Environment

Red Panda, the state symbol of Sikkim, is currently classified as Vulnerable due to excessive poaching. Conservation efforts in each state could be focused around the wildlife symbols of that state for maximum effect.

Official state symbols of India – plants and animals

Red Panda, the state symbol of Sikkim, is currently classified as Vulnerable due to excessive poaching. Conservation efforts in each state could be focused around the wildlife symbols of that state for maximum effect.

It is quite possible that you know the national symbols of India. You may know that the National Animal is the Tiger, the national tree is the Banyan Tree, the national bird is the Peacock and the national flower is Lotus. You may, perhaps, also be aware that the Gangetic Dolphin was recently declared the national Aquatic Mammal of India.  However, you may not be aware of the symbols of the different states of India. I wasn’t too, and the information available online was not properly referenced. So, I decided to take advantage of the wiki setup we had with the Biodiversity of India website and compiled an exhaustive, well-referenced list of various state symbols.

What can this list be used for? Well, for starters, it is an educational resource. Teachers can quiz their children on various state symbols and ask them to describe each one of them, draw their pictures and research deeper on where they are found in their state. This list can be used by amateur conservationists, to generate awareness among the common man for conservation of these species. Conservation efforts over the past several decades have shown that if we project a certain flagship species – Tiger in India, Elephant in Africa, Orangutans in Indonesia – and create a movement for their conservation, countless other species also get saved in the process. The same strategy can be used in each state in India, by creating a movement around the state symbol.

The entire list of the official state symbols of India can be accessed here: Official flora and fauna of Indian states.

Shiva_Pashupati

Climate change and the end of the Indus Valley Civilization

Pashupati, the Lord of Living Creatures, is depicted in many seals found in IVC. It is believed that Pashupati later evolved into Lord Shiva in the Vedic civilization.

First published: Biodiversity of India

The states of Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan and Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat in India had a great river named Saraswati (now the Ghagra Hakra river) flowing through their lands, four thousand years ago. The world’s first large civilization – the Indus Valley Civilization – arose on the banks of the Saraswati and the Indus rivers. At its peak in 2000BC, cities of the IVC such as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro housed over two hundred thousand people. The civilization was thriving – it had culture, a symbolic language, trade, city planning and a central rule of law. However, the civilization mysteriously vanished around 1500 BC. Hundreds of thousands of people disappeared, cities were lade bare and large swathes of land turned into deserts. Very few traces of this civilization are to be found in the next stage of India’s history – the Vedic civilization. What happened to all the people of the IVC? Why did such huge cities crumble to dust? Although several hypotheses have been proposed to address one of the biggest historical mysteries of all times, one leading explanation involves the role of climate change.

Many experts today believe that the IVC disintegrated after the Saraswati river started turning dry. Satellite imagery of the region along the Indo-Pakistan border clearly shows existence of vast underground channels where the mighty Saraswati once flowed. Most currently known sites of the IVC line perfectly along these channels, suggesting that these massive cities propped up along the banks of Saraswati. It is also believed that there was a general weakening of the monsoon system around 1500BC. It is believed that hordes of people migrated from the IVC and went towards the Gangetic plains or to Central Asia. Research has also shown that the new centers of activity arose east of the Saraswati a few hundred years after the Saraswati dried up.

Species such as the Great Hornbill in Arunachal Pradesh are threatened today.

Human civilization has existed in India for the past fifty thousand years – ever since the first pre-humans migrated out of Africa and proceeded towards the southern coastline of India. Millions of migrants and conquistadors have since entered India through the northwestern frontier. Most decided to stay here – the country had plentiful rivers, a beautiful landscape, fertile soil and an amazing biodiversity. The cultural evolution over the past two thousand years saw much of this nature get integrated into the lifestyle of the people. Right from having gods bearing pythons and elephant heads to finding medicinal uses of leaves and roots, from worshiping the rivers as deities to considering the earth as the Mother (Dharti Mataa), India’s nature got richly integrated into its culture. India, not just the country, but also the concept, exists because of its nature. As the example of the IVC shows, you destroy India’s nature and you’d have disintegrated its civilization.

This scenario is no longer a historical, or for that matter, a futuristic one. It is very much a problem this generation and the generations to come have to deal with. Climate change today is a reality. According to several scientific reports, India and its 1.5 billion people and countless species will be among the worst affected by climate change. Himalayan glaciers, for example, provide water to one third of the world’s population. These glaciers are the sources of our rivers like the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra. What happens when the water starts running low? On the other side of the country lie the mighty Western Ghats. Rivers like the Cauvery and Krishna have their sources in the Western Ghats. These megadiverse ranges are the most human-inhabited biodiversity hotspots in the world. Predictions suggest that changing patterns of the monsoon winds will significantly change water availability and the ground water table in these regions. What will that mean for the people living in these areas? How will it affect the rich flora and fauna?

