At the 2021 edition of the Karnataka Bird Festival held at BR Hills somewhere neatly between the damp squib of a first wave (in Chamarajanagar) and the severe second wave, a small F2F gathering with online streaming of talks was organised. I did a broad sweep of birds of br hills overlaid on how the hills’ unique geographical location and social history.
An invitation to join a bunch of ecologists who’re working in High Asia led to this perspective piece that traces plausibility of spillovers turning into pandemics in what is considered relatively low-risk (a literal “coldspot”) for zoonotic disease oubreaks due to its relatively sparse populations and large and unihabitable landscapes. However, as we argue rapid land-use change, macroeconomic (even geopolitical!) pressures could create new niches and open up vulnerabilities for spillover events.Continue reading
The BR Hills forests, until recently protected as a wildlife sanctuary under the
Wildlife Protection Act have recently been upgraded to a Tiger Reserve. And by no means without reason; BRT is one of the 42 global source sites for tigers, “so termed because these areas contain concentrations of tigers that have the potential to repopulate larger landscapes”. However, the forests are also a sanctuary to the Soliga people, who are themselves also increasingly seeing a role in tiger conservation. With a new, dynamic officer taking over as the Field Director of the tiger reserve, there was an effort at making a booklet to introduce new visitors to the rich wildlife, people and culture that these hills hold. Reproduced below is my contribution to the booklet, now incorporated into a well-designed booklet available to all visitors to the hills. Continue reading
If Martin Luther King were born in the forests of BR Hills in Southern Karnataka during the nineties, apart from perhaps running into Veerappan, he could’nt have expected more adventure. Nonetheless, I am sure he would still have had a dream.
His dream would have to do much more with owning a television and watching an action film. It may have been about having a bulb at home and a tap with water. It may have been about seeing the insides of a car or wearing colourful clothes. These are some dreams that a ML King look-alike, Ketha has in BR Hills.
Ketha is a Soliga tribal boy far removed from the realities that some of us take for granted. He does not have a facebook profile and the only tweets he hears are that of a a bird which shares his name, the Kethanakki, named after a tribal god’s coming that this bird announces promptly. He lives in a small hamlet within a wildlife sanctuary.
His life is a part of several debates in which he has no voice. There is for example the school of thought on development that wonders why indigenous tribal people are being ‘developed’. What about erosion of their culture? Another argues passionately that the fruits of development (Facebook and twitter included!) cannot be denied to them. The State refers to him as marginalised and has scheduled him.He is one of the 400-odd tribes in India constituting 8 per cent of our population.
Another group of people strongly believe that he and his kind living in protected areas are in fact the obstacle to the conservation of our forests. Wherever, man and wildlife have tried co-existance, some say has ended in a diasaster. Inviolate areas for wildlife are touted as a prerequisite for any conservation strategy. Others weave a more utopian reality for Ketha, suggesting that conservation of wildlife and human livelihoods can go together. Others nuance it further saying that this has definitely happened in some areas. Ketha, of course is blissfully unaware of such realities.
Where would he read these debates? In the textbooks….
Hardly….In the textbooks, Ketha finds references to events, he cannot understand even….such as September 9/11 terror attacks on the US. While, this chapter in the 9th Standard English textbook of Karnataka State Board makes a good effort at trying to convey to Ketha what a watershed these attacks were for global politics, it perhaps misses the boat on connecting with him on issues closer home such as tigers, tribal people or traditional knowledge.
What about the internet? Hardly. Ketha has no access to the internet. Having a local NGO run a school itself is such a privilege for him, when compared to his other tribal brothers in other areas.Perhaps, on the internet, Ketha could have participated in these debates that adorn journals and blogs.
Ketha and Pareto come to my mind as I read the recent guarantee of broadband internet access to every Finn as a fundemental right. I still remember joking about how I am waiting for the day when the Indian State will guarantee 2 Mbps per citizen with unlimited download as a fundemental right. Less than a year from my joke, a country that Ketha has never perhaps heard of, has guaranteed it. Recently, when Michael Moore made that wonderful ‘reality show’ called Sicko, he apparently removed scenes shot about the Norwegian health care system, because, nobody would believe it!
Anyways, my point is that there is today within Ketha’s lifetime, a country where broadband internet access has been granted as a fundemental right, while in Ketha’s country, we are still wondering how to give him and his kind a good primary education.
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.