Archive for the 'Wildlife' Category

Save rhinos by selling their horns

Jennifer Abbasi in Discover:

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Because rhinoceroses are endangered, buying and selling their horns should be banned.

CONTRARY VIEW: Legalizing the trade in rhino horns is our best chance to save the species.

Purported to treat a variety of ailments, from fevers to measles to epilepsy, rhinoceros horns have been prized ingredients in Chinese medicines for thousands of years. Sought after for their horns, white rhinos saw their population fall to 100 animals in South Africa by 1910, and only 2,410 black rhinos remained there in 1995.

In South Africa and Namibia, a strong conservation ethic — coupled with financial incentives for ownership, management and protection of rhinos for tourism and legal trophy hunting — gradually helped to reduce poaching and restore rhino numbers. But today, Africa’s rhinos once again are facing extinction, despite a 1977 ban on the selling of rhino parts by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Ironically, legalizing a highly regulated trade in rhino horns might actually end up saving the animals. “The trade ban is failing because of persistent and growing demand for horn,” says Duan Biggs, a conservation biologist at the University of Queensland in Australia who argued for lifting the ban earlier this year in the journal Science. “The ban artificially restricts supply in the face of this demand growth, which pushes up the price for horn and the incentives for poachers.” More:

The Great Indian Bustard: less than 200 left

Act Now! Or Say Goodbye to the Great Indian Bustard


New giant tarantula discovered in Sri Lanka

From Wired:

A new type of tarantula about the size of your face has been found in northern Sri Lanka. Scientists found the spiders — with a leg span up to 8 inches across — living in trees and the old doctor’s quarters of a hospital in Mankulam.

Covered in beautiful, ornate markings, the spiders belong to the genus Poecilotheria, known as “Pokies” for short. These are the tiger spiders, an arboreal group indigenous to India and Sri Lanka that are known for being colorful, fast, and venomous. As a group, the spiders are related to a class of South American tarantula that includes the Goliath bird-eater, the world’s largest.

The new spider, named Poecilotheria rajaei after a local police inspector who helped the team navigate post-civil war northern Sri Lanka, differs from similar species primarily in the markings on its legs and underside, which bears a pink abdominal band. More:

Giving new life to vultures to restore a human ritual of death

Gardiner Harris from Mumbai in NYT:

Fifteen years after vultures disappeared from Mumbai’s skies, the Parsi community here intends to build two aviaries at one of its most sacred sites so that the giant scavengers can once again devour human corpses.

Construction is scheduled to begin as soon as April, said Dinshaw Rus Mehta, chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. If all goes as planned, he said, vultures may again consume the Parsi dead by January 2014.

“Without the vultures, more and more Parsis are choosing to be cremated,” Mr. Mehta said. “I have to bring back the vultures so the system is working again, especially during the monsoon.”

The plan is the result of six years of negotiations between Parsi leaders and the Indian government to revive a centuries-old practice that seeks to protect the ancient elements — air, earth, fire and water — from being polluted by either burial or cremation. And along the way, both sides hope the effort will contribute to the revival of two species of vulture that are nearing extinction. The government would provide the initial population of birds.

The cost of building the aviaries and maintaining the vultures is estimated at $5 million spread over 15 years, much less expensive than it would have been without the ready supply of food.

“Most vulture aviaries have to spend huge sums to buy meat, but for us that’s free because the vultures will be feeding on human bodies — on us,” Mr. Mehta said. More:

The Bugun Liocichla

Ananda Banerjee in Mint on the Bugun tribe in Arunachal Pradesh:

Tenga/West Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh: The story begins in 1995 with an astronomer from Pune’s Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Ramana Athreya, now 45, a tall man with an athletic build, a short crop of salt-and-pepper hair, and a perpetual smile. That year, Athreya, an avid birdwatcher, decided to spend his holiday in Arunachal Pradesh and landed up in the cloud forests in the western part of the state. The upper reaches of the forest had been declared the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in 1989. The name came from the 4th Infantry Division, also known as the Red Eagle Division, of the Indian Army that was stationed here and fought the Chinese in 1962.

It was in the community forest adjacent to the sanctuary and managed by the Bugun tribe that Athreya was to make the discovery that would make Eaglenest a destination for birders from around India and the world (most birders will travel huge distances even to see a single bird endemic to the region and not found elsewhere). That day in 1995, Athreya saw a bird he couldn’t identify, nor did it fit any known description in bird guides. It was a small babbler-like bird, with olive-grey plumage and a black cap. Its face had distinctive dark yellow streaks running up around the eye, and its wings had yellow, red, and white patches. Its feet were pink and its black tail had a red tip and boasted a crimson undertail.

