Monday, November 7, 2011

Entomological Expedition

We were two, and then we were one. In mid April, R. had to leave India - a.) because his visa was about to expire, and b.) because he got an awesome job leading a fur seal research project on a remote Alaskan island, and hey, if you've got to work now and then to make some money, you might as well be roaming rugged island cliff-tops, observing seals and racking up your bird life-list.  So he left, and I was sad.  But being a resilient climate change adaptation researcher (haha - resilient?  Climate change?  Get it?) I decided what better way to recover from my moroseness than to participate in an entomological research expedition in a remote national park in northern India!

At the Fulbright conference back in March I made the acquaintance of a Fulbright Senior Scholar, an entomologist and evolutionary biologist who was planning a bug-collecting expedition in the middle Himalayas in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). I jumped at the invitation to return to my biological field researcher roots and participate. So it came to pass that on a humid morning in early May I arrived by auto-rickshaw at the Dehradun headquarters of the Institute to meet the field team.

The next day the entomologist, three PhD students from WII and I traveled by land rover from Dehradun north into the Himalayan foothills. The first town we passed through was Mussourie, the place where I spent my first three months in India doing language study. We stopped only long enough to buy bananas, however, and then continued out of town down the road towards Kempty Falls.  The landscape became more densely forested, the terrain steeper. For eight very uncomfortable hours we navigated rural,bumpy roads, dodging the occasional bus and shared land rover taxi. Finally, as darkness began to fall, we arrived at a Forest Department lodge on the outskirts of Govind National Park in the far north-west corner of Uttarakhand state. I stumbled out of the land rover, lay down in the grass, and attempted to un-scramble my internal organs from the long ride.

After a quick drive to the trail head the next morning we were off, hiking a well-used trail connecting villages farther up the road-less valley.  In addition to me and the four researchers, we were accompanied by six porters from the village near the trail head. These very personable and enthusiastic young men were a pleasure to hike with - not only did they without fail produce delicious meals at our every improvised campsite, but they listened with serious expressions to my garbled Hindi without ever once rolling their eyes.

Four days later we staggered out of a cold and snow-crusted forest onto a sunny grass-covered hilltop above the treeline. The mountains of the middle Himalaya rose to the north against the vivid blue sky. Even at this altitude purple rhododendron bushes gave color to the hillsides, and we briefly spotted a yellow pine martin cavorting on a lower slope. Everyone dug their cell phones out of deep pockets, hoping to catch the signal that was inaccessible further down the slope.  

We didn't discover any entomological marvels, but got a close look at a beautiful and rarely visited corner of the country. This hilly land in the northwest of Uttarakhand is known as the Garhwal. Garhwali and Hindi are the main languages spoken in these parts, as well as mountain dialects from the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh. Several times on the road we passed migrant Gujar people, grazing their buffalo in the high mountain pastures to escape the sudden spring-time heat on the plains to the south.

Garwali traffic jam
These land rover taxis fit 12 inside and another 5 on the roof!
Skull of a langur monkey, found along the trail

Local women out gathering fodder

 Garhwali orthoptera

Mountain rhododendron

Yellow pine martin
Chapattis for dinner!
Himalayan porcupine quills

Monday, October 24, 2011

Land of Three Rivers

We left the south. The sticky coastal heat, the pervasive dosas and parottas for every meal, the incomprehensible Tamil language – all this we put behind us as, in mid-April, we returned to Delhi. Although not for long, because less than 24 hours after arriving we were back on a train chugging east across the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh on our way to Allahabad, a historic city in the heart of India’s agricultural wheat belt.  

Allahabad, a city of almost 2 million people, occupies a propitious piece of land near the convergence of three holy rivers – the tangible Ganges and Yamuna rivers, and the more mysterious Saravati river.  This third river, although mentioned in religious texts from ancient India, no longer exists as a traditional, surface-flowing body of water. The faithful believe that the river now flows underground and wells up to the surface in the middle of the convergence of the Ganges and Yamuna.  This triple whammy of holy rivers makes Allahabad one of the four sites of the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage taking place every 3 years.  Every 12th year a larger and more significant version of the event takes place, and every 144 years the Maha (great) Kumbh Mela occurs. The most recent one in 2001 attracted 60 million people, making it the largest gathering ever in recorded history.

