Monday, February 25, 2008

Migrant Watch - First Arrival results

Citizen Science initiative tracks arrival of migratory birds

Press Note: 25 Feb 2008

Volunteers from across the country have banded together to contribute information on the timing of bird migration into India. Individual citizens from places scattered as far between as Pattanur in Kerala, Guda Bishnoian in Rajasthan, and Gangtok in Sikkim have been sending information on the dates on which they first observed a specific set of migratory birds arrive into their areas. This effort, called MigrantWatch, is coordinated by Indian Birds journal and the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. Pooled together, the contributions of more than 150 participants show the arrival of winter migrants from the North, and their spread through the country. Among the findings: Wood Sandpiper, Barn Swallow and Rosy Starling are among the earliest winter migrants to arrive in India (first records in mid-late July), with the first two species spreading quickly south, and Rosy Starling taking considerable time to reach the southern tip of India. Later arrivals into India include Black Redstart (mid August), Greenish Warbler (late August) and Northern Shoveler (early September). This forms valuable baseline information, from which changes in migration timing in coming years can be assessed (such changes are expected to accompany global climate change). These results will be published in the forthcoming issue of Indian Birds journal. A map and a figure illustrating the arrival of Rosy Starlings into India accompany this press note. The entire dataset is available for free download from the MigrantWatch website.

Now the challenge is to record departure dates, as migrant birds return from India to their breeding grounds in the North. For this, volunteers are asked to maintain regular (daily or weekly) records of whether or not they see the nine species. As the weeks pass, it will then be possible to assess the dates of departure of these birds. MigrantWatch is calling for volunteers from any part of the country to participate in this unique and important activity.

Please visit the MigrantWatch website for more information or email MigrantWatch(at)

- Further description of results
- MigrantWatch home page

- This press note plus additional details about MigrantWatch plus high-resolution figures for publication (zip file, 1.6MB).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Great Andamanese in Port Blair

Will this be the fate of all the indigenous communities of these islands?

Great Andamanese begging in Premnagar, Port Blair.

Photo by Zubair Ahmed, The Light of Andamans.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Continuing gharial deaths

Monday, February 4, 2008

More information filtering in from the Etawah base camp of River Watch (a GCA-WWF-India initiative):

Death toll: 95

Available evidence is consistent that it was a single event that caused this die-off of gharial and not a continuing one. Meaning something happened probably months before the first week of Dec that continues to kill gharial, although at a decreasing rate now. There is no indication of infectious disease. So the focus now rests on toxins. It causes the kidney to malfunction resulting in a lethal build up of uric acid in all the joints of the body, a condition known as gout. It is so painful that the animals are unable to move – they cannot even haul themselves out of the water to bask during a time of record low temperatures. Dead animals were covered with algae, a sign that they had not left the water for some time. Members of the team say it is really sad to watch the dying animals as they roll in the water, seemingly unable to float the right way up.

The Chambal flows into the Yamuna most of the year. However, during the monsoon, the Yamuna flows into the Chambal for several kilometres. The toxic poisoning of the relatively clean Chambal could have very well occurred then. A recent colliform count for the Chambal was 21 while that of the Yamuna was 14,000! There was a fish die-off within the last 2 days in the Yamuna.

Along side these indications, there seems to be an enormous ecological upheaval in the making. Tilapia, an invasive fish from Africa, seems to be making visible inroads into the Chambal from the Yamuna. The implications for the fish predators of the Chambal is unknown.

The dead gharial found yesterday was unusual in having no fat deposits and appeared to have not fed for a long time.

Four gharial of the same size class as the dead gharial were captured yesterday in the Ajab Singh Kheda stretch of the Chambal River for detailed veterinary examination.

Over the next few days histopathological reports are expected.

Agencies and Institutes actively collaborating on this:

Forest Departments of UP and MP
Jiwaji University
River Watch (GCA-WWF-India)
Wildlife SOS
Madras Crocodile Bank/Centre for Herpetology

Crocodile tears

Monday , February 04, 2008 at 22 : 59

Curious how the stuff of Animal Planet becomes a mainstream media issue and everyone in the animal kingdom a spokesperson for it.