It was a beautiful bird, and Athreya wouldn’t see another for nearly 10 years.

He saw the bird again in 2005, mist-netted (with the forest department’s permission) one in 2006, and the same year announced his discovery to the world. And in honour of the Bugun, he named the bird the Bugun Liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum), magnanimously giving up the opportunity of having the bird named after him or a member of his family (most birds are named after the people who discovered them).

The Bugun, or Khowa, believe they are descendants of a primitive tribe, Achinphumpuluah, and are largely found in the Tenga region in west Arunachal Pradesh. Although animists, they have been influenced by a strain of Tibetan Buddhism practised by a neighbouring tribe that originated in Tibet, the Sherdukpen. And the Dalai Lama is a venerated figure. More:

Tripwire for a Tiger

Wildlifer Bikram Grewal reviews Tripwire for a Tiger, Selected works of F.W. Champion, Edited by James Champion, Published by Rainfed Books, Rs 495. At Conservation India:

As a child I was once taken on a school trip to the Corbett National Park. We went by a rickety old bus and were housed in tattered tents at Dhikala. Corbett was pristine back then, and the ugly hotels and the so-called resorts had not mushroomed yet. You could still walk freely, and tourists were few and far between. That trip marked a watershed in my life; since then I spend at least six months every year wandering the diverse forests of our immensely blessed country.

 On that fateful trip, we were taken to a pebbled beach on the Ramganga River, which was called “Champion’s Pool”. I was told that it was thus named because “Champion” Mahaseer were found in the deep pools. I accepted this explanation for years. It was when I made my first trip to Kanda (made famous by Corbett’s compelling story of the Kanda Man-eater) some years later, that I learnt about a remarkable man called Frederick Walter Champion, a British Forest Officer and a pioneering wildlife photographer.

One of the great joys of visiting old Forest Rest Houses is to peruse dusty old visitor’s books. I looked through the one in the Kanda FRH, and two entries stood out. One, by Jim Corbett, simply said, “Shot the Kanda man-eater today”. The other, by F W Champion, said, “Drove the first car up to Kanda”. I don’t remember the exact words or the dates, but the entries made a great impression on me.

Like all those interested in wildlife, I too became a Corbett addict, and devoured his books, re-living his adventures in my youthful mind. As I delved more into his life, I found F W Champion’s name cropping up frequently. More:


American zoos give up on Indian Macaques

From NYT:

Now scores of these black-and-white ruffed lemurs are being bred here at the St. Louis Zoo and at other zoos across the United States as part of a broader effort to prevent their extinction.

But Ozzie, a lion-tailed macaque, will never father children. Lion-tails once flourished in the tops of rain forests in India, using their naturally dark coloring to disappear into the height of the jungle. Though there are only about 4,000 remaining in the wild, not one among Ozzie’s group here in St. Louis will be bred. American zoos are on the verge of giving up on trying to save them.

As the number of species at risk of extinction soars, zoos are increasingly being called upon to rescue and sustain animals, and not just for marquee breeds like pandas and rhinos but also for all manner of mammals, frogs, birds and insects whose populations are suddenly crashing.

To conserve animals effectively, however, zoo officials have concluded that they must winnow species in their care and devote more resources to a chosen few. The result is that zookeepers, usually animal lovers to the core, are increasingly being pressed into making cold calculations about which animals are the most crucial to save. Some days, the burden feels less like Noah building an ark and more like Schindler making a list. More:

A Nepal poppy and a sneezing monkey among top 10 new species

The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University and a committee of scientists from around the world announced their picks for the top 10 new species described in 2011. [via a Tweet by Amitav Ghosh, author of Sea of Poppies]:

Common Name: Nepalese Autumn Poppy

Family: Papaveraceae

How it made the Top 10: Many newly discovered species are small in size or secretive in habits, but not all. This beautiful and vibrantly colored poppy has remained unknown to science until now. This is no doubt due in part to the extreme environment where the flower lives at an elevation of 10,827 to 13,780 feet in central Nepal. It is also evidence of the paucity of botanists studying the Asian flora as specimens of Meconopsis autumnalis had been collected twice before, although not recognized as new — first in 1962 by the storied Himalayan plant hunter Adam Stainton and again in 1994 by staff of the University of Tokyo’s Department of Plant Resources. The recent rediscovery of the poppy in the field was made by intrepid botanists collecting plants miles from human habitation in heavy monsoon rains.  More: and here

