No place to go: The plight of Assam’s cornered elephants is getting worse

There’s a hot zone in Assam that has nothing to do with ULFA insurgents, Bodo militants or illegal migrants from Bangladesh. It’s about elephants.

Sonitpur district can be called Ground Zero of that human-elephant conflict.

Between 2001 and 2014 there have been 245 human deaths and 146 elephant fatalities in Sonitpur. In one year, 2001 alone, 32 elephants died in Sonitpur in retaliation for a spike in human casualties. And the brunt of those deaths have been felt in the tea gardens that dot the district. There’s no mystery why it’s happening says Anupam Sarmah of the World Wildlife Fund.

“Sonitpur had maximum forest loss. Almost 65 percent. That’s why it’s so severe. And the tea garden is the hot spot of human elephant conflict.”

For the wild elephant, the tea garden is just an extension of the forest.

Sandip Roy.

When a herd of wild elephants camps out in a tea garden, on land where tea bushes have been uprooted and Guatemala grass planted to rehabilitate the soil, they can ruin the land overnight says A. K. Bhargava, the managing director of Apeejay Tea.

But Bhargava, who self-deprecatingly calls himself a maali or gardener also admits “Their home is our home.”

It’s in that spirit that Apeejay Tea has joined hands with World Wildlife Fund to implement a three-year strategy to minimize human-elephant conflict in one of its epicentres. Apeejay owns four tea estates in the Sonitpur hot zone. The area however has many other problems- illegal encroachment in forests, militant activity and deforestation with political blessing.

The project hopes to come up with a matrix that can put a number to the loss from damage to property. It wants to set up movement corridors for safe passage for the elephants. And it hopes to find innovative new ways to keep elephants from coming into conflict with the humans in the area.

That can prove to be quite the battle of wits.

Elephants are remarkably intelligent creatures and can quickly figure out when they are being hoodwinked. Dipankar Ghose of the World Wildlife Fund says in the 80s and 90s the big buzzword was EPT or Elephant Proof Trenches that were dug to keep the elephants out. But soon elephants figured out how to get around trenches. A young elephant got inside the trench and helped nudge the herd across and when everyone had crossed over they dragged the young one out.

Farmers would place solar-powered red lights in their field which would blink in the dark mimicking predator eyes. But they have to be moved around otherwise the elephants soon figure out that it’s not a real predator.

Assam has a large population of kunkis or domestic elephants that can drive the wild ones back into the forest. But Ghose says now he sees elephant herds splitting into three herds and going into three villages. “There are not enoughkunki resources to combat that,” says Ghose.

Clearly there’s not going to be one magic solution that will solve human-elephant conflict. It’s going to require reinvention, imagination and investment. And if kunki anti-depredation squads work in Assam, they will not work in Bihar which does not have that many domestic elephants.

In India on average 400 people are killed every year in conflict with elephants.

The problem, says Sarmah of WWF, is unlike the tigers, 70 percent of whom are in protected areas, 80 percent of elephants in India are outside protected areas. And compared to 2,226 tigers in India, as per the last census, there are 27-30,000 elephants in the country. The conflict is ongoing and deepening but it does not capture popular imagination the way a man-eater might. “Tiger is like cricket and elephant is like hockey for us,” quips Sarmah.

And though it’s humans who are spreading into what used to be elephant territory, people do not see it that way. “If half my crop is damaged over night my tolerance is reduced even if I love Ganesha,” says Ghose. But he remembers when a raiding elephant died in a village, electrocuted by accident when an electric pole fell on it, the villagers who were up in arms about it, were deeply upset. They garlanded the dead animal and offered prayers, afraid of the ill omen of an elephant death in their backyard. In Monabarie tea estate when six people were killed in three days by an elephant, the Forest Department asked the villagers to write a petition to have the elephant declared rogue, but the villagers balked.

But it is expensive keeping elephants safe from people and vice versa. An electric fence can cost Rs 3-5 lakh per km and needs maintenance. There are lower energizer fences being explored that would cost Rs 80,000 per km. There are plans afoot to develop an early warning system that would alert farmers about approaching elephants. The Apeejay-WWF project is investing in bio fencing in place of the electric fence and setting up nurseries to grow thorny bamboo for that purpose. The goal is to plant 40,000 saplings in three years.

The tea-estate and NGO partnership becomes even more relevant in the current budget climate. Everyone agrees in principle that when a four-lane highway is built, care should be set aside to create corridors for animals whose habitat is being fragmented. But the question is who pays. Highways will says elephants are the forest department’s responsibility. But the forestry and environment ministry had its budget slashed 25% under the Modi government. That’s where a corporation and NGO partnership offers some hope even though an elephant does not belong to either the tea estate or the World Wildlife Fund but to all of us.

In three years there should be a formal elephant corridor through the Sessa Tea Estate. It won’t end the conflict or stop the human pressure on forest cover. Wild elephants will still need 400 kilos of food a day and as hills are deforested they will search for it in fields and granaries.

But we might just brew our Assam tea with a clearer conscience.

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Earth Day 2014: Nurturing cities of the future

MOTHER Earth is a motif that commonly appears on the mythologies of different cultures around the world. It depicts Earth as a goddess embodying fertility and motherhood, such as Gaia in Greek mythology and Terra in Roman tradition.

In Southeast Asia, particularly in Myanmar, Cambodia Thailand and Laos, the Earth goddess is known as Phra Mae Thorani. She is depicted as a young woman with water flowing from her hair. In Indonesia they have Dewi Sri, who is the goddess of rice and fertility. Dewi Sri, is considered as Mother Earth in Javanese culture. She encompasses birth and life and controls rice, the staple food of the Indonesians.

In today’s culture, the term Mother Earth is still used to personify nature. The term embodies the nurturing character of the planet. It is the common expression for the Earth that reflects “the interdependence that exists among human beings, other living species and the planet.”

In 1972 the United Nations organized the first UN Conference on the Human Environment to respond to the emergencies posed by global warming and the damage human activities are causing the Earth. It started the global awareness of man’s “interdependence” with Earth. In 2009 the United Nations General Assembly declared every 22nd of April as International Mother Earth Day. It aims to promote a view of the Earth as the place that sustains all living things.

‘Green cities’

TODAY more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. As the urban population grows and the effects of climate change worsen, the need to create sustainable communities is more important than ever.

The theme for this year’s celebration is “Green Cities.” The International Mother Earth Day 2014 focused on “green cities, mobilizing millions of people to create a sustainable, healthy environment by greening communities worldwide.”

Having launched last year, the Green Cities Campaign aims to help cities and communities around the world accelerate their transition to a cleaner, healthier and more economically viable future. An initiative of the Earth Day Network, the campaign focuses on three key elements—buildings, energy and transportation.

