Saturday, April 30, 2011
Friday, April 29, 2011
Friday, April 22, 2011
As part of these corporate celebrations of the once-grassroots movement, Google sports this image of an impossibly idyllic edenic paradise as their doodle for the day:
Unfortunately, Google's vision of paradise has no room for the Desert Tortoise, the Joshua Tree, or the ancient mesquites and all the other poor denizens of the Mojave Desert, just a few hundred miles outside Google's corporate office windows. You see, just last week, Google upped their investment in the "green" solar energy company Brightsource, pouring in another $168 million to support that company's massive solar projects in the Mojave Desert. Never mind that the project is already killing endangered tortoises, destroying their habitat along with that of all the other denizens of the Mojave's unique biodiversity. And never mind that this kind of concentrated power generation with associated transmission costs and losses is an outdated model for this century. After all, combating global warming by switching to non-fossil-fuel energy sources is the be-all and end-all of environmental movements these days, we are told. By none other than the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal, who thinks conserving land is just "boring" compared to using exciting new "green" technologies to destroy habitats! This massive solar power generation technology is so exciting, it seems, that even Science Friday invited Madrigal to celebrate it on their Earth Day broadcast - where Ira Flatow forgot to ask any questions about the ecological impact of putting massive solar plants in the Mojave:
What's doubly sad this Earth Day is that Madrigal is not alone. Too many environmentalist nonprofits and activists have bought into this model of green technology. One that merely substitutes one kind of power generation for another "greener" one without questioning the whole model! Why must we generate power at such massive scales, entailing land degradation, transmission losses, and a host of other problems, rather than developing smaller-scale technologies for distributed power generation from rooftops and parking lots? Whatever happened to "small is beautiful"? And why not put larger plants, if they're needed, in brownfields and other land that we've already severely degraded through our other uses instead of bulldozing tortoise habitat? After all, there is plenty of such land within California's urban/agriculture matrix which already covers more of the state than the remaining desert patches. If Germany, not known for its bright sun, can generate a significant amount of its power from rooftops in a distributed model, why must the US have to destroy remnant habitats still containing biodiversity? And why is Google, a company once at the cutting edge of innovation, with a motto "don't be evil", a supposed champion of the open-source internet as a force for democracy, i.e., distributed power, now investing in concentrated large-scale power projects mired in the old models of centralized production and distribution?!
Why aren't more environmental groups raising these questions? Why is it left to a handful of "useful idiots" like Chris Clarke and Solar Done Right?
More importantly, why are we not asking the more fundamental question: WHY ON EARTH DO WE NEED TO KEEP USING SO MUCH DAMN ENERGY??!! Why can't we cut down on the energy we currently waste, become more efficient, and work on reducing our massive ecological footprint by using less power-hungry products?
Oh, I forgot... how can we ask these questions, when the corporations are dangling all that shiny new magical technology in front of us all the time? Bright shiny smart phones where we can go play the Lorax game... what were you going on about the environment for, mate?
Sorry Lorax. Sorry Desert Tortoise. Sorry Mesquite. And Sorry Earth. We've sold you all out for a few shiny baubles. Happy Earth Day.
Monday, April 18, 2011
Are Warblers Less Important Than Tigers?
Are Warblers less important than Tigers?
Now what kind of a stupid question is that?! Everyone knows that tigers are more important, being large predators, as apex species, at the top of the food chain, flagship species for conservation... etc. ... etc. ... etc.!!
These are arguments I have to face often enough when I tell people I am studying warblers—in Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve! For some reason, studying these tiny, nondescript, common birds is thought to be an entirely trivial, indeed arcane, academic pursuit of little practical or conservation value.
“What can studying little birds tell me about the habitat of large mammals, which are my primary concern?”—asks the reserve manager. On the other hand, if we focus on the larger mammals—the apex species philosophy of Project Tiger—and do our best to improve their habitat, other species will also naturally benefit. Given limited funds and manpower for conservation (research and action), is it not better to focus on the mega-fauna and let the mini- and micro-fauna take care of itself? The only small creatures one should worry about then are those that may form part of the food chain leading up to the larger focal species.
Before you accuse me of a biased perspective (which is undoubtedly true, for I make my living watching little warblers!), let me state that, in defending these little creatures, I am also arguing in favor of a broader ecological perspective in conservation—one that goes beyond the charismatic mega-fauna, and starts looking at species more in terms of their ecological role in the system, rather than their appearance/charisma, or tourism potential!
