Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Discoveries in the times of extinctions

Over 350 species discovered in the Eastern Himalayas

Chitwan Scorpion (Heterometrus nepalensis)

While the world is reeling under the impacts of climate change with the possible extinctions of species, the new findings in the Eastern Himalayas spanning Bhutan, the north-eastern Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, North Bengal and Sikkim, the far north of Myanmar (Burma), Nepal and southern parts of Tibet Autonomous Region, have delighted the conservation fraternity.

Over 350 new species including the world’s smallest deer, a “flying frog” and a 100 million-year old gecko have been discovered in the Eastern Himalayas.

A decade of research carried out by scientists in remote mountain areas endangered by rising global temperatures brought exciting discoveries such as a bright green frog (Rhacophorus suffry) which uses its red and long webbed feet to glide in the air.

(The WWF report The Eastern Himalayas – Where Worlds Collide details discoveries made by scientists from various organizations between 1998 and 2008)

In Nepal alone 94 new species were discovered which include 40 plants, 36 invertebrates, 7 fish, 2 amphibians, and 9 reptiles.

One of the most remarkable discoveries in Nepal was Heterometrus nepalensis, a scorpion new to the world discovered in the Chitwan National Park in 2004. This discovery was significant as it was the first species of scorpion ever to be discovered in the country and was given the name to honour the occasion.

The Eastern Himalayas report also mentions the miniature muntjac, also called the “leaf deer” (Muntiacus putaoensis) which is the world’s oldest and smallest deer species.

Scientists initially believed the small creature found in the world’s largest mountain range was a juvenile of another species but DNA tests confirmed the light brown animal with innocent dark eyes was a distinct and new species.

The Eastern Himalayas are now known to harbour a staggering 10,000 plant species, 300 mammal species, 977 bird species, 176 reptiles, 105 amphibians and 269 types of freshwater fish. The region also has the highest density of the Bengal tiger and is the last bastion of the charismatic greater one-horned rhino.

Historically, the rugged and largely inaccessible landscape of the Eastern Himalayas has made biological surveys in the region extremely difficult. As a result, wildlife has remained poorly surveyed and there are large areas that are still biologically unexplored.

Today further species continue to be unearthed and many more species of amphibians, reptiles and fish are currently in the process of being officially named by scientists. The Eastern Himalayas is certainly one of the last biological frontiers of Asia with many new discoveries waiting to be made.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Tigers roar loud in Nepal

A tiger captured in a camera trap in Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve of Western Nepal/ Image courtesy: GoN/ WWF Nepal

2008 population estimate brings a sigh of relief among conservationists

The wild tiger population is at a tipping point. More than half of the Bengal tiger population was lost to poaching in the last decade. The estimated number of tigers in important range countries is frighteningly low, with a recent government census suggesting there may be as few as 1,300 tigers left in India, the species’ stronghold. Besides poaching tigers are facing an epidemic of habitat loss across their range.

When the Government of Nepal started the nation-wide tiger population estimate with the help of conservation organizations like WWF and National Trust for Nature Conservation on 15 November 2008, there was a hidden fear among the conservationists that the results might be dishearteningly low. But when the final figures were released there was a joy and sigh of relief in everyone's face. The 2008 population estimate has confirmed the presence of 121 adult tigers in Nepal. The 1995-2001 estimates had shown the presence of 123 adult tigers in Nepal.

Following the unique bar codes

Each tiger has unique set of stripes, just like the unique fingerprints we all have. The set of stripes are different on both the sides. To capture the stripes on both sides, a pair of camera traps is fitted at the probable sites of tiger encounter in such a way that when a tiger crosses between the cameras they click at the same time.

To derive information on both abundance and distribution of tigers, the current survey employed two methods - Camera Trapping method inside the protected areas and Habitat Occupancy survey both inside and outside the protected areas. Three hundred camera traps were fitted at the tiger encounter sites and the images captured in the cameras were analyzed to find the final figures. To obtain reliable population estimates the survey was undertaken simultaneously in all potential habitats. Previous studies had been undertaken in different time periods and at different spatial scales.

Illegal trade behind the declining tiger numbers
The main reason for the decline of tiger populations has been attributed to poaching and illegal trade. This is linked to the illegal international trade in tiger parts and derivatives (skin, bones, meat in some cases although not reported in Nepal) and use in traditional Chinese Medicines (TCM). Apart from these, sporadic cases of retaliatory killing from irate communities have been reported. Other important reasons of tiger population decline are habitat shrinkage and fragmentation due to human intervention, loss/decline of prey species.