Three key elements

BUILDING account for nearly one- third of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. To build “green buildings,” building design should improve energy and water efficiency, reduce waste and pollution, use sustainable buildings materials and move toward renewable-energy sources. Cities need to update ordinances, switch to performance-based building codes, and improve financing options.

Another key element of the Green Cities campaign is energy. The current world’s energy infrastructure pumps greenhouse gases into the air and contribute to climate change. Green cities should use cheap, clean and efficient energy by constructing more solar panels and wind turbines throughout communities. Education and policy advocacy should start now to make this energy future a reality.

The urban lifestyle prompts more people to rely on cars for transportation. This makes transportation as the fastest-growing source of greenhouse-gas emissions. The campaign pushes all the sectors to increase public transportation options, invest in alternative transportation, and improve walkability and bikability of cities.

Cities of the future

FOR the Green Cities campaign, right investments should be made in energy, transportation and green buildings for the cities of the future to be different from the cities of today. The future communities will be cleaner and more sustainable, and the quality of life will be better.

The future cities will have more energy-independent homes and buildings. Solar panels will become vital part in the construction of houses. Buildings will be equipped with comprehensive water-management systems for efficient water use. Cities will be connected by solar-powered public-transportation options that are convenient and eco-friendly. Solar energy from space will be harnessed to provide clean and efficient electricity.

Urban biodiversity

“THE cities of the future should be a haven of rich biodiversity,” according to lawyer Roberto V. Oliva, the executive director of the Asean Centre for Biodiversity. “Ecosystems provide food, raw materials, water and medicinal resources; regulate the quality of air, water and soil, and control flood and disease; and enrich the physical, social, aesthetic and spiritual life of urban dwellers. This makes biological diversity a vital component for cities to function properly,” Oliva said.

“We should start building the cities of the future by making urban-planning guidelines to be more ecological and sustainable. It should also integrate the tools in monitoring and evaluating biodiversity in the cities,” Oliva added. He also encouraged city governments to adopt strategies that aimed to empower and to be implemented by the public and the business sector. This can be community-driven initiatives like community farms, aquaponics or urban gardening for additional food resource. Or can be business sector-supported projects, such as adopting a public park or acquiring idle lands for park development.

In building our cities of the future, all our development initiatives should carry the nurturing tradition of Mother Earth.

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A visit to the largest organic farm in Asia

Today we had the opportunity to visit one of the leading tea producers in India, Hathikuli Tea Plantation. Hathikuli is the biggest employer in the Kaziranga area and as we soon found out, the largest organic farm in all of Asia. The management of this massive tea operation taught us a lot about tea and what an operation of this size means to both the local community and the environment surrounding it. The plantation covers 470 hectares and employs more than 3,000 workers, the majority of whom are working as tea pickers, which they have done for generations since the plantation opened more than 100 years ago.


While sipping on delicious organic tea from plants just feet away, the manager, Chandan, told us that the board members made a conscious decision in 2009 to prioritize their impact on the local environment. The first year they converted half of the crop to organic and the operation has since been 100% organic. This fact was astonishing to hear, because the change meant going from over a million kilos (2.2 million lbs) of final product per year to around 430,000 (946,000 lbs). There is an increase in product value but not nearly enough to cover the loss. So essentially we have major businessmen making a decision to lower revenue in order to help the environment, by decreasing the amount of toxic pesticides that were contaminating the surrounding waters. Since Kaziranga is mostly swampland and rivers, all these pesticides had a detrimental effect on the ecosystem.


The assistant manager took us on a tour of the beautiful green plantations where we had the chance to meet some of the local workers and to satisfy our curiosity about this forward-thinking company. As always, the Indian hospitality was above and beyond. Workers in the fields work 6 days a week, 8 hours a day and make 95 rupees per day. 95 rupees a day is around 1.6 dollars U.S., not exactly a dream wage by any standard. However, the workers get an hour lunch, housing, 48 days paid vacation, 84 days paid maternity leave and all medical care paid for. Amazingly, the medical care extends to their entire family. The plantation even has a professional and fully-equipped hospital to tend to any of the workers’ needs. We had lunch with the doctor who was extremely well- educated, well-traveled and dedicated to her profession. She has the assistance of multiple nurses and is on-call 24/7. When asked what she deals with, she told us “I am a jack of all trades, and deal with anything from a headache, to childbirth, alcohol addiction, trauma surgery and anything in between”.

Hathikuli Tea Plantation is just one of the many examples of the conservation efforts in effect to protect Kaziranga. The people of Assam are extremely proud of this national treasure.

Next time you sip on a cup of organic tea, there is a good chance that it was grown right here in Kaziranga!

Reference –

PS – This blog was posted by Amy Rose Vankanan & Martin Söderhamnwho visited Hathikuli Tea Estate. They are associated with The WILD Foundation, US based not-for-profit organization, with a vision to protect and connect wilderness, wildlife, and people. (

Bhutan’s environmental success a pleasing paradox

Bhutan is heads and shoulders above other countries in maintaining its biodiversity and cultural assets, writes Ross Jeffree. Still, there are downsides.

In a time of diminishing global biodiversity, Bhutan’s conservation achievements read like an environmentalist’s heavenly dream. More than 50% of its land area is designated as protected in national parks, nature reserves and biological corridors. More than 80% of the country is covered by natural forests, and it has a reafforestation program that is further increasing this figure. And its record on carbon sequestration is greater than its national emissions by a factor of two.

Bhutan’s environmental successes are running so counter-current to most other countries, they represent a “pleasing paradox”. And they demonstrate that it is possible to preserve very high biodiversity while achieving sustainable development.

Bhutan’s counter intuitive development goals

For Bhutan, environmental sustainability is both the primary objective and the starting point for national development.

Within its 2008 national constitution, the government pledged to protect, conserve and improve its pristine environment and safeguard the biodiversity of the country.

The flip side is that all Bhutanese are formally held responsible under the constitution to protect the environment.

  Rob Brooks

 The country is transcending the classical tension between economic development and environmental conservation by developing sectors that require continuing environmental protection to be sustainable.

This has included a “run-of-the-river” hydroelectricity development which requires the preservation of watersheds in natural forest. Their national needs for electricity are met while generating foreign exchange with India, which has expanding energy needs.

Bhutan has also developed a “low impact-high value” approach to tourism, guarding against some of the negative, culturally destructive aspects of mass tourism.

Controlled pricing and limiting the numbers of tourists and their access to certain areas is also minimising unwanted impacts.

They have built an eco-tourism industry around protected areas. This ensures the conservation of biodiversity and landscapes that particularly attract the eco-tourist. It also generates income for communities living with problematic wildlife.

