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13 hours, 33 minutes ago 0
Posted in: Blog

MEET OUR STAFF: IMRAN SIDDIQUI

 

Conducting identification of herbivore pellets.

Imran Siddiqui’s journey, from visiting zoos to becoming a wildlife expert, speaks volumes of his one-track dedication and passion.

Perseverance could well be his middle name. Imran Siddiqui’s career chart beginning with selling poultry to raise money for wildlife, to becoming the man instrumental in getting Telangana its first tiger reserve, is one for the best-sellers.

Today, this young man who followed his passion for the forests and its denizens, is a member of the Telangana state wildlife board and on the tiger steering committee. He is also the external expert for tiger monitoring in both the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. He is the founder of the Hyderabad-based Tiger Conservation Society, besides being Assistant Director, Conservation Science at WCS India.

Imran is actively involved in the two states in scientific surveys for prey analysis, occupancy survey for all mammals, etc and also on various state level committees for wildlife conservation, initiating relocation programmes for people living in the forest, capacity building for forest department and influencing policy.

Working closely with the forest department and creating political will towards wildlife conservation is one of the crucial areas he focuses on. Whether it be for declaration of the tiger reserve, increasing area under Protected Areas, or to enforce a ban on hunting, his networking and lobbying worked.

But Imran knows that one can never rest. One of the major challenges he sees in the field is that of policy implementation. “This is most irritating as the policy exists but suffers owing to various reasons. One, we do not have monitoring or grievance panels to oversee things. The mitigation measures are in place but often are not monitored.”

While he does resort to advocacy and has been successful with the five PILs filed, Imran realizes that going to court is not the answer always. That is where one innovates and uses various tactics, he adds.

Thanks to his relentless efforts across five years, relocation programme for Gond and Naikpod tribes has been initiated in Kawal and Amarabad tiger reserves. In the former, around five villages with 230 people have shown interest while a total of 660 out of 1100 people from three villages have sought relocation from Amarabad Tiger Reserve. This was possible after much countering of the misinformation spread by vested interest groups, says Imran, while acknowledging the support of the forest department in the success of conservation programmes. His efforts have also ensured that cattle kill compensations are paid up within ten days.

Imran Siddiqui (left) with Killivalavan Rayar at Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve.

The journey was not easy. In twists that almost took him off the course, Imran was tested quite a few times. But his interest never wavered.

It can all be traced to his visits to the zoo as a nine-year-old. “I would meticulously note down all details displayed on the boards, often not knowing what the words written there meant!”

It was an invitation by IFS officer P Raghuveer to join the tiger census at Eturnagaram that next saw Imran and his brother Asif get their exposure to the wilderness. “Contrary to my expectation of a sanctuary there were no animals at all. I was disappointed and try to meet many NGOs to do some work. No one was serious,” he reminisces. This led to the brothers founding the Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society, HyTiCos.

A subsequent visit to the Srisailam Tiger Reserve saw the duo’s attempt to work in the forest discouraged. But a stint during the 2002 tiger census at Kawal proved exciting as Imran sighted the pugmarks of a tigress and her cubs. It was enough of a catalyst for the youngster to resort to raising and selling poultry to make money to pursue his wildlife interest. A course on GIS at the JNTU, Hyderabad helped him find his way into the forest department as a researcher using the technology for wildlife habitat management.

Livelihood pressures saw him sell software to make money, till in 2004 he was taken in by the forest department as a project scientist. In 2004 during a line transect at Tadoba conducted by WCS, he happened to lay hands on the WCS tiger manual and got entrenched deeper in wildlife monitoring “the right way” as he calls it. A “painful” break of four odd years when he worked in Dubai, albeit with frequent trips to forests, helped with the finances but he was back in 2008 when he joined the M.Sc in Wildlife Biology and Conservation course offered by NCBS-WCS.

Imran undertook his dissertation project at Kawal under Dr Ullas Karanth and Dr Samba Kumar where he looked at the potential for tigers based on prey densities. This was followed by another brief stint with Wildlife Trust of India where he was involved in de-snaring with the forest department. This helped build the anti-poaching strike force at Kawal which saw the prey population double in three years.

Then began a period of intense lobbying where he worked with animal lovers and conservationists to revive a Legislative Assembly committee on wildlife and environment. “You need to pay attention to remarks made by a person, follow up on his family and activities to get an idea of the best approach before taking up any contentious issue,” says Imran who succeeded in getting the assembly Speaker Nadendla Manohar to reconstitute the panel.

In 2012, when the Kawal forest was declared a tiger reserve, it was largely owing to his dogged persistence. Not only did he have to work at the political level but also on the ground where lot of misinformation had led to dissent. Fear of eviction following declaration of the park as tiger reserve had caused the tribals to oppose the move. It had taken months of awareness-building to subdue the dissent and assure the political powers that there would be no fears of naxalism. Around this time, Imran joined Wildlife Conservation Society, India.

Today, HyTiCos has a 400-member strong volunteer base, boasts of 60 members and works in over 7,000 sq kms across the two states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. In partnership with WCS India, it has conducted capacity building of over 2000 forest staff, besides taking part in intelligence gathering and advocacy.

To a query on his best moment in the field, Imran has no doubts. “It was in 2015 when we knew for sure that there were a good number of tigers once again in Kawal Tiger Reserve. The next year the sighting of pugmarks of cubs in the corridor areas came as further affirmation.” All this coming after the preceding disastrous years when tiger numbers had dropped drastically, (owing to suspected poaching by tribals fearing eviction) came as a validation of the declaration.

But things are not always positive. He remembers what he calls as one of the worst moments when a waterhole was poisoned killing all the fish and amphibians. Luckily many of the herbivores were not affected. Challenges will be there, but for this conservation scientist routine is what kills. Not challenges, which he is game for.

Written by Jayalakshmi K

3 days, 11 hours ago 0
Posted in: Blog

One of our volunteers from our line-transect surveys pens his account of an incredible sighting of the shy, nocturnal Indian Pangolin, which is also one of the most trafficked mammals on the planet.