Questions like these are no longer hypothetical but very much a reality. This is no longer a time to take petty, superficial actions and put a plaster over the developing cracks. We are no longer dealing with petty issues like bringing CO2 emissions down to pre-1990 levels or signing nominal accords with foreign countries. We are certainly not dealing with petty divisions of language, caste and religion. We are at one of the biggest crossroads of the Indian civilization today. The scenario is much the same as what the people of the IVC faced four thousand years ago. We can either let the India of today degenerate into chaos or we can take bold actions with a sense of urgency. The kind of India our children inherit tomorrow is very much dependent on what action we take today. That is what we must all realize.

Ganga Maiyya or world’s largest open sewer?

Buffaloes bathing in world’s largest open sewer

I read an obnoxious article on Tehelka.com recently on the River Ganga (Ganges). The investigative report found that Ganga today is more polluted than when the Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1985 to, ironically, reduce the level of pollution in the river. Just how polluted is the river?

  • Near Haridwar, coliform bacteria, which cause diseases like gastroenteritis and diarrhoea, are present at a concentration of 5500 mpn/100ml. The permissible levels are 50mpn for drinking, 500mpn for bathing and 5000mpn for agriculture. Such high concentations are because the 12 municipal towns located on Ganga’s banks from Gangotri to Haridwar release around 90 million litres of sewage, urine and faeces into the river every day.
  • Near Kanpur, the river turns toxic due to industrial sewage disposal. Despite repeated awareness campaigns against tanneries, they release about 40 million litres of effluents/day of which only 9 million litres is treated. These effluents contain chromium at a concentration of 248 mg/litre, when the WHO limit for drinking water is 0.05 mg/litre, a shocking 5000X higher concentration!! Chromium toxicity can cause a wide range of problems, from allergic reactions and dermatitis to cancer and dementia.
  • Near Varanasi, around 300 tonnes of half-burnt carcasses, corpses and ashes are thrown into the river each year. Coliform bacteria are present at 2 lakh mpn/100ml. Of the three sewage treatment plants, two are not operational.
  • Near Patna and Kolkata, the situation is the same – extremely high amount of coliform bacteria, huge volumes of industrial effluents and skyrocketing concentrations of toxic compounds!

The Gangetic Dolphin, the vehicle of Goddess Ganga – both of whom we have managed to kill in the last 50 years

This is a shame, and we all know it. This seems even more bizarre in the context of the current leadership in Uttar Pradesh – Akhilesh Yadav, the state’s Chief Minister, studied Civil Engineering and Environmental Engineering! What is the use of these degrees if, even after almost being the KING of the state, one cannot hasten the process of purification of the most sacred river in the country! Alas, the political parties in the state can spend millions of dollars building statues and parks but not for developing a robust system to curb the pollution of Ganga. (Note: The Ganga Action Plan, conceptualized in 1985 as “the largest single attempt to clean up a polluted river anywhere in the world.” has been termed a colossal failure, despite spending Rs.10 billion up until 2000)

What are the implications of Ganga’s pollution? Here are a few facts:

  • The Gangetic basin is the most heavily populated basin in the world, supplying water to 400 million people!
  • Ganga provides water to 40% of India’s population in 11 states. This water is used for everything – cooking, drinking, washing clothes, agriculture, bathing…everything!
  • A study found that 66% of the families near Varanasi were affected by diseases like cholera, dysentery, Hepatitis-A, Typhoid etc.
  • The pollution has threatened more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the Gangetic River Dolphin. The latter dolphin species, which is considered the vehicle of Goddess Ganga, is almost extinct.

Hindus believe that bathing in Ganga will wash away all your sins. “Ganga consumes all your sins and still remains pure…that is why it is divine”, they say. I would suggest forcing numb-nuts who make such arguments drink the water of Ganga for a week. Such capital punishments should also be meted out to owners of industries which release effluents in the river. Without a few strong, well-publicized cases of repugnant action, we will never be able to bring Ganga back from the dead. No amount of awareness campaigns will work. Ganga has soaked our sins for the past four thousand years, however, we have effectively managed to KILL IT in the past fifty years alone!

Global warming is real, skeptics seem to agree. What next?

