Tag Archives: reconciliation ecology

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.

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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.

More birds and plants in the world’s cities than expected – a new paper from my NCEAS team

Tea with sparrows

A special present to celebrate this Darwin Day: the publication of the first paper from my global collaboration to study patterns and processes in biodiversity among the world’s cities. This first fruit of a collaboration that started 3 years ago under the aegis of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara has just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B:

M. F. J. Aronson, F. A. La Sorte, C. H. Nilon, M. Katti, M. A. Goddard, C. A. Lepczyk, P. S. Warren, N. S. G. Williams, S. Cilliers, B. Clarkson, C. Dobbs, R. Dolan, M. Hedblom, S. Klotz, J. L. Kooijmans, I. Kuhn, I. MacGregor-Fors, M. McDonnell, U. Mortberg, P. Pysek, S. Siebert, J. Sushinsky, P. Werner, and M. Winter 

A global analysis of the impacts of urbanization on bird and plant diversity reveals key anthropogenic drivers

Proc R Soc B 2014 281: 20133330-20133330 doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.3330

The paper has 24 co-authors, from 10 countries, and involved a number of other collaborators who contributed data in some way. It is easily the biggest scale project I’ve ever been involved with, and one that promises to be very productive over the next few years. We started in 2011 by building perhaps the largest database of bird and plant diversity in cities, with 147 cities analyzed in this paper, and have continued to work on analyzing the data and expanding the database. This paper is the first in what we plan to be a series of articles analyzing the distribution of bird and plant species in urban areas worldwide to develop a deeper understanding of how cities interact with biodiversity. As such, this overview article has been a big first step in getting our work through peer review and into publication so the rest of the world—you—can read and see what we have discovered.

It is gratifying to see that there is broad interest in our results. The BBC News posted a report covering our paper even before the paper was available online, and the BBC World Service will shortly be interviewing Mark Goddard, one of the coauthors. Meanwhile, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s program The World Today spoke to coauthor Nick Williams earlier today, and you can hear his interview online in the show’s podcast. US media hasn’t quite woken up yet, so let’s see how much interest there is on these shores.

I will be writing more about this research, and explaining our findings in greater detail in a blog post or two over the coming few days (as and when I find time to finish writing the posts in between classes and committee meetings). For now, let me share this press release I helped put together for NCEAS:

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Julie Cohen
(805) 893-7220
julie.cohen@ucsb.edu
Pat Leonard
(607) 254-2137
pel27@cornell.edu

February 12, 2014

Cities Support More Native Biodiversity Than Previously Thought
Researchers at UCSB’s NCEAS compile the largest global dataset of urban birds and plants, which shows world’s cities retain a unique natural palette.

(Santa Barbara, Calif.) — The rapid conversion of natural lands to cement-dominated urban centers is causing great losses in biodiversity. Yet, according to a new study involving 147 cities worldwide, surprisingly high numbers of plant and animal species persist and even flourish in urban environments — to the tune of hundreds of bird species and thousands of plant species in a single city.

Contrary to conventional wisdom that cities are a wasteland for biodiversity, the study found that while a few species — such as pigeons and annual meadow grass — are shared across cities, overall the mix of species in cities reflects the unique biotic heritage of their geographic location. The findings of the study conducted by a working group at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and funded by the National Science Foundation were published today in the Proceedings B, a journal of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences.

“While urbanization has caused cities to lose large numbers of plants and animals, the good news is that cities still retain endemic native species, which opens the door for new policies on regional and global biodiversity conservation,” said lead author and NCEAS working group member Myla F. J. Aronson, a research scientist in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

The study highlights the value of green space in cities, which have become important refuges for native species and migrating wildlife. This phenomenon has been named the Central Park Effect because of the surprisingly large number of species found in New York’s Central Park, a relatively small island of green within a metropolis.

Unlike previous urban biodiversity research, this study looks beyond the local impacts of urbanization and considers overall impacts on global biodiversity. The research team created the largest global dataset to date of two diverse taxa in cities: birds (54 cities) and plants (110 cities).

Findings show that many plant and animal species, including threatened and endangered species, can flourish in cities, even as others decline or disappear entirely. Cities with more natural habitats support more bird and plant species and experience less loss in species as the city grows. Overall, cities supported far fewer species (about 92 percent less for birds and 75 percent less for native plants) than expected for similar areas of undeveloped land.

“We do pay a steep price in biodiversity as urbanization expands,” said coauthor Frank La Sorte, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “But even though areas that have been urbanized have far fewer species, we found that those areas retain a unique regional flavor. That uniqueness is something that people can take pride in retaining and rebuilding.”

