Will the turtle lose the race?

Published: Jun 26, 2011, 08:55 IST | Yolande D'mello |

Until it was recently listed as a critically endangered species of bird, the Great Indian Bustard probably never created headlines. It's not the only one though -- a number of other species in India are also facing uncertain futures. But there's hope, as Yolande D'mello found, in a few committed individuals who are working tirelessly to delay what many believe is inevitable -- the extinction of several species

Until it was recently listed as a critically endangered species of bird, the Great Indian Bustard probably never created headlines. It's not the only one though -- a number of other species in India are also facing uncertain futures. But there's hope, as Yolande D'mello found, in a few committed individuals who are working tirelessly to delay what many believe is inevitable -- the extinction of several species

The Red List -- published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global environmental network that is headquartered in Switzerland -- is out again. And like always,  there are additions to the list of threatened species. According to the June 8 list of bird species, 1,253 species of birds are threatened. The shocking bit, though, is that 144 of these are from India, and 30 from Maharashtra alone.

Our research shows that Olive Ridley turtles head to Sri Lankan waters
during the non-breeding season.
Suresh Kumar, Scientist with Wildlife
Institute of India, with the turtles that have satellite trackers on their
(in blue)

And it gets worse -- this means about 13 per cent of bird species in the world are threatened. According to the March list of critically endangered animals in the world, the IUCN found that about 41 per cent of all animal species are now critically endangered. In India, these include 57 species like the Forest Owlet, Siberian Crane, Pink-headed duck, Namdapha Flying squirrel and Darwin's frog. All is not lost though, as we find individuals from different walks of life trying, in their own little ways, to limit the damage.

The last hope of the Himalayan Griffon
Bengaluru-based Neloy Bandyopadhyay is not your average IT consultant. The bird-lover often indulges his passion for our feathered friends by driving down to nearby jungles and lakes to photograph them. But sometime last year, he decided to do something more meaningful -- he made a documentary on the dwindling numbers of the Himalayan Griffon Vulture to build awareness about the issue. This particular breed was declared critically endangered in 2004, when its population fell by 90 per cent.

Nelyo Bandyopadhyay, while shooting his film The Last Hope

Aptly titled The Last Hope, Bandyopadhyay completed his 14 minute-long documentary in March 2011 in eight months.  The documentary looks at the various conservation attempts in India to help save the Himalayan Griffon Vulture. He not only took time off to travel to Uttaranchal, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to complete his project, but even invested a lakh in it. "I had no crew. Friends helped me with post production, which we did in their homes for four months. And now, I'm broke and have no leave left. My next film will have to wait for a year," he laughs. The documentary has so far been screened four times in Bengaluru. Bandyopadhyay plans to get it screened elsewhere too. "We haven't lost hope yet. And I hope the film will have a positive impact," he says.

Tracking each Olive Ridley
Suresh Kumar is a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India in Uttarakhand. For the last three years, he has been part of an ongoing project at the Orissa coast that studies the nesting and migration habits of the threatened Olive Ridley Turtles. Kumar, along with eight other scientists, who are part of the project, put trackers on each turtle's shell. Using satellite technology made available by the Institute, the group tracks the movement of the turtles across the oceans. The group has been able to discover an all-important fact about the movement of the turtles, which they hope will help conservation efforts. "Our research has shown that during the non-breeding season, the turtles head to Sri Lankan waters. They return to India for breeding."

Why two students look for tarantulas
When it comes to identifying endangered species, the types that are extremely difficult are the ones that belong to the phylum Arthropoda. (These include insects, arachnids and crustaceans.) This is because many of the species within this group are yet to be recorded. For instance, in North America, over 72 per cent of arachnids are yet to be recorded. This is where two Andheri-based college students come in. Zeeshan Mirza and Rajesh Sanap, both 23, who study zoology and arts respectively, discovered a type of Trapdoor Tarantula in 2007 in Aarey Milk Colony, Goregaon, that was thought of as extinct, after it was first described by British arachnologist R I Pocock in 1899. Most trapdoor tarantulas are recognised as critically endangered.

Zeeshan Mirza (left) and Rajesh Sanap in Aarey Milk Colony

The two had come across a male Trapdoor Tarantula and were unable to identify it. Many spider species can be identified only after studying their female types. It was later, in 2009, when they discovered a burrow filled with female spiders belonging to the same species in Goregaon, that they realised that they had chanced upon an endangered species. The two conduct biodiversity classes for children and spend their time roaming the marshlands in Aarey Milk Colony, searching for new species of scorpions, spiders and lizards. Mirza says, "They (arthropods) are the underdogs of our ecosystem. There are many indigenous species that are yet to be discovered, so even if they were to get extinct, no one would notice."

