Tuesday, December 24, 2019

How not to deal with a plagiarism allegation

When the subject expert who's the husband of a writer emails you about instances of identical sentences in your work, take the time to deal with his concerns. This is your chance to de-escalate this. Mistakes happen. Everyone understands that.

Do not accuse him of misleading you. Do not make it seem as if you are doing him a favour by writing about a species he cares about. Do not bring up a silly report you wrote 20 years ago that was riddled with factual inaccuracies and dangerous recommendations such as promoting surma (kohl mixed with snake venom applied to the eye as an antidote to venomous snakebite), snake charmers keeping snakes knotted up to prevent escape, etc. and complain that he was somehow discouraging you when he critiqued it. Nobody, except your friends, owes you such unquestioning loyalty. If you had learned anything from that episode, it is that mistakes happen. He didn’t hold that report against you and instead encouraged you over the years, sending you appreciative notes about your writing. Do not hurl that at his face and say you are confused by his “dichotomy”. In sum, you only piss off the already pissed-off writer who thinks there’s no point in having a conversation with you.

The writer tweets about the identical sentences but doesn’t call it the triggering P word and tags the publisher. Do not piss off the twice-pissed-off writer by then saying this is a “blatant lie”. She has been more considerate to you at this point than you have shown yourself capable.

Do not then speak to her on the phone and ask why she didn’t email first. You had that chance and blew it. Do not then excuse your offensive email by claiming you were in a meeting. Do not then claim you have a record of “each and every email from Rom”. There was only one in which he replied to your 2 questions. As the sender of that email, guess what, he has a record too.

Do not then say you have attributed at the end of the book. When you lift whole sentences and pretend they are your words, citation at the end of the book does not suffice.

Do not then demand ‘have you read this section, under the binding, among the flowers’,

because frankly at this point the writer is so sick of it she wants to throw the book in the Bay of Bengal. Besides, it is not her job to do the work of looking.

Do not claim the writer was replying to her husband’s emails which confused you. [The cognitive dissonance of this makes the head ache.] That’s silly.

Do not claim the source you lifted sentences from were quotes from her husband. The source has been online for a dozen years. Do not claim you didn’t use quotation marks around these texts because “flows from a quote before”.

Take the first instance of identical sentences, this is how the gharial section begins.

The following paragraph is a lifted text. Then you introduce the husband in the later paragraph. So what is the preceding quote that flows into the copy-pasted section?

Do not claim there are some great nuances that aren’t apparent, because this is really an open and shut case.

Update: In the next edition, Oxford University Press, the publisher of the book, says it will enclose quoted text within quotes and cite my original article.

Note to the world: If I ever make these mistakes, please boink me on the head with this post.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

The Queen of the Jungle

Full-length version of the article published in the Hindu Sunday Magazine on 4 Aug 2019

Courtship. Credit: Stotra Chakrabarti
Stotra Chakrabarti’s heart leapt into his throat when a wild lion plonked companionably next to him. The dusty ground between his kneeling profile and the cat spanned a mere two metres, close enough to smell the beast’s rank breath. A moment earlier, it had been lying somewhere else while the researcher watched another lion tucking into a nilgai kill some distance away. “I became a statue,” Chakrabarti recalls. “I didn’t even bat an eyelid.” A disquieting fact was the predator dozing nonchalantly next to him was famished and waiting his turn at the carcass. Every time Chakrabarti moved a muscle in a slow motion effort to get away, the cat opened his eyes. “That was the longest half hour of my life.” This was one of the many instances when Asian lions took him by surprise.

The lions weren’t always this comfortable with him, especially not when he was a new entrant. They didn’t pay attention to his field assistants, since many of them had worked on the project since 1995 when Chakrabarti’s mentor set it up. By showing up every day, he got to know the lions and they became used to him. They probably didn’t recognise him by his spectacles and facial hair but as ‘the furtive man who wears the same brown pants, green shirt, and beige baseball cap’. With familiarity came ease.

Biologists need to pick one animal apart from the others. In the case of tigers and leopards, distinctive stripes and rosettes come in handy. But every buff-coloured lion looks the same. Biologists instead use whisker spots or moustache pattern from close-up photographs to identify them.

In an open grassland this technique would be simple, but the thickets of Gir, Gujarat, made it complicated. Where shrubbery came in the way of a clear shot, Chakrabarti had no choice but creep up to his subjects.

On a warm afternoon during the early days of his research, he stalked a lioness on foot as her pride fed on a sambar kill. She charged unexpectedly. Every self-preservation instinct told Chakrabarti to turn on his heels and run as the golden blur closed the distance between them. “If you show your back to a lion, your chances of surviving go from some to zero,” he says. Instead, the researcher shouted and thrashed his bamboo staff on the ground. The lionness stopped her attack. Her tail twitched as the dust she raised enveloped her. He realised later she had cubs and was understandably touchy.

Mom with cubs. Credit: Stotra Chakrabarti

Male lions can also be tough customers when they are consorting with females. A courting pair mates 50 to 60 times a day for an average of three days. They seldom drink and don’t eat. They may not live on love and fresh air, and they seem to get by on their surcharged hormones. High on testosterone, lions see even a moving bush as a rival, says Chakrabarti. He watched 134 mating events, and the males rushed at him every time.

The researcher survived without a mark but the ones under threat are cubs. Lions kill any cubs they suspect aren’t theirs to force the mothers to bear their offspring.

To avoid this tragedy, lionesses outwit the lions. A pride’s territory may overlap with three or four male coalitions, of two to four lions each. Lionesses mate with each one and confuse them all. Different males tolerate the same litter, thinking they are the fathers. “The females control the whole show,” says Chakrabarti. “It’s not the Lion King here, rather the Lion Queen that reigns.” African lionesses, in contrast, remain exclusive to one coalition.

This strategy of promiscuity works on known males but not with newcomers. Chakrabarti and his assistants perched on their vehicle, watching two lionesses with two three-month-old cubs feasting on a buffalo kill in a drying swamp. There wasn’t a tree or bush in sight. He spied unfamiliar males roaring as they approached. The quick-thinking older lioness, he had named Jodha, dashed towards the humans with the cubs on her heels. The suddenness of the situation caught the researcher off-guard. Sitting on the bonnet/hood of the vehicle, what could he do? She braked beside the 4WD and sprinted back to join the other lioness, alone. A bewildered Chakrabarti swivelled his head. Where had the cubs gone? They were secreted under the automobile.

Battle of the sexes. Credit: Stotra Chakrabarti

As the two lionesses chased the lions, the researcher wanted to follow. But how was he to move with the cubs ensconced between the wheels? Besides, his assistants refused to cooperate. “She has given us a responsibility,” one argued. “We can’t let her down.” The researcher had no choice but to wait until the lionesses returned two hours later. The mother hummed, a signal for the cubs to come out of cover. Reluctant at first to leave safety, they finally crawled out. As the family walked away, Jodha glanced back at the men as if to say ‘Thank you’.

If the lionesses’ devotion to their families melted his heart, he’s still coming to terms with the lions’ disdain. “A dhole or wolf gaze pierces you,” he says. “A tiger’s glance sends chills up your spine. But lions destroy your ego with one look. We were no more than persistent nagging flies that followed them everywhere.”

It’s impossible to tell if the hungry lion that decided to keep Chakrabarti company thought he was a fly.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Why releasing Ustad does conservation no favours

An edited version of this article was published in the Wire as The Case for Ustad’s Relocation Out of Ranthambore on 22 May 2016

 Photograph: Dharmendra Khandal

Ustad draws more tears, articles, and petitions than any other tiger, living or dead. More than a month after the Supreme Court refused to free the famous cat, also known as T24, the clamour for his liberation refuses to die down.

