Thursday, July 28, 2011

India's Second Cleanest City

On our way from one national park in the Nilgiri biosphere reserve to another we passed through what, according to India's urban development ministry, is India's second cleanest city.  In a 2010 assessment of 423 cities with populations of over 100,000, Mysore in the state of Karnataka scored 71 out of a possible 100, which puts it in the "recovering but still diseased" category. Three other cities (Chandigarh, Surat, and the part of New Delhi administered by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation) also achieved this better than average but dubiously described ranking ("diseased"? Oh, yes please!).  

Not a single Indian city managed to score above 90 ("healthy and clean").  Jaipur, my current city, scored 31, barely made it into the "needing considerable improvements" group, while almost half the cities considered fell into the lowest "on the brink of public health and environmental emergency" category. Cities were ranked, among other things, on drinking water quality and prevalence of open-air defecation.  Not really a very cheerful picture. 

But Mysore is lovely.  I didn't necessarily notice that was cleaner than the average Indian city, but found something about it to be very appealing.  The Mysore Palace certainly helped.  This magnificent building was the most recent official residence of the Wodeyars, the rulers of the kingdom of Mysore from 1399 until the independence of India in 1947. The building was completed in 1912 and is lit-up to spectacular effect at night. The rooms inside are lavishly decorated with massive paintings and gilt furniture, plus decorative screens to allow the women of the court to peer outside to observe ceremonies without their modesty being compromised.  Mysore also boasts a fascinating bazaar selling everything from essential oils to cooking supplies to heaps of coconuts. Sadly we were only able to linger in this second-cleanest of cities for a day or two. Our time in south India was growing short, and we still had one and a half biospheres to visit!  Next stop, Tamil Nadu!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary

The second biosphere reserve on our itinerary was the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, a massive 5,500 square km area straddling the borders of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. Encompassing about eight separate yet contiguous protected areas of various designations, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve preserves a variety of grassland and forest types in the hilly landscape of the Western Ghats in southwest India. One unique characteristic of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is the prevalence of indigenous tribes, or adivasi, in and around the forests.                                                                                                  
Our first taste of the Nilgiri was through a wonderful visit to the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, a protected area in Karnataka several hours from Bangalore. The Bangalore-based NGO and research organization ATREE (the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment) invited us to visit their field research station in the wildlife sanctuary. Never ones to turn down invitations to wild and wonderful places, we hopped on a bus from Bangalore to Mysore and then onward to a series of small villages inside the sanctuary  And a sanctuary it is - we actually saw wild elephants from the public bus on the way to the field station!

The wildlife sanctuary is named for and located around the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple, a Hindu temple dedicated to the Lord Ranganatha, locally known as Biligiriranga. Sitting perched on top of a hill with a commanding view over the sanctuary's forested hills, the temple supports an abundance of simian entertainment. Walking through the monkey-infested temple grounds at the top of the hill was rather like making your way through a minefield - unpredictable monkeys rushing here, chasing each other and occasionally showing an unseemly interest in bananas I may or may not have had in my backpack.  

While staying at ATREE's field station we took a safari or two into the surrounding jungle. On our first trip we met a rather feisty young male elephant.  Lurking in the trees just off the road, he first watched our jeep for a moment and then lumbered out, head swinging and looking a mite aggressive. Our driver responded promptly, gunning the jeep down the rutted road, not enthusiastic about what an angry 10,000 lb mammal could do to his vehicle (and passengers). Also seen's include the ubiquitous langur and rhesus monkeys, chital deer, and a most impressive animal I've seen nowhere else, the Indian gaur. The gaur is the largest species of wild cattle in the world, bigger than the Cape Buffalo or American Bison. These truly massive animals are very shy, and we caught just a glimpse of two individuals as they faded into the lantana in the dim dawn light.           After the bustle of Bangalore, the BRT was a glorious retreat - the blare of bus horns replaced by bird song, the  smell of half-combusted disel fuel replaced with fresh mountain breezes.