Resolving human-wildlife conflicts

Bhutan’s success in growing wildlife populations can often lead to conflicts with communities living within protected areas.

Snow leopards can be very effective predators of domestic yak, often the primary source of livelihood and wealth of yak-herding communities.

To protect snow leopard populations, Bhutanese yak herders are compensated by the community for the loss of their livestock.

 These communities who experience high losses to snow leopards are renowned for their unbelievable level of tolerance to these beautiful predators that are so attractive to eco-tourists.

However, nationally it felt unjust that communities in prime snow leopard land should bear the full brunt of their predation.

Community-based compensation and herd insurance programs, funded by revenues from eco-tourism and non-timber forest products, are transforming snow leopards into an economic asset.

This brings tangible benefits rather than liabilities to the local community.

Why is environmental conservation so important to Bhutan?

Part of the answer seems to lie in aspects of Bhutan’s metaphysical heritage. The original religion of Bon Shamanism inculcates reverence for the local deities and spirits that inhabit components of the landscape. Supernatural qualities are ascribed to animals.

Forests are seen as a valuable source of spiritual health, necessitating their conservation. Moreover, Mahayana Buddhism, that supplanted Bon, aspires to deeply perceive the interdependence of all things and events.

A very strong eco-ethical sentiment is found in the Buddhist belief that all actions should bring the most help and least harm to other sentient beings.

What can we learn from Bhutan?

It is important to firstly acknowledge that Bhutan’s Eastern metaphysics, which ascribe sentience to other animals, is a very similar viewpoint to the Western scientific tradition.

Our ultimate materialist, Charles Darwin, was willing to look for sentience in worms and he found it. Recent investigations have found sentience in a variety of taxa, beginning with ants.

Moreover, Darwin proclaimed: “the love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”

This is not so far from Bhutan’s ethic for compassionate conservation. But the priority we give to biodiversity conservation and sustainability is much lower in our list of concerns.

We could learn to celebrate our wildlife in festivals and art forms as the Bhutanese do, acknowledging they are also sentient. In doing so, we might care for them more.

And maybe the compassionate Australian ethic of a “fair go for all” could be extended to embrace all the sentient beings that we share our continent with.

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‘Organic’ tea estate helps save wildlife

When Deepak Atal, managing director of Amalgamated Plantations Pvt Ltd (APPL), thought of converting Hathikuli tea estate in Assam to an organic one in 2007, his idea was to improve the ecology of Kaziranga National Park, bordering the tea garden.

Five years down the line, the organic tea garden contributes to the greater biodiversity of the world heritage wildlife sanctuary by banning pesticides. At the same time, it is reviving its growth in production slowly.

The tea estates maintained by APPL (largely in Assam and four gardens in West Bengal) are the only surviving plantations links of the Tata Group.

According to Atal, tea production in Hathikuli went down from 8 lakh kg in 2007-08 to 3.5 lakh kg in 2009-10. But, it has signs of improvement of late.

“The Hathikuli estate produced 4.5 lakh kg tea last fiscal and it is expected to produce 6 lakh kg tea by FY14,” he said.

Spread over 467 hectares of tea growing area, the estate has in-house bio production and vermi-composting units for organic formulations for soil nutrition, foliage growth and integrated pest management.

The vermi-compost production unit at the estate has an annual capacity of 1100 million tonnes a year, which is touted to be one of the largest such units in the North Eastern region.

Atal pointed out that the company is planning to market its organic tea and organic pepper produced at the Hathikuli estate through modern-format retail stores. “We have already tied up with Walmart and Nilgiris for this,” he said.

The project has been given away the “Winds Under the Wings Award” by Sanctuary Asia on November 30 to recognize APPL’s efforts to save wildlife.

Reference –


Hathikuli Goes Organic

August 2012: Darkness was yet to descend. In the last few minutes of daylight, Rajesh and I searched for spiders along the edges of the tea garden when the phone rang and the manager on the line informed us of a king cobra that had entered the factory area. More likely a rat snake, was our first thought. Rushing to the spot, we saw a crowd gathered around a tall machine covered with a polythene sheet.

At first we waited at the back of the gathered crowd, finding it difficult to push our way to the front. A local snake rescuer was on the way we were told. On his arrival, he very wisely asked the crowd to keep their distance, then lifted part of the polythene sheet. We finally got a glimpse of the snake’s head. It was indeed a king cobra. Nothing could have better underscored the fact that we were in a tea estate on the very edge of the incredible Kaziranga National Park.

Tea estates evoke images of green plantation lands in the far Northeast or in South India, with lines of hardworking women plucking and then depositing leaves in baskets on their backs. Few people actually consider the fact that most plantations were carved out of forest land, or forest corridors because with every passing year, they end up harbouring less and less biodiversity since they are ‘carpet bombed’ with pesticides designed to allow only an intensive monoculture of tea bushes to survive.  Large mammals and other wildlife are hardly what one associates with a tea estate, so when Sanctuary Asia asked us to undertake a rapid biodiversity survey of a tea estate called the Hathikuli Tea Estate in Assam, we were more than a little puzzled – did we hear it right?

Within minutes we were Googling Hathikuli. The estate belonged to Amalgamated Plantations Pvt. Ltd. (APPL), one of the largest producers of tea in the country. Of its 24 tea estates in the Northeast, one of them, historic Hathikuli, had been established in 1907. And then the full story began to emerge.

The management, it seemed, had taken on an ambitious goal – to turn certified organic! Our interest more than casually piqued, we discovered that Hathikulil’s conversion to organic began in 2007 and was finally completed in March 2011. What made this conversion all the more fascinating and significant was the fact that the Hathikuli Tea Estate shared a boundary with the World Heritage Site of Kaziranga National Park, and the Karbi Anglong Hills.

It took us just five minutes to confirm that we would like to get to Hathikuli double quick and start work!

Both of us are self-taught naturalists studying for our Masters. Our primary goal over the next few days was to read up every scrap of information we could on tea estates, their impact on biodiversity, the impact of biodiversity on the plantation and, of course, the Hathikuli saga (for that is what it was) itself.

The fundamental objective of the conversion to organic, we discovered, was born of a vision that suggested that chemical agriculture and toxic solutions for plantations would necessarily be phased out in the decades ahead. Hathikuli had started out organic (chemical pesticides were only discovered as a result of chemical warfare research post World War II), then shifted to toxic chemicals in the 1970s following global and national trends. Over the decades, this had an adverse impact on soils… and pesticide residues in the finished tea product had also begun to pose problems.

 The decision to go fully organic was taken, but this was not easy. To begin with, it was clear that output would initially fall, but this would be compensated by igher per kg. yields. A slew of projections and debates nsued. When all the counting was done, what triggered the final decision was the fact that the transition would immensely benefit Kaziranga, a World Heritage Site, by sparing it from toxic contamination.

