India plans new railway through protected areas, threatens already-imperiled wildlife

April 11th, 2014
Chital deer roadkill on Bandipur highway. Photo by Raghuram.

Chital deer roadkill on Bandipur highway. Photo by R. Raghuram.

 

—Special report by Sanjay Gubbi and Shreya Dasgupta—

On a winter day in November 2013, a passenger train in the eastern state of West Bengal in India collided with a herd of 40 to 50 elephants, killing five adults and two calves. This was not an isolated event. Such grisly incidences have killed tigers, leopards and several other wildlife species in the past. In fact, train-kills like these have become a routine affair in India.

The country’s fiscal growth has necessitated the development and improvement of its surface transport infrastructure. New roads and railway lines have been implemented or planned in many wildlife-rich areas. In addition, several state governments have amplified their demands for new railway lines that would pass through key tiger and elephant habitats.

Bandipur, together with the adjoining Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, has one of the highest densities of large mammals in the world. These reserves connect with other protected areas including BRT, Mudumalai and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserves, as well as Cauvery and MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuaries, forming one of the country’s largest contiguous wild tiger and elephant habitats (approximately 9,000 square kilometers, or 3,475 square miles). This may appear to be stamp-sized when compared to the colossal wildlife habitats in some parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. However, the area is highly productive, holding wildlife densities comparable to the African savannahs.

Approximate route of the proposed railway line passing through Bandipur and Wayanad preserves. Credit: Nature Conservation Foundation

Approximate route of the proposed railway line passing through Bandipur and Wayanad preserves. Credit: Nature Conservation Foundation/Panthera

To a large extent, the Karnataka Forest Department has curtailed threats such as poaching. But linear intrusions such as highways and power lines continue to disturb these globally important wildlife habitats. Additionally, new threats are emerging as economic changes bring about new needs for India’s human populations. Growing human population and increased affluence among a section of the society has increased the demand for human use of wild areas. This demand is mostly for accommodation of industries such as electricity generation, surface transport, agriculture, tourism and other needs that either fragment or lead to a total loss of wildlife habitats.

The new railway line demanded by the state of Kerala, if implemented, will bisect 32 kilometers (20 miles) through two protected areas (Bandipur and Wayanad). This could eventually spell doom for wildlife, especially wide-ranging species such as tigers and elephants.

Construction of this railway line would only add to Bandipur’s battles against rampant development. Two national highways passing through this tiger reserve have demonstrated the negative impacts that linear intrusions can have on wildlife. Studies have shown highway development through wildlife habitat can lead to high rates of wildlife mortality due to vehicular collisions, genetic isolation, impediment of animal movement and increased agitation due to vehicular noise.

Traffic-related wildlife mortality is especially high at night. Several nocturnal species such as the civet, mouse deer, black-naped hare and various reptiles are regular victims of speeding vehicles. In addition, key prey species for tigers such as axis deer are also regularly hit. Young individuals are particularly susceptible to vehicular collisions at night due to their slow responses to speeding vehicles and their tendency to become transfixed by headlights.

In addition, vehicular traffic during the night could facilitate increased use of the area for illegal activities such as timber smuggling and wildlife poaching. Previously caught poachers in Bandipur and BRT Tiger Reserves confessed to having hunted at night on the highways passing through these reserves. Highway edges are a nighttime draw for many prey species due to increased visibility of predators; unfortunately, by lingering near roadways, these species become more visible to human hunters.

Through persistent efforts, forest officials, the state board of wildlife and conservationists convinced key policy and decision makers of the conservation merits of night traffic closure. They did this by providing a solution that would ensure commuters at night would remain unaffected: an alternative road that bypassed Bandipur, and which was only 35 kilometers (20 miles) longer than the highways inside the protected area.

Soon after, in a landmark move, the state government of Karnataka spent $7.8 million (INR 4.7 billion) to improve this alternative road. It passes along the edge of Nagarahole and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuaries, and is a much less damaging option when compared to traffic passing through the core of Bandipur and Mudumalai Tiger Reserves at night.

Tiger killed on Bandipur highway. Photo by Yathish Kumar.

