Lives of others
BEYOND USUAL SUSPECTS
A case for neglected species in wildlife research and conservation
For most of us wildlife is represented by large mammals like elephant, rhino, lion and tiger, may be birds like hornbill, raptors, peafowl and waterfowl and awe inspiring reptiles like marine turtles, crocodiles, python and king cobra. The fact is that wildlife ranges from very small insects to gigantic trees and from coral polyps to whales. Unfortunately, only a very small number of species have received attention of researchers and conservationists. While charismatic species largely drive the conservation scenario, they also seem to be the focus of wildlife research mainly because of the availability of funds and the role of charismatic species in setting our wildlife policies.
Mammals, birds and plants are among the better studied groups in India. This generally means we have better information on the distribution, ecology and conservation status of these species, knowledge vital to conserve them and their habitats in a rapidly changing world filled with numerous and emerging threats. Even among these better studied species, research and conservation attention is not even. For instance, rodents, bats, aquatic mammals, small cats and marine mammals are poorly studied compared to elephants and large cats. This is the pattern with birds also; aquatic birds, pheasants and raptors have received much of the research attention.
Inadequate research results in poor knowledge and understanding of species and more often than not several species are hurtling towards extinction even before they are described and properly understood. A good example are land snails, the largest group of animals after arthropods, constituting about six per cent of the species that have been described so far. This group has the largest number of documented extinctions worldwide. In India about 1,130 species have been described but very little is known about their taxonomy, distribution, ecology and population biology; knowledge vital to plan for their conservation.
IUCN through its Species Survival Commission and various Species Specialists Groups has been preparing the Red List which has a statement on the conservation status of species worldwide. Despite much effort only about 2.5 per cent of the 1.8 million scientifically described species have been assessed.
Of these a fairly high number are categorised as data deficient because of severe paucity of information to assess their conservation status.
The IUCN process is an international process which draws upon expertise from all over the world. The Indian conservation scenario can benefit from a more structured approach. We need to adapt the IUCN process to our national conditions and invest in commissioning scientists, researchers, conservationists and wildlife managers to undertake assessments of wild species throughout India. About 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the species found in India are data deficient. This clearly does not portend well when all our wildlife and their habitats are under constant threat from human actions.
We have a queer situation in India today as many new species are being described (especially taxa like amphibians and spiders) but the required follow up study to assess their conservation status is not there. For many species in India even basic data on their natural history and distribution is lacking.
It is time the environment ministry collaborated with scientists and conservationists to start a process of national red listing of species, a systematic conservation assessment of all species occurring in the wild across India.
This should be done on a periodic basis, say every three or four years, so that there is real time data for planning and implementing conservation projects. The findings should be linked to listing species in the Schedules of the Wildlife Protection Act to ensure legal protection for a species is based on an objective assessment of its conservation status. This should attract researchers and conservationists to generate real time data on the hundreds of neglected species. Hopefully, this will enable better understanding and conservation of India’s wildlife.
Roars, growls and Grunts
India has a fair record in wild cat protection, but much is desired
Author: Ravi Chellam
India is fortunate to have a diverse set of habitats, largely due to variations in terrain and climate. This is reflected in the tremendous diversity of wild plants and animals, including the large wild cats, probably the most charismatic group of animals. India has five extant species of large wild cats; Asiatic lion, Indian tiger, common leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard. We also had the Asiatic cheetah which went extinct in India around the time of Independence in 1947.
Wildlife conservation in India faces huge challenges that include a very large human population, an economy which is still largely biomass-based (at least in terms of the number of people whose livelihoods are linked to land and biomass), high levels of poverty, and fragmentation, degradation and destruction of habitats due to rapid land use changes largely driven by large-scale industrialisation and urbanisation. Despite these factors, India has actually fared quite well in conserving its large cats.
Could the current conservation status of wild cats have been better? Absolutely, especially because of the very high levels of tolerance for wild cats among communities which unfortunately has declined in the last decade or so; reasonably widespread public support for wildlife conservation and the high quality human resources we now possess in wildlife research and conservation.
Lions were fairly widely distributed in India till about the mid-19th century. With the advent of fire arms that facilitated hunting and large-scale conversion of the flatter habitats into agricultural fields and human settlements, lions suffered a catastrophic decline in their distribution as well as population size. By the late 19th century and early 20th century the lion in India was close to extinction, with various estimates putting its number at 12 to 20. The most recent official count in 2010 estimates the population to be at 411. Hence, conservation efforts in the last century have not only staved off extinction but also resulted in a significant increase in the lion population in India.
Currently, Asiatic lions are found only in and around Gir forest in Gujarat. So despite the remarkable increase in numbers Asiatic lions are still very vulnerable to extinction. Their situation is akin to having all your eggs in one basket. A disease outbreak or a major natural disaster like forest fire or cyclone or even an adverse political decision has the potential to erode conservation achievements of the past 100 years.
A scientific conservation plan for translocating a few lions to establish a second free-ranging population of lions in the country has been languishing due to the lack of political consensus and stewardship. About 25 villages have been relocated and hundreds of families resettled at enormous human and financial cost to prepare the forest of Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh as the second home for lions in India. Unfortunately, the people of Gujarat led by their politicians have been opposing the project and have refused to part with six to eight wild lions which are required to start this conservation initiative. The matter is now in the Supreme Court as a conservationist has filed a public interest petition over the delay.
Translocating lions is like buying insurance against their extinction in the wild and delaying it is tempting fate. Once a catastrophe strikes, it would be too late to take the required conservation actions.
