Monday, November 05, 2007
Eds. Ghazala Shahabuddin and Mahesh Rangarajan
Permanent Black, Delhi
Hard cover. Rs. 595
The prosaic title notwithstanding, the essays in this book pack a punch. The editors, Shahabuddin and Rangarajan, set the stage in the Introduction by examining what caused the Sariska debacle. Readers will remember that this was the park where the tiger was declared locally extinct in early 2005. It provided ammunition to two diametrically opposed camps to “prove” their arguments. One camp claimed it was the presence of villagers in the park that was detrimental to the tigers while the other accused the colonial mindset of Indian wildlife laws and policy.
Sariska was a pampered park; being close to the nerve centre of Delhi, it received a lot of funds and VIP attention. It also had more guards per square kilometer than almost any other park in the country. Villagers living within the park were recipients of largess, not available to inhabitants of most other reserves. It had everything going for it and yet the tigers vanished. In the flurry of accusations that followed, the Tiger Task Force was set up, and its report was alternately trashed and celebrated by conservationists of both camps. However, they were unanimous in their criticism of the state's manner of functioning. And true to form, the state ignored the recommendations of the Task Force, revived the relocation-of-villagers policy (which is doomed to failure by its woeful inadequacy), proposed reintroducing tigers from other parks and pretends that the crisis is only a minor setback for conservation. In this contentious atmosphere, sharing the experiences of the contributors of the book opens new vistas of wildlife conservation and governance.
Perhaps the most interesting article in the book is 'Threatened Forests, Forgotten People' by Aparajita Datta of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). Datta sets out the political dynamics of conservation in Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh. The Lisu tribals are caught in the far corner of the state sandwiched between the park on one side and the international border with Myanmar on the other. Accused of being latter day encroachers from Myanmar they enjoy no citizenship rights or tribal status. Recognizing that the basic needs of the people in this remote corner of India have to be addressed first, NCF supports six kindergarten schoolteachers thereby ensuring the education of 330 Lisu children. Malaria takes a heavy toll and a patient seeking medical help has to walk for seven days to reach a doctor. As a first step one Lisu tribal has been trained as a healthcare provider. In tandem, NCF biologists have also conducted wildlife surveys, extended the range of mammals previously known only in neighbouring countries and lobbied with the Lisu against traditional hunting practices. Initiatives such as this, which tie conservation with solutions to existential struggles, go far in salvaging the vitiated relationship between people and the state.
Other articles deal with similarly alternative approaches to conservation of the oceans, deserts, and forests by incorporating local people into the equation. Interestingly, the NCF is involved with another innovative approach - restoring the rainforests of the Valparai plateau of Tamil Nadu. Collaborating with the management of the various tea estates, Mudappa and Raman have planted numerous rainforest species on degraded private lands that are unfit for tea cultivation thereby providing corridors for animals such as elephants, lion-tailed macaques, leopards, and hornbills among others. Not enough of this kind of restoration is being undertaken in the country and yet anyone with a bit of initiative and effort can contribute towards enhancing the quality of habitat available for plants and wildlife.
In other essays, Kartik Shanker elaborates on an alliance of fishworker organizations and conservation groups that are working for sea turtle (and fish) conservation in Orissa, Priya Das explores participatory conservation in Kailadevi Sanctuary in Rajasthan while Nitin Rai examines the economics of harvesting Garcinia fruits in Karnataka - evidence that conservation need not stop with creating reserves and making sure no one touches the wildlife within. Two other chapters critique the current forest management policy by focusing on Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary and Sariska.
Crucial to conservation success is political will. It is clear that in a democracy where the stake to power is dependent on appealing to the majority, conservationists have to redress their approach if they are to achieve their goals. Otherwise the majority of the voting public does not care, or worse, sees conservation as an elitist preoccupation of the middle class. This is the biggest shortfall of the conservationist agenda. While this book manages to bring conservation concerns and issues to the reading public, it is a pity that the standard of writing is uneven – while some articles are exciting, a couple are so dreary they are hard to get through.
Ghazala Shahabuddin is an ecologist at the Environmental Studies Group of the Council for Social Development, Delhi. She has monitored habitat fragmentation, people's utilization of forest resources and its impact on the biodiversity of Sariska. Mahesh Rangarajan is Professor of History at the University of Delhi. He is the co-editor of Permanent Black's series called Nature, Culture, Conservation to which this book is a worthy addition.
* apologies to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
Monday, October 08, 2007
This is the untouched version -
The World Conservation Union’s press release a fortnight ago set the wires on fire - 180 species of animals and plants on the threshold of extinction were added to the global Red List this year alone. While the list of species in dire straits grows longer, we can at least celebrate the several new ones discovered in India within the last few years.
Birds are a thoroughly catalogued group through the efforts of the British Raj ornithologists. For much of the century, competitive bird watchers have had to be satisfied with no more than an occasional re-discovery, such as the Forest Owlet. For decades interested birders searched randomly for this species in the wilds across the country, with no success. When a group of American ornithologists arrived in late 1997 to look for the bird, they zeroed in on the four locations where it had been seen previously. They hit the jackpot in the forests just outside Mumbai!
But new discoveries? None for a very long time. Even the grand old man of Indian ornithology, Salim Ali, never had the honour of discovering one. So when Ramana Athreya walked out of Eaglenest National Park in Arunachal Pradesh two years ago with evidence of a new species of bird, the Bugun Liocichla, it sent an electric jolt of excitement among birders. The fact that a professional astronomer had this rare privilege caused much consternation among the more territorial ‘twitchers’. But then such is the game of Species Roulette – some play it hard, some win it cool.
The pretty little bird hit the international headlines (even sharing space with a topless (human) model on page 3 of The Sun). Such is the global clout that birds command, followed only by mammals. Discovering a large primate is a gilt-edged invitation to the Biological Hall of Fame. The last time a macaque was discovered was way back in 1903 in Sumatra. More than 100 years later, a burly macaque dashed across the road bringing biologists from the Nature Conservation Foundation to a screeching halt. A new monkey, the Arunachal Macaque, named for its home state, had just checked into the roll call of Indian fauna. But while we have just become aware of its existence, the local people were all too familiar with the monkey’s crop raiding propensities - an ironic situation where one man’s prize catch is another’s pest.
Far from the media glare, however, new species of reptiles are popping up from the remote forests of the Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as well as in small fragmented forests of the Eastern Ghats of Orissa. This is truly the Age of Herpetological Discovery. While any other specialist would love to bask in the glory of finding at least one new species, researchers now discovering myriads of frogs face a problem peculiar to new parents – finding appropriate names (but in the hundreds)! Despite losing more than 80% of its forests, India is giving Costa Rica and Sri Lanka a run for their frogs.
The unique Pig-nosed Frog from the Western Ghats is the most significant of these discoveries. The only member of an ancient family, reportedly 50 to 100 million years old, it hunkered deep underground while the dramatic environmental and physical changes sweeping the earth wiped out whole groups of animals and saw new ones evolve. This dinosaur among frogs was only discovered in 2003.
Another herpetological breakthrough was the re-discovery of the Indian Egg-eating snake, a toothless, specialist egg swallower. It was first found in Rangpur (now in Bangladesh) in 1863. Subsequently a few surfaced in Nepal and the Indian states of Bihar, West Bengal and Uttarakhand before disappearing altogether. Expeditions were proposed, old reports pored over as herpetologists planned to resurrect the enigmatic snake. In 2003, a specimen of the long lost Indian Egg-eater turned up in Wardha, Maharashtra without much fanfare. It’s not often that a species presents itself on a platter but it is up to the beholder to realize its true value. For about 14 years the species was staring us in the face – intrigued snake enthusiasts from various cities in Gujarat sent pictures seeking its identification. Then it had not occurred to any of the established herpetologists that the creature could emerge more than a thousand kilometers away from its known range. It was dismissed as an aberrant form of a tree snake until the sharp eyes of Frank Tillack, a professional German bricklayer and a self-taught ophiologist, identified the snake for what it was.