Bengal tiger killed on Bandipur highway. Photo by D. Yathish.

However, the battle is not yet over. We continue to fight against business interests who have challenged the night closure in the Supreme Court of India. But for now, the ban has ensured at least a little peace for tigers, their prey and other denizens of Bandipur, Mudumalai and Wayanad.

Yet, the progress made by reducing the impact of highways has so far not been echoed by railways. The neighboring state of Kerala has remained the loudest and most persistent supporter of the proposed line. They remain obstinate despite the Indian Railway’s report that the project is not economically feasible, demanding a huge investment on the order of $700 million (INR 42.67 billion). Additionally, they say that environmental impacts can be very large. Based on this report, the Kerala High Court rejected the rail expansion project when business interests expressed opposition.

Protagonists of the railway line argue that an elevated track would be environmentally feasible. However, the funds needed to build such a track and the disturbances it would create during the construction phase (which often happens at snail’s pace in India) may be substantial and prohibitive.

For countries like India where protected areas are small and human population is great, finding solutions in the best interests of wildlife is of huge importance – and very complicated. It’s not just about keeping rail tracks out of the animals’ way. As our protected areas are small, the problems facing them are several folds higher than those in North America, where engineering solutions could prove to be win-win solutions. Any additional development within India’s protected areas comes at a huge cost to wildlife.

The proposed railway line would also be completely counterproductive to attempts at conserving wildlife habitats in the area. For example, the federal Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in India has designated theadjoining areas of Bandipur as an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ). Developmental activities such as mining and construction of polluting industries and hydropower projects are prohibited or regulated in ESZs that exist in the immediate vicinity of a protected area. Developing a railway line either within the tiger reserve or in the limits of the ESZ is also prohibited. However, many business groups have been relentlessly using political pressure in effort to circumvent these regulations and implement the railway project through Bandipur.

Bandipur National Park. Photo by Praveen Ramaswamy.

Bandipur National Park. Photo by Praveen Ramaswamy.

Since December 2011, the Nature Conservation Foundation and Panthera have supported the efforts of the government to ensure that ESZs are designated around the protected areas of Karnataka. They convinced elected representatives and local communities, as well as provided technical input for the delineation and declaration of ESZs. This has been seen as a unique effort as in most areas it is difficult to convince political leaders of the benefits of conservation. However, a senior legislator from the area helped us garner support among other legislators and people within the district.

Additionally, the National Wildlife Action Plan drafted under the chairmanship of the country’s Prime Minister, mandates the Ministry of Surface Transport and Ministry of Railways to by-pass all protected areas and corridors while constructing roads and railways. Yet, governments continue to demand that these linear infrastructures pass through fragile landscapes.

There are several alternatives available for transporting freight and passengers while avoiding areas like Bandipur and Waynad. While these alternatives may be slightly more expensive, their ecological benefits are many. The budget of the Indian railways for the year 2014-15 is a colossal $10.74 billion (INR 643 billion), and building alternative routes that bypass wildlife-rich areas will make but a small dent in the allocated resources.

India has earmarked about four percent of the country’s landscape for wildlife preservation and protection. If the swarms of vehicles and speeding trains are kept out of these regions, it would neither affect the country’s aspiring economic growth, nor would it hinder any of our transportation problems.

Losing iconic or keystone species such as tigers and elephants to train-kills would truly undermine the conservation efforts of the government and the many private organizations working hard to preserve India’s unique and irreplaceable biological legacy. When it comes to saving the endangered species of this country, developing safer alternative routes for transport should be a mantra. The tiger cannot change its ecological behavior or move to another habitat; hence, it is up to us to redraw our plans.

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Sanjay Gubbi is a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation and Panthera, and Shreya Dasgupta is a science communicator at the Nature Conservation Foundation. Both are based in Bangalore, India.

 

Tiger in Bandipur National Park. Photo by A.S. Hari.

Bengal tiger in Bandipur National Park. Photo by A.S. Hari.


 

Reporter’s Journal: The Lesser Fish

April 1st, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Amy West.