For far too long the conservation of tigers in India has largely been driven by the obsession with tiger numbers. It was common knowledge that the methods used to estimate numbers were flawed and more importantly the estimation was not done with the required levels of sincerity. The final numbers were always manufactured to show an increasing population which was clearly at odds with ground realities and ecological principles. It took the extinction of tigers in Sariska in 2005 to shake the system, albeit only briefly, but it has reset the baseline in terms of tiger numbers, methods used to estimate tiger populations and levels of participation for non-government players. The authorities at Sariska first went into denial and it was only after several months that the extinction was accepted.
If Sariska was scandalous, what happened in Panna over several years was worse. After the usual round of denials and even targeting the whistleblower, the authorities had to admit that Panna had lost all its tigers in 2009. The widespread governmental resistance to using modern scientific methods and to allowing access to researchers and conservationists is an important facet of this problem. The majority of the wildlife management officials do not have the required training or interest to work for wildlife conservation. Their defensive attitudes only add to the problem.
Unfortunately, without dealing with the root causes for the Sariska and Panna fiascos, the managers have resorted to an easy solution, translocation of tigers from other areas. The danger of course is that the same problems which resulted in local extinction could very easily act on the re-introduced tigers, as evidenced by the unnatural death of a reintroduced tiger in Sariska.
Over a four-year period (2006-2010) tigers have disappeared from more than 10,000 sq km of tiger habitat, a 12.6 per cent decline in distribution range. These are largely habitats outside the protected area network which functioned as corridors and enabled tigers to move from one protected area to another. This means that tigers will increasingly be boxed into smaller areas and once they venture out are likely to have very low survival rates. In the long-term this can result in inbreeding and compromise the genetic diversity of tiger populations.
The key solutions are to build the capacity of the managers and field staff, based on science, field patrolling, intelligence gathering and related fields, to equip them to effectively tackle the threats; establish partnerships with research and conservation agencies to bring their expertise to bear on the management of tigers and their habitats and landscape-level planning to ensure that development projects do not fragment and destroy tiger habitats and undermine the long-term survival of tigers.
Leopards are amazing survivors due to their smaller size that enables them to survive on much smaller prey animals, ability to climb trees and tolerate a very wide set of climatic factors. Increasingly leopards are not only being targeted by poachers but are being killed by people as well, often in retaliation to conflict and more importantly due to the rapid decline in the tolerance levels of people for wild cats.
With much of the conservation attention on tigers, the status of leopards has not been monitored as closely as required. Estimating leopard numbers is not easy: they can be more elusive than tigers but then they can also survive in close proximity to human habitations. The key to survival of leopards is to provide better protection from poaching and swift and effective management responses to conflict situations, especially in human-dominated habitats.
Snow leopards have fortunately received some excellent research attention over the past 15 years and this has resulted in us having a much better understanding of their ecology. A very innovative conservation project has also been launched with very strong involvement of NGOs and this heralds a new conservation model, not restricted to protected areas.
Unfortunately, the inertia in the system and the lack of coordination between government agencies have slowed down the implementation of Project Snow Leopard. The key intervention for this species is to implement the excellent set of planned activities across their range in a collaborative manner involving local communities and NGOs.
There has been a move over the last couple of years to bring the cheetah back. On the face of it, it seems a positive conservation action but the devil is in the detail. To begin with the number of Asiatic cheetahs in the wild is so low that it is not prudent to capture them from a very small population that remains in Iran. This only leaves the option of obtaining cheetahs from Africa. But recent research has indicated that the African cheetahs are a distinct sub-species that probably diverged from their Asiatic counterparts between 32,000 to 67,000 years ago. Unfortunately, the Union Cabinet, overlooking this evidence, has sanctioned nearly Rs 4 crore for introducing African cheetahs in India. Given our poor management record and funding constraints, the sustainability of this initiative is questionable.
India has done a reasonably good job in conserving wild cats but it cannot rest on its laurels. There are numerous threats to the habitats and populations of wild cats. The current management paradigm is not based on science and managers do not have the required training and manpower to deliver on their mandate. The challenges call for an open and collaborative approach. If wild cats have to survive it is time the attitude, approach and personnel change without delay.
Monkeys common no more
Time to redraw conservation priorities for humans’ closest relatives
We see monkeys around us so much that we seldom consider them wild. However, most people in Indian cities and towns, perhaps even in villages, are unlikely to see a majority of the 23 species of Indian primates, the mammalian order to which monkeys belong. These animals are confined to forests. Since none of the Indian primates have become extinct and not many are critically endangered, their conservation has taken a backseat. However, it is time to redraw conservation priorities. For several reasons.
Bonnet Macaques (Macaca radiata) were once common in the rural-urban areas of south India. Not any more. Mewa Singh, professor at Mysore University, who has monitored the animal around Mysore in the past two decades attributes its decline to the loss of banyan trees while widening roads. There has also been a fall in their numbers in the agricultural landscape. Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulata), once common in north India, have undergone even greater decline, also because they are trapped for medical research. Rhesus and Bonnet monkeys occur in very low densities in forests. So their reported decline in the human-dominated landscapes poses a great threat to their survival.
The Hanuman Langur, once thought to be among the most widely distributed primates in the world, faces a new predicament. Recent taxonomic advances have split it into seven species; some of them are not abundant. One of the species, Black Footed Langur (Semnopithecus hypoleucos) is confined to a narrow strip of rainforest in Karnataka. In north India, the Nepal Langur (Semnopithecus schistaceous) has a limited distribution range in the high altitudes of the Himalaya. The new classification means we have to re-examine the conservation status of a species, once thought to be abundant.
It is not as if all primates in forests are faring better. The Western Hoolock Gibbon (Hoolock hoolock), a forest-dwelling primate of northeast India, is among the 25 most endangered primates in the world. It is estimated that its population has shrunk by 90 per cent in the past three to four decades due to habitat fragmentation, hunting and shifting cultivation. In peninsular India, the numbers of the Mysore Slender Loris (Loris lyddekerianus lyddekerianus) have fallen drastically. Scrub forests, its primary habitat, have undergone massive alteration since they are outside the protected areas.
