Tag Archives: wildlife

Do human beings who have lived in tiger habitat for generations really need to be tossed out to save tigers?

At the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC last week, I had my fair share of irritating moments listening to speakers on topics that (in my humble opinion) they knew not much about, yet had a symposium platform to pontificate on at a conference with more media coverage than any I have ever seen at any scientific gathering. Most of the irritations came during talks about conservation and natural resource governance issues, which didn’t get as much media coverage as some other topics. Aside from occasional tweets and a question or two that seemed to catch the speakers off guard, I kept my irritations to myself. I am reminded of one such moment, however, by an excellent article by Janaki Lenin on “The best laid schemes of tigers and men” (published also in Governance Now under a duller title but may not be accessible there), which begins thus:

The media leaves little doubt about the dire straits that we find the tiger in today. Millions of dollars are raised at home and abroad to secure the future of this magnificent beast. But the people who are paying dearly for the conservation of the charismatic big cat are the unglamorous local people who have had to quietly forsake their homes and traditional livelihoods to make way for the tiger.

This reminded me of a discussion at the end of a session on “Changing Climate, Changing Approaches: Conservation in the Face of Climate Change“, when the rather hapless discussant said something about how amazing the US Endangered Species Act was as a conservation tool, and asked why no other country in the world had emulated the US in adopting such an exemplary law? Seriously – that’s what he asked!

Granted, I had missed half the session (having foolishly gone to another even more frustrating talk on caste systems…), but this discussion did seem to be banging on a bit too much about the Endangered Species Act, which surprised me given the rather broader discourse I expected based on the title of the session. So when the above question was posed, I couldn’t help but raise my hand and point out that the US wasn’t really all that exemplary and that other countries – like India – also had strong laws (and, occasionally, strong ministers pushing to implement the laws), so the problems lay elsewhere. John Mathews of Conservation International (who had given a good talk just moments earlier) then chimed in as well to talk about how India had a history of protecting sacred forests (i.e., whole ecosystems) thousands of years before the ESA was invented to save individual species. As my friend Eric Johnson tweeted in the moment:

“India has sustainably managed sacred forests for 3,000 years. Americans are smug about protecting one fish: A to Q by @leafwarbler #AAASmtg”.

Its hard for Americans not to feel smug about themselves, though – but Indian tiger-wallahs can surely match that smugness with their own breast-beating about how the tigers are beset upon by “too many people”, as evidenced by an immediate response to Eric’s tweet from @dyingtigers:

“India has laws, but not enforced. 99% of tiger habitat is GONE!! India has too many people + tigers don’t vote”.


How can one have a rational conversation about real solutions when caught between hubris and hysteria? Janaki’s thoughtful article is how! She provides an excellent (and balanced!) perspective on India’s rather well-intentioned laws and how we have stumbled and bumbled in our interpretation and implementation of said laws. And how, in doing so, we are failing both the tigers and the poor marginalized human inhabitats of tiger habitats who have lived with the beasts for generations only to find themselves in the conservation crosshairs now. As Janaki concludes:

“In this day and enlightened age, can we rightfully protect the tiger by impoverishing the people who have lived with it until now? Ironically, conservationists bemoan that the public is not more engaged with protecting wildlife and yet, they condone an undemocratic system that serves to turn any wildlife-tolerant tribal into an ardent opponent. Is it really so difficult to save the tiger without being unfair and callous to fellow human beings?”

Excellent questions indeed that must be answered by all of us, from government officials to conservationists to ordinary citizens, from Washington, DC to New Delhi and everywhere in between.

Help Kickstart a field research project! The Quail Diaries: In Search of the Elegant Quail


In what I am told is the season of giving, why not give to a couple of field biologists and artists who want to go chase a rare quail in an interesting collaborative field project? My friend Jennifer Gee has teamed up with colleague Jennifer Calkins to launch this project, and they are trying a novel way to finance their work – directly from us, via kickstarter! Their fundraising goal is modest, just shy of $5K, and with less than two days to go in the campaign, they are just about $500 shy of the target. Will you pitch in and help? Of course, if you do, and they raise enough to fund their expedition – don’t be surprised if one of these days I hit you again with something similar for one of my own students’ projects! 🙂

The plight of the Condors: the ghost of DDT past!

Ah, the sad saga of the California Condors. The poor ugly bastards just can’t catch a break, can they? Driven extinct in the wild, brought back up in numbers in captivity, released back into the wild – only to catch lead bullets again, and also it seems, DDT! Again!! The more things change, the more they stay the same? Or do they actually just get worse?