In Fiji’s capital city of Suva, middlemen buy directly from the fishers. The majority of the fish arrive early Saturday morning, indicating many of the reef fish are caught at night while many fish are asleep, making them easy targets for spearfishers.  In the past, larger quantities of fresh fish was available daily. Now the sellers make fewer catches stretch across the week. The overwhelming concern about the region’s overfishing and depleted nearshore fisheries is not always echoed by the fishmongers. When asked why fish, such as these grouper and parrotfish, were smaller and not as plentiful, they simply replied, “The weather has changed.”

This photo was taken by SRI fellow Amy West who is reporting on the state of Fiji’s coral reef fisheries.

Reporter’s Journal: The forests of Uganda

March 26th, 2014

In late January through early February I traveled to Uganda as part of the first Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative (SRI) to report on “the next big thing in tropical forest biodiversity conservation.” I’m a world traveler, and I have a special passion for tropical rainforests — having seen them in Australia, the Peruvian Amazon, Asia, and Central America. Africa was my last continent to visit (OK, does Antarctica count? I have not yet been there). I have dreamt of tracking mountain gorillas in the wild since I was 14 years old. I grew up watching National Geographic documentaries of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall (who celebrates her 80th birthday on April 3rd!). And so I thought that seeing mountain gorillas and chimpanzees would be the absolute highlight of my reporting adventure, but it was the people who grabbed my heart.

The Habinyanja family group of mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Park, Uganda.  Photo Copyright (c) 2014 Wendee Nicole

My heart was torn by the poverty, particularly the Batwa people, the indigenous forest “pygmies” who were evicted from their former home in Bwindi Impenetrable Park just in 1992 — and also by the generosity, kindness and sacrifice of many Ugandans who are working to improve conditions for others. The Batwa now live in extreme poverty, in conditions that left me in tears. As a journalist and as someone who has seen a lot of poverty around the world — ranging from simple homes and dirty kids to desperate street urchins begging for cash — I have never seen despondency in a child’s eyes in the way that I saw in the Batwa children. The Batwa became “conservation refugees” when Uganda established Bwindi as a national park; they were given no land of their own. They lost their culture, their way of life, and they are still finding their way in a new world.

Although the intent of designating Bwindi as a national park was to save mountain gorillas and the forest ecosystem, research by the late Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, showed that “nationalizing” forest ownership often counterintuitively fails to preserve them; instead, she found that it can lead to a “free for all” on accessing forest products — such as wildlife, firewood, plants for medicine, or wild honey. Before a park gets established, villagers can usually access the forest legally and they often have rules that work for everyone, but afterwards, governments typically restrict all locals from access. This causes traditional, local rules to disintegrate, and the absence of locally agreed on rules leads to overexploitation. Intriguing.

Even more interesting, this exact scenario has been shown true for the Batwa living in forests in Uganda. Makerere University Professor Abwoli Banana studied five community-managed forests, and found that the Echuya forest, which had Batwa (sometimes called Abayanda) living within its borders at the time of his study, had the least illegal poaching and firewood harvest by other locals, who were only allowed forest access one day per week. The Batwa acted as forest monitors, keeping an eye on the forest; Ostrom herself found that having forest monitors helps people’s livelihoods and it helps forests. Professor Banana conducted the study before the Batwa were evicted, and some data suggests that poaching and other illegal activities have not diminished in Bwindi Park since the park’s establishment. The Ugandan government has started to move away from strict protectionist policies, and they now allow some people to access to the forest — though the poorest people with the most need generally have benefitted the least.

The SRI topic that I chose was how Ostrom’s groundbreaking research can be used to help save tropical forests. She outlined eight “design principles” that support the sustainable management of natural resources. Together, these principles suggest ways to resolve the apparent social-ecological dilemma between saving forests and reducing poverty. It’s a topic that has not received extensive coverage outside of select publications, but is absolutely fascinating and important. And from my reading and from speaking to her colleagues, Ostrom was a true hero, the kind of woman who comes around only rarely — a deeply kind and compassionate woman, an incredibly productive researcher, a genius, and a firebrand. She was not afraid to call out entrenched economic theories as “dangerous” — like making policy on the assumption that people can’t and won’t work together to create productive solutions that not only can conserve forests but also improve livelihoods. The best way according to Ostrom? Empower the local people. Give them a say in how forests are managed. I only wish I had met her before she passed away in 2012.