All is not bad news, however. Primates in the forests of the Western Ghats have done fairly well. The Nilgiri Langur (Semnopithecus johnii), which was on the verge extinction in the 1970s due to unrestricted hunting, has bounced back following the implementation of the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 1972 and the setting up of a protected area network. The Lion-tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus) has also fared well, despite extensive habitat fragmentation and a large population in privately held plantations. Several species in northeast India, such as Phayre’s Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus phayrei), Capped Langur (Trachypithecus pileatus) and Bengal Slow Loris (Nycticebus bengalensis) have managed to hang on to grossly altered and fragmented habitats, adapting to secondary forest.
Primates are hunted for meat and medicine and trapped for raiding crops. But the knockout could come from developmental activities (if we are not careful) like mines and dams, and roads which bisect habitats and expose animals that dare to cross to the threat of being run over by vehicles.
Much of our understanding of the evolution of human social organisation and behaviour has come from studying primates. They help disperse many plants; without them much of the trees we value might not be there.
Habitat is the key
A bird thought extinct for a century gets sighted and goes elusive again
In April 2005, biologists around the world were thrilled to learn that the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) was sighted in the US. However, the excitement at the sighting of a bird once thought extinct was short-lived as some thought it was mistaken for the similar looking Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). Every now and then there are reports of discovery and rediscovery of a species, right from a small plant to a huge mammal. What do these findings imply? One, there is much in this natural world waiting to be discovered. And two, there is always hope for species thought to be extinct.
But then, when do we conclude a species has gone extinct in the wild? It might be relatively easier to conclude a species has gone extinct in the wild or that it is locally extinct if the species is large bodied or conspicuous such as tiger or vulture, or if the species is unique to a region. But if the species is rare, nocturnal or if it is a small orchid which blooms once in several years in a rainforest, or a small deep sea fish, it will be difficult to pronounce it extinct even after several years of search.
If a species whose ecology, distribution, habitat or micro-habitat is well studied cannot be sighted after intensive search and its potentially suitable habitat has been completely wiped off, we could say it has gone extinct. But for how many species do we have such scientific information?
In this age of habitat destruction it’s natural to assume that certain species might have been wiped out. However, we must exercise caution in predictions about rare species. For example, the Jerdon’s Courser (Rhinoptilus bitorquatus) was thought to be extinct for more than 100 years until it was rediscovered in 1986 in Andhra Pradesh’s Cuddapah district; the place where the bird was rediscovered was immediately declared Sri Lankamaleswara Wildlife Sanctuary. Intensive research after 2000 resulted in locating the bird at three new places in the sanctuary, identifying and recording it’s call and mapping its broad habitat requirements.
The bird prefers scrub jungle with open areas with a particular density of bushes. It does not prefer a completely open area or a scrub with thickly-packed bushes. A study of the Jerdon’s Courser’s habitat requirement revealed most of its potentially suitable habitat was outside the sanctuary’s boundaries. Although the area in question is a protected one, cattle grazing and woodcutting are common. Overgrazing and rampant woodcutting will affect the bird’s habitat. But a moderate amount of these activities are likely to benefit the species since they will keep the habitat’s architecture intact.
Soon after the Jerdon’s Courser was rediscovered, the Andhra government planned an irrigation canal at the place it was found. Intervention of the forest department and several conservationists led to a change in the canal’s course. But another change in the canal’s course 20 years later destroyed one of the prime sites where the Jerdon’s Courser was discovered after 2000. Intervention by several conservation organisations and cooperation of the Andhra government again led to the canal’s realignment. But all is not well for the Jerdon’s Courser. The bird was sighted regularly till 2005 at the site of its discovery. However, check dams, percolation ponds and alien species in the open areas have disturbed its habitat. Use of sophisticated camera traps has not led to any sightings at this site.
Can we conclude the bird has disappeared from the area? American scientist Carl Sagan’s remark, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, is apt for the Jerdon’s Courser, at least in the Lankamaleswara Sanctuary. The area searched for the bird has been quite small. Vast tracts of scrub jungle in the region as well as in Andhra Pradesh remain to be surveyed.
As long as the bird’s habitat is intact, there is hope for it.
The Imbalance Act
There is very little concern for bird conservation in government circles
In a developing country like India, nature conservation gets the last priority. Funds allocated for protecting forests and environment by the Planning Commission in the Five Year Plans have rarely exceeded one per cent of the country’s budget. Within this meager allocation, birds are among those that get least priority. The country has a high-profile Project Tiger, flush with funds. There is a Project Elephant and a newly declared Project Snow Leopard. There is also a demand to start Project Dolphin. But there is no long-term project on birds, despite India being home to some of the world’s rarest birds.
There is practically no concern in government circles about India’s disappearing bird species. Most decision-makers think that Project Tiger will take care of all species as this project protects habitat, besides protecting the national animal. But then what about the many endangered and critically endangered species that live outside forests?
BirdLife International, a conglomeration of 112 conservation organisations from all over the world, is the official assessor of the status of birds for IUCN. The exercise, an annual affair involving thousands of volunteers, amateur birdwatchers, ornithologists, scientists, conservationists and field biologists, is reputed to be very comprehensive. It is said that among all taxa—mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians, insects, plants, marine invertebrates—the assessment of bird conservation is the most thorough and exhaustive. Many Indian experts, ornithologists and conservationists participate in this exercise.
