Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Leopards of Akole - 5

This if the final of a five part series on the Leopards of Akole in the Akole Taluka of the Ahmednagar District of Western Maharashtra

The earlier stories can be read at:
1) Man-Animal Row: Study holds vital clues
2) Akole's leopards have hardly jumped humans
3) How did the leopards get to Akole?
4) Conflict in Junnar is due to relocation


UNDERSTANDING AKOLE'S UNUSUAL PHENOMENON
by Pankaj Sekhsaria

epaper.dna.net (Pune edition), February 20, 2009, Page 5

Vidya Athreya is the principal investigator of the ongoing project to study and understand the presence of leopards and their behaviour in human-dominated agricultural landscapes of western Maharashtra. Akole taluka in Ahmednagar district is the present field site of her project that has been going on for over two years. These are excerpts from an interview discussing various dimensions and challenges of her work.

Vidya Athreya (on the right) talking to farmers in Akole to understand their perceptions of the leopards in their farmlands (Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

How did you get interested in studying the leopards of western Maharashtra?
It began in 2003 when we moved to the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope campus of the National Centre for Radio Astronomy in Narayangaon. My husband, Ramana Athreya is an astronomer. This region was most affected by the leopard human conflict. There were attacks every two weeks. Many leopards that were captured had not actually attacked humans, but had been sighted or had killed livestock. I was fascinated and keen to understand how these big cats lived in croplands, close to human settlements without any significant problems.

Your biggest challenges in your research
On the field, it is the large number of people you have to deal with. A lot of time and energy is spent talking to people and explaining what we are doing. I have also been lucky to get support from the forest department, both at the state and the local level. Project supervisors Ulhas Karanth and Sukumar have also given me complete freedom in my work. The biggest challenge has been to get the media interested. A leopard living without attacking people is not what many want to write about. They are interested in writing about it when there is a problem. This is perhaps, causing the greatest harm to the conservation of this species.

What are the larger lessons?
There are three important ones:
Significant wildlife exists outside our sanctuaries and national parks (protected areas); we have a very unique situation in India where local people are still extremely tolerant of wildlife in their surroundings and conservation in India is viewed entirely through a protected area lens.
Now the conservation community has to start working with the local people. Also their tolerance is diminishing rapidly due to many factors and it would end up being a great loss.
We have no clue that so much wildlife exists outside protected areas and management decisions are generally inappropriate for these non-protected areas or non-forest areas.

Your experience with the local people
I have thoroughly enjoyed my work. The India I knew seems so disconnected from rural India. Yet one can sit in their house, chat about things and have a cup of tea. That has been amazing. The other thing is how politically powerful rural India is compared to urban areas (with the exception of Delhi, perhaps) and how politicians use all kinds of means to get their votes. That has been an eye-opener

Insights from interacting with local people
A lady told me that she had been seeing me coming regularly for my camera trapping work and was interested in the animals and had grown curious about the leopards herself. But, she said, she did feel occasionally scared as she had a little son.
Now, I knew that there was a leopard moving around in the vicinity as I had seen pugmarks just behind her house. I almost could not sleep that night wondering what would happen if the boy was attacked
Vidya explaining the workings of the camera trap to gathering of village children (Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria

Your family's reactions
The toughest part has been leaving behind my eight-year-old daughter to go out into the field. But both she and my husband have been remarkably supportive and I am grateful to them. My daughter asked me why leopards do not attack people who are studying them.

Any particular challenges
The biggest challenges have been from a few male colleagues who appreciate what I am doing, but cannot handle the fact that a woman is doing this, doing it well and alone. That I have to face this in this day and age, although not surprising in our intrinsically conservative male dominated society, rankles.

The response from government agencies
The forest department has been of great help from the beginning. Be it the local staff or the senior officers, they have been very appreciative and have always shown great interest.

Your next step in studying the leopards
One of the biggest tasks before me is to educate farmers, local and state-level media, urban public, managers and policy makers about the complexities. We want to use global positioning system collars on the leopards to see how close they come to humans. We know they have many opportunities to attack, but don't and we want to understand this better.

Contact Vidya Athreya: Email: phatrosie@gmail.com


Three leopard safaris for state

The Central Zoo Authority (CZA) has approved a proposal of the Maharashtra State Government for setting up leopard safaris in three different parts of the state. These are to come up near Belwandi in Ahmednagar district, at Manikdoh in Pune district and at Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai.
60 leopards captured from various parts of the state will be rehabilitated in the safaris, the first of which will come up in the Ahmednagar district. The state government expects to spend Rs. 10 crores for the establishment of these safaris.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The leopards of Akole - 4

CONFLICT IN JUNNAR IS DUE TO RELOCATION
Moving the leopards away from their home is the very root of the problem it seeks to solve

BY
Pankaj Sekhsaria
epaper.dna.net (Pune Edition), February 19, 2009, Page 5

To understand the serious incidents in Junnar involving big cats attacking humans, we need to go back to 2003. It was the time when the human-leopard conflict had peaked.

Leopards were being captured in cages in an effort to deal with the problem. Trapping leopards has, for long, been the main response to deal with a conflict situation. It is also one way of showing that action is indeed being taken. This becomes particularly relevant when there are human attacks and demand from the public, the politicians and the media to do something mounts. It happened in Junnar and continues to happen in a number of other places too.
The recent case of shooting down the wrong tiger in Tadoba Tiger Reserve is a classic case of wrong decisions being taken under intense media glare and political pressure.
As far as Junnar is concerned, a team of researchers that included Vidya Athreya and Pune-based veterinarian Anirudh Belsare had started working on getting a scientific understanding of the cause of the increased conflict.
A part of their effort was to mark and electronically tag these problem animals. This was done by inserting a small rice grain sized chip at the point where the animals' tails are attached to the body. The chips are uniquely numbered and can be read like a barcode is in the supermarket. Since captured leopards at that point were being released into other areas with potentially thick forests, it was hoped that the tagging exercise would help in tracking them once they were set free.

The microchip being inserted into the body of a tranquilised leopard (Pic: Vidya Athreya)

A microchip amidst grains of rice gives an idea of its size (Pic: Vidya Athreya)

A number of these tagged leopards were moved 400 km to the Yawal wildlife sanctuary in Jalgaon district like they were to other parts of the state. They were subsequently released into these forests.
Yawal's forests have always had leopards but there were never any reports of attacks on humans. There was surprise and huge fear then, when villages in and around the forests, experienced a sudden and vicious spate of leopard attacks towards the end of 2003.