Conserving green spaces, restoring native plant species and adding biodiversity-friendly habitats within urban landscapes could, in turn, support more bird and plant species. “It is true that cities have already lost a substantial proportion of their region’s biodiversity,” said Madhusudan Katti, a faculty member in the Department of Biology at California State University, Fresno. “This can be a cup half-full or half-empty scenario. If we act now and rethink the design of our urban landscapes, cities can play a major role in conserving the remaining native plant and animal species and help bring back more of them.”

The human experience is increasingly defined within an urban context, the authors noted. They maintain it is still possible for a connection to the natural world to persist in an urban setting, but it will require planning, conservation and education.

“Given that the majority of people now live in cities, this group’s synthesis of data on plant and urban plant and animal diversity should be of broad interest to ecologists as well as urban and landscape planners,” said Frank Davis, NCEAS director.

# # #

Note to editors: Frank Davis is available at frank.davis@nceas.ucsb.edu or at (805) 892-2502. Downloadable images are available at http://www.news.ucsb.edu/node/013947/cities-support-more-native-biodiversity-previously-thought.

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Of course, feel free to also contact me if you have questions about the paper or our ongoing research into global urban biodiversity patterns, and if you need a reprint pdf of the paper. I would love to hear your thoughts on this work.

Urban gardens

 

Nelson Mandela and the long walk to reconciling humanity with nature

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 earlier today. Somehow, it even caught the eye of the Ecological Society of America, which posted about it on their blog. Here’s my original version of the essay, before it was edited down for broadcast.

MandelaMonument sustainability quote

The iconic Nelson Mandela monument via Fr Lawrence Lew, OP on Flickr

With the passing of Nelson Mandela last month, we lost one of the strongest needles in humanity’s moral compass.

While many aspects of Mandela’s remarkable life are justly celebrated, one of the brightest moral beacons is surely his establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After 27 years spent behind bars, the world would have understood, maybe even condoned him had he gone after his oppressors seeking retribution for the injustices he and his fellow black South Africans had suffered under the white rulers of apartheid.

Instead, Mandela chose the path of reconciliation, bringing victims and oppressors together in nationwide public hearings to air out the real stories of injustice. Subverting any desire for victor’s justice, he found ways to heal the nation without bloodshed. Someone who had once been labeled a terrorist for supporting the overthrow of an oppressive regime had found a way to not only forswear violence, but to actually forgive his own jailers and the other perpetrators of injustices against his people.

Perhaps even more remarkably, his people followed his leadership, and accepted the path of reconciliation to bring South Africa into the community of nations as a new kind of democracy and a leader in the so-called Dark Continent. Others have since set up their own Truth and Reconciliation commissions to deal with crimes and injustices in their countries.

While this process of seeking truth and reconciling formerly antagonistic parties shows remarkable promise to transform human society, can we extend the power of reconciliation to heal humanity’s deepening rift with Nature?

Ever since the industrial revolution, our relationship with Nature is marked by our increasing exploitation of resources in the interests of profit and prosperity for some members of our species. We have transformed the Earth’s very surface, ushering in a new geological era—the Anthropocene—and have pushed many other living beings to the brink of extinction, if not right over that cliff. Earth’s biodiversity has endured at least 5 other mass extinction events in its history, when various natural forces—from volcanoes to meteors—wiped out over 90% of the species. We, the industrial engine of the ongoing 6th mass extinction, are the first such planetary force to have a moral conscience capable of being troubled by what we wreak.

Even as we justify our actions in the name of economic growth or progress, our morality tells us that something is deeply wrong when they result in the ravaging of the planet, and the devastation of so much life. How can we reconcile our destructive acts with any morality that teaches us to respect life, and to be good stewards of the land for future generations?

Can we expand Mandela’s vision of reconciliation to offer ourselves a shot at redemption from Nature, just like he offered his oppressors? Unlike him, Nature is amoral and lacks any conscience to offer us a path at redemption. It is up to us, therefore, to recognize the consequences of our actions, admit our culpability, indeed guilt, in destroying Nature, and seek forgiveness—through actions which repair the damage we have done—if we are to ride out this Anthropocene extinction crisis with our civilization intact.

Mandela once said

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

Nature, of course, is not our enemy, although we’ve been acting like all of Earth is enemy territory we must conquer. In 2003, speaking at the IUCN’s World Parks Congress in South Africa, Mandela also said

A sustainable future for humankind depends on a caring partnership with nature as much as anything else.

Can we make peace with the Earth, start working with Nature and transform ourselves into her partner?

