Friday, November 27, 2009

Protected Area Update - December 2009

Pasted below is the list of contents and Editorial from the New Issue of the 'Protected Area Update', Vol XV, No. 6 (December 2009) (No. 82).
If you want any specific stories or the entire update as an attachment, please write to me at

Pankaj Sekhsaria
Editor, 'Protected Area Update'
C/o Kalpavriksh

News and Information from protected areas in India and South Asia
Vol. XV No. 6, December 2009 (No.82)
The day of the dolphin

ZSI survey in islands of Rani Jhansi Marine NP

Tourism infrastructure enhanced at Pobitara Wildlife Sanctuary
Spate of wildlife deaths in and around Kaziranga National Park
Human-elephant conflict takes heavy toll along Assam - Bhutan border
Awards given to Assam FD personnel
Joint committees to monitor transmission lines for elephant safety
Two rhino poachers killed in gun battle in Rajiv Gandhi (Orang) NP

Special efforts to prevent dolphin hunting

1550 trees to be cut over seven acres of land adjoining Gir WLS
Maldharis insist on living in Gir; memorandum given to President

38 casualties in boat tragedy in Periyar TR

‘Orientation Programme on Wildlife Conservation’ for Kerala High Court judges

Opposition to religious gathering within Bhimashankar WLS
Trees over 50 hectares to be cut in the Great Indian Bustard WLS
Conservation Reserve status proposed for Mahendri Reserve Forest

Community reserve for pitcher plant conservation in South Garo Hills

Singphan RF declared as Singphan WLS

Oil spill concerns for Gahirmatha
SC notice against Dhamra port
Orissa to constitute State Wetland Management Authority; Integrated -Management Plan for Chilika Lake
Orissa may take the help of traditional elephant catchers from Assam to mitigate man-elephant conflict

Rs 104 crores for relocation of villages from Ranthambhore TR
Great Indian Bustard sighted in Barmer part of Desert NP after 25 years

MoEF says no to neutrino project proposed in Nilgiri BR

UP plans to protect Gangetic Dolphin
2nd phase of rhino introduction planned in Dudhwa TR

Concrete embankments proposed to protect Sunderbans

Two rhinos deaths in Jaldapara WLS; elephant safari stopped

Gangetic Dolphin is National Aquatic Animal

Centre approves cheetah reintroduction roadmap preparation

Ecotone – New newsletter on wildlife and conservation in North East India
Endangered species list under the Biological Diversity Act
National Tiger Conservation Authority reconstituted
NTCA to issue identity cards for tigers; also to use new tool ‘payment of ecosystem services’ for conservation
Zoological Survey of India activities related to protected areas

Nepal Army gears up for anti-poaching drive

Tiger population falls in Myanmar’s Hukuang Tiger Reserve

CEPF Call for Proposals for Western Ghats


National meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC)




It can only be considered an extremely positive and welcome step that the Gangetic River Dolphin has now been notified as the National Aquatic Animal. Not only will this help direct much needed attention to an animal whose fate has been seriously neglected, it will also help focus on the importance of the ecosystems that are home to them – our rivers.
It is ironic that a civilisation that is so dependant, indeed nourished by its rivers is so callous to their plight today. There is hardly any river in the country now, whose natural flow has not been altered by dams and barrages or which has not become a carrier of our municipal and industrial waste. The waters that have been the source of life and nourishment for centuries are, now, almost dead themselves. Needless to say, the fate of the dolphins and a multitude of plant and animal life that depends on these systems is fated to meet the same end. That they are not seen often has not helped matters worse. ‘Out of sight’, in this case, has clearly been a case of ‘out of mind’.
Little, for instance, is known of the biology or even the number of the Gangetic dolphins that survive today. The most optimistic estimates put their number at about 2000, spread over rivers in the Gangetic basin and in the Brahmaputra river system.
The new status of the animal will hopefully change the present situation and if some reports in this issue of the Protected Area Update are some indication, this is already beginning to happen. The states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have almost immediately expressed their intentions (and in some case also taken steps) for dolphin protection and conservation. A further interest in the dolphin has also been spurred in Assam, where the creature has already been the state aquatic animal for over a year now.
What will be crucial is how the intentions are operationalised on the ground, or for that matter in the water. It needs to be borne in mind that some ‘band-aid’ kind of suggestions and solutions (arrest fisherfolk, awareness programs in schools etc) alone will simply not work. The status and fate of our rivers are symptomatic of deep and underlying problems with our development process where damming of rivers, chemicalisation of our agriculture, rapid industrialization and urbanization have been given priority over everything else. More than 168 large dams, for instance, have been planned in the Brahmaputra river basin alone, with little realization that this will change the entire ecological system and adversely impact the dolphin. It is precisely these kinds of developments that are working as a noose around our rivers and the diverse life found in them.
If the dolphin must have it’s day, it is this process that needs a fundamental and serious re-engagement and re-structuring; otherwise declarations that accord national status will amount to nothing more than symbolic lip service. And that as well all know, is not going to achieve anything at all.

