Friday, October 28, 2011

Mad about frogs!

This is a video feature about the Project Lost Amphibians. A project surveying India for Amphibians. Features Dr. S D. Biju, Varad Giri, Thingbath, Sonali, Gargi, Ashish, Robin, Don Church of Global Wildlife Conservation, and Bahar Dutt of CNN-IBN.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Feel the pulse of the ecosystem from the flutter of butterflies

By Lesley D Biswas   Kolkata
11 Oct 2011

The presence of butterflies indicates a healthy ecosystem and to ensure that his City of Joy bathes in a rainbow of flutter, Arjan Basu Roy, the secretary of Nature Mates, a Kolkata based organization working to sensitize people about nature, and the West Bengal Forest Department (WBFD) have developed Banabitan Butterfly Garden in Salt Lake.

Roy has also been associated with other butterfly garden projects to conserve butterflies in eastern India at Suntalekhola, Chilapata Eco-tourism zone and Tiya Bon, all initiatives by the Directorate of Forest, government of West Bengal.

“Butterflies are the most prominent bio-diversity indicators,” points out Roy. “Through them you can understand whether the bio-diversity of a region is secure or not. Where there are butterflies the ecosystem is secure and human beings who comprise the largest component of the ecosystem are not under threat. If butterflies dwindle, mankind will be the worst hit,” he adds.

Butterflies are not merely beautiful fluttering creatures, but are the most prominent bio-diversity indicators, according to Arjan Basu Roy 
Luckily, Kolkata is still a rich haven for butterflies with an impressive 120 to 150 species. As a result of Roy’s passion Banabitan Butterfly Garden in Salt Lake’s central park is a pretty colourful maze of butterflies happily frolicking sweet scented nectar plants like lantana, periwinkle, cosmos and hibiscus. Butterflies need larval food plants on which they lay their eggs and caterpillars feed and nectar plants for the butterflies to feed. With species like blue tiger, plain barred owl and more common species like plain and glassy tigers, common yellow and common five rings already visiting, providing them a habitat rich in nectar and host plants make it possible for them to multiply.

Roy’s initiative to conserve butterflies is also working as a catalyst to conserve some of the predators like birds and lizards who feed on butterflies. “We have noticed a steady increase in the mynah, jungle babbler and black drongo,” says Roy, who inherited his appreciation for wildlife from his father Ajoy Basu Roy.

To sustain his family Roy was forced to put his passion on hold and start a printing business. A qualified engineer with three diplomas in engineering including one from the renowned Regional Institute of Printing Technology (RIPT), Roy had no idea then that he was destined for greater things.

Interestingly, Roy’s induction into conservation came accidentally in 2004 when he took an order to print brochures for the WBFD. He came into contact with officials in the forest department who shared a thirst for conserving nature and in July 2005 Roy was included in a project by West Bengal Forest Development Corporation Ltd. to develop Gar Panchakot in Purulia as a destination for traditional herbal treatment.

Though he started out as a wildlife photographer Roy found himself restrained as he could not afford a big lenses camera, imperative for wildlife photography. But, on first May 2005 Roy got an idea. “I was standing in Garpanchkot in Purulia when a beautiful butterfly of the Diana species caught my fancy. The micro-lenses required to photograph butterflies was within my capacity.” And then, as he puts it, “I decided to photograph butterflies and ultimately began conserving them.”

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

From slingshot kills to SLR shoots

Sunita Raghu

He might well have been a modern-day Angulimala. Only, instead of people he killed creatures—birds, reptiles and even amphibians. And while the compassion of the Buddha saved Angulimala, for Kolkata-bred Sajal Bar, the road to redemption has been quite different. As a veterinarian and animal activist, his karmic debts, if any, seem to have been repaid in full.