The lay of the land

The massive 479.57 ha. Hathikuli estate has three divisions – Hathikuli, Rangajan and Deering. The plantation runs along a narrow strip of land, stretching almost 12 km. along the National Highway 37. The name ‘Hathikuli’ is derived from the Assamese word ‘hati’ (elephant) and ‘kuli’ (frequent)… a place frequented by elephants. The estate was always unique, drawing large number of visitors to Kaziranga who were welcomed by the Hathikuli management, which always encouraged ‘tea tourism’ to their estate and factory, of which they were justifiably proud. Today, in our view, they have even more to be gratified about – the Hathikuli Tea Estate has become the largest organic plantation of its kind in Asia.

It was to help establish the positive effect of a reconversion to organic practices on the biodiversity thatSanctuary asked us to undertake this rapid survey. Our brief was to conduct two surveys, pre-monsoon, which has been completed and is being reported here, and post-monsoon, which will be in progress as you read this.

The presence of predators indicates the health of most ecosystems and tea estates are no different. This Asian Barred Owlet Glaucidium cuculoides. Credit:Rajesh Sanap

The tarantula Lyrognathus crotalus are performing a vital pest control service for the Hathikuli estate where a functioning ecological balance has helped the management to secure “organic certification” for their teas. Credit:Zeeshan Mirza

TOP AND ABOVE: The presence of predators indicates the health of most ecosystems and tea estates are no different. This Asian Barred Owlet Glaucidium cuculoides (top) and the tarantula Lyrognathus crotalus (above) are performing a vital pest control service for the Hathikuli estate where a functioning ecological balance has helped the management to secure “organic certifi cation” for their teas.

Our task was to observe and document the diversity of secondary predators in the tea estate and their role in controlling prey species, which are the ‘pest’ that chemical pesticides seek to ‘deal with’. We were also asked to establish the presence-absence of other interdependent fauna, and to compare the biodiversity of Hathikuli’s organic plantation to that of a comparable chemical plantation in the area.

Even our rudimentary investigations, we knew, might help tweak Hathikuli’s management plan to make the estate more native-predator-friendly. This in turn would have a positive effect by helping control insects and other lifeforms that impacted tea bushes, leaves and soils.

A very telling aspect of our survey, when it is completed and analysed by October 2012, will be a comparison of the species list of Hathikuli with secondary predators found in Kaziranga and Karbi Anglong.

Where is Hathikuli?

Northeast India, an important part of the Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot, supports some of the biologically richest areas in the world, which affords it recognition as an area of global importance. Today, the forest cover in this region is merely one third of its geographical area, and the rate of habitat loss here is of serious concern. The low to mid-elevation moist forests of this region are particularly important, as they not only support most of its biological diversity, but are also more vulnerable to human exploitation and settlement due their relatively easier access. Despite its importance, this region has remained poorly explored, and all evidence suggests that much of the region’s diversity is being lost without even being recorded. A serious problem that hinders effective prioritization and evaluation for site-specific conservation attention is the lack of baseline biological data.

The Hathikuli Tea Estate is located in Assam in Golaghat District (26035’0.50”N, 93021’12.40”E, elevation 88 m.). It comprises 4.80 sq. km. of area having three divisions i.e. – Hathikuli Division, Rangajan Division and Deering Division. The plantation runs along a narrow strip of land but stretches for 12 km. along the National Highway 37. The climate is tropical with humid weather prevailing most of the summer and monsoon months. The total average annual rainfall is 1,300 mm. Maximum precipitation occurs in June and July. Maximum temperature is 38.00C in June and minimum temperature is 8.00C in December.

A Hathikuli snapshot

What follows is a very brief overview of our 10-day pre-monsoon survey, completed between May 4 and 15, 2012.

We conducted morning, evening and night trails (with armed guards, given the unrest in the area) to document species. We did use flash lights in the periphery of the tea estate, but sparingly, since militancy in the Karbi Anglong area was always uppermost in our minds. For this survey no species were collected. All we did was photograph them on location with notes that would help us identify them later. The greater part of our study was conducted in the Hathikuli division. But we also studied the high resolution photographs taken by local rescuers and included them in our checklist if positive identification was possible after referring to taxa specific literature.

Amongst the many creatures recorded at Hathikuli during the Sanctuary Rapid Biodiversity Survey, this colourful lanternfl y (Family: Fulgoridae) was a show stealer. A plant hopper, it functions by sucking nutrients from plants. Ants, which are voracious predators, are attracted to the nutritious liquid excreted by lanternfl ies, even as they prey on several of Hathikuli’s other pests such as Helopeltis. Credit:Rajesh Sanap

Amongst the many creatures recorded at Hathikuli during the Sanctuary Rapid Biodiversity Survey, this colourful lanternfly (Family: Fulgoridae) was a show stealer. A plant hopper, it functions by sucking nutrients from plants. Ants, which are voracious predators, are attracted to the nutritious liquid excreted by lantern flies, even as they prey on several of Hathikuli’s other pests such as Helopeltis.

We spotted five species of mammals – the Himalayan palm civet, the Indian palm squirrel, capped langur, common muntjac, and the Rhesus macaque. Hathikuli’s true wealth, however, manifested itself in the shape and form of little life forms – birds, butterflies, beetles and dragonflies. With Rajesh’s particular interest in tarantulas, not surprisingly, within hours of our arrival, we had located one.

We looked at the burrow, located under a tea bush along a mud drain and saw the thick web lining. A tickle with a grass blade and the owner came out of the burrow to investigate. It was a medium-sized tarantula, heavily clothed with black hair – a female Lyrognathus crotalus, a species common in Northeast India. Tarantulas are large hairy spiders that live much longer than other spider species and they spend virtually all their life in a single burrow making them invaluable bio-indicators. Monitoring a single individual over an extended period of time is a relatively easy task and we found ourselves very encouraged because the presence of tarantulas on the estate was a good sign since that surely meant that a variety of prey species existed to support the voracious predator.

That spiders were plentiful in Hathikuli was evident from even our initial, cursory, walks. From the wolf spider to the tarantula, lynx spider, giant crab spider, orb web spider, nursery web spider, straw spider, signature spider and the common garden spider…  these ‘pest controllers’ were busy at work. Night surveys proved to be even more exciting (and considerably easier) as numerous insects would cluster around the lamp posts right next to the Manager’s Bungalow (a heritage structure). This provided us with opportunities to observe predators in action. We saw several robberflies, 41 butterfly and 11 dragonfly species.

