Category: Global change (page 1 of 1)

The Passing of the Endlings

Two bullets passed through three brothers and killed them as they sat side by side.

The secretary wrote, “The first bullet killed one and… the second bullet after having gone through one struck the other, which was behind it, and killed it also.”

Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo pulled the trigger in 1947. In Surguja District in central India, he shot them by night from a vehicle. It was his private secretary who later chronicled the passing of the last cheetahs shot in India.

The last cheetahs shot in India (Photograph courtesy: Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, Vol 47, 1948)

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When the three men arrived by boat at the island of Eldey in Iceland on June 3, 1844, they found the Great Auk pair standing side by side tending to the last egg.

Jón Brandsson “crept up with his arms open” to the female who moved to a corner. Sigurður Ísleifsson followed the other, who walked to the edge of a cliff. He said, “I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.”

Ketill Ketilsson found the egg on a lava slab. He picked up the egg, saw it was broken, and put it back. Some say he crushed the egg under his boot. It would have made a squelching sound.

The sound would have been drowned by the waves battering the cliffs, as the ocean currents passed the desolate cliffs of Eldey.

Great auk from Birds of America by John James Audubon (via Wikimedia Commons).

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The epitaph for the last male reads: “Male near Baghownie… 21st June 1935”. Charles McFarlane Inglis, the Englishman who had shot the bird in Darbhanga, Bihar, in India, does not say more in his journal article. He does not say whether the last bird was rushing overhead, wings gusting the air, or pedalling glassy waters among reeds and swamp, swimming quietly and alone, when the bullet struck. The article was published five years later. Scientists now know this was the last confirmed record from the wild of the Pink-headed Duck.

The Englishman himself died on February 13, 1954, aged 84. Months later, someone wrote in the pages of another journal, like an epitaph at the end of his obituary: Molliter ossa cubent. May his bones rest softly.

People still look for the duck. Their bones and feathers rest softly in museums around the world.

Pink-headed Duck by Henrik Grönvold (via Wikimedia Commons)

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The last Carolina parakeet, Incas, died on February 21, 1918, a year after his mate Lady Jane’s passing. They both died in the same cage in Cincinnati Zoo. The writer J Drew Lanham imagined an epitaph for Incas. He thought it would serve as the “final rites for the passage of one of the most unique birds ever to sweep across the skies of the American psyche.”

John James Audubon’s “Carolina Parakeets” (via Wikimedia Commons)

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, too, had died in the same cage on September 1, 1914.

A century had passed since 1810, when Alexander Wilson had observed during his own passage between Frankfort and the Indiana Territory, a single flight of migrating pigeons that he estimated to number two billion two hundred and thirty million two hundred and seventy two thousand birds. In 1947, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology erected a bronze monument to the passenger pigeon in Wyalusing State Park. Aldo Leopold said, “But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts, like the bronze pigeon, will have no wings.”

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon (via Wikimedia Commons).

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But another stone is inscribed and mounted in the Bronx Zoo, New York, on a memorial wall to many species that have passed for ever. I recall the words carved in stone, which said that the Jerdon’s Courser, a “quiet bird” that “stretched up on tiptoes to look for predators”, went extinct after 1900.

Memorial to the Jerdon’s Courser in the Bronx Zoo (Photo: P Jeganathan, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Nearly a century had passed when the bird was found in Andhra Pradesh in 1986, with the help of bird trappers. The Sri Lankamalleswara Wildlife Sanctuary was established as a refuge and a canal partly rerouted to save their habitat. The biologist, P Jeganathan, saw the bird in 2008 and caught images in a field camera. He once heard three birds calling by night. A two note call, neither cackle nor lament, just one urgent note following another, ringing through the long night.

The Isha Upanishad proclaims,

Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
How can the multiplicity of life
Delude the one who sees its unity?

The Upanishads, by Eknath Easwaran (2nd edition, 2007)

I think of all the species in all their unique perfection and voices irredeemably gone and lost to the screaming bullets and machines and pillage but thrill to know that the night can yet carry the clear, poignant, plaintive, astonishing, exhilarating voice of one quiet bird.

