Saturday, January 16, 2016

The vulture problem is more important than we think

Vultures are Revolting. Here's Why We need to Save Them -- National Geographic Magazine

Picture of a vulture ripping tissue from a wildebeest

Even Darwin called them “disgusting.” But vultures are more vital than vile, because they clean up carcasses that otherwise could rot and spread pestilence. Here a Rüppell’s vulture (Gyps rueppelli) rips tissue from the trachea of a dead wildebeest.
Story by Elizabeth Royte
Photographs by Charlie Hamilton James
Published December 10, 2015
At sunset the wildebeest seems doomed: Sick or injured, it’s wandering miles from its herd on the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania. By sunrise the loner is dead, draped in a roiling scrum of vultures, 40 or so birds searching for a way to invade its earthly remains. Some of the scavengers wait patiently, with a Nixonian hunch, eyes on their prize. But most are engaged in gladiatorial battle. Talons straining, they rear and rake, joust and feint. One pounces atop another, then bronco rides its bucking and rearing victim. The crowd parts and surges in a black-and-brown wave of undulating necks, stabbing beaks, and thrashing wings. From overhead, a constant stream of new diners swoops in, heads low, bouncing and tumbling in their haste to join the mob.

Picture of vulture flying in to eat carcass
A Rüppell’s vulture lays claim to a dead zebra in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, while other Rüppell's and white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) move in for a piece of the action. More vultures will likely join the banquet. They can strip a carcass clean in minutes.
Why the fuss over a carcass so large? Why the unseemly greed? Because the wildebeest is tough-skinned and wasn’t killed by carnivores, it lacks an opening wide enough for general admission. And so the boldest birds compete furiously for access. As the crowd cackles and caws, a white-backed vulture snakes its head deep into the wildebeest’s eye socket and hurriedly slurps, with grooved tongue, whatever it can before being ripped from its place at the table. Another white-backed tunnels into a nostril while a Rüppell’s vulture starts at the other end; it’s eight inches into the wildebeest’s anus before another bird wrenches it away, then slithers its own head, like an arm into an evening glove, up the intestinal tract. And so it goes—40 desperate birds at five golf-ball-size holes. 
Picture of a vulture with blood dripping off its beak
Blood drips from a Rüppell’s vulture’s beak as it pauses mid-meal. The neck and head of Rüppell’s are sparsely feathered, the better to keep gore, guts, and fecal matter from clinging after a deep carcass dive.

Eventually, two lappet-faced vultures make their move. These spectacular-looking animals stand more than a yard tall, with wingspans of nine feet. (In treetops, they make stick nests as big as king-size beds.) Their faces are pink, their bills large and deeply arched, and their powerful necks festooned with crepey roseate skin and a brown Tudor ruff. While one lappet hammers a hole in the wildebeest’s shoulder, the other excavates behind a sinus, in hopes of finding juicy botfly larvae. Sinews and skin snap. Now a white-backed rams its head down the wildebeest’s throat and yanks out an eight-inch length of trachea, ribbed like a vacuum hose. But before the vulture can enjoy it, the four-foot-tall marabou stork that’s been stiffly lurking snatches the windpipe away, tosses it once for perfect alignment, and swallows it whole. Thanks to the labors of the lappets, which favor sinew over muscle, the wildebeest is now wide open. Heads fling blood and mucus into the air; viscera drip from vulture bills; two birds play tug-of-war with a ten-foot rope of intestine coated in dirt and feces. 
As the wildebeest shrinks, the circle of sated birds lounging in the short grass expands. With bulging crops, the vultures settle their heads atop folded wings and slide their nictitating membranes shut. No more sound, no more fury. As placid as suburban ducks, they rest, at peace with the world. 

