Published: Friday 15 April 2005

Missing census

As a member of a research project, the Economics of Biodiversity Conservation in the Western Ghats, I tried to collect wildlife census data ('Time to tell the truth, again', Down To Earth, March 15, 2005). Despite a personal visit to the Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala at Thiruvanathapuram, the data was not given to me although wildlife census data is not classified information. It was only after several letters and reminders that the data was sent to me.

According to the communication (dated 06-09-2002) from the Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Kerala, 76 tigers were reported in the 1993 census and 73 tigers in the 1997 census. As for earlier years, there was no record. However, in the information furnished to the Rajya Sabha, the number of tigers in Kerala as listed in the 1979 census was 134. It came down to 89 tigers in 1984, 45 in 1989 and 57 tigers in the 1993 census (not 76 tigers as sent to me).

This means that between 1979 and 1993, the population of tigers in Kerala was almost halved. So in omitting the earlier data, the state forest department had tried to cover up the fact that the tiger population in Kerala state declined substantially despite conservation efforts and funds being spent.

Likewise, the 1993 census puts the estimated population of Malabar giant squirrels at 1384. But in the 1997 census, their numbers go up to 63, 474; forty six times higher in a space of four years!

Leave alone the veracity of the figures, how the wildlife census officials recorded and estimated Malabar giant squirrels in the tropical forest is a mystery. The population of the Nilgiri langur, another endangered species, was similarly estimated at 2987 in 1993 and by 1997, their population had gone up almost eightfold to 24, 809.

My experience in obtaining wildlife census data from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department was no better. Illegible data on the 1997-98 wildlife census data was shared with me, while for earlier census years, I was told the data was non-traceable. A Karnataka state forest official in charge of an important tiger reserve, whom I interviewed in 2004, was honest enough to admit that if one were to see how the wildlife census data was actually being collected and recorded, nobody would believe in the findings.

This speaks adequately about the reliability and credibility of the wildlife census data in India. It's obvious that wildlife officials are just cooking up the data in order to present a rosy picture of the wildlife situation in India, to avoid inconvenient questions in Parliament and in the public domain. Not to forget, the enormous funds from international donor agencies that are invested in wildlife conservation in India.

Experts and representatives of civil society, especially environmentalists, should be involved in the actual collection of wildlife census data so that the process can be more transparent. In addition to the usual methods, we should also employ simple encounter methods like talking to local communities living within and near forests.

K N Ninan

Shocking and sad

This report on tigers in Sariska confirms once again, that for personal greed, government officials can go to the extent of killing tigers, the rarest species on earth. My own experience of visiting 147 Joint Forest Management villages in Andhra Pradesh was as appalling.

These greedy forest department officials will devour even the remaining forest reserves. So it's up to us to collectively try to improve the governance system of natural resources. The authorities must also be made accountable and enforce rules strictly. The media and politicians are equally responsible for this sorry state of affairs.

Bhagirath Behera

Ban the visitors

According to you, the truth behind the vanishing tigers is the feeble intellect and the narrow social base of the wildlife community. Before the sanctuaries were made and the tigers protected, did the local people think or feel about tiger protection? Now, after thousands of tigers have been killed with their help, you're suggesting that they be made the custodians of the forests.

Sariska's no-tiger status is a result of human activity deep inside the sanctuary and its periphery. The notion of tigers and human beings co-existing is a misnomer today, considering that the tiger population has dwindled, while the human population in and around the sanctuaries has gone up.

Why experiment on a vanishing species when the best solution is already available at hand? Sanctuaries are meant for animals alone. The time has come to turn them into intensive care units (icus) for wild animals and completely isolate them. No locals, no cattle, no tourists, no ministers. People can manage without depending on the sanctuaries, but the animals cannot. Let's leave them in whatever peace that's possible.

Ranjeet Patnaik

Any which way is genetic

Brown cotton is a fantastic feat ('Natural resplendence', Down To Earth, February 28, 2005) in the sense that it earns 25 per cent more than regular cotton and the group also has plans to develop blue cotton. But "inserting genes" sounds like genetic modification to me, and coloured cotton like the derided gm (pun intended). Manu Kulkarni says all these varieties are untainted by biotechnology, as if the precise art of gene splicing is the problem. But B M Khadi is doing a wonderful job with this project and hopefully, farmers will see his cotton soon.

Tom Nash's work is also laudable ('Mighty Millet', Down To Earth, February 28, 2005). The hybrid developed by International Crops Research Institute (icrisat), is resistant to downy mildew (dm), a scourge of cereals.

Once again, the gene for downy mildew resistance was 'added' (sounds like 'inserted' to me), using marker assisted technology. The genes were tagged with slices of dna to track it through downward lineage in subsequent breeding programs. This should make farmers in Haryana and Rajasthan happy, but dna tagging is nothing but biotechnology and the new hybrid pearl millet seems like a gm product to me.

The point is that when similar feats are achieved using recombinant dna technology, these varieties have to be tested for bio safety, impacts on biodiversity and the environment, besides food safety. But if the same success is achieved by similar techniques, they are not considered gm s and hence are not regulated. So different standards are applied to similar products based on the production method used, even if they yield the same result. In both cases, the crops are genetically modified. It's time we realised that all our food is genetically modified and always has been.

Shanthu Shantharam
Biologistics International
Ellicott City, MD 21042


The preview of the video, 'More Men In Black' ('Look, Oil', Down To Earth , March 31, 2005) inadvertently named Prasar Bharti as the producer. It should have been Public Service Broadcasting Trust ( psbt ). The error is regretted. ...

Pick of the postbag

Carbon fuels are taxing
If diesel (high-sulphur?) is so polluting, ('A little green thought', Down To Earth, February 15, 2005), why is it priced so much below petrol? There are two distinct issues here. Consumers won't select fuels idealistically, but on the basis of price. So the better fuel should be made price-sustainable too.

Secondly, people globally must go low- co2. So low- co2 energy options (solar heating and cooling, biofuels, high-efficiency energy conversion, perhaps even nuclear energy) must become financially viable. So again, all the carbon fuels must be priced such that low-carbon sources and economising carbon become viable. Subsidising low-carbon sources is a drain on tax revenue, costly and complex to administer and its effectiveness is uncertain.

A better option would be to tax all carbon fuels worldwide and make them more expensive to give low-carbon a chance, while "over-revenue" is collected. If that is redistributed to citizens without linking it to individual energy use, the effect of higher prices on energy mode switching will be unaltered, but income effects on individuals will be reduced.

This can reduce resistance to carbon tax. Tax over-revenues could also be redistributed as income to the poor. An Asian leader like India and its path to "energy pricing for sustainability" is worth watching.

Even globally, the idea is technically simple to implement. The financial flow from the carbon-profligate to the carbon-lean (rich to poor) could exceed the present flow of funds for "development assistance". This shift from taxing income and profits to taxing combustion of carbon for energy, can be beneficial, with no change in general tax level. It's one of the best ways of moving towards sustainability.

Eric Ferguson van Reenenweg
Zeist, Netherlands...

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