An article published on 18 May 2015, alleges, “hoteliers, NGOs, forest officers, tourism officials, mafia groups and politicians” conspired to throw the poor tiger from Ranthambore into life in captivity. It claims Ustad's only crime was to sniff the spot where forest guard Rampal Saini had been killed moments earlier. And it asserts, “However, there was not a single eyewitness.”

Rarely does anyone witness a wild animal attack a human. Especially, not by a stealthy predator like a cat. Nor can evidence of the kind used to try humans in a court of law be produced to indict animals. Proof is by necessity circumstantial, and forest officials are forced to act based on faint clues in the dirt. You'd have to face a mob of irate and distraught villagers to know that no one can reason, 'There were no eyewitnesses. We can't do anything.'

A car full of people witnessed the attack on Saini. They arrived on the scene first, and its occupants, including the brother of a local sarpanch, tried hard to free him from the tiger's jaws. The driver honked and revved his engine to scare the animal away. Three forest guards and an employee of a local NGO Tiger Watch arrived next, but by then the tiger had left. They rushed the grievously injured guard to hospital that declared him dead on arrival. No one paused to get a photograph of the tiger.

Within half an hour, forest officials and others congregated at the site and the search for the culprit began. An hour after the incident, Assistant Conservator of Forests Daulat Singh, Dharmendra Khandal, who heads Tiger Watch, and accompanying guards saw Ustad sniffing the spot where Saini had been killed. As they followed the animal by jeep, Khandal fell off the vehicle when the driver braked hard. The tiger turned around and headed for the fallen man. A fit Khandal scrambled into the vehicle before the cat got close. This description is taken from a report Khandal filed with the Forest Department soon after the incident and a subsequent email exchange.

The forest guard wasn't the only victim. At least three other humans were killed, and Ustad is the suspected culprit in all those cases.

Khandal’s report to the Forest Department encapsulates these incidents, and Aditya Singh, who owns a resort in the area, provided additional details. T24 wore a radio-collar that put him at the site of the first human killing in 2010. Researchers removed the radio-collar subsequently.  On the night of Holi 2012, people found the remains of the second victim.  A lot of the corpse had already been eaten. More than a hundred people helped foresters scare off the tiger before recovering parts of the body that night. The next day, foresters followed pugmarks from the site to a tiger resting under a bush. It was Ustad.

In October 2012, a Forest Department driver found T24 sitting on the corpse of a third victim, a guard like Saini, within moments of the attack. The tiger was licking blood oozing from the dead man's wounds. Like the previous two human kills, the body had been dragged some distance, not a sign of an accidental mauling. Foresters burst fire crackers to get the animal to budge. But the cat was so bold that neither the onlookers nor the noise fazed him. And then there was Saini, the fourth person to be killed.

As Khandal points out, a startled tiger lashes out with its paws. A tiger intends to kill when it tiptoes behind a human and snaps his neck, like it would a deer. All four victims bore deep canine puncture wounds on the neck; they were the tiger's prey.

Gheesu Singh killed by a tiger's bite to the neck
Photograph: Dharmendra Khandal

This track record, more than any conspiracy, is the reason no conservationist or tiger biologist of repute agrees with the 'Free Ustad' brigade. They are of the unanimous view that Ustad had to be removed.

No normal tiger approaches a fallen man, drags and defiantly guards a corpse, and kills victims with a bite to the neck. These are enough grounds for action against the one tiger that was present at four locations where humans had been killed.

According to the standard operating procedure of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) [pdf], “[C]onfirmed habituated tiger/leopard which 'stalk' human beings and feed on the dead body are likely to be ‘man-eaters.’”

Noted conservationist Valmik Thapar, who has worked in Ranthambore for decades, says he asked the state Forest Department to remove Ustad after the second death in 2012.  Tiger biologist Ullas Karanth wrote to Sanctuary Asia, “Any tiger that loses its inherent fear of human beings on foot, and displays aberrant behaviour of stalking or attacking human beings should be immediately removed. In my opinion, T24 should have been removed after the very first human attack years ago.” However, the department mistakenly gave the tiger more than one chance because the victims were inside the park illegally, and two of its poor employees paid the price.

Even if all the evidence is thrown out, Ustad had to be removed simply because he was too familiar with people. No doubt baiting and repeated captures to treat an infection and constipation made him a bold animal. These blunders can’t be compounded by the graver and unconscionable one of allowing the tiger to run loose.

This situation echoes another that played out in Karnataka a couple of years ago. A tiger in Coorg lost its fear of humans, chasing cars and following motorcyclists. It was suspected of killing a woman but there was no hard proof. Karanth advised the department not to release it elsewhere, saying, “In the longer term we want more tiger habitat protected, and, without public and political support, that goal will be undermined if human predation events continue…” But the state Forest Department relocated the tiger to Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary. More than a month later, it was shot dead after it killed a young pregnant woman.

The Rajasthan Forest Department ought to have followed the NTCA’s guidelines in capturing Ustad, but it didn't. A court can free a human prisoner if procedural lapses mar his trial. Such nuances have no place in dealing with a suspected man-eater. More importantly, the department followed the law. The Wildlife Protection Act is clear – any animal that is a threat to human life can be captured with the permission of the Chief Wildlife Warden. This is the reason that neither the Rajasthan High Court nor the Supreme Court thought it fit to release Ustad.

In Himachal Pradesh, many leopards are declared man-eaters on even flimsier grounds and shot dead by sharpshooters. Often, innocent animals are killed. This is not to justify Ustad's incarceration but to highlight that India doesn't have the forensic wherewithal to deal with animal attacks to the degree the Western world does. When tigers target humans, the department has to act fast before the situation becomes worse. Not only does it become a law and order problem, there is every possibility of losing another human life.

We don't know enough about the behaviour of man-eaters for obvious reasons. Do they always progress from cattle-lifting to man-eating? Why were the kills spread over a five-year period? No one knows. But forest officials cannot fail to act while waiting for answers.

If Ustad is released, forest guards' lives are in danger as they patrol the jungle on foot. They are paid and equipped poorly. In their efforts to drive Ustad away from corpses, they had no more than lathis to defend themselves. Understandably, they felt their jobs had become risky and petitioned the authorities to capture Ustad. If the community feels unsafe, it will deal with the problem using crude cruel means. Under the circumstances, no forest official can take responsibility for releasing him.

Campaigning to free a suspected man-eater displays a breathtaking disdain for people's lives. Conservationists spend considerable effort defusing conflict and reducing the price local people pay for conservation, such as protecting livestock from predators. Releasing Ustad would be a declaration of war. It doesn’t aid conservation as it jeopardises human lives, the future of the park and other resident tigers.

There's no dearth of worrisome developments for anyone concerned about the tiger's future in India. For instance, 30 tigers in Panna will lose their homes if the Ken-Betwa river linking project goes through. The widening of NH7 will snap corridors between the forests of central India, and tiger will be stuck in their tiny forested islands, their future genetic viability under threat. Rather than Ustad, these tigers consume the energy and efforts of any right-thinking conservationist.


A video by Sandesh Kadur

Rukmini Shekhar rebuts the rebuttal [You can see it in full at the Wire site.] I'm just going to answer a few of her questions.

Rukmini: The writer writes with 100% certainty that Ustad was a man eater given all the circumstantial evidence.

JL: It is circumstantial evidence. I haven't argued otherwise. Ustad just happened to be at the site of four human kills which is a remarkable coincidence.