Yet another case of effortless species discovery occurred at the field station of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team in 2004. Lizard researcher Shreyas Krishnan woke up with a bad hangover one morning. Despite the heavy downpour he hobbled to the kitchen hoping a cup of strong tea would clear his head. When he heard a splash in the rapidly growing pond outside, he hoped it was a frog. If it was a lizard he was duty bound to take a look, an inconvenient proposition at the moment. A lizard it was, and one that neither he nor any of the numerous visiting herpetologists had ever seen before. Shreyas had discovered not only a species of lizard, but a whole new genus. As a bonus he had also discovered an instant cure for the worst hangover!
Wet squelchy forests are not the only frontiers of biological exploration; barren degraded forests are too. The spectacular Peacock Tarantula was named on the basis of a single specimen obtained at Gooty (Andhra Pradesh) railway station’s timber yard in 1899. Although the place has no habitat, naturalists doggedly searched the area for the spider. About 102 years later, a four-member team concluded that the tarantula must have arrived at the yard as a stowaway in a hollow log. They focused on old railway lines with suitable habitat for a large tree-dwelling spider. Finally, some distance from Gooty, they found the most beautiful spider in the world in a totally degraded forest. Within five hours. While this re-discovery went totally unnoticed in India, it set the network of European and American animal dealers buzzing. Within a year 12 specimens of the tarantula were smuggled out of the country and the babies hit the pet trade the following year. In 2005 when I visited an exotic pet expo in the United States each baby was worth US $ 350, down from $ 1000 in 2003.
The above examples are just a few highlights of recent developments. Scanning two Indian scientific journals revealed the discovery of 31 new species of fish, numerous insects and countless plants just within the last three years. The bottom line is anyone can find a new species; so put on your high-heeled boots, get out your wide brimmed hat and play Species Roulette. Imagine immortality: a tick with your name on it!
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Business World, September 2007
Most people including conservationists think that when a species is in trouble, all it requires is a chunk of protected forest. However, in a high population density India, there are several other constituents or stakeholders involved — local people utilise the forest to graze their cattle and/or collect plant material for a living. How to deal with these people has split the conservation community in two. While one group argues for their relocation out of the forest, the other advocates giving them rights to the forest.
Arun Agrawal and Vasant Saberwal, for example, argue that “cultural sensibilities have combined with an overarching concern with human impacts on the environment, to generate conservation rhetoric on the need to keep people and livestock out of protected areas”. A few chapters later, Ullas Karanth cautions against confusing conservation issues with livelihood issues and concludes “sacrificing the remaining 3 per cent or so area under wildlife reserves is unlikely to make any dent on human problems, which we have been unable to solve by using and abusing the remaining 97 per cent of the land area”.
The relocation lobby tacitly backs the third main constituent, the forest department whose mandate is to conserve these forests despite obvious mismanagement, while the other side views it as an adversary that denies people their traditional rights while selling out to Big Industry. Who is the better guardian of the forest has become the fundamental question fissuring the conservation community.
Understanding the political tangle that includes the aspirations of local people, the limitations of the forest department and the need for landscape conservation, can reduce the increasing polarisation within the Indian conservation community. This is precisely what this reader offers. The anthology of 33 essays is a first for India and promises to be an indispensable tool for anyone interested in Indian conservation and environmental movements. The book spans timelines and histories of various regions, peoples and struggles. India is a microcosm of dilemmas facing much of the developing world that seeks to balance the survival needs of people and wildlife.
Much blame for the precipitous status of several species of animals is heaped on the doorstep of the British Raj. Citing archaeological evidence, Mahesh Rangarajan, editor of the volume, records the collapse of species well before colonial times. For example, over-hunting and habitat loss exterminated the barasingha from Baluchistan by 300 BCE. Several species of plants found in western Indian sites are now extinct. Indians weren’t the traditional paragons of conservation as some romantics will have us believe.
Had we followed the Gandhian model of rural economy would we have avoided the state we find ourselves in? In an incisive essay, Ramachandra Guha evaluates whether Gandhi was the patron saint and Nehru the villain of the environmental movement. The author reminds us that the majority of Indians rejected Gandhi’s model of rural economy. Whereas Nehru, the romantic who “was deeply appreciative of the natural beauty of India”, as the democratically elected representative of the people, acted on the “overwhelming consensus” for rapid industrialisation. However, one of Gandhi’s disciples, Mira Behn was environmentally proactive; nearly 60 years ago she sent Nehru a critique of the forest management policy accompanied by pictures in which she identified the lack of involvement of villagers and the monoculture of pine. To this day, we continue to debate these issues.
Modern global environmental concerns such as nuclear energy and climate change also find a place in this volume. In recent years there have been controversial claims promoting nuclear energy as the new “green energy”. True, it is a low polluting source of energy unlike coal. However, Eliot Marshal puts the cost of going nuclear in perspective: a Natural Resources Defenses Council physicist is quoted as saying that to avoid a 0.2 degree Celsius rise in global temperature at the end of the century, the world would need to build “1,200 new plants in all, at a rate of about 17 per year”. Then there are the attendant concerns over safety hazards, nuclear waste disposal and the misuse of reprocessed plutonium. The book doesn’t offer easy answers, but to present these different perspectives in a single volume is a major first step.
However, there are numerous typographic errors; the punctuation is random. And references mentioned in the text are not in the list at the end. Dates quoted for publications within the text differ from the references at the end. Authors’ names are misspelt. These are irritations that an international publisher of such stature could have easily fixed. Despite these drawbacks, the book is a real steal for the price.
MAHESH RANGARAJAN, is a well-known historian of ecological change as well as a frequently visible TV commentator on Indian politics. He has been a Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, and served as corresponding editor of the journal Environment and History. His books include Fencing the Forest; the two-volume Oxford Anthology of Indian Wildlife.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
The last of an ancient lineage
The gharial is the only true descendant of an ancient family of crocodiles that lived on earth 100 million years ago. A fossil of a sea-faring gharial, recently unearthed in Puerto Rico, was dated to at least 23 million years ago while another giant, a 15 metre long gharial, was excavated from Niger in the 1990s. After the last Ice Age, the gharial staked out about 20,000 square kilometres of rivers, spanning Pakistan to Myanmar, as its territory. Not for the gharial the still waters of ponds or lakes where other crocodilians thrive. This is a true specialist: a river-dweller that eats only fish. Unfortunately, the gharial’s narrow choice of habitat and diet inevitably led to its downfall.
The beginning of conservation action
It all began in 1970 when a disturbing report by the biologist, S.Biswas said that the gharial had simply vanished from the Kosi River and recommended that the other rivers be surveyed. In 1973, conferring with Bombay Natural History Society’s scientists and funded by Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), a team from the Madras Snake Park did extensive surveys across every major river and stream throughout the gharial’s range in India and Nepal – the only two countries in the world that are now home to the reptile. By this time the gharial had been declared extinct in Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Although Bhutan was also a gharial country, its mountainous terrain limits its range to a few stretches of river close to the India border. The headcount came to only 200 gharial; the population had crashed by about 98% in 30 years.
Something radical had to be done and in 1975 the Government of India set up Project Crocodile with the support of the United Nation Development Fund’s (UNDP) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). With alarm bells ringing in its ears, Project Crocodile went to work for the benefit of the three endangered Indian crocodilians – the mugger, the salt-water crocodile and the gharial. It delineated 20,000 square kilometres as sanctuaries and set up several captive rearing projects. Of these the gharial occupied six sanctuaries spread over 240 square kilometres while 16 captive rearing centres were to act as its wet nurses. Although the initial project proposal included concessions such as croc farming as an alternate livelihood for fishermen who would be affected by the conservation measures, it was not implemented and the gharial was soon to pay the price for this oversight. However, those were heady days and such “minor” blips did not dampen the spirits of croc conservationists who strongly believed they could turn the tide.
A training centre (later to become the Wildlife Institute of India) for crocodile biologists was set up in Hyderabad and several Ph.D students were recruited, who were to become the frontline field workers for the gharial. Besides declaring sanctuaries and fostering research, a captive breeding program was initiated as well. But India didn’t have a captive male, and in fact there were only an estimated 10 to 20 adult males in the world at that time. The Frankfurt Zoo in Germany had the only captive male which was donated to the project. To kick-start the program some eggs were even bought from Nepal during the first year. One of the primary thrusts of the conservation plan was to rear hatchlings from eggs (collected both from the wild and captivity) for 3 to 4 years until they reached the length of 1.2 metres (4 feet) before releasing them in the rivers. The idea of “head-starting” was to provide hatchlings the safety of enclosed concrete ponds guarded from predators during the most vulnerable period of their lives. In the following 30 years, 12,000 eggs were collected and over 5000 such head-started gharial were returned to the wild in five sanctuaries. Since the Chambal River is the last “wild” river in North India, it held all the hopes for the future of gharial – even today it holds 48% of the population. And this is where Project Crocodile focused its attention by releasing 3500 animals here alone. Gharial numbers surged in the subsequent years and the picture looked rosy. And then the rug was yanked from beneath.