The vulture may be the most maligned bird on the planet, a living metaphor for greed and rapaciousness. Leviticus and Deuteronomy classify vultures as unclean, creatures to be held in abomination by the children of Israel. In his diary during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle in 1835, Charles Darwin called the birds “disgusting,” with bald heads “formed to wallow in putridity.” Among their many adaptations to their feculent niche: the ability to vomit their entire stomach contents when threatened, the better to take quick flight.
Revolting? Perhaps. But vultures are hardly without redeeming values. They don’t (often) kill other animals, they probably form monogamous pairs, and we know they share parental care of chicks, and loaf and bathe in large, congenial groups. Most important, they perform a crucial but massively underrated ecosystem service: the rapid cleanup, and recycling, of dead animals. By one estimate, vultures either residing in or commuting into the Serengeti ecosystem during the annual migration—when 1.3 million white-bearded wildebeests shuffle between Kenya and Tanzania—historically consumed more meat than all mammalian carnivores in the Serengeti combined. And they do it fast. A vulture can wolf more than two pounds of meat in a minute; a sizable crowd can strip a zebra—nose to tail—in 30 minutes. Without vultures, reeking carcasses would likely linger longer, insect populations would boom, and diseases would spread—to people, livestock, and other wild animals. 
Picture of a golden jackal fighting a vulture over a dead wildebeest
In the Serengeti a golden jackal takes umbrage at an immature white-backed vulture butting in on its meal of dead wildebeest.
 Earthbound carnivores such as jackals and hyenas have limited territories in which to find food. Aloft, vultures have a much better view of the daily menu: They can spot a carcass 20 miles away.
But this copacetic arrangement, shaped by the ages, is not immutable. In fact, in some key regions it’s in danger of collapse. Africa had already lost one of its eleven vulture species—the cinereous vulture—and now seven others are listed as either critically endangered or endangered. Some, like the lappet, are found predominantly in protected areas (which are themselves threatened), and other regional populations of the Egyptian and bearded vulture are nearly extinct. Vultures and other scavenging birds, says Darcy Ogada, assistant director of Africa programs at the Peregrine Fund, “are the most threatened avian functional group in the world.” 
On a sunny March day Ogada is traveling with her colleague Munir Virani in the Masai Mara region of Kenya. Virani is here not to study his beloved birds but to speak with herdsmen about their cows. Livestock husbandry, it turns out, is essential to vulture welfare. As our truck weaves through flocks of sheep and goats, Virani explains how the Maasai have in recent years leased their land, which rings the northern section of the Masai Mara National Reserve, to conservancies established to protect wildlife by excluding pastoralists and their livestock. Some Maasai claim the conservancies have lured more lions and other carnivores to the area. (The conservancies are contiguous and unfenced.) Meanwhile populations of wildebeests and other resident ungulates in the Mara ecosystem are facing threats from poaching, prolonged drought, and conversion of savanna to cropland and real estate. This in itself would be bad news for vultures, but there’s worse.

Virani asks every Maasai we meet: Have you lost any livestock to predators recently? The answer is always, “Yes, and my neighbors have too.” Usually the lions attack at night, when the cattle are penned inside bomas—corrals ringed with thorny brush. The lions roar, then terrified cattle stampede, crash through the boma gate, and scatter. Dogs bark, waking their owners, but it’s usually too late. The killing of a single cow represents a loss of 30,000 shillings ($300), a significant blow to families that use livestock as currency (a bull can be worth 100,000 shillings).
Next comes retaliation: The men tie up their dogs, retrieve what’s left of the lion’s kill, and sprinkle it with a generic form of Furadan, a cheap, fast-acting pesticide that’s readily available under the table. The lion returns to feed, most likely with its family, and the entire pride succumbs. (Researchers estimate that Kenya loses a hundred lions a year in these conflicts. The country has roughly 1,600 lions left.) Inevitably vultures also visit the livestock carcass, or they eat the poisoned lions themselves. Whatever the vector, the birds, which can feed in “wakes” of more than a hundred individuals, all die as well.
It’s hard to believe that just a few granules of a compound designed to kill worms and other invertebrates can lay low an animal whose gastric juices are acidic enough to neutralize rabies, cholera, and anthrax. Indeed, Furadan was scarcely on Ogada’s radar until 2007, when she began receiving emails from colleagues about poisoned lions. “That raised some eyebrows,” she says. Tourism is Kenya’s second largest source of foreign income, and lions are the nation’s star attraction. In 2008 scientists and representatives from conservation groups and government agencies convened in Nairobi to share information on poisonings and plan a response. “Jaws dropped,” Ogada remembers. “The problem was far larger than any of us, working locally, knew.”
Once Ogada and others began to study the problem, they estimated that poisoning accounts for 61 percent of vulture deaths, Africa-wide. The anthropogenic threat is compounded by vultures’ reproductive biology: They don’t reach sexual maturity until five to seven years of age, they produce a chick only once every year or two, and 90 percent of their young die in the first year. Over the next half century vulture numbers on the continent are projected to decline by 70 to 97 percent. 
As bad as the African situation appears, it has been worse elsewhere. In India populations of the most common vultures—white-rumped, long-billed, and slender-billed—declined by more than 96 percent in just a single decade. Then in 2003 researchers from the Peregrine Fund definitively linked bird carcasses with cattle that had been treated with an anti-inflammatory called diclofenac. Initially prescribed for arthritis and other pain in humans, the drug had been approved for veterinary use in 1993. In vultures, diclofenac causes kidney failure: Autopsies reveal organs coated with white crystals.
The Indian die-off received a lot of attention because its downstream effects were so startling. India has one of the largest cattle populations in the world, but most Indians don’t eat beef. After millions of vultures fell victim to poisoning, dead cattle started piling up. Then the dog population—released from competing with vultures for scavenged food—leaped by 7 million, to 29 million animals over an 11-year period. The result: an estimated 38.5 million additional dog bites. Rat populations soared. Deaths from rabies increased by nearly 50,000, which cost Indian society roughly $34 billion in mortality, treatment expenses, and lost wages. India’s Parsi community in Mumbai was alarmed to note another change. The corpses they ritually place on elevated stone platforms for “sky burial”—in which vultures liberate the souls of the dead so that they can reach heaven—were taking months longer to disappear, because there were no vultures left to feed on them. 
After researchers proved that diclofenac was to blame for the vulture die-off, in 2006 veterinary use of the drug was banned in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. (It’s still given to cattle clandestinely.) Bangladesh followed suit in 2010, and in mid-June 2015, a coalition of conservation groups urged the European Commission to ban the drug’s use in animals. A response is pending. In combination with captive-breeding programs and vulture “restaurants,” which serve safe meat from farms or abattoirs to wild birds, the campaign has done some good. Nine years on, Indian vulture declines have slowed, and in some regions their numbers have even begun to increase. But the population of the three hardest-hit species remains a small fraction of its former millions.