Today, Sajal is the toast of the birding/butterfly/reptile community, a great spotter as they say, and has most certainly come a long way since he played hunter. Ask him when he decided to trade in the slingshot for a camera, and he says, “I killed not for sport, but out of hunger, my family being too poor to keep me well-fed all the time. Hence a good many creatures ended up as my meal—birds, snakes, mongooses, palm civets, water monitors, Indian pond frogs, etc.” Once he killed a male spotted dove during the mating season and the female stayed put near the body. “I was overcome with remorse,” says Sajal. Around that time, well-meaning friends kept dragging him along for birding trips. Soon he joined an NGO called Nature Mates, and his mind was finally opened towards conservation and preservation. Says Sajal, “I owe everything I am today to Bikramadittya G Roy, president of Nature Mates who has taken me under his wing and even funded my expenses.”

Given his hunting background, the stocky 40-year-old’s choice of profession might seem paradoxical, but then again, perhaps it was meant to be. Recollects Sajal, “Once I got two Doberman puppies hoping to raise and sell them for a profit. However, both developed severe diarrhoea and one even succumbed to it for want of a vet who could administer the puppy saline.” Saddened by the loss, Sajal decided to become a vet himself. Easier said than done, considering that he had hardly any education worth the name! However, just by observing and learning under a trained vet, he learnt the ropes of the job. Soon, NGOs were knocking at his door to help save injured animals and even birds. “The other day, I managed to plaster together the broken wing of a Coppersmith Barbet,” he says. Neutering street dogs and cats is another line of work.

His love for nature and photography sees him rising with the birds and going to a nearby forest where he spends time spotting and photographing all living creatures. “Sajal has a keen eye; he is indeed an asset to the birding community,” says his naturalist-friend Arjan Basu Roy. It’s a sentiment shared by avid birder and wildlife photographer Sumit Sen, who feels that Sajal is a good observer of behaviour and patterns and by recording everything, gives an opportunity to others to interpret the same. Vijay Barve, moderator of the e-group ButterflyIndia, says that Sajal is amazingly good at spotting insects and myriad small creatures.

The proudest moment in Sajal’s career must have been when he shot a picture of the Black-browed Reed Warbler in the reed beds of Joka. It was an extraordinary feat, when one considers that prominent American ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen said in her book Birds of South Asia that its presence in India was ‘hypothetical’.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Two Florida Species Declared Extinct

Endangered Species Review Too Late to Save South Florida Rainbow Snake, Florida Fairy Shrimp

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that two Florida species, the South Florida rainbow snake and the Florida fairy shrimp, have been determined to be extinct. The finding came in response to a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2010 seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the rainbow snake, fairy shrimp and more than 400 aquatic species in the southeastern United States. Last week the Service announced that 374 other freshwater species in the petition, including 114 in Florida, may warrant protection under Act. All of those species will now get an in-depth review.

“It’s heart-wrenching to learn that these two unique Florida species have been lost forever. Like most species that go extinct, these two were not protected under the Endangered Species Act, which is the most powerful tool we have for saving our nation’s plants and animals from disappearing,” said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist with the Center.

The South Florida rainbow snake was known only from Fish Eating Creek, which flows into the west side of Lake Okeechobee. The beautiful snake was iridescent bluish-black with red stripes on its back and sides, red and yellow patches on its belly and throat, and a yellow chin. Adults were more than four feet long. It was last seen in 1952.

The Florida fairy shrimp was known from a single pond just south of Gainesville. The pond was destroyed by development, and the species hasn’t been detected elsewhere.

“The government has to determine quickly whether the 114 other Florida species it’s reviewing will get protection so that more of Florida’s heritage isn’t erased by extinction,” said Curry. “The wellbeing of human society is deeply linked to the health of the natural systems we need to sustain life. In the end, saving species will help save us.”

The southeastern United States is home to more unique species of freshwater animals than anywhere else in the world, including mussels, snails and crayfish. Tragically, many of the region’s animals have already been lost to extinction.

Earlier this year the Center reached a landmark legal settlement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to expedite protection decisions for 757 imperiled species across the country.      

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Lower pollinator numbers herald crisis

A decline in the number of butterflies and bees, major contributors toward global farm output, calls for urgent conservation steps

Ananda Banerjee,

Red Pierrot, Common Lime, Plain Tiger, Blue Pansy or the Common Castor may be unfamiliar names to most Indians, although it is likely that most would have seen one or more of the five—the most common butterflies found in India.

