Sunday, December 12, 2010

The decline of the oceans

The decline of the oceans
The New Indian Express, Dec 11, 2010

Pankaj Sekhsaria

If there is one thing that the milestone international Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in 1992 is remembered for it, is the forceful statement by the then President of the United States of America, George H W Bush. “The American way of life is non-negotiable,” he had said as nations around the world demanded that the USA contain its runaway consumption in general and that of fossil fuels in particular. Nearly two decades have passed since and promises and commitments notwithstanding, it could well be argued that not much has changed on the ground. In some ways the most powerful nation in the world has managed to bulldoze its way through world opinion even as the global climate crisis has exacerbated and even though climate change has finally came on to the global agenda.

It was at the same 1992 summit that the northern neighbour of the USA proposed an idea that was to be formally accepted more than 15 years later. The concept of the World Oceans Day as proposed by the Government of Canada in Rio was finally approved by the United Nations General Assembly only in December ’08 and June 8 became the day that the world would come together to highlight the importance of the oceans and to commit itself to their conservation.

The Gulf of Mexico disaster

The crisis that the oceans face was highlighted most starkly in April this year (and as World Oceans Day 2010 came and went) when billions of barrels of oil spluttered up from the dark depths of the Gulf of Mexico. The waters of the gulf were covered with endless sheets of oil for weeks choking the rich marshes and causing unprecedented damage to wildlife and commercial fisheries. The problem does not seem to be visible anymore but only time will indicate the long-term damages that may have been caused.

And the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is by no means the only one, even though it has garnered maximum attention and concern. Nearly a 100 significant spills have been documented worldwide since the early 1970s and at least 20 spills (big and small) have been observed in just the last five years. These have occurred at sites as far apart as the Timor Sea off Australia (August 2009), the Yellow Sea off the Korean coast (December 2007) and the waters off the coasts of Alaska in the USA (March 2006). The shoreline of the Ibeno local government area in Nigeria was recently devastated by an oil spill from the companies operating offshore in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the issue garnered huge attention in India following the vast oil spill off the Mumbai coast just a few months ago. The world's appetite for oil and gas seems insatiable and many have argued that such disasters are only waiting to happen.

A rich and diverse ecosystem

The ocean, we often forget is the source of life for millions around the planet. The Global Diversity Outlook 3 (GDO3), report released recently by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has pointed, for instance, that the world’s fisheries provide employment to nearly 200 million people and account for about 16 per cent of the protein consumed worldwide. The report estimates the value of these fisheries to be nearly US$ 82 billion and also notes that about 80 per cent of the stocks for which assessment information is available are over exploited or have been fully exploited.

Coral reefs under stress

The situation with coral reefs is just as alarming. They cover a miniscule portion of the world’s oceans but are estimated to house a quarter of the marine fish species in the world. Researchers have also estimated that nearly 30 million people living along the coast are dependant on reef-based resources as their primary means of food production, income and livelihood. Reports from the around the world — from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to the reefs in the waters off Indonesia and Thailand — indicate that they are being severely impacted. A wide set of reasons ranging from overfishing, soil and chemical run-offs from land to increasing global temperatures are putting these reefs under increasing stress. The Wildlife Conservation Society reported in early October that an initial survey carried out by them had revealed that more than 60 per cent of corals off the northern tip of Sumatra were found bleached due to an unprecedented rise in ocean temperatures. Researchers have suggested that the whole of Southeast Asia is experiencing one of its most deadly coral die-offs — something that could be the worst such event known to science. The CBD report notes similarly that prominent species like the dugong, sea turtles and some sharks among others have experienced significant declines in Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

To say that the health of the world's oceans is not in good shape is to make a statement of the obvious. For long the human species has been taking the ocean for granted and it would be worth reminding ourselves in this, the International Year of Biodiversity, that the ocean can devastate just as ruthlessly as it can give generously. We can continue to take it for granted but the price that we might have to pay might be larger than we can afford.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Is the government’s cheetah programme sound?

Is the government’s cheetah programme sound?

