Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Wild Side of Corbett

When our friends, Ritish Suri and his wife, Minakshi, residents of the area, invited Rom and I to visit, I demurred. Ritish insisted there were parts of Corbett, like Halduparao, that few tourists visited. Then he dangled a carrot: herds of elephants congregated in the nearby river during May, at a time when the country was in a heat daze. My spouse, Rom, had last visited 40 years ago when he did the first crocodile survey in the area, just when the water had risen to fill the newly constructed Kalagarh dam.I had never visited Corbett Tiger Reserve. The main tourist complex of the Forest Department was smack in the core area, supposedly a zone of no human disturbance. Scores of private resorts lined the edges of the park, and many hosted loud parties. None of this enticed me to visit.

I was intrigued, and Rom was curious to see how the park had changed since.
Read the rest here at Outlook Traveller October 2014

Interview: Krzysztof Wielicki, the ice warrior

OT: When you’re in the mountains, are you thinking about your family or the summit?
Krzysztof Wielicki:
 In my generation, it was easy. When I got the sports passport, my wife said, “I can’t go, but you have the opportunity to go, so go.” But now, everybody has a passport. So when you say you want to go climbing for three months, your wife will say, “Bravo, bravo. When you come back, don’t come here.” Younger climbers ask, “How was it possible for you to go away for three months at a time, come home for a week and go off for another three months?” Women have equal opportunities in Europe now and it’s much more difficult for men to go away. It’s my privilege that when I’m climbing, I can be completely separated from family and home. I’m only concentrating on the climb. You cannot climb if you think, “My God! My wife, my kids.” You have to forget them. I focused only on the problem of climbing and surviving.

Read the rest here at Outlook Traveller

Dead Reckoning

Photographs: Manish Chandi
Photographs: Manish Chandi

We had lost sight of land when the full import of our enterprise hit me. Five of us from the Indian mainland and six Karen from North Andaman were in two dungis (dugout canoes) headed for the re- mote uninhabited island of South Sentinel. We were to make a film about the wildlife of the island.

None of us carried a compass, charts or sextant to navigate the seas because we didn’t know how to use them. Handy GPS devices were not yet in vogue in 1998, and we couldn’t afford flares, radios or satellite phones. There was no way to communicate with anyone should we run into trouble. Instead, we were dependent on two venerable Karen gentle- men, Uncle Paung and Uncle Pambwein, to get us there. Suddenly, our intrepid little expedition seemed foolhardy.

Read more at The Indian Quarterly October-December 2014

Locals fearful of suspected killer tiger released near their village in India

Tigers normally walk away from humans. When they chase humans, trouble follows.
Photograph: AP

Scared residents of Talawade in Karnataka are calling for forest officials to recapture a tiger, suspected of killing a woman and chasing vehicles, that has been released into a wildlife reserve near their village.

Read more at the Guardian

Saturday, October 25, 2014

India’s largest dam given clearance but still faces flood of opposition

A dam in Arunachal Pradesh. Travelib Environment/Alamy
A dam in Arunachal Pradesh. Photograph: Travelib Environment/Alamy
The 3,000MW Dibang dam, rejected twice as it would submerge vast tracts of biologically rich forests, is to get environmental clearance – but huge local opposition could stall the project.

Read more at India Untamed: a Guardian Environment Blog

India’s air quality figures can't be trusted

In the city of Delhi, commuters wait for a bus early on a polluted morning.
Smog obscures the view of the road as women wait for a bus in Delhi, India.Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images
Delhi is the most polluted city in the world, but it may actually be worse as faulty instruments, data fudging and lack of regulation allow industries to pollute with impunity.
Read More at India Untamed: a Guardian Environment Blog

Friday, October 17, 2014

Tiger survival: mapping poaching and trafficking hotspots

Tiger skins seized from a poacher on the outskirts of Delhi.
Tiger skins seized from a poacher on the outskirts of Delhi. Photograph: Pallava Bagla/Corbis Sygma
The case of the ‘Putin’s tiger’, Kuzya, has brought the dangers of poaching back into the spotlight. Russian president Vladimir Putin released the 19-month-old Siberian tiger in a remote forest in May this year. Five months later, one week ago, Kuzya swam across the frigid waters of the Amur river into China. 
The event set diplomatic lines jangling. China scrambled to dismantle poachers’ traps and set up more than 60 camera traps in the area.
Kuzya and his siblings were orphaned after their mother fell victim to a poacher two years ago. Illegal hunting is one of the most serious threats to tigers; a dead tiger is said to be worth $10,000 (£6,300).
Even though Indian tigers rarely wander into China, they are in grave danger too. Poachers are more interested in tiger bones, an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, than pelts.
Last month, 40 tigers appeared to have gone missing in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Preliminary estimates of the census this year revealed there were fewer tigers than in 2010 in some wildlife sanctuaries. Poachers are feared to have targeted India’s national animal.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The UN climate summit reveals India's hypocrisy on saving forests

Published in the Guardian Environment Blog on 26 Sept 2014

A flower grows close to a thermal power plant on the outskirts of Nagpur.
Photograph: Arko Datta/Reuters
At the UN climate change summit in New York on Tuesday, Javadekar is reported to have said: “The moral principle of historic responsibility [those countries which have historically emitted the most] cannot be washed away.”
But while he champions historic responsibility abroad, he’s an instrument of eroding historic justice at home.
Earlier this month, Javadekar stated the government would amend the act so it would not be mandatory any more to seek forest people’s consent. So much for historic justice.

