Whither Goest our Tiger?

February 22, 2008 at 10:49 pm | Posted in Animal Census, asian elephant, bamboo, biodiversity, bioinversity, biosphere, Bos gaurus, census, deforestation, disingenuous, ecosystem, Elephant, Elephas, endangered species, extinction, ficus, forest, forest department, forest strata, Gaur, habitat, hardwood, Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, IUCN, Leopard, Ministry of Environment and Forests, mismanaged forests, MOEF, monoculture, niche, Panthera, paw print plaster cast, phototrap, poaching, rosewood, Sariska, scats, strangler fig, teak, Tiger, tiger population, tree, tribal, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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vanishing tiger

As early as a couple of years ago (especially after the IUCN study) it was obvious that India’s forests had reached a crisis point. Our top predator, the Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris) was at a population nadir. The known numbers of tigers had been suddenly found to be less than half of what it should be. Even more frighteningly, in certain important tiger zones like Sariska, the tiger has completely disappeared. The extinction of our tigers stares us in the face.

Those of us who frequent the forests and who regularly participate in animal censuses have known for quite some time that the forests are deteriorating and that we have been steadily losing the battle to preserve and protect what very little is left.

Disingenuous cover-up:

The tigers were never there in the first place! The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and their minions in “Project Tiger” now want us to believe that poor counting technique is to blame for an earlier inflated statistic. Now that proper camera traps have been placed and things are being done in a more “scientific manner”, we should all acknowledge that the tiger popultion has not actually fallen – that the population always was less than half of what we had projected…

It’s a lie because:

1) Long term forest dwellers, the tribals and the Forest Department personnel in each forest, get to know their animals very well indeed. Larger animals like the elephants and certainly both the leopards and the tigers in each of our forests are easily recognisable and identifiable as individuals.

2) The census methods used in the past, though rough and ready, are yet certainly scientific enough. When censuses are based on physical evidence such as scats and plaster casts of paw prints then there is absolutely no way that someone can claim that the populations so determined are in inferior to that of phototrapping. I would argue that in fact the phototrap is a ridiculously unscientific way to determine absolute populations when compared to the older methods!

In fact we are left to surmise that if one takes the trouble to go through the physical evidence that had been gathered over so many years of painstaking censusing, the conclusion that our tiger populations have long been declining steadily and quite drastically will have to be reached. The problem then lies with the MOEF/state Forest Departments’ perennial habit of inflating the actual counts in order to satisfy the powers that be, and in order to pacify the many and vociferous critics of the government’s many inadequacies in this regard.

In other words they have been cheating on the numbers for quite some time, and quite systematically too, and now that they have finally been caught out, the easiest recourse has been to point the finger at the supposedly faulty methodology of the past.

But why has the tiger declined and is it only the tiger that is in trouble?

A case in point in the present instance is the debate on allowing forest dwellers to continue to occupy their niches within the confines of the many forests of our land. Persuasive voices say that here is a major factor in the degredation of our prime habitats.

There are many other factors too. Take a look at the great number of private estates that sit squarely within our forest areas. They are certainly doing their bit to destroy the forests around them for one thing, with their use of fertilizers and pesticides and for another the exploitation, contamination, and pollution of the forests’ precious water resources are all having a disastrous impact. Then we have our MOEF’s penchant for suddenly granting mining and even forage/fodder licenses in our few remaining forest areas. They will then even come up with environmental clearances for these absolutely destructive projects and all in the name of ‘development’!

But these issues, though important, are not yet the worst of the culprits. The forests as a whole are under great threat due to lopsided and simplistic mismanagement over many decades. We know that our hardwood fig “strangling”trees are being poached along with our sandalwood. Trees such as the rosewood and mahogany are simply never seen within our ‘Reserve’ or National Park Forests. If we can’t protect these huge trees that are so difficult to transport out (where the take per tree is less than 200,000 rupees now for the illegal logger) , then where is the question of our being able to protect our leopards and tigers? A tiger will earn a poacher not less than a million rupees and all that it takes is a well placed wire trap or some poisoned bait – and a buyer.

