Monday, October 26, 2009

I have moved!

Have moved lock, stock and barrel to my own site at

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Questionable Intelligence in Wildlife Crime Bureau

The website of the Panna Tiger Reserve greets you with the pug marks of a tiger on its homepage. It carries a nice news ticker about one of the many recent awards it got from the Ministry of Tourism of the Government of India for being the best maintained and tourist-friendly national parks of the country. With over 90 staff managing the Tiger Reserve and being on the tourism circuit, Panna is a fairly small park among the National Parks in the country. A park like Namdapha in remote North-east India has eleven field staff to manage nearly 2000 sq. km of difficult terrain. Even as the project tiger website proclaims 60 tigers in Namdapha Tiger Reserve, India's largest Tiger Reserve, others who have actually worked there have their reservations. A recent paper in fact uses extensive camera-trapping data to estimate a maximum of TWO tigers in this park! But, it is easy to overlook news from such rarely and difficult-to-visit parks such as Namdapha. That is not the case with Panna though. It has been one of the sought after places to see tigers in the country. One would have thought it must be easier to manage a 500 sq. km well connected park in Madhya Pradesh with over seventy field staff and a smattering of IFS officers with sustained tourist presence and some radio-collared tigers. One is obviously wrong!

Last month, the media reported what has been doing rounds in wildlife circles and local villages near Panna Tiger Reserve; that the tiger whose marks the website bears, are not found in the park anymore. Following a survey conducted in December 2008 by the Wildlife Institute of India and several reports in March about the possibility of Panna doing a Sariska, the National Tiger Conservation Authority sent a team to investigate what the State Government had been attributing to natural deaths of tigers (not appearing unnatural to them that scores of tigers could be dying naturally!). All this even while the State Government denied all possibilities of tiger being locally extinct in Panna. It was only in June this year that the tigerlessness of Panna was officialised.

Day before yesterday, an article in the Pioneer enlightened us about the reason for the tiger deaths in Panna - Radio collaring! A report by the Wildlife Crime Bureau attributed the tiger deaths in Panna to radio collaring, the article said. It found that 80 per cent of tigers killed in Panna have met their deadly fate at the hands of poachers after they were radio collared, glossing over the fact that we could know about their fates ONLY because they were radio-collared. The article said that that the report termed itself "interesting". Definitely, I must say - very interesting that the report makes a scapegoat of science. Radio tracking of wildlife is widely used for scientific studies, management and conservation of several species across the world - from birds to camels and from turtles to tigers, of course. In fact, critical questions on behaviour and ecology of large mammals are evident only through such methods. Tracking tigers by radio collaring has given us an understanding on important questions such as home ranges of tigers, carrying capacity of tigers in the continuously shrinking tiger reserves, causes of mortality and dealing with the reasons and consequences of conflict with people, especially so with elephants. These answers are exactly what a wildlife manager of a tiger reserve 'should' be looking for. And recent conservation literature from India has started answering such questions. While it is legitimate to further investigate the type of collars used and safety of tranquilizers used, it is quite an illogical conclusion that the WCB report seems to be coming to. Obviously, each and every tiger was not radio-collared. Shouldn't scientists with experience in radio collaring have been involved in this exercise? Was there a thorough analysis on the equipment and data of radio-collaring in Panna and elsewhere done by the WCB? Of course, not. Irresponsibly declaring radio-collaring as a reason in a report belittles the report as well as the huge body of scientific literature about this technique worldwide.One only wonders if the intention of the report is to investigate the crime or blame the ones detecting and reporting the crime!