The Jerdon’s Courser (Photo: P Jeganathan, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

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Now India aims to bring back the cheetah. A rewilding project plans to bring new life to the grasslands and savannas where the cheetah once roamed and coursed behind antelope. And yet, in the grasslands and savannas lives another tall, stately bird, the Great Indian Bustard, in great peril. Down to the last hundred or so, the birds continue to lose their habitat to solar and wind farms, concrete and road, their lives colliding with the power lines humming with the currents now passing through their landscape. One great effort trying to bring back a species driven extinct. And one great power driving another to the edge of extinction.

If we can find it in us to offer remembrance, epitaph, memorial, and long for what we have lost, we can find it in us to cherish what we have and keep it from passing from this earth. And we can stand for it side by side and our thoughts can once again have wings.

Great Indian Bustards against wind turbines in the Desert National Park, Rajasthan (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman).

This essay was inspired by Brian Doyle’s essay “Leap” (2001). It appeared in the Indian Express Sunday Magazine Eye on 22 August 2021.

Freedom in the Time of Covid

Wild and free: in one sense of each word, to be wild is to be free. In nature, each life form is free to grow and flourish, free to confront every peril, with the wisdom of survival encoded in genes, volitions guided by intelligence, thwarting vagaries of contingence. But to an ecologist, such freedom remains axiomatically entangled in a web of relationships. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” wrote John Muir famously.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought this home: humans are a part of nature, even if as people—imbued with culture, cloaked by modernity, amped by technology—we imagine we rise apart from nature. It just took a tiny virion, 100 nanometres in diameter, a hundredth the size of a pollen grain, to shake the planet. No Trump, no Bolsanaro, no Modi, no Putin comes even close—in a tenebrous way that is strangely reassuring, too. Our freedoms remain vulnerable to intersecting crises worldwide: the climate emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic, the sixth extinction, and the assault on democracy. Each breath we take is our own, but the air we breathe is from a shared atmosphere. Individual freedoms depend irrevocably on collective actions.

For me, the forced distancing from parents, relatives, and friends, and inability to travel have been the most unbearable curbs on freedom. It deepened how I valued my relationships and my travel. Being alive, I also realised I am among the fortunate ones.

This short piece appeared in the Economic Times today, 15 August 2021, on the occasion of India’s 75th Independence Day.

When Nature and Culture Disconnect

My book review in Biblio (Jan -Mar 2020) of Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats by Viju B (Ebury Press/Penguin Random House India, 2019, 285 pp., Rs 399, ISBN 978-0-143-44761-0)

There are many moments in Viju’s book Flood and Fury that belie the title that this is just a book about the recent floods and ecological disasters in India’s Western Ghats mountains. One telling moment is recounted in the voice of Sandeep Sawant, a resident of Sawantvadi, in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg — the state’s greenest district in the Sahyadri belt of the Western Ghats. As people from Asniye – a Sindhudurg village where tigers are worshipped as the Vagh Devata – perform pujas at Shiroda beach on the auspicious occasion of Somvatri Amavasya, Sawant says, “The heritage villages of Sindhudurg … are being destroyed by miners supported by our elected representatives. For us, culture without nature is as good as being dead.” Sawant’s words as recounted by Viju underscore the main point of Flood and Fury that unscrupulous and poorly- regulated exploitation of the Western Ghats both caused and exacerbated much of the death and destruction. But it also echoes the subtext of the book: all along the Western Ghats nature and culture are enmeshed, and when those connections fray and snap, disaster ensues to lands and lives.

The book unfolds with a brief introduction to the Western Ghats mountain range, its landscapes and many rivers, its diversity of plants and animals, and the peoples and problems of the region, which served as a backdrop for the extreme rainfall and floods of August 2018. Viju outlines a trajectory of decline, beginning with colonial timber extraction from forests and their conversion to large plantations, magnified in recent years by rampant and destructive development, which has transformed the relationship between people and land from one of respect and veneration to one of consumption and exploitation. In the remaining chapters, Viju attempts a view from the ground, capturing voices of local people, to understand the causes and the impacts of the floods, taking the reader to many locations along the Western Ghats from Kerala to the Sahyadri of Maharashtra. A more detailed introduction to the region and its ecological history and human diversity would have been helpful, but the reader gets a sense of an author impatient to get started on the journey.