Shrinking habitat
22 In 1910, excluding grasslands, 22 per cent of land in India fell under forest cover.
5 Today only five per cent of land exists in the form of forests. From this five per cent, over 600 rivers originate and flow to the rest of the country.

How the local tribals can help
The Director of Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) and wildlife magazine Sanctuary, Dr Anish Andheria was awarded the Carl Zeiss Conservation Award for his conservation work in 2008. Andheria has made a major impact in the field of tiger conservation by supporting the mechanisms placed by the government. Thus, while the government allocates large funds for conservation projects, WCT helps the forest department by organising training camps for their staff, providing basic amenities and constituting award schemes to encourage forest guards to protect the forests better.

Dr Anish Andheria (in blue jeans) of WCT has constituted awards to
encourage forest guards

On many occasions, WCT has also helped resolve conflicts between the forest department and local communities. "Over 60,000 tribals live in India's different sanctuaries. These people have lived in these regions for many years and their livelihoods depend on the forest. Conflicts often break out when the government stops them from collecting firewood or hunting," says Andheria. WCT has countered this by generating goodwill through, for example, setting up health camps. Training camps on masonry, hospitality, and other trades are also held to help the locals get jobs and move out of these areas.

Trying to bust the Bustard decline
While hunting and poaching have been the chief reasons for many species of birds getting threatened, experts believe that involving the local population in conservation activities can offset this trend. If the locals are not taken into consideration, there could be dire consequences, like what happened in 1981, when the mines near Gwalior were closed for the creation of the Ghatigaon Bustard Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh. The workers started hunting the Great Indian Bustard, so that they could undermine the criteria on which the area was designated a sanctuary. Dr Asad R Rahmani, Director of BNHS, has done much work in this regard. He has been instrumental in the BNHS starting their Important Bird Areas (IBA) programme in 2009.

Dr Asad R Rahmani

According to the programme, 466 sites in India have been identified, where most of the threatened bird species gather. BNHS hopes to transform these areas into tourist attractions. They have already started a few nature camps, like Guhagar in Ratnagiri and Manas National Park in Assam. "These camps give revenue to the locals and thus a direct incentive to save the surrounding wilderness," says Public Relations Officer, BNHS, Atul Sathe. BNHS has submitted the proposal to the government, hoping that the government can implement the programme at all 466 sites. Already, results have begun to trickle in. According to Mistnet Bird Tourism, a BNHS newsletter, nature tourism in India has grown by 30 per cent in the last year.

The software engineer who bandages pythons
Gavin Desouza may be a software designer based in Andheri, but he is also a rescuer of snakes, owls and kites. The 22 year-old wildlife enthusiast has thrice rescued Indian Pythons that were found in houses in Mumbai. Because of loss of habitat and poaching for their skin, the Indian python was declared a threatened species in 1996. Desouza became a rescuer because of stints with his uncle. During summer vacations, as a child, Desouza would assist his uncle, an honourary wildlife warden in Goa, on animal rescue operations.

Gavin Desouza rescues a cobra from a residential colony in Mumbai.

Desouza first rescued an Indian Python with his uncle when he was only 13 years old. "The python had a wound as big as a tennis ball and it was beginning to rot," remembers Desouza, adding that it took four months to help the python heal. During this period, Desouza helped apply bandages to the snake. "The python was over 10 feet long and would wriggle out of the bandage. We would re-tie it about 3 or 4 times everyday,"  The python was also given intra-muscular injections. On another occasion, he tended to an Indian Python in Mumbai that was burnt by people in fear. "Its skin was falling off. The problem is that people panic and end up hurting the snake," he says.

Did you know?
Darwin's frog

Darwin's frog was named after Charles Darwin, who discovered it. The female frog will lay about 30 eggs, after which the male guards them for two weeks, until they hatch. The male then carries the young in his vocal sac till they develop to about half an inch in size and hop out and swim away.

White-toothed Shrew
Unlike the red-toothed Shrews, the outer layer of their teeth is white. These species are typically found in Africa, southern Europe and Asia. When the young Shrews need to move with their mother, they form a chain called 'caravan'. Here, using their teeth, each animal hangs on to the rear of the other forming a chain.

Angel Sharks
The Angel Sharks are an unusual genus of sharks with flattened bodies and broad pectoral fins. Angel Sharks possess extensible jaws that can snap preys moving above them. They also have long, needle-like teeth. They bury themselves in sand or mud lying in wait for their prey.

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