Two issues come to my mind as I read the developments at Panna, the lack of an information culture and poor scientific temper in State institutions. Take for example the case of infant mortality reporting in the health sector. It's all a number game - blaming infant deaths on first line health workers results in under-reporting of infant deaths. Who would report infant deaths or tiger numbers truthfully it if retribution rather than help is what you receive from above? The net result of this is that the information reported through the public health system is so poor that if we were to rely purely on health centre data, we would have infant mortality rates of USA or UK! Similar is the case with the tiger numbers - if the usual reaction to smaller tiger numbers reported by scientists outside the system or from watchers on the field is going to be retribution, then we shall always have tiger numbers of the 18th century! Such an attitude in the bureaucracy destroys the innate nature of the field staff to truthfully report information and act on them. Instead, routine institutional data focuses merely on portraying a sense of status-quot or sometimes improvements rather than providing actionable information that should then feed back into management. The other issue of lack of scientific temper is quite evident in the WCB report, which has the audacity to term itself, 'interesting' while drawing vicarious temporal associations between tiger deaths and radio-collaring. Let's face the facts -

Fact 1: Panna lost its tigers - not on the day when the Minister accepted it, but over months (or perhaps years) of poaching.

Fact 2: Radio-collaring as a technique for conservation and management with well-established safety guidelines is widely accepted.

Viewing the tiger extinction in Panna as yet another isolated event with simple reasons like an errant forest guard or radio collaring rather than understanding the socio-political, economic and biological reasons is the most illogical thing to do. For a tiger to survive in Panna like in most of India's tiger reserves is the result of a complex inter-play between protection, human-animal conflict, irresponsible tourism, poverty and access to eduction, employment and health care in the villages around and not the least of all, political will. Transferring forest officers, suspending guards and blaming radio-collaring are non-solutions. Responsible tourism and conservation research in additon to bringing in revenue, awareness and greater understanding of conservation are also a way of having more eyes and ears in the forests. As long as we continue to produce poor quality data within the Government, it is only logical for the Government – be it health or forest, to encourage applied research and act quickly on the issues that the scientific community brings up. Unfortunately, the forest department is much more closed to science and research than any other department today. Permissions to work in protected areas on important conservation activities is rarely based on the merit of the proposal but on whether it will report poor tiger numbers or dwindling of habitat. And where researchers have been candid with their findings, they have only been faced with cancellation of permits! I am still waiting for the day when a young forest officer in a protected area is empowered enough to publicly discuss issues in his park and network strongly with the scientific community, rather than play hide-and-seek with numbers till there is no other option. We saw this with Sariska and now with Panna. And these are the parks we know about due to the reporting in media, not because they came up in any Government report where we should ideally have been reading about them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Delhibirding at Okhla

I was in Delhi over the weekend on work and I was able to catch up on some Sunday birding with Delhibird members. Just thought of sharing my experience with them, this being my first birding outing in Delhi. Due thanks to Gopi Sundar, Anshu, KB Singh and a diverse group of members from Delhibird well represented in age, gender and profession!

A particularly hot Sunday morning, the stench of the Yamuna and the recent disquiet from yesterday's tragic blasts did not deter the Sunday outing of Delhibird to Okhla Bird Sanctuary, geographically in Uttar Pradesh, but only about half hour drive from the national capital.

A chance meeting with Gopi Sundar who studies Sarus Cranes and a co-incidental phone call from Anshu of Delhibirds regarding the outing made it possible for me to join the group to Okhla. We left Delhi at 5.40 AM and reached Okhla at 6 AM. The twitching of the Lesser Whitethroat and the ammoniacal odours of the Yamuna welcomed us (For those who think I am overstenching the Yamuna, see quote of the day below). We parked within Okhla and walked down the trail with agricultural fields on one side and dry marsh land with tall grass on the other with the 'pie' of male bushchats every few metres apart. A lone Common Babbler on the trail ahead excited me quite a bit, we southerners not having this 'common' cousin of our babblers.
We reached the end of the trail overlooks the Yamuna waters with tall grass, a few settlements and stray cattle separating us from the water. Somebody pointed out a large bird perched at a distance and the day started. Even as the scope was being set up, several binocs went up and a tentative diagnosis of a hepatic female cuckoo was announced. The barring on the upper tail, its
large size and the very fine nature of the barring on the underparts was bringing Eurasian Cuckoo in my mind. The scope brought some clarity - the yellowish bill and the plumage indicated that it was a juvenile. The throat had relatively lesser streaking and the underparts were also quite dark with the fine barring. With a lingering doubt in everyone's mind, we settled for juv. Greybellied Cuckoo. A few record shots from the photgrapher friends will settle the id soon perhaps.