But, wait a minute, didn’t they ban DDT use decades ago in the US, after the alarm raised by “Silent Spring” (which I just referred to in my previous post) back in the ’60s? Egg-shell thinning due to DDT was discovered then as a cause of declines in many a raptor population. As a result, yes, they did ban DDT here (although it continues to be used elsewhere in the world). So how come the eggshells of Condors re-wilded in the Big Sur area are thin again? It seems they’re getting DDT now from the sea, via bioaccumulated deposits in the fat of sea lions whose carcasses the Condors feed on on the beaches of the central California coast! And where do the sea lions get it from? Why, the fish, of course? The fish, you protest – but we never sprayed DDT into the ocean, did we? Well… actually, we did – rather, the Montrose Chemical Corporation, then the world’s biggest manufacturer of said pesticide, apparently just flushed its untreated DDT waste straight into the ocean! Those were the glory days of the plastics and the green revolution, when they thought the oceans could absorb all of our wastes no problem. If only. Turns out, the DDT just settled down underneath the waves, on the Palos Verdes Shelf off of Los Angeles, near the breeding grounds of the sea lions. And it has been seeping into the marine food chain ever since, building up in the tissues of predators like the sea lions. Until the Condors came back to scavenge on their carcasses – only to get a fresh dose of that old familiar nemesis that pushed their parents and grandparents off the brink several decades ago. Funny how the shit we invent in our industrial/technological hubris never seems to really go away, eh?!

Read more on this sad turn of events, in the New York Times. It reminds me again of my youthful objection two decades ago to spending millions to bring this single (not-really-charismatic) species back from the brink. I remember wondering how and where they were hoping to put the Condors back into the wild if they never addressed the root causes of their decline in the first place! I never got a good answer then – just more technological hubris about the potential for captive breeding to save the species, with the blindly optimistic assumption that somehow the habitat would be found for re-release if the birds’ population could be built up again in captivity. The same desperate optimism fueling other captive breeding programs and “frozen zoo” schemes even now. As if breeding, or the inability to do so, is the main problem all these creatures suffer from in the wild.

When are we going to move away from these technological fixes, these band-aid solutions, and start addressing root causes, in our own economy and society, technology and behavior, that are pushing all these species into the extinction vortex?

Leopards in the Lurch

Well and truly in the lurch, some of these leopards, if the footage in this film is anything to go by – some very disturbing stuff in there, so be warned. (I might warn you about the narration also, which is more annoying than disturbing!)

As for the leopards, I’m not sure what to make of the numbers cited: are leopards really being killed by the tens to hundreds annually across India? All due to their “incursions” into human habitation – or vice versa, really – given dwindling deer and other prey populations and the ease of finding dogs and even humans. On the one hand, one feels optimistic if that many leopards are indeed being killed annually, by professional hunters or frenzied mobs, yet the problem persists. The overall population may yet be healthy if it can absorb such mortality at human hands and continue to thrive amid human enterprise. On the other hand, we might be seeing a real ecological trap (if not sink) in the villages that attract these leopards, and a bigger crisis in their wild habitats in terms of their natural prey – so the number killed by people may be really decimating the population. I’m not sure if there is a reliable estimate of leopard populations across India – but leopards have proven themselves to be highly adaptable to human dominated landscapes, thriving even within the municipal limits of the megalopolis of Mumbai. The real question is whether we can adapt our own actions to make sure we don’t push this lovely cat over the brink and send it spiralling towards extinction even as we try to save human lives.

And what of the traditional Indian culture, steeped in Hindu philosophy, that is supposed to make us much more tolerant of wildlife than in other parts of the world? Some of the footage above certainly runs counter to notions of tolerance – but could it be more an indication of people’s desperation and frustration at losing so many humans (how reliable are those numbers cited here) to these cats? In the context of those casualty numbers, the overall response seems actually rather restrained, especially when compared with the number of mountain lions “taken” in the American west even when they harm far fewer humans.

[Hat-tip: Waghoba Tipkya]

In which Alan Rabinowitz made Stephen Colbert cry (and me too)

After posting about Alan Rabinowitz’s new (and over-hyped by BBC) series about tigers in Bhutan, I re-read my own earlier post about him, and got to thinking again about the efficacy of wildlife conservation in democracies vs. dictatorship, even discussing it with my sociologist comrade Andrew Jones. I guess I should stop wondering, and start compiling some empirical data to answer the question! Meanwhile, you might be interested in my original musings, so here’s a repost of my essay from Reconciliation Ecology (a blog I wonder if I should move over to Posterous as well, or just give up with a redirect to this blog):


[First posted on June 11, 2008]

As an elitist and a conservationist, I was excited to learn that Stephen Colbert, in keeping with his record of interviewing some of the most interesting guests on late night talk TV had Alan Rabinowitz on last night. Rabinowitz, also known as the Indiana Jones of wildlife protection, is a hero to many conservationists (myself included) for his lifetime of fieldwork on conserving big cats, most notably in Burma – the basis of his new book: “Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed” which brought him to the Colbert Report. The interview hit a great high note with Colbert, most unusually, being almost completely disarmed and brought to tears by Alan’s early life story (and I do know and have worked a bit with him, hence the first name…). Pretty rare to see Colbert’s face get so emotional… but then, within minutes, Colbert found his composure and asked another question eliciting a different kind of elitist answer which makes me cry!