Vultures are both lovers and fighters. They probably mate for life, which can be 30 years in the wild, and are attentive to their partners. Lappet-faced vultures (above) are known for being particularly affectionate.
Ogada isn’t hopeful that Africa will follow India’s lead in responding to the vulture crisis. “There has been little government action to conserve vultures in Kenya,” she says, “and no political will to limit the use of carbofurans,” the chemical family that includes Furadan. And although vultures in India face just one major threat—unintentional poisoning—vultures in Africa face many more.
In July 2012, 191 vultures died after feasting on an elephant that had been poachedand then sprinkled with poison in a Zimbabwean national park. A year later roughly 500 vultures were killed after feeding on a poison-laced elephant in Namibia. Why do poachers, intent on ivory, target vultures in this way? “Because their kettling in the sky over dead elephants and rhinoceroses alerts game wardens to their activities,” Ogada says. Ivory poachers now account for one-third of all East African vulture poisonings.

Conservationists in Namibia use a car side-door mirror on a pole to peek into a lappet-faced vulture’s nest in a tree. If they find a chick that’s old enough, they’ll retrieve it, wing tag it, and put it back. Females may lay only one egg every year or two, so every chick’s survival is critical to the population’s future.
Cultural practices have also taken a toll on vultures. According to André Botha, co-chair of the vulture specialist group at the Inter­national Union for Conservation of Nature, many of the birds found at poached carcasses are missing their heads and feet—a sure sign they’ve been sold for muti, or traditional healing. Shoppers at southern African markets have little trouble buying body parts believed to cure a range of ailments or impart strength, speed, and endurance. Dried vul­ture brain is also popular: Mixed with mud and smoked, it’s said to conjure guidance from beyond. 
Still, the biggest existential threat to African vultures remains the ubiquitous availability and use of poisons. FMC, the Philadelphia-based maker of Furadan, began buying back the compound from distribution channels in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania—and suspended sales in South Africa—following a 60 Minutes segment on lion poisonings in 2009. But the compound, in generic form, persists. Agriculture is the second largest industry in Kenya, and the nation has a long history of using toxins to combat outbreaks of disease and pests. Anyone can walk into a Kenyan agro-veterinary shop and, for less than two dollars, buy highly toxic pesticides off the shelf—to kill insects, mice, feral dogs, hyenas, leopards, jackals, and even fish and ducks meant for human consumption. (Poachers claim, erroneously, that removing the animal’s entrails, then slowly roasting the carcass, detoxifies the flesh.)
“You cannot have agriculture in the tropics without pesticides,” Charles Musyoki, former head of species management for the Kenya Wildlife Service, says. “So we need to educate the public about their correct and safe use.”
What the public understands now is that carbofurans are cheap, reliable, and—compared with stalking and spearing a predator—risk free. To date, the government hasn’t prosecuted a single poisoner of vultures. “Poisoning predators is just part of the culture,” Ogada says with a shrug. Indigenous groups have always protected their herds, and the descendants of Europeans—who introduced cheap synthetic poisons in the first place—have been slaughtering mammalian and avian carnivores in Africa for more than 300 years.