Written by By Rajaram Vasudevan

Camera-trap photo of a pangolin. © Ullas Karanth/WCS

It was relatively a pleasant morning and a usual drive back to our base camp after the Line Transect Survey conducted by WCS India.

This survey is done to estimate the prey population which is crucial for the survival of predators. As usual, the discussion in the jeep was about the sightings of each other’s line just finished surveying and interesting experiences if we had any.

It was our turn and I casually listed out the sightings of the animals. And then after a few minutes, I said, “Oh yeah, we saw a Pangolin at the start of the line.”

I was taken aback by the kind of reaction from Manish and others in the jeep that clearly indicated that I just had one of the best moments of my life in the wild and not realised it. I had sighted one of the most illegally trafficked and poached mammals of this planet. It wasn’t just a sighting, but rather an experience. Not everyone who has been part of the field projects sights this animal, at least not alive!

Going back to the experience, I was surveying this particular line with Shubham (another volunteer for the line transect camp) and we started walking or rather soaking ourselves in the enormity of flora with the high decibel avian chatters. The line took a turn and I could see a tall ‘crocodile bark’ tree almost in the middle of the path. I paused for a moment looking for the marking but couldn’t see one. I went little ahead and stood just behind the tree, waiting for Shubham to come closer to me.

At that moment, I saw some leaves of a shrub moving on the ground on the right side of the path. As I was in the front I alerted him to stop moving, expecting a Monitor Lizard or a big snake to cross our path.

What really came out struck me for the next few mins. It walked right in front of us and went into a bamboo bush on the left side of the path. Shubham whispered to me saying, “That’s a Pangolin, Anna!” I tried to get a proper look, as I was behind that tree.

For some reason, it turned left and walked towards me and stood still for a few seconds and rolled its eyes (maybe it was surprised too that I didn’t kill it yet!). It had blue eyes or maybe it was the reflection of the sky/flora or a combination of both. It looked absolutely comfortable walking next to me, and then went near Shubham and had a look at him and eventually walked away.

No other experience can parallel the feeling of you being trusted by a wild animal (however big or small the animal is) in the wild. A lot more questions arose in my head about the way we humans have been and continue to live our lives.

Did this impact me? Yes, it did. I learned that more than 20 tonnes of Pangolins and their parts are traded every year as per the research conducted by TRAFFIC, an organisation that monitors illegal wildlife trade.

Also, that we are losing 10,000 Sunda Pangolins every year due to poaching. But still, they manage to thrive in the ever-shrinking habitats across Asia & Africa.

I don’t know if I will be lucky to see this endearing animal again in the wild. My hope is fading away day by day as I am just another so-called ‘wildlife enthusiast’ who hasn’t done anything on the ground to protect or conserve this pre-historic animal which predates human existence on this planet by 72 million years.

 

1 week ago 0
Posted in: Blog

An Assam Forest Department – WCS India initiative ‘Know Your Elephants’ seeks to create a photographic database of individual elephants in Kaziranga National Park.

Divya Vasudev

Every elephant is distinct. Their facial features, personality, ability to reproduce, tendency to disperse, propensity to raid crops, are different. Just as we subconsciously use facial features to distinguish one person from another, we can, in a more systematic and explicit manner, use morphological features to individually identify wild elephants. Following this approach, Wildlife Conservation Society India Program, in collaboration with the Department of Environment and Forest, Government of Assam, is creating a photographic database of individually identified elephants in the Kaziranga National Park to inform conservation and monitoring.

A male elephant in Kaziranga National Park. Kaziranga and its surrounding landscape house arguably the most important population of elephants in Northeast India. ©Varun R Goswami.

Kaziranga National Park, and the landscape surrounding it, arguably holds the most important population of elephants in Northeast India. Along with elephants, Kaziranga also houses tigers in one of the highest densities across their range; a majority of greater one-horned rhinoceros and eastern swamp deer; and a host of other species including the Asiatic water buffalo, hog deer, and many other mammals, migratory and resident birds, and flora. It is no surprise that Kaziranga is precious in the eyes of the people of Assam, nor that it has been recognised as a World Heritage Site.

Kaziranga NP is home to a number of endangered flora and fauna. ©Varun R Goswami.

WCS India and the Assam Forest Department are implementing their collaborative project Know Your Elephants in this important park. Project personnel survey the park extensively obtaining photographs of individual elephants; these photographs contain the critical pieces of information required for tag individual elephants. Dr. Varun Goswami, Project Investigator and Associate Director – Conservation Science, WCS India sheds light on how the identification process is done. “We identify elephants through their tusks, ears and tail. Elephant ears, especially, are telling; their shape, tears, cuts, and folds provide us with almost all the information we need to tell one elephant from another.”

But why identify elephants? At a workshop held on the 14th of May, 2018, at Kohora, Kaziranga, Dr. Goswami succinctly pointed to the insights we get from individual identification which can address challenges to elephant conservation, stating that “identifying elephants allows us to note where they move, which individuals frequent agricultural fields, and track population demography through time”.

Individual identification, in combination with the now globally-established capture–recapture modelling approach, can also provide reliable estimates of elephant numbers, which take into account both animals encountered, and animals missed.

Dr. Varun Goswami, elephant expert, points to how the shape and form of elephant ears can be used for individual identification of elephants (above). Distinctive tears on elephant ears too can help in tagging individuals sighted at different locations (below). ©Pragyan Sharma/WCS India and Varun R Goswami/WCS India

Kaziranga has its own particular conservation challenges. Every year, large parts of the park are inundated by the monsoon-fed Brahmaputra River. In 2017, about 85% of the park lay under water following heavy showers. This seasonal flooding is what fuels the rich biodiversity of this World Heritage Site. But it also means that animals need to move out of the park, across a heavily populated swath of land, to reach highlands to the south of the park. This yearly journey is risky, and information on how elephants fare will be valuable to conservation in the region.

Being able to track individual elephants could provide us with information on their movement routes — familiar paths that elephants pass on from generation to generation, as well as new routes forged in a changing landscape — which could aid in efforts to ensure their safety from human-induced pressures during this stressful season.