Pankaj Sekhsaria
First Published : 10 Dec 2010 11:13:00 PM IST

Do we want the cheetah back? If the Ministry of Environment and Forest’s (MoEF) ambitious programme for the reintroduction of this animal into the country is anything to go by, the question has already been answered. A recent assessment conducted by the MoEF, the Wildlife Institute of India and the Wildlife Trust of India has identified the Kuno-Palpur and Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh and the Shahgarh Landscape in Jaisalmer for the introduction. An estimated `300 crore will be spent initially on the project and potential sources for the animals are also being explored. It’s quite likely that the cheetahs, if they come, will be either from Namibia or South Africa. The project has the whole-hearted support of the minister in charge, Jairam Ramesh and the ball for the cheetah’s return to India is clearly on the roll now.

There is a more fundamental question, however, that has no clear answers yet — why? Why do we want the cheetah back? The rationale provided has been two-fold. The first this is what Ramesh himself articulated sometime back — to regain a part of the lost glory and history of this country. The magnificent cheetah that was once a living, bounding part of this nation’s reality must be brought back. The other, as has been pointed by some wildlife experts, is that the cheetah, like the tiger, is the apex species of the grassland habitat and it’s presence would, both, indicate and ensure the health of this badly abused ecosystem.

Writing in the recent issue of the wildlife magazine Sanctuary Asia, M K Ranjitsinh, doyen of Indian wildlife conservation and a prime mover of the cheetah reintroduction project has argued that, “The cheetah restoration will be part of a prototype for restoration of original cheetah habitats and their biodiversity, helping to stem the degradation and rapid loss of biodiversity…” He also notes that re-introducing the cheetah will help to save other threatened grassland-scrub-open woodland species such as the caracal, Indian wolf, the desert cat, the Great Indian Bustard and the Lesser Florican.

Prima facie the arguments seem valid, but if looked at carefully, both have serious problems. It is certainly important to realise, for instance, that grassland habitats are extremely productive systems that are both undervalued and abused. They have to be protected and cared for and we have to find ways of doing it. Arguing, however, that we need an introduction from Africa to enable us to set our house in order is akin to putting the cart before the horse. There are far simpler and effective ways to do it if we have the common sense and political will for it. It is also an extremely unfortunate part of our history that this glorious animal was shot into extinction nearly six decades ago. The scarier reality is that many species of plants, birds and animals stand today on the verge of joining the cheetah into that void called extinction.

Flagship programmes — Project Tiger and Project Elephant, for instance, face serious challenges and some might even say that they are floundering. The most recent case of the death of the translocated tiger in Sariska Tiger Reserve is an excellent example of the many challenges that have to be faced. How prudent would it then be to get into something new without ensuring the success of what we already have on hand?

There is another worrisome aspect of the project that has come to light only recently. The introduction of the cheetah is going to be mounted on the back of displacement of people in the areas where the reintroduction is being planned.

Eighty seasonally used human settlements of 5-10 households each will have to be relocated from the Shahgarh landscape and 23 human settlements will have to be moved from the Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary. Three will also be moved from Kuno Palpur in addition to the 23 that were moved a few years ago for the reintroduction of the lion from Gujarat.

Now, anyone who follows wildlife conservation in India knows that this landscape is littered with huge issues of conflict. Millions of people living in and around our protected areas face the sword of displacement or experience constant harassment and denial of basic livelihood resources in the name of wildlife conservation. Not surprisingly there is considerable opposition to wildlife conservation by local communities and there are many such fires burning in different parts of the country. Our job should be to work towards extinguishing these fires, not lighting up one more for an animal we didn’t have the wisdom to save when we had it in our midst. Rather than spending huge amounts of time, human resources, energy and money towards an ‘esoteric’ bringing back of the ‘dead’, the effort has to be concentrated on preventing it happening again — with other species. That would be a far more worthwhile and valuable endeavour. We can’t undo the extinctions we have caused already. Let the fate of cheetah be a grim pointer to that reality.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Lost song of the Jarawas