As per the recently released figures, Chitwan National Park has 91, Bardia National Park 18, Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve 8 and Parsa Wildlife Reserve has 4 adult tigers. The tiger numbers have increased in Chitwan but have decreased in Bardia National Park and Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve of the western Nepal.

"In spite of the decade long insurgency, encroachment, poaching and illegal trade, the present numbers is a positive sign, but we can't remain unworried," says Mr. Anil Manandhar, Country Representative of WWF Nepal.

"The declining numbers in western Nepal has posed more challenges, needing a concerted effort to save this charismatic endangered species focusing on anti-poaching and illegal wildlife trade."

Transboundary cooperation a must to save tigers

The Government of Nepal has approved and launched the 'Tiger conservation Action Plan 2008- 2012'. A comprehensive management plan has been devised in which the target is to increase the population of tigers by 10 per cent within the first 5 year period of the plan implementation. Many conservation organizations like WWF are helping the government to conserve the tigers. However, with the effort of Government of Nepal and conservation organizations alone won't be enough to save the tigers.

"Nepal and India share a porous border and many protected areas in both countries are linked with each other," said Dr. Uday Raj Sharma.

"Both the countries need to work together to save these endangered species."

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Helping hands for rhinos at risk

It is hard to imagine but true that the species that rubbed shoulders with the prehistoric dinosaurs are once again in the great risk of being wiped out due to the avarice of human beings. The rhinos lived in grasslands, forests and wetlands of South and South East Asia long before humans arrived, their ancestors were here 40 million years ago. Indricotherium, the most impressive of all the extinct rhinos was the largest land mammal ever to live on earth.

Currently, five types or rhinos are found worldwide. White rhinoceros are the largest and most common one, with a broad square-shaped mouth, found mainly in South Africa. Black rhinoceros are the fastest one with a hooked upper lip, found in east and southern Africa. Javan rhinoceros are the rarest one, only 60 remaining in the west Java's thick forests in Indonesia. Sumatran rhinoceros are hairy one, like to wallow in muddy pool, with only 300 left in Burma, Indonesia and Malaysia. The greater one-horned rhinoceros – having most folded skins, are found in India and Nepal.

The greater one-horned rhinoceros population faces a grave threat from poaching. Once, there were 600 rhinos in the wild in Nepal, but the population slumped down to 372 due to the security problem during the insurgency in Nepal. However, with the concentrated conservation efforts, the number has gone upto 435 as per the rhino count conducted in 2008.

Poached for its prized possession
"The rhinos are poached for their horns and the poaching is well organized," says a local in Chitwan, home to the second largest population of one-horned rhinos. "Most poachers work in gangs and the methodology is such that each member of the gang has to do only a specific task."

A member of the gang just locates the rhino and gets a meager sum of money, sometimes even a bottle of beer works for him. They are generally poor local people. They take the benefit of rhinos' behaviour – they like to wallow in water bodies and they leave dung in big piles, using the same path in the vegetation again and again. Another member of the poaching gang shoots the rhino and the third member hacks the horn from the dead rhino's body. Then one member takes the horn to cities like Kathmandu from where the horn could be passed on to either China or India. The amount earned by the gang members escalates with each higher layer and finally the rhino horn lands at a prized amount of approximately Nepali rupees 800,000 (around USD 10,000).

Historically rhinos have been hunted for their horns, a prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicines. Rhino horn is a key ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Even today, traditional Chinese practitioners use rhino horn to treat life-threatening fevers. However, the current clinical evidence is inconclusive about its fever reducing properties.

In a number of the Gulf countries, men traditionally wear daggers and the most expensive handles are made from rhino horns. The wearers of the daggers still command respect in the society.

In Greek mythology, rhino horns were said to possess the ability to purify water. Rhino horns were carved out into beautiful ornamental drinking cups to detect poisons. The ancient Persians of the 5th century BC thought that cups carved from the rhino horn could detect poisoned liquids, causing bubbles in the presence of some poisons. This belief persisted till the 18th and 19th centuries among the royal courts of Europe.

The researchers say that this may have been because many early poisons were strong alkaloids that may have reacted strongly with the keratin and gelatin in the rhino horn, thereby indicating the presence of poison.

Besides poaching, destruction of habitat and conflict with humans over living space remain the major threats to saving these magnificent species.

Concerned community members
The communities living in the vicinity of protected areas are well aware of the plight of the rhinos and they know that without rhinos the tourism business will suffer. A mahout (elephant handler) in Chitwan says, "The tourists come to see the rhinos." "If we can't save the rhinos, all of us will lose jobs."