Unwitting wardens of the Chambal
Uniquely for India, the National Chambal Sanctuary straddles 3 states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – including some of the wildest areas that were out of bounds for the state machinery. The ravines on the banks of the river were the hideout of some dreaded bandits, the most infamous among them being Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen. These outlaws ruled the roost, making sure that the area remained untouched by the Government’s development plans. Nobody wanted to invest in any industry or buy real estate in these parts. Researchers and Forest Department personnel were vulnerable targets and they made sure they were not caught in the field after dark.
Phoolan Devi however, captured one croc researcher, Dhruvajyoti Basu, and snatched away his binoculars. When he pleaded saying they were not his and the Forest Department would give him much grief if he lost them, the bandit gave him a signed voucher declaring that she, Phoolan Devi, had “borrowed” the binoculars. He was then set free, unharmed. Others who faced the wrath of the outlaws were not so lucky. Ironically, the gharial (and the habitat) thrived under the unwitting but ruthless “protection” by the bandits.
Change of guard
In the mid-1990s in response to state offered amnesty, the brigands started to give themselves up one by one. The police were slow to fill the power vacuum thus created. Other anti-socials – local mafias – began setting up shop. While the outlaws had restricted themselves to fobbing off the rich, the mafia began to systematically exploit the resources – sand mining (to feed the building boom in cities like Delhi and Agra), fishing in the Sanctuary, turtle poaching and so on. One official, speaking off the record, said the large scale sand mining had brought down banditry in the region, thereby indirectly demonstrating that addressing the livelihood needs of the people is key to achieving conservation success! Poor villagers, struggling to make a living from agriculture, irrigated their fields with water siphoned off the river leaving the lower reaches of the river shallow in summer.
A District Collector who visited the place recently to put a stop to the illegal activities was beaten up and his police escorts were reduced to mute spectators. Although the National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary is governed by three-states, there is limited enforcement of conservation agendas and people there do pretty much what they want. (Recently, however, the Forest Department sought permission to shoot illegal sand miners to enforce the law.)
Not to be outdone, the government water authorities such as the Irrigation Department built barrages, irrigation canals, artificial embankments and controlled other gharial rivers to an extreme degree – impounding the river during the lean summer months (when all the aquatic animals are imprisoned in a few deep pools), and opening the sluice gates in one go after the rains, causing a veritable tsunami (washing down everything caught in its powerful currents – uprooted trees, gharial, dolphins). All these activities impacted the gharial directly.
However, once gharial conservation was deemed a great success (when the population in the Chambal climbed to over 1200 between 1993 and 1997), the Government of India withdrew money from the expensive croc breeding and release program. No surveys were conducted between 1999 and 2003 but that didn’t worry too many people as the gharial had after all been saved. In 2004, croc conservationists were shocked when Dr. R.K. Sharma, a gharial biologist of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, alerted them to the news that the gharial numbers had nose-dived and there was visible degradation of the habitat.
Back on the brink
The last assessment in 2006 revealed that the gharial was in even more distress than 2003; there are no more than 200 wild breeding gharial in Nepal and India. This situation may seem marginally better than the dire straits the gharial found itself in the early 1970s but now the pressures on the habitat have multiplied and the quality of what remains is deteriorating. Besides, the future viability of the species is compromised because the 200 breeders are spatially separated. The massive influx of funds and the release of 5000 captive-reared gharial have not achieved any significant reversal. More barrages and dams are on their way for almost every river that is home to the gharial. The situation is even worse in the other range country: Nepal.
Today the gharial’s domain is a mere 2% of its former range, limited to a couple of hundred square kilometres and dwindling. The future of the gharial is so threatened that its Red List status was recently revised from Endangered to Critically Endangered, one stop away from Extinction. It is, today, the most endangered large animal in India, more gravely endangered than the tiger.
What went wrong?
Although a critical scientific assessment of past conservation achievements (including one that grades threats according to their severity) has not yet been done, the picture outlined here was arrived at by connecting survey numbers, field visits, and reports (by various workers). In hindsight, three shortfalls in the conservation program were identified – the habitat was never secured, local people were not taken on board; monitoring of the released juveniles was not done (all these “boring” issues were addressed in every set of recommendations dating from the 1970s, but were ignored in favour of the seductive simplicity of reintroductions) and the significant conservation headway (designation of croc sanctuaries, successful captive breeding, research, publicity and international support) that was made has slowly unravelled under the sustained onslaught of river resource exploitation. This resulted in widespread deterioration of gharial habitat (barrages, dams caused the rivers to silt up, sand mining on basking and nesting beaches), and depletion of prey by illegal fishermen. Several large adult gharial drown in fishing nets and get ensnared by hooks laid by turtle poachers every year. The few that are lucky enough to survive in the nets face a more horrible fate. Fishermen cut the long fragile snouts of the gharial tangled in their nets before setting them free. These handicapped gharial will slowly starve to death within a year. Tolerance is obviously on a short leash.
In India, conservation is generally driven by biologists with little or no inputs from social scientists. The exclusive (throwing fishermen out of the sanctuary and curtailing any human activity) and unsympathetic (no alternate livelihood options offered to the affected people who became destitute overnight) state conservation policies have replaced any existing traditional conservation values with bitterness and anger. The gharial has become the symbol of people’s alienation from their natural resources and there is no support for its continued existence.
The majority of the crocodile conservationists in India may believe that the gharial is again facing extinction because reintroduction efforts are down to a minimum. The reality is that the expensive “head-starting” programs may have achieved little. Since the released gharial were not monitored, no one knows how many survived. Out of the thousands released, only hundreds remain. We can only surmise that they did not have the wherewithal to deal with the strong currents (nor did they possess the muscle tone after being reared in still pools) and the absence of calm tributaries may have resulted in most of these young ones being flushed out of the sanctuaries into the inhospitable habitats downstream during the annual monsoon floods. It is also possible that these captive reared, hand-fed gharial were unable to catch live prey. In some areas such as the Satkoshia Gorge Wildlife Sanctuary only two out of 700 released animals remain (a mortality rate of 99.7%). In Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary four nests were recorded in 1977, but the release of 909 gharial (including 112 in 2006) in the following years resulted in 20 nests in 2006. This implies a mere 2.5% of thirty years of reintroduction efforts. In the Chambal, despite receiving the lion’s share of funds and captive-reared gharials, there were only 68 nests recorded in 2006, up from 12 in 1978. Again this represents only 2% of the reintroduction efforts. While conservation studies worldwide have demonstrated that habitat protection is all that is needed for a species to recover, reintroduction is a radical intervention generally reserved for a stage of no return.
For the past decades, surveys revealed annually increasing numbers of gharial and this fact was used to claim that conservation efforts had been a great success. But the point is, gharial numbers were being artificially boosted by reintroductions every year. So the moment the head-starting program came to a standstill, the numbers of wild gharial plummeted. If success is measured by the ability of a population to self-sustain, the question that needs to be asked is - did gharial reintroductions ever achieve conservation success? While some conservationists argue that extinction had been averted by such sustained releases, it is also possible that the modicum of protection given to the habitats was the cause of the increase in nest numbers. The important thing to realize is that the reintroduction of gharial did not lead to the re-colonization of habitats such as Ken and Satkoshia where no nesting has been recorded in decades. The four existing breeding populations – Chambal, Katerniaghat, Son and Rapti-Narayani (Nepal) – already had reproducing females when these efforts began.