Lost song of the Jarawas

The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier

Edited by

Pankaj Sekhsaria and Vishvajit Pandya
Published by UNESCO and Kalpavriksh

Reviewed by

Madhusree Mukerjee

The Jarawa are among the most threatened people in the world. These hunter- gatherers live in great evergreen rainforests along the western coast of South and Middle Andaman, and number 365 at last count. Genetic studies indicate that they have occupied these islands for tens of millennia, being direct descendants of the first humans to colonize the territory. Throughout history the Jarawa have resisted outsiders— attacking and killing those who would fell trees or hunt and fish within their territory. In the process they have maintained their environment in a pristine condition, so that it overflows with resources such as timber, cane, fish and game that outsiders covet. Therein lies the danger.

British occupation of the Andaman Islands in 1858 led to the extinction by epidemics of most aboriginal tribes on the islands. (Having been isolated since prehistoric times, the islanders have no immunity to killer diseases such as syphilis that are common in the “civilized” world, and easily succumb.) The Jarawa were spared such decimation because of their sustained hostility to outsiders, which limited contact. But a decades- long programme of pacification by the Indian government resulted in their laying down their arms in 1998. The Jarawa immediately started falling prey to diseases such as bronchitis, measles, mumps and malaria, the effects of which have been partially contained by medical intervention. A single new germ line, such as HIV,
could still wipe them out.

The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier, a compilation of documents that describe the history, geography and biology of the Jarawa homeland, is a valuable resource for researchers who seek to familiarize themselves with this obscure but fascinating terrain. Its editors are environmentalist and journalist Pankaj Sekhsaria, who runs a vitally important webgroup on the islands, and anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya.
Both have extensive experience of the Andamans. So do the contributors, especially activist Samir Acharya, who as founder of Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE) has led the struggle to protect indigenous rights and environment on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Researchers Manish Chandi and Harry Andrews acquired intimate knowledge of the islands’ flora and fauna during their tenure with the
Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team (ANET), and provide rare insights. Also featured are members of the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), who surveyed the food resources of the Jarawa. The appendices are especially useful, containing legal documents and other materials that are hard to find elsewhere. These include a list,
compiled by Chandi, of encounters between settlers and Jarawa that goes all the way back to 1789. Another list, of the Jarawa’s forest camps, was compiled in 2002 and indicates the extent to which their privacy has been penetrated.

The most worrisome development is that ever since pacification the Jarawa reserve has been overrun with poachers. As an essay by Andrews shows, now that the Jarawa are no longer hostile their species-rich jungles, swamps, hills, streams and beaches have attracted hundreds of trespassers from villages around the reserve. The invaders no longer shoot the Jarawa, as they used to, but seek instead to manipulate them by offering gifts, or by inculcating addictions such as to tobacco and alcohol. They come in search of timber, cane, fish, boar, honey, fruit, and sex. The threat to the Jarawa, through introduced disease and loss of their resource base, is immediate and urgent.

To make matters worse, the Andaman politicians make no secret of their determination to throw open the resources of the Jarawa reserve to their constituencies.

The current MP even advocates seizing Jarawa children and raising them on the Indian mainland—actions similar to those for which the Australian government was recently forced to apologize to aboriginals. One can see the MP’s point of view: Once the Jarawa are rendered sedentary and dependent on a welfare system, as the Onge of Little Andaman have largely been, their resources can all the more easily be claimed by grateful voters. No matter that such a seizure would mean cultural genocide of the Jarawa, if not actual genocide. One hopes that the MP will come to realize that if the Jarawa forest is further degraded, its ability to retain and supply fresh water to surrounding settlements will be depleted his vote bank will then have to pack up and depart.