The list of threatened birds, a testimony to human culpability, exploitation and neglect, is increasing every year. Just to take India’s case there were seven critically endangered species in 2000. Their numbers went up to nine in 2001; they increased to 12 in 2008; 14 in 2010 and 15 in 2011, when the Great Indian Bustard was added to the list.
Slotting the threatened
According to IUCN, critically endangered species are those facing extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future, and if nothing is done, the species might become extinct in 10 years, or in less than three generations (see http://iucn.org/themes/ssc/siteindex.htm for more details).
Marginally less threatened, according to the IUCN criterion, are endangered species. There are 16 endangered bird species in India, including Lesser Florican, Egyptian Vulture, Narcondam Hornbill and Masked Finfoot. Then there are vulnerable species: these face high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium term. Fifty-eight Indian birds fall in this category.
The species that are at a lower risk are termed near threatened. These are species I consider “sick”. They are not likely to die soon, but need our care and support to survive. There are 68 such species in India based on existing information but a comprehensive assessment of Indian birds is quite likely to make the list longer.
The species that are doing well are classified as “least concern” by IUCN . However, the dramatic decline of vulture species in the past 20 years and the slow decline of house sparrow indicate no species is safe enough in this human-dominated world. For example, in the 1990s, Gyps vultures of Asia were deemed as doing well according to IUCN but by 2001 the status of the bird had plunged to that of critically endangered species. We do not know which other species faces such unfortunate fate.
150 bird species need help
According to the BirdLife and IUCN list of 2011, more than 150 bird species with homes in India fall in globally threatened categories. Some of these like the Dalmatian Pelican, Marbled Teal, Japanese Quail, Grey-sided Thrush are migratory species; they make India their home in winters. A few like the Socotra Cormorant, Lesser White-fronted Goose and the Buff-breasted Sandpiper are occasional visitors. There are also some birds like Little Bustard, Hooded Crane and Red-breasted Goose which used to visit India but have not been seen in the country in the past 100 years. Since these birds make India their home for a part of the year, they figure in the threatened birds list of the country. We, however, cannot do much for their conservation as threats to them lie outside the country’s borders.
But even if we exclude these visitors, there are more than 130 Indian bird species that need immediate attention. The country certainly has a major responsibility towards birds unique to it and threatened like the Narcondam Hornbill, Grey-headed Bulbul, Nilgiri Blue Robin, White-bellied Blue Robin and Nicobar Bulbul. Then there are birds like the Great Indian Bustard, Lesser Florican, Rufous-rumped Grassbird and the Spot-billed Pelican whose global population will be in jeopardy if they disappear from India. The question is: are we doing anything to see that such birds survive in the increasingly human-dominated and materialistic country?
Apart from listing many bird species in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and all other bird species in Schedule IV (a list of protected species), and banning bird trade in 1992, not much has been done in India to protect the avian wealth. Many threatened species like the Austen’s Brown Hornbill in Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh and Black-breasted Parrotbill in Kaziranga get incidental protection as they live in protected areas, while some like the Grey Pelican and Painted Storks in Kokkre-Bellur in Karnataka and Telineesapuram in Andhra Pradesh are protected by communities. But overall there is no government scheme to protect Indian birds. Harmful pesticides, many of them prohibited in other countries, are still being used and, in fact, being strangely promoted by the government of India, though it is proved they are harmful to insectivorous birds.
The result is that once common Indian Roller or neelkanth and the Black Drongo are now uncommon. Raptors, or birds of prey, which are at the apex of the food chain in the avian world are the worst victims of pesticide poisoning. During surveys and field work in the Thar Desert over the past 30 years, I have noticed massive decline of raptors. The sky is now almost empty of these birds. Similarly, nightjars which totally depend on nocturnal flying insects for food, are disappearing (although no data are available) even in protected forests. Next time you go to Dudhwa or Corbett National Park, you might have to strain yourself to hear the characteristic resonant chunk, chunk, chunk call of the large-tailed nightjar or the whiplash-like noise sweesh, sweesh of the Savanna Nightjar.
Do note that the Indian Roller, Black Drongo, Large-Tailed Nightjar and Savanna Nightjar are birds that require least concern according to IUCN. I have cited their example just to show that even “common” species are not so common anymore.
No uproar for these birds
The Great Indian Bustard, once found in Punjab and Haryana in the north to Bihar and Odisha in the east and to Tamil Nadu in the south is now critically endangered with perhaps less than 300 of them left in the world. In the 1980s, after a successful international conference on bustards at Jaipur, eight bustard sanctuaries were announced. But due to mismanagement and neglect, the bird has disappeared from four such “bustard” sanctuaries and is dying in the other four.
When the tiger disappeared from Sariska, there was national and international uproar and the prime minister had to intervene and promise urgent remedial measures. When the last bustard died in Karera Bustard Sanctuary of Madhya Pradesh in 1992, there was no one to cry.
The Greater Adjutant, a large ugly bird once extremely common in north and northeast India (and some south-east Asian countries), is now fighting a losing battle of survival. Perhaps less than a thousand are left in India, mainly in Assam. About 50 per cent of the bird’s population can be seen on the garbage dump outside Guwahati where it feeds on human waste. The proud owner of the jheels and marshlands where it fed on fish, frog and snakes, now forages for scraps left by humans because we have overtaken its home and resources by overfishing, poisoning and drainage of wetlands.
Ten years ago, a very active local conservation organisation, Green Guards, set up a rescue centre in Nagaon district. Here fallen and injured chicks of Greater Adjutant were rescued, raised, and later released when they were capable of looking after themselves. When the funds given by US Fish and Wildlife Service ran out, the rescue centre had to be closed. Since then attempts to raise funds within India have failed. No one has funds for a species on the verge of extinction. For mandarins in the Planning Commission, what difference will it make if one more species becomes extinct?