Pigs of conflict

Called Making a pig's ear of it on BLink 26 Sept 2014

Rocks protruded dramatically out of the hillside. Weathered and evenly grooved, they looked like petrified wood. I recognized neem and Indian mulberry trees dotting the landscape. Down in the valley, a linear grove of verdant date palms marked an unseen water course. Tussocks of grass with tall seed heads brushed against my salwar. With head bent down, I was engrossed in identifying plants and on the look-out for mammal droppings as I picked my way up the hillside. The expanse of forest was so vast, I couldn’t gauge distances, nor could I estimate the height of distant trees. This is one of the largest restoration sites in India: the Timbaktu Collective’s Kalpavalli forest in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur District.

Siddharth Rao, the resident ecologist, had just pointed out a blackbuck latrine site. These graceful antelopes habitually visit the same spot to drop their black, oval pellets. Wolves, jackals, leopards, foxes, and sloth bears also called this place home, and I was keen to find some evidence of their presence. The constant distant hum of airplanes flying overhead made me think even this remote area was under an air corridor. Absentmindedly, I looked up at the blue sky and realized there were no airplanes. The sound was caused by the gigantic blades of numerous windmills slowly turning in the golden evening light. I had seen them on arrival but had forgotten them as I focussed on plants and creatures.

The more I wandered along the hill slope, the more I realized the restoration was an unsung conservation effort. Folks from eight villages had slogged to restore 7,500 acres of completely denuded pasture land that’s commonly dismissed as wasteland. I just had to see the barren, rocky hills outside the Kalpavalli area to know what the villagers had achieved. They planted seeds, protected saplings from livestock, created fire lines, built check dams, dug trenches, and put out fires day and night. Not a mean feat in the second driest area of the country, where summer temperatures can sear the pale of skin and heart. If the meagre rainfall failed, drought was certain. Despite more than 20 years of effort, the hill slopes were lightly wooded. If the annual rainfall were higher or had the topsoil been intact, the outcome would have been a thick green canopy.

The villagers went through this punishing regimen of creation and protection for a very good reason. They could harvest grass to thatch their roofs and make brooms, lop leaves for their livestock, and gather dead branches for firewood. For the poorest people, this made a difference to their standard of living. Their collective labour benefited rich and poor farmers alike. The ground water has risen from 100-feet depth to a mere 18 feet. A seasonal stream turned perennial, feeding into the 400-acre-large, 500-year-old Mushtikovila tank.

A couple of years ago, I received an email from Timbaktu asking how to keep pigs away from crops. I shared the wisdom of farmers in other parts of South Asia: the crackling noise of clusters of magnetic tape tied to the fence, and cordoning fields with old saris and fishing nets were said to scare away pigs. If none of these worked, I jokingly offered to share a good pork recipe.

I didn’t know how they fared. When the opportunity arose, I headed up to Anantapur District to see for myself. I wondered if the restoration had a role to play in the villagers’ wild pig problems. I followed Siddharth up the hill, lost in my thoughts.

Wheat-brown blackbuck does and fawns eyed us suspiciously before disappearing over the rise. Moments later, a lone, scruffy wild boar raced away in alarm.

After nightfall, we walked down to the stream. Fish darted underwater, frogs hung suspended on the water surface, and clots of algae moved slowly downstream. Water flowed even though it hadn’t rained in several months. We walked through the dense thickets of palms, wary of pigs. If we snuck too close to them, they could attack. The eyes of a civet and jackal reflected the light from our torches.

The next morning, we were back in the plains, driving down the highway. Colourful clothes tied to fences flapped in the breeze. Even though the forests were a few kilometres away, every lush field had a low platform covered by a tarpaulin-lined roof. These machans were a sure sign of sleepless farmers guarding their crops.

I asked Akulappa, one of the key people in the Kalpavalli project who grew up in the area, if the problem of wild boars was related to forest restoration. He answered thoughtfully, “There were no wild boar before. The first time I heard of one was in 1990 or 1991 when villagers from Nyamaddala killed one. Now pigs are everywhere. Not only wild boar, but also leopards, jackals, everything. This area was infamous for factionalism. In 1986, when N.T. R. [Rama Rao] was the Chief Minister, he seized all firearms. May be that’s why all these animals came back five to six years later.”

The restoration project began only in 1992, and according to Akulappa, pigs had already started making a comeback. Could it be that the lack of hunting more than the creation of a forest caused wild boar to surge in numbers?

Akulappa continued, “People say the forest provided shelter and that’s why these animals came. That’s not true. These animals don’t need habitat as much as we think. They are adaptable; they can live under rocks and thorny shrubs. Even newspapers say crops failed because of wild boar. Come, let’s go to that village and show me where is the forest. There are no forests, it’s all agricultural land, and there’s still a problem of wild boar. So don’t say growing trees brings wild boar. They don’t need forests to destroy your crop. They are everywhere.”

I quizzed farmers about their relationship with the forest, and they revealed a whole other dimension of the problem.