… and a snub-nosed monkey from Myanmar (Burma) that sneezes when it rains

Name: Rhinopithecus strykeri

Common Name: Sneezing Monkey

Family: Cercopithecidae

How it made the Top 10: Since 2000, the number of mammals discovered each year only averages about 36 so it was nothing to sneeze at when a new primate came to the attention of scientists who were conducting a gibbon survey in the high mountains of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Rhinopithecus strykeri is the first snub-nosed monkey to be reported from Myanmar and is believed to be Critically Endangered. It is distinctive for its mostly black fur and white beard and for sneezing when it rains – although it tries to avoid dripping rainwater in its turned up nose by sitting with its head between its legs. While conducting interviews for the Hoolock Gibbon Status Review, hunters and villagers told the survey team of scientists that they could find this snub-nosed monkey by waiting until it rained and listening for sneezes in the trees. We say congratulations… and Gesundheit.

More here and here


The singing gentlemen

Male birds sing to impress the ladies and scare away rivals. Birdwatcher Ranjit Lal compiles his top-of-the-pops. In the Express Eye magazine:

They sing early in the morning, because that’s when it’s usually very still so their song carries far. They also let the world know that they’re alive and well, and in possession of their territory and haven’t been taken by an owl or snake or cat during the night.

As for the girls — they’re born with specialised critical faculties. They listen and if they are impressed by what they hear, they accept their serenading suitor. If a guy can spend most of his time belting it out — and has a complicated repertoire too — it means he’s obviously living in clover and doesn’t need to spend too much of his time digging worms out of the ground. So he’s worth cozying up to, it’ll be good for the babies.

Some guys, of course, are admirable skanks. One magpie robin I met in Goa, sang different melodies from different perches within a certain area (including a swimming pool), pretending to be three different males, and so was in control of property far in excess of what he might have been able to control as a single fellow. Any prospecting male surveying the territory would have concluded that the area was fully occupied and would have moved on. I believe, the girls were either taken in or impressed by this display of underhand cunning. (Not all scientists, however, agree with this explanation.) Other especially talented Lotharios will win over one girlfriend; tuck her away safely in a nest and then serenade another! More:

Talking of birds…

This DIY birdbath that I (Shekhar Bhatia) set up in our small garden in Gulmohar Park, New Delhi, is a bundle of joy:

Jim Corbett Park: Crouching tourist, hidden tiger

Will Davis in WSJ:

“Did you see a tiger?”


“Oh dear.”

“Yeah, we saw plenty of deer.”

“No, I meant…”

Conversations such as this, with or without the naff joke, must be commonplace over breakfast in the many hotels and guesthouses that ring the eastern edge of Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand state.

Jim Corbett, India’s oldest national park, is known as one of the world’s top destinations for spotting tigers in the wild. Yet only the most fortunate visitors end their trips with a sighting, and the rare souvenir of a tiger’s image frozen in time on their camera.

This is hardly surprising. Jim Corbett is a huge park covering more than a thousand square kilometers, much of which is thick deciduous forest. It’s so large that its landscapes and characteristics vary from one side to another, from sandy river beds, to grasslands and marshes, to hillsides covered in lush foliage. The tiger, a master of stealth, wouldn’t be too hard pushed to hide away from the prying eyes of humans.

On a recent trip there with my family, I was hopeful of a sighting. Like a lottery card buyer unrealistically confident that his numbers would come up, I was convincing myself that not only would we see a tiger, we’d witness a mother and her cubs loping across a road, perhaps even stopping to wave and sign autographs. More:

The fight to save the tiger

An innovative scientist in India may have discovered a way to avert extinction. Phil McKenna in The Smithsonian:

“It’s a sign saying, ‘I am here! I am here!’ ” says Ullas Karanth as he flails his arms and jumps up and down in a mock attention-grabbing wave.

He is referring to a scrape, a patch of jungle floor recently cleared by a tiger’s hind paws. It’s huge, the size of a cafeteria tray. Based on the freshness of the uprooted grass along the edges, Karanth figures a tiger passed here sometime last night. I kneel down and am hit by an overwhelming stench—the musky spray of a quarter-ton cat that has just marked its territory.

Signs of tigers are everywhere inside Nagarhole National Park in southwestern India. From our forest service lodge we hear the telltale alarm calls of deer in the middle of the night. On early morning drives Karanth, one of the world’s leading tiger biologists, points out paw prints the size of dinner plates. We pass trees with trunks that the cats have raked bare, signposts for rivals and potential mates.