First, it was the tiger - when the Sariska poaching incident came up, our friends in the media announced doomsday for the big cat. Sorry, even before that it was the elephant - Veerappan and his ivory oligarchy won Jumbo a number of page-one anchors.

And then we forgot about them.

Now, because tigers are so last year and elephants scarcely a blip on the radar, media melancholia has shifted to the knob-nosed, fish-eating crocodilian we know as the Gharial. Before we wait to find out what's behind the mysterious gharial deaths in the National Chambal River Sanctuary, we already have hyper-informed, scoop-hungry television anchors beating their chests in public and writing the ancient reptile's epitaph.

Before you can say Gavialis gangeticus they have flung a daisy chain of jeremiads upon everyone and everything within the finite radius of their imagination: What is the forest department doing? Why is the chief minister silent? Who killed the gharials?

Generic, irrelevant questions that any J-school undergrad with a fleeting idea of the 5Ws and 1H would ask. Irresponsible questions that can unnecessarily politicize matters and skew popular judgment. And what of the issue itself? Why wait to understand it when you can invent it?

So what's really happening?

The Madras Crocodile Bank - founded by Romulus Whitaker, arguably India's leading reptile expert - has announced that there is evidence that toxins are killing off the gharials. Initially, suspicions of an epidemic were high. But now it appears to be clear that a single instance of poisoning has caused all of the 95 gharial deaths reported thus far.

The good news is there is no indication of an infectious disease. Autopsies reveal gout - uric acid build-up in the joints of the animals. Such evidence points to a case of poisoning (the causes are only being unraveled) and not an epidemic. Note: epidemics, such as avian influenza, are highly contagious and spread rapidly from individual to individual.

Nearly every day, the Madras Crocodile Bank publishes an update on its website, uncovering the events and reporting the findings from autopsies of the dead gharials. Their views are corroborated by a team of leading researchers including Samuel Martin of La Ferme aux Crocodiles, France, the only veterinarian experienced in working with gharials.

The team also reports that, contrary to what the media has to say, the much demonized forest departments of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, responsible for the governance of the National Chambal River Sanctuary, have been proactive.

Now contrast all of this with the balderdash that our friends in the media have had us believe over the last few days. First, as always, there was the frenzy to report the scoop. After that had passed, it was a duel of speculation over the facts. Then the usual TRP-motivated charade of lies, damn lies and statistics. And when that too became passé, they drew inspiration from the subject of their story and shed gallons of crocodile tears.

How much has this contributed to the average person's understanding of the gharial crisis? Join the tips of your index finger and thumb for the answer.

Wildlife reporting is something of a new fad with our media. For the longest time, but for a few newspapers and magazines that devoted glossy photo-features to tigers and elephants, no one covered wildlife in any seriousness. Apart from Tehelka and the Indian Express among mainstream media, Sanctuary magazine continues to make the sole difference in reporting wildlife conservation issues. There are any number of newsletters and online discussion groups that keep the fraternity of wildlife enthusiasts in touch with reality.

But a wildlife crisis with political undertones is yummy media fodder, and it takes no time for an OB van to find its way to the remotest location. Here again, as with our staples of cricket or Bollywood, there are stars and underlings.

Tigers are stars, no matter what the wildlife expert Dr. Ullas Karanth says about the cats making a comeback. Vultures, whose numbers fell nearly 97% due to the effects of the livestock antibiotic Diclofenac, are not. Blackbucks are stars, only because they are linked to the shenanigans of certain road-raging, muscle-bound actors. The Gangetic Dolphin, which is being killed off thanks to careless commercial fishing practices, is not. This list doesn't end here but I shall be merciful to you.

The future course of action in the gharial crisis has to do with controlling the pollution levels in the Yamuna, which meets the relatively pristine Chambal at their confluence. There are also indications of an ecological invasion. Tilapia, a fish introduced from Africa, has multiplied in large numbers in the Chambal, threatening indigenous species on which the gharial and other predators have fed for millennia.

If media must report wildlife crises seriously, it must inevitably consider the facts and chase them down. Yes, it is old-school journalism, but that had more to do with unearthing the truth than just looking good muttering it on TV.

If that sounds like too much hard work, journalists are better off chasing the wildlife of our urban jungles

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


What is MigrantWatch?
MigrantWatch is a participatory activity in which volunteers across the country note the arrival and presence of nine bird species that spend the winter in India. No special travel or effort is required other than noting the days on which you observe these species. You can choose between two levels of participation.