Our main reason for visiting Allahabad was to participate in a second community farmer consultation with staff from TERI (read about the first one in West Bengal here). While I was doing that, R. made his way to Triveni Sangam, as the river convergence is known. Joining Indian worshipers in a hired boat, he rowed out to the center of the wide waterway. His fellow boaters were young men who had just finished taking an exam to gain admittance to university - for the third time. Each April for the last three years these friends had thrown themselves into the cut-throat battle to gain university admission. Indian higher education is one of the most competitive academic systems in the world, and the best Indian universities have an acceptance rate of less than 1 in 50.  In 2011, in order to be competitive for university admission, students had to score a perfect 100% on the standardized entrance exam. India’s abundance of talented and ambitious youth combined with inadequate university capacity leads to this – young men taking an entrance exam for the third time and then rowing to the holy convergence of sacred rivers to pray for divine intervention. Let’s hope it’s third time lucky.

While R. was learning about the plight of the modern Indian university aspirant, I was shut in a very hot conference room with 25 officials from the Allahabad district Department of Agriculture. After an introduction and discussion of climate change impacts in the region, TERI researchers led the participants in a conversation to suggest locally appropriate adaptation ideas. Agriculture, the primary industry in Allahabad district, is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Grain crops are largely rain-fed, and changes in the pattern of the annual monsoon can be hugely detrimental to farmers. The Ganges and Yamuna (and presumably Saravati) are fed by seasonal melt from the Himalayas, and are thus also susceptible to climate change impacts.

The next day we saw climate change adaptation in action at a rural agricultural extension office an hour’s drive outside of Allahabad. This facility was promoting alternative livelihood activities to supplement agriculture and provide more stable sources of income.  We saw several test projects in action, including intensive chicken farming, making idols and figurines, cow husbandry, and the cultivation of commercially valuable high-grade crops. These activities can provide a critical economic buffer to rural farmers in times of drought or flood.

Community consultation in Allahabad
Figurines cast from a plant resin

Commercial-scale chicken husbandry

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Gulf of Mannar: Conservation and Exploitation

Wandering the beaches in southern Tamil Nadu is an eye-opening experience. It's a beach-comber's delight - or nightmare, depending on how squeamish you are.  Broken woven baskets encrusted with dried fish detritus, coils of abandoned fishing net, the severed heads and tails of puffer fish and stingrays, and, least appealing, ubiquitous cow pies - or what would be called cow pies if they were made by cows and not people. Millions of fish corpses lay spread on the sunbaked earth, slowly drying in preparation for the fishmeal market. The acres of scaly bodies are so salty, so dry, that not even the black and grey Indian crows perched on the rooftops are tempted by them.

The beaches of the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve are not exactly what I expected. Being the starry-eyed, naive conservationist that I am, words like "biosphere reserve", "community-based conservation", and "UNESCO" make me think of tidy landscapes, prosperous people, and sustainable natural resource use.  Let’s just say that there is still some work to be done in the Gulf of Mannar.

In India the designation "biosphere reserve" has no legal status.  So the waters lapping at these busy and littered beaches have no more protection than any other piece of coastal water. However, areas with the biosphere reserve label do get a little more attention and funding than the average chunk of landscape crying out for a little conservation. 

The Gulf of Mannar was the first marine biosphere reserve in south-east Asia. These coastal waters of Tamil Nadu are extensively studied and support between 3,600-5,000 different species, making it one of the richest coastal regions in Asia.  Although fishing is allowed in the reserve, it is not allowed in the core area, the Gulf of Mannar marine national park, which encompasses the waters 500 meters offshore a series of small islands stretching down the coast.  National park is a much more rigorous management category than biosphere reserve. The wildlife warden of the national park and personnel from the Forest Department work together to manage human impacts in the area.

There is no doubt that the Gulf of Mannar is heavily over-fished. Illegal exploitation even occurs within the national park. Buoys were recently installed to delineate the edges of the protected area, but local fishermen quickly cut them loose to prevent strict enforcement. At the time of my visit state elections were only a few weeks away. In a triumph of political expediency over law enforcement, the incumbent politicians were deliberately refraining from enforcing the boundaries of the national park until after the elections in an effort to please voters.