Karanth has deep piercing eyes that can spot a deer a quarter of a mile away from inside a moving vehicle. He prefers, however, to drive with his head sticking out the window so he can read the tracks of every animal that has crossed the path beneath our wheels. Gleefully calling out each animal by name, he seems oblivious as the vehicle swerves alarmingly from side to side. More:

Crow: The bird with brains

Image by Aatish Bhatia

Ranjit Manakadan in The Hindu. The writer is an Assistant Director in the Bombay Natural History Society and co-author (with J.C. Daniel and Nikhil Bhopale) of the recent publication (2011) ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent — A Field Guide‘.

The house crow has apt names in Indian languages which are onomatopoeic in origin. It is kak in Sanskrit, kowwa in Hindi, kaaki in Telugu, kage, in Kannada, kowla in Marathi, kagdo in Gujarati and kag in Bengali. The most befitting name is kaa kaa in both Tamil and Malayalam as this is precisely echoic of the bird’s call. This is the main call, but it has a bit more of vocabulary expressive of various moods and situations.

 It is one of the better and less harsh looking of the crows. The fore-crown, front parts of the face, wings and tail, as also the bill and legs, are dull black. The hind-crown, neck, breast and belly are mouse-grey. Variations occur region-wise and the birds of Sri Lanka and southern India are more blackish.

Communal and generally keeping to its own kind, there is only one other species that it associates with or rather has no option but to tolerate, the jungle crow (Corvus macrorhynchos), which is a much less gregarious and sociable. The jungle crow tends to dominate the House Crow, lording it over food resources before permitting the latter to partake of them or steal scraps. It is more a marauder of birds’ nests, and especially when rearing its own young. Larger, all glossy black and with harsher call, it looks menacing even to humans! More:

Lost tiger population discovered in Bhutan mountains

BBC News:

A “lost” population of tigers has been filmed living in the Himalayas.

The discovery has stunned experts, as the tigers are living at a higher altitude than any others known and appear to be successfully breeding.

Their presence in the Bhutan highlands has been confirmed by footage taken by a BBC natural history camera crew.

Creating a nature reserve around the tigers could connect up fragmented populations across Asia, preventing the extinction of the world’s biggest cat.

Tigers are known to live in the Himalayan foothills of Bhutan, though little is known about them, or how many there are. More:

Frog-hunters of the Western Ghats

From The Economist:

The worst of the hazards travellers encounter in the mountainous rainforests of southern India is not the elephants, though they occasionally kill people; nor the creepy-crawlies, though the sudden appearance of a foot-long red-legged millipede can startle; nor the spiny-stemmed palms, though they shred unwary walkers’ clothes. It is the leeches.

If you pause on a walk through the forest, within a minute up to 20 of these brown slimy tubes, ranging in size from minuscule threads to fat worms four centimetres long and a quarter in diameter, leap onto your boots. Attracted by heat, they loop swiftly upwards like caterpillars on speed, scaling a Wellington in as little as 15 seconds. Leech socks—thick canvas affairs tied tightly at the knee—stop those that climb into boots from attacking your feet. But others continue upwards, and, however assiduously you pluck them off, some inevitably make it onto bare skin and sink their teeth into your flesh. As they do so, their salivary glands secrete hirudin, an anticoagulant so effective that the pharmaceutical industry synthesises it as a blood-thinning agent. Even if you locate them and pluck them off—tricky, given their strong grip and slippery surface—your blood flows from their bites for hours.

Not surprisingly, Kerala’s rainforests are thinly populated. Only the very determined, with a clear purpose and considerable resilience, venture into them. Among those are Sathyabhama Biju Das, an amphibian researcher at Delhi University, his students and his growing band of followers. More:

Open season on owls in India

The period between Dussehra and Diwali (October) is the worst for owls; demand rises to a peak as they are sacrificed to ward off evil and ensure prosperity. Ananda Banerjee from New Delhi in Mint:

A spotted owlet disguised to pass off as a rock eagle owl.

For Hindus, Tuesday night, a full-moon one, is among the most auspicious of the year. In some parts of the country, it is the night people worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

Ironically, it is also the day they sacrifice the goddess’ traditional mount, the owl, a blood-letting that is supposed to ward off bad luck and ensure prosperity.

Which is where Baheliya, a fifth-generation bird trader, comes in. From his base in the back alleys of Kumar Mohalla in Meerut, Baheliya will sell a few owls on Tuesday, pocketing a few tens of thousands of rupees.