What will it accomplish?
Pooling information from volunteers all over the country, we will be able to construct countrywide maps of first arrival dates, regular presence dates, and dates of return migration for each species. The information gathered will be used to investigate the timing and speed of migration; and whether migration times are changing from year to year. A small effort, multiplied by many participants, can lead to huge advances in our knowledge of bird migration!

What does it involve?
Choose one or a few locations (eg, your home, college, or place of work) where you watch birds regularly (eg, daily, weekly, or fortnightly) and make your observations at these locations. For Level 1 (see below), please also send records from places you visit less frequently, or even only once.

You can participate at two levels.
Level 1. Watch for these nine migrant birds and note the date when you first observe each of them in the second half of 2007 at your location(s).
Note: if you join after November 2007, please consider participating at Level 2.

Level 2. Keep a regular (eg, daily or weekly) record from when you join until 30 April 2008 of whether or not you see each of the nine species. If you miss days or weeks during this period, don't worry - you can still contribute information from those days/weeks on which you made observations.

To submit records (at either level), please login.

Click on the photos to the left for identification tips.

What will happen to the data?
All information contributed is sent with the understanding that the compiled data will be freely accessible to all through these web pages (more details). A summary of the results will be published in Indian Birds journal. Our target dates are to make the first arrival results available by January 2008 and the detailed wintering results by May 2008.


Locations of participants

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Etawah (Uttar Pradesh), February 3rd 2008

In a first of its kind conservation effort, the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department in association with NGOs – Gharial Conservation Alliance, Wildlife S.O.S, WWF and a team of international crocodile veterinary experts has successfully captured live Indian Gharials for their urine, blood and joint fluid samples in order to investigate the causes behind the rapid and mysterious deaths of over 90 Critically Endangered Indian Gharials on the Chambal River. This will help establish crucial baseline data on the Indian Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) 800 of which live in the wild in India with the Chambal Sanctuary being their major stronghold.

In 2007, the Indian Gharial became the only crocodile to be re-classified "Critically Endangered" by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The latest IUCN Red List puts the number of breeding adult Gharials in Nepal and India at under 200.

The past two months have seen the unprecedented and shocking death of the Gharials on the Chambal River, while other animals such as marsh (mugger) crocodiles and turtles appear unaffected. The National Chambal Sanctuary is spread across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh and protects a 425 km stretch of the Chambal River. The mortalities have been confined to a 70 km stretch of the Lower Chambal from Etawah to Gwalior. The epicenter of this disaster is near Etawah (Uttar Pradesh), at the confluence of the Yamuna and Chambal rivers.

Post mortem analysis of dead Gharials found ulcerated lesions in the stomach and some inflammation in the intestine. Absence of external injuries rules out accidental death or poaching. Toxicological and pathological examination of the organs of the dead gharials by the IVRI, Bareilly, and ITRC, Lucknow found lead concentrations between 0.7-1.4 ppm. Liver and kidney tissues indicate degenerative changes. Presence of various stages of protozoan parasite was also detected. Autopsies conducted on 4 dead gharials on 27th January, 2008 revealed significant gout – both visceral and articulate. Even the feet and tail joints had uric acid deposits. Gout is indicative of kidney failure as a result of toxic poisoning or disease. However, the gharials seemed in good health condition with fat deposits.

The Min of Environment & Forests, Govt of India set up a 14-member Gharial Crisis Management Group (CMG) consisting of U.P, M.P and Rajasthan forest departments, along with representatives from IVRI (Indian Veterinary Research Institute), ITRC-Lucknow, WII (Wildlife Institute of India) and NGOs like GCA, WWF and Wildlife S.O.S. The CMG had also decided in meetings that regular patrolling of the river shall be done to identify affected animals and if needed live animals would be rescued / captured and treated / observed and samples collected and analysed in the interest of saving the species.

Gharials matching the size and the age of those which had died earlier were captured using three boats and soft nets with minimal stress to the animal in Ajab Singh Kheda stretch of the Chambal River. Upon capture, the animal's eyes were immediately covered to keep the animal calm. A team of experts from GCA, Wildlife S.O.S and WWF along with International Crocodile reptile vets from Hong Kong, South Africa, USA and France conducted detailed veterinary examinations of the captured gharials. GPS locations of each Gharial were noted down and the animals were micro-chipped for future identification.