Nagaraju, one of the directors of Kalpavalli Tree Growers’ Cooperative and a groundnut farmer from Kogira, said he faced severe problems from pigs. He claimed the increase in forest had brought a greater diversity of birds that ate a lot of crop pests. Forests didn’t create the pig problem but windmills did. I was taken aback and looked at him quizzically wondering if I had heard right. He explained the whine of the wind turbines and disturbance caused by maintenance crews driving up and down have chased the wild boar away from forests and into the plains. Windmills also blew away rain clouds and sucked groundwater dry. The only thing that could protect crops was a high wall, he said, but he couldn’t afford it.

Ramanjanaiyya from Kambalapalli grew groundnuts and lentils, and pigs made a merry meal of them. He had tried tying saris around the fence but that didn’t work. He and his wife took turns walking around the fields, constantly yelling and beating a drum all night long. He said the moment he sat down for a rest, they muscled their way through the fence. He asked, “How many nights can I stay up awake? During the day, my wife and I take our sheep grazing. At night, one of us guards the animals at home, while the other watches the crops.” He also blamed the windmills for his wild pig woes.

Chinna Narasimha, of the same village, said the pigs were bold. “Even if I stand right next to them and shine a light on their faces, they still try to enter the fields.” While pigs ate anything, blackbuck ate lenthils. The windmills were the reason he lost almost half his crop to pigs, he complained. Only a deep wide trench would stop the pigs from entering fields, he said.

Neelakant cultivated 130 acres for the Timbaktu Kutumbham Trust. Even if pigs didn’t like the crop, they rooted around and destroyed the plants. He picked up hair clippings from barber shops and spread them on his fields. “It worked well in the dry season. When the pigs sniffed the ground, the hair entered their nostrils and irritated them. They don’t like that. When the rains came, it didn’t work anymore.”

He continued, “I also tried old saris, gunny sacks, plastic bags, plastic dolls.... On the first day they won’t come. The second day, they listen and wait. If it makes the same noise, they’ll approach cautiously, and then they lose all fear. Even magnetic tape works for one day, but the next day it doesn’t work. Same with fire crackers.”

I burrowed into details: how much of the crop was lost, which crops suffered less damage, and did pigs eat crops in a particular season. It was several minutes before I realized pigs were a metaphor of the villagers’ unhappiness with the windmill companies.

While wind energy is celebrated as a sustainable source of power, a green energy, here in Anantapur, wind farms have come at a cost to the community forest. Wind power companies hacked wide roads around hillsides, destroying the trenches villagers built to arrest the flow of rainwater and toppling two-decade-old trees. Since retaining walls haven’t been built, boulders and loose soil sit precariously on the verge. The 10- to 14-feet embankments are too high for livestock to scramble up. Villagers are forced to drive their animals in circuitous paths to reach their destinations. The companies also flattened peaks of hillocks to install windmills.

But one incident upset villagers more than any others. Farmers in the area donate cattle to the Guttur Gopalaswamy temple set deep in the forest. This herd of holy Hallikar cattle, an indigenous breed, grazes in the restored forest. Soon after the windmill construction, about 100 cattle died. They had eaten the plastic carelessly discarded by the construction workers.

By trampling villagers’ efforts, the wind farm companies have unleashed the pigs of conflict.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Where have all the big animals gone? Indian park devoid of many species, further threatened by forest loss

Male Bengal tiger caught on camera trap in Namdapha Tiger Reserve. Photo © Panthera, NTCA, APFD, NNPA, and Aaranyak.

Namdapha National Park, the third largest in India at 200,000 hectares, is located in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. Its extensive dipterocarp forests are the northernmost lowland tropical rainforests in the world. Temperate broad-leaved forests cloak the higher elevations, and beyond the treeline lie alpine meadows and snow-capped peaks that reach 4,571 meters (14,997 feet). However, the region has lost thousands of hectares of forest in the past decade, and studies project the situation may simply worsen in the coming years.
Read more in Mongabay

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why I want to save the leopard that killed my dog

Few people saw 'Macavity' and even fewer worried about him, but now Indian forestry officials want to trap and relocate him.

leopard caught by a camera trap rural Tamil Nadu, India
Read more in The Guardian

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sri Lanka: On track to 'go beyond the critical point'

Human-elephant conflicts on the rise, some conservation initiatives planned by government

A legal resettlement near a forest in Sri Lanka. Photo by Manori Gunawardena. 

In 1983, Sri Lanka became embroiled in a 26-year-long civil war in which a rebel militant organization fought to establish an independent state called Tamil Eelam. The war took an enormous human toll; unknown numbers disappeared and millions more were displaced. Economic development stagnated in the rebel-held north and east of the country, while foreign investment shied away from the country. 

During the latter half of the war, between 1990 and 2005, Sri Lanka suffered one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world as government soldiers burned vast tracts to flush rebels out of their forest strongholds.As a result, the country lost about 35 percent of its old growth forest and almost 18 percent of its total forest cover

Read more at Mongabay

Friday, July 11, 2014

When the rain clouds roll in

Powder puff clouds built up during the June day, but then wafted away across the sky above Agumbe, Karnataka. When thunder roared late in the afternoon, my head snapped skywards. Had the monsoon arrived? The heavens rumbled promises they didn’t keep. Newspapers said the monsoon had set in over Kerala but wasn’t moving north.
At night, the forest resounded with a symphony of frog calls. They chirped, belled, croaked and clicked from the grass, low bushes, and the canopy. It sounded like a monsoonal night, except there was no rain.

