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.

BIODIVERSITY versus Global Warming

May 19, 2007 at 9:49 pm | Posted in biodiversity, bioinversity, biosphere, ecosystem, endangered species, global warming | 2 Comments

A lovely new tool for comparing up to three different blogworld variables is available on icerocket and I used it to see how biodiversity was doing in comparison to global warming in the blogosphere.

The result was disheartening. Folks are much, much more worried about a crisis that is yet to come than they are about an ongoing and potentially much more devastating one – loss of BIODIVERSITY!

I AM A BIT AT A LOSS. How does one convince people that we are losing species permanently on a daily basis? Once stable ecosystems are endangered and will be irrecoverably lost if we don’t start taking immediate action. Once a species is lost it will never be regained and once an ecosystem is damaged by species loss, that ecosystem is doomed!

Here are the actual stats as of May 18th, 2007:

GW = Global Warming, B = Biodiversity and E = Endangered Species

Trend Terms……Posts per day……….Average %…….Total posts

GW…………………1,353.91…………….. 0.1791………….121,852

B……………………..53.16………………..0.0069……………4,784

E……………………..96.30………………..0.0127……………8,667

That’s at present something like 25 times as much activity on GW than it deserves and biodiversity needs to get 50 times stronger…

Any Bright Ideas?

The minute you start getting concerned about bioinversity and start blogging on it and doing something about it, these stats will surely improve.

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Biodiversity II – or How to be LESS Inversive!

April 5, 2007 at 5:48 pm | Posted in biodiversity, bioinversity, biosphere, Cycas revoluta, deforestation, ecosystem, endangered species, environment, forest, marine life, observation, teach your children, teach your parents | Leave a comment
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The variety of life is absolutely essential for the survival of life on planet earth. Ecosystems are made up of an incredible range of habitats and habitats are a major driving force for biodiversity.

Mankind’s effect on habitats is to radically modify them to suit perceived, short-term needs. See a forest – start cutting and burning because what you want more of is space to build and to grow the few plants that provide humans with food. Now, of course it is the worldwide timber mafia that is destroying forests to make a very quick buck.

The 6 rules for saving our planet are simple:


1. Leave nature alone.
2. Don’t pollute.
3. Be least wasteful.
4. Analyse the longterm impact before taking any action.
5. Organise to save nature.
6. Participate in conservancy efforts locally.


Every species occupies its own little niche in an ecosystem. The ecosystem is sustained by the creatures that successfully fill up their respective niches. This interlinking means that the loss of species will result in the death of an ecosystem.

Changes in ecosystems threaten all life for eventually all niches, including man’s are tied to the environment of our planet.

Think about it. Learn to love the diversity of nature that keeps us all alive.

Act, or don’t – appropriately

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Bison’s Charge – A Tall Tale

February 18, 2007 at 6:04 am | Posted in Animal Census, bison, Bos gaurus, bovine, endangered species, forest, Hike, Indian bison, Trek | Leave a comment

In line with our focus on forests and animal censuses, here’s another true story from a few years back.

Roy (Aruna’s cousin) decided to join me for a census and we headed to Mudumalai. Roy is a young man, Chennai born and bred (i.e. big city). This was his very first time in a real forest and we were both looking forward to it. The real beauty of these animal/bird counts is that one is given a route to follow and allowed to walk. If you go to any of our national parks as a tourist, walking is banned! One can only get into the forest in the Forest Department’s own vehicle and that too on a fixed, well travelled route.

Hiking into any of the woods in South India is a glorious experience. Ancient lichen coated, orchid draped trees, sholas, myriad birds and even the undergrowth is wonderful with mosses, liverworts, cycads and ferns to fascinate. it does not really matter whether one does see much in the way of animals – spotted deer and monkeys (macacques or langurs) are hard to miss – still it is an enthralling and enlivening experience.

On the very first day we ended up in different teams. There were too few volunteers. On the second day though, a few more people showed up and we were together. On his first day’s trek, Roy’s forest guide had found them a huge hive of mountain honey and they had seen a few elephants. Roy was now hooked!