So what is the ecological role of my favoured little leaf-warblers?
Leaf warblers (Genus Phylloscopus) must surely rank among the least glamorous vertebrates, so utterly lacking in charisma that even many die-hard bird watchers dismiss them lightly, scarcely bothering to try and even identify them to species level. Part of the problem is, of course, the fact that they are all small, dull-green coloured, and highly active in the forest canopy, making identification in the field difficult. It is only rarely—either when one is truly nuts about birds or when the fate of one’s Ph.D. thesis hangs on such identification—that one develops the eye for the subtle morphological, auditory and behavioural differences between species. These difficulties in identifying species, however, need not bother our busy manager too much, since they (the leaf-warblers) are all pretty similar ecologically as well—the role they play in the forest is largely independent of their taxonomic status, except insofar as structural aspects of their foraging microhabitat within the forest canopy are concerned.
All 18 species leaf warblers occurring in the Indian subcontinent are migratory, breeding in the temperate summers from Himalaya north to the Arctic circle, and taking over the peninsular (including Himalayan foothills, and much of Northeast India) forests from September through May. While each individual may weigh only 7-11 grams (range includes all species; give or take a gram), one may still emphasize the term take-over, when describing their relationship to their forest habitats: they number in the billions and form probably the most abundant avian guild in the subcontinental forests during our tropical winter. My study at Mundanthurai (in the southern western ghats) records a density of 6-8 leaf warblers (of two species) per hectare of forest—usually any given patch of forest may have 2-3 species, depending on the type of forest; and I doubt there is any forest habitat in India that does not host at least one species some time of year. Picking a random hectare from my 20 ha study plot at Mundanthurai, I find 6 leaf warblers (of 2 species) making it their home for 7-8 months— for these are territorial individuals that remain on site for much of the winter. And what do they do during this period? Well, eat insects, mostly! Humdrum as their lives may sound, they spend over 75% of their waking hours foraging for insects (and other arthropods—but insects predominate) in the foliage. Since they are not concerned about finding mates or raising young during this season, and want merely to survive in good shape for the next summer, their other activities—preening and maintaining territories through vocal and visual dialogue with neighbors—does not take much time. Hmm... a bunch of small, dull birds spending most of their day peering at leaves in search of insects—do I seem to be only weakening the defense? Not really...
Before you start protesting that you will never contemplate removing all those birds, and that I am just another doomsayer, consider the fact that 80% of the warblers (esp. the Green leaf warbler, which is the most common one here) as well as the next most abundant migrant (Blyth’s reed warbler) spending each winter at Mundanthurai come from the forests of the hill regions around the Caspian Sea, from Turkey east through Kashmir, including bits of southern Russia and Afghanistan. Now imagine that these hills—breeding grounds for so many migrant insectivores—are deforested on a large scale, either directly by us or through effects of global climate change, cutting down the bird population by 90%. Such declines is not very unrealistic, as those studying migrant forest birds in the Americas will tell you—though they worry more about forests in the wintering areas being cut down rather than in the breeding grounds. In fact, over the past two decades, Americans and Europeans are increasingly facing the prospect of another Silent Spring. Not, this time, due to the factors mentioned in Rachel Carson’s clarion call in the 1960s—over-use of chemicals in agriculture at the height of the green revolutions—but to a suite of other human activities that have hit the habitat of avian migrants in both their northern breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds. Many species of migrant songbirds, which enliven the northern spring after the dreary and silent winters, have been pushed to the brink of extinction—some like the Kirtland’s warbler down to a few scores of breeding pairs—over the past two decades, even as my ornithologist comrades in the west are racing against time to figure out the causes of these declines, so we may try and reverse the process! The culprits are, of course, us humans: deforesting the tropical wintering grounds; fragmenting the temperate forests into suburban woodlots more accessible to human subsidized nest-predators such as domestic cats and other small carnivores (wild or feral) thriving on our garbage; and directly subsidizing populations of non-migratory nest-parasites like the north-American cowbird through back-yard bird feeders, enabling them to survive the harsh winter, and fool over 200 gullible species of songbirds into raising their offspring! We seem to be particularly adept at causing damage to the ecological fabric of this planet, even when we mean good—feed them poor little birdies in the winter, or the cute raccoons at night!!