Even as many former supporters of apartheid and critics of Mandela turned around to celebrate his life last month, can we turn ourselves around as a civilization, to reconcile and rebuild our relationship with Nature? That would be the deepest, most meaningful way to expand Mandela’s legacy.

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

Let go of that lawn to welcome some life into your suburban yards

Here is a neat video illustrating how wonderful it can be to convert our yards into ecosystems rich in biodiversity – richer certainly than the manicured lawns that dominate most suburban landscapes. Imagine converting most of that lawn acreage – estimated to be 4x the acreage of corn making lawns the number one irrigated crop in the continental US – into native wildlife-friendly habitats!

Imagine your yard looking and sounding and smelling and feeling like this:

How much more local biodiversity would we be able to support within our increasingly suburban landscape? How many ecosystem services and positive environmental externalities could our suburbs generate? By supporting healthier populations of honeybees, for example, which might go pollinate crops in the surrounding agricultural landscape, and maybe give you some delicious local honey to boot, especially if we give them more beautiful flowers from which to sip! That’s a joy already being experienced by urban apiarists even in megacities, who would no doubt appreciate more flowers for their hardworking bees.

And how much water would we save, especially out here in the arid southwest? After all, water wise yards are also biodiversity friendly yards, which is why we are trying to promote them in the suburban sprawl of California’s Central Valley.

It is high time you let go of that lawn, and welcome some more life into your yards too.

Reconciliation Ecology in Current Conservation

Current Conservation 5.1As I told a friend earlier today,  I am chuffed!

This is an announcement I have been waiting to make for quite a long while. Sometime during 2011 (or was it 2010?), my friend Nandini Rajamani approached me on behalf of this magazine of which she had just become editor, called Current Conservation, published out of Bangalore. She told me this was a popular magazine that had been around for a few years, and was being revamped to expand its reach among the nature conservation audience in India and elsewhere – but particularly focusing distribution on practitioners. She pointed me to their website where I found some really impressive articles from a variety of international writers laid out quite beautifully in a magazine format (why had I not paid attention to the emergence of this magazine sooner, I asked myself?).

Then she invited me to join the editorial board, and, more significantly, to contribute a regular column of essays about conservation topics! Apparently she, and others involved with the magazine had been reading my blog and thought I would have something useful to say to their readers on a regular basis. And here I thought that I was, a) mostly whistling into the wind, and b) as a blogger, part of some new media in an era where print magazines were on their way out! How could I refuse such a regular writing gig from a magazine, in a region where (Nandini assured me), despite all the hype about the www, print still ruled as the primary means of disseminating information for most people?

But I don’t write about tigers and other charismatic wildlife in the usual media ways, I thought, so will the largely Indian readership go for my somewhat askew take on conservation through reconciliation ecology? Yes, she said, reminding me that my “Tigers are less important than warblers” article remains one of the most-read essays I’ve ever written! She offered to call the column “Reconciliation Ecology”. So I said yes, of course! And looked forward to a more formal and less-ephemeral-seeming home for some of my more coherent ramblings.

In the first essay, I set out to answer a question I am asked repeatedly: “What is Reconciliation Ecology?“. I sent off the essay. And waited. I wrote another essay, “Lost Sounds“, and waited some more. Months passed before I heard that they were revamping the production process and the website and that they would catch up with the backlog of volume 4 before launching volume 5 which would include my debut column. Meanwhile, they had also asked me about artwork for my column, and commissioned an artist to produce something based on some ideas we discussed. The drafts and proofs were very promising. Then I noticed the website sporting a “under renovation” sign, and my pulse quickened as I left it open in an oft-refreshed tab in my browser. Yet more months passed with the site remaining unchanged even as the editor asked me for more essays so they could catch up on all 4 issues of volume 5 soon!

I knew Nandini had been finishing her Ph.D. dissertation when she first took on the job, and had since had other postdoctoral projects calling her away from India. It also seemed that other personnel were being shuffled around, even as months passed with the website remaining moribund, under that dusty “under renovation” sign, which I had stopped checking obsessively.

And then, yesterday, out of the blue, I got an email from the managing editor telling me that the magazine was back in production and issue 5.1 with my column was already out, in print and on the web! The email was accompanied by a pdf containing my article in its final form, a two page spread bordered by beautiful artwork depicting transitions and overlaps between the “natural” and “human” worlds, just like we had discussed, in a vaguely Warli painting style! How carefully and beautifully have they laid down my words on the pages of this beautiful magazine… I can’t wait to smell the ink when I get the actual print copy in hand soon.