The first six chapters focus on parts of Kerala, the author’s home state. From the mountains of Idukki to Pathanamthitta and to the Kuttanad coast, the first three chapters cover the mountains, midlands, and coastal tracts emphasising how the latter, too, are “an integrated extension of the Western Ghats” (p 86), a point that governments often seem ignorant about. The Idukki chapter outlines the five phases of deforestation that the region has witnessed due to the opening up of plantations in the colonial period, the expansion of agriculture from the 1940s, the resettlement of people in forests, the proliferation of hydroelectric projects and dams, and finally, from the 1990s onward, a phase of exploitation by illegal quarries and unregulated tourism that still threatens and sullies the mountains. From the Munnar tea plantations to the Periyar Tiger Reserve, from tribal villages in forests to expanding towns, Viju traces a litany of challenges facing the region, speaking to local people and experts to understand and document the impact of the rains and floods.

In Pathanamthitta, Viju discusses an issue that has got little attention so far: the effects of pilgrimage tourism and places of worship on the ecology and conservation of the Western Ghats. Viju’s account of the Sabarimala temple –its forest setting, myths and rituals, and the recent Supreme Court order to allow women of menstruating age entry into the temple – while a little long and digressive, brings to the forefront the disturbance, pollution, and forest degradation caused by 5 million people visiting the temple every year and the indifference of the authorities. Viju follows the Pamba River down through the midlands blasted and gouged by quarries to Aranmula at the foothills, devastated in the floods that destroyed land, property and the livelihoods of the traditional metal mirror makers. The floods did further damage downstream in the Kuttanad region, around Vembanad Lake, where agricultural expansion over the last two centuries has brought with it both prosperity and problems of pollution due to excessive use of agrochemicals.

Moving north to Chalakudi and Palakkad in the next two chapters, Viju chronicles the threats from dams proposed at Athirapilly and Silent Valley and also the resulting resistance movement that brought together tribal communities, non-governmental organisations, scientists and the lay public, which successfully opposed these patently destructive projects. Viju also swings through Attapady, the Nelliampathy Hills, and along the Bharatapuzha River giving the reader a flavour of the people and landscapes, as well as aspects unique to each place: tribal distress and forest regeneration in Attapady, destructive road expansion in Nelliampathy that has led to landslips and forest degradation, the sand mining and riparian forest loss that has affected the water availability in the Bharatpuzha and its environs.

One of the longest chapters in the book, on Wayanad, documents the multitude of issues impinging on the area: deforestation, plantations, dams, urban expansion, tourism, exploitation of timber and bamboo, land distribution and alienation of local people. Read as a series of vignettes, this brings an appreciation of how a holistic understanding of a place and its ecological and historical context is essential if the plight of Western Ghats needs to take a turn for the better: piecemeal understanding or implementation of ‘solutions’ can only lead to conflict and disaffection.

The book thins out as Viju journeys further north into Coorg (Kodagu) in Karnataka, Bicholim in Goa and Sindhudurg in Maharastra. While the chapters are short and sketchy, they articulate serious contemporary threats to the Western Ghats, which are increasing the risk and reducing the safety and resilience of ecosystems and people in the region. Coorg has suffered road expansion and unregulated construction on steep slopes, partly spurred by unregulated tourism, which along with the extensive replacement of forests by plantations keeps the region susceptible to devastating landslides. In Goa and Sindhudurg, mining has wrought widespread destruction, accom- panied by loss of forests (including private forests), fertile agricultural lands, and traditional livelihoods. Reading these chapters, one wishes the author had expanded his scope a bit more: on the fight led by the Goa Foundation and other groups against mining, on other cases such as the Supreme Court- mandated closure of the Kudremukh iron ore mine in Karnataka, on the distinctive geology and terrain and communities of the northern Western Ghats and their cultural connect with nature. A little bit of the wider context and a prognosis does appear, though, in the two short closing chapters.