One of ATREE’s partner organizations in the Biligiri Rangaswamy landscape is an NGO called Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK), a social entrepreneurship organization dedicated to the sustainable development of the tribal people living in and around the biosphere reserve. In the BRT the VGKK works mostly with the Soliga, a tribal group who have lived in the forests of the BRT for thousands of years.  Their lives and livelihoods are inexorably linked to the forest in which they hunt, gather wood and forage. This largely sustainable use came under threat in the 1970s from strict wildlife and forest conservation policies instigated by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The 1972 Wildlife Conservation Act and the initiation of Project Tiger in 1973 have been responsible for tremendous conservation successes. However the “inviolate area” theory upon which Indian wildlife conservation is based has done enormous damage to tribal groups who suddenly find themselves evicted from land they have lived on for centuries.

Within the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary VGKK has built an “organic village” complex containing a school for Soliga children, a community hospital, and a vocational training center. The Soliga school sounds like a very rigorous institution: the children’s schedule keeps them busy from 5am until 9pm! ATREE and VGKK have also involved the Soliga in a participatory resource monitoring program, building on Soliga traditional knowledge to promote environmental education and ensure the sustainable harvest of forest resources.

The success of this community-based conservation experiment has high stakes – in January 2011 the wildlife sanctuary was designated as a “Tiger Reserve”, a very restrictive conservation category that excludes all human use of the area. This designation requires that all 574.82 sq km of the BRT be free from human habitation. In effect, 1,500 people will be evicted for the benefit of the estimated 35 tigers living in the reserve. Although the evictees will be compensated with money and property outside the reserve, many do not want to leave their ancestral land.  ATREE is helping the Soliga present a case to the Forest Department that their innovative participatory conservation strategies will protect the tigers without requiring mass relocations. The outcome of this legislation is being closely watched by conservationists of every persuasion and could well mark the beginning of a new trend in Indian wildlife conservation policy.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bangalore Kolkata से ख़राब है

(in which Bangalore is revealed to be an inferior mega-city to Kolkata, despite what all the tech-heads think)

Emboldened by our success in reaching the salt-encrusted tiger swamp, our first Indian biosphere reserve, we hopped on a plane from Kolkata to Bangalore in hot pursuit of our second.  Bangalore, India's 3rd most populous city and the capitol of the state of Karnataka, is the gateway city to the Nilgiri biosphere reserve, a fantastic landscape of forested hillsides and tea plantations spanning three states. Known for its parks, renowned research institutions and universities, and high-tech industries, Bangalore ranks highly on most people's list of livable Indian cities.

But in this self-described Garden City I failed to find a single garden. My Bangalore experience was a wilderness of crumbling cement, congested roads, and cockroach-infested budget hotel rooms. It probably didn't help that I spent most of my three days in the city in and around the chaotic wasteland of the interstate bus terminal. Hey, the accommodation was cheap, transportation was easily available, and I only had three meetings to conclude before we could get the heck out.  One evening we succeeded in escaping the grey hell in order to find the city's commercial center.  But here too, gaudy signs and blaring traffic left me cold.

Bangalore, I do not love you.  But maybe I didn't give you are fair shake.  When next I come again, show me your fair parks and multi-billion dollar corporate headquarters, and then, perhaps, I will give you a second chance.

Here are some pictures of the few sights of Bangalore I did find appealing.

Typical south Indian food: dosa on the left and idli sambar on the right. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Sundarbans

The unique ecosystem of the Sundarbans is highly vulnerable to climate change. Sandwiched between the freshwater flow of three major rivers from the north and the ever-shifting sea to the south, the mudflats and islands of the Sundarbans are constantly eroding, accumulating and being reshaped. One potential impact of climate change in the region is increased storm intensity. The good news is that the Sundarban mangrove forests serve as a buffer, mitigating storm surges before they reach inland areas. The bad news is the increased risk from typhoons for the four million people living in here.

