Polar Bear

Polar Bear

-John Eickert


Children see things in ways adults cannot and sometimes they see things, which adults cannot see. As a boy, I was fascinated with the Artic North, the land of the Midnight sun, Eskimos, igloos and polar bears. The largest member of the bear family living on our planet, a relic from the last ice age and an extraordinary predator; the polar bear invokes mythological stories and tales. These white bears live in a vast yet simple ecosystem. Legend tells they are great swimmers and patient hunters. This fabled land of indigenous people who live on seal meat and thrive on solitude has long captured my imagination.

When I was eight years old, we lived out in the country and it was a wonderful adventure playground. In the winter, a savage storm struck the area where we lived. Snow fell and the temperatures dropped until anything left out of doors froze. The conditions were so desperate that our school canceled all classes. This is a delightful situation for a child. The storm carried on without letting up for more than a week. After a week my mother grew tired of our constant company, at last, she relented and I hurried out the door into the raging white storm.

My father understood the necessity of responsibility and my outdoor freedom came at a cost; there was a duty to perform. A half mile from our house was a large area of cottonwood trees and during the summer, we had cut and stacked a small mountain of firewood. It was to take my wooden snow sled to the stacked wood and retrieve a supply, as much as the sled would hold. My mother did not like the plan, but gave in, glad to see me outdoors and away. The wind swirled the falling snow and tried to find weakness in my clothing. I tromped through the knee-deep snow pulling the empty sled, it was hard going for such a small child and I passed the time pretending I was pulling a sled across my frozen artic.

I made it to the woodpile and loaded my sled with all I dared, arranging it with pride for balance. Finished and warm from the work I surveyed my loaded sled, now if I could pull it. I looped the towrope over one shoulder and across my waist. I peered down the track I made in the snow on my outward journey, it would be easy to find home, but the wind was against me and it took great effort to pull the sled, despite the slick-frozen surface. I pulled, and worked and made decent progress into the teeth of the cruel wind. I was about to give up when I stopped to catch my breath and something made me look up. To this day, I believe what I saw was a polar bear, but it would have taken a wandering bear forty, fifty-mile days to reach our ranch and so it was not possible, but then……..?


Amazing Facts About Wildlife

Monkeys Make the Grade


Monkeys Make the Grade


College students at Duke University did better than Macaque monkeys at mental arithmetic, says S.Ananthanarayanan.


The December issue of the journal PLos Biology (Public Library of science) carries a report on the work of Elizabeth Brannon and Jessica Cantlon of the Duke Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, in North Carolina, USA.


That animals have computational abilities has been known but whether this amounted to cognitive ability has been a question. The prevailing view, which started from the time of Descartes, has been that animals cannot think because they do not use language. The more modern but similar view is of B S Skinner, who considered that animal intelligence could be explained as conditioned response, without the need for invoking cognition.


This view is now under challenge and the some kinds of complex animal behavior are seen to evidence cognitive ability. One of Skinner’s own students, Herbert S Terence, professor at Columbia, along with graduate student Elizabeth Brannon, reported strong evidence of complex ability of animals in the October issue of the journal, Science.


The duo were able to train monkeys to discriminate computer-generated images containing as many as 9 objects and to respond to them in ascending order, with a significant success rate. Such behaviour may be motivated by craving for rewards, but it requires thought processes for execution and cannot be explained as conditioned response.  As animals show ability in thought process, Terrence and Brannon hope to go on to show that human intelligence, like other human attributes, may have arisen from animal origins.


Now in the PLos Biology, Dr Brandon has teamed with Dr Cantlon of Duke Center to report a more complex experiment with results not just statistically significant but comparable to college students’ ability.


There is evidence to show that both humans and animals have the ability to mentally represent and compare numbers. For instance, animals and infants can discriminate between four objects and eight objects. It has also been shown that crows cana count up to 4. But there has been no evidence so far that animals can perform any kind of operations of arithmetic.


"We know that animals can recognize quantities, but there is less evidence for their ability to carry out explicit mathematical tasks, such as addition," said Jessica Cantlon. But the study they now report shows that monkeys can add too.