Look for my work to come in publications such as Animal Planet Online and Environmental Health Perspectives, and others. And, of course, on Mongabay.

A young Batwa boy in his home at the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park — where his parents and ancestors had lived until being evicted from the forest in 1992. Photo Copyright (c) 2014 Wendee Nicole.

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This post is published under an Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.  If you would like to reprint this piece, unchanged, be sure to list the credit as: By Wendee Nicole under Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiative Program.

Nelson Mandela, elephants and youth

January 7th, 2014

Commentary by Isabel  S. Abrams

Most people think of Nelson Mandela as a fighter for racial equality in South Africa. To me, he is also a powerful advocate for protecting wilderness and empowering youth.

In 2002, I was in the audience at the World Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa where I heard Mandela address delegates from more than 100 nations.

“Many don’t want (conservation areas) set aside for privileged by privileged. Many have origins in colonial past,” Mandela said. “In South Africa, we break with this legacy.”

A baby elephant in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

Why? Because Mandela believed that, in addition to being places of beauty and adventure, National Parks are vital sources of South Africa’s economic development.

Safaris to Africa provide revenue to its developing nations, while visitors like me are awestruck by the magnificent giraffes, lions, zebra, and cheetahs of the African wilderness. I have taken many photos of elephants, those gentle giants, who care for their young as they roam the grasslands, and feed on greenery. I have also run away from elephants who suddenly appeared and flared their ears as they headed toward me, because I had visited a place where elephants had torn down trees like a hurricane. That was why Mandela’s comments on elephants surprised and amused me.

I learned about Mandela’s special relationship with elephants in 2003, at the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa. At the opening ceremony, speakers described how fences had to be removed between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, in order to create Great Limpopo Park, an international wilderness that provided safe passage for migrating elephants and other wildlife.

Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan acknowledged that South Africa can be justly proud of its protected areas and claimed that preserved natural wilderness areas were the “green lines of our planet that provide clean air, water, and livelihoods, places that feed our souls, provide inspiration and solace in an increasingly urban world.”

Queen Noor finished by adding that, when elephants were transferred to Mozambique,., Nelson Mandela claimed this transfer of elephants was payment for his bride.” “Some elephants try to return,” she said. “We hope they honor Mr. Mandela’s bride price.”

An adult elephant in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

President Nelson Mandela wore a zebra patterned shirt and smiled as he walked slowly up to the podium. His voice was soft but his message was strong. “The future is in the hands of youth and in the future of protected natural areas,” he said. Then he warned the audience that far too few youth are involved in the work of sustaining wilderness. I nodded my head in agreement because I work with Caretakers of the Environment International, a network of high school students and teachers who are very determined to protect nature. How happy I was to hear Mandela say, “This is a matter of great concern,” and ask the delegates, “to support all junior rangers and other youth organizations, and to give them higher priority in protecting wilderness.”

Mandela claimed that National Parks empower people, create jobs, and relieve poverty.

“They sustain biodiversity, conservation and tourism,” he said, for he knew that we can have a sustainable future if we enlist energetic and idealistic youth in our efforts to save elephants and other wildlife.

“A sustainable future for humans depends on nature as much as anything else,” said Mandela, and he wished us great success in our endeavors.

Bouba the (Andean) bear joins the WCS Queen’s Zoo

November 21st, 2013

Bouba, WCS Queen’s Zoo’s newest Andean bear. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher / WCS.

The Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus) is the only endemic bear on the continent of South America.  The IUCN lists the species as Vulnerable to risk of extinction, with habitat loss and hunting as drivers behind its dwindling numbers.  This elegant species is sometimes referred to as the spectacled bear due to occasional markings around the eyes that resemble glasses.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Queens Zoo has welcomed an ambassador of the Andean bear, a 2 year-old male named Bouba. Hailing from a zoo in France, Bouba will share his new home with a female friend of the same species, Spangles.