The period between Dussehra and Diwali, the two biggest Hindu festivals in the second half of the year, is usually as bad for owls as much as it’s good for people like Baheliya. He can expect to make up to Rs50,000 by selling two or three owls. Demand rises to a peak at the time of Diwali, which is also an occasion for the worship of Lakshmi. The catalyst for the owl trade is often the tagline Bengal ka kaala jaadu or black magic, which is critical to swaying customers. More:

Number One with a bullet

With thanks to Aatish

What does India’s lush Kaziranga National Park have that the rest of the country’s decimated reserves do not? Plenty of tigers, for starters. (The world’s highest ­density.) Fleets of endangered one-horned rhinos. (More than two-thirds of the remaining population.) And, since last year, a take-no-prisoners antipoaching policy that allows rangers to shoot on sight. Welcome to the future of conservation. From Outside magazine (By Rowan Jacobsen):

The career of the notorious Indian wildlife poacher Naren Pegu came to an end early on the morning of December 13, 2010, in the Eastern Range of Kaziranga National Park. Tucked away in the northeastern state of ­Assam, hugging the southern bank of the wide Brahmaputra River, Kaziranga is ­India’s Serengeti, a ­mosaic of grass, jungle, and wet­lands supporting a staggering amount of biodiversity, including Asia’s highest concentration of endangered one-horned ­rhinos and Bengal ­tigers. Since 2005, Pegu had poached about 30 of those rhinos, which live in Kazi­ranga and almost nowhere else. He’d shoot a rhino, cut off its horn with a machete, and sell it for thousands of dollars in Nagaland, a lawless state that runs along ­India’s fuzzy border with Myanmar. From there, the horns travel to Myanmar and then to China, where they sell for tens of thousands of dollars a kilo. In powdered form, they cure every­­thing from cataracts to cancer, or so say ­believers. It’s really just a big fingernail.

Pegu was a member of the Mishing tribe, one of Assam’s many indigenous groups that, like their equivalents everywhere, have lost land and livelihoods. Mishing villages line the park boundary, their inhabitants pressed against it like kids at a candy-store window. If you can’t pay $50 for a jeep safari, you can’t get inside. Growing up here, Pegu learned to sneak past the border; he knew the park like his own backyard. He’d come and go unde­tec­ted by the forest guards—India’s version of wildlife rangers. Poaching ran in Pegu’s family; his father was a poacher before him.

Most Mishing involved in the trade are content to serve as illegal guides for the bigger regional guns—sharpshooters and brokers from Nagaland—whom they lead in and out of the vast park, taking a small cut. But ­Naren Pegu was enterprising. He taught himself the rules of the trade, cutting deals in seedy hotels. Learned where to get black-market .303 rifles from the sep­­aratists who control the Nagaland hills. He thought big. Typically, poachers blow any money they come into, but not Pegu: he’d saved enough to invest in three vehicles, a big house, even a plot of land, where he was starting his own tea garden in some sort of psychological stab at legitimacy. While Pegu was bringing down more than $20,000 per year through poaching, his Mishing relations scrabbled to earn $200 a year in the rice paddies. More: [image: wiki commons]

Slow crawl

How a small insect has become a means of livelihood for some of the Lodha-Sabar tribe in West Bengal. Shamik Bag in Mint:

Upen Bhakta begins work as soon as he reaches the okra plantation. The chainra poka — as the insects are known locally—which he collects for the pharmaceuticals industry in Kolkata are eating away at the leaves in these farms.

Bhakta gets to work, picking the striped creatures off the okra leaves, depositing them into a packet. Around 2 hours yield just over a hundred insects, weighing a total of around 50g. A kilogram of chainra poka now fetches Rs. 1,100.

Bhakta is a member of the forest-dwelling Lodha-Sabar tribe in the Nayagram block of West Bengal’s Paschim Medinipur district. Their interest in the chainra poka dates back 30 years, when a businessman first promised to pay for them. After that, the chainra transformed from being an insect best avoided because of its sting, to something that had potential for generating income. More:

The best places to see birds in India

Bugun Liocichla by Sachin Rai / Kolkatabirds

Bikram Grewal in Kolkatabirds:

Conventional wisdom dictates that in the age of twitter, facebook, buzz, google and heaven knows what else, one should, quite easily, be able to come up with a consensus on India’s top-ten birding hotspots. But this turned out to be fallacious, when Sumit, Ramki and I, along with a few birding friends failed to arrive at a conclusion. Our distinguished Webmaster, then astutely decided to conduct a limited poll. Seventy-one birders from India and abroad were invited to select what they considered the top-ten best birding places in India. I put in my two-pennies worth, which turned out be at great variance with the final opinions! But being a self-proclaimed democrat, and in any case with little choice in the matter I, with meager grace, accepted the popular verdict.