The entire Sundarban ecosystem is also extremely low-lying, at or within a few meters of sea level. Current climate change projections estimate that a sea level rise of 28 cm above 2000 levels is likely to occur in the next 50-90 years. This would result in a 96% decline in Sundarban tiger habitat, with similarly dire consequences for the area's human inhabitants.

Accurate maps of the Sundarbans island system are hard to find, partially because the landscape is always shifting and maps are not accurate for very long. Another reason for the lack of detailed maps is the government's thought that good maps facilitate poachers, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and black-market cattle smugglers moving cows across the border from Hindu India to Muslim Bangladesh. This coarse map from the Sajnakhali Wildlife Sanctuary museum is one of the best I've seen.

When asked to identify the biggest environmental threat to the Sundarbans, many of the government and NGO officials in Kolkata and Canning with whom I spoke did not mention climate change. Rather, these experts cite human population density and poverty as much more immediate problems. The Sundarbans is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.  Over half of the region's historical mangrove forest has been cut down for firewood and other subsistence needs. The remaining forest, both inside and outside of the national park, is regularly exploited for timber, fuel, pulpwood, thatching materials, honey, bees-wax, fish, crustaceans and mollusks. The West Bengal Forest Department is responsible for the preservation of the protected areas. However even this somewhat entrenched bureaucracy recognizes the impossibility of strictly enforcing all the rules. Sundarban subsistence harvesters are extremely poor and lack alternative means of making a living.  Before the Sundarban ecosystem can in practice enjoy the full protection that it has on paper, the socioeconomic situation for local people must be greatly improved.

The relationship between local people and the Forest Department has gotten much better in recent years. Twenty years ago, villagers regularly killed wildlife that strayed out of the national park and also illegally entered the park to poach tigers and other animals. Nowadays poaching has been much reduced and villagers will turn straying wildlife over to the Forest Department. In exchange, the Forest Department has done an increasingly good job of involving local people in environmental decision-making through joint forestry management (JFM) programs. The Forest Department has also taken steps to improve socioeconomic conditions in the villages and increase resiliency to climate change by digging wells, planting mangroves along the mud embankments separating agricultural fields from the sea, and promoting economic opportunities.

From the Sajnakhali Wildlife Sanctuary we took a day-long boat cruise through the watery roadways of the Sundarbans. The 3-meter rise and fall of the tide was dramatic as the mudflats at the edge of the forest disappeared and then reappeared as the day wore on. We didn't see the famed Sundarban tiger, but encountered birds galore as well as many chital deer, the tiger's main source of food.  Right around camp we ran into the resident mongoose begging for food at the kitchen door, as well as a fat 5-ft water monitor lizard. Small fishing boats plied the water, some sticking to the legal side of the channel and some stealthy drifting through the backwaters, deep into the protected forest. These men risk more than arrest and fines by working in these areas. Sundarban tigers are notoriously predatory towards humans. Small Sundarban fishing boats are typically operated by two people, and stories abound of one man disappearing off the back of the boat with barely a splash, his friend in the prow not noticing his absence until the lull in the conversation becomes awkward.   

Sundarban boat safari: looking for wildlife
Local fisherman: legal or illegal?
Who invited the mongoose to dinner?

Chital deer
Red fiddlers
Water monitor

The tiger fence lining the landward side of the protected area. Looks flimsy but is apparently a decent deterrent.

Prime tiger ambush spot. Stripy bodies blend really well with these variegated ferns

Tiger fence close-up. The net is soft, but the tigers don't like the floppy feel of it and generally avoid it.

Sunset view from the watchtower of the Sajnakhali Wildlife Sanctuary
Casts of tiger prints made during the most recent tiger census.
For those of you with a 2009 India Lonely Planet - check out info box on pg. 536.  Yeah. this is THAT guy.