Thursday, September 18, 2008

Membership Excluder Devices

- Janaki Lenin and Rom Whitaker

Published in

Evidently, some time in late 2006, the IUCN signed an agreement with the Dhamra Port Company Ltd (DPCL) toward “developing a sound environmental management plan for development and operation of the Dharma Port” (, but details of the agreement do not appear to have been made public. It seems IUCN sought specialist assistance from the MTSG, through its voluntary Co-Chairs, Roderic Mast (Conservation International) and Nicolas Pilcher (Marine Research Foundation). Mast and Pilcher, in turn seem to have concluded that Pilcher should represent the MTSG in this matter. Pilcher, seemingly with the support of Mast, undertook investigations and made various recommendations in the name of the MTSG and IUCN.

There are several contentious issues arising out of IUCN and MTSG’s involvement in this project. Of concern here, several IUCN and MTSG members, particularly those from India, are troubled by the lack of transparency in IUCN and MTSG involvement. The SSC has provided guidance on these matters through their ‘Terms of Reference for SG [Specialist Group] and TF [Task Force] Chairs 2005-2008’ and ‘Guidelines and Advice for SG and TF Chairs 2005-2008’. We endeavour to analyze if the process of involvement followed these terms and guidelines.

Information Exchange:

The SSC rightly prioritizes “Communication and networking” as “a crucial role of SG and TF Chairs, as the establishment of effective communication is essential to the functioning of any SG/TF.” Added specifically to this direction is the provision of “Up-to-date information on the most important threats to biodiversity and the actions being taken to mitigate these threats”.

In an important and controversial case such as the Dhamra Port facility, even basic information on the involvement of IUCN and the MTSG, such as the terms of agreement between DPCL and IUCN is not available. Meetings between MTSG leadership and Indian members were never convened, and Indian members have been sidelined.

A lively discussion of the Dhamra project dominated the Annual Meeting of the MTSG held at the 28th International Sea Turtle Symposium in January 2008, but no minutes of what transpired have been circulated, even to members*.


The SSC advises the SG Chairs to: “Make interventions on technical issues in the name of the Group, ensuring adequate consultation within the Group prior to making such interventions” and “Where such issues are potentially controversial, wide consultation and review within Groups, as well as consultation with the Species Programme staff and the Office of the Chair, is expected.” Recognizing the voluntary nature of the efforts made by SG members, the SSC sees one benefit of consultation being: “An ability to influence policy and decision making within the group, the SSC and ultimately the IUCN through the World Conservation Congress”.

The MTSG Co-Chairs insist that consultations about MTSG involvement with DPCL occurred, specifically involving Indian MTSG members B.C. Choudhury, Bivash Pandav and Kartik Shanker. But these people state that there has been no consultation. The MTSG leadership says that no minutes of these consultations were recorded, and to prove their claim of consultation, an email dated 29 August 2006, from Kartik, the then Regional Chair, was referred to. But this message merely provided background information on the Dhamra issue to the Co-Chairs. According to Pilcher, B.C. Choudhury and Bivash Pandav did not respond to emails, so it is unclear how that constitutes consultation. It does not appear that MTSG members outside India were consulted at all. The case for broader consultation and involvement with local MTSG members, which arguably did not happen in this case, is considered fundamental to the ability of the MTSG and any other SSC-Specialist Group to function effectively. After all, specialists who speak the local languages, live and work within the socio-political system, and have dedicated decades of their lives to conservation should have something useful to contribute. Besides, the absence of any local participation jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of the project.

Conflict of Interest:

The SSC advise that “Chairs should transparently reveal their own conflicts, but they need not exclude themselves from discussion or relinquish their leadership role.” With regard to ‘Managing Money’ the SSC is more specific, “Implementing conservation action should largely remain the domain of individual SG members or groupings of members. The SG Chair and other SG officers play an important role in supporting their members but not in the implementation of projects or programmes, per se.”

Using one’s knowledge and expertise to further the cause of conservation of biodiversity is not an unethical way of earning a living. In this case, there are press reports of consultant’s fees paid by DPCL. If a paid job was offered to the SG, by what process or selection criteria did an overseas Co-Chair and his organization get the job? Should it have been offered to in-country members? When these questions were raised with the broader MTSG membership, on an e-mail discussion list, no clear and transparent answers were forthcoming. Indeed, the MTSG Regional Chair for India (Kartik) resigned over what he considered a failure to observe due diligence on behalf of the MTSG Chairs.

Dispute Mediation:

The SSC Guidelines recognize that disputes between Specialist Group members will occur from time to time, and suggests SG chairs should remain impartial, transparent, be trusted, respected and thus able to exert authority.

