April 03, 2020
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Animal Rites

They are from an age when man was still learning to walk. Today, they are trampled, crushed.

Animal Rites
Animal Rites
Big cats in India will need more than nine lives to survive the current threat to their species. With alarming reports pouring in from different parts of India documenting the loss of tigers, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was forced to call a meeting of the National Board for Wildlife last week, after 17 months. That the PM has agreed to create a National Wildlife Crime Prevention Bureau and a Special Task Force to report on Project Tiger highlights the extreme dangers confronting India's national animal and internationally paraded wildlife posterboy—the tiger.

Experts believe this is a do or die battle. Says P.K. Sen, former director, Project Tiger: "We're facing the biggest tiger crisis, since the project was instituted in '73. Today, at least five of the 27 project reserves are outside management control. And Tiger Reserves constitute just one-fourth of total tiger habitat." In Rajasthan, Sariska reserve is depleted, Ranthambore is on red alert. Panna in Madhya Pradesh is in dire straits after 21 young adults and nine breeding tigers have gone missing in the last two years, reveals a study by senior wildlife biologist Dr Raghunandan Singh Chundawat.

This widespread tiger loss squarely impacts the Congress-led government, since Indira Gandhi introduced Project Tiger, while son Rajiv Gandhi was the first PM to hold a meeting in Sariska in the '80s to focus on this magnificent carnivore. In less than two decades, Sariska's jungles are echoing with the stomp of forest guards looking for pugmarks with no tigers sighted here for many months.

The blame game and disaster management is in full swing. Senior ecologist Ullhas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who has demonstrated massive error margins in the pugmark counting method followed by Project Tiger, says the census figure of 3,600 is "baseless". "Only God can count every tiger in India, numbers don't matter, the losses do." He believes the current crisis is a result of "a mission drift" that began after the decline of protection in the '90s, which created huge gaps for poachers to enter.

With the king of the jungle imperilled, imagine the danger faced by other species who have neither political patronage nor superstar status. Outlook documents the endangered lives of creatures great and small, whose "habitat is shrinking like an ice-cube in boiling water", says Bittu Sahgal, editor, Sanctuary Asia. Each of these creatures are mascots of our wetlands, grasslands, rainforests, rivers, sea and the skies. From the 10-ton whale shark to the 200 milligram Malabar Banded Peacock Butterfly, we give you a field-guide to these charismatic species before they become a heap of brittle bones in a museum or a colour stamp collection, which our children will stare at, without ever witnessing them in their living splendour.

Asiatic Lion, Panthera leo persica
It was called the Asiatic Lion when it colonised kingdoms from Syria to Sri Lanka, and the Indian subcontinent. From Ashoka's pillars to Her Majesty's coins, the lion has always been the symbol of supreme dominion. But today, this regal animal's only official space is 1,400 measly sq km of dry scrub in Gujarat's Gir National Park (GNP).

Confined to a park that's one-third its original size, 300 of these trapped big cats are clawing onto their meagre turf—bounded by limestone quarries, 300 villages, and 60,000 cattle. Annually 2 lakh pilgrims come to temples falling within GNP, consuming water, a scarce resource. April 2004 brought in diesel-spewing vehicles after the park road was opened to the public. The last two months have seen 12 fires, and as the summer approaches, a careless pilgrim's cooking fire could set this tinderbox aflame.

Gir's lions have reached their "social saturation point", says Asiatic Lion expert Ravi Chellam. Studies show 30 lions have broken out of this "benign jail", and strayed up to Girnar and coastal Saurashtra. This inbred community is also highly vulnerable. The effect of a mutant strain could be catastrophic. The translocation of the lions to Chandraprabha in Uttar Pradesh in the '70s was a tragic failure. The plan now is to move them to Kuno sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh by 2006. If Kuno fails, the pride of Gujarat might end up being buried in Gir.

Indian Wolf, Canis lupus pallipes
There are only two to three thousand reasons left in India to cry wolf. These sleek hunters, who roved from the Gangetic plains to the Deccan Plateau, have been poisoned, gored, shot or simply hounded out of their territory. Earlier they hunted in packs in the open savannahs, now they subsist mainly on livestock outside wildlife sanctuaries.

2003 heralded the discovery that India gave this large carnivore to the world. And within three years, we're precariously close to losing our 2,000-3,000 wolves. Says Dr. Y.V. Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), who was part of the team which proved that the wolf evolved in India when humans were still Neanderthals: "Unlike other cultures, wolves aren't bad characters in our fables and lives. We did treat it well, but that's changing." Dry farming suitable for the survival of this hunter is being replaced by wet farming. Farmers are smoking and digging out dens to kill wolf pups. Entire wolf packs have been poisoned in Rajasthan and Kutch.

Laws require the state to pay compensation for livestock loss and wolf mauling. But how do you define an attack? Today, crying out simply won't save wolf packs. They need dedicated protection.