In the Cantlon-Brannon experiment, macaque monkeys were placed in front of a computer touch screen displaying a number of dots. The screen was then cleared and replaced with a new screen with a different number of dots. A third screen then appeared displaying two boxes; one containing the sum of the first two sets of dots and one containing a different number. The monkeys were rewarded for touching the box containing the correct sum of the sets.


It was found that the monkeys got the right answer 76% of the time! The same test was then administered to college students, who had to choose the correct box of dots without counting the individual dots. Well the college students did a little better, at correct 94% of the time, but the average response time for both monkeys and collegians was about the same one second.


Interestingly, both the monkeys' and the college students' performance worsened when the two choice boxes were close in number.


"If the correct sum was 11 and the box with the incorrect number held 12 dots, both monkeys and the college students took longer to answer and had more errors. We call this the ratio effect," explained Cantlon. "What's remarkable is that both species suffered from the ratio effect at virtually the same rate." That monkeys display the ability to add suggests that basic arithmetic may be part of the evolutionary heritage of humans.


On top of this basic ability, humans have added language and writing, which gives humans facility in representing and expressing numbers. "Much of adult humans' mathematical capacity lies in their ability to represent numerical concepts using symbolic language. A monkey can't tell the difference between 2000 and 2001 objects, for instance. However, our work has shown that both humans and monkeys can mentally manipulate representations of number to generate approximate sums of individual objects," says Brannon.

[the writer can be contacted at]

Burning Issues

Jackal moves out of Delhi Ridge, found in Connaught Place!

Jackal moves out of Delhi Ridge, found in Connaught Place!


-Govind Singh



A few days ago, a full grown jackal was found right in the heart of the city behind Regal Theater in Connaught Place. The animal was first thought to be a dog that had entrapped itself amidst the generator sets behind Regal. But a few onlookers soon realized that it was a jackal and quickly informed the police. It did not howl per se but the sound it made gave it away. The animal was finally rescued by the Delhi based NGO Wildlife SOS, which was called in by the police. It should be noted here that sometime around the beginning of this year, a pack of jackals that had made the Delhi Airport its home was caught by the same NGO as part of the plan to relocate wild animals roaming the airport premises.


The six jackals that were then caught were later released in the South-Central Ridge after being examined by a team of veterinary doctors. Apparently, either the jackals could never adapt to the ridge environment or the recent activities in and around the ridge may have forced them to move out. Lately, the South-Central Ridge has been disturbed in a number of ways. A major part of the ridge is under a continuous threat from real estate developers. Apart from this, the monkey population from within the South-Central Ridge is being shifted to the Asola Wildilfe Sanctuary further South. A steady increase in both the population of the city and the number of vehicles plying in the capital has further led to adverse impacts, especially on the fringes of the ridge. These factors could have well translated into the restlessness in the wildlife that the ridge supports.


Delhi Ridge is one of the two life supporting systems of the city (the other being river Yamuna). It not only acts as the city’s lungs by recycling the air but is also a refuge for a large number of wild animals and the last abode of native plant species. Its degradation will result in the loss of a great many ecosystem services that it provides to the people of Delhi and around. If we are to maintain and improve the quality of life in the city, we must address the issues that are threatening the glory of the ridge at the earliest.


Common Birds of India

Grey Heron.( Ardea cinerea )

Grey Heron.( Ardea cinerea )


-Ragoo Rao 



An ashy grey lanky bird with white crown and neck, underside being greyish, with a long black occipital crest and long flowing feathers on the middle of the fore neck with black streaks is the graceful Grey heron.  This bird has a very graceful stance found usually with a S curved long neck and a dagger like yellow beak.  The females are also similarly colored but the black markings are less developed.


One can find these graceful bird, usually solitary, along the lake shores and reeds, usually in the late evenings.  Approach should be very cautious as these birds are very cautious and alert.  Most of the times it is only when these birds off, one would know that there was a grey heron somewhere near the shore.


Their distribution is throughout the country except for very high altitudes. They are resident to the vicinity but migrate only locally to areas with more favourable conditions.  A grey heron stalking  fish and small frogs  wading in shallow waters is  really a sight.