Rukmini: Why did a jeep-full of people rush to the spot? What was their interest in it?

JL: Because the ACF was in it and it's his duty to go and check a case of human mortality. Unless she means the car full of people. Remember the incident took place near the main entrance. The car was returning from a temple when the occupants heard alarm calls and went to investigate.

Rukmini: If indeed Ustad did attack Mr. Khandal, how come he (Ustad) sobered up between May 9th and May 16th?

JL: You could well ask why did Ustad not kill anyone between 2010 and 2012. Who knows what triggers a hunt? A tiger can amiably watch chital grazing one day and go into hunt mode the next. Can you look at a tiger peacefully watching chital and say it's a vegetarian?

Rukmini: Why were the kills spread over a five-year period? No one knows.” – We know.

JL: Wow. The certainty of argument is astonishing.

Rukmini: The NTCA guidelines say that a proper man-eating tiger would, in the normal course, be responsible for at least three killings a week!

JL: If Ustad is constipated and ate one human a week, he wouldn't be a man-eater! Besides, this is a load of bullshit. Nothing in the NTCA's SOP says anything about three killings a week or otherwise. See for yourself - http://projecttiger.nic.in/WriteReadData/CMS/Final_SOP_11_01_2013.pdf

Rukmini: Quotes CCF who says a lot and asks "why didn’t he eat parts of his [Gheesu Singh] body."

JL: Because the corpse was removed immediately. Surely as CCF he ought to know that. Ustad was licking the man's wounds, typical tiger behaviour before eating.

Rukmini: What was Saini doing at that time in the bushes?

JL: Does it matter? Does a tiger selectively pick people who are doing particular activities? Gheesu was inspecting road works and Rampal went to investigate the presence of a tiger. 

Rukmini quotes the CCF: Ustad’s so-called loss of fear of humans (which deems him a maneater) flies in the face of his aggressive behaviour in Sajjangarh Zoo, where he still charges at humans.

JL: You can't compare wild and captive behaviour. Even an amateur wildlife  enthusiast knows that.  Amazing a wildlife warden can ask this question. Many wild animals confined in an enclosed space and forced into close contact with humans in a setting not of their choosing, will be aggressive. Leopards at the Manikdoh rescue centre are just as ferocious, charging the bars, snarling, and growling. Some of them are supposedly man-eaters, some are not.

Rukmini:  Being an aggressive tiger is not a crime. Ustad is not a domestic cat.

JL: Losing fear of humans is. Refusing to back off when faced with hundreds of humans is. None of this portends well for a wild tiger.

Rukmini: I wish to say that God is in the nuances. It is the nuances that decide whether a poor animal is imprisoned for life because of vested interests or gets to roam the jungle like the proud and majestic animal that he is. 

JL: Essentially, what she's saying is tigers are no different from humans and we'd have to provide infallible evidence in every case of human-wild predator conflict. This isn't an exact science. It's a socio-political decision that forest officials have to make to keep the peace with communities. In some cases, innocent animals pay the price, but it serves the larger purpose of conservation. We just have to live with that. 

Rukmini: Ustad’s removal is not just the removal of one tiger but the utter failure of conservation that rests in the hands of commerce. 

JL: And where's the evidence for this? If you want evidence to prove an animal in a man-eater, surely you have to show evidence before making accusations against people. This is really an animal welfare issue, not a conservation one. Anything that jeopardises conservation in the long run can only be anti-conservation.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Meat of the Matter

AT LAST NOVEMBER’S CAMEL MELA IN PUSHKAR, the animals didn’t look happy. Some stamped restlessly and brayed in distress, and others sat bored on folded limbs. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, a global champion of pastoralists’ rights and a Pushkar regular, picked her way through the annual throng of herders and tourists. Dark glasses shielded her blue eyes against the desert sun. “This is the lowest turnout of camels at Pushkar,” she said, in her slight German accent. “I don’t think there are more than 2,500 camels. In previous years, there were 50,000 camels. The draft bill has definitely scared everyone.”

The Rajasthan Camel Bill, pending before the state legislature, proposes a blanket ban on camel slaughter, and on the export of camels from the state. Its provisions are meant to stem a decline of camel numbers in Rajasthan, and follow the recognition of the camel as a state animal last June. But the bill has caused deep disquiet among the Raika, a Hindu community traditionally responsible for most of the camel breeding in Rajasthan, by threatening the last remaining economic incentives for raising the animals.

For centuries, the Raika sold male calves as draught animals to farmers, merchants, and the cavalry regiments of the area’s Rajput chieftains. Females augmented herds and were never sold, and there was a taboo among the community, which is vegetarian, against selling their camels for meat. But as mechanisation reduced demand for draught animals, some Raika quietly started selling camels for slaughter. As the practice continued, herds were decimated. Censuses by the central government show that Rajasthan’s camel population declined from 669,000 to about 422,000 between 1997 and 2007, and then to just above 325,000 in 2012.

Köhler-Rollefson and I walked to a visitors’ stall run by the Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan, or LPPS. She works closely with the NGO, founded to support the Raika by a local activist, Hanwant Singh Rathore, in 1996. In 2001, she told me, “Raika leaders, assembled here in Pushkar, called Hanwant and me for a meeting. They said many in their community were selling their female camels for meat. We were shocked.” The leaders wanted a ban on slaughtering females. “We wrote to everybody,” Köhler-Rollefson said, “from the district collector to the chief minister,” but no action was taken.

When the Rajasthan government declared the camel a state animal, Köhler-Rollefson said, the LPPS “thought perhaps now things would change for the better.” But their delight ended after hearing of the Rajasthan Camel Bill. The LPPS insists that the slaughter of male camels be permitted to allow camel breeders a livelihood, while the killing of females be banned to preserve herds. Rathore, who had been busy attending to visitors, sat down next to us. “If there is no earth, where will the seed come from?” he asked, reciting a Marwari saying. “If there are no females, where will the calves come from? There are only 200,000 camels left now. At this rate, soon we will lose them all.”

The Raika’s traditional ways have also been jeopardised by the disappearance of pasture. Many old grazing grounds have been overrun by vilayati babul, an invasive plant known scientifically as Prosopis juliflora. Other pastures have, since the 1970s, been turned into farmland thanks to irrigation schemes. Elsewhere, electric pumps and tube wells allow fields where camels earlier foraged during fallow periods to be tilled year-round. The Raika also no longer have free use of old grazing areas that have come under the control of the forest department, and often have no choice but to violate the department’s restrictions at the risk of fines.

The LPPS makes artisanal products such as camel-milk soap—bars of which were on sale at the stall—but it’s hard to imagine this becoming a mainstay of the Raika economy. Other economic alternatives, such as cooperatives to process and sell camel milk, have been shot down. The economist Bibek Debroy, a member of the NITI Ayog, a new planning body of the central government, wrote in a column in November that it would be too expensive and impractical to collect milk from the Raika since the community is very widely dispersed. He argued in favour of farming camels for meat instead.

Hajiram, an elderly Raika, joined us. Köhler-Rollefson asked him the going price of camels at the fair. His shoulders slumped. “Camels that sold for Rs 20,000 last year are selling for Rs 7,000 and Rs 8,000,” he said. “Meat traders bought the most.” 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

India falling behind in protection of snow leopards and their habitat

Indian minister is not attending the first international meeting for the conservation of snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan despite the need for greater conservation efforts to protect its leopard populations

Snow leopard walking on snow. An international forum will coordinate the conservation of the species and its habitat in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on March19-20, 2015.