Ramprasad, a researcher studying these amphibians at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS), pointed to puddles where newly metamorphosed, dark brown torrent frogs hopped out. Small, bright green male Malabar gliding frogs with hibiscus-red feet straddled large females in mating embraces. A couple of pairs of gliding frogs had already whipped up meringue-like nest balls that hung above a pond. A tree toad plopped down on the forest floor from a height. The night belonged to the amphibians.

Pre-monsoon showers may have greened the landscape and made frogs amorous, but the soil ached for a four-month-long soak. This is an El Nino year, and weathermen predicted the rains will deliver less than their normal quantum. Would it make a difference to Agumbe, a place famous for its copious rainfall, an average of 7,500mm in a normal year?
At dawn, birds began singing even as frogs continued their vocal din. The whistling thrush’s unhurried, rambling tune harmonised with racket-tailed drongos’ brisk, metallic, multi-timbral chatter. Fairy-bluebirds flashed their lapis shoulders as they flitted around fruiting bushes. Crimson-breasted Malabar trogons kept a low profile on the forest edge. The day grew brighter, revealing blue skies, and the night’s illusion of monsoon vanished.

It was the end of the jackfruit season. Many lay squashed on the ground, a feast for animals from elephants to squirrels and rats. A few remaining fruits hung pendulously from tree trunks. A fragrantly ripe one hung low, and Ram pulled it down. Milky sap collected around the broken stalk.
Squatting on the ground, he grasped the fleshy end of the fruit and pulled it apart. The bulbs were small and thin. I popped one in my mouth. It was fibrous, soft and unchewable. I spat out the large seed and swallowed the delectable flesh whole. This was not the familiar jackfruit, but a wild cousin.

Inch-long leeches made their way towards us, sensing the air occasionally with the narrower end of their linear bodies to zero in on their targets. I flicked them off with one hand, while digging into the sticky fruit with the other. By the time I had a few pieces, Ram had demolished half the fruit, and his hands and stubble-covered face were smeared in white latex. I’ve been known to hog a whole jackfruit by myself, and I began to see a competitor in Ram. I’d have to be faster and less decorous. But Ram left the other half on the ground and rose, suggesting, “We’ll leave the rest for the animals.” I acquiesced.
At the first homestead, we stopped to clean up and quench our thirst. Our hosts didn’t comment on the obvious signs of our jungle repast. Bidding them farewell, we returned to the research station.

Clouds gathered, and by evening, it began raining in earnest. In the village, many houses were already covered with tarpaulin sheets against the prevailing wind. Some followed tradition — areca fronds skilfully woven through a wooden frame to form a watertight barrier. But many tardy households were still repairing their roofs, and rains must have been unwelcome.

After dinner, I contemplated going for a walk. But Ajay Giri, the station’s education officer, received an urgent call. A king cobra had gone to sleep under a bed in a village house about 60km away. The decrepit jeep’s headlights and windscreen wiper didn’t work. At least the yellow fog lights did, but it took us two hours to reach the village. Women and children were already tucked indoors, and a crowd of about 30 men, most of them exhaling fumes of alcohol, awaited us.
The men ushered us to a tiny house. Firewood and bales of leaf litter to spread in the barns lay covered in plastic. Cow dung patties to be used as fuel lay in piles. Inside, pickles cured in large porcelain jars, while stacks of dry appalams sat on kitchen shelves. From the rafters, rotund Madras cucumbers hung from strings. Young green jackfruit and mangoes, gourds, and bamboo shoots were preserved in salt.

Once the monsoon hit, vegetables would become scarce, and families in this region will live on a diet of fresh edible leaves from the kitchen garden and Madras cucumbers. Appalams, pickles and salted preserves made into chutneys would provide the only variety.
A large king cobra lay in a tight coil under the bed and hissed softly when the torchlight shone on his face. I didn’t want to be in a furniture-crammed house with a soon-to-be-agitated snake and 30 men blocking the door. I opted to stay outdoors, while Ajay directed the snake into a gaping jumbo-sized snake bag. One of the men, a retired policeman, kept me company. He had served in Kosovo on a UN Peacekeeping Mission. He spoke about 10 words of English and my Kannada was worse.
After Ajay bagged the snake, he gave the gathered crowd a talk on the species and the need to release it close by. Freeing it far away would likely sentence it to death, he said, quoting a research study. It was well past midnight before Ajay had answered all their questions. Forest Department officials escorted us to a forest a kilometre away. Ajay opened the bag, and the 11-foot snake disappeared into the darkness.

Over the following days, the weather followed the same pattern: sunny mornings, cloudy afternoons and rainy evenings.
I asked Kasturiakka, a matriarch who lived in Agumbe’s famous 200-year-old family home, Dodda Mane, the setting for the much-loved television series Malgudi Days, if villagers worshipped for rain. She said, “Yes, at the Rishya Shringeswara temple in Kigga.”
“Do people ever request god to stop the rains?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said. “They worship at the same temple. But the monsoons were heavier 20 years ago.”
I expected the name Agumbe, a place that considers 7,500mm of rainfall normal, to mean ‘where the rains dump their goods’. Even Rishya Shringeswara, the sage who could summon Indra, the god of rains, presided 35km away. Kasturiakka corrected me, “Agumbe is short for Madagumbapura. It means ‘the place with lots of elephants’.”
That was surprising. There were no elephants in Agumbe until six years ago, when two bulls from Chikmagalur started making annual visits.
“There was a massive forestry operation in the old days. Lots of captive elephants were used to fell trees and move logs,” said Kasturiakka.
Later, I dropped in to see Vamanna, the local weatherman. He has maintained records from 1962, also the year of the highest rainfall in 52 years: 11,343mm. I struggled to imagine what over 35 feet of rain could be like. He offered an understatement: “The road was blocked.”