Now having added the caveat that the top-spots polled do not entirely match mine, I will soon find that some of you too will face the same dilemma. My (unsolicited?) advice is for you to come up with your own inventory and let us know what they are. A lively debate can then ensue! And, indeed it must, for India with its wide variety of habitats and forest types and the resultant birds, must surely boast a few hundred top-spots. The selection process itself begs for a few questions. On what premise or principle do we qualify a particular locale to join this august company? Would it be the variety in terms of numbers (Bharatpur for example) or would it be the quantum of rarities found there? (Dibru-Saikowa?) or indeed the accessibility (Corbett?). Or would it be Eaglenest for hosting the very local and recent entrant to our checklist – the Bugun Liocichla? In the final analysis I presume it would be a combination of some or all of the above, but you should decide your own criteria and set your own yardsticks. More:

To select the 10 most popular birding destinations in India, Kolkatabirds took responses from 71 international and Indian birders. Here’s the link to their verdict.

  1. Kutch and Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat
  2. Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, Kerala
  3. Bharatpur, Keoladeo Ghana National Park
  4. Lava and Neora Valley, West Bengal
  5. Eaglenest Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh
  6. Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand
  7. Pangot and Sattal, Uttarakhand
  8. Goa, Goa
  9. Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat
  10. Kaziranga National Park, Assam

My family and other animals

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra follows family tradition in her love for wildlife, but also shows literary flair in this excerpt from Ranthambore: The Tiger’s Realm (Anjali & Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Sujan Art, Rs 4,800, pp164)


[Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in Ranthambore: HT Pics

It’s 45 degrees C, the sun has practically cooked us. We’ve been in the open jeep for at least four hours and still have another three to go. The children have drunk more Sprite than I’d allow them in a week. They’re on a sugar high, which is manageable by itself but not exactly under control when it’s coupled with a wildlife high. They’re also covered in a thick layer of fine Ranthambore dust. All attempts to Bedouinise them by wrapping their heads and faces up in scarves have failed.

I can’t say I enjoy anything more than being confined to a jeep with them in the park. We’re surrounded by the wilderness I love and there’s absolutely no possibility of them escaping their mother’s mad affections. Besides, they look at me with unusual awe when the tiger is around. It’s almost as if they think I’d fight it off for them — well most of the time. more

Destroying the disposers of death: will India rescue its few remaining vultures?


The White rumped vulture, Gyps bengalensis. Image by Umang Dutt, shared under the Creative Commons License.

Aatish Bhatia in his new blog, Empirical Zeal:

Indians today can hardly recall the last time that they saw a vulture. In the 1990s, these majestic birds were a common sight in the subcontinent, and would show up wherever there was exposed carrion. As a child, I remember marveling at vultures circling at impressive heights, probably looking back down at me with their incredible eyesight, their wings outstretched as they effortlessly hovered on columns of warm air.

But since the nineties, their numbers have been falling dramatically in India, Pakistan and Nepal. The scale is astonishing – for every thousand white-rumped vultures in 1990, only one is alive today. A similarly sad story holds for the Indian vulture and the slender-billed vulture. Together, all three Asian vultures are now listed as being critically endangered.

So what’s going on? It’s not that they are being hunted. For one thing, the killing of all wild animals in banned in India. But also, vultures have always provided a much valued ecological service. Most villagers dispose of dead animals by dumping the carrion. And they rely on the vultures to clean up.

Vultures have an undeservedly bad reputation. Because we associate carrion with disease, people believed that vultures spread diseases. But in fact, we now know that the opposite is true. Their powerfully corrosive stomach acids allow them to safely digest carrion that would be lethal to other scavengers, wiping out bacteria that can cause diseases like botulism and anthrax. They are the purgers of death and disease. More:


India, through a birder’s eyes

Somini Sengupta in the New York Times:

It began with parakeets, the brash, busybody rose-ringed parakeets of Delhi, with their lipstick red beaks and their irrepressible chatter, gossiping in the crevices of 15th-century tombs.

Then one morning while I drank coffee, a shimmering blue-black sunbird came to drink nectar in my garden. At twilight one day, I looked up to see a hornbill perched on a neighbor’s tree. An interview with the prime minister of India was repeatedly interrupted by the calls of a cantankerous peacock in his garden.

And so went my discovery of the birds of India. It was an accumulation of accidental discoveries. A friend in Mumbai recommended that I check out the flamingos dancing in the stinky, mucky mud flats of Sewri. Then one day, not far from the Taj Mahal, a pair of sarus cranes, the tallest flying bird in the world, stood in a shallow pond. On a trip to the outsourcing hub of Bangalore, I was urged to drive off the highway to see pelicans roosting in banyan trees. And trekking across the Himalayan plateau called Ladakh one summer, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a black-necked crane flying across a still blue lake.

Most improbably of all, on a trip back to that clattering, honking, riotous city called Calcutta, where I was born, I woke up one morning to songbirds.