Everything appears to be in slow motion until the bird strikes with its dagger like beak into the water to get the prey.  While the birds are alert, waiting at shore-line of lakes, hardly any movement can be noticed.  They stand still.  Late evenings are the best time to watch these birds from a distance and stealthly.


When these birds take off, its another marvel, wing beats are deliberate and in slow motion carrying them gracefully through the air.  A hoarse croak,,,,is uttered when disturbed and the bird is air-borne.


Nesting season is November to March in South India and July to Sept. in the North.

The nest is a twig platform lined in the centre with soft grass and feathers.  The nests are usually built in colonies with other herons on medium sized trees.   3 to 6 deep sea green eggs are laid and both parents share all domestic chores.


A marvelous graceful bird which demands a high amount of stealth to photograph and record all their life habits.




Butterfly Conservation- Part III

Conservation of Butterflies Part III


Butterflies of Delhi

-Dr.S.P. Surya Prakash



Despite being India’s most polluted city with a vehicular pollution of around 53 lakhs vehicles, Delhi is home to around 80 butterflies and almost every species of butterfly can be seen in the 1000 acre beautiful campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi because it has all native grasses , native trees and shrubs  they all serve as a species –specific host plant within campus, I have already started an awareness programme among students from Life Sciences and Environmental sciences about  Birds ,Butterflies ,Reptiles and other wild animals of JNU campus and results are encouraging I am getting all support from   JNU authorities and students  for  the work I am on the way to prepare a “Pictorial data Bank of the butterflies of JNU” which may help all other butterfly lovers of Delhi. 


Similar programmes like butterfly walk, breakfast with butterfly etc are run at Asola Bhatti Wild Life Sanctury,  under Sajeeve,T.K., BNHS’s   Education officer, at Aravali Biodiversity Park, by Dr. M.Shah Hussain under CMDE programme of Delhi University, and at Yamuna Bidiversity Park by Dr. Faiyaz.   Okhla Bird Park is  home to many butterflies at the bank of river Yamuna.  These places are the other main hot spots of butterfly diversity in New Delhi..



Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) has listed 41 butterflies as protected under wild life protection act 1972. The list includes 8 species under schedule I, 26 species in schedule II and 7 species in schedule IV. 300 species have already included in red data book as endangered species, which is very alarming (The Tribune).


Recently three French people came to Sikkim on student visa and started collecting butterflies and moths along with other insects; vigilant ‘butterfly India’ activists spotted them and they were nabbed by police and released after a fine of just Rs. 25000 each. 


Large-scale poaching and international nexus of smugglers is the biggest threat to Himalayan butterflies like Apollo and Swallowtail butterflies which are most threatened species. Smugglers engage locals specially children in Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Rohtang Pass, Assam and W.Ghats and pay them 30 –50 rupees for every butterfly they catch for them. Depending upon the species these are sold in the international market, some times for even as high as 2500—3500 dollars. China and South East Asia along with Thailand are the main hubs of international butterfly smuggling from India. Poachers come to India on  student visas and they collect rare butterflies carry them in envelops , matchboxes and use many more criminal methods for their transportation and not only that they throw away all those beautiful butterflies whose wings are damaged during catch and this number may even touch to thousand some times.

Lack of expertise in the identification of butterflies poached help poachers to have an easy escape; there are many reported incidences where international smugglers were released from police custody due to lack of information on identification.


These Lepidoptera are killed, dried and used for greeting cards, and for other ornamental and decoration purposes.






1- Habitat destruction of forest cover especially for species –specific host plants should be reviewed time to time.


2 - Increased vigilance on poaching of butterflies from the areas where they are found in abundance.


3- Educate school children from primary level by introducing butterfly chapters in science books about their importance in various fields related to human life.


4 – Recognise and reward those experts who are already engaged in butterfly conservation programmes and are working on their own as  field guides in their area locally.


5 - Sponsored symposia and seminars in every academic institute for updating information on butterfly status in the country should be encouraged through government funding. 

6 - Farmers in villages should be educated about butterfly’s importance as a pollinator in agriculture.