Protected Area Update
Vol. XV, No. 6, December 2009 (No. 82)

Editor: Pankaj Sekhsaria
Editorial Assistance: Reshma Jathar
Illustrations: Madhuvanti Anantharajan
Produced by: Kalpavriksh

Ideas, comments, news and information may please be sent to the editorial address:

Apartment 5, Shri Dutta Krupa, 908 Deccan Gymkhana, Pune 411004, Maharashtra, India.
Tel/Fax: 020 – 25654239.

PUBLICATION OF THE PA Update has been supported by

-Foundation for Ecological Security (FES)

-Duleep Mathai Nature Conservation Trust

-Greenpeace India

-Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

-Indian Bird Conservation Network

Information has been sourced from different newspapers and the following websites

Monday, November 9, 2009

Day of the Jackals

Nature meets nurture in a startling and ancient ritual in the black hills of Kutch.


by Pankaj Sekhsaria

The jackals at their cement dining table feed on jaggery-sweetened rice (Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

Located at the very edge of the beautiful and diverse land of Kutch, like sentinels rising high and keeping watch over the haunting landscape, are the Black Hills of Kutch, also known as Kala Dungar. At about 1,500ft, this is also perhaps one of the best places to get a bird’s eye view of the extensive and seemingly endless expanse of the Great Rann of Kutch. For while the Great Rann may be one of the most inhospitable and harsh environments on this planet, from atop Kala Dungar it seems anything but that. What meets the eye is a stunning vista of endless white that extends to the horizon and beyond; white that constantly changes shades with the changing light and moving clouds; white that is sometimes tinged the lightest of pink, then grey and then white again.

“There is no beginning and no end,” Lakshman, our driver and guide, starts off just on his own. Lakhubhai, as he is better known, talks of the creation of the universe, “Brahmand Rachna,” he says, “This is how the universe must have been created—where land merges with the Rann, the Rann with the ocean and the ocean with the horizon, all different and yet seamlessly one thing.”

Views of the Great Rann from atop Kala Dungar
(Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

But continuing along these profound lines would be getting away from the point. It was not the Rann that we had driven to the top of Kala Dungar for. The Rann was only a side show, the main attraction being a daily event here that sounded both bizarre and fascinating when I first heard about it. At the very top of Kala Dungar is an old and much venerated temple of Guru Dattatreya where the wild jackals of the mountainsides are fed sweetened rice every day.

Nobody knows the exact origins of this strange phenomenon, but the most popular legend is related to the compassion of a holy man. According to common folklore the priests here regularly offered food to the jackals. A time came when there was no food to offer and this is when the Pir of Pachchmai, also known as Guru Dattatreya, offered a part of his body to the animals. The tradition of feeding the jackals continues and rice sweetened with jaggery is offered to them twice every day—first around noon and then just a little before dusk. Earlier it was a human call of “le ang, le ang (take my body)” that summoned the jackals; today it is the ringing of the bell that indicates to them that food is on its way—a perfect Pavlovian experiment in the wild.

An important sign on the way
(Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

It is nearing noon and we rush back to the site near the temple where the jackals come to feed. A circular cement platform, about a metre high and three metres across, serves as the dining table for the jackals. The animals are clearly aware and expectant. They emerge tentatively from the scrub forest, running around nervously in ones and twos and then disappearing back into the bushes. But their sense of anticipation is high and evident.

Then the bell starts ringing and a man wearing a white shirt with a simple metal container on his head walks the roughly hundred metres to where the jackals will get their feed. A couple of jackals are trailing him now and more emerge as he stands by the platform, lowers the container and throws out handfuls of the rice.