WCS conducts research on Andean bears across multiple countries in South America and aims to develop local habitat conservation of the Andean bear and mitigate threats such as human-wildlife conflict. WCS works in tandem with Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Cleveland Zoological Society, the Andean Bear Conservation Alliance, and other supporters to protect the future of the Andean bear. You can learn more about their efforts or donate to the projects by going to wcs.org.

Meet Max: the 285 lbs baby

November 7th, 2013

A 285 lbs baby Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), that is.

Max and his mom. Photo courtesy of Stefan Groeneveld / ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.

Max was on his feet in just a few minutes and entertaining his keepers and elephant family with his independent and playful nature.

Max is now three weeks old and zookeeper Stefan Groeneveld said: “[He] has come on so much in just three weeks and is already showing an independent streak. He’ll happily leave his mum’s side to go and play in the paddock with the rest of the herd.”

Asian elephants are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and scientists estimate there are just 30,000 to 35,000 of these giants left in the wild, with major threats including habitat loss, forest degradation and fragmentation, and human-elephant conflict. ZSL and the Elephant Conservation Network (ECN) have been working in collaboration with the Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand for years to address conflict, protecting swaths of forest and helping locals develop sustainable practices that allow the forest to remain intact.

Max enjoying his new home. Photo courtesy of Stefan Groeneveld / ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.

World’s largest (harmless) bat inspires Halloween-worthy tales in the Philippines

October 31st, 2013

By Simon Bradley and Tammy Mildenstein

It’s Halloween time again, and around much of the world people are decorating with images of ghosts, vampires, witches, black cats, and, of course, bats.

For the superstitious, there may be nothing scarier than the flying foxes of the Philippines, whose 2-meter wingspans make them the largest bats in the world!

In keeping with a popular fear and mistrust of nocturnal animals, Philippine flying foxes (which are actually fruit bats) are associated with a rogue’s gallery of eerie spirits that haunt Philippine nights and minds. While entertaining and spine-tingling, the lingering power of these associations can present challenges for bat conservation, but can also open up opportunities for engaging with the public. Tammy Mildenstein of SOS – Save Our Species project Filipinos for Flying Foxes, describes some of the legends she has encountered in her time working to protect these creatures.

The evening departure of thousands of flying foxes overhead could send the superstitious running for cover. Credit Tammy Mildenstein, Filipinos For Flying Foxes

Perhaps, most closely resembling this magnificent bat is Manananggal whose legend mirrors the same distribution pattern throughout Southeast Asia as flying foxes. This “aswang” – a Filipino term for a variety of vampire-like creatures – is a woman by day, but transforms into a fearsome predator after dark. As families prepare to slumber, Manananggal’s torso detaches in the middle, while the upper half grows bat wings allowing her to fly through the night in search of her prey: unborn babies. According to the myth, Manananggal lands on the roof of a home and drops her long, needle-thin tongue into the belly of a pregnant woman in her sleep to feast. Grisly and chilling? Yes. True? Unlikely, but a great ice-breaker for talking about flying foxes and setting the record straight on the true cultural and economic value of flying foxes, according to Tammy Mildenstein.  Flying foxes are fruit bats, she explains, they don’t feed on human blood much less unborn babies.

Indeed there are others in the menagerie of mythological and winged menaces – all seemingly drawing inspiration from the Philippines’ rich diversity of bat species. For example there is  Tik-tik and Wak-wak – both similar to Manananggal, named respectively, for their “tik-tik” nocturnal calls and the “wak-wak” sound of their airy flapping wings, both of which are reminiscent of the sounds made by flying foxes in flight at night. Yet another is Tiyanak – a creature in the form of a human baby, but with fangs and sharp claws that flies away as a black bird. Capre and Tikbalang take on other animal forms, and are said to be found in fig trees at night with red reflective eyes just like fruit bats.