A courageous group of delhibirders turned waders and waded through some water, vegetation and whatnot to reach the water. They were rewarded with Blacktailed Godwits, Ruffs and several other waterbirds. Just then, we all had seen a female Marsh Harrier and even as I was about to mention Migrantwatch, KB Singh informed me that he would be logging it into MW
today! The other group which stayed put were witness to an Rufousbacked Shrikes, an oriole in flight, red munias and black drongos. On the other bank, meanwhile were over a hundred terns, mostly whiskered with some river terns fishing. As we returned, Gopi scoped a few Spotted Owlets roosting in a Banyan tree nearby. A Greater Spotted Eagle and a Pariah kite circling
together as we walked back was another highlight of the morning.

It was a great opportunity to meet some birders from Delhi. It's amazing how many of them have heard so much about BR Hills. The recent photographs from BR Hills had made it even more of a top destination for many of them. Between the harriers and the munias, the conversation moved from Migrantwatch to the top-ten photographers announced by Kolkatabirds and slowly strayed away to idlis and dosas, and at some point, we all dispersed
to Sagar restaurant in Noida, where I gulped down the most expensive idlis of my life. As all breakfast convos go, this one too was unmatched in its width of topics - conservation policy, judiciary, ethics, choice of 'spirits' and what not!

A morning well spent with delhibird members and I look forward to birding again with them whenever I visit Delhi.

Quote of the day (Heard over breakfast :)

"I saw a Small Blue Kingfisher once. It dived into the then turned Pied"

List of birds seen

1) Grey Francolin - Francolinus pondicerianus
2) Lesser Whistling Duck - Dendrocygna javanica
3) Spotbilled Duck - Anas poecilorhyncha - Hundreds!
4) Northern Shoveler - A. clypeata - 2 females among the spotbilled ducks
5) Green Bee-eater - Merops orientalis
6) Juv. Cuckoo - Possibly Greybellied?
7) Greater Coucal - Centropus sinensis
8) Roseringed Parakeet - Psittacula kramerii
9) Spotted Owlet - Athene brama
10) Laughing Dove - Streptopelia senegalensis
11) Eurasian Collored Dove - Streptopelia decaocto
12) Yellowfooted Green Pigeon - Treron phoenicoptera 3 different flocks of
approx 12-15 pigeons
13) Whitebreasted Waterhen - Amaurornis phoenicurus - heard only
14) Purple Moorhen - Porphyrio porphyrio
15) Ruff - Philomachus pugnax - 4 in flight
16) River Tern - Sterna aurantia
17) Whiskered Tern - Chlidonias hybridus
18) Pariah Kite - Milvus migrans
19) Marsh Harrier - Circus a. aeruginosus
20) Greater Spotted Eagle - Aquila clanga
21) Little Cormorant - Phalacrocorax niger
22) Little Egret - Egretta garzetta
23) Cattle Egret - Bubulcus ibis
24) Grey Heron - Ardea cinerea
25) Purple Heron - Ardea purpurea
26) Night Heron - Nycticorax nycticorax
27) Painted Stork - Mycteria leucocephala
28) Rufousbacked Shrike - Lanius schach
29) Rufous Treepie - Dendrocitta vagabunda
30) House Crow - Corvus splendens
31) Eurasian Golden Oriole - Oriolus oriolus - seen in flight
32) Black Drongo - Dicrurus macrocercus
33) Whirring call of Common Iora?? Aegithina tiphia - Not confirmed
34) Redvented Bulbul - Pycnonotus cafer - outnumbered its whiskered cousin
35) Redwhiskered Bulbul - P. jocosus
36) Ashy Prinia - Prinia socialis
37) Lesser Whitethroat - Sylvia curruca
38) Tailorbird - Orthotomus sutorius
39) Common Babbler - Turdoides caudatus
40) Purple Sunbird - Nectarinia asiatica
41) Red Munia - Amandava amandava
42) Silverbill - Lonchura malabarica
43) Scalybreasted Munia - L. punctulata