Harjibhai, the jackal feeder
(Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

There is no restraining them now and in just a moment at least 20 are on top of the platform grabbing every morsel that they possibly can. Some stand and eat, others growl and snatch and still others jump up, snatch a bite and quickly slink away. A couple of persistent crows join the 30-odd jackals in a feast that’s over in less than 10 minutes. The jackals are gone as quickly as they came and the crumbs that remain are now being cleared by an opportunistic mongoose and a couple of stray dogs that have been waiting their chance. It is just another day in the life of the temple authorities, the jackals, the dogs, crows and the mongoose; but for a one-time visitor like me, it is unlike any other day or event I have seen before.

I’m keen to find out a little more and go in search of a saffron-clad swamiji I’d seen on the way up. He seems to be a little high on dope and is not in the least pleased at being disturbed. “Go and meet Harjibhai,” he tells me, “he’ll tell you.” Harjibhai is indeed the right man—the man in the white shirt whose job it is to cook the rice for the jackals and then carry it to them after the bell is rung. He knows little himself, but fills me in with some interesting nuggets.

Fossils, on the way
(Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

He’s been doing this job for three years now and the grain is provided for by a village at the foothills. Every meal for the jackals is eight kilograms of rice cooked with four kilograms of jaggery. He recounts the legend again and then adds a fascinating detail. There are rare occasions, he tells me, when the jackals refuse to accept the offerings made to them. It is an indication that some wrongdoing has occurred in the villages below and that some corrective action is needed. This, he further confirms, is exactly how the situation turns out to be.

Hard to swallow? But then who would have believed that a hilltop exists in a remote corner of Kutch where jackals have been fed sweetened rice since time immemorial.
For more pictures visit:

Monday, November 2, 2009

On the Edible nest swiftlet...

Edible-nest Swiftlet Collocalia fuciphaga: extinction by protection
by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Indian Birds, Vol. 5 No. 4 July–August 2009
Date of publication: 15th October 2009

PROLOGUE: This piece was first written sometime back, in 2004, and with detailed inputs from discussions with Dr. Ravi Sankaran himself. Tragically, Dr. Sankaran passed away in January 2009, after suffering a massive heart attack.
In a very recent development it was reported in August (Selling bird’s nest soup to save this bird: there’s a change in law, Tuesday, Aug 18, 2009 at 0354 hrs New Delhi: that the Edible nest swiftlet had indeed been de-listed raising hopes that the project he had initiated in the Andamans will get a fair chance of being implemented and being successful.

The path to hell, for humans, it is said, is paved with good intentions. For a little bird in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, the Edible-nest Swiftlet Collacalia fuciphaga, the path to extinction, it would seem, too has being paved with similar good intentions. Being listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA), is the ultimate recognition of the endangered status of any creature in India

It also means that the highest degree of protection will be accorded to the species, and this is exactly what has happened in the case of the Edible-nest Swiftlet too. Herein lies the ultimate paradox, and probably the seeds of an unfolding tragedy. At the crux of the matter is the nest of the bird that is made entirely of its own saliva. The final product is a beautiful white ‘half-cup’, roughly six centimeters across with an average weight of 10 gm.
This is indeed a fascinating biological quirk, but one for which the bird has had to pay a heavy price. Since the 16th century, when the nest of the bird is reported to have become an important part of Chinese cuisine and pharmacy, its been heavily exploited across its range. While there is little modern scientific evaluation or validation of the efficacy or efficiency of the nest, consumption has been immense. A TRAFFIC International publication of 1994 estimated that about nine million nests, weighing nearly 76 tonnes, were being imported into China annually. Not surprisingly then, the wholly edible white nest was and continues to be one of the world’s most expensive animal products, pegged sometime back at US $ 2,620¬4,060 per kg in retail markets in the South–east Asian countries.
It is well known that a part of the international trade was being fed by the extraction of nests that takes place from the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, but authentic information only started coming in 1995, when the first studies were initiated by ornithologist, Dr. Ravi Sankaran, of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON). He initiated a laborious and painstaking process of locating the nesting sites and enumerating the nests and birds. Detailed surveys were conducted on the islands between March 1995 and early 1997, where he visited a total of 385 caves (325 in the Andamans). The outcome was two pioneering reports. The first published in 1995 dealt with the Nicobars and the second, in 1998, presented a complete picture of the situation in the entire archipelago.