The head-starting program has never complied with any of the norms laid down by the 1998 IUCN Guidelines for Reintroductions. Given that the threats to gharial have never been addressed, nor existing conflicts mitigated, it makes little sense to keep dumping thousands of hapless young gharial (most to face certain death) into the rivers. Even captive reared adults were reintroduced with little or no effort spent on maximizing their chances of surviving in a landscape to which they were ill adjusted. Despite the enormity of past failure, reintroductions have not stopped nor critically evaluated. On the contrary, the pressure to allow such arbitrary releases is high even today, because of captive breeding successes, resultant overcrowding in zoos and rearing centers, and the “feel-good” factor. So why don’t the managers stop the captive breeding? For fear of reduced budgetary allocations in the subsequent years and indeed, more gharial are slated for release in the coming winter months.
Head of the table
The gharial requires deep, free-flowing rivers unfettered by dams and barrages. Fish, the prey of gharial (otters, river dolphins and several species of water birds), need clean and clear water to breed. Gharial must have undisturbed sand banks to bask and nest. We are also talking here about an intact, protected river habitat, on which our own survival hinges. Ecologically, the passing of the gharial signifies a collapsed ecosystem – polluted waters, drastic drop in water levels, erosion and siltation – all conditions that make any life in the rivers untenable. People need to see the gharial for the critical environmental services it offers – it eats the predatory catfish thereby boosting the productivity of fish yields, and it cleans up the injured, sick and unfit fish from the genetic pool; it plays the same role of top predator of the rivers that the tiger plays in the forest. The wise ancients recognized the critical role played by the gharial and made it the steed of none less than Ma Ganga herself, making it the cultural and ecological icon of the most sacred river in the world.
New Directions in Gharial Conservation
The gharial and its fellow river fauna really need the support of policy makers who should re-evaluate the proposal to interlink our rivers (thereby dooming them). The past mistakes have demonstrated the need to redress conservation priorities more broadly if the gharial and other riverine species are to survive. India is the only long-term hope for the gharial in the world.
The Madras Crocodile Bank based Gharial Multi-Task Force (GMTF) has set a science-based agenda that will identify threats to the species, survey historic habitats, such as the Brahmaputra, which are currently devoid of any gharial population, study the ecological role of the gharial, while also working with social scientists to understand the alternate livelihood needs of the people in the hope that they will once again accept the gharial as the icon of their river. The GMTF hopes to re-orient the gharial conservation strategy using science while accepting that wildlife management is really no more than people management in this situation – if all the human generated pressures are minimized, the species will automatically respond. It is only in extreme cases where a habitat exists but the species has been extirpated that intrusive animal management such as reintroduction is needed.
River Watch, a partnership between GMTF and the Worldwide Fund for Nature-India, is still in its formative stage and realizes that if our rivers are to survive, an integrated conservation plan is needed. It will focus on habitat protection while bringing together conservationists working for all river fauna, including the highly endangered Ganges river dolphin, smooth coated otters, mahseer and several species of endangered freshwater turtles, under one umbrella. River Watch, based in the WWF-India office in Delhi, intends to prioritize river conservation by drafting Management Plans for the various Protected Areas along river systems, developing and strengthening the policy and legislation for Integrated River Basin Management and lobbying for their implementation. While it will coordinate between departments such as Irrigation, Fisheries and Forest, River Watch will also network with our neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. It will campaign against over-harvesting of fish and water as well as any construction on rivers that works to the detriment of its habitat and fauna. It hopes to formulate guidelines for river ecotourism as well as promote use of safe fishing gear and teaching fishermen how to deal with accidentally captured gharial and dolphins. River Watch will collaborate with national and international partners in conservation, research and education to achieve its goals.
Gharial: the icon of civilization
It is not mere coincidence that all the great civilizations of the world rose on the banks of rivers. Rivers are still the lifeline of our existence, for example, the Indus and Ganges river basins support more than 10% (600 million people) of the world’s population. By working to conserve such animals as the gharial and river dolphins, we are in reality only preserving our very own life support system. While the pressures on rivers increase day by day, we are guardedly optimistic that people are already seeing reason and are finally ready to save the gharial and the rivers that are its home.
Saturday, June 02, 2007
Published as 'Uncovering the Tortoise Trade Route', The Hindu, Saturday, Jun 02, 2007
For years, a pair of smugglers – Umesh Kishore Tekani, alias Mexx, in Singapore and Wai Ho Gin, nicknamed Bobby Gin, based in California – smuggled Indian star tortoises, among others, into the US by calling them “toy figures.” Another character, John Pen Tokosh, had tried the same trick, which landed him in prison for a year in June 2006.
While our papers today are full of tiger and lion poaching, what passes unnoticed is an equally well-organized criminal network of smugglers ripping off our star tortoises, much sought after in the international pet trade. In India, star tortoises feature on Schedule IV, the lowest rank of protection under the Wildlife Protection Act. A smuggler can be penalized with a maximum of three years in prison or a Rs. 25,000 fine but they are rarely jailed for trading in a Schedule IV animal. Besides, the people apprehended are usually just the couriers or mules and not the actual kingpins of the trade. Local hunters, reportedly members of the Hakke Pakke tribe, catch these animals from the dry scrub forests of Chittoor and Madanapalle districts in Andhra Pradesh and Kolar District in Karnataka and they are paid no more than $ 1 for each animal. By the time the animal reaches American shores each tortoise can fetch anywhere from $ 350 to $ 1000.
Occasionally there have been fanciful claims that the seized animals were captive-bred (The Hindu, July 28, 2005). However, such an assertion is merely a fig leaf to cover the government’s pathetic enforcement record and to downplay the impact on the wild population. In a communication to TRAFFIC (the trade monitoring arm of Worldwide Fund for Nature) in the year 2000, Conservation International’s tortoise expert, Peter Paul van Dijk wrote, “This species is not bred anywhere in the world in the quantities needed to supply the commercial demand.”
In 2005, wildlife authorities gloated that smuggling had declined (The Hindu, Sep 29, 2005), but in reality it was merely a breakdown in intelligence gathering. At least 9500 Indian star tortoises squeaked through their hands that year and were traded internationally with legal documents. “Also noteworthy is the fact that most of the seizures in India have occurred at airports. This indicates that there is either a total lack of intelligence gathering by the wildlife authorities or connivance at the lower levels,” says an official of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Tortoises are smuggled out of India to transit countries such as Thailand and Malaysia where the smugglers seem to be a step ahead of law enforcement. An animal dealer who was raided in Bangkok in January 2007 produced Lebanese export papers for 1000 Indian star tortoises! Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC Malaysia writes, “The only department within Peninsular Malaysia which can currently enforce CITES regulations for the Indian Star Tortoise is the Royal Customs and Excise Department.” If Customs fails to nab an illegal shipment as it enters the country, then the smugglers are home free. They can then sell them openly without fear of prosecution as indeed happens. According to a study conducted over a two-week period by TRAFFIC-Malaysia, 173 Indian star tortoises were offered for sale in 24 out of 31 pet shops visited. The shopkeepers reported that more than 80% of the star tortoises they received were from India while the rest came from Sri Lanka. The ready availability of Indian star tortoises in Malaysia is illustrated by Shepherd’s statement, “When asked if it was possible to acquire a large batch of 20-30 animals, traders usually requested only 1-2 days to acquire the tortoises.”
At the last meeting of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) nations in 2004, Malaysia gave an assurance that it will amend its laws to fix this loophole, but nothing has been done and stars continue to be smuggled through its borders. CITES strives to control the international trade in wildlife species by implementing licensing regulations. As a CITES Appendix II animal, the Indian star tortoise needs an export permit only to facilitate its legal crossing of international boundaries (besides any local legal restrictions). The export permits can be issued only “if the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species.” And therein lies the crux of the issue - except for a couple of studies, Indian star tortoises have never been studied in the wild, nor their distribution and status mapped. So nobody knows how the current levels of exploitation have impacted a slow breeding reptile. But regardless of these concerns there are some countries (where star tortoises are not found) unscrupulous enough to issue the export permits.
According to the CITES trade database (www.cites.org) between 1975 and 1994, about 9200 star tortoises were exported with CITES certificates, mostly to Japan. Aware that wild-caught, smuggled Indian star tortoises were finding their way into the international trade with export permits issued by some countries, CITES issued a Notification in 1994 recommending its member countries not to accept any export or re-export permit for tortoises unless these documents were verified. There followed a five year lull period (if about 270 animals per year could be called that) and then in the year 2000, Lebanon entered the picture and the total number of tortoises traded under CITES began rocketing.