In other words, if we cannot protect our trees, there’s no way that we can claim to be adequately protecting our precious tigers. Combine the loss to poaching with the ridiculously bioinverse policy of planting large tracts of monocultures of “economically important” species such as teak or bamboo – and of course these then have to be harvested – and you do indeed begin to have the recipe for the disaster that now faces us.

Once the forest’s precious tree diversity is gone, the forest itself gets degraded and becomes a poorer and poorer habitat that will soon not be able to support top predators like the tiger. Biodiversity is undermined at all levels. Other critical animal populations, notably the elephant and bison, will then have to start wandering out of the ‘protected’ zones in search of food and water, and that will lead to increasing incidences of man-animal conflicts in the forest’s surroundings.

Too Little is protected

One final point for today’s debate: The earmarked, and presently “protected”, territory is very inadequate. Tigers roam over a huge areas of range. They spread out so that they do not much have to encounter one another. I have seen two wild tigers while hiking in scrub jungle, well outside the confines of the nearest reserve forest. Clearly we need to expand the buffer zones around the core areas of our remaining tiger populations. We also have to eventually find the funding to fence the forests and forest denizens in (and the poachers out). In the meantime, if we can start by adequately expanding the buffer areas and perhaps even provide linking corridors between nearly contiguous stretches of forest, this in itself will start to make a fantastic difference!

Environmentalists and forest watchers who care and who have raised their voices of protest have been silenced by committees of armchair scientists, most of whom have never even seen a real live wild tiger to speak of. It’s up to us now, the common folks of this great land of the erstwhile Royal Bengal Tiger, to keep the issues alive and to make the careless of officialdom accountable for the precious heritage that they are allowing to be destroyed before our very eyes.

IF YOU CARE AND WOULD LIKE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE:

Let your voice be heard.forest strata

Make the protection of our forests a major issue of national importance.

Make a note of whom the current union and state ministers of Forests and Environment happen to be, and track their performance and the quality of their decision making very carefully. At the first sign of bad decisions, let the concerned party know that the mis-steps have been noted and will be issues to be discussed by the public (thats us!).

Publicise (write to the editor or to an investigative journalist of your local paper), document, and protest each and every incident of forest abuse that you see or find out about.

Get personally involved; participate in censuses, take up projects to help forest tribals become independent of the forests, talk to your friends about the plight of our forests and encourage one another to become activists for the sake of saving the little that still remains.

Teach your children well, for the future is in their hands…

This was first posted at Ponnvandu, and has now been slightly modified here. The issues are broad and of great importance so I’ve posted most of that article here.
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Birds and Elephants at Topslip

February 24, 2007 at 4:27 am | Posted in Anthracoceros coronatus, Batrachostomus moniliger, ceylon frogmouth, coffee invasion, Elephant, king cobra, Nataraj bird guide, pied hornbill, Ponnvandu, regenerate shola, shola, SKCAS, Topslip | 6 Comments

Do you know that India boasts over 1,400 of the world’s 10,000 species of birds? Of these fully 260 species can be seen in the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary – one small 500 sq km patch of forest! Serious birders from all over the world visit here every year to enjoy the myriad and unique birds found only in the various remaining small patches of shola forest.

Ponnvandu (our little trust) organised 15 volunteers from our college student work to participate in this year’s elephant and bird counts. It was an exciting two days. Most of our kids are getting into the forest on foot for the very first time! Some are so city bred that they have never even seen the milky way before…

We were blessed with lovely weather. Five of our volunteers were needed for the elephant census and the rest were assigned to enumerate the bird species. Only four of us are decent birders so we decided to form three teams and divided the sholas amongst the three for two days of morning and evening counts. It is exciting work! The forest department lorry drops us at specific points in the forest and from then on we work with the local tribal guides and forest guards to complete routes of 7 to 10 km each in the early morning and then starting again in the late afternoon.