In Ramanathapuram I met with an employee of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust, a public-private partnership organization working on sustainable development and livelihood issues in the national park and biosphere reserve.  He described to me the incomplete regulatory framework governing India’s fisheries and marine resources.  The Marine Fishing Regulation Act focuses entirely on the economic aspects of fishing and has no conservation focus.  Lack of enforcement is also a problem. Although regulations state that fishing net mesh size should be no smaller than 5cm, mesh sizes of 1.5-2 cm are common. Although the waters between the shoreline and 5km offshore are reserved for artisanal fishing, commercial trawlers commonly operate within the 5km limit.  Fishermen have been trained (and are required) to use turtle exclusion devices (TEDs) and juvenile (fish) exclusion devices (JEDs), but commonly use neither, as these technologies can cause them to lose 12-15% of their catch, a loss they are not prepared to endure. Because most trawlers are owned by rich businessmen living away from coastal fishing communities, the economic benefits of fishing are often not experienced by local fishermen. The cost of a trawl fishing boat is in the range of 30 lakh rupees (3 million dollars), far beyond the reach of actual fishermen. These rich trawl owners are politically well connected, ensuring nothing has been done to make trawl fishing more sustainable in over two decades.  An additional complication in this region is the narrowness of the exclusive economic zone between India and Sri Lanka. The waters are shallow with ever-changing patterns of sedimentation, forcing fishing boats to sometimes stray into the other nation’s waters. 

But despite these issues, in some ways the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve is a model for public-private conservation partnerships and innovative programs.  The Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust, jointly funded by the Government of India and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), runs a number of programs in rural fishing communities in coastal Tamil Nadu.  One major focus is capacity building. In the last several years almost 250 eco-development committees, each serving between 5-20 villages, have been developed. These committees manage microcredit programs, administer small grants for alternative livelihood training, and educate youth.  The Trust promotes some alternatives to fishing such as jasmine and betel leaf cultivation, making charcoal, palm jaggery, plaster of paris dolls and idols, salt, and shared autos.  It was also instrumental in getting plastic bags banned in the region, installing public, pay-to-use toilets, and building a centralized fish market to allow better communication between fishermen and better hygiene and display of the catch.   One major success of the Trust’s programs has been to eliminate high interest rate money lenders by starting its own low interest micro-credit scheme.

Additional threats to the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve are untreated sewage, nearby industrial plants releasing effluent, and over-harvesting of seaweed from the shallow waters around islands in the reserve.  Dynamite and cyanide fishing and coral mining have been completely stopped thanks to the work of the Trust.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Far South

Our last destination in India’s south was the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve.  This reserve, the first marine biosphere reserve in all of south and central Asia, encompasses 10,500 sq km of coastal waters stretching 300 km along the south-east coastline of the state of Tamil Nadu just opposite from the western coast of Sri Lanka.  Within the biosphere reserve are 21 small uninhabited islands scattered in a line parallel to the coast.  The water within 500 meters of these islands comprises the Gulf of Mannar marine national park, as well as the core area of the biosphere reserve. 
From the town of Ramanathapuram on the Indian mainland we travelled south-east down the length of a sandy peninsula which soon broke into a series of sand bar islands linked with bridges stretching towards Sri Lanka. At the south-eastern end of the last island is the Hindu pilgrimage town of Rameswaram, visited by worshipers of both Vishna and Shiva.  Home of both the Ramanathaswamy Temple and ghats for ocean bathing, Rameswaram is considered one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus in India and is sometimes called the “Varanasi of the south”.  

South of Rameswaram stretches a narrow spit of sand known as Adam’s Bridge.  About 10 km from town the spit disappears underwater to form a series of partially submerged limestone shoals connecting India and Sri Lanka.  Geological evidence and temple records indicate that Adam’s Bridge may have been passable on foot as recently as 1480, when it was destroyed by a cyclone.   The first mention of the bridge was by its other name, Rama’s Bridge, in the ancient Indian Sanskrit epic Ramayana, which refers to a bridge built by Lord Rama’s army of ape-men to allow Rama to reach the kingdom of Lanka (Sri Lanka) to rescue his wife, Sita, from a demon king. This compelling story notwithstanding, geological evidence tells us that the bridge is a natural geological formation, not man- (or monkey) made.

A 19th century painting depicting a scene from Ramayana in which monkeys and bears are shown building a bridge to Lanka. This painting is currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

The small town of Rameswaram is full of guest house accommodation for Indian religious tourists and every day in the early morning hundreds of pilgrims make their way down to the ocean-side bathing ghat.  The low morning sun picks out bright saris in a hundred hues as women wade into the sea fully dressed to perform their ablutions. On the shore vendors sell puja offerings – coconuts and marigolds in baskets made of woven leaves. Young men point their cell phone cameras at us as we try but fail to blend into the crowd.  Down the beach a pig roots in a rotting pile of sea flotsam and beyond a rocky seawall several men defecate on the beach.  Hundreds of moored fishing boats line the horizon, inactive due to the strictly enforced fishing ban observed in Tamil Nadu and Kerala from April 15th to June 1st.  During this time, changing water current patters result in a nutrient bloom that feeds young fish and is critical in ensuring continuing fish stocks.  Because of the seasonal ban, the beaches and wharfs are crowded with men, either engaged in repairs of nets and boats or resting under the shade of their boats drawn up onto the beach. 