Sankaran’s studies estimated that the total breeding population on the islands was about 6,700 breeding pairs. He reported that at least 94% of the caves were being exploited for the bird’s nest, and that less than 1% of the breeding population was being allowed to successfully fledge as the nests were being harvested for the market before the nesting could be completed. Sankaran estimated that the Edible-nest Swiftlet had experienced a whopping 80% decline in its population, placing it in the critically threatened category (IUCN criteria A1c). This was primarily due to indiscriminate and unrestricted nest collection from the wild, leading him to the further conclusion that if this was not dealt with urgently the bird would soon be extinct in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
He initially advocated strict protection, but changed his stand when he realised that protection, in the conventional sense, would not work. He also learnt of the ingenious house ranching methods developed by the Indonesians for managing swiftlets.

It was estimated that nearly 65,000 kg of nests were being produced in Indonesia annually, from colonies of the Edible-nest Swiftlet that reside within human habitation: a total of 5.5 million birds and their nests, in houses and rooms of human habitations, optimally managed by humans. “Thus, while swiftlet populations in caves will continue to decline, or become extinct, due to collection pressures,” Sankaran concluded, “the species will survive because there are hundreds of thousands of birds that reside within human habitation, all optimally managed”.
Nest collectors, he started to advocate, would have to be empowered to harvest nests within the rigid framework of strictly scientifically harvesting regimes. This would have to be complimented in the ‘Indonesian way’, with a realistic long-term strategy that would include both in-situ and ex-situ conservation programmes, i.e., house ranching, both based on the economic importance of the species and using this importance to organise local communities to conserve the species.
In 1999, his recommendation took the form of an innovative initiative that was launched jointly by the Wildlife Circle of the Department of Environment and Forests, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and SACON. The final aim of the initiative was to ensure protection of the nests in the wild so that eggs would be available for the house ranching ex situ component. The project took off well. Protection accorded to a complex of 28 caves on Challis Ek in North Andaman Island, and one cave on Interview Island Wildlife Sanctuary, saw over 3,000 chicks being fledged, a growth of over 25% in the population of the swiftlets at these sites. A team of local people, who were earlier nest collectors, were now being motivated towards protection, and subsequently, sustainable harvesting.

Just as phase one was taking off, the law came into the picture, and in October 2003 the Edible-nest Swiftlet was put onto Schedule I of the Wildlife Act. This meant that there could be no activity that involved use of, or trade in the nest of the bird—the primary premise on which Sankaran’s initiative had been based. The entire project was dealt a set back and in spite of continued efforts, over the years, to have the swiftlet removed from Schedule I, it continues to be listed there.
Admittedly there are genuine concerns about the de-listing of a species and the implications of an act of this kind. The biggest fear is of setting a precedent that could be misused by vested interests. In this case however, the recommendations are based on solid, detailed, and pioneering scientific studies of nearly a decade, and were in turn backed with a wealth of international information and experience. “Its more like apiculture,” would be Sankaran’s argument, “where bees are reared for their honey. House ranching of swiftlets cannot be likened to the farming of animals for skin or meat”. The implication of not delisting the bird is that the conservation initiative is bound to fail, while harvesting from the wild would continue unabated. The consequences of this would be the local extinction of the bird in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands—a predicament that was summed up with stunning simplicity by J. C. Daniel of the Bombay Natural History Society. Speaking during the concluding session of the International Seminar to commemorate the centenary Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in Mumbai in November 2003, he spoke of the fate of the Edible-nest Swiflet if corrective action was not taken at the earliest: extinction by protection—the ultimate oxymoron.

You can also visit the following links for pictures of avifauna of the islands including the nest and the habitat of the edible nest swiftlet and Ravi in the field in the islands

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wildlife is on the brink...

The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 01 November 2009

Wildlife is on the brink…


… and it is high time we took a critical look at our conservation realities and policies.

Most that share landscapes with wildlife, for instance, live extremely low impact lives yet they pay the biggest cost for conservation.


Question of survival: Tribal settlements in Orissa’s Simlipal Biosphere Reserve.

If there is one dominating sense about the fate of wildlife in this country, it is that of ‘the end’. The wiping out of the tiger from the Sariska and Panna Tiger Reserves has been headline news; poaching and trading in wildlife parts con tinues unabated; human wildlife conflict — be it with carnivores like leopards or tigers, large mammals like elephants or smaller animals like wild boar, deer or monkeys — is seriously on the rise; lakes, rivers and other wetlands are either being dammed, poisoned or encroached upon; climate change threatens to change the world in an unprecedented manner and as a combined consequence wildlife numbers are dwindling precariously and many species of birds, animals and plants stand dangerously close to the precipice of extinction.