 Snow leopard walking on snow. An international forum will coordinate the conservation of the species and its habitat in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on March19-20, 2015. Photograph: Tom Brakefield/Getty Images
The first international steering committee meeting to coordinate conservation efforts for the snow leopard is being held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on 19 and 20 March 2015. Ministers, bureaucrats, and conservation organisations from 12 range countries are expected to attend. Sadly, India will not be represented by its minister or any of its senior bureaucrats. 
Read more at the Guardian

Norway may pull investment from Indian firm over Bangladesh coal plant

Norway’s pension fund may withdraw investment from a coal plant to be built with Indian partner on the edge of Sundarbans mangrove forest, citing threat of severe environmental damage

Villagers carrying oil removed from the river surface in Joymani village, Sundarbans, Bangladesh.
Villagers carrying oil removed from the river surface in Joymani village, Sundarbans, Bangladesh. Photograph: AP

The massive 1,320 megawatt Rampal thermal plant would sit on the edge of Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, in Bangladesh. For more than two years, citizens, artists, and social and environmental activists protested plans to build this plant close to a forest that is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s world heritage site as well as a Ramsar wetland site. In September 2013, about 20,000 people marched for five days from Dhaka to Dighraj. ‘The long march’ covered a distance of nearly 250 miles, to demand the scrapping of the power plant. 
The $1.2bn project is a joint venture between India’s national thermal power corporation and Bangladesh’s power development board. Environmentalists allege the plant will not only pollute the mangrove forest, but emissions from burning coal will contribute to climate change. Low-lying Bangladesh, said to be one of the most vulnerable countries in the world, is threatened by rising sea levels, but many of its citizens have no access to electricity. The government seeks to produce 20,000 megawatts of cheap coal-fired power by the year 2021. But 50% of power generated by Rampal is destined for India, while Bangladesh’s citizens and environment are expected to bear the brunt of it.
Read more at the Guardian
Update: The fund has withdrawn money not just in NTPC, but also other coal-based Indian companies.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ecologically disastrous dams may get the go-ahead

A submerged idol of Hindu Lord Shiva stands in the flooded river Ganges at Rishikesh on June 18, 2013.

 A submerged idol of Hindu deity Shiva stands in the flooded river Ganges at Rishikesh on 18 June 2013. Photograph: AP
In mid-February, the ministry of environment and forests virtually approved six hydropower dams. This is the latest in an 18-month-long debate on the ecological impact of dams in Uttarakhand.
In June 2013, floods severely damaged parts of the state. About 6,000 people died, and tens of thousands of pilgrims were stranded. The disaster destroyed six villages, buried dozens of others in silt, and wrecked highways. 
Within days of the disaster, environmentalists and villagers alleged dams aggravated the disaster. When reservoirs brimmed over the danger mark, dam operators opened the sluice gates without warning villagers living downstream. The unexpected deluge washed away people, livestock, and buildings. Dynamite used to blast tunnels destabilised mountain slopes causing numerous landslides.
Read more at the Guardian

The Land Below the Wind

I learnt more than my comfort level allowed about headhunting on the 30-minute drive from Kota Kinabalu to Mari Mari Cultural Village, Sabah, East Malaysia. John Prudente, the guide, briefed our group about the traditional tribal cultures showcased at the village. One of them was the Murut, the most aggressive headhunters of the Malaysian state.

Young Murut men raided other tribes to collect heads. Headhunting was a rite of passage, turning young men into warriors and eligible bachelors. But one head wasn’t enough. The greatest warrior had the most number of skulls.

John dramatically lowered his voice and said, “They would sometimes take ladies’ heads too.” My fellow tourists gasped. Since the group was all women, I suspected he was trying to get a rise out of us. But he was serious. Murut men waited in ambush by streams where women bathed and did their laundry. They were easy to overpower, and there was no law against taking their heads. John said, “The rule of the game was to get a head, a human head. It didn’t matter if it was male or female.”

But the chilling story didn’t end there. Murut warriors didn’t spare even pregnant women, and in fact, sought them out because they got two heads with one blow. “The spirit of a pregnant woman was more powerful,” John said. Not only was headhunting a mark of bravery, the spirits of the dead did the killers’ bidding. Each warrior owned a chunk of forest for hunting and procuring medicinal herbs. Since these were far away from longhouses, spirits were essential to guard them from trespassers.

Published in Outlook Traveller February 2015. Read more here

Artificial glacier could help Ladakh villagers adapt to climate change

Ice Stupa Artificial Glaciers of Ladakh : The Monk (HH the Rinpochey), The Engineer and The Artificial Glacier on 1st of May 2014.
 An artificial glacier made in the form of an ice stupa in Ladakh. Photograph: Secmol.org
Villagers of the high desert of Ladakh in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state used to harvest bountiful crops of barley, wheat, fruits, and vegetables in summer.

But for years the streams have run dry in spring, just when farmers needed water to sow seeds. They had water when it wasn’t needed during the rest of the year, such as in winter, when Ladakhis let water gush from taps to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting.

Villagers blame climate change for causing glaciers to shrink by melting them faster than before.

To resolve the water-shortage problem, Sonam Wangchuk, a mechanical engineer, and his team of volunteers are building a gigantic vertical block of ice in Phyang, nine miles from Leh, the capital of Ladakh. When spring comes and the artificial glacier melts, farmers will have flowing water.

The ingenious method stores water without the need for concrete water storage tanks or dams. While it won’t stop glaciers from shrinking, it could help people adapt to a warming world.

Read more at the Guardian

Carnivores in the neighbourhood

India’s laws and policies guide management of animals inside forests, but there’s no state policy to deal with predators living amongst people

STAKING TERRITORY: “Protected forests are great for conservation, but they cannot be the only strategy.” Picture shows tourists at the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, Chandrapur. Photo: Paul Noronha
STAKING TERRITORY: “Protected forests are great for conservation, but they cannot be the only strategy.” Picture shows tourists at the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, Chandrapur. Photo: Paul Noronha