The last named must surely be called the hawks of the insect world. Dragonflies are a delight to watch as they flit gracefully over waterbodies, then come to rest at fixed perches after chasing intruders or grabbing prey on the wing. Dragonflies lay their eggs in water and their larvae too are voracious predators, devouring almost anything they can overpower. This makes them biological pest controllers par excellence. Their inter-specific relationships are also fascinating. At one of the ponds in the tea estate we found seven species including the marsh hawk, ruddy marsh skimmer, crimson marsh glider, ditch jewel, picture wing, clubtail and hooktail, plus some damselflies.

One afternoon, we spotted a large dragonfly that would not settle like the others. It kept circling the pond, pausing mid-air and then, suddenly, and at great speed, it would tap the water surface and then resume the process of circling the pond. We had not observed this behaviour before, and look forward to discussing it with experts.

A sub-adult capped langur Trachypithecus pileatus gorges on nutritious fi cus fruit. Leaf eaters, the presence of these primates on the estate is a clear sign of a recovering ecosystem and is very positive to the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve. Credit:Rajesh Sanap

A sub-adult capped langur Trachypithecus pileatus gorges on nutritious fi cus fruit. Leaf eaters, the presence of these primates on the estate is a clear sign of a recovering ecosystem and is very positive to the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve.

Hathikuli is also visited by many birds, ranging from the Rufous Treepie, Black-hooded Oriole, Oriental Turtle Dove, Yellow Wagtail, White-cheeked Bulbul, White-throated Kingfisher, Black Drongo, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Jungle Myna, Black-rumped Flameback, Red-breasted Parakeet, Asian Barred Owlet, Red-vented Bulbul, Indian Cuckoo and more. The forest of the Karbi Anglong hills were lush green and dense, despite the fact that ours was a pre-monsoon survey. We were sorely tempted to venture deep inside this area, but were advised not to for security reasons. Often both of us would walk in different directions to cover more ground and thus increase our sightings tally.

Reptiles are undoubtedly key predators and must be counted as very positive to an organic estate. We saw garden lizards, geckos, southern house geckos, worm snakes, common wolf snakes, red-necked keelbacks, banded kraits, monocled cobras and, that one large king cobra we described above.

Mosquito bug  Helopeltis

(Miridae: Heteroptera)

 This insect pest occurs widely in the foothills and the plains and mainly attacks tea and weeds growing in tea areas. Adults are quick but not strong fliers. Females are bigger than the males. The species has prominent eyes and a small drumstick like process that stands vertically on the upper side. It has black wings and head and long antennae. Nymphs and adults are more visible in early and late hours of the day and take shelter under tea leaves specially in the lower frame during day time or when disturbed. One individual usually completes its life cycle on a single bush. Damage of tea shoots and young leaves occurs due to the insertion of its eggs primarily in the buds, followed by shoots and the young leaves and their petioles. Severe damage occurs due to intensive feeding by all the stages and due to chemical reaction within the leaf resulting from feeding punctures and extra-oral digestion. The feeding spots develop a watermarked area, which turn circular and pale green and subsequently dark brown within hours of feeding. The circular area later becomes dark brown and when dried up, a hole develops. The toxic reaction of feeding often results in the curling and deformity of leaves. As a consequence, the shoot is retarded. Chemical control at recommended doses is becoming increasingly difficult. Helopeltis are predated by Oxyopes sp.(lynx spider), other spiders, dragonflies and robber flies.

 Lessons to be learnt

Climate change is an issue that all tea estates and plantations will need to come to terms with. One response could be to carpet-bomb plantations with toxic chemicals in response to the new and hardy vectors and pests that emerge thanks to altered humidity and temperatures. The other option would be to follow the Hathikuli Tea Estate experience, which could be replicated across the country. This is because in nature’s scheme of things, predator and prey have always worked out their own balance, which is what they will do in response to climate-induced ecological changes too.

Because pesticides ‘do not know how to stop killing’ they end up wiping out predators, leaving the field open to pests that come back in larger numbers, with greater resistance to applied toxins. This is a lose-lose situation that will also inevitably cause costs to escalate, even as educated consumer resistance to pesticide grows.

Clearly, no new plantations should be allowed in wildlife corridors or habitats. And where they already exist, the working plans should be adapted, taking a cue from the Hathikuli Tea Estate, to rebuild predator-prey balance, which will end up with a safer end product, capable of fetching a higher monetary yield per kg.

As for Kaziranga, the fact that chemicals will not leach into its wetlands from Hathikuli should be celebrated by all those who would like to see this rhino, tiger, elephant and wild buffalo habitat survive well into the future. Quite apart from such megafauna, this natural wonderland is also home to over 470 species of birds, making it one of India’s most vital Important Bird Areas. As we prepare to return for our post-monsoon Hathikuli survey, we eagerly anticipate even more diverse sightings of native biodiversity. Sanctuary Asia will also work with the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam and the National Tiger Conservation Authority to analyse the results of this rapid survey, including new investigations on soil micro fauna/flora, so crucial not only to the growth of tea bushes, but also, that perfect predator-prey balance in nature that any organic estate aspires to emulate.

This lynx spider is a voracious arthropod. Ever since Hathikuli has gone organic, spiders have been recognised as a strike strategy to keep tea pest populations under control. Encouraging a diversity of spiders to fl ourish will be a key objective of the estate management. Credit:Zeeshan Mirza

This lynx spider is a voracious arthropod. Ever since Hathikuli has gone organic, spiders have been recognised as a strike strategy to keep tea pest populations under control. Encouraging a diversity of spiders to fl ourish will be a key objective of the estate management.

One of the most serious issues facing tea estates today is how to deal with pests such as Helopeltis sp. (a bug), which we will especially focus on in our post-monsoon survey. We are acutely aware that withdrawing chemical applications have initially resulted in lower physical tea yields. But yields have started to rise thanks to improved soil health and the fact that money is not being spent on toxic chemicals, and the per kg. recovery of organic tea is higher… Hathikuli’s economic horizons look bright.

The fact is that Hathikuli has already negotiated the most difficult period of transition. In the months and years ahead, with every rise in the population and diversity of secondary predators, tea productivity (and the estate’s profit graph) must correspondingly rise. One key strategy will be to establish ‘sanctuaries’ within the estate that offer refuge to predators such as spiders, dragonflies, butterflies, snakes and lizards.

What is wonderful is that Hathikuli’s organic adventure will greatly benefit the wildlife of Kaziranga, not just because of the biodiversity that rises on the estate, but because of the long-term benefits from reduced bioaccumulation risks in the national park. What we would like to monitor very carefully now is the return of secondary predators to the most recently converted estate land. As naturalists we can safely assume that the biodiversity lists in these areas will rise with the passage of time, but this return must be documented and the survey results peer reviewed, so that the experience can be reliably shared and replicated across the country.

