Tag Archives: wildlife

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.

How the White-Crowned Sparrow changes its tune to be heard through the urban din

Last October, I was invited by Laurel Serieys (a graduate student at UCLA)  to present a paper at The Wildlife Society’s 20th Annual Conference in a symposium on how urbanization can cause wildlife populations to diverge by altering behavioral, physiological, and genetic aspects of populations occurring in cities compared to non-urban areas. This is an emerging field of research as we are beginning to build a better understanding of how different cities are as habitats for many species, and the different ways by which they may adapt to city life – or not. This approach is part of the research strategy which should help explain some of the broader patterns we are observing in the distribution of biodiversity in the world’s cities.

I spoke about the effects of urban noise on bird song, based on the excellent Masters thesis project by my (now former) graduate student Jenny Phillips, who studied migratory White-Crowned Sparrows spending the winter in California’s Central Valley. Jenny has since gone on to a Ph.D. program at Tulane University, working in the lab of Elizabeth Derryberry, who was on her MS thesis committee (and with whom I intend to continue collaborating to extend this research).

Photo of White-Crowned Sparrow sitting in a fence

A white crowned sparrow framed in the demarcated landscapes of California’s Central Valley. Photo by Madhusudan Katti, 2008.

I just remembered that TWS was recording talks and sessions throughout the conference, and went looking to see if my talk was recorded. Indeed it was! So if you are interested in hearing about some of Jenny’s and my work on urban bird song, have a listen to my talk on this page, which shows you my slides coupled with my ghati-accented voice:

Singing in the urban din: the effects of anthropogenic noise on song structure in urban birds

Note: the audio had glitches when I tried listening through Safari, but worked fine on Google Chrome; YMMV.

Here’s my abstract for that talk:

Female birds often use male song as an indicator of mate quality; thus the study of song provides insights into reproductive success. Song structure is constrained by the acoustic environment with selection favoring songs that transmit best through available channels given ambient noise and atmospheric conditions. Ecology_specifically those components of the environment that influence sound transmission_thus influences the cultural evolution of songs. One relatively new selection pressure on many birds’ song, is anthropogenic noise, from car traffic as well as industrial machinery and other urban sources. Urban noise resonates at low frequencies and has been shown to influence song frequencies in sedentary populations of song sparrows, great tits, and blackbirds. Increase in ambient noise has also been shown to diminish discriminatory ability in female zebra finches. I first present a brief conceptual overview of the potential and documented effects of urban noise on bird song and behavior. I then share results from ongoing studies of the effects of noise on song in White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii, a long distance migrant wintering in urbanizing areas of central California. Songs and noise were recorded across the urban-rural noise gradient in Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area and compared for acoustic differences in frequency and duration. Modulated note components of the song, the buzz and trill, decreased in bandwidth with increasing noise. The duration of the buzz portion can also be predicted by noise and habitat type. This trend towards short, pure tones in noisy areas is likely an adaptation to be better heard through the roar of the city. Playback experiments also found increased latency to respond to territorial simulations under high ambient noise levels. This may contribute to a breakdown of territoriality in urban habitats. Anthropogenic noise is likely to be an important driver of population divergence due to urbanization.

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.

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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.

Do you know more about ants than a second-grader?

Perhaps not as much as these second graders, who asked some great questions of the good folks over at Your Wild Life who visited their classroom recently:

Over the last couple years, we’ve worked with outstanding K-12 educators on a number of projects, including Belly Button Biodiversity and School of Ants. We enjoy collaborating with teachers on curriculum modules, and then actually visiting students in classrooms when we can. Last week, Lauren Nichols, De Anna Beasley, and Mack Pridgen of Tar Heel Ants joined me on a visit to to the bustling second-grade classroom at the Central Park School for Children in Durham, North Carolina.

Prior to our visit, these curious students submitted some hard-hitting, dare I say philosophical, questions about ants and their biology: “How did ants exist before we did?” and “What is a colony?” We had a blast answering the students’ questions and sharing live ant colonies with them. So much so that we made a little video so you could check out the second-grader-inspired ant Q & A for yourself — Enjoy!

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via Ant Questions Answered!

And here’s a bonus ant doing a kamikaze attack on a spider… FOR THE QUEEN??!!!

For the Queen!



Can we save the Pangolin by forgetting about it?