Elephants moving through paddy fields in this rich floodplain also leads to conflict with people. Managing such conflict is critical for conservationists and park managers and being able to identify elephants that are more prone to risky crop-raiding behaviour can aid in our response to conflict situations.

Elephants in Kaziranga National Park. ©Varun R Goswami/WCS India

At the workshop held in Kaziranga, Shri Rohini B. Saikia, IFS, Divisional Forest Officer, Eastern Wildlife Division, Assam (Kaziranga NP) emphasized the importance of forest guards and frontline staff knowing the concepts and benefits of the project. Shri. Rabindra Sharma, Research Officer, Kaziranga NP, also added to this requirement, by aligning local descriptors of elephants to the categories used as part of the project. “The project will help in assisting the park managers to identify and monitor the elephants of the park,” Shri. Saikia said. “It will also help to mitigate man–elephant conflict in the adjoining areas.”

The workshop was also attended by Assistant Conservator of Forests, Range Forest Officers and forest guards of Kaziranga, as well as WCS India staff and other interested elephant conservationists.

WCS India staff interacted with workshop participants. Parvathi Prasad explained protocols used for field data collection and database entry; Dr. Varun Goswami discussed tangible outcomes and benefits of the project; and Binod Gogoi expressed the utility of elephant research and conservation for the people of Kaziranga (clockwise from top left). ©Pragyan Sharma/WCS India

Workshop participants for the Assam FD – WCS India collaborative project on creating a photographic database of individual elephants in Kaziranga NP for conservation and monitoring held at Kohora, Kaziranga, on the 14th of May 2018. ©Pragyan Sharma/WCS India

“Elephants are fascinating animals and have captured our imagination for time immemorial,” Dr. Goswami said. “Identifying individuals can provide us with insights into elephant behaviour and their ability to survive a changing world.” Science-based conservation efforts are critical, he added, to ensure elephant persistence for future generations.

 

1 week, 2 days ago 0
Posted in: Others, Vacancies

WCS India Program is hiring interns under a project on the conservation of endangered lion-tailed macaques in the Western Ghats.

The project involves questionnaire-based surveys in multiple sites across Tamil Nadu. Selected candidates will be required to travel extensively, interact with local communities and conduct surveys as per a predetermined scientific protocol.

Essential qualifications:

i) Candidate must be fluent in speaking Tamil and/or Malayalam
ii) Basic knowledge of MS Excel
iii) Valid driver’s licence
iv) Inter-personal skills, and the ability to work well with a team
v) Can commit to a period of 2 months
vi) Prior field experience with wildlife research or conservation is desirable

The position is open with immediate effect. Renumeration will be decided based on candidate qualification and experience. Accommodation and food expenses in the field will be covered by the project.

To apply, please send an email to <interns.wcsindia@gmail.com> with the subject line ‘Application: Research Assistant, May 2018’, stating interest in brief (100 words), along with your most recent resume/CV.

1 week, 3 days ago 0
Posted in: Blog

Dr Stuart Pimm is an American-British conservation biologist and a world leader in the study of present-day extinctions. He has been a conservation biologist since the term was first coined, and is also a staunch advocate of bridging the interface between science and policy.

In this interview, Vaishali Rawat of WCS India speaks to him about biodiversity conservation, why science must be communicated, especially to politicians, and why conservation is a field worth working in! Listen to the interview:

 

Transcript:

Vaishali Rawat: Today we talk with Dr Stuart Pimm, who is a conservation biologist and a world leader in the study of present-day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them. He is the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at the Nicholas School of Environment at Duke University and his research covers global patterns of habitat loss and species extinction. He has been a staunch advocate of bridging the interface between policy and science, and he has testified in the US Government’s House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. A recipient of multiple prestigious awards like the Heineken Prize and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Dr Pimm has been studying conservation biology since before the term was coined 30 years ago. We caught up with him to chat about his early beginnings in the field of ecology and his work on conservation science and policy.

Thank you for speaking with me Dr Pimm. Let’s begin with where it started – about how you got interested in ecology and conservation and who your early influences were.

Dr Stuart Pimm: You know how Lord Elrond in Lord of the Rings says, “I was there at the beginning.” Well, I was there at the beginning. I was there one Thursday afternoon after tea time when the Society for Conservation Biology was formed. So, I have been a conservation biologist since we have coined that term. So, Why and How?
The answer is, I started out as a teenager being interested in natural history, especially birds. Did my bachelor’s degree in Zoology at Oxford, did a Ph.D in ecology at the Mexico State University, and then almost by accident ended up in Hawaii which is a place that I thought I would never go to because I know that the environment there was very, very damaged. When I got there as an enthusiastic bird watcher I expected to see all the birds that were in the bird book because I was a good field biologist, I was going to be in the field a lot, and I DIDN’T see them. Some of those species were already extinct; some of them were tiny remnant populations. That experience changed my life because I realized that extinctions were real, that we are losing biodiversity. So there was this immediate observation of things we had said back. That was combined with a strong sense of ethics that we ought to be not allowing species to go extinct, we ought to be handling biodiversity like children, we ought to be concerned about the future generations and the insight that as a scientist I was seeing things, I was understanding things that informed the science of endangerment, rarity and extinction. I knew why some of these species were going extinct and others were doing well. So, I started doing what we would now call conservation. So, a few years later I got a phone call from a man called Michael Soulé [A prominent conservation biologist and co-founder of Society for Conservation Biology (SCB)]. Michael Soulé phoned up and said, “You don’t know who I am, but my name is Michael Soulé, we have friends in common. I want to invite you to a meeting on conservation biology.” And I said what’s THAT? And he said, “Whatever it is, you are doing it.” So I went to the meeting 4’o clock on the Thursday afternoon just after tea you know the society was formed. And to me, I made a deliberate choice to stop doing pure ecology, theoretical ecology, community ecology which I was doing very successfully. I made a choice to switch from that to doing conservation, to try and work out what the scientific issues are, to find ways for science to make a difference to conservation.
So, I have been enormously honored to being given some of the top prizes – International prizes – I have the prize from the Royal Netherlands Academy of arts and sciences and essentially, I got those prizes for making conservation safe for scientists, of saying that there are substantial scientific issues with better understanding. But above all, we better ensure that our science makes a difference. It’s not just okay for us to go around saying, “I am a scientist”. We have to do science it’s going to change things and that means we have to think what you mean by science. It’s not just population genetics, it’s not just population ecology, it’s not community ecology, it’s a mix of a stuff. It can involve a wide range of different scientific disciplines. The conversation we were having when you came was to the extent to which your different religions impact how different communities tolerate snow leopards. Now, as a scientist, you never do that, as a conservation professional it’s something clearly very important. So I find conservation to be an intellectually, extremely exciting business. But more important is its importance for the future generations. We are trying to ensure that no more species go extinct.