A better understanding of the ecological cycle in Hathikuli is vital to Kaziranga itself. In our view the Hathikuli management should work closely with the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam and the Director of the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve. Apart from shade trees, which do offer refuge to bird and other life forms, Hathikuli would need to set aside small unplanted parts of the estate where wild flora and fauna should be encouraged to return.  Such refuges for  natural predators, will for instance enable native ant species to nest.  And if this does not automatically happen, no harm would be done by considering the option of artificially culturing native ant species, which will help tackle the Helopeltis bugs whose eggs the ants consume.

Similarly the larvae of predatory beetles and praying mantis species may be cultured to play a role in natural pest control. Other logical steps would be to manage the drainage channels across the entire estate so as to protect tarantula spiders and their burrows, which are damaged or destroyed when deepening or otherwise maintaining drainage systems.

As young naturalists who are involved in the study and observation of secondary predators, we look forward with excitement to the adventures ahead of us.

For the detailed butterfly and dragonfly checklist go to

Going Organic

 The Hathikuli Tea Estate started its organic conversion in 2007.

  • In 2007, it was decided to convert 161.23 ha. area (Only Hathikuli division) to organic farming.
  • In 2008, the entire estate under tea (479.57 ha.) was taken up for organic conversion.
  • In March 2010, Organic Certification was received for 161.23 ha. area.
  • In March 2011, the whole Estate along with the production and processing unit was certified as fully organic under the standards of NPOP, NOP and EEC.
  • In September 2011, the estate has been able to receive JAS certification – the Japanese standards.

OneCert Asia is the certifying body for Hathikuli T.E. OneCert is accredited by APEDA (Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) under NPOP (National Programme for Organic Production).

 Editor’s postscript

Conventional wisdom suggests that tiger reserves and other Protected Areas have little option but to change the working relationship with lands that abut their boundaries. This must necessarily involve and engage those who own or occupy such ‘buffer’ areas. In the case of farmers, the objective would be to either encourage them to opt for organic agriculture, or turn farms to forests… become ecosystem farmers who benefit from biodiversity. In the case of commercial plantations such as the Hathikuli Tea Estate, the transition from chemical to organic farming should be fuelled by tax and other incentives and subsidies that would be infinitely more beneficial to India than the fossil energy, fertiliser and toxic chemical subsidies currently in favour.

This monocled cobra Naja kaouthia is a nocturnal predator. The reptile is often seen in and around old growth trees in whose boles rodents abound. When confronted with danger the snakes will raise the bodies, spread their hoods and hiss loudly. At such times they can be quite aggressive and will lunge to bite and even spit venom. Credit:Rajesh Sanap

This monocled cobra Naja kaouthia is a nocturnal predator. The reptile is often seen in and around old growth trees in whose boles rodents abound. Then confronted with danger the snakes will raise the bodies, spread their hoods  and hiss loudly. At such times they can be quite aggressive and will lunge to bite and even spit venom.

Sanctuary Asia Rapid Biodiversity Survey by Zeeshan A. Mirza and Rajesh V. Sanap, Vol XXXII No. 4, August 2012

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Bio-Diversity in Northeast Under Threat

Though the northeastern region of the country is considered an ecological hotspot, large sections of the local people are not even aware that the region reservoirs of biodiversity are under constant threat.

Experts say that at present the region is suffering from destruction of forests that is threatening permanent loss of biodiversity due to unsustainable logging and jhuming (slash and burn method of farming).

In fact, scientists say that the rate of “biodiversity depletion” in the region is quite alarming than many parts of the world as there is an estimated annual conversion of 3% of the primary forest into secondary or degraded forest mainly due to jhuming (shifting cultivation).

“The exotic pitcher plant found in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, small variety of bamboo, stone moss and many other unidentified plants, most of them having medicinal value are facing extinction threats. Therefore, there is in an urgent need to explore ways and means to save the unique plants of the region,” says scientist PK Das, who had carried out extensive research on the pine plantations in Meghalaya.

In fact, a unique feature of the region was prevalence of traditional institutions for maintaining biodiversity. However, sacred groves, protected by socio-religious sanctions are fast eroding with changing beliefs. At present, only about 10% of the sacred groves are found to have crown cover of 100%, studies conducted by the North Eastern Region Community Resources Management Project (NERCORMP) have brought to light.

“The need of the hour for policy makers is to hold serious deliberations on forests, wildlife, non-timber forest produce, medicinal and aromatic plants, joint forest management, agriculture, horticulture, water security and aquatic environment, traditional institutions and customary practices, gender perspective in conservation, environmental services and carbon trading,” says the botanist, who is keen on launching an awareness scheme on the issue.

“Awareness on bio-conservation must be promoted among the masses and policy makers must be alerted on the impending need to protect, preserve biodiversity resources in the northeast, one of the richest bio-hotspots on earth,” he iterates.

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11 challenges facing 7 billion super-consumers

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about Halloween this year is not the ghouls and goblins taking to the streets, but a baby born somewhere in the world. It’s not the baby’s or the parent’s fault, of course, but this child will become a part of an artificial, but still important, milestone: according to the UN, the Earth’s seventh billionth person will be born today. That’s seven billion people who require, in the very least, freshwater, food, shelter, medicine, and education. In some parts of the world, they will also have a car, an iPod, a suburban house and yard, pets, computers, a lawn-mower, a microwave, and perhaps a swimming pool. Though rarely addressed directly in policy (and more often than not avoided in polite conversations), the issue of overpopulation is central to environmentally sustainability and human welfare.

The questions of how many people can the Earth sustain is rightly a sensitive one, since it strikes at the heart of very personal decisions made by billions worldwide. What do we do if we’re pregnant? Do we want children? How large do we want our family to be? No one wants to be told how many children they can or cannot have, and discussions of overpopulation may imply such lectures. Others see any discussion of overpopulation as a call for stemming human population with any means necessary, which, of course, is ridiculous. Or they condemn the speakers as misanthropes—also ridiculous and contrary to the point of the discussion in the first place. Still these specious charges have made many wary to wade into one of the most important issues of our age: how many people can the Earth sustain? And, just as important, how many people do we want? For we ignore overpopulation at our peril—and our misery. The Earth is a finite planet; it has limits and thresholds; and according to many scientists and experts we are already passing several of those.

Currently, humans are consuming the equivalent of one-and-a-half planet Earths every year, according to WWF’s Living Planet Report. Looking at renewable resources—from fish to forests and carbon to agriculture—the report shows just how far we have surpassed the sustainability of our world. By the time the global population is expected to stabilize at 9 (or maybe 10) billion people in 2050, a total 2.8 Earths will be necessary if ‘business as usual’ continues. In other words it would take the Earth’s resources nearly 3 years to recover from 1 year of human consumption. Not surprisingly, some consume a far bigger share than others: for example, if everyone on Earth consumed as much as the average American, global society would need 4.5 Earths today to live sustainably.