In this case, the MTSG Co-Chairs have initiated a process, in the name of the MTSG, that has unquestionably caused a dispute between MTSG members and the Co-Chairs. The lack of transparency in the process and the leadership’s vested interest in the project has eroded confidence that members need to have in the Co-Chairs, making it improbable that they would be able to mediate disputes. It is difficult to see how this dispute can be resolved amicably within the MTSG, unless the SSC and/or the affected members of the MTSG and the Co-Chairs appoint an independent arbiter. There has been some casual discussion between the Co-Chairs and three of the Indian MTSG members about a possible meeting in Bhubaneshwar, India, around September 2008, but four other Indian MTSG members have not been included in the exchange of emails.


Specialist Group members provide the SSC and IUCN with unique human resources; people skilled in the technical challenges of conserving plants and animals, people familiar with the different national contexts in which conservation needs to be pursued, and people so committed to the IUCN and its conservation goals that they are prepared to volunteer their efforts. All they expect in return is to be treated with professional respect and be included in the processes of advancing conservation, particularly within their own countries.

For the Indian MTSG members, who have long been significant contributors to the MTSG, and who have been active in fostering sea turtle conservation within India for decades, their marginalization is inexplicable. One can only imagine the response that would occur in other countries, if Indian MTSG consultants were engaged to solve such a controversial development problem, without engaging local MTSG members from the country involved. Attempts by the Indian MTSG members to obtain clear and transparent explanations about the MTSG involvement in the Dhamra project have been met with elusive responses, couched in derogatory terms, which has further aggravated the situation and added to the frustration. Hence our attempt to explain the situation, as we see it.

* The minutes were finally received by the authors on 10 July 2008, after the submission of this piece.

This article was greatly improved by comments from Jack Frazier, Ashish Fernandes and others who prefer to remain unnamed.

Gharial Crisis Update

PA Update April 1, 2008

As of March 29, 2008, 111 gharial (54 males, 48 females and 9 unknown) have been found dead on the Chambal. The first report of the mass die-off was received on Dec 8, 2007. The mortality was limited to the lower 40 kms of the National Chambal Sanctuary, the stretch closest to the Yamuna, killing about 33% of the adult/sub-adults (between the sizes of 1.6 m and 3.5 m). There are an estimated 1130 gharial found in 4 populations in India, of which nearly 1000 were counted in the Chambal during the survey of 2008.

During the initial days of the investigation, parasite overload and heavy metal concentration in the internal organs were bandied as the possible causes. However, these were subsequently ruled out by international crocodile veterinarians. The Ministry of Environment and Forests instituted a Crisis Management Group headed by Ravi Singh, the CEO of WWF-India. Post mortems conducted by experienced crocodile vets revealed visceral and articular gout, caused by kidney failure. What caused this is still a matter of speculation. Toxins in the ecosystem, perhaps in the fish or in the environment, is an avenue of investigation. The other speculation is that the gharial may have indulged in gluttony until their metabolism could not handle it anymore in the cold winter months, leading to gout.

Although the National Chambal Sanctuary is a 428 km stretch of river, the gharial live in 4 main groups. The affected area is close to one of the large groups and the incident may have wiped out a majority of the adults/sub-adults of this area. However surveys of 2008 reveal that this is not a static system allowing the incident to be isolated. Instead, animals were seen moving downstream to occupy the area vacated by the dead gharial. In 2007 surveys revealed that the affected area had 153 adults/sub-adults, while in 2008, the same area has 128 adults/sub-adults. So this stretch of river could become a sink for the Chambal population.

Crocodile biologists say that it is critical to monitor nesting this year to assess reproductive success. Loss of fertility may indicate continued toxin presence. The future course of action is to conduct extensive toxicology tests to identify the lethal toxin and its source, and studies on gharial behavioural ecology.

The various organizations involved in the operation to get to the bottom of the crisis are:
1. Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India
2. Forest Departments of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Madhya Pradesh (MP)
3. RiverWatch – a joint initiative of Gharial Conservation Alliance (GCA) and Worldwide Fund for Nature-India (WWF)
4. IUCN/SSC Crocodile Specialist Group
5. The San Diego Zoological Society
6. AZA Crocodile Advisory Group, (USA)
7. Ocean Park, Hong Kong
8. Madras Crocodile Bank/Centre for Herpetology, Chennai
9. La Ferme aux Crocodiles, France
10. Wildlife SOS, Delhi and Agra
11. University of Florida, Gainesville
12. The City University, Hong Kong
13. Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Bareilly
14. Defence Research and Development Establishment, Gwalior

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Road from Perdition

'Damned Gharial' in Tehelka Feb 3, 2008

The ungainly body and short stubby legs are improbable attributes for the role of Sylvester Stallone in ‘Cliffhanger’. And yet, the gharial has been hanging on the precipice of existence by its toenails for the last few decades. The future survival of an animal, that outlived the dinosaurs, depends on whether we can give it a leg up over the abyss.