The tigress strode boldly across open farmlands, and crossed railway tracks and highways at night. She avoided venturing close to villages in her hunt for wild pigs. During the day, she hunkered down in forest patches, reed beds, or plantations, out of sight of people.
A few villagers walked within 100 metres of her hideout, but she didn’t move. In an area where the average human density is 200 per square kilometre, no one knew of her existence except a few researchers and forest officials. She wore a GPS collar that transmitted the coordinates of her location by text message several times a day for four months.
Contrary to popular belief that tigers need to live in vast forests, this tigress was 45 kilometres away from the nearest one, Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. The collar stopped functioning after four months, but a camera trap took her photograph in the same area a year later. She wasn’t a lone tiger struggling to survive in a less than ideal habitat; two other tigers lived nearby. Despite living so close to humans, she posed no threat to them.
Impediment to survival
When wild carnivores are found far outside forests, managers and conservationists often grasp for excuses. Wild animals prefer wild habitats, we are told. If they are found anywhere else, there must be something wrong. Lack of habitat, disturbance within forests, and lack of prey are oft-cited reasons. After visiting the farmlands of Akole, Maharashtra, where leopards live among people without causing alarm, one forester exclaimed to the biologist studying them, “These leopards are not normal.”
Animals disregard not only our boundaries but also our assumptions. They go where there is prey, whether domestic, feral or wild, and they live in what little cover is available. The only possible impediment to their survival in landscapes where humans live is the level of tolerance of people. Our religious and cultural traditions are empathetic of almost all animals including venomous snakes.
Regional folk deities like Waghoba in western India and Dakshin Ray in Bengal or a pan-Indian goddess such as Durga bestow sanctity on large wild cats. Even in an extreme situation like in the Sunderbans, where more people are killed by tigers than anywhere else, no one demands that all tigers be killed. It’s because of this tolerance that India still has the largest population of wild tigers in the world despite our high human population.
In comparison, European folk tales traditionally demonise predators, and fear of them runs deep. Even though human densities are relatively low, Europeans almost eradicated their carnivores. Brown bears used to be found throughout Europe except in Iceland and the Mediterranean Islands. By the mid-20th century, they were holding out in the east, north, and west of Europe.
Similarly, much of the continent was wiped clean of its wolves after the Second World War, but they managed to survive in the three Mediterranean peninsulas, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. The number of Eurasian lynx also diminished, and they survived only along the margins of international borders. This dismal situation has changed.
A new assessment, ‘Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes,’ by 76 authors from 26 countries, was published in Science in December 2014. It shows that like the tigress outside Tadoba, carnivores are recolonising Europe, ranging far outside protected forests and staking territories among human-owned farms and plantations.
From the margins of Europe, wolves have recolonised more than 15 per cent of the land. They’ve returned to countries from where they had been declared extinct such as Norway, Poland, Latvia, Germany, and Bulgaria. Even though brown bears are huge, weighing an average 200 kilogrammes, they are now the continent’s most abundant carnivore. About 17,000 bears roam over 4,85,400 sq.km., about 10 per cent of Europe.
This turnaround was achieved after decades of coordinated legislation, good law enforcement, and public support for conservation. Instead of antagonising local people by outlawing their hunting traditions, management plans incorporated such practices and promoted recovery of animal populations. And therein lies a lesson for India.
The separation model
India’s primary conservation model, borrowed from the U.S., is to create exclusive zones, separating people from predators. Carnivores need plenty of space, and American parks, free of settlements, are large enough to accommodate them. They remove any predators found outside designated wildlife areas that take livestock.
Few parks in India are devoid of settlements and not many are large enough to maintain good breeding populations. We apply the separation model as it suits us. People living in forests have to relocate to make space for predators. But if the state removes carnivores living outside forests, there won’t be many of them left. Our laws and policies guide management of animals inside forests, but there’s no state policy to deal with predators living amongst people.
People living around forests have a long history of living with predators. Generally, they tolerate some level of loss before complaining to the Forest Department. But these complaints may not always be straightforward. Often, people are at loggerheads with the forest department. They may express their unhappiness by asking the department to remove “the government’s animals” from their property. Wildlife symbolises the state and its callous policies.
After decades of treating their carnivores as vermin, many European countries worked hard to get them back. We haven’t yet hit a low like Europe did, but we are headed that way if we don’t turn the ship around. For instance, tigers, once found across the subcontinent, now range over a mere 2.5 per cent of our country. If the species has to regain at least some lost ground, we need to do more than focus on protected areas. Biologists advocate lifting our heads and looking at the landscape. This is also where numerous people live and they decide if they want to live with predators. Antagonising them isn’t going to achieve conservation ends.
By following a coexistence model, the Europeans not only managed to bring back carnivores, they have proved it works. Europe now has twice as many wolves as the U.S., excluding Alaska. More than 12,000 wolves range across a continent that’s half the size of the U.S. and has more than twice the density of people, 97 people per sq. km. compared to the U.S.’s 40. While protected forests are great for conservation, they cannot be the only strategy. It’s time India learned from the European experience.
(Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals. She writes of the intermingled destinies of humans and wild creatures.)
Published in The Hindu Comment January 9, 2015

Mumbai residents learn to live with leopards

A unique participatory initiative in Mumbai helps residents deal with their fear of living with leopards 

Leopards are adaptable creatures, living where ever there is plenty of rubbish and stray dogs

 Leopards are adaptable creatures, living where ever there is plenty of rubbish and stray dogs Photograph: Paul Goldstein/Exodus/REX
Residents reported seeing a leopard prowling around their village of Marodi, Karnataka. One news report claimed the animal  the animal had not taken any livestock, while another said the cat had killed a calf. Importantly, the animal hadn’t threatened a human or displayed aberrant behaviour.
Read more at the Guardian

Leopards in the neighbourhood

If leopards can live off anything and live anywhere, what are our options of managing them?

Published in BBC Wildlife December 2014.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

The shifting sands of camel herders

Manaram keeping an eye on his camels

Camels sit with their long limbs tucked under them or repose languidly on their sides, chewing their cud. A couple of calves, covered in soft curly wool, stand next to their mothers. They watch tractors drive by the dusty lane and women herd water buffaloes and goats. Children with hastily washed faces carry satchels to school.

I know I have arrived at my destination in Mundara, Pali district, Rajasthan.

I wait for Hajiram, the man I had come to see, in the courtyard, under the dappled shade of a banyan tree.

A young man emerges from the house, introducing himself as Baburam, Hajiram’s son. A camel rises quickly and awkwardly to its feet—one leg is hobbled. Baburam approaches it, slings a noose around its neck, and brings it to its knees. It brays loudly like a donkey, and raising its hairy tail, ejects copious amounts of jamun-shaped green droppings. The man grabs the animal’s snout and it screams as if it is being slaughtered. Its unsympathetic flock mates continue to chew the cud.

Baburam’s elderly father, Hajiram Dewasi, makes an appearance now. He splashes the camel’s ear with warm water, and squeezes and extracts white gobs of pus. After he applies a salve, his son releases the camel. It scrambles up on three legs and suspiciously watches the men examining the others.

The men tend to one with an infected foot and rub another with medicated oil. Ministrations done, Baburam begins milking a camel. It is perhaps the only dairy animal a man can milk standing upright. Surprisingly, he doesn’t bother to tie her legs or restrain her in any way. She stands placidly while her calf suckles on one side and the man milks her from the other. Tending to wounds and milking are a daily morning routine in every camel-herding household, unchanged for centuries.

Baburam pours some milk into a small steel bowl and offers it to me. It is warm, as if heated on fire. I savour it, trying to elicit every nuance of flavour, not distracted by the thick head of foam stuck to my upper lip. I can only detect a vague saltiness, and it tastes no different from cow’s milk. Later, I hear others describe camel milk as relaxing and addicting. Baburam takes the vessel into the house to make tea.

On any other day, this would be the cue for Hajiram to leave with his herd. But he has agreed to a delay of a few minutes to talk to me. Although in his sixties, he doesn’t seem the kind to sit still. He picks up two balls of camel wool yarn and settles down beside me on a charpoy. Throughout our conversation, he twirls a spindle, twisting two strands of wool into a sturdier yarn that will later be turned into a dhurrie.

Hajiram is dressed in the costume of his forefathers—white long-sleeved angarke, white dhoti, and gold ear hoops glinting in the light. An enormous, intricately wrapped maroon turban adds a touch of colour. Baburam looks like any other young man of this generation, dressed in a polo shirt and trousers. A gold wire looped through each earlobe is the only visible evidence of his Raika heritage.

Livestock herders Baburam and Hajiram belong to the Raika caste which specialises in rearing camels. I ask Hajiram how his community became so closely associated with these animals of the desert. Continuing to twirl the yarn, he tells me a story.

When Shiva was lost in meditation, his wife, Parvati, grew bored. She fashioned an animal with five legs out of sediment from a pond. When Shiva finished his meditation, she asked him to give the figurine life. The animal couldn’t walk forward or backward. So he folded one leg over its back and that’s how the camel got its hump.

The animal started running, and Parvati grew tired chasing after it. She said she needed a man to do the job. So Shiva rolled dirt off his body and fashioned the world’s first Raika.