One afternoon, rains came down with force and mist wafted down from the sky. In the evening, winged termites emerged from the ground. Some flew upwards on their nuptials, while most crash-landed nearby, unable to get airborne. It was raining too hard for any predators to home in on this meal. Moments later, I grew aware of another kind of water rushing. A stream that had been dry had started to gush. To me, swarming termites and rushing stream personified monsoon.
“This is not the monsoon,” said a recent arrival at the station. “Monsoon arrives with a lot of thunder and lightning.”
A veteran countered, “That’s pre-monsoon. The monsoon arrives with wind only.”
According to the weathermen, it’s officially monsoon when it has rained for over 48 hours with a westerly wind speed of 27 to 37kmph. This is the way the monsoon arrives, not with a bang but inexorably blown in.

That humid night was deafening with sounds of a frog orgy. Their mottled glistening skins shone brightly in torchlight. A dark Malabar pit viper, resembling lichen, coiled around a stick on the path, waiting to ambush a passing frog, even as the rain beat down on it.
Early the next morning, I waited for a taxi to the airport. I wondered if the driver would arrive on time with the rain pelting down and mist reducing visibility. As the watch ticked, I considered my meagre options. The jeep would not get me to the airport in time. It was either the taxi or a missed flight. I stared at the misty blankness. Was this the monsoon finally? A phone call broke my reverie. The driver said a fallen tree obstructed the road.

I woke up Ajay and he drove me the few hundred metres to the tree. The only way to get to the other side was to squeeze through the barbed-wire fence protecting a Forest Department cane and guava plantation, circumvent most of the prone tree crown, crawl back out through the fence, and scramble over a few branches.
I reached the airport just in time, with red earth crusted around my toes, disreputable flip-flops, damp bags and a lingering smell of jackfruit on my hands. The monsoon had well and truly arrived.
(Janaki Lenin writes on wildlife and conservation. Her last book was My Husband and Other Animals.)
(This article was published on July 11, 2014)

India's new policy puts roads ahead of wildlife concerns

Faster approvals for military projects along China border could put 60 national parks and its iconic animals at risk 
Bumla pass at the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh
Indian army personnel keep vigil at Bumla pass at the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian military wants to build roads linking its outposts and airbases. Photograph: Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images
Read more in The Guardian

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

An end to India's 'Wild West'? Meghalaya bans coal mining... for now

Unregulated mining ended lives, trashed environment, may be up for renewal in August

Meghalaya, a state in India’s northeast, has thick forests above ground and valuable minerals below. Coal occurs in a narrow belt from the lower western end of the state across to the eastern end. Uncontrolled mining in the area has cleared forests, degraded rivers, and led to many accidents and deaths as few health and safety standards exist for mine workers. A ban effected earlier this year halted all mining in the state, but is set to be reconsidered at a hearing scheduled for August. 

The All Dimsa Students’ Union and Dimsa Hasao District Committee of Assam filed a petition before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on April 2, 2014. They alleged coal mining upriver in Meghalaya had polluted the River Kopili, affecting people downriver in Assam. On April 17, the NGT stopped all coal mining and transport of coal within the state. 

Trucks hauling mined coal over the Lukha River. Photo by Rajkamal Goswami. 

Read more

Friday, July 04, 2014

New report: illegal logging keeps militias and terrorist groups in business

Total profit from environmental crime may exceed $200 billion per year

Photo by US Army Africa

Deforestation has many harmful consequences, from loss of wildlife habitat to degradation of water and air quality, and many more. Now, a new report adds another repercussion to the list: the funding of terrorist groups and other crime networks. 

Entitled “The Environmental Crime Crisis” and released last week by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) during the first United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, the report found that together with other other illicit operations such as poaching, illegal deforestation is one of the top money-makers for criminal groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. 
Read more

Is the banteng making a comeback?

Photo by Caleb Jones, ISAC. 

Researchers have discovered a new population of banteng (Bos javanicus), a species of wild cattle, in northwestern Cambodia. The discovery was announced June 4, 2014 by Fauna and Flora International (FFI), and efforts are underway to implement conservation initiatives to protect the area and its newfound banteng, which are listed as Endangered by the IUCN. 

Camera trap images of six banteng were taken in a 9,500-hectare community forest in Siem Reap Province, where the species was previously believed to have gone extinct. The area is not currently officially protected.
Read more 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cloud's End - Gopalswamy Betta

A sharp musky smell assailed our nostrils. There was no doubt what it was: elephants. They were out of sight in the thick forested slopes.

It was a steep climb up the motorable road to the peak of Gopalswamy Betta. At 1,450 metres, goose bumps erupted as a cool breeze blew. The temple was reportedly built in 1315 by a Hoysala king Ballala, just before the ancestors of the current Wadiyar dynasty established their rule over the area. The hero stones collected from the forest and installed at the Bandipur reception centre certainly make one wonder if Bandipur was once settled by humans and has since become rewilded.