The smugglers picked their country right – Lebanon is not a signatory to CITES and since 2003 has re-exported more than 9000 Indian star tortoises claimed to be captive bred (in Kazakhstan of all places!). However, Kazakhstan, a party to CITES, has not reported exporting a single star tortoise since 2000 (the year it became party to CITES). Lebanon also exported 6000 more tortoises without disclosing the source. There are only 3 countries in the world where the species is found – India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – and in the last 12 years they collectively exported 1038 star tortoises only. So where did the thousands of tortoises come from? All indications are that they came from India routed variously through Thailand and Malaysia with Lebanon laundering these illegally procured animals by providing fraudulent export documents. It is doubtful if these star tortoises even touched Kazakh or Lebanese soil.
Between the years 1995 and 2005, a whopping 32,000 tortoises were traded and of these Japan accepted the export permits for 20,000, contravening the CITES notification of 1994. From 2002 to 2004, Afghanistan, a country where the star tortoise is not found in the wild, exported more than 5000 of them listed as “wild caught” to that black hole - Japan. While Japan is the single largest market for scores of laundered tortoises, thousands more are smuggled to the high paying markets of Europe and the US.
Between 2001 and 2004 less than 7000 star tortoises were confiscated across India, while 19,000 were recorded to have been traded internationally with fraudulent papers. Within the last few years, in an act of ‘spring-cleaning’, several old CITES Notifications were cancelled including the one on trade in tortoises. Today there is no cautionary advice on the subject. In 2005 (at the same time that Indian authorities were claiming a slump in smuggling) the trade hit an all time high of 9480 animals. (There are no figures for 2006 on the CITES database yet.) If these are the “legally” traded numbers worldwide, the numbers smuggled without papers is definitely several times higher.
Meanwhile the US authorities showed a distinct lack of creative imagination by refusing to see the star tortoises as “action figures”. After four years of surveillance, they swung into action on May 17, 2007 and indicted Bobby Gin (and Mexx if he’s ever caught) on a dozen charges of conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering. If convicted on the first two, they’ll get five years in prison and twenty years for the latter. While the severity of the punishment was no doubt because of the CITES Appendix I tortoises they also smuggled, it’s a damn sight better than India’s record in convicting smugglers of even Schedule I species, clearly illustrating how seriously wildlife crime is viewed in this country.
Obviously India must slam down on wildlife crime while pushing countries such as Malaysia and Thailand to do more to prosecute smugglers. Japan has to be coerced to reject dubious export permits such as those issued by Lebanon. CITES needs to demonstrate that it is indeed an effective mechanism in controlling such illegal international trade. How can CITES signatory countries so blatantly accept documents from non-party nations such as Lebanon? When the tortoise route spans the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and the US, a united stand against smuggling is the only way to stop exploitation of the species in the wild. Hopefully the upcoming meeting of CITES nations to be held at The Hague between 3 and 15 June will re-assess measures taken against the global illegal trade in wildlife and perhaps this charismatic little tortoise will win a reprieve.
Friday, May 18, 2007
Published: BBC Wildlife June 2007
With its fantastically long, tooth-filled snout, the gharial takes the crocodile design to the extreme. Sadly, such weaponry has been useless in saving the species from a dreadful decline and its last hope rests with ROMULUS WHITAKER and his colleagues.
Story by Janaki Lenin
THE SUN BLAZED overhead. It was midday and we had been walking for hours. I wanted to believe that the wisp of blue in the distance was the River Padma – our destination – but I worried it was a mirage. The river is the official boundary between India and Bangladesh, and has changed its course so many times I feared it might have vanished altogether.
Finally, a ribbon of cobalt swam into view. We reached the brow of the high bank, knees buckling with exhaustion, when, in the water below us, we saw a crocodile with an unfeasibly long snout. Was it a gharial or just another illusion?
The reptile’s sleek body glistened in the sun. She seemed unafraid of us, and we guessed she was guarding eggs buried in the sandbank. Instantly revived, we dug until we found the nest, watched suspiciously by its owner. We were hoping to rear her young safely in captivity and then release them, but she didn’t know that. Still, she didn’t attack us.
GOING TO POT That was in the mid-1980s. We didn’t know it then, but this may have been the last time gharials nested in Bangladesh – a symptom of the species’ decline across its entire Asian range. The problem was that no one knew enough about this unusual croc to be able to help it. This is what prompted me to work as much as I could in gharial country – India, Bangladesh and Nepal.
What sets the gharial apart from all other crocodilians is its incredibly long snout, which it wields like chopsticks. These slim jaws, lined with sharp teeth, are ideal for catching fish. But they have another function. When a male reaches adolescence, at about age 12, a wart-like appendage begins growing on the tip of his snout. This is the ghara (Hindi for ‘pot’, which it resembles), and it completely covers and presses down on the nostrils. When the male breathes out forcefully, it produces a flatulent noise that carries across the water. The politest term I can come up with for this noise is ‘buzz-snort’. It serves two purposes – to attract females and warn off rivals.
We heard the buzz-snort in action near Rajghat on the Chambal River in northern India. We saw a big male gharial patrolling and heard his underwater territorial jaw-clap – the gharial is the only croc to advertise its presence in this way under water (some biologists think this could be a method of stunning prey as well as marking territory). It was an early winter morning, and when he surfaced and buzz-snorted, we could see the vapour leave his nostrils. Though it was winter, when crocs bask on the sandbanks to warm up, this adult male spent most of his time in the water, attending to his harem of females and alert to any male who might try to usurp his position.
Fights between male gharials involve terrific displays of prowess. The territory-holder surges forward, churning the water into a froth with his tail. If the intruder remains unintimidated, the two males engage in combat. Their slender snouts clash like swords in the air, though they seem too fragile for such violent action – indeed, you can often hear the crack of a tooth splintering or bone hitting bone. Eventually, one gharial will prevail and the other retreat.
MUM’S THE WORD The testosterone that fuels these fights between males ebbs after mating. Then the females go to war, battling over the best nest sites. Their conflicts are less brutal than the males’, though the same rule applies – the larger individual invariably wins. Once the territory squabbles are over, a mother gharial makes a 40-50cm-deep nest hole with her hind feet, into which she lays about 50 large eggs. She then covers the nest, tossing sand over the area to hide her tracks from predators such as hyenas, jackals and mongooses, before returning to the river to keep watch from a distance.
Many crocodilians are attentive parents, but little was known about how gharials care for their young until I observed our captive-breeding population. One day I noticed a mother begin to dig up her nest. As I got closer, I could hear her babies calling from beneath the sand, just as other young crocs do. It can take mother crocs hours to assist their babies to the water, as they cannot see exactly where the youngsters are. They often mistake rocks, egg shells, clods of dirt, even baby turtles for their own young, and will tenderly carry them to the river.
This female dug with her front feet until she flipped out a baby, which landed by her hind feet. She then ‘back-heeled’ it through the air into the water. She excavated the rest of the nest without jettisoning any more youngsters, and then turned around and slid into the river. Her 36 babies followed, rather like ducklings.
Alerted by all the activity, the male lurked nearby. When he swam close, the babies climbed onto his head, transforming him from an aggressive fighter into a devoted parent. Both adults then guarded the youngsters. In the wild, their behaviour is no doubt similar. It’s likely that family groups are only split up when monsoon rains wash the juveniles away.
Up to 100 years ago, the gharial’s buzz-snort resonated along the deep rivers of the northern Indian subcontinent. Not for the gharial the still waters of ponds or lakes where other crocs thrive: this is a hardcore river-dweller that eats only fish. Unfortunately, this narrow choice of habitat and diet has been the gharial’s downfall. Its rivers are being dammed, which isolates populations. After the last Ice Age, the gharial staked out about 20,000km2 of rivers, spanning Pakistan to Burma. Today, its domain is a mere 200km2 and dwindling.
To counter this decline – and that of other Indian crocodilians – Project Crocodile was set up in 1974 by the Indian Government with help from the UN. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, we carried out surveys, behavioural studies and captive breeding. We reared thousands of youngsters and released them in protected areas. Sadly, few of these pioneers survived for long – but we didn’t know why.