In a shocking incident, a live rhino's horn was hacked off by the poachers, leaving the rhino writhing in pain. The rhino died after two weeks in spite of being treated by the veterinarian and officers of Chitwan National Park. The community members were so enraged that they padlocked all the offices in Sauraha, Chitwan and demonstrated on streets to pressurize the government and concerned people to save the rhinos. A hotel owner in Sauraha says, "If the locals find out the culprits, they will beat them to death."

Similarly, in Khata, the biological corridor that links Nepal's Bardia National Park with India's Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, the community members have formed community based anti-poaching operation units. They patrol the community forests on regular basis and are keep an eye on any new person entering their territory. Eighty three rhinos were translocated to Bardia National Park from Chitwan National Park but as per the 2008 rhino count the park has just 22 rhinos left. In an incident when the community members heard a bullet shot in the nearby community forest, around 2000 locals formed a human chain and remained awake the whole night to save a mother rhino and its baby. The mother and the baby rhinos regularly come from the national park to a water hole dug by the locals in the community forest.

Fences of harmony
Besides the anti-poaching patrols, the communities have started planting mentha (mint), chamomile, lemongrass and citronella plants in their lands bordering the national park in Khata. " Farming the crops that are unpalatable for the rhinos has reduced the human rhino conflict , " says Bhim Bahadur Pun, a farmer in Khata. "We are also getting better price for the essential oil produced from these crops."

With the financial support from organizations like WWF, the communities have put up electrical fences around their fields and community forests bordering the parks in Chitwan and Bardia. This has also reduced the conflict.

Youths for a Secured future for rhinos
Not only the elder members but the younger members in the communities living near the protected areas are concerned about the fate of rhinos. Most of the schools in these areas have formed eco-clubs. Eco clubs are independent group of students working collectively to support conservation. The students stage street dramas to aware the community about the ills of poaching and benefits of conserving the endangered species.

An enthusiastic eco club member in Chitrasari, Chitwan says, "The rhinos too have the right to live along with the humans."

"All of us know that they will vanish like dinosaurs if we are not able to stop the rampant poaching. So, though street dramas, we try to educate the locals on how to stop the poaching of these magnificent animals."

Adding to this a teacher in Chitwan says, "The rhinos will continue to live as long as the young generation is concerned about them."

"The rein is in their hands."

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Saving the endangered snow leopard

A snow leopard is hunt for its beautiful fur

God’s pets in peril
One of the world's most beautiful and elusive cats, the snow leopards (Uncia uncia), considered as God's pets by the local communities in the Himalayas, are in grave danger. They inhabit the high, rugged, harsh and barren environs and are distributed in the Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains. With an estimated world population of just 3,500 – 7,000 in the wild, they are listed on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species as "Endangered".

The snow leopards weigh between 27-54 kgs, their body length ranges between 0.74 – 1.30 metres with a tail nearly the same length. They possess thick fur which is pale with dark-gray to black spots. This aids in hunting by helping to camouflage the cat against the rocky slopes. Its large, broad paws act like snow shoes. The snow leopard even has a built-in scarf, its long, bushy tail that it often wraps around its body and face for added warmth when resting. This same tail helps the cat keep its balance as it leaps among rocky outcrops and narrow ledges after its agile prey. Its powerfully built, barrel-shaped chest gives it the strength to climb the steep slopes. Its long, muscular hind legs enable it to leap up to 10 metres—nearly six times its body length—in pursuit of prey.

Poaching for pelt and bones
The snow leopards are poached for their valuable fur and bones used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). As the demand for Asian big cat bones increases, TCM producers turn to other large cats such as the clouded leopard and snow leopard as substitutes for the tiger bones. The bone trade is rapidly replacing fur trade. Herders living along Nepal’s northern border have been known to exchange snow leopard bones for domestic sheep breeding stock from Tibet. The sale of bones offers poor mountain communities an opportunity to generate substantial income, especially where enforcement is weak and the penalties insignificance.

Herders' headache
As the natural prey base depletes, the snow leopards attack livestock and fall victim to retaliatory killing. "Loss of prey mainly occurs due to poaching of prey species like musk deer and Himalayan tahr or due to the competition for grazing grounds between livestock and prey species," says Kamal Thapa, Research Officer with WWF. "Snow leopards get killed in retaliation by the herders when they attack livestock during times when their natural prey is scarce."

Human-snow leopard conflicts often increase in the winter, as the cats follow the herds of Himalayan blue sheep down to lower altitudes. Food is scarce, and hungry snow leopards occasionally kill and eat domestic livestock. In an incident, a snow leopard killed 100 sheep and goats in its single attack in the Langtang Valley in Nepal. The herders are poor and the loss of even a single yak, sheep or goat is an unbearable pain for them. One herder said, "Snow leopards are robbers, they kill our yak and sheep." "If I find a snow leopard, I will kill it and eat its heart first."