Did you guess what part of that makes me cry? Read on…
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Tigers in the Land of the Dragon

BBC viewers across the pond are getting to see a new series this week, about tigers in Bhutan. Until those of us in other parts of the world get to see Lost Land of the Tiger, here’s a rather overwrought/over-the-top trailer:


Does a documentary about Tigers in Bhutan really need such hype? Especially when it also features Alan Rabinowitz? As if that combination is not enough, the series also features first-time-ever footage of tigers at high altitudes, closer to the treeline than they’ve ever even been suspected of existing! Except by the local Bhutanese who have known about these high-altitude tigers for some time. After all it was local reports that led this crew to set the camera traps along the high altitude trails.


Now that footage, I’d love to see more of! But I hope the tone of the rest of the series isn’t as over-the-top as in the trailer above. If you think you won’t attract any particular viewer demographic with that combination of charismatic creature, enigmatic location, and charismatic biologist, do you really want those viewers? But what do I know about the marketing decisions of tv networks?! Nor do I know how long the BBC and/or National Geographic will make us wait for this series outside of the UK.

Meanwhile, here’s a bonus: a great episode of Radiolab featuring Alan Rabinowitz, from 2007:



East::West — a tale of two species, rediscovered

Living as we are through an ongoing megaextinction (thanks largely to our own species), us biophiles in the conservation business have precious little to cheer about on most days. Everywhere we look, we see holes in the fabrics of ecosystems where species used to be, empty nodes in food webs as they collapse upon themselves. Or, on good days, the fabric taut, worn thin, but not yet ripped, with species teetering on the brink of extinction. And on really good days, we get stories of species seemingly risen again from the dead. I have two such new stories of rediscovered animals to brighten your weekend. And many a tale would seem to lie behind the manner of these rediscoveries in opposite halves of the Earth, tales I can only guess at, so I won’t try to explain, but merely present these stories, and let you ponder the parallels and contrasts.


For the first time in more than ten years, there has been a confirmed sighting of one of the rarest and most enigmatic animals in the world, the Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) from the Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam. The Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (also known as Laos) has announced that in late August villagers in the central province of Bolikhamxay captured a Saola and brought it back to their village.

When news of the Saola’s capture reached Lao authorities, the Bolikhamxay Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office immediately sent a technical team, advised by the IUCN Saola Working Group and the Lao Programme of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), to examine the Saola and release it. Unfortunately, the animal, an adult male, weakened by the ordeal of several days in captivity, died shortly after the team reached the remote village. The animal was photographed while still alive.

“The government of Lao PDR and WCS are to be commended for their rapid response and efforts to save this animal. We hope the information gained from the incident can be used to ensure that this is not the last Saola anyone has a chance to see,” says William Robichaud, Coordinator of the IUCN Saola Working Group.

This is the first confirmed record of the species since two photographs of wild Saola were taken in Laos by automatic camera traps in 1999.


RENO, NEV. — Scientists are hailing the confirmed find of a Sierra Nevada red fox about 90 miles south of Reno, a native subspecies feared extinct in the range since the last verified sighting in 1990.

The fox was photographed Aug. 11 near Sonora Pass on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest by a motion-activated camera set up by U.S. Forest Service employees monitoring the activities of other wildlife.

DNA testing of saliva samples from a chicken-filled sock at the site found the fox is most likely a member of a remnant population of the subspecies in the Sierra, said Ben Sacks, an assistant professor of biology at the University of California, Davis, who conducted the tests.

“This is the most exciting animal discovery we’ve had in California since the discovery of a wolverine in the Sierra two years ago,” Sacks said. “Only this time the unexpected critter turned out to be homegrown, which is truly big news.”

Researchers determined the wolverine wandered into the Sierra from the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho.

John Perrine, a biology professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, said it was the first confirmed sighting of the fox subspecies (Vulpes vulpes necator) in the Sierra since 1990 near Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park.



16,000 Diamondbacks Fans Killed On Complimentary Rattlesnake Night


What would we do without The Onion to provide us with such perspective?

How curiously our biophilia manifests, in the way we name our sports teams after creatures (be they non-human or human) we destroy! If only these totems of the sporting fans could really bite back!

What does a green-hippy community do when a cougar shows up in their midst? Shoot it, of course!


The appearance of a mountain lion Tuesday near downtown Berkeley, Calif., caused a stir in this animal-loving, environmentally conscious community, where residents may obsess about locally grown organic food but don’t expect to be on the menu.

The mountain lion, a 100-pound female, was spotted around 2 a.m. Tuesday in the city’s Gourmet Ghetto district, according to the Berkeley Police Department.

The cougar roamed within pouncing range of Alice Water’s Chez Panisse restaurant, the temple of California cuisine, where twice-cooked kid goat with cumin, ginger, eggplant, and chickpeas was the featured dish that evening. But the state’s top-level predator probably was on the hunt for venison and got lost, according to wildlife experts.

“A mountain lion traveling through an urban environment is infrequent but looking at aerial photographs of the surrounding area you can see why it chose Berkeley,” said Marc Kenyon, the statewide mountain lion program coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Interesting to read this debate crop up again, after yet another mountain lion got shot dead for “straying” into yet another bit of suburban sprawl blotting its former habitat in California. Living with large carnivores is a tough nut for reconciliation ecology, especially in a trigger-happy society that shoots first, asks questions later (if at all).

What would you do if one showed up near your favorite restaurant?