A vendor in Durban, South Africa, proffers vulture heads for sale as muti—traditional medicine. Dried and smoked, vulture brains are also thought to provide visions of the future. The birds’ own prospects are bleak. Six of eight species in the country are endangered.
After a long day of speaking with Maasai herdsmen, Virani and Ogada are eager for the sun to set, not to escape the heat but to witness the flicking of an electrical switch. In the gloaming, Virani parks his jeep outside a compound that sits in the pounded dust bowl between the 50,000-acre Mara Naboisho Conservancy, to the east, and the 400,000-acre Masai Mara reserve, to the west. Under a velvet sky glimmering with stars, Virani stares at a boma and, when a dozen lightbulbs strung between fence posts blink on, breaks into a grin. 
Balloon safari operators, who ascend before daybreak, have complained about this nighttime light pollution. But to Virani these flashing bulbs, connected to a solar battery, are a minor miracle, the safest, most cost-effective way to keep predators away from cattle pens and short-circuit the retalia­tory poisoning that’s decimating vultures. 
“The lights cost between 25,000 and 35,000 shillings per boma,” Virani says—between $250 and $350, with the Peregrine Fund picking up half of that. “Prevent one cattle predation, and they’ve paid for themselves.” In their first six months of deployment in this part of the Mara, lion attacks on 40 bomas with arrays went down by 90 percent. So far, carnivores and elephants—which commute between the conservancies and the reserve, often through Maasai vegetable patches—are still avoiding the lights, but lack of maintenance and mismanagement of the systems (siphoning power to charge phones, for example) have reduced their effectiveness. Still, demand for the arrays far outpaces supply.
On the Serengeti, about 150 miles to the south of the Masai Mara, the sun rises on three adult hyenas, shoulder deep in yet another dead wildebeest. Now and then the feathered audience that has gathered at this theater-in-the-round advances toward the stage, only to be rebuffed by the principal actors raising their chins and curling their black lips. The vultures take the hint. There is, between the four-legged and the two-, a palpable respect: Hyenas rely on vultures to locate kills, and vultures rely on hyenas to quickly bust them open.

A shopkeeper at a market in Durban, South Africa, offers the brains of a vulture for sale. The alleged power of the dried and smoked brains to provide a vision of the future makes such practices popular among gamblers.
Eventually the hyenas are full enough to retreat, cuing the birds to swarm. Now the carcass rocks back and forth as two dozen vultures rip, slurp, pry, and tug. Suddenly a lappet drops out of the sky, then bashes skulls with two other lappets standing innocently on the periphery. The aggressor wheels, ducks its head, raises its massive wings, then mounts the wildebeest in triumph. “They are the most amusing animals,” Simon Thomsett, a vulture expert affiliated with the National Museums of Kenya, says, binoculars to his eyes. “You certainly couldn’t spend this long watching a lion.”
Hours pass, the bloody players come and go: hyenas, jackals, storks, scavenging eagles, and four species of vulture. Despite the apparent hysteria, everyone gets a chance, partitioning the carcass in time and space according to social status and physical ability.
Both Thomsett and Ogada, who often collaborate, have spent much time pondering what would happen if vultures were subtracted from this cast of characters. Running field experiments with goat carcasses over a two-year period, Ogada learned that in the absence of vultures, carcasses took nearly three times as long to decompose, the number of mammals visiting carcasses tripled, and the amount of time these animals stayed at the carcass also nearly tripled.
Why do these data matter? Because the longer jackals, leopards, lions, hyenas, genets, mongooses, and dogs commune with one another at a carcass, the more likely they are to spread pathogens—which die in vulture stomachs—to other animals, both wild and domesticated. By eating wildebeest placenta, Thomsett tells me from his perch in the jeep, vultures also prevent cattle from contracting malignant catarrh, an often fatal herpes virus. And by reducing carcasses to bones within hours, they suppress insect populations, linked with eye diseases in both people and livestock. 
“Vultures are more important, in terms of services to humanity, than the ‘big five’ that everyone comes here to see,” he says. Their loss, scientists believe, would likely set off an ecological and economic catastrophe.