But did Shiva set the Raika down in Baluchistan? Historians think the community probably moved eastwards to India with Muslim warriors in the 10th century. Rajput rulers, notably the maharajas of Bikaner, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Alwar, employed some to manage their camel breeding operations and camel cavalry. Other Raika had their own breeding herds.

Traditionally, the Raika didn’t trade female camels; it was taboo. The only time they changed hands was during weddings, when they accompanied brides to their new homes. Nor did the vegetarian pastoralists sell camels for meat. Although camel milk tasted just fine, the herders didn’t sell that either. Trade in male calves as draft animals underpinned the entire economy of camel herding.

Raika herders walk for days with their camels to reach Pushkar

Hajiram’s family owned about 100 camels three decades ago, but now it has only 50. Besides the 10 snorting and braying impatiently outside in the courtyard, the rest live in Latara with another camel breeder.

Hajiram grazes his camels on the outskirts of Mundara village for up to 12 hours a day for most of the year. They browse on trees in village pastures and on crop stalks left over from the harvest in fallow fields. In exchange, their nutrient-rich droppings fertilise the soil. Once the rains begin in June, farmers plant crops and camels are not welcome. Pastoralists with their sheep, goats, cows, and camels migrate to Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary in the Aravalli hill range. But for the past four decades, livestock is prohibited from the reserve and trespassers are fined. The loss of critical summer grazing grounds hits the Raika hard.

Baburam says, “Camels don’t eat grass. They eat leaves, even neem leaves. That’s why camel milk is like medicine. Camels don’t compete with any other animal as nothing else eats leaves. We tried very hard to make the forest people understand, but they don’t listen to us. We’ve become criminals. Our samaj went to Jaipur and to Delhi (to meet politicians), but that didn’t make any difference.”

For centuries, the Raika traditionally relied on the forest four months of the year, and they continue to use it on the sly. Baburam says, “In our village alone, there are 150 camels. Where else can we go? Other villages also have the same difficulties.”

The camel has been an iconic symbol of Rajasthan for decades, but it was declared the state animal only on June 30 this year. I ask, “Has that elevated status not made a difference?”

“Our camels are even worse than before,” Baburam replies. “The government won’t subsidise their upkeep, we have no grazing grounds, and we don’t get good prices for camels. Why would anyone keep them? I’ll keep a few because it’s a tradition. I can’t say if my children will.” We turn to look at his five-year-old son, who stands at the doorway, chewing his forefinger. He ducks inside shyly.

The chorus of bellows and grunts outside the house grows louder. Hajiram urges one of his teenage grandsons to take the animals foraging. Hajiram’s wife has packed a stack of rotis at the end of a long piece of cloth. This is the boy’s sustenance for the day. He slings the cloth over his shoulder, picks up his grandfather’s long stick and a steel pot in which to milk camels, and leaves the house.

I ask the men, “Are you able to make a living with your camels?”

Baburam says, “I don’t sell camel milk because I don’t get a good price. If I started to sell milk, I’ll compromise the health of our calves. I prefer to get a good price for healthy calves than make little by selling milk. I have eight buffaloes and I also have a job in Surat. My brother runs a school here. So we are not dependent on camels. Few Raika can afford to depend only on camels.”

His father adds, “During the famine more than 100 years ago, people had nothing to eat. Our families survived by drinking camel milk. It’s because of our camels, we are here today.”

Camels were uniquely adapted to convert local vegetation to highly nutritious food. They don’t need expensive fodder, survive on little water, and walk long distances in the heat to find edible leaves. 
While buffaloes and cows struggle to survive a bad drought, the Raika depend on camels to not only carry on but also sustain their families.

Although there is no sign of disagreement between them, I wonder if there is an underlying tension between father and son. Has Hajiram been reluctant to sell the family’s camels and the purchase of buffaloes?

As I rise to leave, both men insist they will meet me at the Pushkar camel fair the following week. Baburam says he wants to see the prices camels were fetching, and also to buy accessories he can’t get elsewhere.

Outside, once we’re out of earshot of his father, Baburam whispers, “I’m keeping camels just to keep my father happy. I can’t bear to see his sadness if we sold them all. In my family, I’m the eighth generation to keep camels. But it’s a struggle to keep them fed.”
From Mundara, I make my way south to Sadri town and towards Ranakpur. There are numerous temples along the way. Although ubiquitous throughout Rajasthan, camels do not figure in temple art. Goddesses sit astride lions or tigers, while doorways are guarded by elephant motifs. Were camels not sanctified because they were common?

I go to meet Dailibai, a feisty spokesperson for pastoral rights, near the famous Ranakpur Jain temple. She sits in the middle of the room wearing a long skirt and a bright pink odni pulled over her head. One arm is encircled entirely by white plastic bangles that in her mother’s time would have been of ivory. The other is wrapped in a bandage, healing from a fracture. A large gold nose ring partially hides her smile, while silver earrings so heavy they distend her lobes swing and tinkle as she talks.

She says, “Camels need forests to graze. Trees and plants benefit from animal dung and urine. Seeds dispersed by animals grow faster. Even if there were more nilgai to do this job, you cannot get milk, ghee, or anything from them. Camels eat the leaves of many different species of trees and that’s why people who drink their milk are healthy.”

I make the case for forest protection. “Kumbhalgarh is the only forest in the entire Aravalli range. It’s the only refuge for wild animals. Shouldn’t it be protected from people?”

“Even the foresters’ fathers cannot save this forest,” she shoots back. “They take money on the side and let you cut trees. Many resorts have come up inside. They will finish the jungle. Only pastoralists can take care of forests. Since the ban on livestock, there are more fires than before. With no goats or sheep to graze, the grass grows high. People who go to collect honey set fire to the dry grass. In earlier times, if there was a fire, people beat a big dhol and summoned the whole village. We would put out the fire. Now nobody goes to put out fires. The whole forest burns for two months sometimes.”
It’s a clear morning and I watch 55-year-old Manaram tend to a herd of 15 camels. Just like Hajiram and Baburam, he doesn’t miss a wound or scratch. One young male tries to bite him as he struggles to control it. The camel succeeds only in unravelling the long length of twisted maroon cloth that forms the turban. Manaram quickly wraps it back into place and goes back to ministering the camel. The turban is more than a mere insulator from the desert sun; it is a helmet to protect Raika heads from the unwelcome attentions of these tall animals.

Manaram does not seem to be doing well. He wears a torn polyester shirt over his dhoti, and his earlobes are devoid of ornaments. He looks gaunt, and his arms and legs are as thin as sticks.
It’s 9 a.m. when Manaram is ready to leave, and I tag along. He drives the herd with a series of barked commands towards a forested hill. The animals’ soft padded feet are sensitive to sharp stones and thorns. Bells around the necks of a couple of adults tinkle as they move through a forest of thorny Prosopis. Even though the animals walk sedately, I have to walk briskly to keep up. Occasionally, one stomps its foot in alarm at my proximity, and I move away, afraid of being kicked.

A young calf frequently stops to look at Manaram and brays as if to ask, “Can’t we stop here?” Manaram goads it onward.

Half an hour later, we are inside Kumbhalgarh forest. When the animals want to stop at the first edible tree, Manaram refuses to let them. “Move on,” he seems to say by clicking his tongue. Finally, he deems we are in a good forest and lets the camels forage. With a loud sigh, he sits down in the shade on a boulder, while the animals fan out into the grove.