Getting back to our continent, where we have no information on population trends of forest birds at all—whether resident or migratory, in tropical south and south-east Asia or temperate Russia, Mongolia and Siberia—declines paralleling those on the other continents are very much on the cards, if, indeed, they haven’t occurred already! Given the contempt that these migrants have for human geopolitical boundaries, their populations are subject to forces beyond the control of any one national conservation agency, let alone the manager of a single Tiger Reserve. And if their populations are found to be declining as drastically as many New World migrants’ have over the past several decades, mammal chauvinists may be reduced to haplessly watching the habitats of their favourite creatures getting degraded.
Do you think even the tigers might get worried about such a scenario??
Is it worth studying these warblers, trying to figure out what makes their populations tick, and how to save them—and ensure they continue to keep all those insects down?
Are warblers less important than tigers?? Isn’t the question itself meaningless?
Friday, April 15, 2011
Thursday, April 7, 2011
Sunday, April 3, 2011
So the census takers tell us that both the human (no surprise) and tiger (hmm...?) populations are up in India. Good news for both, eh? Who says humans cannot coexist with wildlife, of even the large carnivorous kind? We Indians have done it for a long time, no? Four times the human population of the US squeezed into a third of the landmass, and we still have most of our megafauna with us. So far. With much of it still outside protected areas too.
Well... before you celebrate the census figures on behalf of both species, let me point out that its an increasingly uneasy coexistence at best:
Elsewhere, on another continent, the CEO of GoDaddy.com got himself and his company in some hot water for sharing this video (warning: video requires a relatively strong stomach) of a hunt he participated in, apparently to help farmers in Zimbabwe in danger of losing their subsistence crops to elephants whose own numbers force them to range far outside the protected areas within which we would like to confine them. The rather boastful tone of the video and pictures of him posing with the poor dead elephant don't do him or his company any favors, and have resulted in quite the predictable backlash. But if you do watch the video all the way through, you see in the aftermath a rather desperate looking mob of African villagers stripping the carcass bare, harvesting all the meat in a manner that brings to mind scenes of other scavenger species attending to dead animals. It is easy for us, from the comforts of our suburban homes, to advocate for the rights of the elephant and criticize the rich American tourist who paid a hefty fee to be able to hunt the elephant and gloat about it afterwards. What, though, of the poor farmers whose crops are being raided by the elephants? Doesn't Zimbabwe have an official policy of culling elephant as a way to manage their populations, especially when they start overflowing the habitat's carrying capacity (bearing in mind, of course, that it is our actions which have shrunk the habitat, and diminished its carrying capacity)? Therefore (provocative as I may seem in suggesting this), it would seem that this hunt was legal, perhaps legitimate even from the wildlife management perspective, and brought some measure of relief/benefits to the locals, however distasteful the retelling of the tale afterwards. Why do we (those of us in the conservation movement) find it easier to sympathize with the elephant than the farmer in its path, when both are being screwed out of their basic means of subsistence by larger socioeconomic forces beyond either of their control? The chest-beating sounds particularly hollow coming from Americans, who have exterminated most of the larger native species, especially carnivores, from most of their country, and continue to slaughter thousands of wild animals of all kinds every year, ostensibly because they may cause damage to farms and crops.
Meanwhile, back in India, the land where most animals are tolerated (even worshipped, especially elephants) far more than perhaps anywhere else on this planet, even that long-held tolerance is wearing thin as our numbers grow and wildlife populations find themselves crowded into narrower bits of habitat. You can't keep them confined even in the most protected areas though - that has never been nature's way. Most organisms will always find ways to disperse and if most of the places they disperse into, we now claim as our own, conflicts are inevitable - especially when it is big and dangerous wildlife appearing in our midst. And, sadly, there is a point, it seems, beyond which even the most tolerant cultures can be pushed into savagery (warning: this video may require an even stronger stomach):
As the report indicates, there is a veritable rash of such incidents in India lately, with leopards in particular being cornered, beaten, even burned to death, with forest officials and even police apparently helpless to do anything to stop the mobs. What is driving people to such extreme frenzy? Are we past a tipping point in our civilization, with simply too many people crammed into too little space, which many of us still want to share with other animals too? Perhaps so, when you consider the numbers in India. Yet... how is this killing of leopards straying into India's teeming towns different from the massacre of wolves in the mostly empty northern Rocky mountains of Wyoming and Montana at the behest of ranchers who want to maximize their profits and not risk losing a single sheep? The latter is government sanctioned and done in an organized, clean, professional manner, unlike the frenzied savage mobs in India. Of course. OK, then.
How do we reconcile ourselves with the rest of wild nature? Can we? Will the rest of biodiversity (if given the choice) even want to reconcile with us, at this point?