Sprinkled on carrion, a few ounces of the insecticide carbofuran (above) can kill a hundred vultures. Poisoned birds that are caught quickly or haven’t consumed too much may be saved if given a dose of the drug atropine and fed charcoal, which absorbs the poison. 
Although poisoning is the proximate driver of Africa’s vulture decline, the plain-speaking Thomsett stresses its root cause: too many people. Kenya’s population is expected to reach 81 million, from today’s 44 million, by 2050. And the Maasai are among the fastest growing groups in the country.
Thomsett lowers his binoculars and expands on the list of anthropogenic threats to Kenya’s vultures. Farmers are planting corn and wheat around protected areas to feed the growing population, he says. Less grassland means fewer ungulates for vultures to eat. The government hasn’t been able to stop drilling for geothermal wells within 300 meters (328 yards) of endangered Rüppell’s nesting sites, he continues. Vultures are also killed in collisions with high-tension power lines. The Kenya Wildlife Service has yet to write, let alone implement, a strategic plan for vulnerable vulture species. (Such a plan is imminent, the service’s Charles Musyoki told me.)
In December 2013 Kenya passed an act that imposes a fine of up to 20 million shillings ($200,000) or life imprisonment on anyone linked with killing an endangered species. And the Kenya Wildlife Service is said to be planning a campaign to shift the public’s perception of vultures. But without better investigating and enforcement of anti-poisoning laws, to say nothing of convicting perpetrators, Ogada and Thomsett agree, such campaigns won’t be nearly enough to save the region’s birds. More immediately effective, they say, would be for the government to accept an offer from a landowner in southwestern Kenya. He has offered to sell land containing one of the nation’s most important breeding cliffs for the critically endangered Rüppell’s vulture.
Thomsett continues to observe the vultures wallowing in putridity, making detailed sketches of their heads and feet in a thick notebook, until the birds have eaten their fill and the wildebeest resembles a wrinkled blue-gray rug, with hooves. In the days to come, any remaining scraps of skin and sinew will be ravaged by the elements, by insects, fungi, and microbes. The ungulate’s larger bones will persist for years, but in the meantime its basic building blocks will cycle on—in the soil, in vegetation, and in every glorious vulture that fed on its prodigal abundance today. 

A white-backed vulture recovers at the VulPro facility after being poisoned with carbofuran. The bird was later released.
A photojournalist specializing in wildlife and conservation, Charlie Hamilton James evaded a charging rhino, fought off illness from a tick bite, and drove through vulture feeding frenzies to photograph this story.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

This goat was supposed to be a Siberian tiger’s dinner. Now they are best friends, and it is charming Russia. - The Washington Post

 The Washington Post

What a truly amazing story!  Amur has lost his appetite for goat it seems.

This goat was supposed to be a Siberian tiger’s dinner. Now they are best friends, and it is charming Russia.