More than a decade of activism to defend the Jarawa, and to educate the Andaman’s settler population as to the vital role these hunter-gatherers play in maintaining the island ecology has, however, resulted at best in stalemate. The Andaman administration has failed to implement court orders regarding the protection of Jarawa territory: in particular, it has ignored a 2002 Supreme Court order closing the parts of the Andaman
Trunk Road (ATR) that run through the Jarawa reserve. As a result, the administration’s laudable new effort to create a buffer zone around the reserve has run up against complaints of inconsistency.
Predictably, the MP has threatened a bandh against the measure he has also called for further defying the Supreme Court by constructing a railway line alongside the ATR. The dossier provides an insightful survey of the past, and contains necessary information for pointing the way to the future, if the Jarawa are to have any. It would have been even more useful, however, had it contained a description, either by
Sekhsaria or Acharya, of the various efforts to protect the Jarawa, through appeals to the public, the courts, and the National Advisory Commission—and an analysis of why these endeavours have faltered. To be sure, no one had expected that the administration would ignore the Supreme Court, and the fact that it continues to do so is symptomatic of the collapse of governance across India.

Those rare battles that adivasis have won against dispossession, such as the triumph of the Dongria Kondh in Orissa, suggest that a groundswell of protest, properly publicized, can on occasion gain indigenous peoples their rights. But the Jarawa are not being given a chance to speak on their future nor, as the MP’s stand indicates, are their territorial or other rights getting much support from the mainstream population of the Andaman Islands.

As if that were not enough, a long-standing debate over whether the Jarawa should be “civilized” or not continues to rage— despite the acceptance, throughout the world, of the principle of self-determination. It is for the Jarawa alone to decide whether or not, and at what pace, to integrate.

Becoming integrated, or “civilized,” will inevitably lead to sedenterization of these nomadic people—with its attendant social and medical problems, such as depression and alcoholism—and must not be forced on them by robbing them of their resources.

In this context, it would have been useful to have the United Nations declarations on indigenous rights, which calls specifically for the protection of Jarawa territory, in the appendix. A review of how similarly fraught situations are being dealt with on other continents (perhaps by anthropologist Sita Venkateswar) would have been instructive. Creative solutions have been developed for informing semi-isolated peoples about the outside world without disrupting their culture, and these can show the way for empowering the Jarawa.

Such omissions do not, however, detract from the usefulness of this compendium, which is an essential resource for anyone who seeks to understand the plight of the Jarawa and appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of the environment they have preserved, often at the cost of their lives.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Leopards in my backyard

Leopards in my backyard
by Pankaj Sekhsaria
Issue: Dec 15, 2010

India is the only country where high densities of people and livestock share space with carnivores
Recent research on leopard behaviour shows capturing the problem animals and releasing them elsewhere only shifts the locale of the people-animal conflict. At first glance Akole taluka in Ahmednagar district seems like any other taluka in western Maharashtra’s sugarcane belt. It has densely populated and chaotic settlements, virtually no forest cover and a landscape that is dominated by a mosaic of agricultural fields.

It seems unlikely, even unexpected, yet in Akole people, their dogs and cattle live cheek-by-jowl with large numbers of leopards, one of the biggest wild carnivores. Akole seems like a place for a serious human-wildlife conflict but this is where the taluka throws up another surprise.

Most discussions on the humanwildlife conflict are about carnivores straying because of loss of their natural habitat—most often considered to be forests. The discussions emphasise the need to separate humans and wildlife populations to prevent aggravation of the conflict. An ongoing research project led by Vidya Athreya of Project Waghoba ( in Akole’s farmlands challenges these widely held beliefs.

A two-month camera-trapping exercise last year by Athreya photographed 14 different leopards in about 200 sq km. This included five adult males, five adult females and four cubs, indicating a population that was breeding actively. Further analysis revealed a leopard density of 12 adults in 100 sq km living among human densities of nearly 200 people per sq km—a human dominated area that significantly has no forest cover.

Clearly, the leopards of Akole have not strayed into these farmlands. They, in fact, have been living here for generations and significantly there have been no reports of attacks on people in nearly a decade. People are undoubtedly worried about safety, yet there were no strident calls for killing the leopards or for removing them from the area.

Many questions arise. Why are there so many leopards in Akole? What led to a massive conflict in nearby Junnar a few years ago while there has been none in Akole? What is the assurance there won’t be a problem in Akole too? While the search for the pieces of the jigsaw is on, some answers are available.