For example, the beautiful Satkosia Gorge in Orissa appears to have everything a gharial could want – fish, sandbanks, protection – and threats such as bamboo-rafting and net-fishing have been eliminated. Yet only two of the 700 gharials released here in the past three decades have survived. When I visited the Gorge during the monsoon in mid-July, I saw how small streams had become torrents. The river roared up to nine metres above its dry-season mark, eroding the banks and uprooting trees. The released gharials were obviously being flushed downriver, out of the protected area and even into the sea. One was seen on a beach, others in mangroves and ponds. Those that took refuge in tributaries were caught in fishing nets.
Fishing is a massive problem. In supposedly protected areas, we saw several gharials whose snouts had got tangled in nylon fishing nets. It was clear that, despite the rules, gill nets were being set at night, entangling gharials that tried to swim through them or attempted to eat the netted fish. The crocs didn’t drown, but they were left unable to open their jaws and thus in danger of starving to death. In other places, dam construction disturbed nesting gharials and local people raided the nests for eggs to eat.
Clearly, though the gharial’s slide towards extinction had been slowed, our 30-year strategy of captive-breeding has not been enough. The species faces an uncertain future and its survival is closely linked with the needs of the humans dependent on the rivers. Our campaign (see right) is part of a much larger initiative to ensure the survival of these rivers. The threats – from development, pollution and climate change – increase day by day, but we are guardedly optimistic that people are at last ready to do what it takes to save the gharial, the ultimate icon of a healthy river.
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Published in Sanctuary Asia Vol XXVI No. 6, Dec 2006
Kalia was a woman-eater. He was estimated to be a 23 to 24 foot (7.01 to 7.32 m.) salt-water crocodile who ruled a 10 mile (16.66 km.) stretch of the Dhamra River in Bhitarkanika, Orissa. The then Raja of Kanika wrote in 1973 that this unusually dark skinned reptile eluded shikaris including his grandfather and father for 50 years. In 1926, the captain of a ship on a run from Chandbali to Calcutta eventually shot it. The injured reptile crawled onto the bank taking shelter in the reeds and tall dry grass. Seizing the opportunity, the villagers set fire to the vegetation killing the croc.
For several years, Kalia’s skull welcomed visitors to the palace in Rajkanika while the bangles and anklets found in his belly were displayed on a table, gruesome reminders of a horrific period in the region’s history. J.C. Daniel and S.A. Hussain of the Bombay Natural History Society were the first to measure the salt-water crocodile’s skull in 1973 and reported that it was the largest skull in the world at 100 cm.
Robert Bustard and Romulus Whitaker wanted an accurate figure and in 1974 they went up to Bhitarkanika to measure the skull. It was hanging way up on the wall out of reach and it wasn’t a simple job getting it down. So using a stick they came up with 98 cm. Years later, Rom realized that they had made a mistake. Instead of measuring the skull from snout tip to the occiput (back of the head of the upper jaw), they had measured it all the way to the back of the lower jaw, a mistake that several people continue to make thus confusing the issue of crocodile morphology.
If you are wondering why the measurement of the skull has to be so specific, it’s because crocodile biologists use it to extrapolate croc sizes. The length of the skull (measured along the median line from the tip of the snout to the back of the occiput) is multiplied by seven to arrive at the animal’s total length. Scientists came up with this equation after measuring hundreds of alligators in the United States and rapidly biologists around the world began using it to estimate the lengths of several species of crocodiles.
Although there have been several reports of bigger crocodiles being shot in Australia – one was estimated to be 27 ft. (8.23 m.) – there is not a shred of evidence (skull, skin or photograph) to prove the hunters’ claims. In the 19th century, a monstrous 33 ft. (10.06 m.) croc was reportedly shot in Bengal and the skull lodged at the British Museum of Natural History. When the skull was measured it was only 60 cm. long and a simple arithmetic puts the animal at 13.78 ft. (4.20 m.).
For a couple of decades Rom tried unsuccessfully to access Kalia’s skull and in recent years began to fret that it might have disintegrated. Through Aurodam David in Auroville, we finally met Shivendra Bhanjdeo, the Yuvaraj of Kanika. He confirmed Rom’s worries – the skull was indeed falling apart and he wanted assistance in preserving it. Rom, in turn, sought the help of Dr. Russ McCarty, paleontologist at the Florida State Museum in Gainesville, who is a professional preserver of bones. He recommended a substance called Butvar (polyvinyl butyral). It wasn’t available in India, so friends kindly brought over a pound of the white crystals.
Earlier this year, we went up to Bhubaneshwar where the skull had since been moved from Rajkanika. It wasn’t in as bad a shape as we feared – the sutures holding the various parts of the skull were still intact. A slice of the upper jaw was missing (as it was even in the 1973 photograph); the captain must have shot the animal through the body. The skull had to be cleaned thoroughly and an enterprising businessman friend, Vinny took on the dirty work – alternately brushing and pumping jets of air with a bicycle pump, he managed to get most of the grit out. It was impossible to reach the crevices and the tooth sockets, so he hauled it off to the local tyre puncture fixer. It was only because Vinny was barking orders that the bewildered mechanics did what was needed. After being air-blasted, the skull returned looking several shades whiter. The Butvar had to be dissolved in acetone (without forming lumps, just like good gravy) and the thick glue brushed on the skull. An iron tub (plastic melts when it comes in contact with acetone) of adequate size was found and with the heavy skull levered by a long bamboo pole, the Butvar was poured over it. The preservative soaked into all the cracks, crevices and pores virtually encasing it and now the skull is good to last another 100 years and probably a lot more.
Finally, the moment Rom had been waiting for 30 years arrived. The tip of the snout to the occiput measured only 73.3 cm. We added three centimetres for the four per cent shrinkage when the skull dried out, and checked and double-checked the measurements. There is no doubt about it, by using the standard ratio for crocodile head length to total body length, Kalia would have measured 17.52 ft. (5.34 m.), significantly short of the 23-24 footer that it was claimed to be.
Some experts however, have expressed doubt if the 1:7 ratio can be applied universally. While the ratio is consistent in alligators, it varied wildly in crocodiles. In 1979, while Rom was doing a crocodile survey in Papua New Guinea, tribal hunters proudly showed him the skin of a crocodile that measured 20.34 ft. (6.2 m.). The fresh skull was 72 cm. long making it a 1:8.6 ratio. The behemoth had drowned in a tiny barramundi net.
In another instance, Australian croc biologist Grahame Webb measured a salt-water croc skull at 66.6 cm. belonging to a freshly killed 20.18 ft. (6.15 m.) animal. This ratio of 1:9.23 made Kalia a whopping 23.11 ft. (7.04 m.), closer to the Raja of Kanika’s claims. As a final test, we measured the closest giant at hand, Jaws III, at the Madras Crocodile Bank. The ratio was 1:9. The emerging theory is that young crocodiles may follow the 1:7 ratio, but as they grow older, the skull doesn’t keep up with the rest of the body, until at 35+ years of age they reach 1:9. If we could estimate these growth changes, it would be relatively simple to estimate the age of crocs.
Recently, we traced the skull of a false gharial from Borneo to the Munich Museum. It measured 81 cm. (snout tip to occiput). So the current record holder for the largest crocodilian skull in the world is not a salt-water crocodile (the traditional favourite) but an endangered long-snouted fresh-water reptile. It seems likely that none of these ratios would apply to gharials and false gharials so we can only speculate what length the Bornean false gharial reached.
Among crocodiles however, the largest skull, measuring 76 cm, belonged to a salt-water crocodile from Cambodia, now at the Paris Museum. The second largest skull (73.5 cm) is of an American crocodile at the American Museum of Natural History, New York and the Kanika skull ranks third in the world. There may yet be other larger skulls collecting dust in private collections but until they are measured, all stories of humungous crocodiles remain in the realm of old hunters’ tales.
The crocodile census conducted in Bhitarkanika in January indicated the presence of a 23 ft. (7.01 m.) crocodile (would we love to put a tape measure on that beast!!). Given the high degree of protection the Crocodile Sanctuary enjoys from the Orissa Forest Department (and the salt-water crocodiles themselves), it seems that this is one of the few places on the planet where these giant crocodiles will continue to rule into the 22nd century.