We started out bright and early with a forest guard who was a bit of a reluctant (and noisy) walker. With encouragement and perseverance we made good headway, moving through the open teak forest at the periphery and were soon going into a fairly dense forest. After a couple of hours the route led us downhill. We could hear a small stream chuckling in the depression ahead and about 100 yards from the bottom the trees opened up and we were on grass. Roy and I were abreast leading the way, with our ‘guide’ quite a bit behind us. There was another group somewhere East of us, they had been dropped a half kilometer before us and so we were the last to start.

The bottom of this small valley was fairly open with a few small shrubs and plenty of grass. The rivulet of pure mountain spring water looked inviting. We were thirsty and speeded up down the slope when suddenly there was a burst of commotion on the far side of the clearing and charging straight towards us thundered this massive gaur bull (Indian bison, Bos gaurus). Now these are huge animals, the largest of the bovines, easily weighing in at over a ton a piece and muscularly built – one ton of pure muscle!

He was going full tilt, jumped the rivullet and started up the slope, saw us standing startled into stillness and slack jawed not 30 feet ahead. He came to a sudden halt and there occurred again one of those frozen moments. He stared, he snorted, we were barely breathing. Abruptly, he turned and trotted rapidly back the way he had come leaving us still gaping. If he had decided to continue his charge, I wouldn’t be here to blog about it!

He was almost black with huge humped shoulders and rippling with muscles. Four white socks looked incongruosly cute and his neck – wow! The pics here do not do justice to seeing one of these 6 1/2 feet tall monsters up close.

Our guard had stopped at the beginning of the clearing and he now came hurriedly down and tried to persuade us to head home. We were only half way through our prescribed route and both of us flatly refused.

Seeing people in the deep forest is very rare and it looked as though this gaur bull had been frightened by the previous group and had been making tracks away from their ramble when he suddenly ran into us. He must have wondered how his persuers had managed to get ahead of him and cut him off again!

Luck was certainly with us, for the lone bull bison is considered the most dangerous of the forest animals. They almost never have human contact, being generally very shy behemoths of the very deep forest where even poachers rarely venture (an exception to this is Topslip).

The rest of our trek was anticlimactic!

We were surprised to see the amount of cattle droppings on the periphery of the forest range. It turns out that the government actually licences the native tribals to herd cattle within the forest, but, quite naturally, these licences are abused by local non-tribal heavyweights who buy out or extort the licences and then use them to allow large herds of cattle to forage within the forest itself.

Incidentally, Roy is now well settled in Switzerland. He and Akila (and their beautiful baby Leah) had come down this Christmas and we got to spend a brief time together in Chennai. Roy has certainly not lost the forest bug! We are going to try to schedule his next visit so that he can ‘do the census’ again!

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PREMEDITATED OCEAN RAPE

January 13, 2007 at 11:51 am | Posted in biodiversity, bioinversity, biosphere, corral harvesting, dugong, ecosystem, endangered species, Gulf of Mannar, mangrove, niche, ocean, Ptychodera, sethusamudram, tsunami | 5 Comments
The Gulf of Mannar lies just East and South of the temple town of Rameshwaram on the S.E. coast of India. The region has been declared a biosphere of great importance to the entire Indian Ocean and was the very first declared UNESCO recognised biosphere reserve (1989). It may well qualify as the world’s richest area of marine biological resource. There is a particularly rich diversity of ecological niches including 21 uninhabited islands, with estuaries, beaches, forests of the nearshore environment, with marine algal communities, sea grasses, coral reefs, salt marshes and mangroves!
The sea cow, Dugong dugon (related to the manatee), with child – a very rare sight these days

There is a combined flora and fauna of more than 3,600 species represented here within an area of 10,500 sq km. Many of these species are endemic to this particular area of shallow ocean and include a number of critically endangered species (see the Red List). Just one example on the island of Kurusadai, less than a kilometre from the Indian mainland, is the world’s one and only outpost of a subspecies of Ptychodera – a hemichordate (‘acornworm’) found nowhere else! New species and subspecies are constantly being ‘discovered’ in this area while simultaneously a number of previously common endemics seem to have completely disappeared.