A new study funded by the Koch group seems to have come to the conclusion that global warming is real and is caused by human activities. The Koch Industries, owned by the Koch family, has annual revenues of $100 billion and has a broad product base, comprising from oil and gas to fertilizers and paper pulp. Almost all of these products are dependent on exploitation of natural resources and hence, it is quite natural that the Koch family was one of the biggest supporters of anti-climate action in the US. Since 1997, the Koch family has spent over $100 million lobbying against climate-change actions in Washington and supporting the agenda of other fossil-fuel companies. But this study, funded in part by the Koch group and with two strong climate-change skeptic scientists in the team of seven lead investigators, seems to have landed a bombshell in Koch group’s business interests.

Richard Muller, the founder and scientific director of Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project made the following statement in a recent NY Times post:

CALL me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.

What does this mean for the politics of global warming? Surveys indicate that less than half of the US citizens think global warming is due to human activities (In India, less than half KNOW what global warming is). Will this study help bring some of those skeptics on board? Or will it be politics as usual again? In his NY Times post, Muller also says:

Hurricane Katrina cannot be attributed to global warming. The number of hurricanes hitting the United States has been going down, not up; likewise for intense tornadoes. Polar bears aren’t dying from receding ice, and the Himalayan glaciers aren’t going to melt by 2035. And it’s possible that we are currently no warmer than we were a thousand years ago, during the “Medieval Warm Period” or “Medieval Optimum,” an interval of warm conditions known from historical records and indirect evidence like tree rings. And the recent warm spell in the United States happens to be more than offset by cooling elsewhere in the world, so its link to “global” warming is weaker than tenuous.

Will the political skeptics harp on this statement rather than the science? Obama has followed an “all of the above” approach for energy in the US. He’s opened up offshore drilling and expanded shale gas explorations, leading to a significant stability in oil prices in the US despite Libya and Syria and collapsing of the European economy. He’s also invested in several clean energy projects. However, US still ranks second in terms of global CO2 emissions and releases ~17 tons CO2/person/year, compared to 6.2 tons in China, 1.7 tons in India, 9 tons in Japan and Germany, 8 tons in UK and 5 tons in France. There is an enormous scope for improvement in the US which the second term of Obama should address on a war footing!

 

 

 

Hornbill_Commons

Research review: Hornbills and their role in maintenance of rainforests

First published: Biodiversity of India

The role of birds in maintaining rainforests is frequently under-appreciated. An example in this regard is the Hornbill. Hornbills are large frugivores birds which are more efficient in seed dispersal in terms of wider range of fruit/seed sizes than other small frugivores birds.

Mindanao Wrinkled Hornbill at the Philippine Eagle Center, Philippines

There are total fifty-four species of hornbills found in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Southeast Asia and New Guinea of which —23 species are fond in Africa and 31 in Asia. Their contribution to the maintenance of forests has been scientifically recognized and they are regarded as “farmers of the forest”.  The most extensive study on feeding behavior of hornbills by Shumpei Kitamura (1) suggests that they feed on 748 plant species from 242 genera and 79 families.  In this report, author also suggests that, survival of the seeds after passing through gut of hornbill is quite good. Also, a significant number of seed species showed enhanced germination efficiency after passing through their digestive system. After feeding, hornbills usually regurgitate or defecate seeds when perched. The home range of these birds, depending on their size, can vary from 700 Hectare to 2400 Hectare with daily movements regularly extend to at least 10 km, which suggests they can be much more efficient than the other smaller frugivores in dispersing seeds at a wider range of territory. Studies by Kinnaird(2) on the distribution pattern of seeds by hornbills suggested that they help in increasing the abundance and diversity seedlings near the nesting site. A relatively long retention time of the seeds in the gut also contributes to relatively wide spread of seeds.

Unfortunately, relatively large frugivores like Hornbills are vulnerable to extinction, as most of the rain forests in Asia are under tremendous anthropogenic pressures such as hunting, and habitat loss or, degradation. Some of these hornbill species are among the rarest in the world, with only ~40 individuals left! Dwindling number of these forest farmers will have reaching effects on the maintenance of the rainforests itself. So, the close association between hornbill population for maintenance of rainforests as well as conservation of rainforests to prevent extinction of Hornbills has to be scientifically examined before implementing any developmental projects in such eco sensitive zones.

References:

1)     Frugivory and seed dispersal by hornbills (Bucerotidae) in tropical forests. (2011) Shumpei Kitamura, Acta Oecologica, 37, (6), 531–541

2)     Evidence for effective seed dispersal by the Sulawesi red-knobbed hornbill, Aceros cassidix (1998), Kinnaird  M.F., Biotropica, 30 (50–55)

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