From the cold lakes of the Himalayas to the sand dunes of western Rajasthan to the tropical rain forests in the south, India hosts a dizzying variety of birds, like a dizzying variety of everything else. Residents and visitors, common and rare, more than 1,200 species have been recorded in India, which puts it somewhere between the United States (just under 900 recorded species) and Colombia (more than 1,800 species). More:

A last-ditch strategy to save the tiger

Caroline Fraser at Yale Environment 360:

The tiger’s situation has grown desperate in a mere century. A hundred years ago, there were over 100,000 in the wild, with more than 40,000 in India alone. Currently, the total number of tigers worldwide is calculated at fewer than 3,500. Three subspecies — Javan, Bali, and Caspian tigers — vanished during the 20th century. A fourth, the South China tiger, has not been seen in the wild for more than 25 years and is assumed to have gone extinct during the 1990s.

Remaining populations — including 1,850 Bengal tigers and a few hundred each of the Siberian, Indochinese, Malayan, and Sumatran subspecies — are pressed into tiny, isolated protected areas comprising less than 7 percent of their former range. Found in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China, the Bengal tiger possesses the highest genetic variation, and is considered the key to the species’ survival.

Blocking tiger recovery efforts in India and elsewhere is the black market in the animal’s body parts. Although the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies cooperated with conservation efforts by removing tiger bone from their pharmacopeia in 1993, skins still sell for up to $35,000, and organs and body parts — bones, whiskers, eyeballs, penises, paws, claws — are snapped up as souvenirs or ingredients of traditional Asian medicine. Tiger is occasionally served at restaurants in Hanoi and Beijing, where rare dishes denote high status. In Russia, the uber-wealthy have acquired a taste for tiger pelts as home décor; in Sumatra, magic spells require tiger parts. More:

Harry Potter blamed for endangering owls

In The Independent: There have been claims the young wizard has promoted witchcraft, that his creator has made millions of pounds from ordinary prose and even unfounded allegations that she may have committed plagiarism.

But perhaps one of the most unlikely allegations was made this week by India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, who suggested Harry Potter may be at least partly responsible for the decline of the country’s owl population. More here:

The tigress who stalks

The story of Machli, the world’s most famous tigress, is nearing an end. Ninad D. Sheth and Aditya Singh in Open:

There is an old jungle saying in these parts. Of a tigress who stalks. Of a tigress who rules Ranthambore. Of a tigress whose majesty is assured as much by the gaze of millions she arrests with the distinctive ‘fish’ mask outlining her eyes, as the YouTube clips of her legendary exploits: her jaws choking a 14-foot crocodile lifeless here, her snarl warding off a predatory male in defence of her cubs there. The survival of the tigress, goes the old jungle saying, is the survival of the tiger.

That’s perhaps why the Machli we know, a 14-year-old marked officially as T-16 at Ranthambore National Park, is actually the daughter of the original tigress by that name. But that little detail doesn’t matter. The legend of Machli as the world’s most photographed cat with stripes, as she’s regarded, has survived a generation, and there are many who wish it would last another. After all, the tiger’s survival is a cause dear to us all.

Machli’s Facebook page does not have 150,000 fans for nothing. She is the world’s oldest documented tiger alive. Hundreds of photographers attest to her fame, helped along in no small measure by the picturesque setting against which she has spent a life being captured on film, the deceptive serenity of the lake territory along an Aravali ridge crowned by the imposing ramparts of the Ranthambore Fort. More:

[Image: Open]

First pictures of pop-eyed primate thought to be extinct

Researchers in a central Sri Lankan forest have photographed a rare primate — a Horton Plains slender loris –  that was feared extinct for more than 60 years, the Zoological Society of London said. The cute primate with with wide eyes and short limbs was caught on camera after lengthy surveys of the forest by researchers from the society, the University of Colombo and the Open University of Sri Lanka.

Above, an undated handout photo (© C Mahanayakage) issued July 19, 2010 by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

More here and at on the EDGE of Existence website

Tiger tourism: the end is nigh

Banning tourism won’t save the tiger in India — it will hasten its extinction, writes Kevin Rushby in The Guardian

So India plans to severely limit “tiger tourism” – the economic highwire on which tiger survival and protection teetered for the last 30 years. Anyone who has seen the ugly charade of wild tigers being hemmed in by trained elephants only for hordes of tourists to shoot them with cameras ought to be pleased, shouldn’t they? 