Clouds hung low, mist blew in waves, and softly rounded, grass-covered hills undulated westwards. A couple of sambhar grazed on a distant hillside, no larger than specks in the landscape.  

Arati was in photographer’s heaven, delighted with every slight change in light. Had we been granted more time, she would have happily shot a million pictures more. When our 30 minutes were up, I had to drag a reluctant Arati back to the car.

Gopalswamy Betta is about 25 km from the Bandipur main entrance, off the Mysore-Gudalur Highway. It takes half an hour from the park to the hill’s check post. You are granted 90 minutes, but the drive up is half an hour each way, leaving only 30 minutes at the temple. Taking photographs along the way is prohibited unless permitted by the Field Director. They can confiscate your camera if you do. Also prohibited are plastic bags and picnics. The reason for these strictures: Gopalswamy Betta is in the core area of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Entry is between 9 am and 3:30 pm. Entry fee: Rs. 50 a car.

Paddling around in Phuket

Published in Outlook Traveller LUXE January2014

Sonny guided the inflatable kayak across the expansive Phang Nga Bay, Phuket, towards an immense rock. At the waterline, I could see skylight on the other side of a small tunnel, and we sped straight for it. Sonny commanded, “Lie back,” and I obeyed his order, holding my hands against my body. Had my arm snagged, the sharp-edged, rough wall would have skinned it. The tunnel, just wider than the kayak, was a portal to another dimension.

We emerged from the dark cave into an open-air pond, with cycads, bamboo, grasses, and fig trees growing on the enormous wall encircling us. Unseen birds occasionally chirped high up on the rocky cliff, breaking the eerie silence. Sonny explained how these open-to-the-sky tidal pools were created.

Over millennia, rainwater collected in puddles on top of these limestone rocks and ate away the cores, hollowing out the islets. Sea water eroded the rocks from outside at the waterline. Where the walls were especially thin, caves formed allowing the sea to enter the hollow islets. Many of these sea caves called ‘hongs,’ meaning rooms, were open at low tide, and we couldn’t get too carried away by the beauty. We had to scoot out before the tide came in or be trapped for six hours until the next low tide.

“Has that ever happened?” I asked Sonny.

“No. But we’ve been in some tight situations.”

A troop of well-camouflaged crab-eating macaques or swamp monkeys sat patiently on rocks, waiting for hand-outs. Our group of kayakers was the last of the day’s visitors.

When John Gray, the man who put these sea caves on the tourist map, paddled by, I asked him, “How many people visit these caves?”

“About 4,000 to 5,000 a day.”

That’s not surprising, since these hongs in Phang Nga Bay were only an hour’s boat ride from bustling Phuket. More and more kayaks entered the hong and noise levels rose; I was happy to go back to the bay.

The tide was rising and the tunnel seemed narrower on the way out. “How do you get rotund guests through that?” I asked Sonny.

“We let some air out of the kayak so we ride lower and the belly gets through.” He cackled with laughter, obviously remembering a particularly round beer gut’s close shave.

Dramatic limestone rocks with green vegetation cascading from the top rose out of the blue bay. Each had eroded in interesting and unique ways; some had arches, while others looked like they had been nibbled by giant rats. We entered another hong with a huge portal, a bat roost, and we comfortably paddled without risking skinned elbows.

The flotilla of lemon-coloured kayaks headed back to the mother boat. While waiting for nightfall, Sonny and the other guides taught us tourists to make orchid-decorated, banana pith floats called krathongs. Thais celebrate Loi Krathong, when we observe Karthikai Deepam in south India and Kartik Purnima in the north, once a year on a full moon night in mid-November. They set adrift their past sins and bad luck in the krathongs and as an offering to the river. But every tourist on the ‘Hong by Starlight’ tour celebrated it, no matter the time of year or moon phase. Shorn of its cultural context, it was a corny exercise I thought.

A chorus of loud shrieks rent the air. Brahminy kites swooped down in the boat’s wake, snatching up chicken necks the cook chucked into the water. John said, “I don’t condone feeding wildlife; I don’t feed monkeys. But visiting ornithologists told me feeding raptors is okay.” By the time the last morsel was picked out of the waters and the kites went back to riding the thermals high in the sky, all the krathongs were made.

At sunset, we anchored near a tall rocky islet where we’d float the krathongs after nightfall. Black clouds spluttering lightning bolts, like colossal live fire opals, sped our way, and within minutes, a demonic rain god embraced us. Lightning crashed around the boat, thunder reverberated, and the rain drummed loudly on the boat’s roof. John commanded the craft move closer to the rock, explaining, “If we stick close to it, the lightning is likely to spare the boat.”

The weather forecast indicated thunderstorms for the week, but the cloudless, sunny days had fooled everybody. With nothing to do, I helped myself to more stir-fried tofu. I resolved yet again to run the next morning, weather willing. I overate at every meal, and the blame lay squarely with the scrumptious Thai cuisine.

I had all the encouragement to run. Westin Siray Bay Resort and Spa’s ‘running concierge’ would run with me and point out any scenic or cultural sites along a pre-charted route. I can’t say how this unique concept works; not even the incentive of complimentary New Balance footwear could stir me out of my Heavenly Bed®, the hotel chain’s hallmark of customized comfort.