MOSCOW — An unlikely friendship between a tiger and a goat who was supposed to be his dinner has charmed Russia.
In a zoo in the far reaches of Siberia, predator and prey have become best buddies. Amur the tiger and Timur the goat’s charmed life started in late November, when Amur decided not to eat the goat unleashed into his enclosure.
The intention was that the goat would be a gastronomic delight, not a playpal. But instead the two animals appear to have bonded, sharing a food bowl and appearing to play with each other by romping through Amur’s pen.
Before the new year, they had already drawn enough attention that the Primorsky Safari Park set up a live webfeed of the enclosure. But they rocketed to stardom when one of Russia’s state-run television networks unveiled a 44-minute documentary odeto their friendship during the slow news week between New Year’s Day and Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7, a time when all of Russia is on holiday.
“The situation is really weird. For three years running we have fed Amur a huge number of goats, rabbits, roosters and rams,” said Dmitry Mezentsev, the general director of the Primorsky Safari Park, in a telephone interview from the zoo, which is in Russia’s far southeast, seven hours ahead of Moscow.
“As a rule, Amur gets prey twice a week. My only explanation is that this couldn't have happened without interference of the higher power,” the zoo director said.
The friendship started after the goat, seemingly unfazed that it was on the dinner menu, chased the tiger out of his sleeping place, a converted aviary, and claimed the comfortable area for its own. Amur, apparently confused that the goat was not properly submissive, went to sleep on the roof.
“Amur has never rejected prey before,” Mezentsev said. “There was just one case when the goat given to Amur lived through the night. Amur ate him the following morning.”
Since their first encounter, the pair have spent their days together, watched by an increasing number of Russians who want to see the strange match.
“Every morning Santa Claus brings a treat of apples and cabbage for Timur, and meat for Amur,” the zookeeper said. The zoo has given up feeding goats to the tiger, instead switching to a two-rabbit diet, twice a week, and supplementing with other meats every day.
Timur and Amur enjoy playing with a ball, one snatching it from the other and running away, as the other tries to catch up, Mezentsev said. They are prepping for the 2018 World Cup, which will be held in Russia, he joked.
Amur, a Siberian tiger, has benefited from conservation efforts promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The species, also known as the Amur tiger, is endangered, and there are an estimated 550 alive. But population levels have stabilized in recent years. Putin released three cubs into the wild in 2014. They drew headlines when one wandered into China and snacked on local farmers’ livestock before returning to Russia.
Lena Yegorova contributed to this report.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A visitor to my mother's garden

Actias selene - Indian moon moth.  (Picture taken by my mother)

Moments of magic that a little green and little calm bring into our lives.  My mother's garden is a little oasis for creatures in the neighbourhood.  A peacock rested here not so long ago, sunbirds are always busy in the creepers, babblers hop and babble as they shop for worms, and then today this beautiful moth emerged!

The wonders of Nature never cease to amaze me.  What beauty in a creature so ephemeral.  I learnt that these moths are silk spinners and they also have a life cycle that is evanescent and fleeting.

They emerge out of their silk cocoons without a mouth - their only job to mate.  It seems that they usually hatch mid morning, and wait for the sun to dry their wings, by nightfall they are ready to fly and find a mate, and in a week they are dead, having (hopefully) done their job of ensuring the survival of the species.

The pale green of its wings giving it a good camouflage, the wispy delicate tail, the little "moons" on its wings, pink legs, a white hairy body and the distinct red brown margin, all evident as it swayed in the light January breeze.

From descriptions, this particular one seems to be a female, less pink on the tail and antennae which are less stubby.  If so, she would be releasing pheromones tonight and attracting a male from as far away as four kms.

I will keep an eye on that hibiscus plant, for maybe just maybe there is a set of eggs that will be laid, and my mother's garden would have done its bit in helping this endangered species continue to thrive.

Indian moon moth videos, photos and facts

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Chennai after the deluge: How social media came to the rescue

My favourite bits:

"If one lived in the suburbs abutting the Adyar or Cooum rivers or in the suburbs that used to be lakes before greedy real estate developers (and greedier citizens like us) turned them into urban jungles, it was likely a nightmare."
"Social media was amplifying aid requests from a small part of the city. The wealthier, social media-savvy side. There were several parts, particularly in north Chennai that were in scarily bad shape and had no one tweeting or Facebooking on their behalf. Social media, we realized, was a middle-class-centric echo chamber. "
"NRIs simply had not heard back from their old folks in West Mambalam and Ashok Nagar for 24 hours, and that was enough for them to assume that escaped crocodiles that had mutated thanks to submerged electrical wiring were on their way to devour their parents." 
"the uncomfortable truth this incredibly huge army of volunteers is likely to conveniently ignore is that the poor in India live in conditions that no civilized society should tolerate.
The slums on the banks of the Cooum have always been mosquito-infested hellholes and now they are mosquito-infested sludge-filled hellholes." 
 "We also realized that in the entire group of 200, there was not a single public health expert or even someone with experience in relief operations. It was a bunch of really passionate folks figuring things out on their own, and while definitely making a difference, could have done so much more if governments and institutional experts in relief were less sceptical about social media and its ability to connect people.
We had no access to information from the National Disaster Response Force in terms of where they were operating, who they had already rescued and where food packets were being air-dropped."