The area also traditionally provides a rich and renewable source of food and livelihood to over 3 million native fisherfolk along our Indian coastline. Over the last decade, mechanised trawlers and biodegredation have been driving many of these families into penury.
Right through the heart of this precious and already highly stressed zone, our wise government proposes to carve out a channel, wide and deep enough to allow large, ocean going vessels easier access to India’s ports. The ships will therefore be able to completely bypass the trip around Sri Lanka.
The Tsunami did its share, coming as a boon to the promoters of the ‘S’ project because the native fisherfolks, who were the most vociferous objectors, have been effectively driven from their villages and are reduced to living off handouts. And this does not take into account the coastal population on the other side of the gulf where lies Sri Lanka (Ceylon), who are even worse off due to the ongoing civil war there that compounds the devastation left by the Tsunami.
The Sethusamudram project further calls for continuous dredging of this canal which will result in huge quantities of silt continuously being spread throughout, destroying not only sea grass but corrals and algal growth also. The algae,plants, and corrals are the backbone of the whole food chain – with all opposition silenced we are staring at a scenario of total destruction of entire livelihoods, habitats and ecosystems.

The fact is that organised overfishing and almost no protection for the fragile reserve has already resulted in massive destruction of corral and mangrove, the two most precious ecosystems, which together account for 90% of the area’s biodiversity. Unrestrained blasting and harvesting of corral to feed hungry cement plants, overfishing mainly due to the extensive use of trawlers by multnationals (for export) and specific destruction such as the targeting of sea cucumbers, ornamental fish, crustaceans (prawns, lobsters, crabs), turtles and sharks (both for soup!), have all taken a heavy toll on this unique and irreplaceable “biosphere”.

Perhaps most shocking is the studied silence of the U.N. and almost all organisations involved in promoting conservation / biodiversity. Our government claims to have extensively studied the project’s environmental impact but in the face of their winking at the daily destruction one wonders what it is that they have been claiming to conserve!

The fact is that mega projects like this one mean mega bucks for all the private and governmental players. In the face of such gross shortsightedness (not to mention greed), the world’s bioinversity can only multiply apace.

After carefully studying the issues I urge you to

OBJECT TO THE SETHUSAMUDRAM PROJECT!

PLEASE JOIN TOGETHER TO OPPOSE THE RAPE OF THE GULF OF MANNAR and of any of our oceans in whichever corner of this globe you may happen to be…

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Tiger, TIGER!

October 13, 2006 at 5:44 pm | Posted in Bengal Tiger, Cervicus, conservation, ecotourism, endangered species, Melursus, Panthera, Sambar, sloth bear, survey, Tiger | Leave a comment

On an animal survey, four of us (3 volunteers and one tribal guide) were trekking in the Top Slip National Park three years ago. We had started early, around 5.30 a.m., just as dawn was starting to break with a slight greying of the sky. It was still quite dark as we enterred the scrub jungle on the outskirts of the forest proper. As we walked the sun rose and filled the atmosphere with a golden glow. it was a glorious way to begin our hike.

Very early on there were indications that this was to be an exceptional morning. We had hardly started when we almost ran into a solitary, large, sloth bear (Melursus ursinus). He had been digging for juicy roots and the ground was littered with fresh piles of upturned earth.

Around ten, we had covered 5 km of fairly easy walking when the distinctive smell of slightly decaying flesh brought us to a grinding halt. We cast around and finally located a fairly recently killed Sambhar Deer (Cervicus unicolor) hidden under a thorn thicket. Studying the ground, our guide (an excellent tracker) showed us where the deer had been ambushed and pointed out the rear hoofs digging deep into the earth where a tiger had landed on his haunches, where he fell, and how after a brief struggle on the ground he was dragged under the bushes where the tiger completed a meal of the shoulder portions. The deer was a large male and it would have taken a tiger in its prime to bring him down.