The 250-plus-room resort was arrayed along a hillslope above the lobby, and a cool sea breeze blew from Siray Bay. Every room had an unhindered view of the sea. Locally-crafted, long-tail wooden boats, ferries, and speedboats plied the waters. On a distant hill, the 45-metre-tall marble statue called the Big Buddha glowed white in the morning sun.

The beach below the resort was just a fringe of sand, disappointing for sun-worshippers. The bay was so sheltered, there was no breeze to get the windsurfers moving. But what Westin lacked in beaches, it made up in views and location. Although the resort was on the far and quieter side of the island from touristy Patong, I had to travel a mere eight kilometres to reach Phuket town.

I walked into a splendidly restored colonial building that housed the Blue Elephant restaurant on Krabi Road. Tony Bish, the Texan-Phuketian chef, led a group of us, novices at Thai cooking, to the kitchen garden to pick fresh betel leaves to make crab curry. We sampled basil and lemongrass, examined the round, white Thai eggplant, and regarded the many kinds of chillies with respect.

At the culinary school, in the rear of the restaurant, every student had a stove, implements, and an array of ingredients. Following Tony’s example, we each made our own crab curry. While he liberally threw five blood red bird’s eye chillies into the mortar, I conservatively used only one. Proud of making my first Thai dish, I tasted a large spoonful of it, and recoiled from the lone chilli’s heat.

Over a sumptuous lunch fit for royalty, Kim SteppĂ©, the affable Belgian-Phuketian general manager of the restaurant, quipped, “Phuket town is the soul of the island and Patong is its heartbeat.”

“What’s Siray?” I asked.

“It’s the site of the first human settlement on the island. The sea gypsies were the first to settle here.”

The Moken sea gypsy settlement was visible from the resort’s lobby. In times past, the community was nomadic, living at sea for months. Even though the gypsies were the original settlers, they weren’t accepted as Thai nationals.

I wandered through the hamlet. Women, some with babies cradled on their laps, sat cross-legged in groups on low bamboo platforms, chatting and preparing food. The older ladies wore traditional sarongs and blouses, while the younger ones wore capris and t-shirts. The elderly slept in the shade, oblivious of noisy kids racing down the street. The Moken looked more Polynesian than Thai, and they rarely looked up at me. If our eyes met, they shyly looked away.

Under a large tree by the waters’ edge, three men were making what looked like cages. Between the rattan and thin hardwood mangrove struts, the men’s hands blurred as they wove bobbins of wire back and forth, twist, back and forth, twist in a chain link pattern. I walked around a cage examining its construction. The wall of one side caved into a funnel, the jagged wires sticking out like teeth. It was a fish trap. Although it seemed light in construction, I wondered how the fishermen hoisted a full trap out of the water. I knew no Thai and they knew no English, so I only had recourse to my imagination.

After lunch, I met tour guide Nantawan Kosai, who preferred to be called Jennifer Lopez. A group of us set off from Blue Elephant, following and hanging on her every word as she led us down Thalang Road. Although Phuket seemed to have sprung to life in recent years as a tourist spot, it had a flourishing tin mining industry for more than a century.

Many Chinese barons built ornate mansions like the Blue Elephant, but most preferred to live in shop-houses. Business was conducted downstairs, and living quarters upstairs. Porches of these row houses connected to form an arcaded walkway called five-foot-way. Built in the Sino-Portuguese style adapted from Penang, the buildings had spacious rooms, ceramic floor tiles, European-style stucco ornamentation, central courtyards called chimcha, and front doors adorned with Chinese motifs.

Jennifer said the narrow boutique shop-lined alley Soi Romanee used to house the ladies of the night. But with this curious twist in custom: Every evening, the women gathered in the balconies and picked their choice from the parade of men walking below. One rich businessman, who made his lonely way home unconsummated for four consecutive evenings, apparently committed suicide.

There was much to see and savour of Phuket’s history, but we were rushed for time. We hurried through an amulet market where I found a shivaling carved in graphic detail, a colourful Chinese Taoist temple, and Phuket Thai Hua Museum (formerly a school for Chinese children). Jennifer shepherded us into a blue mini bus locally called po-tong.

We arrived at the top of Khao Rang hill just as the sun disappeared over the horizon. At the popular Tung-ka Cafe, Jennifer ordered a round of Kopichamp, Phuket’s unique blended beverage of coffee and tea. It sounded vile, but if Jennifer was so proud of it, it was worth a try. It was cold coffee with an aftertaste of tea, and surprisingly good and refreshing at the end of a long walk.

I manoeuvred my way along the crowded wooden viewing deck to see the city lights spread out below. No matter how unplanned and messy a city looks by day, it is always pretty by night, and Phuket was no exception.


Fed up of waiting for the rain to ease, Sonny distributed disposable plastic ponchos. Many guests said they didn’t want to risk their lives going out among striking lightning bolts. With the krathongs tucked underneath the ponchos to keep the candles dry, some of us kayaked away from the boat.

Lightning lit up the landscape for an instant, and the monochromatic bluish image registered in my mind like a photograph. With head lamps aglow, the kayak guides navigated into a large cave. Every paddle swish made the water sparkle with emerald-green stars: self-illuminating plankton.