The leopard is one of the most versatile and adaptable creatures and has been known, historically, to live on the fringes of human habitations. Akole could be an example. An important dimension, however, is the change in land use across this belt in the past three decades.

Improved irrigation facilities have significantly increased the spread of sugarcane and this in turn has benefited the leopard by providing good breeding and hiding ground. 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 established itself across large parts of Akole taluka.

The people-animal conflict is more complex and protracted. Its intensity was best highlighted when it peaked in neighbouring Junnar in 2003. Leopards killed nearly 50 people in two years and over a 100 leopards were captured for permanent incarceration in that period.

Investigation, by another team led by Athreya cast doubt on the then policy of capturing leopards in a problem area and releasing them elsewhere and said it was at the root of the conflict.

This is best illustrated by developments reported in late 2003 from the Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary spread over 170-odd sq km in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra. These forests have a rich diversity of wildlife that includes large carnivores like leopards. Though the forests of Yawal have been dotted with human settlements for a long time, there had been no instances of conflict with leopards.

This suddenly changed when six leopard attacks were reported for the first time in the last two months of 2003 in villages that had not seen any attacks till then. The attacks stopped only when trap cages were put there and two leopards caught. These were the same animals that had only a few months earlier terrorised people in the agriculturedominated landscape of Junnar.

Labelled straying animals, the leopards were trapped and as per the management policy moved 400 km to the forests of Yawal, where they were released back into the wild. The identity of the leopards, the explanation of their presence and the answer to the question of the attacks lay in a small electronic tag that was inserted at the base of the tail of these animals.

They had been electronically tagged before release as part of a pioneering research project by the Maharashtra Forest Department and assisted by Athreya and veterinarian Aniruddh Belsare. The tag, the size of a grain, can be read like a bar-code and it was hoped that tagging would help track the problem animals.

Athreya and Belsare could now show that translocation of the problem leopards was no solution; it lay at the root of the problem. The translocation of the animal from the area of conflict had in fact caused the conflict to move to new areas. The animals had carried the conflict with them.

One of the problem animals was captured 90 km from its site of release in the direction of Junnar, the town from where it had been brought. Big carnivores have acute homing tendency that draws them back to their original territory. Recent evidence of this has come from Athreya’s latest research work involving satellite tracking of leopards in western Maharashtra. The research team catalogued a 120-km expedition of an adult male leopard from the hinterland to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

The leopard that was trapped in a well in Alephata along the Pune-Nashik highway was rescued, fitted with a satellite collar and released in the nearby forests of Malshej Ghat. The animal completed its remarkable journey in about 23 days—passing through agricultural land, densely populated areas, across roads, rail tracks, close to Kasara station, and swimming across the Vasai Creek. There is no evidence, but it can be conjectured that the animal was originally from forests in Mumbai and could be one of the many that have often been captured here and released elsewhere.

These stories throw up important questions about the biology and behaviour of large carnivores and the very controversial and emotional subject of human-wildlife conflict. “It is important to note,” said Athreya, “that India is the only country in the world where high densities of people (more than 300 per sq km) and the highest livestock density in the world share their spaces with carnivores. Except the cheetah we have still retained all (58 species, 14 of them heavier than 10 kg which can be potentially dangerous to humans).

Total elimination was never part of our culture. This is an ethic that can make conservation work easy, but the conservation community has to start working with these people.” Another important dimension, she added, is that conservation in India is viewed entirely through the lens of protected areas. “We have no clue that so much wildlife exists outside these areas and management decisions are generally inappropriate for areas that are often not even forests.”

There is now the realisation, for instance, that translocation, which for long was considered a simple and straightforward answer, in fact lay at the root of the problem it sought to solve.

The information and insights provided by Akole once again underline the importance of good science and rigorous research because the answers we find are only as good as the questions we ask. We might not know all the causes that could push the Akole situation into a conflict, but we can now say with confidence that we know a critical few.

Pankaj Sekhsaria edits the Protected Area Update, a bi-monthly newsletter on wildlife and protected areas