Monday, December 21, 2015

‘Just look out of the window’

‘Just look out of the window’ - Madurai - The Hindu

A chat with Geetha Iyer, well-known consultant on science and environment education, leads one to view spiders and other insects with a tolerant eye

What would you do if you saw spider’s webs around your house? The majority would go into a frenzy of cleaning. But not Geetha Iyer.
This science teacher of many years and well-known consultant on science and environment education thinks of spider webs as the first line of defence against household insects.
Geetha is also a passionate advocate of raising awareness about neighbourhood biodiversity. “It means,” she says, “look out of your window and observe.” “Observe” is another favourite word with this sprightly lady. The cornerstone of our biology lessons is observation, she points out. “But looking at a formalin-bleached cockroach or frog in a jar is not observation. Observation is something that will evoke a previous memory, raise a question in the mind, or evoke a sense of awe. It is the beginning of learning,” she says with great feeling. “And there is nothing like neighbourhood biodiversity to promote observation.”
There’s that term again. By now, I begin to understand what she means. So far biodiversity conjured up visions of soaring mountains, dense forests, and animals like tigers, lions, elephants and pandas.
But Geetha is talking about something much simpler. She’s talking about flies, spiders, lizards, butterflies, moths; about crows, mynahs, pigeons and sparrows.
“I’ve lived in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Chennai…. And everywhere there are trees. Where there are trees, there will be birds even if it’s only a crow or a mynah. Did you know there are different kinds of mynahs?
“People see a black bird and immediately say ‘Oh! Crow!’ But if they ‘observe’, they might see the red eyes and greyish-green beak of the male Asian koel.”
She brings up the issue of spiders and lizards and how many people run screaming from these harmless animals. Lizards feed on insects and mosquitoes, she says, and are not dangerous unless they fall into your food.
“This business of lizards licking food is a fallacy,” she says scornfully. “Most likely it was there because of an insect on your food.” She agrees that one really can’t have spider webs in one’s living rooms but “in the backyard or on balcony corners is okay. One kind preys on cockroaches but is rarely seen.” Spiders definitely have my vote then, I think.
Speaking of spider webs and pigeon droppings, something she says sticks in my mind. “A super-sanitised environment is not good for one’s immune system. Biodiversity is also closely linked with well-being and health. By not allowing biodiversity to flourish around you, you are denying space for those that could well check the population of dengue/malarial mosquitoes.”
Even if children are asked to write about biodiversity or environment, it’s usually downloaded from the Internet, rarely about first-hand experience. She narrates an incident from one school. The Std. V NCERT textbook had a lesson on laws to protect wildlife and instructs teachers to discuss the implications with students. The teacher asked if the decision to make snake catching a punishable offence was correct. One girl’s answer was: Catching snakes and exhibiting them is for livelihood, so give them other ways of making a living before you make this a punishable offence. Otherwise they will be forced to beg or left without any way to live a decent life. “And do you know what the teacher said?” Seeing her expression, I could guess. “This is a wrong answer. Go check the textbook and write what it says.”
She reflects on her days as biology teacher and how she used to look for opportunities to take children out of the classroom. “At Apeejay School, NOIDA, the Yamuna was across the road. In winter, there would be many migratory birds. I used to take the children bird watching. Today, there’s a four-lane expressway. No way can you cross the road now.” What if the school is in the middle of a concrete jungle? “Use potted plants. There will be grasshoppers or flies.”
She has quite a bit to say about flies. “In the insect world, the fourth largest group is flies. Not all are the kind you want to swat. Many are beautiful. They are pollinators and pest controllers. For us, fly means carrier of disease. But if you watch a fly carefully, you’ll see it cleans itself more often than we do. A fly tastes its food with its feet, so it has to land on different stuff. Humans throw garbage in the open, defecate in open spaces and then complain about the fly carrying disease.”
In an attempt to create more awareness, she has curated the content for the Biodiversity module of Wipro’s Earthian programme for schools. Geetha shows me the pamphlet of commonly seen fauna, which helps one spot the difference between a chameleon and a garden lizard, or a grasshopper, a mantis and a Katydid. There’s a card game and a booklet with activities to facilitate observation  and personal experience of biodiversity. The material for schools is available for download at
As we wind up our chat, Geetha says, “We don’t need any new curriculum. If schools can engage with forest departments, they can actually use the forest to study the regular curriculum and fulfil the classroom requirements. Even parks and gardens can be used for biodiversity studies, if natural areas of wilderness are not accessible. And environment education won’t be the namesake project it is today.”

Biodiversity is also closely linked with well-being and health..