Meanwhile, aside from inspiration for scares at bedtime, scientific research has shown these amazing creatures are vital to human survival. As pollinators and seed dispersers, flying foxes for example, are essential for maintaining natural forests, often the only source of fresh water, air, and timber and non-timber forest products. Flying foxes are also known to pollinate hundreds of agriculturally important crops for the region, explains Mildenstein.

Ironically, being nocturnal it is flying foxes which can become easily stressed by diurnal human presence near their nest sites. That is why a central component of the Filipinos for Flying Foxes project is to establish six roost sanctuaries to boost species populations allowing the bats and local communities to live in harmony.

So the legends may live on, and keep a couple of kids awake at night, but maybe if Filipinos for Flying Foxes is successful, staying up past bedtime will be to marvel at the sight of the world’s largest bat taking to the sky as darkness falls….all around you! Mwuhahaha! Happy Halloween!

A jungle day-trip: studying brazil nuts in the Peruvian Amazon

October 30th, 2013

By Eleanor Warren-Thomas

Ladybird, Amazon-style. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

The day begins at around 5 a.m., when the sounds of motorbikes revving, dogs barking, wood being chopped and shouting men start to permeate the room. I haven’t needed to set my alarm for weeks.

I am here to help run a project on Brazil nut harvesting from lowland rainforests in Madre de Dios, in the Peruvian Amazon. Brazil nut collection from these forests forms a huge part of many people’s livelihood in this area, and the project aims to improve knowledge about the variation in Brazil nut production, which changes among trees and between years for as-yet unknown reasons.

Brazil nut trees, known locally as castaña, take decades to mature and start producing nuts in the wild, so the majority of the productive trees in these concessions are enormous – at least a meter across at the base – and are some of the tallest trees in the forest. Brazil nut trees are protected by law, and in some areas they stand alone in areas cleared for pasture. In many other areas, they form part of standing intact forest within concessions owned by local people, who walk well-managed trails through the forest each year to collect the nuts by hand.

Today we are starting out from the only hospedaje in the little town of Alegria, and will travel about 20 km along a dirt road to visit a castañero who lives in his Brazil nut concession. My colleague and I load the rear pannier of the motorbike with two rucksacks full of tents, food and multiple pairs of socks. Calling in at our favorite breakfast spot, we find that there is ‘no quinoa in town’ so make do with sweet bread and strawberry yogurt from one of the grocery shops. Sitting outside the shop, we attract the attention of two kittens who attempt to scale our trousers, and a puppy who finds he doesn’t have the ability to climb, but is happy to make do with finishing off the yogurt pot.

Motorbike loaded and ready to go. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Squeezed onto the motorbike, we head along the tarmac road out of town, and turn off onto a red dirt road. After rain, these roads take on the texture of butter and are perilous for motorbikes, but today it is dry and fine. The morning is cool and the clouds are low, rubbing out the tops of trees and swirling across the road. We fly along the road and the plastic bag full of eggs and bread that I am clutching flaps madly in the wind. The road is full ofhazards – soft rivulets of mud, hidden bumps, the occasional wooden bridge – requiring expert driving.

The red road. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Forty minutes later we arrive, windblown, under an enormous mango tree dripping with fruit that guards the front of our host’s house. Set in a field of tough tropical grass are several wooden buildings that house grandparents, a daughter, a son and their spouses. Ducks and chickens roam about amongst the fallen fruit, and two dogs bark in cautious greeting. It is mango season here, and the soft thumps of fruits hitting the ground are frequent. We are invited into the kitchen, an airy building with a handmade thatched roof, where a neat three-ringed charcoal burner made of compacted mud is roaring. Two cups of hot “chapo” are handed to us as a welcome second breakfast – sweet plantain mashed with sugar and spices using a specially selected stem of a young “quillabordon” tree that naturally forms a whisk-like shape.

Under the mango tree. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

As the day starts to heat up, our 77-year-old host dons his canvas shoes, picks up his machete and leads us into the forest. We quickly leave the strong sun behind on the open road and enter a perfect green corridor as we follow a narrow logging road into the forest. The huge tire tracks have formed long-lasting puddles in the soft clay soil, that are filled with tadpoles. This part of the forest feels special – we walk for about half an hour without encountering any logged trees, and the forest seems particularly dark green. Hidden birds shout from all around us, and the soft mud reveals the presence of deer, peccary and agouti. The soft ground after rain tells all sort of secrets – in other forests we have seen fresh tapir tracks only hours old, and even ocelot prints.