Communities to the rescue of snow leopards
Despite the human-snow leopard conflict, people are now conscious that snow leopards are endangered and they should be saved. The herd owners have set up a common fund which is administered and managed by the Snow Leopard Conservation Committee – made up of members of the local community. This Committee is responsible for monitoring livestock depredation trends, fundraising, verifying claims, and deciding on the appropriate compensation, raising awareness on snow leopards conservation and monitoring prey population. This is very much a scheme for the herders by the herders.

The Livestock Insurance Scheme has proved to be one of the important tools to reduce conflicts between snow leopards and humans. When herders are compensated financially for occasional losses of their cattle they are less likely to kill snow leopards in retaliation as they no longer have to fear financial ruin. This scheme has been used in India, Pakistan and Nepal – where WWF created the first scheme in the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area of Eastern Nepal. Experience has shown that the livestock insurance scheme has proved effective in preventing retaliatory killing of snow leopards.

A good future ahead
There are 350 – 500 snow leopards in the wild in Nepal. They inhabit the Nepal's mountain protected areas from Kangchenjunga Conservation Area in the east to Shey Phoksundo National Park in the west. Replication of the successful Livestock Insurance Scheme in all the snow leopard habitats will help save these endangered animals. One local from Kangchenjunga said, "The awareness level has increased in our area." "Now even the herders have realized that they should save the snow leopards."

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Where have the gharials gone?

Once common throughout its range with an inferred population of 5,000 to 10,000 in the 1940s, the gharial numbers have gone gone down to less than 200 breeding adults.

When more than 100 gharials died in the Yamuna and Chambal rivers in India last year, it sent alarms among the conservationists and people started identifying gharial as one of the most threatened crocodilian species.

Croc with a pot on its snout
The gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) is characterized by its long and slender snout and mostly inhabits deep, fast-flowing rivers. Its name derives from the cartilaginous protruberance at the end of the adult male’s snout that resembles a Ghara, an earthen pot common to India and Nepal.

It is the only crocodile species in which the male is morphologically different from the female. The gharial, like other crocodiles, helps bring nutrients from the bottom of the riverbed to the surface, thus increasing primary production and fish populations and helping maintain the aquatic ecosystem.

"Critically Endangered"
Gharial is the first crocodilian species to be re-categorized as Critically Endangered on the 2007 IUCN Red List. It was common throughout its range with an inferred population of 5,000 to 10,000 in the 1940s.
Dr. Narendra Babu Pradhan, the Chief Warden of Chitwan National Park said, "During the period of 1981-2008, 691 gharials were released in Narayani, Rapti, Karnali, Babai, Koshi and Kali Gandaki rivers."

However, gharial numbers continue to plummet. A 2008 survey confirmed the presence of 81 individuals in the different rivers of Nepal, the number presumably higher due to the release of captive-bred gharials.

Radio tagging to track the movement
Fourteen radio tagged gharials were released in a make-shift enclosure at Dumariya ghat of the Rapti River. The duo of Dr. Antoine Cadi and Renan Aufray from the French NGO, Awely, helped the team from Chitwan National Park (CNP) to fit the gharials with radio transmitters.

The transmitters are attached to the scutes on the gharials' tails and each gharial has been provided a different number and radio frequency. They will be monitored based on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology by the team of CNP staff led by Bishnu Thapaliya and Madhav Khadka.

WWF's Country Representative to Nepal, Mr. Anil Manandhar said, "The study will help in diagnosing the causes of decline in the gharial population. It will also help us better understand the gharial’s habitat use — knowledge crucial for saving the most threatened crocodile in the world."

“Although conservation efforts such as the tagging and release of gharials are important steps in saving the species, a lot more is needed to ensure its long-term survival. Integrated efforts that include captive breeding, research and monitoring, and especially safeguarding gharial habitat and prey, are urgently needed, “ added Sarala Khaling, regional co-ordinator of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, which has largely funded this release and monitoring project.

Closer to extinction
Although hunting is no longer a threat to the species, the construction of dams, barrages, irrigation canals, sand-mining and riverside agriculture have all resulted in the irreversible loss of habitat for the gharial. The river pollution and overfishing have added to the woes of these crocodiles.

The gharial is now considered to be confined within the river systems of the Brahmaputra (India and Bhutan), the Indus (Pakistan), the Ganges (India and Nepal), and the Mahanadi (India), with small populations in the Kaladan and the Irrawady in Myanmar.

" The water quality of Nepalese rivers are better suited for gharial's survival," says Dr. Cadi. "If not saved in Nepal, they will be closer to extinction."

The monitoring of the released gharials will be helpful in formulating a long term conservation action plan to save these critically endangered species.