We wander the shore, speaking with fishermen, admiring the catch of small boats not affected by the ban. Eventually we are driven by hunger and the heat of the rising sun into a small dhaba in search of breakfast.  South Indian parottas were on the menu – flaky flatbread beaten just a little bit to separate the layers. Sitting right next to the cooking station, every few minutes our table shook with a bang bang bang as the cook slammed his fist down repeatedly on a pile of fresh parottas. Waving away the flies, we consumed parottas and omelets from broad banana leaf plates, and then staggered home to nap during the heat of the south Indian afternoon. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Land of Tea

The capitol of the Nilgiris district of the southern-most Indian state of Tamil Nadu is Udhagamandalam, oOoty for those who can't pronounce the full name. Nilgiris means "blue mountains" in Tamil. Indeed, the Nilgiris are a bluish hue - outside of the protected forest areas much of the natural vegetation has been cleared for eucalyptus stands and tea plantations, reflecting green-ish blue light across the hillsides.

Ooty is home to a number of NGOs and government offices dealing with conservation issues in the Nilgiris.  We sought out a few for interviews. A Mudumali national park wildlife officer told us that the three greatest threats to the park were poaching, invasive species, and forest fire. In previous years poaching was a huge problem, but recent government-run programs to employ villagers as anti-poaching watchers have brought improvements. Lantana, a bushy shrub, and parthenium, a toxic plant in the aster family, are the region's two worst invasive species, affecting food webs, agriculture, and human and animal health. Lantana, along with recent erratic rainfall, has made the park more susceptible to forest fires. The wildlife officer shared stories of his efforts to increase the park's fire management capacity, as well as to start programs to provide sustainable vocational training for local adivasi youth. He also revealed that, as is the case with many of India's national parks and protected areas, there are currently about 300 families living inside the park. India's conservation protocols require that these people be relocated (for more on this controversial issue see the post on the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary).  In a deal many are calling the "golden handshake", the government has offered families living in the park 10 lakh rupees (1 million rupees or about 21 thousand dollars) as well as land outside the reserve as incentive to leave. By all accounts this is a great deal. However for many families, the emotional and historic significance of their ancestral home in the park outweighs the financial benefits of moving.

Making our way to Ooty's sister town of Kotagiri, we met with the director of the Keystone Foundation, a natural resource and rural development NGO that has been working in the Nilgiris since 1995. The Keystone Foundation emphasizes the need to include local people in natural resource management decision-making. Its work includes reviving natural vegetation, environmental governance, documenting indigenous knowledge of biodiversity and local cultural practices, and promoting the sustainable harvest of non-timber forest products such as honey, beeswax and fruit. The Keystone Foundation also works to implement the 2006 Forest Rights Act, a piece of legislation restoring rights of forest use back to traditional forest dwellers and indigenous people. This legislation, enacted by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, is seen as a threat by the Forest Department, an entrenched bureaucracy with a history of managing forest land for timber revenue rather than wildlife or the livelihoods of local people. The story of the Forest Rights Act and the Forest Department is a fascinating one that I will discuss in a subsequent post.

Tea cultivation plays an important role in the economy and ecology of the Nilgiris. The state government, under pressure to increase local incomes and standards of living, provides subsidies of 60,000 rupees per acre for tea cultivation and has ambitious plans to expand production. However the Keystone Foundation maintains that this incentive system leads to superficial land values and no recognition of the significance of the greater landscape. A lack of rules promoting soil and water conservation results in loss of trees and soil through erosion.  The money spent on tea subsidies would be better spent encouraging the cultivation of local millets that have less environmental impact and increased food sustainability benefits.  But tea cultivation provides reliable income for 10 months of the year, and it is much more difficult to quantify the benefits of preserving traditional crops and intact ecosystems.    

Deciding our understanding of the Nilgiri biosphere reserve was incomplete without seeing tea production up close, we talked our way into an impromptu tour of one of Kotagiri's big plantations. The tea warehouse was a massive dimly lit space, filled with giant steel machines and the fragrant aroma of Nilgiri tea. Sunlight from the skylights filtered down through motes of tea dust permeating the air. A fine film of tea layered every surface and clogged every knook and cranny of the machines.