Sarus Crane, Grus antigone antigone
Everybody loves the Sarus. The Ramayana mentions this elegant red-headed grey-bodied crane. The Buddha at Lumbini tried to save one. Emperor Jehangir, fascinated by their life-long bonding, put gold rings on a Sarus pair. In Gujarat, to this day, newly-weds heed the call of these graceful twosomes as a blessing.

Yet, every monsoon after an eloquent courtship in the rain, more and more Sarus pairs flying out in slow concentric circles to nest are finding themselves ousted from their home swamps. Their wetlands have been seized and turned into farms or drained for house-building. Flooded paddy fields are the closest wetland substitute. Poor farmers, unable to tolerate the loss of land (2.5 metres per nest) and food grain, destroy nests and eggs.

The maximum Sarus-cide occurs in UP's Etawah and Mainpuri districts, which house the world's largest crane concentration. "Right now, only 20 out of 100 eggs make it in a good year," says K.S. Gopi Sundar, India Associate, International Crane Foundation. Without wetland protection and as paddy fields are converted into dry sugarcane and soybean farms, Sundar predicts the Sarus will disappear in 50 years. Sooner, if mechanised farming begins. And the new indigenous transport aircraft named Saras will be a pathetic metal reminder of these eternally besotted crane pairs who delight us with their romantic rain-dance.

Oriental white-backed Vulture, Gyps bengalensis
We all know about the butterfly effect, where a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas. In India, we're learning about the buffalo effect. Where a prescription to reduce inflammation in livestock results in the death of their carrion eaters: vultures. Particularly, Oriental White-backed Vultures. An unglamorous but necessary carcass-cleaner, who controls the spread of anthrax and rabies.

Research by The Peregrine Fund-initiated Vulture Crisis Project shows that the primary cause of this drastic vulture decline in Pakistan, India and Nepal was acute kidney failure.Brought on by feeding on cattle pumped with the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac.The vulture population has declined by an alarming 95 per cent within the last decade.

"We could lose the OWBV within months, since Diclofenac-contaminated carcasses still occur in the environment," says Munir Virani of The Peregrine Fund. Last week, experts once again recommended phasing out Diclofenac. But stocks are still available. The last hope centres on captive breeding facilities at Pinjore, Haryana. The Peregrine Fund successfully saved the peregrine falcon from extinction by using this technique in the '70s. If this succeeds, we will retain our living cultural connections with Jatayu, the valiant vulture who tried to save Sita from Ravana.

King Cobra, Ophiophagus hannah
It's the largest venomous snake in India, measuring up to 18 ft in length. When it flares its hood and rears up, it can get a third of its body off the ground, which means a big specimen can easily look you in the eye. More prized than the much smaller common cobra, the king is a high status pet; South Asian possessors brag about its copious venom delivery (7 ml per bite).

Today, their kingdom is being swiftly annexed. Says Romulus Whitaker, legendary snake man: "This apex predator is rare throughout its strongholds—rainforests and mangroves—due to habitat loss and killing." Smuggling is a huge threat. WII's Bivash Pandav says the smuggling route is through Bhitar Kanika (Orissa)-Calcutta-Dhaka-thereon.

The big snakes like to live and hunt in the relatively dark and cool undergrowth found in rainforests. But these forests are disappearing in many parts of India, as are the snakes' principal prey, rat snakes. Never common, the king cobra is now becoming rare. The snakes sometimes have little option but to wander into tea estates and villages, where they often get killed. Captive breeding was abandoned in 1996. Subsequent efforts have been singular, with Whitaker rescuing a clutch of eggs from estates in Coorg and restoring a disturbed nest in Kudremukh National Park. But without umbrella protection this king's reign might all too soon be eternally curtailed.

Ganges River Dolphin, Platanista gangetica gangetica
They've lived together as gregarious joint families for generations. Gliding like blue-brown arches from side tributaries into the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. Poking their beaks out of the water and making loud sneeze-like sounds that make north Indians affectionately call them 'susu'. Today, numbering just 4,000, susus are a rare freshwater species.

Unscrupulous fishermen cast nets overnight that snare these gentle mammals. Unable to surface for air, the trapped dolphins die underwater. Then, fishermen kill them and extract their pungent body oil for use as bait to attract catfish. Experts call this one of the most macabre fishing practices in the world.

Dams and barrages also prevent dolphin migrations and fragment family units. "The Ganges River Dolphin must write its own will, if the river interlinking obituary project is approved," warns WII's endangered species expert B.C. Choudhury. "Susus are the biological fingerprint of the Ganges and Brahmaputra ecosystem. Any riverine alteration will accelerate their extinction." UP's best dolphin-sighting areas are Katernia Ghat, Varanasi-Allahabad, Chambal and Narora. Map this and you see polluted ghats, badlands and an atomic power station.