The Forest Rights Act

An important new twist was added to wildlife conservation debates a couple of years ago with the enactment of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The debate over this act has been volatile and the opposition, particularly from a section of wildlife conservationists and former forest officers, has been and continues to be strong. A lot has been written about these concerns and strong affirmation came from a rather unlikely source around a year ago. A report in Newsweek (“India’s missing tigers”, May 5, 2008) took the argument to an unexpected extreme when it argued that ‘democracy and economic development’ were driving the tiger to extinction in India.

Many might actually agree with this articulation, but even a cursory analysis will reveal that the conclusions are as ill-informed as they are short sighted. An entire argument cannot be built on the analysis of and comment on just one piece of recent legislation in the country: the FRA. The law is a recent one and its implementation, if it is happening at all, has just about begun. While fears about forest and wildlife loss may indeed be justified, selectively wiping away history and placing the responsibility for the tiger’s demise at the door of this one legislation and one set of people is not only irresponsible but also can be counter-productive.

Particularly so since because one aspect of India’s conservation history — the role of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — continues to be repeatedly invoked, like in the Newsweek piece. A whole generation of wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists believe, and with good reason, that Indira Gandhi ensured that Indian wildlife still has some hope. She was the architect of critical legislations and frameworks that certainly helped protect wildlife and her personal interest and intervention like in the case of Silent Valley in Kerala ensured that many critical habitats were saved.

It is a legacy we cannot deny or wish away, but we also need to ask whether we can keep hanging on to the past? Our socio-political-economic-cultural realities have changed drastically since her time. It is the same nation and yet it is different . Wildlife conservation today, like anything else, has to be placed within this rapidly changing context. It is crucial to recognise that the same wildlife conservation policies will not succeed today just because they did in a different era. If she were alive today, Mrs. Gandhi would perhaps have agreed.

There is also a whole new ‘post-Indira Gandhi’ generation of wildlife biologists involved in cutting edge research across wild India. Many of their formulations of problems and solutions are extremely nuanced and far more representative of realities on the ground. They need to be asked and they need to be listened to.

Condemning the most vulnerable

It is no one’s case that wildlife conservation is easy. The challenges are immense and no one but the most optimistic will argue that the future for our wildlife is bright and hopeful. However, blaming the poor and the tribal; demanding their displacement to protect wildlife; seeking stricter and military-like protection is the wrong place to start. By doing this we are also ignoring many other realities. Most of the communities that share landscapes with wildlife, for instance, live extremely low impact lives and yet they are made to pay the biggest cost for conservation.

It is also not a coincidence that innumerable people’s agitations across the country today are fighting policies and projects (big dams, large scale mining, increased industrialisation) that predate on the basic survival of forest and land dependant communities. Neither is it a coincidence that many of these are important habitats that support a great diversity of threatened flora and fauna. It is as important that we recognise this overlap as it is for us to recognise that both communities and wildlife are, together, losing this battle. Nothing — be it the laws and the courts, the politicians and the bureaucrats or the media and the wildlife conservationists — are able to help them.

Hope and the FRA

Increased mining across the country, for instance, has been one of the most significant sources of concern for its impact on forests, tribal communities and important wildlife populations. In an ironic twist now, it is being suggested that the FRA might actually be the only hope for preventing mining in forest and wildlife rich areas. Efforts towards this end are already being made in states like Orissa and in particular in the Niyamgiri hills where the Dongaria Kondh Tribal community itself is fighting to save the forests. Additional hope has been kindled following the July 30, 2009 notification of the MoEF stating the forest land diversion for non-forest purposes should ensure compliance with the provisions of the FRA.

In this larger context then, it comes across as completely unfair to argue that rights for the poor, the marginalised and the historically dis-privileged necessarily means the demise of our wildlife? Can we turn the question and wonder if, in fact, “it is not too much democracy but too little of it that lies at the root our wildlife crisis?” That a more empowered people might actually fight better and more successfully? We don’t have the answers today; what we do have is the choice of which question we will ask.

Bauxite prospecting pits on the Galikonda plateau in the Ananthgiri Hills of Andhra Pradesh. Mining is one of the biggest threats to tribal communities, forests and wildlife across large parts of the country (Photo: Pankaj Sekhsaria)