Ocelot prints. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

We veer off the road onto a carefully cleared path, the ground cloaked in big brown leaves from the towering castaña trees. As we crunch along, I have the odd impression of being on a walk through an English woodland on a summer’s day, until my eye is caught by a 6-inch electric blue butterfly floating along the path. Blue morpho butterflies seem to be found everywhere here, often in what seem to be leks of male butterflies flashing their wings at each other in clearings and on paths.

Blue morpho butterfly wing. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Brazil nut trees tower over us at regular intervals, some more than an arm-span in diameter and 40 meters high. The carefully maintained paths lead from tree to tree, each trunk cleaned of lianas and giving the appearance of columns holding up the green canopy. Piles of emptied “cocos” – the hard outer shells that contain sets of individual brazil nuts – lie at intervals along the paths, partially hidden under leaves and ready to twist the ankles of unwary walkers.

A castañero makes a temporary shelter from the rain. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

High-pitched squeaking from the trees betrays the presence of saddle-backed tamarins which peer inquisitively at us as we respond with our own squeaky noises. They seem reasonably confident around people despite the fact that they are often taken from the wild as pets here. In the past week howler monkeys, titi monkeys and spider monkeys have all also come within earshot, or even partially into view.

The presence of so many animals despite so much human activity in the forest is wonderful, and seems to demonstrate how fundamental the economic value of brazil nut trees is for the health of these forests. Although selective logging and hunting of local wildlife continues, the presence of producing castaña trees preserves patches of forest where its structure is undisturbed and the shade is deep and cool. Wildlife is persisting well into disturbed areas, but for me the dark green patches feel like safe havens.

After five hours of walking along forest trails our host leads us back to his house in time for lunch, where we are served rice, beans and fried plantain washed down with sweet tea. His wife and daughter spend the day in the house, preparing food for us strangers along with the family without a thought. At 77-years-old, our host understandably prefers to spend the afternoons napping on a bench in the shade of his mango tree, leaving us free to visit the stream that runs past the house and bathe in the sandy bottomed pool they have created through clever use of a log dam. Tiny fish swim about, palm trees provide shade overhead and the musical song of oropendulas drips from the trees. More tamarins swing past to peer at us, as we nibble on mangos and cool our feet in the water. I can’t help but smile as I think back on the day and hope to myself, long may the dark green persist.

Brazil nut flowers. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Indonesians working together to save Sumatran tigers

October 29th, 2013

Reader contribution by Matthew S. Luskin

Indonesians are committed to ensuring the persistence of Sumatran tigers. The gamut of island-wide conservation efforts was discussed this week in Padang, West Sumatra, during the annual meeting of HarimauKita (harimau means “tiger” in Indonesian), which brought together a consortium of stakeholders for Sumatran tiger conservation. Members worked late into each night to coordinate and evaluate existing research and conservation efforts across all 8 Sumatran provinces.

The all-Indonesian collaborative forum included scientists from Indonesian universities and big NGOs (Flora and Fauna International, World Wildlife Fund, and Wildlife Conservation Society), as well as representatives from the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, the Asia Pulp and Paper (the largest logging company in Sumatra), the oil palm producer PT Tidar Kerinci Agung (TKA), PT Chevron Asia Pacific, and the for-profit conservation organization PT Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia (REKI). The diversity of stakeholders with different approaches to conservation enabled lively discussions and out-of-the-box thinking.

HarimauKita in progress.