VR: You are a staunch believer that science needs to be communicated to the public, especially policy makers, to make a difference in conservation. What are the hurdles in place for someone moving away from pure ecology to the broader sphere of communicating complex issues and advocating for conservation, as you have done?

SP: The biggest challenge is I think convincing scientists. They can’t just do nothing. So, scientists need to become active, they need to be encouraged to do science which is relevant. So the first challenge is to say, I love scientific curiosity, I am a curious scientist. But we have an ethical responsibility to use our science for tackling challenges of the era, the age for which the loss of biodiversity is clearly one of the major ones.
How did I learn to communicate science? The answer is sort of by trial and lot of error. But it is clearly very very important that we get our message out. The difficulty is that we want the science to be light, but we also want it to be simple enough that people can understand it. I don’t think it’s acceptable for us to cut corners with the science. What we have to do is to try and use every communication technique we have to get those ideas across in a credible way. So, yes, I am always doing interviews, yes, I am always talking to the media, yes, I am active on Facebook, yes, I blog. All of those things are important ways of the getting the message out.

We also need to engage politicians. I was talking to a couple of students about an hour ago, and they said, “How did you get involved in doing policy?” The answer is not by writing papers on policies. There are too many papers on policies. Policy is done by politicians; we have to engage those politicians in face to face. So, I am very active in going to local meetings, state meetings, national meetings to engage the politicians talking to politicians one on one. To communicate the science that I have done, to communicate the need for better policies, we live in democracies. There may be times that we think our democracies are messy, democracies usually are, but we do have access to our political leaders and we need to communicate our ideas. If we don’t, the people who will be the people who are acting in their own personal self-interest; by large we are not. I don’t go to Washington DC to ask the federal government to give me money. In fact my university or most universities specifically prohibit that. What I go there to do is to encourage certain pieces of legislation or discourage other pieces of legislation. I am an activist in the sense that I communicate truth to power. My group, my students are people who engage policymakers by saying this is my best assessment to the science. This is what I think it means, this is how it informs policies and I think we have to be prepared to do that.

VR: And how receptive do you find politicians to hearing out concerns relating to conservation and the environment?

SP: Look, the way politicians spend most of their time is not in parliament debating, I mean that is a sort of a naïve view of what politicians do, they don’t! They spend most of their time in their offices meeting people who are going to ask them to pass a piece of legislation that will personally enrich them. I go in there and ask an MP or a congressman to vote for or against a particular piece of legislation. So, I am very hands-on in my policies, I think we have to get out there and talk to politicians. And when was the last time I did that; it was in December, you know I want to be in DC talking to politicians trying to persuade them about a particular viewpoint. Does it work? Yes, on scientists, because they are not going in asking for money, often get a surprisingly good hearing. The politicians know what you are up to, you are asking for their vote and a good politician needs to understand that that’s how he or she gets elected or gets thrown out of office. So, I try to exercise my democratic rights.

VR: That’s wonderful to know. But these are difficult and volatile times in global politics, and of course, we see this trend of environmental concerns being least priority, and a steady thrust from those in power to delegitimize scientists and open up wilderness areas to exploitation, especially in the US. How do you deal with the burdening depression of it all and still stay optimistic?

SP: That’s the question I get in every interview I do. “Professor Pimm, you are the person who is responsible for the statistics that Al Gore uses that the species are going extinct the thousand times faster than it should. How do you get up in the morning? Why don’t you just get up and cry?” Well, certainly it’s not because I just sort of go often to the beautiful places and forget about the trouble.

I am in the business of finding solutions and the analogy I draw is to medicine. Supposing you are my Doctor, if I came to see and say- Doctor how am I doing and you will say Professor Pimm you are almost 70 years old, you have several kilograms of weight, you probably eat the wrong kind of food (I don’t), but you don’t get enough exercise (I do), but you know what you are probably gonna die and it’s not gonna be very nice, you probably gonna have a heart attack, you are gonna have cancer, it’s really gonna be pretty brutal. I think- Ah good lord, I don’t want to visit you ever again. Right? So, what you tell me instead is to continue to eat your diet, continue to exercise, avoid salt, not too much alcohol, do all the right kind of things, take your medicine and with a little bit of luck, you live to be 90. I will say thank you doctor and I will write you a cheque. It’s the same thing with ecology, with conservation, what I do is I look for ways of making species live as long as they can.

You as a doctor would know there is an enormous amount of human mortality, an awful lot of it could be avoided. There were things that have gone terribly wrong in the society, we ought not to have many of the ills that kill people. Does that stop you from being a physician? NO. What keeps you going I HOPE is the sense that you can make a difference – one patient to a hundred patients at a time. I feel the same way about conservation that yes, it’s my work which shows how many species are going extinct, but I am also someone who is looking for new and creative solutions. Moreover, the ways to implement them. That’s why I am here in India, I am here in India to try and fund projects that are creative, that are novel, that have different approaches, so we can prevent species extinction. That’s how I get up in the morning. I get up in the morning, I am very optimistic, a lot of things we can do, there is a lot more we can do. But we need to get on and do what’s within our grasp.

VR: in the span of your career what would you count as a few conservation success stories that you have seen?