The team of international crocodile experts includes Dr. Fritz Huchzermeyer (Vice-Chairman of the IUCN-Croc Specialist Group's Veterinary advisory group), Dr. Paolo Martelli (Ocean Parks, Hong Kong), Dr. Brian Stacy (a pathologist from the University of Florida) and Dr. Samuel Martin (Director of La Ferme Aux Crocodiles, France). Other members of the Team were Dr. G. Sudhakar, IFS (DCF-National Chambal Sanctuary Project), Dr. Jitendra Kumar-MP Forest Department, Dr. Kajal Kumar Jadav-Wildlife S.O.S Veterinary Officer, Dr. Anirudh Belsare, Mr. Dohre-Wildlife Warden-Etawah, Shailendra Singh (Madras Crocodile Bank Trust). During the course of patrolling, the forest staff noticed 3 affected animals showing visible symptoms of sickness. These animals were promptly rescued and taken ashore for medical treatment and observation. When they died, detailed post mortems were conducted.

"The death of the gharials is a matter of great concern for the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department. We have conducted post mortems of dead gharials and the analysis of samples from live gharials will give us parameters to compare results of the post mortems with." said Mr. D.N.S Suman, Chief Wildlife Warden, Uttar Pradesh.

Romulus Whitaker, Managing Trustee - MCBT and Chairman, GCA said, "This joint operation marks a significant step forward in ascertaining the causes behind the Gharial deaths and ensuring the survival of this Critically Endangered species."

"Not only do we hope to get to the bottom of the Gharial deaths, we are also creating a database on the Indian Gharial which will be crucial for the long term conservation of the species in its natural habitat,'' said Kartick Satyanarayan, Co-founder, Wildlife S.O.S.

For more information and pictures, please contact:

Vasudha Mehta

Communications Officer,

Wildlife S.O.S

Mobile: 09837099719


Head Quarters:
Wildlife S.O.S
D 210, Defence Colony
New Delhi 110024, India
Phone: 011-24651440
Fax: 011-41550480

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Gharial Crisis

Friday, February 1, 2008

Death toll: 93

On the 27th January Brian Stacy, a pathologist from the University of Florida and Aniruddha Belsare, the GCA veterinarian along with experts from other agencies and institutes such as IVRI, Wildlife SOS and Forest Department conducted 4 autopsies and found significant gout – both visceral and articulate. Even the finger joints and tail joints had uric acid deposits. However, the animals seemed in good condition with a lot of fat. This suggests kidney failure as a result of toxic poisoning or disease. A couple of days later a fresh kidney sample was obtained for further analysis. Results are awaited.

To digress a bit – the massive die-off of vultures in India was also a result of gout. It took a few years to pinpoint the cause as diclofenac, a commonly used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used on livestock. No other animal or bird in these areas was noticeably affected by diclofenac as the vultures were.

Rom remembered that an adult female gharial had died at the London Zoo as a result of gout and nephritis in the 1970s. The registrar of the zoo in looking for the full post mortem report in their archives

In the meantime, Fritz Huchzermeyer (Vice-Chairman of the IUCN-Croc Specialist Group’s Veterinary advisory group, and Paolo Martelli (Ocean Parks, Hong Kong) have also joined the team and more autopsies confirmed the same diagnosis: gout. Fritz also diagnosed possible osteoporosis which he said indicated a population suffering from stress. Communication channels have been opened with diclofenac specialists who worked on vultures to share methodology, testing procedures, etc. Avenues of investigation include a diclofenac type of toxin that targets a specific species, or it could be something totally new that we haven’t even thought of yet.

According to the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department autopsy records, about 60% of the dead gharials were male, approx. 21% were females and about 18% unknown (probably because the carcasses were too decomposed). We do not know if this indicates that males are particularly vulnerable to poisoning or whether they form a larger proportion of the population. The affected animals range from 160 to 410 cm in length, the average being 250 cm.

Samuel Martin of La Ferme aux Crocodiles, France joined the team today. He’s the only vet with prior gharial experience having worked on the conservation project in Nepal.

Also see