To understand the impact of humanity on the world’s ecosystems, one needs to keep in mind it is made up of two factors. The first is population: the more of us, the greater our collective impact. The other, though, is consumption: the more resources we each consume, the further we move away from true sustainability. This makes some more responsible than others. For example, according to a 2009 study, a child born in the US today will have a carbon footprint that is 7 times larger than a child born on the same day in China. But it gets worse: the American child’s carbon footprint would be 55 times larger than an Indian’s and 86 times larger than a Nigerian’s. Population multiplied by consumption is the important metric in comprehending our footprint. In addition, humans are also living longer. A sign of societal well-being, longer lives also means a more difficult time stabilizing population and a larger individual footprint.

Yet tackling global overpopulation does not require draconian methods or a mass human tragedy; in fact, lowering global population and consumption now would make such events less likely in the future. With around two of every five pregnancies unwanted, research has shown that the greatest way to slow population growth— eventually leading to a population plateau and a slow decline—is to empower women. Universal access to contraceptives, better education, and family planning are some of the best ways to combat an overcrowded planet. Reducing poverty and child mortality are additional goals that bring overall population growth down. It also wouldn’t hurt to build greater awareness around overpopulation and consumption—and make such issues topics of conservation, even in polite company.

Food: Hunger is the issue most frequently brought up in conjunction with overpopulation (even though many others are just as pressing): how do we feed 7 billion people, let alone the 9 billion projected by 2050? According to the UN, a billion people in the world today don’t have enough food. However it’s not because the world doesn’t grow enough food, but because the food we produce is inequitably distributed. One third of all the world’s food is thrown out at one end of the agricultural chain or another: either spoiled by farmers, tossed out by merchants, or thrown in the garbage by consumers. Still, the FAO has estimated that food production will need to rise by 70 percent to supply the anticipated 9 billion. But how do we grow so much food without trashing the very environment that sustains agriculture? With quality arable land running out, there is a desperate need to grow more food on less land, while improving stewardship of resources such as water and soil. Experts continue to debate, sometimes fiercely, whether small-scale organic production is the only sustainable way forward, or whether industrial chemical-driven GMO farming is the answer.

The Turkana tribe of northern Kenya are buffeted by constant drought and food insecurity, which recent research says may be worsening due to climate change.

Water: Like food, access to fresh unpolluted water is becoming a rising concern on our crowded planet. Over 800 million people currently don’t have access to clean drinking water, while one in three people suffer from water scarcity, reports the WHO. And its not just the poor that face water problems: the American Southwest, where it is still common to see well-watered green lawns in the desert, is facing a water crisis largely due to decades of unsustainable and wasteful consumption. Experts warn that underground aquifers are running low all over the world, which will have a direct impact on crop production, since currently 70 percent of consumed water is used for agriculture. In the face of water issues, some nations are turning to desalination plants and taking their water from the sea. However, desalination is still prohibitively expensive for many, while climate change is expected to add greater pressure on water-scarce regions.

Rice field in Laos.

Mass extinction: More people consuming more resources means less and less for the millions of other species inhabiting our world. Many experts believe we are in the midst of mass extinction, with rates estimated at 100 and 1,000 times the background rate. The IUCN Red Lists says that 869 species have gone extinct since 1500 AD, yet this is a vast underestimation, considering the bulk of the world’s species have probably never been named, let alone evaluated. Expanding human population doesn’t just imperil big beloved species like rhinos, tigers, and elephants, but multitudes of species that perform essential services for humanity from clean water to soil health, and carbon sequestration to medicine. A collapse in biodiversity portends ecosystem collapse.

The Sumatran orangutan is considered Critically Endangered as forests continue to fall in Sumatra.

Oceans: In 2008 a report predicted that all wild fish stocks would collapse by 2048. This year, a landmark study predicted mass extinction in the oceans due to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Once believed to be superabundant, the world’s oceans are being plundered of wildlife (or overfished) at a rate never seen in human history. At the same time, ocean acidification from carbon emissions imperils the ocean’s most biodiverse ecosystem, coral reefs, and dead zones, areas starved of oxygen caused by nitrogen-rich pollution, are spreading worldwide. Such synergistic impacts mean the oceans of the future could be very different than those of today, and would likely provide far fewer resources, especially food, for future generations. Despite the dire warnings, fish stocks continue to be vigorously overfished, greenhouse gas emissions remain on the rise, and the oceans are still a dumping ground for much of society’s pollution.

Exploitation of the ocean is leading to precipitous declines in marine life.

Deforestation: Every year over 10 million hectares of forest are lost (an area larger than Hungary) according to the FAO, and another 10 million hectares are degraded. Forests are cut for a variety of reasons, yet all of them connect to population and consumption with big agriculture and commodities playing the lead role. In South America the Amazon is being whittled away by cattle ranching, industrial soy farms, and mining. The rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia are falling to plantations for paper and palm oil. Pressure by rural impoverished populations are diminishing forests in the Philippines, while foreign demand for high-end woods are degrading forests in Madagascar. Rising energy demands have led to forest destruction for biofuels, gas, oil, and hydropower. By some estimates half of the world’s intact tropical forests have been lost, and every year sees more destroyed. Besides harboring the majority of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, forests store carbon, safeguard freshwater, produce vapor that leads to rain, and sustain many rural and indigenous populations.

Geometric patterns of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Cattle ranching and soy are the biggest destroyers of forest in this part of the world.

Climate change: The 21st Century will be the century of climate change: a recent study predicted that regions in Canada, Asia, Europe, and North Africa will already see a rise of 2 degrees Celsius by 2030. Our warmer world will see rising sea levels, more extreme weather, higher frequency of droughts and floods, desertification, and biodiversity loss, generally creating a less stable and more unpredictable world. While rarely discussed, human population growth is invariably linked to greenhouse gas emissions, especially in wealthy and economically-rising powers: the wealthiest 7 percent produces half of the world’s emissions. More people and more consumption means more emissions, and until greenhouse gas emissions—whether from burning fossil fuels, raising food, or forest and peatlands destruction—becomes decoupled from consumption this will remain the case. In fact, efforts to slow population growth could have an important impact on mitigating global warming: a recent study found that slowing population growth could cut global emissions by 16-29 percent.

Herd of African buffalo and birds in the Okavango Delta.

Disease: More humans could mean more disease, though evidence for such a connection thus far is often anecdotal and sometimes contradictory. However, crowded conditions, especially as the world’s mega-cities continue to grow, and rising pressures surrounding sanitation and health care, may increase or worsen outbreaks of disease. While recent fears of a devastating pandemic over avian flu and swine flu proved overblown, it does not mean rising populations may not play role in the next outbreak. Climate change is also expected to change the range of disease, possibly pushing many dangerous tropical diseases into once-temperate environments.