The female leopard that was caught in Yaval (Pic: Vidya Athreya)

A girl that was attacked by a leopard in Yaval (Pic: Vidya Athreya)

The two-month period stretching from October 31 to December 24 saw six attacks in a region that had absolutely no such history. The attacks stopped only when trap cages were put in place and two leopards were caught. What was striking about both these leopards, one male, the other female, was that these were Junnar leopards that had been released here just a few weeks ago. The chips inserted before their release had confirmed this fact. Movement of captured leopards from the area of conflict had in fact helped move the conflict to the new areas and significantly, to where it had never existed. This was not an isolated case.

Junnar and Yaval. The star shows the point about 70 kms from Yaval towards Junnar where the released leopard was recaptured (Pic: Vidya Athreya)

It was becoming increasingly clear that the huge problem of human-leopard conflict that seemed to be spreading all over was essentially, a human created one. Athreya wrote almost immediately to the chief wildlife warden of the state that they were now certain that nearly all the cases of conflict and attack on humans that had occurred across the state from 2001 to 2004 were indeed due to the translocation that had preceded them.
Translocation which was being considered a simple answer and in use all over India, in fact, lay at the very root of the problem it sought to solve. It is only with the benefit of hindsight, we can now say we should have been more careful. Hopefully, the lessons have been learnt and the same mistakes will not be made again. There certainly are other contributory factors, some known and others that have still to be uncovered, but one key causative factor has certainly been understood. The earlier work that led to critical understanding of the problem in Junnar is an excellent example of that, as is the present effort at understanding the leopards of Akole and its behaviour.
We might not know all the causes that could push the Akole situation in a Junnar- like direction; but we can now say with confidence that we know of at least a critical few. The least we should ensure is that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past.

Tomorrow: Interview with Vidya Athreya

Box 1
Wrong tiger was killed

In a recent response to an application filed under the Right to Information Act (RTI), the Maharashtra Forest Department (FD) admitted that the wrong tiger was killed as a man-eater in the Tadoba forests in 2007.
The FD reply stated that it had acted in haste under political pressure and points to letters it received from local politicians who had threatened to agitate and even kill the man-eater themselves.
Villagers had complained in October 2007 that a tigress was killing people and cattle in and around the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. The FD began a hunt in November but failed to capture the animal. Local politicians then turned up the heat. During a subsequent operation, the officials sighted a tiger eating its kill. The team fired 39 bullets, of which 12 had hit the mark.


Box 2
Conflict moved
A small boy was attacked in the Radhanagari WLS in Kolhapur district in February 2004 by a leopard. The leopard suffered a serious injury (broken skull) when it was assaulted by the father in defense of his child. The animal was trapped by the Forest Department and was identified by its chip as the female that had been captured in Narayangaon (Pune District) in March 2003 and released in the Radhanagari forests a year later in February 2004. The attack had occurred a day after she had been released and less than 5 km from her release site.
Similarly another individual that was caught in Sangamner and inserted with a chip was released in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park only to be recaptured in a Thane marriage hall a few weeks later.

Box 3
Animals Return
It is now well known that large carnivores like bears, leopards and tigers have a very strong homing tendency and they instinctively try to return to the area that they had been moved from. There are instances of the cougars, a leopard sized wild cat found on the American continent, having traveled over 400 kms back to their site of capture to resume livestock depredation. Closer home, a ‘problem leopard’ caught 120 km away and released inside the Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka in 1990 had immediately moved out of the park. Another ‘problem leopard’ captured in Gujarat and translocated 30 kms away was fitted with a radio collar. It was found to immediately return to its earlier territory and resume livestock depredation. Even the Yawal leopard had moved nearly 90 kms in the direction of Junnar from the site of her release in side the Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary before she was captured the second time
----

The other stories that are part of the series can be seen at

1) Man-Animal Row: Study holds vital clues
2) Akole's leopards have hardly jumped humans
3) How did the leopards get to Akole?
4) Conflict in Junnar is due to relocation
5) Understanding Akole's unusual phenomenon

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The leopards of Akole - Part 3

This is the 3rd of the five part series on the leopards of Akole.

HOW DID THE LEOPARDS GET TO AKOLE

Leopards were always here. The sugarcane crop is a good breeding and hiding ground for the big cats

PANKAJ SEKHSARIA
epaper.dna.com (Pune Edition), February 18, 2009, Page 5

There is one big question that seems to lie at the very root of this entire issue. How did the leopard get into a primarily agricultural landscape with a big human population like Akole? The answer is as unexpected as the question is obvious. The leopards were always there, the only change being that their numbers may have increased over the years.
Several related factors can explain the rather sharp rise of leopard numbers in these parts of western Maharashtra and the many cases of conflict. The most important dimension, perhaps is the change in land use across this belt. Leopards were always found here, though records indicate that the dominant predator here was the wolf, an animal that essentially dominates scrub forest and open grassland regions.
Increase in area under agriculture has pushed the wolf to the margins and the spread of sugarcane created an ideal situation for the leopard to establish itself and spread its presence. The height of the sugarcane and the fact that it is a long duration crop (11 months) allows these fields to become good breeding and hiding grounds for big cats like the leopard and even the tiger. There have been reports in recent times, for instance, of tigresses giving birth in sugarcane fields adjoining forests in the Terai regions of Uttar Pradesh.

Personnel from the Forest Department noting the details of a leopard attack on a goat in the Malizhap village in Aloke Taluka (Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

With no competition and easy prey available in the form of stray dogs, cattle, pigs and chicken among others it is not surprising that the leopard spread and established itself strongly across large parts of Akole taluka. In the initial years however, locals point out, that the numbers were neverlarge and sightings were very occasional, even rare.
Goats form an important part of the diets of leopards here and local residents have now started taking special care to protect their animals (Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

According to Ashok Ghule, a local farmer and employee of the forest department, the situation changed noticeably around 2003. This is when attacks on dogs and other domestic animals experienced an increase and locals also started reporting leopards regularly and in a manner that had never happened in the past. The leopard had clearly established itself and if anything Athreya's camera trapping project has provided irrefutable proof of what was a well-known reality.