Well, no, not exactly. The decision, unhappily, probably means that the tiger can now be exterminated in peace and quiet – directly by the poachers, and indirectly by the illegal loggers. Both of these destructive criminal groups are being ably defended and emboldened by elements in India’s corrupt political classes, its feeble law enforcers and its porcine business community. more

The elusive tigress of Ranthambore

The environment ministry wants to find her. There’s a crack team looking for her. They want to shift her to another home. But she doesn’t want to be found. A story of a long and determined tracking of T-37, an elusive tigress in Ranthambore. Apurva in The Indian Express:

Delhi has ordered 18 of the country’s best to find her — all of two-and-a-half years old and a fugitive — and bring her home or take her to a new one.

But she has a will of her own. She has given them a slip for the eighth time. This time, she leaves behind a teaser, a half-eaten wild pig.

She is T 37, a tigress from the Ranthambore National Park (RNP) and this—a clearing in Sarola, Kota district, with a mash of pig insides staining the sandy soil and the whiff of danger around—is the closest they have come to her. “She seems to have found a new home here. She has gone past villages, agricultural fields and some rocky terrain,” says R.S. Shekhawat, the Sawai Madhopur deputy conservator of forests, who heads the team that has been tracking the tigress, and making precious little progress, for three months now.

In January, after a nasty turf war with a stronger tigress on the periphery of the national park, T37 began a slow trek to the south. On the way, she killed an unwitting cow in Itawa, angered villagers and is now some 120 km away, with three teams of forest officials hot on her trail. More:

Be a conservationist, the simple Indian way

Shoba Narayan in Mint Lounge:

Here is how a tiger is killed in Ranthambore. First, the poachers lay leg traps on the tiger’s usual routes. They scatter small stones around the trap, knowing that the fastidious tiger will try to avoid these tiny stones. Its leg gets caught in a trap; when it moves, the second trap snaps shut. Now the tiger is in pain so it sits down. The poachers tie a spear to an 8ft-long stick and appear. When the tiger roars, they spear its mouth so it begins to bleed. It roars again. More bleeding. When the tiger’s pain gets too much, when it tires from the roaring, they beat its forehead with a stick strengthened by pouring lead on it. They may use a small knife to blind the tiger so that they can spear it to death more easily. The tiger dies an agonizing death.

For the poachers, too, it is a life-and-death game as this magnificent animal—the Panthera tigris—is a killing machine. If a trap gets loose, it is a quick death for the poachers, who are usually Moghiya tribals. The poachers will do anything not to spoil the skin of the tiger, which can fetch $20,000 (around Rs9 lakh) across the border. “In India, they export tiger bone and skin to the Chinese,” says Dharmendra Khandal, conservation biologist with Tiger Watch, an NGO. “The Chinese use the tiger’s penis and liver but that they get from the Russian market, which has figured out how to export the flesh of the tiger as well.” More:

Changing pugmarks

In the Hindustan Times, wildlife conservationist Valmik Thapar finds a glimmer of hope

Twenty-four years ago when the Year of the Tiger dawned in the Chinese calendar, wildlife conservationists were euphoric. We were seeing the fruits of the Indira Gandhi era: tiger populations were up and in Ranthambhore, I remember seeing 16 different tigers in one day. We seldom thought of the severe threats that tigers might face in the future.

In 1998, when another Year of the Tiger dawned, it was as if we were living in another world. Tigers were dying and our wildlife landscape was besieged with problems. The decade of the ’90s was probably one of the worst years for those dealing with wildlife. The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) created endless crisis committees to deal with the crisis but all in vain. Before the end of the century many of us offered new ideas to the government — one of these was about creating a new department of forest and wildlife within the MoEF, a stepping stone for a dedicated ministry of forest and wildlife. more

Sunderbans will drown in 60 years

From The Times of India:

The World Wildlife Fund has warned that days are numbered for much of the sensitive Sunderbans eco-system and in 60 years vast tracts of the rare mangrove forests, home to the Bengal tiger, will be inundated by the rising sea.

The study, focussed on Sunderbans in Bangladesh, says the sea was rising more swiftly than anticipated by

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 and would rise 11.2 inches (above 2000 levels) by 2070. This would result in shrinkage of the Bangladesh Sunderbans by 96% within half a century, reducing the tiger population there to less than 20, said the study.

Unlike previous efforts, WWF’s deputy director of conservation science Colby Loucks and his colleagues used a high-resolution digital elevation model with eight estimates of sea level rise to predict the impact on tiger habitat and population size. The team was able to come up with the most accurate predictions till date by importing over 80,000 Global Positioning System (GPS) elevation points. More:

Click here to read the report: Sea Level Rise and Tigers: Predicted Impacts to Bangladesh’s Sunderbans Mangroves

Image of Sunderbans mangrove forest from Kolkatabirds