Resource scarcity:Overpopulation isn’t just taking a toll on renewable resources—such as forests and soils—but on non-renewable ones as well. Peak oil has become a popular term over the past decade for good reason. Since society has lagged in transitioning to a fossil fuel-free economy, energy companies are scouring ever-more distant places (the Amazon, the Arctic, and the deep ocean) for new fossil fuel sources, imperiling some of the last pristine environments. High energy prices are also contributing to higher food costs. Meanwhile, many of the world’s important manufacturing metals—such as steel, copper, platinum, nickel, and tin—are running low and becoming harder to get, pushing prices up and forcing mining companies, much like energy companies, into remoter places, risks be damned. In many parts of the world, even protected areas are no longer safe from mining, drilling, and exploitation for resources.

Aerial view of Amazon rainforest landscape scarred by open pit gold mines.

Economics: The world of economics is rarely looked at as an environmental problem, since many traditional economists appear quite willing to ignore the environment. Some have even forecast that the world’s economies will keep growing exponentially, with future generations far richer than we can imagine. But how can material wealth grow on a plundered finite world? Wealth, at least capital in resources, is dependent on the environment, and our environment—planet Earth—is both finite and increasingly plundered. Beyond the fact that there is a limited amount of oil, coal, gold, etc. in the world, there is only so far one can unwisely push renewable resources—such as fish in the sea, trees to log, and arable land—before they collapse. Sustainability means safeguarding renewable resources for future generations. But currently, waste and greed are plundering not just our non-renewable resources, but pushing our renewable ones to the brink. The rise of a global throwaway culture and conspicuous consumption has resulted in an economy based in part on collapsing environmental capital, creating what may be the ultimate bubble.

Dani man in traditional battle array on the island of New Guinea. Once one of the remotest jungles on Earth, this island is seeing rapid change due to industrial-scale logging and mining

Poverty and wealth: Currently, over a third of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, while the top 1 percent globally holds 43 percent of the world’s wealth. Hundreds of millions don’t have access to enough food or clean water on a daily basis, while according to Forbes this year there are a record 1,210 billionaires possessing accumulated wealth of $4.5 trillion. As more people populate the planet, paradoxically the wealth disparity has been widening. Millions in developing countries are lacking the basics of human survival (food, water, shelter, and medicine) though their nations may be rich in natural resources. Meanwhile their resources, from forests to marine fish, are often unsustainably depleted for consumption abroad in wealthy nations.

Girl in a village in Madagascar: 70 percent of the Malagasy people suffer from malnutrition. Nearly half the population is under 14.

Well-being: Even if we survive the environmental calamities brought on in part by overpopulation and overconsumption, even if we make it to 10 billion people and society is still humming along, how happy will we be? So many people crowding our small planet means the decline of some very human needs: privacy, wilderness, and hopefulness. It’s hard to imagine a world of beauty and happiness for our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren if they only know gorillas and rhinos from images on the Internet, if they never have a chance to taste fresh seafood or experience true silence, if they can’t see the stars for all the light pollution or know the joy of an hour of solitude in the woods.

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Climate impacts on birds, agriculture linked

NORTH LAKHIMPUR, India (AlertNet) – In the days of yore, farmers forecast the weather by looking at the behaviour of birds.

“When sparrows bathe in the dust, it rains,” they would say.

But as climate change alters weather patterns in northeast India, it is changing traditional knowledge – and threatening local birds that long have helped farmers control pests in their fields.

Birds are “the real friend of farmers,” says Prabal Saikia, an agricultural ornithology specialist at the Regional Agricultural Research Station (RARS) in North Lakhimpur, in India’s Assam province.

But these days, “the decline in the bird population has increased the insect population, thereby increasing crop damage,” he said.

Cattle egrets, for instance, known locally as bu bog, can eat more than 400 insect larvae an hour at ploughing time. But the egrets, which nest in bamboo groves near farmers’ homes, are increasingly seeing their nests washed away by increasingly heavy rains that now fall at nesting time.

“Now, because of climate change, there is (early) rain during the breeding season,” Saikia said. In some cases “the heavy rains devastate the bamboo groves, which fall down and the small nestlings fall down and die.”

A survey found that the egrets appear to have begun breeding earlier in the year than normal as a result of changing conditions, the scientist said.


In a region where more than 70 percent of crop damage is the result of insects, plant diseases and rodents, birds that eat insects and rodents “mean a lot in terms of food security,” Saikia said.

That’s one reason the researcher is studying traditional lore and local bird populations, and working to protect them by meeting with farmers, producing leaflets in local languages and giving talks on radio and television stations.

Saikia and his team have been working on an effort called the All India Network Project on Agri-Ornithology. The project, taking place in regions across India, aims to identify birds in agricultural ecosystems, and help conserve those that are beneficial while managing others that create problems for farmers by eating grain. The study, sponsored by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research based in New Delhi, also aims to analyse the impact of climate change on the birds.

Saikia’s research station has identified 26 species of beneficial local birds in the agricultural fields of Assam.

One is the cattle egret, traditionally protected by farmers for their help in protecting farm fields from harmful insects.


The breeding of the egrets is closely related to the timing of cultivation. The peak breeding season is from March to August. In Assam, rice transplanting starts in June and July. During this period, the local birds feed their chicks with the caterpillar or larvae of the insect pests.

But shifting weather patterns appear to be upsetting the balance, Saikia said, particularly if heavy rain disturbs nests or unusual temperatures upset  the egg incubation period.

Other birds, like the spotted owlet and the barn owl that hunt rodents, have seen population declines as a result of deforestation in the region as farming fields expand to meet population growth.

And some birds are seeing their food sources change as climate shifts lead to the disappearance of some traditional plant species and affect fruit trees, Saikia said.

To protect and better understand threatened plants and trees that are important to birds, the scientist’s team is collecting samples of the species and planting them in their research station.


Alarmed by a decrease in the number of local birds, Saikia has also devised innovative techniques to help them, such as nests made from shoe boxes and earthen pots that farmers can build and site near their homes.

Farmers have supported the effort.

“I learned how to make the shoe-box nest and put it up in my house. I could see a lot of sparrows coming now. I am encouraging my neighbours to put this cost-effective nest in their respective houses,” said Kanak Sonowal, 35, a farmer from Dagal Dubi village.

He said he was also “trying to explain the importance of these indigenous birds to other farmers through age-old proverbs.”

Other farmers have fought to protect threatened wetlands that provide habitat for both local and migratory birds.

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