There is another crucial element that Athreya brings into the discussion. "It is important to note,'' she points out, "that India is the only country in the world where high densities of people (more than 300 per sq. km on the average) and the highest livestock density in the world share their spaces with carnivores. We have still retained all (58 species in all, 14 species more than 10 kg and which can potentially be dangerous to humans) except the cheetah. Total elimination was never part of our culture."

A large number of locals come across as extremely tolerant towards the animal. While they worry and want their security, they are not demanding it at the cost of the leopard. "The tribal communities in the area are the most tolerant. The leopards, they say, are like the wind in the forest. Let them be. They also need food. Let them have it," said Ghule.
It is this ethic that needs to be examined more carefully and might have a partial explanation for the relatively successful co-existence that one sees in Akole. The comparison, even contradiction this is bound to immediately throw up, however, is the situation in neighbouring Junnar.
The conflict that peaked here in 2003 hit national headlines. Close to 50 people were attacked or killed by leopards in two years, and more than 100 leopards were captured for permanent incarceration from a landscape that was very similar to an Akole today.
The project research team visits a site in Ambad village where a goat had reportedly been picked up by a leopard the earlier day (Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

If this happened in Junnar just a few years ago, why can it not happen in Akole in the near future. The answer is a difficult one to give, but one step might be to reverse the question. If nothing unsavoury has happened in Akole for so many years, why did Junnar suffer so badly just a few years ago. There must be more than that which meets the eye.

Tomorrow: Why is Junnar a conflict zone?

Box 1
The changing landscape of Akole Taluka:

The last two-three decades has seen significant change in cropping patterns, thanks mainly to the availability of more water. A dry and arid landscape that supported only marginal and rainfed agriculture has changed drastically with the digging of more bore-wells, installation of pump sets and commissioning of lift irrigation schemes.
A region that could only grow less water intensive crops like Bajra, harbara and wheat now has a huge output of water guzzling crops like vegetables, flowers and importantly sugarcane. Availability of electricity and diesel to lift water has been an important contributor. “Take the example of Takli itself,” says Ashok Ghule, farmer and resident of Takli village. “In the early 70s,” he points out, “Takli did not have more than 10 pumps to pull up water. Now this village alone has at least 500. There has been a three times increase in agricultural land in Akole taluka in the last twenty years,” he adds, “and sugarcane too has increased significantly.” An important catalyst for this was the setting up in 1991 Of the Agasti Co-operative Sugar in Akole town. The demand for sugarcane increased and area under this low maintenance and high returns crop also increased over time.

Box 2: Leopard attacks in different parts of Maharashtra: 2001-2004

This included eight cases in Chalisgaon in Jalgaon district (– September to December 2004); the 50 and more very well publicized cases in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai (May to August 2004); the killing of one girl in Chinchkhed in Nashik district in August 2004; the death of another child in the Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary in Kolhapur district in February 2004; the six attacks in Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary and the nearly 50 cases that occurred in the Junnar Forest Division between 2001 and 2003.

--------

The other stories that are part of the series can be seen at
1) Man-Animal Row: Study holds vital clues
2) Akole's leopards have hardly jumped humans
3) How did the leopards get to Akole?
4) Conflict in Junnar is due to relocation
5) Understanding Akole's unusual phenomenon

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The leopards of Akole - Part 2

This is the 2nd part of the five part series on the Leopards of Akole
---
AKOLE'S LEOPARDS HAVE HARDLY JUMPED HUMANS

THE Beasts walk past their homes to kill goats and bring up cubs in the fields, but have not attacked villagers

(The leopards of Akole - 2)
epaper.dna.com (Pune Edition), February 17, 2009

by
Pankaj Sekhsaria

Leopards are present in several parts of Akole taluka. There are regular, though fleeting sightings of the cats. Goats and dogs are regularly picked up and pugmarks are easy to spot.
But beyond the obvious, there is a complete lack of knowledge, information and understanding. Nobody really knows how many leopards are actually present, their behaviour pattern, their territory and their movements.

These questions were part of an innovative field biology project to study the leopard in Akole. Supported by Kaati Trust, Pune, the Centre for Wildlife Studies and Centre for Ecological Sciences from Bangalore and the state forest department, the study has been going on for over two years. The first key results are beginning to emerge. "The initial challenge, has been to get a definite knowhow on leopard numbers in the 300 sq km of research area," says team member Athreya. It began with rigorous surveys of the region on foot and by road to get a basic assessment of the landscape and an idea of the areas and pathways most likely to be used by the animals. Satellite imageries and Google maps were also used to fine-tune the exercise.
This was then followed by extensive collection of scats for DNA studies. The analysis at a laboratory in Bangalore will give an idea of the numbers of leopards and importantly of the composition of its prey base.
Another important part of the study has been an intensive camera trapping exercise where self-triggered cameras were deployed to get the pictures of the desired animals. Twenty pairs of cameras were installed for a period of about 15 days in an area of about 70 sq km followed by their relocation to an adjoining block for another fortnight.
The cameras were installed in carefully identified spots just before Diwali and it was around Christmas that the exercise was finally completed. A lot depended on this exercise and the research team could not have asked for a better new year's gift.

Self triggered camera traps were set up across the landscape to get photographs of the leopards
(Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

The cameras had clicked pictures of 14 different leopards - five adult males, five adult females and four cubs. While a statistical analysis is now being undertaken to get a realistic estimate, it is clear from the sheer number of animals photographed that the leopard population here is indeed large.
Taken beyond the confines of the immediate context, the Akole scenario throws up critical challenges to our notion of large carnivore biology and behaviour and the very controversial and emotional subject of man-wildlife conflict.
The leopards of Akole have lived in close proximity to the humans for at least a decade. They regularly walk past their houses, pick up goats from sheds adjoining the homes and give birth and bring up their families in fields only a few meters away. Yet, there have been no attacks on humans and no strident calls for killing or removal of the big cats either.
The information and the insights being thrown up now, could not only force us to change our understanding of leopard behaviour. In understanding what is actually happening, it may equip us better to deal with problem situations that may arise in the future. A large part of what we believe is our understanding of the leopard, the causes of conflict or the solutions that we have tried to apply, have in fact been based on perceptions and opinions. Wrong decisions often therefore get taken for right reasons and the value of and need for good science becomes all the more relevant in such a context.