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Published as a chapter in Sundarbans Inheritance, Sanctuary Books, 2007
Narrated by Rom Whitaker; written by Janaki Lenin
Abdul Aziz Mulla, a honey collector, stumbled upon a saltwater crocodile nest just as the eggs were hatching. Since he couldn't see the female anywhere close by, he picked up a baby croc, which immediately started squawking in alarm as baby crocs will do. The mother, which had slipped into a muddy wallow on his approach, heard its baby's call and swung into defensive action, erupting from hiding to grab his leg. He threw the baby croc at her, which is all she really wanted. A few bad scars later, even Abdul admitted she wasn't a man-eater. Surprisingly, this was just one of the few croc attack accounts I heard in the Bangladesh Sundarbans about 25 years ago.
I spent three weeks in the mangrove forest aboard the 10-metre-long District Forest Officer's launch, Bana Sundri in 1981. With its six-man crew we conducted perhaps the first crocodile survey undertaken in the Sundarbans. The swamp was always notorious for its man-eating tigers and we had a 24-hour armed escort; while I appreciated the necessity, I soon began to chaff at the lack of privacy. Celebrity-hood was never my bag!
The best place to start my study was by interviewing the people who lived on the edges of the crocodile swamps. Interestingly, apart from their myths and legends, few really knew about crocodile natural history or behaviour. Many actually confused the nests of wild pigs and crocs, and I found myself personally checking each nest they thought they had located. This involved crawling on hands and knees through thorny Phoenix palms and 1.5 m. tall tiger ferns, not named for its feline looks but because its dense stands are a favoured hide-out for tigers.
Visibility at such times was about as far as my nose. Elsewhere humans are usually the hunters -- the kings of the forest. In the Sundarbans the tables are turned. You feel hunted; just prey. Understandably, we constantly looked over our shoulders, listening for every small sound and, I am not ashamed of admitting, quaking in our shoes. It was the poor visibility combined with constant reminders from everyone I met that made walking in the tiger's turf as heart-pounding as running a marathon at high altitude. Yes, the armed guard was always behind me with his ancient and cumbersome Enfield .303 cocked. But that itself was a creepy feeling. Would I end up as tiger fodder, or would a jumpy guard armed with an unpredictable rifle accidentally get me?
Walking in the mangroves is a seriously tough business. I was often knee deep in mud in some places, thigh-deep in others. If a tiger did actually turn up running was never going to be an option. The big cat had the advantage of enormous snowshoe-like paws, but the aerial roots, the pneumatophores, of some mangrove trees would be an impediment even for the cat. My feet slipped and slid sideways as I tried to step between the sharp spear-like roots, straining muscles unused to this strange manner of walking. Meanwhile, monkeys jumped artfully from pneumatophore to pneumatophore and deer raced through them faster than a tiger possibly could. Any two-legged human treading this swamp was at a major disadvantage.
Once you are out of the tiger’s turf, you walk straight into bull shark waters. The first time I returned after a walk in the mangroves, I recall trying to wash the black gooey mud off my legs in the river before getting on the launch and was chastised for my trouble. In the boat crew’s view my white legs were ideal shark bait so I was ordered to always hop up on the launch first, scoop up a bucket of water from the river and only then wash my legs… away from of jaws of water-borne predators.
When the tiger does not make it into their conversation, people who visit the Sundarbans talk of crocodile attacks. It’s more hype than fact. Though that might have been true in the old days when crocs were common, 25 years ago I found no evidence to support the stories. Also there was confusion about whether people had been attacked by sharks or crocs. None of the scars from the injuries I physically examined were caused by crocodiles and six or seven victims down the line I was inclined to think that the so-called croc attacks was the work of sharks. People sifting for shrimp seedling were especially at risk because bull sharks commonly hunt in muddy waters along the shore. Some are maimed by relatively small sharks, about 1.5 or 1.8 m. long, which would grab a leg or an arm and shake vigorously tearing off skin, flesh, part of an arm, or a leg. As for the crocs, I just never saw enough of them. Nor it would appear do most land animals because deer, wild boar and tigers seemed to have no qualms about swimming across creeks, streams and rivers as evidenced by the many pugmarks and hoof prints visible on the edges of muddy banks.
When darkness fell, I would stop conversing with humans and begin working on what I loved best – looking for crocs. I used a powerful spotlight that made crocs’ eyes shine, giving them away. High tide was never any good to me as the reptiles would be deep in the mangroves. I found myself gliding along the waterways using the same methods that croc hunters once did, to devastating effect, in the 1950s when the skin industry was at its peak. Three decades later the few surviving crocs in the Sundarbans were still wary of humans.
Days passed. And despite scouring ideal croc habitat night afternight, frustration began to set in. The only crocs I was able to spot were hatchlings or yearlings. Though I followed up on local advice: “Go downriver to such and such place and you will see them basking” all I ever saw were a few slide marks. Then, out of the blue (brown actually!) one day, I saw the broad back of a monster croc – an 18 footer (5.5 m.) -- swimming languidly out in the middle of the Bhola River. I am unlikely to forget that sighting because it was one of the precious few crocs I ever saw in the Sundarbans. Ultimately after covering over 433 km. of mangrove creeks and rivers in three weeks, I counted just six, and saw evidence of six more during that survey. That’s a density of 0.028 crocs per km.
Drifting along the mud-lined and mangrove clothed waterways of the Sundarbans, watching the forest go by day after day can get monotonous so I would entertain myself fishing. Occasionally we would stop at a forest rest house and I would go out looking for snakes to take my mind off the survey that was not working out quite as I had hoped. When I go snake hunting, I don’t like people around; I like to concentrate on what I’m doing. But since the forest was ‘dangerous’ I could not casually wander off on my own. One afternoon while the guard was catching some shut eye post-lunch I sneaked off to look for snakes around the dighi, a freshwater pond away from the main river. I found some interesting water snakes and was totally engrossed when I suddenly heard shouting -- the guard was running towards me with his rifle ready. I quickly looked around to see if I was about to be pounced on by Dakshin Ray, the tiger god. The guard was angry: “If you get eaten by a tiger, they will blame me.” And I responded: “Yeah, but I’m right here. The rest house is in plain sight.” It was then that he narrated the hair-raising story of a Forester who had been taken by a tiger right in that dighi months earlier.
My survey was not particularly exciting in terms of snakes either. Cruising along one of the meandering mangrove rivers in a launch one day I saw a largish snake swimming across at speed and I scooped it up with a landing net. The boat crew was horrified that I had dumped a monocled cobra on the deck. As it sat hissing and dramatically displaying, the six crew members stood nervously as far back as the boat would allow, causing it to rock precariously. “Throw it back. Throw it back,” they yelled in unison and I replied in my best American-Bengali accent, “Nai… nai… nai. I want to take it to the shore and take pictures.”
My will prevailed and as they took me ashore I jumped into the mud. It was tricky – I had a camera around my neck, a cobra in one hand, a stick in the other, and was stuck up to my knees in mud. I did manage to get pictures, however, and this made an impression on the boat crew who talked about it all the way back. They then told me about the king cobra that climbed up the anchor rope of the launch that they “somehow beat off” before it could crawl aboard.
That night while the boat lay anchored in the middle of the river, I heard many tales of tigers with superhuman talents. Like ghost stories, everyone in the Sundarbans has his own tiger tale. The boatman narrated particularly extraordinary stories of tigers stealthily climbing aboard anchored fishing boats in the middle of the river and making off with adult men without waking anyone else. For effect he informed me that tigers make people lose not only their voice, but drains energy from their limbs so they cannot run. In a philosophic aside, he quoted the motto of the Sundarbans “Jale kumir, dangai bagh” -- crocs in the water, tigers on land.
If merely floating midstream could cause so much fear, I can only imagine what they thought about crawling through the mangrove slush. The armed guard walking with me in the thick bush was a psychological prop, but the benefit of doubt would have to be given to a determined tiger against the old bolt action .303 of the shaky guard. Nevertheless, even I was grateful for company as this halved the odds of a tiger attacking me! (Besides, a gun going off with a bang would probably scare any sane cat away.) Nobody went into the Sundarbans alone, whether fishermen, wood cutters or honey collectors. The bigger the group, the lower the risk. People sought safety in numbers for the same reason fish schooled together. I found myself inwardly happy that there was a part of the planet where humans were forced to think and behave like prey animals. Early man must have felt the same fear when sabre-toothed cats prowled around his campsites.