SP: The things that I am most proud of are our attempts to reconnect forest ecosystems. We know from a lot of good science that species go extinct in forest fragments very quickly and the way to prevent that is to reconnect the landscapes, and that too comes after a lot of good science. And we are doing lots of projects now where we are doing those re-connections. So, I think that is the substantial body of work, that’s good science and good conservation practice. I have worked with endangered species in Florida and elsewhere where the science we have done has changed management policies, so that those species that I work with are less threatened. I think the overall thrust of conservation has been to show that tropical deforestation is a bad thing and that all together led to a binational agreement between Brazil and Norway that got Brazil to massively reduce its tropical deforestation.
Now, I am a microscopic piece in that but nonetheless, it’s a success story for conservation as a whole. Let’s say clear cutting the worlds tropical forest is not a small thing to do. So, are there success stories out there? Yes. No question that we have done a much better job of setting aside areas for endangered species than many people think; we the global community are protecting much more of the planet now than we were 25 years ago. So, there were some global success stories. The increase of the protected areas, reduction of rainforest destruction in places like Brazil, and there were individual stories of species that I have worked with in particular the habitats I connect in Saving Species.

VR: That’s wonderful. As you mentioned you have worked on a lot of charismatic species like lions, cheetahs, elephants and you also founded the organization ‘Saving Species’ which engages citizens for conservation. Can you tell us about the vision of the organization and how you execute it?

SP: Well the first thing we do is to do what I call strategic mapping. We have good range map data on about 20,000 species – birds, mammals and amphibians. Data on reptiles will be available soon. We have got crude data on about a 120K species of plant, none of that is geographically refined. What those data allow us to do is to identify the key areas for species at risk, that they correspond very closely to what Norman Miles called hotspots- biodiversity hotspots. Except now we can map them out in considerable more detail like map out things in a very very high resolved way. When you do that it becomes clear, for India, the Western Ghats or the eastern Himalayas are internationally important priorities for biodiversity. These are places where there is high concentration of species with small geographical ranges. Those are the species that have a greater risk.

So, the next thing we do is we produce what we call it the tactical maps. Those maps that I have talked about are available on the website: www.biodiversitymapping.org. So, you can look at all our beautiful maps and so we know broadly where to work. The question then is how you go from that scale to a practical scale? If one were to do that for South America, you would conclude that the coastal forests of Brazil are among the top priorities. It’s a million square kilometres. Now that’s a very long way from making a practical action. So, what we do is now to produce much more finely resolved maps where we bring in other information, the altitudinal ranges of the species, the use of forest cover, and those produce tactical maps and in the case of Brazil, those tactical maps suggest that some areas just to the east to the city of Rio de Janeiro contain exceptional number of threatened species and that landscape is badly fragmented. What does that say? It says the only practical solution we have is to reconnect those fragments and that’s what Saving Species does. So, we go from these strategic maps identifying the key places in the world to tactical maps of where we think conservations actions can be. So, where do we work – we work in the Northern Amazon, the coast of Brazil, we got small projects in the Western Ghats, small projects in North-eastern India. If you look at those maps you will say, oh Stuart Pimm, look at this, it’s obvious where we are trying to do things.

VR: I suppose it is challenging to process scientific data at that scale and then design and implement practical solutions at a local level.

SP: Identifying the broad areas where people need to work is not hard. We can do that in the comfort of our AC offices with our feet propped up on the table and a glass of beer in one hand. The challenge then is to come up with locally practical solutions. of which we found building habitat corridors is one sensible way (not the only thing we do) but it is one sensible way going forward.

The next challenge is to find good local groups who are capable of doing the work. What frustrates me about many of the big conservation organizations is they don’t do anywhere near enough to help foster, mentor, support local groups. So, one of those hotspots is the coastal forest of Brazil where we and Saving Species have done several very very significant projects, raising money for what is clearly the most effective local conservation group called the Golden Lion Tamarin Association. I founded Saving Species because I wanted to empower, help fundraise for really good local conservation groups. I have no aspirations to have a staff of 500 people in AC offices inside Washington DC building. As of a few weeks ago, we have one person working full time, and we just hired an executive director. But you know, what we do is to raise the money for people locally. We want to publicize them, we want to get the word out, we want to show what a great job they are doing and help them to do a better job.

VR: To wrap this up, any advice for young people who are trying to make a difference in conservation today?

SP: I think it’s an enormously challenging time, but I think the problems and questions are really really good ones. It’s an exciting time to be doing this because the questions are so good. When I taught ecology, I knew how to teach ecology – there is population ecology, there is community ecology, there is ecosystem ecology and there is physiological ecology and then there is behavioural ecology and divide it up into pieces, so you know what you are going to talk about.
How do I teach conservation? I don’t know! I am the first endowed chair in conservation. I don’t know what the subject contains. All I know is the questions are completely compelling. How do you save snow leopards? How do you save tigers? How do you resolve Human-wildlife conflict? How do you manage biodiversity in a country like India where so many people live next to and inside protected areas? Those are really difficult challenges, but they are intellectually rich and that’s what makes it exciting and you don’t want to go into a field that’s not exciting. So, that’s the advice. This is fun, it’s interesting, it’s important; you know your grandchildren will love you for it even if you don’t leave them millions of dollars. But you know what, you will have a wonderful time.

VR: Thank you for this conversation, Dr Pimm.

–End–

1 week, 4 days ago 0
Posted in: Others, Vacancies

Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) has Research Associate and Research Assistantships available to work on projects focusing on human-wildlife interactions, conservation education and tourism across India.

Qualifications:
(i) Masters’ degree in Wildlife Biology/Wildlife Science/Zoology/Life Science/Environmental Science or related field, or Bachelor’s degree in ecology or related field, with field experience
(ii) Past experience in conducting ecological research
(iii) Valid driver’s license for light motor vehicle is desirable
(iv) Inter-personal skills, and the ability to work well with a team
(v) Knowledge of Kannada/Hindi/Malaylam is desirable
(vi) Strong interest in wildlife conservation.

The candidate will participate in research activities and will be expected to contribute to program logistics. Remuneration will be in accordance with qualifications.