A typical cattle shed that can be seen in the villages of Akole Taluka. In the background are the sugarcane fields that are favoured by leopards (Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)


A goatherd takes his goats along. Goats and dogs form an important part of the diet of the leopards of Akole
(Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

Tomorrow: How did the leopards get to Akole

Box 1
Locating Akole in a national context

While the Akole situation seems rather unprecedented and unbelievable, the reality across large parts of the Indian subcontinent actually confirms that Akole may not be an isolated case. For long we’ve believed in India that wildlife (even of the big and dangerous kind) lives only in forests and that is where they should be restricted. A whole range of wild animals like elephants, leopards, wolves, hyena not to speak of reptiles and avi-fauna are found outside areas designated as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks for their protection. Wildlife research, protection, conservation and management thinking in India, however, has continued to be limited to just these pockets. The reality clearly is far more graded and complex and this needs to be factored in.
Reports of human-leopard conflict, for instance, are regularly received from places as far apart as Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. A significant percentage of of India’s wild elephant population too exists outside the protected area network and the same would apply in large or small measure for a number of such threatened species of flora and fauna.
There is clearly a need for a more comprehensive and wholistic perspective if conservation is to succeed. What the Akole situation is asking us to do is to urgently look outside and look at a much larger landscape.

Box 2
In their backyards

The leopard (see pic) was a female who was photographed when she came to the area to feed on a cow that was thrown by a farmer after it had died due to electrocution. This female had come with two of her cubs and a short while later, another younger female (also with two cubs) was photographed at the same spot.
Pic: Vidya Athreya

Both these females were then photographed a few days later by cameras at completely different locations, roughly four kms in opposite directions.
In another case, half an hour after a female leopard had been photographed by a camera trap, another picture was taken - this time of a woman who was headed in the same direction.
It is an excellent example of the close proximity of the leopards and humans here.
---
The other stories that are part of the series can be seen at
1) Man-Animal Row: Study holds vital clues
2) Akole's leopards have hardly jumped humans
3) How did the leopards get to Akole?
4) Conflict in Junnar is due to relocation
5) Understanding Akole's unusual phenomenon

Monday, February 16, 2009

Is it really tiger vs tribal?

Is it really tiger vs tribal?

By Pankaj Sekhsaria

In reporting on environment, why does the media always present the conflict in black and white --tribal versus tiger, trees versus wider roads? These are fundamental questions, because it is the media that plays a key role in setting debates and deciding both the frame and the outcome

http://infochangeindia.org/Agenda/Reporting-conflict/Is-it-really-tiger-vs-tribal.html

For more than two years now, discussions on wildlife conservation, forest protection and tribal rights in India have centred around what is now the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act that came into force in January 2007. The Act seeks to correct the historical injustices committed in denying, even snatching away, traditional rights and forest lands from tribal communities across the country, and has found huge support from tribal and human rights activists and prominent sections of the political setup. It has, at the same time, come in for serious criticism, particularly from one section of wildlife conservationists and forest officials who argue that implementing the Act will drive the final nail into the coffin of India’s already threatened forests and wildlife.

The debates on these issues have been acrimonious, to say the least. Not surprisingly, they managed to garner considerable newsprint. In the English mainstream press, for instance, editorial positions were well defined, sometimes aggressively so.

Nothing illustrates this better than the opposition to the Act articulated in the Indian Express. The paper carried a series of editorial pieces in the middle of 2006 that vehemently argued against the provisions of what was then still a Bill. The general argument was that the Tribal Bill (as it came to be known) should be jettisoned as it was not in the interests of the country’s forests and wildlife.

It was surprising therefore that the newspaper agreed to publish an opinion piece by me that went against its line of argument. It was my contention that the proposed legislation was not the disaster it was being made out to be, and that, importantly, discussions on its provisions needed to be far more balanced and nuanced. ‘Balance needed in the Tribal Bill discussion’ was how I titled the piece I submitted for publication.

The title my article finally appeared under was drastically different and could only be called ‘eye-catching’. ‘It needn’t be tigers vs tribals’; the original title, admittedly, was drab in comparison.

That set me thinking. It was not how I had seen the issue. It had not been my intention to position the tiger and the tribal in a ‘vs’ kind of situation. I had wanted to move away from precisely this, and the tiger, in any case, had found only one passing mention in the entire piece of over 1,000 words. Was it the work of a creative sub-editor? Phonetically, tribal and tiger certainly do sound nice together.

Perhaps journalism demands clear and starkly polarised conflict to make it attractive. And where better to put that conflict than in the title? Or was it something else? Was it a statement more about those articulating the debate (me included) and less about the real situation on the ground? Do we do this because it helps to effectively push the issue into a domain that we are not part of, isolating and sanitising us from the responsibility of what happens or doesn’t happen?

Every problem has its visible and proximate reasons. The obvious ones are the poor tribal killing a wild animal to feed his family; a farmer committing suicide because his crop failed; cities losing trees because there is not enough road width to carry the increasing number of vehicles. But what we also know is that these are mere symptoms. The malaise lies deep and some place else. The underlying causes, the root of the problem that’s not visible. These are the real drivers.

Is the tiger really posited so obviously against the tribal? Are they really threatening each other so squarely? Or is this articulation a function of the reality that English newspapers, their contributors and their editors exist in?

These are fundamental questions because the media, we all know, plays a key role in setting debates, contextualising them and, in many cases, deciding both the frame and the outcome. When the problem gets articulated as that of tribal against tiger, there’s little space left to look at a number of other issues, be they economic policy, the political set-up, or social situations that play a significant role.

The issue of tiger (and by extension wildlife) conservation in India has, over the years, been pushed into a strait-jacketed framework. And the role of the media, though not fully researched, is certainly an important one here.

An excellent example of this is a recent Newsweek report (‘India’s missing tigers’, May 5, 2008) that argued that it was, in fact, a combination of ‘democracy and economic development’ that was driving the tiger to extinction in India -– a serious contention, particularly when democracy is one of the most cherished notions of our times.

While one would be willing to examine the contention that democratic processes are antithetical to the interests of wildlife, the problem becomes evident when one looks at the conclusions and the premise on which the articulation is based. It is solely the opinion of a few who oppose the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. For any publication to argue, in this context, that this single piece of legislation is an example of democracy negatively impacting wildlife is naïve at best and grossly unrealistic at worst. The law is less than two years old and implementation, if it is happening at all, is only just beginning. Although fears about forest and wildlife loss may indeed be justified, selectively wiping away history and placing the responsibility for the demise of the tiger entirely at the door of this one piece of legislation is not only irresponsible, it could even prove counter-productive.