Meanwhile, I am quite chuffed to present to you: Current Conservation, whose website is still being renovated. But you can read all their issues online, including 5.1 whose cover is featured above, containing my new column on pages 26-27! Read the whole issue, of course, and all the previous volumes as well. There is a lot of good stuff there, and more exciting stuff to come (and be more accessible too) with the website redesign. You can also follow the magazine on its new Facebook page.

And let me know what you think about my answer to your oft-asked question “What is Reconciliation Ecology?“. I welcome ideas and suggestions for topics to explore in future columns, as well as any of your own writings you may want to submit. I will be happy to email you a pdf reprint if you want one. Also, please consider subscribing to the print issue and supporting this important publication in any way you can.

Now I better go and finish the next couple of essays I had promised months ago!

2012 Ravi Sankaran Memorial Lecture by Mahesh Rangarajan

As mentioned here recently, the inaugural Ravi Sankaran Memorial Lecture was given by historian Mahesh Rangarajan during the Student Conference in Conservation Science in Bangalore a couple of weeks ago. The entire lecture is now available on youtube for those of us who were not able to attend in person. It is a long video, but well worth the listen, so settle down with this when you have an hour or so free:

Here is my own tribute to Ravi, written during the immediate pangs of grief when he died.

Reconciliation ecology and the soul of a university (a radio essay)

My reading of the following essay will be broadcast as part of the series “The Moral Is” (to which I have been contributing for a year now) on Valley Public Radio today, July 3, 2012, during the local morning program Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. At some point in the future, it will be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, here is the text of my essay (adapted from my open letter to President Welty in the wake of the recent deforestation on our campus) in its original form – it was condensed just a little bit to make it radio-worthy. I hope you find my voice is at least as suited as my face for radio…

Fall colors in the now deforested Lot J

A view of gorgeous fall colors in the urban forest on our campus that was cut down last month to create more parking spaces

Is a university more than a collection of buildings where classes are held so students can get their money’s worth of diplomas? To whom does a public university belong: the faculty and students who live and work there and make it their community, or administrators and politicians who control the fate of a campus with top-down decisions? Does a university have a soul, and if it does, how do we protect and nurture it during economically difficult times? Does a university have a responsibility to model, on its own campus, some of the solutions to the difficult challenges facing society?

I ponder these questions as a tenured faculty member at California State University, Fresno – also known by its new brand name as “Fresno State”. The adoption of that brand, with a logo that no one likes, is symbolic of how out-of-touch our upper administration is with much of the campus community. Campus leaders created a more visible and tragic symbol recently when they literally tore a chunk of life out of campus by chopping down a mature urban forest to expand parking. This was a massive failure from our university at multiple levels: failure to consult with the campus community before cutting down 200 mature trees; and lack of any broader vision for building a sustainable green campus as a model for urban development. Deforestation to expand parking on a campus recently added to Princeton Review’s list of Green Campuses seriously undermines Fresno State’s credibility. I am also deeply hurt because the deforestation destroyed a significant part of my outdoor research and teaching laboratory.

I study and teach Reconciliation Ecology, a multidisciplinary approach to reconcile human development with biodiversity conservation on our overcrowded planet. I work with policy makers, planners, and citizens to find ways to soften our environmental impact while improving quality of life for humans. Our campus provides primary field study sites. Students do original research here, including in the now deforested parking lots. We document how these seemingly barren urban spaces support many wildlife species, including federally protected migratory birds; the Fox Squirrel, a campus mascot celebrated during Squirrel Week; Great Horned Owl, Peregrine Falcon, and other birds of prey living on campus. Their habitats now stand bereft of the tree canopy that provided valuable resources. How do I teach reconciliation ecology if we cannot practice even a modicum of reconciliation on our own campus?

The need for more parking when we are curtailing enrollment is curious, and this approach shows a complete lack of ecological foresight. Was it really necessary to cut down 200 mature trees, which fix carbon, provide shade, habitat, and psychological benefits, to add 600 parking spots? When the whole world is looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and when most urban dwellers are increasingly disconnected with nature, must we really cut down an urban forest to encourage more driving?

The leaders who navigate our campus through extremely difficult financial times must not overlook the ramifications of decisions thrust upon an increasingly alienated and demoralized academic community. A little more respect for the views of faculty and students who care deeply about this university, a little more compassion towards the environment and other organisms who share our campus, and a little more ecological smarts to soften the hard edges of our campus’s physical and psychological footprint will go a long way towards making the difficult times ahead more bearable. It can also turn adversities into opportunities for genuine leadership in building a truly sustainable campus for the long-term future of this century-old university. After all, the university lies at the heart of both, our intellectual and environmental commons, and nurtures the soul of our entire community.

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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