How to apply: Interested candidates may send their CV, including prior work experience in conducting ecological surveys, and a brief description of interest in joining this project, to Dr. Krithi Karanth at kkaranth@wcs.org with the subject line, ‘Application: Research Assistant/Associate’.

2 weeks, 2 days ago Comments Off on Tackling fear – the key instigator in human leopard conflicts
Posted in: Blog

Waking with a leopard sleeping by your bed may not be everyone’s dream come true. But what a banana trader in Mysuru experienced earlier this year could be the shape of things to come, as wildlife habitats continue to shrink. While panic is the first response, it is not the best. According to leopard experts, the animal too is in a state of heightened panic and the best option is to make way for it to leave.

Traditionally many forest tribes and communities coexisted with leopards and tigers, but today the general reaction from the public is of fear and hostility. As a result, there are the increasing incidences of human-leopard conflict, ending up usually with the animal done to death. Attacks by leopards on humans have been fewer and suspected to be related to relocation stress in the animals, based on some studies.

In an interesting project aimed at spreading awareness and educating the people about leopards, Mrunal Ghosalkar, from WCS India, has been training school students in parts of Maharashtra as ‘leopard ambassadors.’ Using a combination of leopard biology and behaviour, along with traditional knowledge obtained from people who have shared spaces with these cats, these children are being given information that can reduce conflict scenarios. They pass it on to other members of the community, among their family and friends.

This is part of a project called ‘Janata Waghoba – The wise big cat’. The project initiated by Mrunal in Junnar district collaborates with Maharashtra Forest Department, Rufford Foundation and Doodle Factory, and aims at knowledge to the local people on leopard behaviour and suggests precautionary measures to protect livestock and humans.

Leopard cubs in Mumbai. ©Steve Winter/National Geographic

From simple advice to handle garbage efficiently and not throw it around and attract dogs and pigs, which in turn draw in the leopards, to keeping cattle safely in sheds, putting up thorny bushes around the house (leopards avoid these), this can help prevent many conflicts, says Mrunal. Going out at night is obviously dangerous where the landscape has a thick leopard density. Something as simple as playing music loudly on the mobile phone could help scare away any predator. Children are advised to go in groups and when alone to play mobile phones or carry a stick with bells tied to it.

Now she has begun the program at Niphad taluk in Nashik district where 65 leopard ambassadors from schools and colleges have been trained. All stakeholders like the education and revenue departments, block development officers and village sarpanchs are engaged in the awareness building. However, changing attitudes takes time and sustained awareness spreading, acknowledges Mrunal.

WCS research scholar Shweta Shivakumar has been working on understanding and resolving human-leopard conflicts in Himachal Pradesh as part of her doctorate.

“Conflict is sadly the main narrative in media today. We need to attempt a shift towards coexisting with wildlife. There is hope it can be done, going by the fact that today despite India’s huge human population, we have managed to retain the world’s largest numbers of tigers and other species. We only need to look to the past to learn how our ancestors coexisted with even more numbers of wildlife,” says Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

A leopard looks over Mumbai. ©Steve Winter/National Geographic

In some parts of India, the co-existence and acceptance of the carnivores can be traced back to Waghoba, the large feline deity worshipped even today in many villages and forest communities of central India. Praying to the deity is expected to keep the people safe from attacks. In Himachal Pradesh, traditional communities believe the leopard walks them home to safety in the evenings. These stories and myths which are as old as the shared spaces could help the local people accept the presence of these animals.

Many tribes like the Warli in Maharashtra live in close proximity to leopards and tigers. Unlike the panic and fear that an encounter with a feline triggers in urban folks, these tribes have included the leopard and tiger as part of the landscape. Learning from these communities on how to coexist is a better option than relocating the leopards, which leads to stress and trauma for the animals and in turn triggers many of the attacks on humans. Research showed that areas near release sites of leopards trapped elsewhere simply because they were “seen” had higher incidences of attacks on humans, therefore, relocation of a large predator in a densely populated country like India is not a solution.

Leopard walking the border trail of Sanjay Gandhi National Park next to an apartment building. ©Steve Winter/National Geographic

The attempt has begun to educate urban residents on how best to live with the leopard. This started with the project ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’ which was initiated by Sanjay Gandhi National Park Director Shri Sunil Limaye in 2011 in collaboration with WCS India. Today it is still on-going and with many more citizens of Mumbai taking an active interest in contributing to reducing the fear of leopards around the Park. Nikit Surve from WCS India has been working as a biologist in and around the Park since 2015 and has also been involved in the awareness activities, especially with the media students and other college students. As a result of the awareness campaign, he notes that there has been a reduction in the sensational nature of the media reports over the years of the leopard issue.

Leopards are very adaptable and can survive in different landscapes, easily changing diet from forest ungulates to dogs, cats and pigs. At SGNP, it is not a paucity of wild prey that brings them out but the abundance of domestic ones like cats and pigs, says Nikit.

In most cases, they do not harm humans even when living in close proximity, as seen from studies on radio-collared leopards. A mother leopard had littered cubs a few hundred metres from the school compound, without ever being seen or coming face to face with humans for many days, notes Vidya.

If leopards are comfortable living so close to humans, why can’t humans simply accept them too? This may be inevitable given that as cities expand, and human populations grow, the existing protected areas are just not enough to sustain the wildlife. But this is easier said than done, as evidenced by the many reports of villagers stoning or beating leopards to death.

How does one increase what Vidya calls the ‘social carrying capacity’ (SCC) of a landscape towards a species like the leopard? It has to be studied in communities with a high SCC and compared with those that do not have it, she believes.

Sadly, time may be running out for the Indian leopard. In the first three months of the year, around 162 deaths were reported, of which a third were due to unnatural causes.

For now, the leopard has a few well-wishers and some young ambassadors spreading the kindly word.