Particularly so because one aspect of India’s conservation history continues to be repeatedly invoked -- the role of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. There is a whole generation of wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists in this country who believe, and with good reason, that Indira Gandhi ensured that Indian wildlife still has some hope. She was the architect, during her tenure in power, of critical legislation and frameworks that helped protect wildlife, and her personal interest and intervention, as in the case of Silent Valley in Kerala, ensured that many critical habitats were saved from certain destruction.

It is a legacy we cannot deny or wish away, but we also need to ask whether we can keep hanging on indefinitely to the past. Our socio-political-economic realities have changed so drastically since Gandhi’s time that no one, herself included, would have been able to predict them. It is crucial to recognise that the same wildlife conservation policies will not succeed today just because they did in a different era. It is a matter of conjecture, but if she were alive today, Gandhi, the astute politician, 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 the realities on the ground. Rarely, if ever, does the media seek out this younger generation for its opinion and perspective.

The reality on the ground is a complex one and yet talk about protecting wildlife inevitably comes down to blaming the poor and the tribal; demanding their displacement to protect wildlife; seeking stricter and military-like protection for wilderness areas. Arguing, additionally, that the enactment of one law has caused the demise of wildlife is the wrong place to start.

Many parallel realities are being ignored in the process. Most of the communities that share landscapes with wildlife, for instance, live extremely low-impact lives and yet they are made to pay the greatest cost for conservation. In the hierarchy of power, it is these communities that are considered expendable in the interests of wildlife and of capital, industrialisation and greater economic growth. And in the toss-up between wildlife and an economic growth that needs mines, dams and infrastructure projects, the side the coin will fall is already decided. It is this complexity that the media needs to reflect in its reporting and in its editorialising.

It is not a coincidence that countless people’s agitations across the country today are fighting policies and projects that threaten the basic survival of forest and land-dependent 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 the battle. Nothing, be it the laws and the courts, the politicians and the bureaucrats, or the media and the wildlife conservationists, is able to help them there.

This connection has to be made, and it’s something the media must not lose sight of because embedded power hierarchies have too much at stake to be able to see it. Herein lies the promise and the challenge.

(Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of the environmental action group, Kalpavriksh where he edits the Protected Area Update, a bi-monthly newsletter that carries news on wildlife from across South Asia)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009

The Leopards of Akole - 1

MAN ANIMAL-ROW: STUDY HOLDS VITAL CLUES

epaper.dna.com (Pune Edition, Page 7), 16th Feb, 2009

Akole taluka of ahmednagar district has witnessed minimal human-wildlife conflicts in form of leopard attacks.

A female leopard that was photographed in Akole as part of the ongoing research project. This female was accompanied with two cubs and had come to the particular area to feed on a cow that had died recently on account of being electrocuted (Pic Courtesy: Vidya Athreya).

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THE Junnar taluka of Pune district has witnessed repeated human-wildlife conflicts in the form of leopard attacks on humans and livestock. In sharp contrast, Akole taluka in Ahmednagar district has seen minimal of such conflict even though the leopard, cattle and humans live cheek-by-jowl. Writer, photographer and member of NGO Kalpvriksha PANKAJ SEKHSARIA presents a five-part series on this issue, written under the aegis of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) Media Fellowships.

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At first glance, Ahmednagar district's Akole taluka appears to be like any another part of western Maharashtra's sugar belt. At it's centre is the town of Akole, a small bustling, disorganised town situated on the banks of the Pravara river. Extensive farmlands extend on either side of the river and the mosaic of rich greens peters out into a dominantly brown one as the lands continue into the foothills of the Sahyadris in the distance. Here the landscape turns mainly arid and dry and is dominated by scrub forest and bare open expanses.
It is certainly not surprising, then, if a first time casual visitor will indeed see nothing out of the ordinary. For those who are more observant, however, noticing the dogs here is bound to throw up the first big question. Dogs in the landscape anywhere in India are as ubiquitous as anything can be, and the situation in Akole is not different except for one significant detail – the collars around their necks. The dogs here have thick metal collars with mean looking spikes sticking out from them. It is an unlikely reality, but in the valley of river Pravara in Akole, this is the dog's best protection against an even more unlikely predator.

Dogs in this region can be seen with spiked metal collars around their neck. These collars are the dog’s best protection against the leopard. Dogs form a significant part of the leopard’s diet in these parts. (Pic by Pankaj Sekhsaria)

The forest area here is negligible, the land is cultivated intensely and the density of human population (more than 180 people / sq. km) is extremely high. (See Box 1). And yet this is also the territory of one of the world's smartest, most adaptable and efficient large predators, the leopard (See Box 2). It is an incredible, but little known reality that these agriculture dominated landscapes of Akole taluka and other neighbouring areas might indeed have some of the highest densities of the leopard found anywhere in India.
An Akole-like situation might indeed exist in others parts of Maharashtra and for that matter, India as well, but Akole is in some ways special. It is from here that we are getting the first scientific information and assessment of large carnivore presence and behaviour in human dominated landscapes as an outcome of a 'first of its kind' field biology project undertaken anywhere. Led by Pune based wildlife biologist, Vidya Athreya, a team of wildlife biologists, social scientists and local forest department staff have spent more than two years now studying the landscape, people's perceptions and leopard movement and behaviour in an area spread over nearly 300 sq km of Akole taluka.

Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria

The initial response to the presence of leopards in such a landscape is bound to be of disbelief and even worry – Is this really true? Is it not an extremely risky situation? With so many people and their cattle, is it not a situation of guaranteed conflict? Is it desirable that such a ferocious and dangerous creature of the forest like the leopard, enter such territory and shouldn't one expect mayhem in the circumstances?
The worries and fears are undoubtedly real and justified and yet the situation is not what we first assume it will be. The reality in the taluka is that the leopard, the cattle and the humans all actually live cheek-by-jowl and yet the conflict is minimal if it is there at all. There is some tension and there is worry: goats, sheep, domestic pigs and dogs are regularly picked up by the leopard, but there has been no recorded attack on humans in Athreya's area of study in more than a decade. People are worried for their safety and for the safety of their children and yet there has never been the kind of demands for removing (or killing) the leopards or the reactions that were seen only a few years ago in neighbouring Junnar taluka that lies a little further.
There are two related questions here that immediately come to mind – a) What explains the presence of so many leopards in Akole and b) What led to such huge conflict in neighbouring Junnar just a few years ago, while there has been none in Akole at all? While it is difficult to claim a full understanding some pointers and answers are indeed available.
(To be concluded)

Box 1
Akole Taluka – An overview

A view of the agriculture dominated landscape of Akole Taluka in Ahmednagar district. This is also the landscape which is home to a large number of leopards, where importantly, cases leopard attacks on humans are virtually non-existent. (Pic by Pankaj Sekhsaria)

A significant majority of the people of Akole are farmers while the other main traditional livelihood is pastoralism. The total area of the taluka is nearly 1500 sq. kms, of which about a 1000 sq. kms is agricultural land. Census figures put the total population here at 2,71,719. Scheduled tribes form a significant chunk with their total number being 1,01,996. The area has seen a significant rise in prosperity in the last couple of decades thanks to the increased availability of water, primarily from bore-wells and the installation of lift irrigation schemes. Farmers here now grow a variety of crops that includes vegetables (cauliflower, tomatoes and onions that are mainly sent to Mumbai) wheat, maize, flowers and sugarcane. At the heart of the prosperity, or perhaps the most important causative factor, like it is across Western Maharashtra, is the Agasti Co-operative Sugar mill located in the heart of Akole town.

Box 2

The leopard

The leopard, Panthera pardus fusca is one of the most successful members of Indian big cat family. It is distributed throughout the subcontinent, including in the border nations of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and southern China. It is also found in a range of diverse habitats that includes dry deciduous forests, desert ecosystems, tropical rainforests, northern coniferous forests and in areas close to human habitation. What is significant is that it is an extremely versatile and adaptable creature. This adaptability is in large measure due to the animal’s rather catholic diet which even includes arthropods, amphibians, rotting carcasses, their lesser dependence on free water (obtaining it from their prey), and their smaller size. They can easily live alongside humans, even in areas where wild prey is scarce. Historical records going back more than a century testify to this fact, though often these reports are about leopards attacking and killing humans or when the leopards were themselves killed.

Leopards are commonly caged in village areas and then released in a nearby forests. This is a policy that has been one of the primary causes of the increase in human-wildlife conflict (Pic Courtesy: Vidya Athreya)

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The other stories that are part of the series can be seen at
1) Man-Animal Row: Study holds vital clues
2) Akole's leopards have hardly jumped humans
3) How did the leopards get to Akole?
4) Conflict in Junnar is due to relocation
5) Understanding Akole's unusual phenomenon

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Galapagos damage 'must be curbed'

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7884581.stm

Byline picture
By David Shukman
Science and environment correspondent, BBC News

Tortoises (BBC)
The rich ecological diversity of the Galapagos could be lost

Famed for their unique biological treasures, the Galapagos Islands face irreversible damage unless tourism is curbed, according to conservationists.

On the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, the director of the Darwin Foundation says there is only a decade to avoid an ecological disaster.

In a BBC interview, Gabriel Lopez calls for limits on the level of visitors.

Last year, the number of tourists reached a record of 173,000, a four-fold increase over the past 20 years.

"The Galapagos is still the best preserved archipelago in the world. But what's at stake if current trends continue is that the Galapagos will be lost. Yes the Galapagos will still be there but the richness will be lost."

The rising numbers have led to a boom in the construction of hotels and a surge in imports from mainland Ecuador.

Interactive Galapagos map

And the result is a sharp spike in the number of alien species arriving in this fragile ecosystem: 112 were recorded in 1900 but by 2007 the total had leaped to 1,321.

At the harbour in the main town of Puerto Ayora, I watched dock workers transfer crates and sacks of rice and maize from cargo ships on to barges for the journey ashore.

The airport on Baltra island, which serves the archipelago, sometimes handles half a dozen flights every day - the number has doubled in the last eight years. The aircraft cabins are sprayed before landing but evidently some insects are getting through.

One of the most aggressive is the fire ant - tiny but with a powerful sting - an example in its own right of the evolutionary principle of survival of the vicious.

Inexorable march

In a field outside the village of Bellavista, insect specialist Henri Herrera scraped away leaf litter to reveal a seething mass of the tiny red creatures.

"They're getting everywhere - it's a disaster. It could even mean that for some species the ants stop evolution."

Animal figurines on sale (BBC)
A balance must be found between economic needs and those of wildlife

Fire ants are known to attack baby birds and young tortoises and their march from one island to another seems inexorable.

Other threats include a parasitic fly which attacks young finches and mosquitoes - which could serve as a vector for diseases which are known to exist on the mainland but have not yet arrived here.

The government of Ecuador has drawn up an action plan to curb this menace. Criticised by the UN agency UNESCO - which in 2007 listed the Galapagos as a world heritage site in danger - the authorities are now introducing tougher measures.

The director of the Galapagos National Park, Edgar Munoz, accepts that invasive species pose the most serious risk to the islands but says the government's actions will tackle the threat.

Birds (BBC)
Some birds are threatened by invasive creatures

"What we're hoping to accomplish is fifty more years in which any problems will be diminished."

Earlier conservation efforts - to cull several islands of feral goats which eat the plants giant tortoises depend on - have proved successful but some experts warn that eliminating particular insects will be far harder.