While it is unlikely that most people would notice their absence, it is almost certain that plants will—butterflies, such as these, help them reproduce.

The subcontinent has approximately 1,300 of more than 20,000 butterfly species known, said Kishen Das, a US-based lepidopterist. That’s about 6.5% of the global butterfly diversity. 

However, the problem is that around 100 of the butterfly species found in India are nearing extinction, according to Surya Prakash, a professor at the department of life sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Few are aware of the crucial pollination role the butterfly plays, which is second only to the honeybee,” he adds. 

There’s bad news on that front too.

“Our observations in the Sundarbans have established that the population of bees as pollinators is decreasing,” says K. Venkataraman, director, Zoological Survey of India​.

Pollination is the process that helps plants reproduce. From the consumption point of view, it is also the process that produces fruits, vegetables, pulses, and grains—any food, basically, that comes from a plant.

Around 70% of all food crops are pollinated by insects, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. In Europe, the proportion is 84%. While no corresponding data is available for India, there’s nothing to suggest that food crops here are pollinated by other means. This means that a decline in the number of pollinating insects could have catastrophic effects.

 “If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change, but if insects were to disappear, I doubt the human species could last more than a few months,” wrote noted American biologist E.O. Wilson.

The impact of some insects becoming extinct isn’t top-of-the-mind in a country where even conservation efforts are skewed towards large mammals, or mega-fauna, as Isaac Kehimkar, general manager (programmes) at the Bombay Natural History Society​ and author of The Book of Indian Butterflies, terms it. “Lack of knowledge and obsession with mega-fauna is killing entomology as a subject. It has become professionally unsustainable today as there is a fight for the same set of funds which inevitably go to the tiger or one of the mega-fauna species,” he says.

To be fair, the emphasis on conserving pollinating insects is relatively recent, even in the US. These insects not only support humanity, but also maintain diversity in an ecosystem. “Though there has been a growing appreciation for the ecosystem services provided by pollinators, it is only recently, when farmers in the US started finding their bee colonies missing, that people started wondering about what might happen to the world’s food production in the absence of bees,” says S. Ramani, project coordinator, All India Coordinated Research Project on Honey Bees and Pollinators. “The expected direct reduction in total agricultural production in the absence of animal pollination has been estimated to range from 3% to 8%, showing that agriculture has become more pollinator-dependent. It has been suggested that we may be in the middle of a global pollination crisis.”

If no one has noticed it is because “not a single bee has ever sent you an invoice”, says investment banker and environmentalist Pavan Sukhdev. In his book, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, Sukhdev puts the worth of insect pollination at $200 billion (around Rs.10 trillion today) a year, or 10% of the value of the world’s agricultural output.

Still, Indian research isn’t conclusive enough to establish a so-called pollinator crisis that is separate and distinct from the general decline in biodiversity, which is a global phenomenon. Even “in Europe, a region better studied than most, about 250 plant species are grown as crops. Of these, about 150 are thought to be insect pollinated, but for most we do not know which insects pollinate them, or whether yields are being limited by inadequate pollination”, wrote Dave Goulson in Bumblebees: Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation.

What is clear is that some pollinator species are under threat.

A report put out by the United Nations Environment Programme says: “When large habitats are fragmented into small isolated patches, food sources become scarcer for resident animals. Populations may then decline to the point that they are no longer able to benefit plants. As certain wild pollinators need undisturbed habitat for nesting, roosting, foraging and sometimes specific larval host plants, they are very susceptible to habitat degradation and fragmentation in particular. Human activities have impacted the landscape through fragmentation, degradation and destruction of natural habitats and the creation of new anthropogenic ones.”

To act on this information, people, especially policymakers, will have to increase their awareness of insect conservation, which is not easy because even basic science on insects is scarce. Even today, most species are undescribed and the distribution of described species is mostly unknown. To boost the public profile of insects, experts recommend “better public information and marketing”, including greater use of “red lists” of threatened species, and making sure insects are addressed in environmental impact studies.

In other words, “Save the tiger, sure, but also spare a thought for the Indian honeybee.”

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