I watch their extremely mobile lips pick leaves from thorny branches. They strip leaves with a swift movement from thornless ones. The yellow flowers of the white bark acacia trees and curly, green pods of sickle bush trees are favourites. Although Manaram seems half-asleep, he keeps an eye on the herd. When a camel ventures off down the path, he called, “Karje, Karje.” The animal comes back.

“Is that the name of the camel?” I ask.

He nods.

If I ask Manaram a question in Hindi, he answers in a rapid Marwari that I can’t comprehend. Our conversation is reduced to simple questions and answers accompanied by gesticulations.

Mostly, we walk in companionable silence behind the camels. Often, I catch one looking down at me as we walk along the path. Once Manaram gives the command to forage, they lose interest in me and approach fruiting trees with eagerly outstretched necks.

At noon, we come up on a flowing creek. Even though the day is hot and I have gulped down almost all the water I carried, the animals hardly seem to need water. They take a short drink and seem more interested in the lush vegetation along the banks. The only people we meet along the way are herders with cattle and goats. Manaram exchanges a few words with them and we carry on.

Langurs shake tree branches in a display of dominance and doves shoot like bullets through the sky. The wind whistles through the trees and the camels’ bells tinkle softly. When we sit down for a rest, we watch magpie-robins bob on the path, picking up insects. As the sun descends from the noon sky, the harsh light slowly turns gentle and mellow. I ration the last few mouthfuls of water and eat biscuits for lunch, but I feel refreshed by the contemplative time I spent with the camels.

At 6 p.m., as dusk begins to colour the sky, Manaram gives the command to return. Obediently, the herd sets off and we tail behind. Although I have spent the day with them, the camels continue to look at me with suspicion. It is dark by the time we return to Rajpura village.
The next morning, I chat with Gemunaram, a 40-year-old Raika herder with a beaked nose, heavy-lidded eyes, and an easy laugh. He lives about 15 kilometres from Rajpura, and he also takes his camels into Kumbhalgarh forest.

 “What are the dangers in the forest?” I ask

“Leopards,” he replies.

“Do they take calves?”

“No. Adult camels.”

He says leopards roll on their backs, waving their legs and twitching their tails. When camels approach to take a closer look, as they are wont to do, the cats grab their necks.

“Do you chase the leopard away and save your camel?”

“No. I let it go, or it might jump on me instead. Then the leopard has enough to eat for a year. If we didn’t take livestock into the forest for grazing, leopards will die of starvation. Or they’ll come to villages. If it eats one animal, it makes no difference. I have 10 others.”

After a pause, Gemunaram says that more than leopards, sloth bears are the real danger. While the cats only take camels, startled bears or mothers protecting their young lash out at herders with their long, sharp claws. People have suffered grievous injuries and sometimes even lost their lives.

“It’s a good thing they don’t let you go in to the forest that has so many dangerous animals,” I tease.

“Taking camels foraging is a lot of fun. I drink camel milk. They have fun and I have fun,” said Gemunaram, laughter creasing his face.

Our conversation is short as he has to take his camels out, but he promises to meet me at Pushkar. Then he’d have time to chat at length, he says.

Hanwant Singh Rathore, the portly director of the NGO Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS), gives some context to the pastoralists’ use of forest. Much before Independence, Kumbhalgarh was a royal hunting ground and grazing was allowed in some parts of it. After Independence, pastoralists paid a fee to the forest department, the new custodian of the forest, and continued to graze their livestock. In the 1970s, the forest was protected as Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary and declared off-limits to pastoralists. When guards found livestock grazing within the forest, they seized them and levied heavy penalties, up to Rs. 500 per camel.

Many conservationists and foresters are concerned about degradation of forests and over-grazing. In an assessment of the threats facing wildlife in Kumbhalgarh, biologists Anil Chhangani and S. M. Mohnot, and geographer Paul Robbins say the number of wild animals in the park has declined. 

Although tigers became extinct here in 1960, the populations of other carnivores such as leopards, hyenas, and jackals have grown or remained stable. Nilgai and wild boar numbers are surging because they survive on crops, but the populations of chinkara, four-horned antelope, and sambhar are plummeting. Scientists speculate the drought of 2000 severely affected these wild herbivores, and their ability to cope may be compromised by competition with livestock.

Although the ban on livestock is the official policy, the Raika and other pastoralists march into the forest with several thousands of livestock during the rains. There are no records of how many livestock enter the forest every year, or how much the department collects as fines. Every Raika I interviewed said they don’t receive a receipt for the fine, and they accuse forest officials of exploiting the ban to enrich themselves. When the amount of money they had to pay as fines broke the bank, pastoralists took drastic measures. In 2010 and 2012, thousands of Raika gathered in Sadri to protest the ban. Dailibai gave a fiery speech and emotions ran high.

Since then the department hasn’t imposed fines on trespassing herders. This free-for-all with none of the fire prevention and control responsibilities is hardly the solution. But the status quo continues.

It’s not just the Raika of Pali District who face restrictions on livestock foraging. In Bikaner, the Indira Gandhi canal destroyed the best camel areas. With water for irrigation readily available, farmers from the Punjab settled there to grow three crops a year. To prevent free-ranging camels from crop-raiding, they often resort to cruel measures such as tying up the mouths of camels or tying thorny branches to their tails so the animals can’t rest. The army took over a vast tract of land between Jaisalmer and Pokharan, and trespassing camels were shot dead. Wind and solar farms occupied other pasture lands.

Unable to feed their animals, the Raika sold female camels, despite the traditional prohibition. They also violated another taboo: camels were sold for meat in Uttar Pradesh, and many were smuggled across the border to far away Bangladesh. Since 2002, community leaders, aided by LPPS, have appealed to the Raika to not sell female camels, or at least sell them to other Raika even if they paid less. They wrote letters to the district magistrate, collector, and animal husbandry departments to stop the slaughter of camels. Their appeals appeared to fall on deaf ears for more than a decade, as India dropped from owning the third largest camel population in the world in 1990 to the seventh position in 2007. In 1997, Rajasthan had nearly 7,00,000 camels, while in 2012, it had only 4,00,000. 
According to LPPS, that number fell even more drastically to 2,00,000 in 2014.

At one time, a herd of 25 to 30 camels was enough for a family to sustain itself. Ones with hundreds of camels were considered rich. Then, women were said to have appealed to their parents, “Mere ko jin gao panaye jisme sandia hain,” meaning ‘Marry me into a village with many she-camels.’ But in recent decades, as the value of camels fell so did the stock of herders. Young men who lived the traditional life can’t get brides.

In 2014, a draft bill—banning the slaughter of camels, transport of the animals out of the state, and castration of males—was tabled in the Rajasthan state assembly. Far from welcoming the move, Hajiram, Baburam, Dailibhai, and Gemunaram are of the unanimous opinion the ban on killing ought to apply only to female camels. Male camels should be exempt from the ban, they say.

The bottom has fallen out of the market for male camels. Farmers moved to tractors and traders preferred trucks to slow-plodding camels. Even the camel-borne Border Security Force that patrolled the sandy border areas with Pakistan declared it would switch over to all-terrain vehicles. The animals are more sought after outside the state than within, but the draft bill would prevent their export. If there was no one to buy male calves in Rajasthan, how would the Raika survive? They couldn’t keep them either.

In winter, male camels go into rut, a testosterone-charged condition called keenja. Gemunaram says, “Adult male camels become obsessed with females and will kill any other males in the herd, even young ones. During that time, we don’t take the males out foraging. The only way to manage them is to tie their legs and stall-feed them.”