For Ecuador, a developing country, the Galapagos provides a major source of revenue. But a balance will need to found if the islands are to preserve what makes them so special.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Protected Area Update - Vol XV, No. 1, February 2009, (No. 77)

PROTECTED AREA UPDATE
News and Information from protected areas in India and South Asia

Vol. XV No. 1
February 2009 (No.77)

LIST OF CONTENTS
EDITORIAL
A departure too soon (Remembering Dr. Ravi Sankaran)

NEWS FROM INDIAN STATES

ANDHRA PRADESH
Tribals engaged to protect Kawal WLS
Study finds Pulicat under severe threat

ASSAM
Seismic survey in Brahmaputra riverbed opposed; impact on Gangetic dolphin feared
Winter apparel donated to Kaziranga NP staff
Militants lay siege on anti-poaching camp in Kaziranga NP
Kaziranga elephants on rampage in Kaliabor area
Over 100 rhino deaths in Kaziranga in 2008

HIMACHAL PRADESH
Diesel engine steamer boats causing noise pollution in Pong Dam Bird

FD to set up 9 van thanas; forest officials to get powers to arrest
FD to lease out guesthouses, sites for tourism
Breeding projects for endangered species

JHARKHAND
Team reviews tusker safety at Dalma WLS

KARNATAKA
The Greater Talacauvery Wildlife Sanctuary proposal opposed

KERALA
Forum for wetland protection by 2009

MADHYA PRADESH
Two tigresses to be translocated from Bandavgarh to Panna TR
Cops allegedly involved in tiger poaching at Kanha TR
Tourists taken into Kanha NP at night to see gaur killed by tiger
NTCA opposes highway widening project at Pench TR

Gaur translocation plans stalled following NTCA opposition

MAHARASHTRA
RFO posts lie vacant in Tadoba-Andhari TR
Coal mining leases in vicinity of Tadoba Andhari
Govt. admits that wrong tiger was killed as man-eater in Tadoba in 2007
Sanjay Gandhi NP seeks more lions for safari

Three leopard safaris for state

MEGHALAYA
Mining stopped near Balpakhram NP

ORISSA
Tourists flock to Satkosia
14 fishermen held for entering Gahirmatha marine sanctuary acquitted
Poachers employ minors to hunt migratory birds at Chilika

Over one lakh birds counted at Bhitarkanika this season
Poachers injure Bhitarkanika forest guard
Meeting held to discuss conservation and livelihood issues of Simlipal BR

RAJASTHAN
No tigress for Sariska from Ranthambhore NP

TAMIL NADU
Directory of environmentalists released
Rs Two crore for Project Tiger in TN
Huge protest against Mudumalai CTH

TRIPURA
Confusion over wildlife reserve proposal; locals fear massive displacement

UTTARAKHAND
FD again sends back Army’s proposal for land to replace Raiwala depot
Elephant population in state down by 250

UTTAR PRADESH
Efforts to protect Gangetic River dolphins
263 ghariyals to be released into the wild from Kukrail

WEST BENGAL
Mobile veterinary service for North Bengal wildlife
Proposal for new rail line to avoid elephant deaths in Dooars

FD, villagers trade charges over tiger attacks in Sunderbans

NATIONAL NEWS FROM INDIA
Central Assistance for relocation for villages from Tiger Reserves
Sanctuary Wildlife Awards 2008
Dr. Aparajita Datta selected for the 2009 Women of Discovery Award
Dog squad to sniff out illegal wildlife trade

110 tigers dead in last six years
India Biodiversity portal launched

SOUTH ASIA
Bhutan
-Steps proposed to deal with farmer-wildlife conflict

Wangchuk Centenary Park inaugurated

INTERNATIONAL NEWS
International Police Group to Tackle Wildlife Trafficking Crime Syndicates

OPPORTUNITIES
Call for proposals for conservation projects in the Western Ghats
Openings at the BNHS

UPCOMING
National Symposium on Prosopis
International seminar on Protected Area Management


EDITORIAL

A DEPARTURE TOO SOON

It was just as we were finalizing this issue of the PA Update, we got the shattering news that Dr. Ravi Sankaran had passed away after suffering a massive heart attack on January 17. It was difficult to believe at first, but as the news sank in, there was only a sense of huge sadness and deep loss. In his sudden demise the world of conservation has lost one of its most passionate, dedicated and innovative advocates.
His work on floricans, his studies of the Nicobari Megapode and Edible Nest Swiftlet in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and analysis of the impact of the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004 on the ecology of the islands were path breaking. He tirelessly argued to allow ranching of the nest of the Edible Nest Swiftlet in the islands as a new paradigm for conservation that ensured people’s participation and also got them economic benefits. He was working on an ambitious project in Nagaland to build up the capacities of local communities and set up institutions to protect the forests and wildlife there, and more recently he had also taken over as Director of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Nature (SACON), the institution he was associated with for a long time and deeply committed to as well.
We all have to make our departure, but when someone leaves at the very prime of his life and career, leaves so suddenly and particularly when that man is Ravi Sankaran, there can only be a vacuum. With Ravi around there was never a dull moment. He was gregarious and full of curiosity, fun and laughter. He pushed many boundaries and his great skill and capacity lay in the fact that he encouraged and showed many others how they should and could push their own limits. His was an unique personality, one that seamlessly harmonized innumerable polarities: unbearable, yet endearing at the same time; sharply critical and yet fully understanding of the same issue; quick to notice an error and quicker to admit to one of his own; challenging and inspiring; wickedly witty and deeply deeply compassionate.
Many of us in Kalpavriksh had the chance of knowing him, working with him, of being influenced by him and hopefully, of influencing him a bit as well. Many knew him personally and others knew him in more professional contexts like when he joined a workshop on community conservation in Nagaland that we had organized three years ago. We are all rich for those experiences, and poorer now that there will be no more such occasions.
Like many others I too feel immensely privileged and fortunate that I could consider Ravi a friend. I first met him nearly a decade ago, and in the years that have followed had many priceless opportunities of spending time with him in the field, particularly in the Andaman Islands. As I write this, there is an endless string of memories and images that flash by – the aristocratic élan which he smoked his pipe with; that warm hug at Chennai airport when we were meeting after a long time; sharing a meal with him and his field staff in the islands; his long pony tail, those many discussions and the many disagreements…and yes, that comment about the PA Update too. It was, if I remember right, a couple of years ago when I asked him if he thought the PA Update was useful and relevant. “Hey, stop sending it to me,” he said dismissively and without batting an eyelid, “I don’t read it anyway.” He then mumbled something to the effect that it might actually be an useful thing and I must continue working on it. Provocative, challenging, irreverent, and incisively brilliant– Ravi was all this and much more. He was a master in delivering the unexpected; in leaving people dumbfounded and groping for answers. On January 17th, he did it again; the only difference this time being that we’ll be groping much longer and he won’t even be there to help us out.
Many who read this will have their own memories and thoughts of Ravi. Please share these with us and we’d like to share it with all the others in the forthcoming issues of the PA Update. It might help us all deal with an immeasurable loss. The loss that his family feels cannot, perhaps, even be fathomed and we offer them our deepest condolences.