Discussions focused on accurately tracking tiger populations (no easy task), mitigating human-tiger conflict, such as attacks on humans or livestock, and connecting tiger forest habitats, such as with habitat corridors. To track tiger populations, HarimauKita reviewed the activity of 19 ongoing research programs spread across Sumatra, most of which primarily employ camera traps. HarimauKita members working in these landscapes reported high tiger occupancy in some previously logged forests and in forests fragmented by agricultural expansion. While this offers a glimmer of hope for tigers in the face of Sumatra’s rapid forest conversion, poaching and human-tiger conflict also continue to be an issue, particularly in areas with high human activity, such as near villages or plantations. Notably, Mrs. Katrini of the TKA oil palm grower described TKAs construction of a tiger rehabilitation center to facilitate the capture, relocation, and release of problem tigers.

HarimauKita’s strategic conservation programs, such as training anti-poaching teams, and spirit of collaboration that facilitates effective communication among stakeholders, are integral to insuring that the Sumatran tiger does not follow in the footsteps of Indonesia’s two other extinct tiger subspecies. HarimauKita’s approach and role in tiger conservation may well become a model for other species conservation.

Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com

Sparing a thought for maleo birds on World Egg Day

October 10th, 2013

By Simon Bradley / Save Our Species IUCN

Friday, October 11th is World Egg Day, when agribusiness promotes the consumption of eggs as a healthy source of protein. When it comes to one of Indonesia’s national icons however, the Endangered maleo bird (Macrocephalon maleo), conservationists such as the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (AlTo) an SOS – Save Our Species grantee, are trying to discourage the practice of eating its giant eggs for special occasions.

Maleo digging. Photo by ALTO – Kevin Schafer

This distinctive megapode – about the size of a chicken – is endemic to Sulawesi and Buton Islands, where it once blackened the beaches during egg-laying season, when the usually solitary animals would march out of the jungle to mate and bury eggs deep in the sands. Nowadays, the unusual life-cycle of the maleo is an increasingly rare sight. Using its big claws to hatch and tunnel to the surface, the lone chick can walk, feed itself and fly within a matter of hours, being independent of its parents and leaving evolutionary biologists to ponder how individuals recognize each other later in life.  A remarkable bird indeed, the maleo is also strikingly beautiful and has been legally protected in Indonesia since 1972. Yet old habits die hard and maleo eggs – like most megapode eggs – are very high in protein, making a tasty dish for those who can find them.

Consequently, as with so many species, it seems effective maleo conservation hinges on local support and participation in the process. Going beyond awareness-raising to protecting eggs on site has proven an effective strategy implemented by conservation organization AlTo which has been actively engaged with local Taima community members for the past decade.

Protecting nest sites and allowing eggs to hatch naturally has seen a 62% increase in bird populations in one site where AlTo works, for example. Meanwhile the impact of using other methods including incubation has yet to be measured and gauged. According to Marcy Summers, director of AlTo, “doing conservation as close to possible as keeping things in their natural wild state is generally the first way to go for effective conservation efforts.”

The giant maleo egg in a man’s hand. Photo by ALTO – Marcy Summers

AlTo’s strategy to date has been to educate local community members to identify, survey, monitor and protect egg sites and to report incidences of harvesting these precious eggs. As AlTo integrated into the community it has also begun to conduct surveys to identify other possible nesting beaches, often tapping into local knowledge and experience. But the organization also works with local authorities to support the enforcement of laws. Meanwhile, the recent official recognition of the area as one of seven Essential Ecosystems by the Indonesian Federal government is a boon for all local conservation efforts.

Naturally funding from external sources helps AlTo maintain and develop the program. For SOS a global coalition initiated by three founding partners—IUCN, World Bank, and GEF–it was the combination of an excellent grassroots project with proven results and the prospect of real conservation success that made AlTo’s maleo bird project the seventh active SOS project in Indonesia and its third in Sulawesi alone.

For Marcy Summers and the community of Tompotika, such support helps continue the slow but steady progress toward restoring the maleo bird to being more than just a national symbol, but a living breathing success story that everyone helped make happen. So perhaps today on World Egg Day, spare a thought for the maleo and its giant egg and get involved.  Hopefully through the efforts of groups like AlTo we may yet be celebrating new calendar days like Maleo Egg Day instead!

A maleo pair. Photo by ALTO – Kevin Schafer

 

ALTO staff train villagers on maleo data. Photo by ALTO – Marcy Summers