Compiled and written by Jayalakshmi K

RESOURCES:

A poster designed to educate residents of Mumbai about leopards:

Living with Leopards

A report documenting the initiatives mentioned in this post in detail:

Waghoba tales: Adventures in leopard land

Relevant news links:

https://punemirror.indiatimes.com/pune/civic/schoolkids-step-up-in-junnar-to-curb-man-leopard-conflict/articleshow/63886790.cms

3 weeks, 1 day ago Comments Off on Chia: The Super Crop helping reduce man animal conflict
Posted in: Blog

In 2008, 60 tribal families from the DB Kuppe range of Nagarahole Tiger Reserve voluntarily relocated outside the forest to the Sollepura relocation centre through a government funded relocation program. Inside the forest, the tribals were hunter gatherers, but when they moved out, they had to familiarize themselves with the art of agriculture. Despite initial difficulties, with time they slowly learned, practiced and are now proud first-generation farmers.

 

Chia being grown as a second crop in Sollepura relocation centre ©P M Muthanna

Though happier outside the forest with access to schools, markets, and a hospital nearby, elephants and wild boars constantly raided their crops. In the summers, when it gets hot and the fruits grow in abundance, the animals venture out to get their share of sweet treats. Finding a crop that did not attract the wild animals was of utmost importance and finally when it felt like nothing would work, Chia entered the Indian agriculture and food industry like a miracle.

Chia, a Mexican superfood rich in fibre, antioxidants, and Omega 3 helps cut the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. According to a recent survey, India is highly deficient in Omega 3 and hence consumption of Chia seeds has been actively encouraged. Apart from the Superfood it is, it has also proved to be a Super crop. On a visit to the Hadiyala wildlife range of Bandipur in August 2017, our Assistant Director of Conservation, PM Muthanna stumbled across the cultivation of Chia in the region and got curious. He learnt that not only did the crop require lesser water as compared to crops like rice and sugarcane, it also did not attract wildlife and there was a drastic reduction in conflicts after cultivating Chia.

After his Bandipur visit, when he met with the Nagarahole Project team, he suggested the possibility of cultivating Chai in the Sollepura relocation center. The 60 relocated families of Sollepura relocation center are being supported by WCS India in the field of agriculture, healthcare, and education. The livelihood support program is aided by the RBS Foundation under Supporting Enterprise in the Malenad Mysore Landscape.

WCS project staff HL Govindappa, working in the Sollepura relocation center was the first to take the initiative. He identified three tribal men namely Dasappa, Basappa and Bhaskar for the cultivation of Chia. All three of them were given chia seeds to cultivate over an area of one acre. Under the guidance of Govindappa, it was cultivated as a second crop after the harvest of their regular crop mainly ragi, maize or cotton.

 

Chia being harvested under the guidance of Govindappa H L ©P M Muthanna

Over the next 3 months, the crop grew without any irrigation facilities but with the help of little spells of rain and did not attract wildlife. Upon harvesting, Dasappa received 66,000 rupees for 300kgs, Basappa received 90,000 rupees for 500 kgs and Bhaskar got 73,700 rupees for 335 kgs of Chia. Being a cash crop, Chia has immense value both in the Indian and foreign market. The more the production of Chia, the more the exports and the better the benefits for farmers.

The awareness for Chia is slowly increasing as more and more people are including it in their daily diet. It can be easily incorporated into salads, curries, and dals. From an agricultural point of view, the crop is an ideal investment in the hot summer months where water for irrigation is always an issue. Since it grows with the help of just natural fertilisers and does not attract the cattle or wildlife, it is quite hassle free to cultivate Chia.

 

Chia being loaded to be sold in retail ©P M Muthanna

Changes in the crop pattern from traditional crops to crops like sugarcane, banana and paddy is the main reason for a spike in raids by wild animals and hence a shift towards crops which do not attract wild animals is the first step to address this issue. If crops such as Chia are cultivated in areas of human animal conflict, it might help in reducing distress to both humans and wildlife.

Written and compiled by Meghana Sanka

4 weeks, 1 day ago Comments Off on Pesose: Of folktales and reality deep inside Kali Tiger Reserve
Posted in: Blog

A long time ago, deep inside the Kali Tiger Reserve, in a cave high up on the hill outside the village of Pesose, a villager entered, only to never return. Perplexed and concerned, the villagers discussed amongst themselves. “Would he have gone to stay there as a sadhu?” one asked, while another questioned, “Do you think there is a ghost in there who might have consumed him?”

The discussion went on for a few days, before one brave villager took on the challenge to go explore the cave. As he stepped in, others waited with bated breath. Days turned into weeks, but there was no news of the second villager either.

The murmurs grew stronger this time with the common consensus that there must be a ghost inside. They were still hoping to find the truth, as a third villager refused to believe the myths and went to figure out the truth for himself.

As the story continues, the third villager was also never seen again. Even though the villagers never returned, there was always a brave person (or was he foolish) who attempted to get into the cave. And like this, 12 people entered the cave, only to never be heard of again; and hence the cave is popularly called Barah Dhunali (12 people) cave.

A popular folklore among the villagers, they believe the story to be true. But perhaps there is some truth woven into the lore considering that the cave is a home for bears. (Remember Jaani Dushman? Just that a human doesn’t turn into a bear; this is real life where bears attack humans without having to deal with curses)

 

Cave in Pesose, Kali Tiger Reserve ©M C Vinay Kumar

Situated in the Castle Rock Range, Pesose is located by a stream and the villagers are blessed with water throughout the year. There are 13 families in the village, living with legal rights to their land, practising agriculture in an area of 10-12 acres.

Although it sounds like a picture-perfect life, the lives of villagers are fraught with dangers of living in the forest. Their crops are continuously destroyed by wild pigs, Sambar deer and porcupines. The biggest danger though are neither the deers, pigs or porcupines but the bears living in their surroundings. One person from every family in the village has had an encounter with a bear sometime in his/her life. Hence, the villagers don’t dare to get out after it’s dark in the fear they might be attacked.

The hills all around the village are ideal bear habitat, given the caves and rocky areas preferred for roosting. Bears feed on insects like termites but are also partial to fruits and tubers. They are especially active during the flowering season and the jackfruit season. The smells attract them, and this is the time when encounters are the most. Also, when bears are pregnant or with their cubs, they tend to be naturally more aggressive.