Tea leaves are plucked by hand and carried into the processing warehouse, where they are left to wither for a number of hours under fans.  This tea factory used the CTC method (crush, tear and curl) to process their product.  After being bruised and fermented, the tea leaves are then passed through a machine with cylindrical rollers with sharp teeth that, yup, you guessed it, crush, tear, and curl the leaves.  Over 80% of tea production in India is of this sort and is suitable for use in teabags or for the loose tea used in making the ubiquitous Indian chai.  CTC tea produced in the Nilgiris has mild tannin, a generic flavor, and is low cost, contributing to its popularity in the Indian domestic market.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Festival of Raksha Bandhan

A few weeks ago the festival of Raksha Bandhan was observed in India. This unique celebration is dedicated to the love and affection shared between a brother and sister. The country over girls and women pray for a long life for their brothers and tie a symbolic rakhi bracelet around their wrists, symbolizing the strong emotional bond between siblings.  In response, brothers promise to protect their sisters, and often give them small gifts of sweets or jewelry.

The origins of Raksha Bandhan are not well known.  One early example of rakhi-giving is described in the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic poem from ancient India, in which the princess Draupadi tied a cloth around the god Krishna's wrist where he had been hurt by a thorn.  In exchange, Krishna promised to protect her.  

In my Jaipur household the actual giving of the rakhis was a solemn event. The women quietly moved among their brothers and sons, tying on rakhi amulets made of string, glitter and plastic jewels and blessing them by applying a tilaka mark to their foreheads.  The men in turn gave the women some small item of costume jewelry (I really liked mine - dangly earnings made of wire and glass beads). After the serious ceremony the mood lightened as the boys compared their rakhi bracelets, the women gossiped, and everyone ate Raksha Bandhan sweets like rasagoola and ladoo.

Some of the members of my extended host family showing off their rakhis

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Walk in the Woods

     (in the Nilgiri biosphere reserve)

The Nilgiri biosphere reserve and its constituent parts - source: Wikipedia Commons
Continuing our quest to see more of the tri-state Nilgiri biosphere reserve we bused south from Mysore through the heart of three abutting national parks in three different states - Bandipur National Park in Karnataka, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, and Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu. Our timing was a bit unfortunate - it was April, the driest time of the year just before the monsoon starts in late May, and most of the core areas of the parks were closed due to the increased likelihood of a careless cigarette butt thrown out of a window starting a forest fire. But upon arriving at Mudumalai National Park we found that although the core area was closed, it was still possible to see some of the buffer area on jeep tours and guided walks. So after finding a cheap but decent hotel and meeting the resident toad living under one of the beds we went out for an evening jeep safari in the lands buffering the core area of the national park from human encroachment. These areas are used for low impact human activities, such as limited grazing and fodder collection, and serve to protect the core area from such activities. The landscape in this area was very park-like - dense stands of trees interspersed with open grassy areas with closely cropped grass, probably grazed by both wild and domestic animals.

Our jeep safari was a bit of a disappointment - we didn't see much other than chital deer and some hulking vultures squatting in a tree, waiting for a pack of stray dogs to leave the corpse of a calf. Supposedly our tour guide kept getting wind of elephant sightings from other jeep drives, and so we tore back and forth trying to find an elephant for ourselves.  No luck.  We did, however, get to ride on the roof of our jeep!  

Next morning we ventured out on foot with our guide into the buffer area. The stillness of the early morning misty forest was broken by distant music from a village temple. Primary targets for the morning - elephant and tiger. In addition to the English-speaking safari organizer, we also had an inscrutable local village man with us. He wore a dohti and turban and padded through the dewy grass with bare feet. Not once during our three-hour walk did he look at or speak to us tourists. It was his job to 1) find us some wildlife, and 2) make sure we weren't eaten by/stepped on by said wildlife. Going on safari in elephant territory on foot is quite a different experience than in a jeep. As Lonely Planet puts it, hiking safaris sound great until you really consider the phrase "trampled to death".  As we slipped through the morning forest we kept our eyes open for tell-tale signs of the proximity of wildlife. These can include warning calls from other animals, broken branches, and of course, scat.  Our guide was very excited when he found this still-steaming pile of elephant poo. "Very fresh" he said. "Elephant must be close".

Sure enough, just a few minutes later, we saw it, our first wild elephant encountered while on foot.  We kept a very respectful distance from it, and because we were downwind and very quiet, our guide said that it likely didn't know we were there. Elephants have excellent hearing and sense of smell, but poor eyesight. After a few minutes, it faded into the scrub, moving surprisingly gracefully for such a big animal through the dense vegetation. I'm no expert, but this one looked to me like a young-ish female. Any thoughts, all you elephant aficionados out there? No tigers seen on this trip, sadly.  Now that would be an intense on-foot encounter!