It’s not just other male camels that need to watch out. Gemunaram says, “One bit my father’s arm and its teeth penetrated right through. In Malwa, a boy hit a camel in keenja with a stick. The next year, during rutting season, when the boy was asleep, the camel sat on him and squashed him to death. I hit a male camel once to make it obey. The next year, when it went into keenja, it followed me everywhere. It was trying to kill me. I sold him away. One of my three sons is deathly scared of camels since that incident.”

Male camels may have a nasty reputation in winter, but they are gentle, uncomplaining souls the rest of the time.

Ilse Kohler-Rollefson, a German activist for pastoral rights, spends part of the year in Sadri. A tall blonde with blue eyes, she loved to wear clothes with camel motifs. I ask her, “Why are camels absent from temples?”

She replies, “Elephants signify good luck, lions for victory, and camels symbolise love.”

In a famous Rajasthani love ballad, the hero Mahendra’s camel Chikal transported him 200 km. every night from Umerkot to meet his lover, Momul, at Lodurva, near Jaisalmer. Before dawn broke, the camel valiantly took him back home only to bring him back that night.

As long as a male camel has a harem of females to himself, there is no problem. The slightest provocation in the form of male calves brings out the worst in them. Perhaps this is why the Pushkar camel fair takes place in late October, just ahead of the winter troubles. Camel breeders can sell their male calves and maintain peace in their herds.

Arriving at Pushkar

Five days before the official inauguration of the fair on October 30, camels begin congregating on the western edge of town. Some herds walk for 14 days to get there. After a couple of days, Ilse and Hanwant, regular attendees of the annual mela, pronounce there are far fewer camels than any preceding year. Pointing to the vast sloping open field covered with parthenium weed, otherwise known as congress grass, they say it used to be covered in camels. Now, bunches of the weed’s untrampled flowers point heavenward, as herds of camels stand in tight knots. The draft bill banning the slaughter of camels has put a damper on the proceedings. None of the Raika I had planned to meet arrive.

Calves recently separated from their mothers bray and bleat in loneliness. Some try to suckle from unrelated females, while others set off on three legs, with the hobbled fourth tied up, to look for their mothers. Herders use a repertoire of whistles and commands to keep their camels from mingling with others. When desperate youngsters pay no heed, the men have to round them up.

Large adult males pull bedecked tourist-filled carts along the one road skirting the grounds. Rutting season hasn’t set in yet, and the males stride sedately, chewing the cud, seemingly unaffected by the bustling photographers, gawkers, musicians, trinket sellers, and children dressed up in traditional finery.

In the middle of the day, from the shade of a Gujjar’s tea stall, I notice a couple of men, dressed in shirts and trousers, haggling with a group of Raika. When the herders shake their heads, refusing their offer, one of the men waves a sheaf of Rs. 500 notes, as if to tempt them. When the turbaned men flatly refuse, turning away from the cash, the prospective buyer puts the money away inside his shirt and wanders over to the next herd. This herder seems amenable to selling and cash exchanges hands.
That’s when I notice the buyer’s assistant carrying an old Coke bottle sloshing with black liquid. Dipping a twig into the container, the man paints a large F in black on the necks and shoulders of adult female camels. These marked animals, some accompanied by calves, are destined for slaughter.

Deal done, the buyers come to the stall for tea. They say they paid Rs. 36,000 for two adults that they’d rent out in Delhi for wedding processions. But they marked more than two adults. The draft bill has made everyone nervous, and nobody wanted to admit to anything. As we sit drinking our tea and watching the scene, cheerful tourists take photographs of the doomed animals.

During the day, the Raika visit their friends and drink camel milk tea out of steel bowls. They grumble that the price of camel milk was low. They can’t get more than Rs. 20 for a litre. “Even a bottle of water costs that much,” one says. They all want Saras, the state dairy cooperative, to set up a separate unit for camel milk. If they get good prices, they won’t sell their females, they say.

“All the best milk yielding breeds are being sold for meat,” Ilse despairs. One of the herders picks up a fistful of dirt and polishes a used bowl. He pours tea into it and offers it to me. I balk for a moment before accepting it.

By the third day, many Raika complain that the price of camels has hit rock bottom. Females that sold for Rs. 20,000 last year now fetch between Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 7,000. Buyers for the meat market bought 15 to 20 camels in one lot. Some Raika divested from camel breeding altogether.

Every afternoon, I walk around the grounds, hoping to catch sight of colourful ribbons tied to camel tails, the mark of a traditional purchase by breeders who want females to augment their herds or farmers who needed draft animals. During the initial few days, I see less than five such animals.

When it is clear no more camels are arriving at the fair, I drop in at the office of the fair administrator at the animal husbandry department. Only 4,356 camels have arrived at a fair that had seen 50,000 in recent years. Hanwant challenges this figure and thinks there were no more than 2,500 camels. 

Undisputed is the fact that a large majority of them are unsold. One buyer says he hadn’t bought any camels because authorities said he couldn’t take more than two camels out of the state. He says a buyer had been arrested at the border for taking 15 camels.

Concern simmers and bubbles among the Raika. Many say this is the end of camel rearing.
On the penultimate day of the fair, Baburam and Hajiram arrive. As a venerated elder, Hajiram is immediately sucked into discussions with other Raika. Raghunathdas, the priest of the Shree Akhil Bharatiya Ram Raika Mandir Dharmarth Trust, calls a meeting to discuss the repercussions of the draft bill.

Surrounded by camels and sitting on burlap sacks, the crowd of Raika men agrees there should not be any restriction on the slaughter of male camels. They draft a petition to Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje that includes a demand for setting up a camel milk market, and lifting the ban on grazing in forests. Some sign their names in a shaky hand, and most impress their ink-stained thumbs on the petition. By the time the meeting draws to a close, the sun has set and streetlights provide large pools of light.

The next morning, I wander around the grounds with Baburam. The first group of Raika we meet hails him and we join the men for a sip of tea. My stomach hasn’t revolted after drinking tea from a dirt-cleaned bowl so I accept the beverage. One of the Raika is talking to a few men as they circle a group of hobbled calves. The main man is dressed in a dazzling white kurta and pyjamas. Under the cover of good-natured banter, a deal is struck.

The man in white peels a bunch of notes out of a fistful of Rs 500 notes and hands it to the Raika. 
One of his assistants ties an orange ribbon to the calf’s tail, and the sight cheers me up.

I ask Baburam, “What do you look for when you buy a camel?”

“It should have upright ears, like a horse. Its nose should be held high, and it should neither be too dark nor too light in colour. There should be a gap in its armpit so its legs don’t rub against its chest.”

Baburam has other news. A couple of days before, Otaram Dewasi, a Raika, was inducted into the state cabinet as a minister of state for care of cows and temples. Baburam has just been hired as a cook at the minister’s home. He has to leave for Jaipur within a couple of hours.

I ask Baburam, “Would you push for more support from the government for the Raika?”

“Of course. But the minister knows the situation already.”

As we pick our way through the herds of camels, I notice many adults and calves with coloured ribbons tied around their tails. But animals destined for slaughter outnumber them. Although their owners must be disappointed, most of the others are probably relieved to return home unsold to rejoin their herd-mates in a familiar scramble for forage.

Baburam points out the different breeds of camels and how to tell them apart. The Sirohi is black with whitish eyelids, the Sanchori is the most beautiful with its nose held high, and the Malvi has a drooping lower lip. Until he shows me, these characteristics were so subtle, I couldn’t have picked them out myself.

That afternoon, before Baburam leaves, I ask him, “What do you think the future holds for the Raika and camels?”

Without a pause, he replies, “If nothing changes, within a few years, even Raika children will only see camels in picture books.”