in the midst of the Dubya presidency, it was such a breath of fresh air – even when it was depressing as hell by pointing out the hell being wrought on earth. The show made enough people in power uncomfortable enough that Moyers got pushed out (until he was able to come back with his Journal) and the show was cut down to half its original length. But it continued to do a remarkable job of giving us a window into important issues in the world with David Brancaccio at the helm. And didn’t hesitate to criticize those in power, even after presidential power changed hands in this country – as you can see in the above report from a couple of months ago.

One can only hope that whatever new shows are replacing Now and Bill Moyers’ Journal (which also aired its last episode tonight), have the clear perspective and the honest drive to keep holding the powerful to account for what they are doing to the powerless; and keep holding up the mirror to all of us so we can see what is being done by us, or in our name, in this global world.

Meanwhile, we have the complete archives of both shows on their PBS websites!! I will keep drawing upon it from time to time, I’m sure, to remind myself of some of the important issues of our times that keep getting short shrift in the rest of the mainstream media, and are too often brushed under the carpet amid the press of more imminent crises, or the myriad distractions of global consumerism.

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Did the Pier 39 Sea Lions disappear because of 20th anniversary blues?


Perhaps they skipped town because they got wind of a party being thrown to mark the 20th anniversary of their taking over San Francisco’s Pier 39. I imagine it could be depressing for these wonderful creatures of the open sea to realize that they’ve spent almost 20 years hanging out in an urban tourist trap! And not merely hang out, but actually become the bait in that tourist trap… yikes! Surely that’s reason enough to hightail it out of there?!

All kidding aside, back on shore, someone over at the Marine Mammal Center has got to be wondering why on earth no one thought of tagging some of these beasts! You know, with one of them GPS transponder things so they could have kept track of them at times like these. Did no one ever think the animals might just take off some day, as abruptly as they had appeared?

Meanwhile, they had to postpone the anniversary party to a later date when, hopefully, the guests of honor will actually deign to be present! I sure hope they do return…