There are a few other places where the book falters. For a book that talks of “ecological devastation” there is little accurate description of ecology or the findings of ecological research. Viju’s repeated use of “virgin” forests and streams does not cohere with current scientific understanding of forests in the Western Ghats and other tropical regions that have had a long history of human presence and association. Some of the details are inaccurate: for example, the Malabar Giant Squirrel and Nilgiri Langur are not among the “most endangered species on earth”; the population of Lion-tailed Macaques in Silent Valley region does not comprise half the entire wild population of the species, and so on. To make specific points, Viju often relies on conversations with a few experts and references to a few technical reports. Tables and Figures are inserted into the text (without being referred to or adequately explained) carrying columns of numbers (including statistics like standard deviations) providing detail that seems unintelligible. The book can stand on its own without these inserts. Many citations listed at the end of the book are to media articles rather than primary research. When he cites a scientific journal article while describing a study that established new bird genera (mistakenly referred to as ‘genre’ by the author) of Laughing Thrushes (mistakenly called laughing birds), it seems almost like an aberration to the general pattern of the book. This is a pity, since the Western Ghats is one of the best-studied regions among the mountainous regions in India, with valuable research on ecology, hydrology, climate and climate change, geology and land stability, which could have informed, enriched and supported the narrative.

In writing about the destructive development and exploitation of the Western Ghats and the resulting opposition—as at Athirapilly, Silent Valley, or mining in the Sahyadri—one wishes that Viju had explored further how different players such as tribal communities and NGOs and scientists came together to offer resistance. These were not merely protests against something, they were also vibrant movements that spoke for forests and mountains and particular ways of life in which culture and nature remain inseparable. These movements at least partly contradict a premise Viju makes in the Introduction that “Academicians too, though they conduct brilliant research and publish reports, have failed to address the livelihood concerns of the communities living in the Western Ghats.” True, there are academicians and reports viewed with mistrust, but Viju appears to paint with too broad a brush. The Gadgil Committee Report that the author lauds at several points along the book is the work of academicians, too. While scientists working in the Western Ghats could certainly do much more to communicate the pertinence of their findings for both ecology and livelihoods, a similar expectation could be placed on journalists reporting from the region and books like Flood and Fury, too.

These are minor quibbles on what is otherwise a good book and a welcome addition to the literature on the Western Ghats and on environment and development in India in the context of climate change. The reportage is easy to read and the book gives voice to myriad people from the region. It is an important book that must be read to understand the variety and immediacy of threats to the Western Ghats and the challenges faced by people living on the mountains and all the way downstream to the plains. It acquires further urgency and relevance in the light of the ongoing climate crisis. One hopes it lands in the hands of all people, including policymakers and administrators, connected with the region or concerned about the challenges and imperatives of conservation.

A red flush of leaves

By T. R. Shankar Raman & Divya Mudappa

Splashes of red dot the evergreen canopy, like blood on green canvas. The canarium, stately white and tall, holds a red flush of new leaves above verdant, multi-hued forest. Skimming spectacularly over the trees, a great hornbill brushes grandeur onto the canvas. In the company of hornbills, a new year dawns on an unsuspecting rainforest.

… This post first appeared in the NCF blog, EcoLogic, and as ‘Rhythms of Renewal‘ in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 2 January 2011. Read more, with updates, in The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

Twinges of longing, passing shadows

A primary concern in conservation is the extinction of species. Our work often leads us to ask: what should we do to save a species from extinction? The answer, or the search for answers, to this question spurs much of our research, our efforts. Yet, living as we are in the middle of an extinction spasm of the greatest import, we rarely ask the corollary: what should we do when a species does go extinct? In effect, when we fail to stave off an extinction? When a species passes on, should we just heave a collective gasp, drape a commiserative arm around our collective shoulders and move on to the next threatened species? Do we add another sample to the ever-growing database of extinct species for performing many-dimensional analyses of extinction that incrementally develop our knowledge of why species go extinct? Or should there be something more to it? For with the passing of a species, we also lose any connection we have once had with it.

… This post first appeared in the NCF blog, EcoLogic, on 19 September 2010. Read more in The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

Three cheetahs at Masai Mara, Kenya (Photo courtesy: Kalyan Varma)
The last cheetahs shot in India (Photograph courtesy: Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, Vol 47, 1948)

Sentience for conservation

What would our life be like if we could see, but not discern? If we could hear, but not listen, and if we could touch, but not feel? How would we experience life if we could taste and smell, but not savour? What would we be like, as a species and as individuals, if we could sense everything, yet make sense of nothing? Would our life be the same? Would we be the same? Would we even be human?