 

Sloth bear with cubs ©Kalyan Varma

Bears rarely attack except when taken by surprise. Being short-sighted, they get startled by a sudden encounter with a human and hence attack. Most attacks happen in forest edges when people engage in forest based activities like collection of firewood, etc.

Situated 20 kms away from the nearest village, the people have no access to medical facilities, schools or a market. In the monsoons, things get worse and they are completely stranded as the roads leading out get flooded. Hence, in the eventuality of a bear attack, they are left to fend for any wounds with whatever medicinal plants they can find in the surroundings.

The distance to the nearest village also hampers their chances of social interaction. Girls from neighbouring villages refuse to marry the boys of Pesose, fearing the bears and being far away from connectivity.

While a lot of city folks often exclaim over a cup of chai, relaxed in their lounge chairs that they would love to shift and stay in a forest, it’s not as rosy as it seems. A forest, part of a tiger reserve, is home to the biggest carnivores and lives of the villagers are anything but easy. They struggle to survive, to make ends meet, and in the case of Pesose not to encounter bears. With no news of them reaching the outside world, they keep ‘bearing the bears’ silently.

Compiled and written by Meghana Sanka

1 month ago Comments Off on Citizens as champions of conservation: Chikmagalur shows the way
Posted in: Blog

by Vaishali Rawat

Every Saturday afternoon at 4 pm, a few citizens from Chikmagalur, Karnataka, meet to discuss ongoing affairs of their town. They come from diverse backgrounds–law, medicine, journalism, business owners–and many are students. The common cause that binds them together? Concern for the environment and natural landscapes that surround their hometown. This ceremonial meeting first took place nearly twenty years ago, and the tradition continues till today; its participating members belong to a group called the Wildlife Conservation Action Team-Chikmagalur, or the WildCAT-C.

Known for its abundant coffee estates and exquisite natural beauty, Chikmagalur is a hilly district of Karnataka. The vast mountains systems of the Western Ghats that line it are embedded with Shola forests and are the origins of the Tunga and Bhadra rivers. Flourishing wildlife reserves like Bhadra and Kudremukh also belong to these mountains and are home to multiple species of rare and endangered wildlife like tigers, leopards, elephants, Lion-tailed macaques, hornbills, king cobra, and several endemic plants, reptiles and frogs. The highest peak of Karnataka, the Mullayanagiri hills are a part of the mountain ranges that decorate Chikmagalur, and so are other prominent peaks like Kemmanagundi, Baba Budan Giri and Kudremukh.

 

Shola forests of Kudremukh ©Kiran Yadav

WildCAT-C began as a volunteer-driven group in 1995, with the vision of involving the citizens of Chikmagalur in appreciating the rich ecological history of the landscape. DV Girish, a founding member of WildCAT-C recalls, “We were a group of eight or ten like-minded people at the time and were fond of walking through forests and observing wildlife. As teenagers, we began noticing the degradation of these forests and the threats they faced due to encroachment, mining and reckless management. We wanted to expand our team and involve more people to work towards protecting the forests and wildlife of Chikmagalur–this was the idea behind founding WildCAT-C.” In the years since, volunteers who joined the trust have become staunch advocates for conservation of the natural heritage that surrounds them, and passionate about taking this message to their fellow citizens.

Over the years, the group has regularly organised and conducted awareness camps for school and college students, designed to encourage curiosity about natural landscapes and wildlife. Naturally, this includes treks through the forest ranges, lakes, and grasslands that encircle Chikmagalur. In the process, participants are acquainted with the birds, animals and natural landscapes they encounter.

 

Nature camp for college students by WildCAT-C ©WildCAT-C

Every October, the annual ‘Cycle for Nature’ event is organised during Wildlife Week and is a source of much excitement for the town. Manish Kumar, who owns a garment shop in Chikmagalur and is a long-time volunteer fondly recalls the days leading up to the event: “During this event, we organise a cycling competition for children, and the track meanders through the lakes and forests that surround Chikmagalur. Throughout the day, children are encouraged to ask questions about the paths they are crossing. Why is a certain abandoned mine in their path, what are the types of birds that are found here, how many lakes did they come across, why is the passing forest patch dry and degraded? It is rewarding to see them get excited about these observations as they take in the environment around them.”

 

‘Cycle for Nature’ organised by WildCAT-C ©WildCAT-C

Another volunteer Sharath Indavara, currently a student pursuing his bachelor’s degree says, “I never paid much attention to birds before. Now, going to the lakes around Chikmagalur, and observing and recording birds is my hobby. I will never forget the thrill of sighting an Amur Falcon on my path and the elusive jungle cat that once appeared before me!”

While most volunteers are engaged in other professions and contribute to the trust’s activities whenever they can, several also switched to work for conservation full time, and have fought difficult battles against ill-planned infrastructural and real estate projects in the region. Over the years, the natural landscapes, especially the mountain ranges of Chikmagalur district have faced several threats like the encroachment of forest land, reckless management of forests and illegal mining.

More recent threats include the influx of tourist resorts, the proposed expansion of roads, and ill-conceived micro-hydel and wind-mill projects in ecologically sensitive areas. For nearly two decades, members of WildCAT-C have taken up these difficult battles and fought for the protection of the wilderness areas from such ill-planned projects. Several of these ventures are insidiously marketed and promoted as ‘development’ schemes, and often have the support of the public. Members of WildCAT-C have advocated for the protection of the natural landscapes that the projects were proposed in, by fighting multiple cases in court as well as informing the public about their grave ecological costs. Their efforts have resulted in the shutting down of tourist resorts in ecologically sensitive areas, the establishment of a Blackbuck conservation reserve, a stay on the construction of wind turbines in Chikmagalur district and the halting of construction and expansion of roads through reserve forest areas.

In a successful example of sustained citizen participation through generations of volunteers taking forward a shared cause, WildCAT-C continues to engage students and citizens from all walks of life to speak up for nature. Interested in joining them and learning a little about the region’s ecological history? Just make sure you are in Chikmagalur on Saturday around 4 pm – odds are that someone will direct you to the next meeting.