Unfortunately we could get no very clear pug marks to help identify which of the 42 bengal tigers known to frequent that forest this one was. There was rising ground some 3 km off and as tigers prefer to go to a vantage point from which to sleep off a meal we thought (without any real hope) that we would give it a try. Soon we were toiling up a dry stream bed and seemingly going straight up. The surrounding scrub was too thick and thorny to break through.

We were in single file with our guide in front. he kept exclaiming at this or that sign, shushing us and commanding that we walk quietly and I was sure that it was the usual hype – “Sir, the tiger definitely passed this way this morning…”

We stopped and bunched up when we came to a series of rocks that would have made a lively waterfall in the rainy season. Broad flat rocks that almost seemed to be a series of made-to-purpose steps. At the top there was one long step and three of us took that step almost simultaneously and FROZE. There, not ten feet from us, was a huge male tiger in repose. He jumped to his feet, tail slightly twitching and stared at us. We were well and truly horrified, I know I was holding my breath. Each of us carried a camera but that was completely forgotten. The tableau held for an instant or two and then – a reddish streak, he went vertical, springing effortlessly up fifteen feet onto a big boulder, another huge leap and he disappeared into the scrub.

After a few still moments, we slowly, very slowly looked around and then, in silent excitement, cautiously came back down to the plain. Only when safely out of the deep scrub did we start jumping up and down in excitement and talked and talked about those fantastic, incredible few moments, and then we talked all the way back to the camp.

I know people that have lived in these jungles for years and never seen a tiger! It was an incredible bit of luck – and a truly blessed few moments!

I was in this same forest recently and traced out our tribal guide to see if he had seen any further signs of our handsome young man (estimated age then around 4 years, about ten feet from toe to tail) and the word was that he had been spotted, even bigger, in a completely different zone of the forest, a couple months earlier.

Well, the Bengal Tiger is highly endangered. The census that year (2003, 3 years back) identified 42 tigers. Now the count is down to 36. The population is not sustaining itself and the major reason is poaching. A tiger skin is reported to fetch upwards of 400,000 Rupees (about 10 years wage) in the local market. Other parts of the tiger are also considered very valuable and if a tiger is ‘judiciously disposed of’, the total for the poacher will be a million Rupees or more.

So, you will forgive me for not identifying our trekking route or the area of the forest any more clearly than I have. I have also deliberately not named my companions or our guide and they will understand.


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Biodiversity and taxonomy

August 14, 2006 at 10:55 am | Posted in bacteria, biotechnology, classification, endangered species, gene silencing, genome, taxonomy | Leave a comment


Life in all its variety has always fascinated humans. Language and naming go hand in hand. And that’s really all there is to taxonomy: the laws of classifying names. There are numerous schemes for classifying the names of living creatures none of which should deter us from our tendency to name the creatures of this world!

The job is far from over for new species are being named daily especially amongst the numerous “lower” forms of life. Recently, a scientist concluded that we know (have named) only 10% of the bacteria. Another recent little tidbit was that we “know” only about 12,000 species of ant but it is supposed that twice this number of species may actually exist!

Taxonomy has become unpopular as a subject of study in recent years. Subjects like cell biology, biochemistry and immunology are where careers in science are to be made. The trend away from taxonomy has been around for over 30 years, many grad students in those days ended up without jobs after spending years of doing intense study on taxonomy.

Sad but true. But, I believe that taxonomy will someday see a revival for it is tied to such a basic human instinct. If we knew why we are so fascinated with names we may understand our selves a lot better. Science started from taxonomy and someday we will rediscover the joy and importance of what makes a species what it is, and the importance of maintaining that identity.

Today’s assault comes partly from biotechnology; take a gene from this genome and stick into that one and lets see if we can’t ‘improve’ this form of life, or at least make it more useful – in my opinion very short sighted, and highly dangerous! So, let’s get back to respecting life and respecting ourselves a bit.

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