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

Indian Pangolin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to make the elephant want to leave the room

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

Landscape that dwarfs elephants“, image by Arati Rao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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.


Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

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

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

This warblers vs. tigers polemic, though, keeps coming back. Recently, a newfound friend on the internets, Arati Rao, wrote to me about going back to re-read it, wishing she could own a copy, but that the original book is now out-of-print. At her behest, therefore, I am reproducing the article below, and hope it finds new readers. I think I will scan the original print version also and post it online soon. Meanwhile, here it is, below the fold:

Humans and wildlife, by the numbers

So the census takers tell us that both the human (no surprise) and tiger (hmm…?) populations are up in India. Good news for both, eh? Who says humans cannot coexist with wildlife, of even the large carnivorous kind? We Indians have done it for a long time, no? Four times the human population of the US squeezed into a third of the landmass, and we still have most of our megafauna with us. So far. With much of it still outside protected areas too.

Well… before you celebrate the census figures on behalf of both species, let me point out that its an increasingly uneasy coexistence at best:


Elsewhere, on another continent, the CEO of GoDaddy.com got himself and his company in some hot water for sharing this video (warning: video requires a relatively strong stomach) of a hunt he participated in, apparently to help farmers in Zimbabwe in danger of losing their subsistence crops to elephants whose own numbers force them to range far outside the protected areas within which we would like to confine them. The rather boastful tone of the video and pictures of him posing with the poor dead elephant don’t do him or his company any favors, and have resulted in quite the predictable backlash. But if you do watch the video all the way through, you see in the aftermath a rather desperate looking mob of African villagers stripping the carcass bare, harvesting all the meat in a manner that brings to mind scenes of other scavenger species attending to dead animals. It is easy for us, from the comforts of our suburban homes, to advocate for the rights of the elephant and criticize the rich American tourist who paid a hefty fee to be able to hunt the elephant and gloat about it afterwards. What, though, of the poor farmers whose crops are being raided by the elephants? Doesn’t Zimbabwe have an official policy of culling elephant as a way to manage their populations, especially when they start overflowing the habitat’s carrying capacity (bearing in mind, of course, that it is our actions which have shrunk the habitat, and diminished its carrying capacity)? Therefore (provocative as I may seem in suggesting this), it would seem that this hunt was legal, perhaps legitimate even from the wildlife management perspective, and brought some measure of relief/benefits to the locals, however distasteful the retelling of the tale afterwards. Why do we (those of us in the conservation movement) find it easier to sympathize with the elephant than the farmer in its path, when both are being screwed out of their basic means of subsistence by larger socioeconomic forces beyond either of their control? The chest-beating sounds particularly hollow coming from Americans, who have exterminated most of the larger native species, especially carnivores, from most of their country, and continue to slaughter thousands of wild animals of all kinds every year, ostensibly because they may cause damage to farms and crops.

Meanwhile, back in India, the land where most animals are tolerated (even worshipped, especially elephants) far more than perhaps anywhere else on this planet, even that long-held tolerance is wearing thin as our numbers grow and wildlife populations find themselves crowded into narrower bits of habitat. You can’t keep them confined even in the most protected areas though – that has never been nature’s way. Most organisms will always find ways to disperse and if most of the places they disperse into, we now claim as our own, conflicts are inevitable – especially when it is big and dangerous wildlife appearing in our midst. And, sadly, there is a point, it seems, beyond which even the most tolerant cultures can be pushed into savagery (warning: this video may require an even stronger stomach):

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_V0HAA0UIT0]

As the report indicates, there is a veritable rash of such incidents in India lately, with leopards in particular being cornered, beaten, even burned to death, with forest officials and even police apparently helpless to do anything to stop the mobs. What is driving people to such extreme frenzy? Are we past a tipping point in our civilization, with simply too many people crammed into too little space, which many of us still want to share with other animals too? Perhaps so, when you consider the numbers in India. Yet… how is this killing of leopards straying into India’s teeming towns different from the massacre of wolves in the mostly empty northern Rocky mountains of Wyoming and Montana at the behest of ranchers who want to maximize their profits and not risk losing a single sheep? The latter is government sanctioned and done in an organized, clean, professional manner, unlike the frenzied savage mobs in India. Of course. OK, then.

How do we reconcile ourselves with the rest of wild nature? Can we? Will the rest of biodiversity (if given the choice) even want to reconcile with us, at this point?