Let us now see an example of a species that IUCN has placed in the vulnerable category. The Indian Skimmer is very handsome tern-like bird, whose orange bill is perfectly adapted to skim over water. As soon as the bird touches any food item, its upper mandible shuts and the prey is caught. However, millions of years of evolution did not help this bird of larger Indian rivers adapt to this human-dominated world. The Indian Skimmer nests during summer on undisturbed sand islets that appear when the river water recedes. This adaptation lets it escape ground predators such as cats, fox, jackal, mongoose, dogs and snakes.
It now faces two major problems to which it cannot adapt: heavy withdrawal of water from most rivers for human consumption which leaves the sand islands accessible to ground predators, and contrastingly, sudden release of water from upstream dams which wash away its eggs and chicks. The result is that the bird’s number has plummeted during the last decade and it may even plunge to the endangered category. But will that make any difference to the planners?
Among the 68 near threatened Indian bird species, I will cite the example of Nicobar Parakeet to highlight the problem of birds in small islands.
The bird is unique to the Nicobar archipelago, where it is found in the Great Nicobar, Little Nicobar, Menchal and Kondul islands. It is found nowhere else in the world. This inhabitant of the rainforests, locally called chauraulo, was earlier hunted by traditional methods which did not make much difference to its numbers. But now air guns have tilted the balance: the parakeet has no defence against the gun pellets, and nowhere else to go. Their number is going down but since the forest is largely intact, the bird is still around. But for how long? Any further exploitation of forest and increase in hunting pressure will bring the species to the vulnerable category. Many other species in the Andaman and Nicobar islands face similar threats.
To protect Indian birdlife and all other taxa, we have to move away from a tiger-centric conservation paradigm. The government should treat all threatened species equally and make sure that species-targeted and habitat-targeted conservation actions are in place. The government is organising the next Conference of the Parties of the Convention of Biological Diversity in October 2012.
Can we prove we are taking sufficient measures to see that no Indian bird species goes extinct in the near future.
A good fish curry
In recent times bottom trawling supplies the secret ingredient
The recipe for a good fish curry is not limited to secret books of great chefs. There are just four simple points to remember: fresh ingredients, the right kind of fish, perfect proportions and the secret ingredient. These are actually the most vital steps that fish-eaters must consider. After all, no fish is just a fish; its lineage, history and source are central to a good dish. Walking into a supermarket to buy the first fish in sight, as the shopkeepers proclaim, “very fresh, sir” could land a consumer in trouble, with seafood now being transported across the country to feed inland markets in Delhi or Bengaluru. From food poisoning and heavy metals to inflation, eating seafood is gradually becoming an expensive affair.
Fresh seafood can only be obtained along the coast, and only at certain times of the year. The monsoon floodwater washes pollution from big coastal cities into the sea, which affects fishing in those regions. Monsoon-fishing is banned in many states, yet consumer-demand ensures that people continue to fish. The social cost of this demand is that only fishermen who can afford storage facilities benefit. Only the rare small-scale fisherman has room in his house for a freezer that runs on electricity, which is now a necessity if he has to compete with the nexus of large trawl-boat owners, which rule the market.
In order to compete, small-scale fishermen now depend on willing middlemen. A fish that sells for Rs 10 on the beach, multiplies four times in value by the time it reaches a supermarket. The price of fish, therefore, is not just on the tag, but also on the conscience of the consumer. Unwittingly, seafood-eaters are perpetrating social injustices by not being aware of where their seafood comes from.
With the decline in importance of fisherwomen as sellers of fish, they no longer hold the financial reigns that gave them social status. Be it in India or Senegal, the use of middlemen to reach faraway markets for seafood, is perpetrating a reduction in individual freedoms, accorded to women in fishing communities. The conscientious consumer avoids these issues by “buying local”. Purchasing from fisherwomen at the local fish market can allow for greater consumer awareness about fish’s origins, as well as, fair-trade through the elimination of middlemen and large, mechanised fishing mafias.
However, there is still the matter of the proportions of seafood. Although the best pomfrets, mackerels or seerfish make it to the supermarkets, a large proportion of other “unusable” sea-life has to be discarded. The easiest way to get large catches of fish without having to spend a lot of time and effort at sea is to use techniques such as bottom trawling.
Here, a net that stretches from the sea floor to the surface is dragged across miles of ocean to catch everything in their path. Sorting occurs once the net is lifted from the water, or sometimes even after the boat docks. This way, not only are a huge number of fish caught, both mature and immature, but also a large number of inedible organisms such as sea snails, sea horses, turtles, jellyfish and other marine organisms are trapped. This “commercially inviable catch” usually forms a larger proportion than the commercially viable fish, and are either discarded to rot, or ground up and sold as chicken feed.
In some cases, the money earned from chicken feed sales far exceeds the money earned from selling fish. Although illegal in the near-shore, close to 85 per cent of India’s commercial fish catch originates from this form of fishing. Consequently, the oceans are being emptied as marine life is not being given enough time to reproduce and bounce back. The best fish curries avoid these problems by consisting of local seafood caught using sustainable gear by local fisherwomen. But meanwhile, consumers must think about the secret ingredient that today completes the fish curry. This is a good, old murder mystery.
While the marine ecosystem is murdered, authorities and fishermen alike cry “Whodunnit”? The answer does not lie with them, because they are not the ones making the fish curry. It turns out you and I did it.
Icons of marine conservation
India has been both a pioneer and a laggard in protecting seascapes and oceanscapes
Whales and dolphins rival pandas and tigers as global conservation icons. Sea turtles might have, at one time, not been regarded as cute as charismatic mammals, but more countries have conservation projects on sea turtle than on any other such group. Research on and conservation of marine species is seen as a new frontier, while the interface between marine conservation and fisheries management remains a challenge. In the expansion of the conservation arena from landscapes to seascapes and oceanscapes, the Indian subcontinent has been both a pioneer and a laggard.