The five that went for elephant counting saw a total of 39 elephants, which is quite encouraging given that this is a dry season census and most elephants are known to head deep into the forest in search of perennial streams and lakes (few and far between). A number of calves and juveniles were counted in the family groups. One young man found himself just feet away from a late foraging sloth bear while he was absorbed in observing a mother and calf elephant. Luckily these bears are very short sighted and it went harmlessly on its way.

Our budding birders quickly got the hang of things, started recognising bird song and we came up with a very encouraging 87 species including many of the rarer birds. The group that first went into the Karian Shola were able to see two nesting Malabar Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros coronatus) and one male actually feeding the ensconced female – a very very rare treat indeed. They also spotted the very hard to find Ceylon Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) on this same hike. One group came across the ‘dreaded’ king cobra up close (a 4 meter/13 footer, about medium sized). This is one species that eats only other snakes. The king cobras come to the bamboo breaks and near spots of water for their breeding season and they can get quite aggressive if someone is found near their nests!

On the second day we were joined by the world famous bird guide (now a forest dept guard) Mr. Natarajan. He is amazing and being a local tribal, knows both these forests and the resident wildlife intimately. Articulate and a wonderful teacher, the lucky five kids that spent the day with him really got a grand education in censusing, bird identification and generally how the whole ecosystem works.

Having these young people from the Sri Krishna College of Arts and Sciences (SKCAS) enthusiastically participating in very rigorous census work was perhaps the most exciting part. They learned a tremendous amount, but more than that they got the feel of what biodiversity means, how fragile these ecosystems are and the crying need for more involvement in conservation work.

One of the saddest findings was that many areas of shola are being invaded by coffee plants. Coffee seeds from the surrounding private coffee plantations are being effectively dispersed into these sholas and one can see that the shola forests are under a very severe threat from this new invasion. Sometime soon I will do a post on what shola forest is, but so far the main point is that we don’t have any idea how to regenerate a shola, so once gone, gone forever.

Digg!

And Now, the Elephant -CHANGE IN DATES!!

February 9, 2007 at 12:38 pm | Posted in Animal Census, asian elephant, biosphere, Elephant, Elephas, fire season, forest, Hike, migration, Nilgiri, range, Trek | Leave a comment

The final stage of the census this year will be the elephant count on (CHANGE!!) TUESDAY & WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20th AND 21st. This will be the last activity in this zone of forest as they shut out all visitors for the next two months during the summer fire season. A BIRD CENSUS WILL ALSO BE CONDUCTED AT TOPSLIP (ULLANDY RANGE).

An interesting contrast between the African and Asian cousins can be seen in these two pics: Can you make out which is which?

Those interested in participating please mail me with your contact details IMMEDIATELY!


Below is a map that depicts the contracting range of the Asian Elephant.

Along the borders of the black zones (is all that’s now left) there are frequent clashes (man-animal conflicts) as the elephants try to walk through human settlements and plantations.

Elephants love to walk and can cover 40 to 50 km in a day especially when they are searching for water or better vegetation.

Our count takes place in the South West corner of India, in the heart of theNilgiris biosphere.

Sorry for those whose travel plans have been spoiled by the last minute change in dates. This sometimes happens when working with the Forest Department and we just have to grin and bear it!

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IGNWS Animal Census 2007

January 23, 2007 at 10:02 pm | Posted in Animal Census, Bengal Tiger, Elephant, Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, Leopard, Lion Tailed Macaque, Nilgiritragus hylocrius, Ponnvandu, Tahr, Topslip, Trek | 3 Comments

This year’s survey was announced rather suddenly today. Under the aegis of the Ponnvandu Foundation we have been asked to provide volunteers. Lion Tailed Macaques (LTM – Macaca silenus) will be surveyed on Thursday the 25th of January, Nilgiri Tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius) on the 29th, carnivores from the 2nd to the 9th of february and elephants in Feb’s 3rd week.

Anyone who wants to participate can contact me with their details ASAP!!!


The Tahr and the LTM are very highly endangered species and one has to trek to really deep forest to get a chance to see them.

Great trekking and a ‘few in a lifetime’ chance to see two of the world’s most endangered species and to contribute to their conservation – could anyone ask for more?

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