The gharial’s body plan is fine-tuned to make the best use of the habitat it had chosen for its final staging ground. It is a specialist like no other crocodile in the world; deep rivers to live in, sand banks on which to bask and lay eggs, and plenty of fish to eat are prerequisites. This choosiness ensured the survival of the gharial into the 20th century.

Today, however, these very same adaptations have morphed into the three nails on the gharial’s coffin. Developing India built mega-dams across gharial rivers, silting them up. The building boom that began in the 1990s in nearby cities like Delhi and Agra is fed by sand from the gharial’s nesting grounds on the Chambal. Fishermen deplete its prey while fishing nets become underwater curtains of death.

In the 1970s it was estimated that between Nepal and India less than 200 gharial survived. Within this narrowed range, the 425 km long unsullied stretch of the Chambal was the best gharial real estate. An ambitious crocodile conservation project was launched by the Government of India with collaboration from the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Project Crocodile was touted as one of the most successful conservation programs in the world and yet no one has ever heard of it. Crocodile sanctuaries were declared, a crocodile research institute set up and captive rearing stations built. Somewhere along the way, conservation action ground down to lethargy and ineptitude.

In any conservation program, habitat protection is the first commandment, but it could not be enforced in the Chambal ravines, ruled by bandits and warlords. The other most significant habitat, the River Girwa in the Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, remains stable for now. Obtaining local people’s support is the second commandment, but it was deemed too difficult to do under the circumstances. Having thrown out the two most important tenets of conservation, what did Project Crocodile do? Over the years it released thousands of expensively captive reared gharial into the rivers – the Chambal, the Girwa, the Ken, the Son and the Mahanadi. The released animals were not monitored so no one knows what became of them. But annual census figures showed a steady climb upwards. That’s like adding apples to a basket and then counting them! In fact that was the recommendation of the gharial Population and Habitat Viability Assessment – to continue releasing captive reared gharial indefinitely. When the number of gharial in the Chambal reached 1200 in the mid 1990s, crocodile conservationists, biologists, bureaucrats and politicians basked in their achievement – the species had been saved from extinction. But beneath this rosy picture, the gharial was barely hanging on.

The Government of India stopped further funds for the captive rearing project but the State governments persisted with the releases on a smaller scale. The routine annual census stopped. And then in 2004, the hollowness of gharial conservation thus far was revealed. Dr. R.K. Sharma of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department set off the alarm – gharial numbers were plummeting. With fewer apples being added to the basket, the numbers didn’t look so optimistic anymore. Surveys of 2006 came up with less than 200 breeding adults between India and Nepal thereby putting the gharial on the Critically Endangered category of the 2007 Red List. A task force called the Gharial Conservation Alliance (GCA) was formed with the express purpose of reversing this dismal trend. Realizing that river dolphins, otters and water birds had similar needs, the GCA in partnership with WWF-India set up River Watch. Instead of focusing on individual species and working separately, River Watch intends to look at the big picture – the state of our rivers.

Even as this initiative was being galvanized and strategy chalked out, came the horrific news – more than 80 out of about 320 subadult and adult gharials have mysteriously died over a 70 km stretch of the lower Chambal in little more than a month: a 25% mortality in the 2 - 2.5 metre size class! The epicenter of this disaster is near Etawah (Uttar Pradesh), at the confluence of the Yamuna and Chambal. Postmortem reports indicated liver cirrhosis, cause unknown. Subsequent reports pointed to the presence of heavy metals in the tissue samples. Across the river in Madhya Pradesh, a concerned Mr. Suhas Kumar, the Chief Conservator of Forests, circulated the reports to international crocodile veterinarians who ruled out liver cirrhosis. Lethal levels of heavy metals should have killed the other animals sharing the same waters – fish, birds, otters and river dolphins – but it did not. A pathogen is suspected, but where did it come from and why are only large gharials affected and not the vulnerable juveniles, remain unanswered questions.

A team of international croc veterinarians are expected to arrive later this month to assist Indian colleagues in finding the cause of this catastrophe and to suggest ways of stemming it. If the gharial overcomes this crisis, it will become the touchstone of our commitment to treat rivers as a precious resource. The GCA is in desperate need of funds to galvanize action for the gharial. For further information please contact