Sea turtle conservation in India dates to the programmes initiated in the Olive Ridley mass nesting beaches of Odisha and solitary beaches of Chennai in the early 1970s. In Odisha, conservationists countered threats to turtles with on-ground and media campaigns that elicited global support. Famously, then prime minister Indira Gandhi provided coast guard support in patrolling offshore waters, eventually leading to a decline in turtle fishing. Concomitantly, increasing trawl fishing led to a rise in incidental capture and mortality: more than 100,000 Olive Ridleys perished in the last decade. A number of community-centric conservation campaigns have tried to address these issues. Part of the new wave of conservation approaches, the Orissa Marine Resources Conservation Consortium is trying to bring together fisher communities and conservationists towards a common goal of marine resource conservation. All the while, the threat of development looms large with more ports planned.
The conservation movement in Chennai, that eventually led to the now two-decade-old students’ conservation organisation there, has spawned a number of small sea turtle and marine conservation organisations around the country, at least one in each coastal state. Their impact at the local scale is extraordinary. The groups are also united under a recently formed national network, the Turtle Action Group.
Conservation of other marine species has been much less organised. Some of the groups mentioned above have worked on other species, notably whale sharks in Gujarat. Whale shark conservation received attention for a period, including through documentaries and media campaigns, resulting in their listing in Schedule 1 of the Wild Life Protection Act in 2001 slowing of the decline in their number. Once they were disappearing by several hundreds annually.
When other sharks were similarly listed, there was widespread protest from fishing communities, leading to a delisting of species. The problem in such listings is that many fisheries are non-target ones. This leads to the broader question of fisheries management and regulation, as well as issues of bycatch. They have not received enough attention in India. Whales and dolphins may be icons elsewhere in the world, but have not received a great deal of attention in India. Their status in offshore waters is not well known, nor are the threats to their populations.
In Chilika, fishing communities and the Irrawady dolphin appear to have developed a mutualistic relationship. The communities benefit from dolphins driving fish into their nets, and also in recent years from dolphin-based tourism. Yet there are various threats, including from tourism-based activity. Dugongs have disappeared from most areas along the mainland where they were earlier reported, such as the Gulf of Mannar. They are still sighted in some parts of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but appear to be considerably depleted in numbers.
Should marine protection follow paradigms of terrestrial conservation? Should effort be devoted to creating people-free, use-free enclaves? Seas and coasts have been used for millenia; the cultures and institutions that govern them have evolved over time. Is it wise or even feasible to apply dogmatic conservation approaches to seascapes? In fact, the most powerful coastal movements in India are community movements for local livelihoods. However, no-fishing zones (especially when set up with support of communities) can be highly beneficial to marine resources and livelihoods. Marine conservation will benefit most by integrating modern research with community involvement.
Clay pot nose almost gone
The gharial is confined to a few Indian rivers
Named after a pot (ghara)-like protrusion at the tip of the narrow long snout of it’s adult male species, the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) once swam the waters of the Indus, Ganges, Irrawady, Brahmaputra and the Mahanadi river systems. The inoffensive fish-eating animal, the only surviving member of the crocodilian family Gavialidae, is today confined to the Ganges river system; its population is down to about 2 per cent of what it was in the 1950s.
The gharial depends on the external environment to regulate its body temperature. At times it moves deep in the rivers; at other times, the gharial basks in high sandbanks mid-river. At the sandbanks, the adult female digs its nest hole and lays eggs once a year.
In the 1950s, the gharial’s estimated population was between 5,000 and 10,000. But hunting and collection of eggs for human consumption and for medicinal use led to IUCN categorising the gharial as an endangered species by the mid-1970s. The animal also lost a lot of its habitat to dams, barrages, artificial embankments and river bank agriculture. Sand mining removed its breeding habitat and basking areas.
Two state-sponsored conservation programmes in India and Nepal from the mid-1970s onward, that relied on collecting gharial eggs in the wild and hatching and rearing them in captivity for reintroduction in the wild, raised hopes. Some 3,000 to 4,000 young gharials were released in over 10 protected areas in India and Nepal. However, there was very little follow up and by 2000 the gharial was back to its historical low. It is now reduced to a breeding population of around 200 adult individuals in the wild—the best breeding population is in the National Chambal Sanctuary in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. In 2007, IUCN declared it critically endangered.
The gharial may not become extinct immediately because of captive breeding programmes at some zoos. But hatchlings from the zoos are not destined for a safe wild place where they can swim in deep waters and bask in sandbanks. In fact, many gharial captive breeding centers are now destroying gharial eggs.
The gharial’s future depends on taking the species to its former range in the river systems of the sub-continent. We also need community management of riverine protected areas. A recent declaration by the environment ministry to form a Chambal Sanctuary Management and Coordination Committee to evolve such a management approach might help the gharials in the Chambal. The attempt of the global Gharial Conservation Alliance, led by the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, to develop a recovery plan for the gharial in its former and present distributional range might also help.
The last stronghold
A 40 sq km tract is the last refuge of the Tibetan Gazelle in Ladakh
I vividly remember the first time I caught a glimpse of the gowa (Tibetan Gazelle) in Hanle in Ladakh around 11 years ago. A dainty creature with large eyes and a grey-brown coat broken by a white heart-shaped rump. Possibly the most beautiful animal I had ever seen. What disturbed me, however, was that the animal fled at the sight of our vehicle, a behaviour unusual for wild grazers in Ladakh where they feel secure from humans. It left me wondering if there was hunting or some other cause of harassment of these animals.