The cave was still and quiet as we solemnly lit the candles on the krathongs. Sonny’s voice echoed, “Make a wish when you let them go.” I was too dumbstruck by the beauty and drama of the scene to think of a wish. It felt good to just be. The walls of the cave flickered in candlelight, and our shadows swirled around as the jewel-like krathongs drifted away gently into the hong.

Despite my earlier misgivings about celebrating Loi Krathong out of season, it was truly a magical experience. The spectacular storm gave the faux light festival a new context, one I could make my own.

Of Men and Mountains

Published in Outlook Traveller Dec 2013

Everyone I encounter is a mountaineer, outdoorsman, or an adventurer. I look around the dinner gathering at Steve and Ameeta Alters’ heritage home and wonder how I fit in this ensemble. Butterfly specialist Peter Smetacek, ecologist Theophilus, poetess Mamang Dai, and writers I. Allan Sealy and Bill Aitken live in the mountains. I meet two ladies who write about mountaineers.

Is this a writers’ festival in the mountains, a festival of writers of mountain stories, or a festival of writers and mountains?

William Dalrymple strides into the room, flinging one loose end of a heavy grey shawl over his shoulder. His new book ‘Return of a King’ looks at the disastrous British meddling in Afghanistan. After installing Shah Shuja as the ruler, the British army tries to retreat to India but is annihilated in the Hindu Kush Mountains. More appropriately, the deposed Afghan emir Dost Mohammed Khan is then held captive in Mussoorie, the festival’s hometown.

Even spouse Rom fits into the milieu. He’s showing his latest documentary ‘Leopards: 21st Century Cats,’ and a major chunk of it was shot in Uttarakhand. I tell myself I ought to have paid closer attention to the list of participants. I might have been able to make some ephemeral connection to the mountains. Would the 700-foot scrub-covered hillock that overlooks our home count? Why on earth did Steve invite me?

My breath is fast and laboured from climbing the steep stairway from the Woodstock School gate to the auditorium, where the festival is held. I stand outside the door, waiting for my lungs and heart to catch up with my feet. An icy breeze blowing off the Himalaya penetrates my thick pullover and two layers of tees. The sky is cloudy and a veil of mist hides the view. I hurry inside before my thin tropical blood turns blue with cold.

The more I listen to the talks, the more I question my place in the world. Freddie Wilkinson from New Hampshire was inspired by the stark photography of Bradford Washburn to climb the icy peaks of Alaska. Where he sees beauty, I see a punishing landscape. Worse, he climbs alpine style, a term that has me scrambling for Google.

Traditional mountaineering lays siege to mountain with a huge expedition of porters, guides, and cooks. Alpine style mountaineers carry all their supplies and climb without oxygen cylinders. The lightness of their campaign allows them to move swiftly but they also have little time, sometimes climbing 16 hours a day for days without food or water.

Freddie takes the words out of my mouth, “Why do we punish ourselves so much?” His answer, “It’s hard to explain. So let’s change the conversation from the danger of mountaineering to its beauty.” The landscape dwarfs people; they look like ants scrambling up the edifice of frozen rock as if to get to an imaginary pot of nectar on the summit.

Krzysztof Wielicki from Poland shows pictures of more frigid glaciers and talks of unknowingly coming within touching distance of the summit before giving up. As he says it with a shrug and a laugh, I shiver with cold, real and reflected.

What drives these men to clamber up these inhospitable summits? Steve says mountaineering is the only sport with no spectators. If a stadium full of people can energize a sportsman to achieve greatness, from where do mountaineers get their energy? Krzysztof says the mountains provide the platform to push oneself beyond known limits, but my mind is a fog of incomprehension. Would I write if I had no readers?

Jerzy Porebski’s film ‘Kukuczka’ adds to my confusion. Not only was the eponymous subject the second man to climb all 14 of the 8000-metre-mountains, he took less than eight years to achieve what took Reinhold Messner 16 years. As if climbing these teat-like giants in summer wasn’t challenging enough, Kukuczka scaled many of them in winter. Why this self-flagellation? Krzysztof offers with an impish smile, “You don’t have to wash when it’s that cold.”

Maria Coffey from Canada talks of the pain of her boyfriend’s death on a mountain. His universe revolves around mountains, not her. Being fully aware of the risks, he refuses to commit to the relationship. And then he dies on Everest, leaving Maria grieving not only for the man but the relationship that never was. Maria visits the mountain with the widow of another mountaineer to bring closure, and writes about it in her first book, ‘Fragile Edge.’ Then she expands on the theme in another book ‘Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow,’ by detailing the sorrow of families of mountaineers who died or went missing on snow-capped mountains. The intensity of her talk only made the question ‘Why’ grow louder.

Why do these men jeopardize their lives and their families’ mental health by throwing themselves at treacherous mountains? I’m convinced I’m in the presence of divine lunacy. Even my spouse’s obsession with snakes seems normal in comparison.

As I struggle to write this, when the right words elude me and I come up against the wall of my own limitations, I can only offer this meagre explanation. I write and re-write, erase and edit, and voicelessly scream with frustration when words don’t obey the music I hear in my mind. I ask just as futilely, why do I do this. When the cadence of sentences lifts the story, there’s joy and magic. I can only imagine the euphoria experienced by food-deprived, oxygen-starved, altitude-addled mountaineers once they crest a summit.