Image courtesy: Kalyan Varma (www.kalyanvarma.net)

… This post first appeared in the NCF blog, EcoLogic, on 11 May 2010. Read more in The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

The edges of the earth

How far can one keep going straight up an apparently unscaled peak without falling off a precipice? How far can the march of the human footprint on Earth continue without exceeding planetary boundaries and leading to environmental catastrophe? In an important recent paper in Nature, strangely reminiscent of the publication of The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972, a group of scientists poses and develops tentative markers of planetary boundaries being reached or exceeded.

The paper in Nature, an accompanying editorial, the seven commentaries from leading experts, available here, are worth a read for anyone who wants an overview of what the major human impacts on the planet are and where they are headed. Specifically, the authors deal with the following nine issues:

  1. climate change
  2. ocean acidification
  3. stratospheric ozone depletion
  4. freshwater use
  5. biodiversity
  6. the global cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus
  7. land-use change
  8. atmospheric aerosol loading (to be quantified)
  9. chemical pollution (to be quantified)

The paper suggests that three boundaries related to climate change, biological diversity, nitrogen and phosphorous dumping into the biosphere, may already have been exceeded. A brief summary of the findings with relevant links is also available here at the website of the Stockholm Resilience Centre where the lead author Johan Rockström is based. The seven commentaries along with some other recent research highlights are also available here. The real meat of the paper is actually in a parallel publication in the journal Ecology and Society. Although this paper is in press, it is available here and this contains the details of the issues at stake, the underlying rationales, and references to the scientific literature based on which the conclusions are drawn.

In our context, given India’s demographic profile and dependence on agriculture, the aspects related to freshwater use and nitrogen-phosphorous cycles are really worthy of note. Water shortages in the country and the severe depletion of groundwater were recently again in the news following a paper in Nature. Anthropogenic nitrogen loading is already affecting our terrestrial ecosystems, coastal and marine areas, and rivers. Reporting high values of dissolved and sediment-bound nitrogen in Indian rivers, partly due to excessive fertiliser use and associated run-off, the authors of the last study grimly conclude: “Hence, our freshwater aquatic systems can no longer be considered natural, at least with respect to nitrogen transport.”

A quick survey of the debate emerging from the papers by Rockström and colleagues indicates two main questions are being asked (among others spurred by the publications). First, is it sensible to set a tipping-point benchmark, however scientifically tenuous it may be given the current state of knowledge? There is concern that this might cause complacence among policy makers and administrators, who may avoid responding to the situation until the benchmark is reached or exceeded. The second is the issue of benchmark itself: for instance, in the case of biodiversity loss. The authors of the study use extinction rate as a measure of biodiversity loss. In Table 1, they indicate a pre-industrial value of rate of extinction at 0.1 to 1 species per million species per year. The current rate of extinction is >100 species per million per year and the proposed boundary is 10 species per million per year. What makes this an acceptable boundary or rate of loss of species?

The overall picture that emerges is alarming, to say the least. The climate crisis is familiar; our newspapers are full of it now. Other concerns appear less commonly in the media. For instance, that our oceans, which absorb some 25% of human CO2 emissions, are undergoing acidification at a rate 100 times higher than at any time in the past 20 million years. This makes a whole range of marine organisms, such as corals and molluscs, susceptible to corrosion of their shells (made of calcium carbonate in the form of aragonite). The decline of aragonite-forming organisms and coral reefs could substantially alter marine ecosystems. Another global concern is that of human tampering of the planetary nitrogen cycles. Human activities now input more reactive nitrogen into the planet than all natural processes combined. As a large part of this enters the biosphere, it alters terrestrial ecosystems, as well as freshwater and marine ecosystems.

The paper will doubtless spur more discussions and research into the various benchmarks and their utility in tracking the human footprint. Despite the debates and shortcomings, one real value of the paper as it appears to me is that it brings into one page—onto one figure even, superimposed ominously on the globe—an assessment and visualisation of the nine-fold stranglehold that humans as a species have on Earth. Looking at it we have to keep asking: is the human journey reaching the edges of the Earth?