Along with Rinchen Wangchuk, an old hand on the wilderness of Ladakh, I was doing a rapid study on the distribution and status of large mammals, including snow leopard, Tibetan argali (mountain sheep), kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass) and Tibetan Gazelle, in eastern Ladakh. We surveyed over 1,400 km of the region and were delighted that wildlife was spread, not just in remote mountains, but also near habitations, roads and almost everywhere.
The Tibetan Gazelle, however, was spotted only in one place, Kalak Tar Tar (KTT), the same site where another Ladakh veteran, Raghu Chundawat, had spotted 36 animals in 1998, and two years before him, another researcher, Otto Pfisher, had spotted 68. In spite of considerable search, we spotted just about 20 gazelle. Local herders informed that the severe winter of 1998-1999 had caused a major catastrophe when many of them had lost over 50 per cent of their livestocks and wild animals like kiang and gowa too had perished in large numbers.
We had looked for gazelles in other areas from where they were reported in the 1980’s, like Dungti, Kuyul and Tso Kar, but apparently they had long disappeared from these areas. Alarmed at this finding, we returned the next year and spent many days surveying KTT and adjacent areas but still ended up with an estimate of not more than 50 animals in this valley, mostly concentrated on the plateau. From the sparse literature on the gowa, we were able to deduce that the animal was widespread over more than 20,000 sq km of eastern Ladakh, less than a century ago. Now it seemed confined to barely 100 sq km. There is a similar population in northern Sikkim, though these move between Indian and Chinese territories.
The Tibetan Gazelle is patchily distributed in large areas of Central Asia and till 2003 was classed as a least concern species in the IUCN Red list. From the scarce information on its status and distribution, it was clear that the gowa had suffered over a 20 per cent decline in the past two decades even in its stronghold in Tibet. This prompted the IUCN to slot the species as near threatened in 2007.
What could have decimated the gowa to this extent in Ladakh? What is special about KTT that the animal persists here, though in small numbers? We were able to piece together various bits of evidence to arrive at the most likely answers. The small ungulate needs nutritious forage, which is naturally confined to small patches in this landscape. This probably makes it a patchily distributed species in the area. The Indo-China war in 1962 seemed to have played a key role in decimating the Tibetan Gazelle. There are many reports of poorly supplied soldiers hunting gazelles they could find on easily approachable rolling slopes. Some old herders even recall soldiers wiping off an entire herd at one go to stock up for winter rations.
Around the same time, large numbers of refugees arrived from Tibet. Most did not have any means of sustenance and had to resort to hunting, and again the gazelle was among the most accessible preys. The refugees brought animals with them increasing the livestock population in the area. The livestock were allotted pastures and in time the population of the refugees and their animals began to increase.
By the 1980s, the demand for local cashmere increased leading to a steep increase in the pashmina goat holdings. There was thus a double whammy of sorts. Initial hunting wiped out gazelle populations and though hunting declined by the 1970s, the animal’s recovery was hampered by the tremendous rise in livestock grazing intensity.
The primary threat thus appeared to be competition with livestock. Our search for more reasons for the gowa being confined to the KTT plateau seemed to confirm this hypothesis. The area has little natural water and herders don’t use this 40-odd sq km plateau for more than a month in late winter while most other areas are used more intensively. The plant cover and nutritious forage in this area is more compared to other adjacent areas.
The KTT population, at about 50 animals, is thus the “largest” gowa population in all of Ladakh. Probably the last flicker of hope for the species in this region. Most large mammal studies suggest that a population of less than 50 animals is usually unviable. In other words it is unlikely to survive for more than a few generations. Even if there is no hunting or competition for food, such small populations can be wiped out in a single severe winter or by an epidemic. Genetic and demographic limitations also make them more vulnerable. Fatal diseases, like peste des petits ruminants, have been reported from the region.
The movement of military in this border region is perhaps inevitable, but problems caused by some of the existing and planned roads can be addressed. Probably more damaging than the movement of vehicles is the influx of labourers to make and maintain roads, who sometimes even poach wildlife.
We engaged with the local community and the wildlife department to develop means to conserve the gowa in Ladakh. We needed a multi-pronged strategy for arresting the decline of the Tibetan Gazelle in Hanle and subsequently look at recovery of the species in the rest of Ladakh.
Suggested measures include minimising the possibility of winter mortality by improving habitat—deploying movable fences to protect small patches of winter pastures from livestock so that more forage is available to Tibetan Gazelle—giving incentives to the local community to stop using designated areas for livestock grazing and supplementing the animal feed with locally grown or imported fodder.
Other measures suggested included tackling disease threats (by vaccination and disease control in livestock), better awareness among herders, labourers and the armed forces regarding the rarity of the gowa and the need to conserve it. Realigning the existing road and scrutinising other development proposals are also important. Some long-term measures need to be undertaken when large enough populations of the gazelle become available after an initial recovery. These involve restocking in restored habitats of their erstwhile range.
Some of these efforts have begun, but much remains to be done in Ladakh to ensure survival of the gowa. Herders, the widlife department and scientific bodies must collaborate.
Which species gets conservation priority?
Genetic variation across species has implications for conservation
Among the many issues that conservation biologists face is, how to rate different areas for conservation? For example, if there are two forest patches of equal size, which patch would one consider more important for conservation? One obvious answer is the patch with higher biodiversity: the patch with higher number of species, across various taxonomic groups (plants and animals).
The knowledge of taxonomy (naming and classification of organisms) is very important in determining the biodiversity of an area. Alternately a conservation biologist might be interested in identifying important species for conservation. For example, if we have five species, how do we rate them for conservation action? Which among these five species is most important from conservation standpoint? One criterion used to rate species for conservation is taxonomic uniqueness. If a species is the only member of a genus, it is accorded higher value than one that belongs to a genus with many other species. Here again knowledge of taxonomy is central in determining the uniqueness of a species.