These people whose lives were governed by the tides lived in a fantastic world of terror and mythology embroidered with fact. I just could not tell what was real and what was not. A group of honey collectors spoke, as expected, about crocs and man-eating tigers and surprisingly, a few people who “got away.” One might imagine that if a tiger got a hold of you that was where the story would end. But in one case a charismatic honey collector spoke of a tiger that made the mistake of catching a man by the leg rather than his neck and began dragging him away, still alive. When the man realised that he was bouncing around between the hind legs of the tiger, he is said to have reached up to bite hard on the tigers’ testicles until it let him go. This was probably the only tiger attack story in the world that made everyone roll on the floor with laughter. There were other cases of people who actually fought tigers with their axes or machetes. And one man in the group philosophically concluded that “people are eaten by tigers because they torture the forest.”
What really scared the daylights out of me about the Sundarbans was not being attacked by an animal; it was being caught in a storm while paddling a canoe. I was there in April, the pre-monsoon storm season. If we were surveying by canoe at night, we ventured out only after carefully reading the skies for signs of an impending storm. One night, we misread the signs and got caught by the weather gods in Bainkari Khal. The chop of the waves even in that little creek was so bad that the canoe was swamped within minutes. Sharks and tigers were the last things on our minds when we jumped into the mud to haul the canoe up out of the water. The craft was our lifeline and the strong current kept trying to pull it away from us until we managed to tie it to some mangrove roots. We were covered in mud from head to toe and the strong wind against our damp clothes chilled us to the bone. Shivering, we crouched in the donghy, retying it periodically as the tide came in. For an hour and a half the wind tore through the forest shaking down sticks and leaves and sending them flying around like dangerous confetti. Lightning struck all around us and we just hung on for dear life. During this season, a lot of boats get lost and people lose their lives.
In the aftermath people remembered a super storm that hit in 1978-1979. The tidal surge had been between six and nine metres high, and people had to climb fast to stay above it to survive. Fortunately, because of the optimum salinity, mangroves species grow to over 15 m. tall in the swamp forests of Bangladesh. Along with the clinging humans, tigers, wild boar and even deer had been seen on trees together with the snakes and other creatures. When the storm subsided, 200,000 people and as many animals lay dead among the mangrove roots.
Mangroves are one of the most vital buffers against super storms anywhere in the world as we recently discovered when the huge tsunami hit Asia. No other place in the world attracts as many devastating storms as the Sundarbans does. If you trace the paths of a hundred cyclonic storms spawned in the Bay of Bengal, about 90 of them hit the Sundarbans. Without the mangroves to absorb the fury of the elements, a tidal surge up the Meghna River would flatten many villages and towns in its path.
Despite this critical function, the Sundarbans has been systematically whittled down to roughly half its original extent. For centuries, mangrove wood was extracted for construction of piers and jetties because they are naturally resistant to damage by saltwater. Much continues to be burned as firewood. When there were working plans for timber extraction, one tree specie was particularly discriminated against – the baen or Avicennia officinalis. These big, mature trees rot at the base creating big holes where tigresses are able to deposit their litters, pythons their eggs, and where a host of creatures such as civets, mongooses and monitor lizards can find a home. These old, rotten trees were useless as timber and were the ones removed for firewood.
I was told of a female python that was found incubating her eggs in one such tree hole. It was promptly killed and her four metre long skin hung in the launch that was my home in the Sundarbans. It was one of the biggest Indian python skins I had ever seen. As if to confirm the story, I discovered a shed python skin in one such huge tree hollow.
Many years later when I returned to the Indian Sundarbans in 2003, my spotlight survey was just as fruitless, though we did see a few more small crocs. It was the same old story. In contrast, in 2006 I counted 65 saltwater crocodiles in Bhitarkanika in an hour’s cruise. So why were there so many in Orissa? It has to be because pro-active conservation helped the crocodile make a remarkable recovery. The number of crocs of all sizes in Bhitarkanika, a comparatively small 672 sq. km. forest, is around 1,500. That’s a density of 10 crocs per km. Yet in the 10,000 sq. km. of the Sundarbans, which ought to have many times more crocs, reportedly supports only a miniscule population.
I am puzzled by the appallingly slow recovery of the saltwater crocodile in the Sundarbans (both sides of the border) despite nearly three decades of protection. Could lack of ideal nesting sites be the reason? Croc nests are not only obvious mounds; the females also draw attention to them by creating visible tracks. So it is vital to have undisturbed nesting areas with little or no human interference. In the years past, people collected eggs opportunistically to eat, but only two active nests had been found in recent years. Once croc exploitation reaches a certain threshold, their chance of recovery hits a point of no return unless the nest sites are vigorously protected.
Like crocodiles, monitor lizards too have been hammered by the skin industry. People camped in large parties on the edge of the Sundarbans and used dogs to corner and kill monitors with ruthless efficiency. So, even though the habitat was intact the numbers of these lizards seemed pitifully low. Someone should investigate what is preventing them from recovering.
The river terrapin, Batagur, is another reptile in trouble. The mangrove swamps once abounded with these huge turtles that were hunted for meat with baited hooks. The method was simple, a rope was strung across a fairly large river with hundreds of hooks and each hook was baited with the little yellow mangrove fruit of Sonneratia apetala that turtles love. My crew demonstrated how they used to catch them years ago, but all they could show me were the half a dozen captive terrapins being reared in village ponds.Today, the turtle is more or less extinct with small chance of recovery.
To understand what happened to the Sundarbans in the early days of human colonisation I looked at the Andamans where some of the pioneering human settlers of the smaller mangrove ecosystem were Bangladeshi refugees. The first thing they did was to clear the area, where the freshwater meets the saltwater, of all vegetation – mangrove trees, Nypa palms, Phoenix palms, the lot. Apparently, this is the best rice growing zone. This is also prime croc nesting habitat. In the Sundarbans, when the monsoon combines with high tide, storm surges sweep up through the mangroves drowning croc nests. The only place where croc nests will not be inundated is the non-tidal rice growing area.
What really drove this poignantly home to me was finding the bones of a female croc still on top of the remains of an old nest on the edge of the Sundarbans that had been freshly cleared for rice planting. She had been killed while guarding her nest. Ironically it was her maternal protective instinct that sealed her fate as she could easily have swum away from her tormentors. This epitomises how crocs were wiped out. The first wave of hunters killed the animals for their skins, the second wave of egg collectors robbed nests and the final nail in the coffin was the loss of prime nesting habitat.
The only available habitat left for crocs in the Sundarbans now is the tidal zone and although babies were successfully hatching in some years, they need freshwater to drink. During the rains they survive on rainwater, but after this when the rivers slow down to a trickle and saltwater flows in from the sea, baby crocs do not have a hope in hell of surviving. Which meant the yearlings I was seeing on my night surveys were probably a doomed lot.
Besides habitat, the other important factor is the prey base. Fish is a primary food source for crocs, monitors, and turtles, so I checked on the fishing trends. The high shark population inhibited fishermen from getting into the water to drive fish, so some used tame otters to do their job for them. Once the net was set up the otters corralled the fish along the shoreline. The mullet jumped through the air in panic and some actually leaped onto the shore and lay flapping in the mud. But most fishing is still done with traditional nets and the size of the mesh is one standard method of estimating resource exploitation. Typically people started out with nets of five to eight centimetre mesh size. Then gradually the mesh size got smaller, and now they use what can only be described as mosquito nets to pick up even the tiniest fish. Of all the other pressures stacked up against the aquatic reptiles, this is perhaps the main whammy – the bottom of the food chain is collapsing.
We had gone to the Sundarbans expecting to see crocodiles rule the tidal forest but came away instead with the realisation that despite the vastness of the mangroves, these animals had been systematically wiped out.
There can be no one silver bullet recommendation to set things right. The deep malaise afflicting the Sundarbans needs systematic long-term research, coupled with instant, effective conservation action. For a start, a comprehensive survey is needed to pinpoint nest sites for focused protection. I was thinking about this when a loud thump jolted the boat and almost knocked us overboard. The propeller had hit a submerged log and the blade had broken. The choking exhaust fumes caught us fully in the face as the boat sputtered into silence. Until the propeller was fixed we stewed in our sweat as we drifted downriver watching macaques picking the debris left by the receding tide.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
A pack of stray dogs attacking a nilgai in Sultanpur Wildlife Sanctuary, near New Delhi.