- Pankaj Sekhsaria

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PROTECTED AREA UPDATE
Vol. XV, No. 1, February 2009 (No. 77)

Editor: Pankaj Sekhsaria
Editorial Assistance: Wrutuja Pardeshi
Illustrations: Madhuvanti Anantharajan

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

KALPAVRIKSH, Apartment 5, Shri Dutta Krupa, 908 Deccan Gymkhana, Pune 411004, Maharashtra, India. Tel/Fax: 020 – 25654239.
Email: psekhsaria@gmail.com
Website: www.kalpavriksh.org

Production of PA Update 77 has been supported by Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), Anand.

India plans to deport Rohingya boat people

http://www.mizzima.com/news/regional/1655-india-plans-to-deport-rohingya-boatpeople.html

by Solomon
Wednesday, 04 February 2009 21:33

New Delhi (Mizzima) - Indian authorities are planning to deport boatpeople, who were rescued near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in December.

An official in the Andaman Island told Mizzima on Wednesday that about 450 boatpeople, whom the Indian Navy and coastguards had rescued in separate batches are in custody. The authorities will soon deport them to Bangladesh.

"They will be deported soon after the completion of affirmation [to Bangladesh]," said the official.

"They have been rescued from our Islands and placed in our custody so the administration will formally go ahead with deportation to Bangladesh," he added.

The official, who declined to reveal his identity as he is not authorized to speak to the press, said India has chosen to deport the boatpeople to Bangladesh, as they originally boarded the boat there.

"Actually they are from Bangladesh, there are only a few from Burma," the official said, adding, however, that all the boatpeople have revealed themselves to be Rohingya Muslims.

Since December last year, hundreds of Rohingya boatpeople have been rescued by Indian Navy from the Andaman Island while Indonesian Navy also rescued several of the boatpeople from Sabang Island in Ache province.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia said it has been trying to access the boatpeople since last month but are still waiting for permission from the government.

Anita Restu, spokesperson of UNHCR Indonesia said, "They [Rohingya] are under the care of the authorities in Aceh."

"We cannot get access them because we have not got permission from the government," she added.

She said, once permission is granted the UNHCR will assess the boatpeople's protection needs and register them if they request for asylum. It would provide international protection according to the mandate of the UNHCR.

On Tuesday, another batch of 198 boatpeople was rescued by Indonesian authorities and Restu said they all belong to Rohingya Muslim minority community from Burma.

Meanwhile, the official at the Andaman Island said, they have not received any request from the UNHCR for assessing the situation of the boatpeople.

"No one came here," the official said.

The official said, apparently a few agents collected money from the Rohingya boatpeople and promised to take them to Malaysia and offer them jobs.

But their dreams of entering Malaysia and finding jobs were dashed when their boats were intercepted by Thai coastguards and Navy, which then arrested them and put them adrift on sea on engineless boats.

"These poor people did not know about the plan of the touts. They just paid money and wanted to go to Malaysia. Finally, they found that they were cheated," the officer said.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Project: Grey Ghost

by
Pankaj Sekhsaria

http://www.hindu.com/yw/2009/02/03/stories/2009020350580100.htm

Destruction of habitat, poaching and retaliatory killings by shepherds have pushed the survival of the snow leopard to the brink. But with the launching of Project Snow Leopard, there is hope.


Thick grey coloured fur that is marked with rosettes and broken spot markings keeps it warm and helps it blendeasily with the vast mountain-scape



The upper reaches of the Himalayas have some of the most rugged and hostile regions on the surface of the earth. Mountain ridges, rocky outcrops and inhospitable expanses dominate the landscape that is characterised by extreme cold and harsh conditions. Life is tough and only the best can survive. And one among the best here is an incredibly beautiful creature, the snow leopard - an animal who many know as the "Grey Ghost of the Mountains".



Big question: Who’s invading my territory? Photo: AFP



Camouflaged :At the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, Himachal Pradesh. Photo : NCF, Mysore

There are many striking features about this animal. Thick grey coloured fur that is marked with rosettes and broken spot markings keeps it warm and helps it blend easily with the vast mountain-scape; short limbs and powerful paws help it manoeuvre and hunt efficiently and a long tail that the animal uses to keep its nose warm and also for balancing itself on the steep terrain. At about a metre in length, the snow leopard's tail is about as much as the rest of the animal's body.

Photo: Steve Tracy (Courtesy SLT, Seattle)

My long tail : Keeps my nose warm and also helps balancing on steep terrain.

Lurking danger

The snow leopard is a very well adapted apex predator of its ecosystem, but all is not well for this unique animal. Destruction of its habitat, poaching for its beautiful fur coat and retaliatory killings by shepherds who lose their cattle to it are rapidly pushing it to the edge. Though the habitat of the snow leopard is spread over about two million sq. km in Central Asia and the Himalayan region, their total numbers worldwide are estimated to be only between 5000 and 7000 animals.

India is one of the important countries for the snow leopard and it is estimated that we have between 200 to 600 animals that are found in the five range states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. There have been a number of researchers and organisations that have been working in India to ensure the well-being of these threatened animals. Interesting work has been on to study its behaviour, to understand the major threats and importantly to engage with local communities to make them partners in snow leopard conservation efforts through environment education, ecotourism initiatives and methods to reduce livestock loss.



It’s cool : A three-year old female snow leopard reclines in fresh snow. Photo: AP

There has also been a long-standing demand that the Government of India take a holistic view of the situation and institute a programme that approaches snow leopard conservation in an integrated manner. After many false starts, it seems now, this is finally beginning to happen. In January 2009, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) announced the launching of Project Snow Leopard, an initiative for strengthening wildlife conservation in the Himalayan high altitude regions in general and for the `grey ghost' in particular. It will be treated on a par with other flagship programmes like the Project Tiger and Project Elephant and executed in collaboration with two of India's premier wildlife research organisations, the Dehradun based Wildlife Institute of India and Mysore based Nature Conservation Foundation. An important dimension is the acceptance that in snow leopard country wildlife presence overlaps in a major way with human use and conservation will be successful only if local communities are made partners in the effort.

The government has also promised substantial financial resources and while this is a good starting point, it is very important that the project is taken forward well. The grey ghost that walks, may otherwise become just memories and images


Life is tough : Survival is the issue. Photo: Milan Trykar. (Courtesy SLT, Seattle)