In fact, traditional taxonomy has played an important role in rating species and areas for conservation. However, traditional taxonomy does not give us the complete picture: it does not capture genetic variation across species. This issue is illustrated in the figure on this page. In this example there are four patches (areas) of forest of equal size, each with the same number of species. Area 1 has three species (A, B, C), area 2 also has three species (B, C, D) and likewise. Based on traditional taxonomy, one might conclude all the four areas are of equal importance as they all have equal number of species (biodiversity). Nevertheless the species composition among these areas is not the same (area 1 and 4 have completely different sets of species). How do we incorporate information regarding species composition in rating areas for conservation?
To resolve this issue one needs to look at genetic variation across species and how this variation is distributed among areas. We do this by building species phylogenies. A phylogeny is an evolutionary tree that shows how species are related to each other. In the figure species A, B and C are closely related and so are species E and F. The branch lengths in the phylogeny correspond to genetic distance between species. Thus the genetic distance between species A, B and C is very low when compared to either of them with species D.
Armed with this information, we can now try to determine the area that harbours maximum genetic variation. Area 1 harbours least amount of genetic variation as it consists of three closely related species with very low genetic distance between them. Whereas Area 3 consists of three distantly related species with very high genetic distance between them and therefore harbours higher genetic variation. Given that the ultimate goal of conservation biology is to preserve variation, Area 3 should be given priority for conservation action. Through the use of phylogeny we are able choose among areas that have the same species numbers but different species composition.
Similarly we can ask: Which species among these six species is most important with respect to taxonomic uniqueness? Here again species phylogenies are useful. The six species fall into three distinct clusters in the phylogeny. The first cluster consists of the three closely related species (A, B, C), the second consists of only species D and the third species E and F. As is apparent from the phylogeny species D is the only member in cluster 2 and this species does not have any immediate sister species. Therefore species D is the most unique among the six species.
By the same argument, members of cluster 1 (A, B, C) are least unique. If species A goes extinct, then there are other members of this cluster, species B and C to represent it. Where as if species D goes extinct the evolutionary history represented by cluster 2 is lost forever.
Use of phylogenies in rating species assumes greater importance when species group studied belongs to the same taxonomic group. For example, in the case mentioned earlier the six species belong to the same genus. It is important to capture information regarding evolutionary relationships between species for prioritising areas and species for conservation action. Currently, phylogenetic information is almost never used for prioritising areas and species for conservation.
This is largely due to lack of phylogenetic studies on Indian biota. In recent times, though, studies have been undertaken, and information from these studies must be incorporated in the decision-making process. In one such study on langur monkeys of India it was suggested that Phayre’s langur, found only in Tripura, is taxonomically more unique than other species such as Nilgiri and Golden langur. Given that generating and analysing molecular data is increasingly becoming inexpensive and feasible, more such studies must be taken up.
A real race on an imaginary track?
Conservation needs well-defined benchmarks
In 2005, the country cringed as Sariska—a national park in which India had invested millions of dollars to conserve tigers—failed to find even one of the many tigers it claimed it had. In the wake of this embarrassment, the government reworked its tiger numbers. From around 3,000 tigers claimed to exist in India just months before, the official estimate was revised to an unflattering 1,411.
Why was tiger conservation lost in this maze of numbers? Let us start by asking basic questions about animal numbers and see why they matter.
How do we know that a species is becoming endangered in the wild? Or that an endangered species is responding to conservation efforts? Answers to either question can come only from keeping a careful finger on the pulse of their populations. To do this, it is essential to have a well designed and implemented programme of monitoring the species in question. Such monitoring can tell us how widely the species is distributed, how large its populations are, and how successfully individuals within these populations are surviving, reproducing and dispersing. When such monitoring is repeated in a given area over time, it also becomes possible to see trends in populations, which tell us whether the numbers of a species are declining, holding steady, or growing.
But monitoring populations of a plant or animal in the wild is no easy task. Among the many difficulties, there are two that are unavoidable. First, it may not be possible to survey every place in which a species occurs. Second, it is highly unlikely that every individual of the species can be counted. Given these inevitable constraints, we seldom know the distribution, abundance, survival, reproduction or dispersal of a wild species with complete certainty. What is possible though, is to reliably estimate quantities. By using sound science in monitoring, the conservation status of a wild species can be assessed with fewer biases and greater precision, making it more useful in conservation management.
Yet, in India we have been rather dismal at monitoring our wildlife. To begin with, we lack a reliable and transparent system of tracking our endangered species. The free enterprise of science, which underpins the ability to reliably monitor our wildlife, has never found a welcoming home within the rigid, hierarchy-ridden forest department and has flourished outside it. The chasm between science and management is further deepened, paradoxically, by a well-meaning practice that links park funding to conservation performance.
This system rewards parks that report increases in populations of species like tigers, thereby stigmatising those that report population declines or conservation setbacks. Thus, in the absence of independent verification of claims made by parks, this system provides a perverse incentive for parks to deny—as Sariska did—species declines or management problems.
Not only is this state of affairs not helping our rare and endangered species, it has even begun to hurt our more common species. In the 1990s, within a decade, the numbers of our once-common vultures plummeted by over 97 per cent. But lacking a reliable, nationwide system of monitoring wildlife, we failed to notice these declines until these once-common birds became highly endangered.
Thus, without baseline figures, we will not have a starting point for our conservation efforts; without information on trends, we will have no way of knowing in which direction to move; and finally, without a conservation target (usually a number), we will have no way of knowing if we have crossed the finish line. Our efforts to conserve endangered species—without conservation baselines, trends or targets—are like running a real race with an invisible starting point, track and finish line.
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