In Patna, species expert Dr R.K. Sinha has created an alternative oil from fish scraps that can be used as bait by fishermen. Since September 2003, he has been promoting its use, in a desperate bid to save the susu. Ironically, this comes at a time when more people are flocking to Orissa's Chilika Lake to see the dolphins rather than the birds, says Choudhury.Outside Calcutta at the Rupnarayan confluence, people pay Rs 500 to see dolphins.If more dolphin-lovers visit the Ganga and Brahmaputra, perhaps fishermen will learn that there's more money to be earned by keeping susus alive, away from the killing nets.

Whale Sharks, Rhincodon typus
It took 65 million years of evolution to produce the world's largest fish, the 60-feet-long whale shark. Yet fishermen in Gujarat take just 8-10 hours to slaughter this prehistoric being, in a bloody death ceremony conducted on ocean and land. Each year, from March to May, whale sharks surfacing in Saurashtra's waters are harpooned and dragged into the shallow and cut up—while alive and writhing.

Why? Just so their fins can be used to thicken soup in Chinese restaurants, their carcass be processed into cheap chicken feed and their liver oil be used as free waterproofing for whaling boats. Hidden to the world, this insensate slaying of 1,200-1,500 whale sharks per season would've continued, but for Mike Pandey's award-winning documentary, Shores of Silence.

It created enough public anger and led to whale sharks being given protection-status on par with the tiger.

The killing reduced. "Not because of the law but due to changed mindsets," says Pandey. Supported by Tata Chemicals and Gujarat Chemicals, the Wildlife Trust of India stepped in to create awareness. In April '04, the Porbandar Nagarpalika adopted the whale shark as its mascot. But the illegal butchering of these gentle giants continues: just to fill soup bowls and bird feeders.

Bullfrog, Hoplobatrachus tigerinus
It's the thing that goes spring in the dark. The common croaker in our gardens, drains, ponds and fields. And till recently, the chloroformed amphibian that made scalpel-wielding students blackout in biology labs. Their circulatory system is the most similar to ours.

Biology apart, frogs have been on earth before us. And bullfrogs are still found about homes and in the wild. Due to a ban on frog leg export, you can still hear its signature single syllable call of "Oump". Clarifies herpetologist Karthikeyan Vasudevan of the WII: "Bullfrog is an American name, we should call it the tiger-like frog." This is not just because of its yellow stripes but also its daring appetite for snakes, turtle hatchlings and crabs.

It is also a vital indicator species. "Amphibian decline is the first sign of rising toxins, the emergence of infectious disease, rampant use of pesticide and changes in ground water," says Vasudevan. Climate change affects its spawning, breeding success is directly related to the rains. Says Vasudevan: "Few amphibian surveys have been done, most often ordinary people highlight this frog loss." So this monsoon, when you go house-hunting, look for some frog males, decked out in yellow sex-suits, to show they're ready to mate. As for their croaky serenade? Take that as the song of good living.

Lion-Tailed Macaque, Macaca silenus
Next time you're sipping tea, pause after the last gulp and look down at the remaining leaves. You might see a Lion-tailed Macaque staring up at you. For, tea directly threatens the future of 4,000 of these Indian simians.

Coffee and cardamom are shade-grown under rainforests. This accommodated the lion-tailed macaque. But the recent failure of the coffee crop in south India's hills has made estate owners switch to growing tea. The result? "Tea has no ecological value, this coffee to tea changeover is wiping out this macaque and its habitat," says Ajith Kumar of the Centre for Wildlife Studies.

The only protected sanctuaries housing the lion-tailed macaque are the rainforests of Kerala's Silent Valley and Periyar, and Tamil Nadu's Kalakkad. The rest of these black-faced primates live in unconnected scraps of treeland.Without monkey pathways, they can't reverse social fragmentation.Though their tufted tails look optimistic, curved up in a signature high loop, these macaques are swinging on weak branches of hope.

Captive breeding at zoos has been disappointing. Worse still, females conceive once every three years—giving birth to a single baby. The more common Rhesus Macaque breeds once every year. While millions worship stone idols of Hanuman, it's his living relative who really needs prayers and a heroic rescue.

Malabar Banded Peacock, Papilio buddha
Bright wings, big toxins. That's the colour code in the insect world (dull equals simple camouflage, bright equals poisonous). The vivid Malabar Banded Peacock (MBP) that inhabits the rainforests in the Western Ghats uses this code to repel birds, its main predator. These natural defences that helped the mbp survive in the shade of thick forests and patrol individual territories of 2-3 square km for aeons in the Western Ghats. This could soon end. "Its survival is closely linked with that of the Western Ghat rainforests, which have reduced by 40 per cent between 1920-1990," say Ghazala Shahabuddin and Soubadra Devy, butterfly experts.

Contrary to the popular belief that saving tiger habitat will automatically protect the butterfly, Shahabuddin says that butterflies have specific habitat requirements that include microclimatic details and food plant densities, which are fast changing due to external pressures. As we move closer to losing this photogenic winged creature, we lose valuable genetic information and a species that belongs solely to India.

Pramila N. Phatarphekar with S. Anand in Chennai
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