7 - A data bank at national level should be created where information  related to butterflies and their conservation is maintained with all details including regional nomenclature of all butterflies.


8 - Academic institutions should discourage students for submitting annual     projects on butterfly collection and their albums.


9 – Discourage use of over dose of pesticides in crop fields and avoid overgrazing .They kill eggs,and larvae of butterflies.

10 – Farmers  should be made aware about crop rotation and monoculture plantation should be reduced. A study conducted in Assam Tea Estates shows that butterfly density was low in tea gardens  because of monoculture as compared to other green forests.


Dr. Surya Prakash


(‘BNHS’, ‘Butterfly India’, ‘Delhi Bird’)

Room # 214 , C.C.I.F.

School of Life Sciences

Jawaharlal Nehru University

(Photographs of Commonriceswift and limebutterfly by Dr.Surya Prakash)

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Story Of The Month

Food for the Future

Food for the Future


-Shivani Thakur



Are we ready for the food of the future? India has become the first country in the world to allow large-scale field trials of genetically modified Brinjal with the go ahead given to four hybrid varieties of it. At present,  Bt cotton is the only commercially exploited GM crop. The trial of Bt brinjal is being conducted under supervision of Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR).


        In 1996 KFC’s outlet was attacked in Bangalore because the chicken it was serving was fed GM maize. There is lot of fear among intellectuals too about GM food. GM crops are created by the process of genetic engineering where a specific piece of DNA is taken out of one organism and transferred to another. This modification allows scientists to develop a plant resistant to diseases, pests and stress like droughts or heat. It also increases crop yield per hectare and reduces the cost of the produce. The alteration of DNA is the main fear and raises ethical questions; hence the delay in conducting the trials. At present GM vegetables and fruits like soybean, maize, papaya, potato and canola are consumed in several countries including the US.


      GM is an age old tradition .The wheat which we eat today is a cross between wild wheat and goat grass modified over a period of time. But there is a strong anti-GM lobby. Their main argument is that GM crops could raise health risks like cancer. Also it would lead to monopoly of large MNC’s who sell these products. Another factor is the over secrecy of the government to part  with the data to the environmentalists.


    Bt cotton was given the go ahead in 2002 and the result is that India is now second to China in cotton production. The crop which was lost to pests earlier is now more resistant. But the question remains as to whether the GM crops could affect the bio-diversity? Will there be adverse reactions if proteins from outside are introduced in the food chain? A recent study conducted has shown that over a period of time the pests can become resistant to Bt, an active ingredient .  Most GM crops use this gene to become resistant to pests. Almost 40%of GM crops in India use this Bt gene.


          Besides Andhra Pradesh government has advised farmers not to allow animals to graze on post Bt cotton fields after goats and sheep grazing on it were found dead in two of its districts. The company Mahyco- Monsanto Biotech India Ltd has issued that no such complaints have been received by it from other states where Bt cotton is grown. The Andhra government has informed the Union Ministry of environment and forest and the ministry has ordered a probe.


          In this age where land is shrinking and per hectare yield required is more, the GM crops come as a boon for not only farmers but also save land from deforestation. Albeit there is another side to this coin. More and more people are switching back to organic farming and products as a healthy option. So which is really the Food of the Future?



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Delhi & its Greens – A woody affair!

Delhi & its Greens – A woody affair!


-Govind Singh



It is said about cities that if we listen carefully, a city speaks and narrates its story to all those who consider it their own. Delhi is no different and a rendezvous with the city reveals its glorious past and a heritage of green spaces, some of which were preserved even before the Mughals ruled the city. Delhi is also referred to as the city of antiquity and is believed to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities of the world.


Delhi’s green heritage was kept alive even by the Britishers during the time that England ruled the country. Not only were the existing green spaces upgraded but new parks, gardens, etc. were also planned through out the city. Such is the glory of Delhi that the building of New Delhi was actually an attempt by the British to lay claim to India’s past and show their unfaltering determination to maintain the British rule in India.


            Getting back to the present day, Delhi’s green spaces are being choked and the very trees that have been cherished by the generations gone by are being cut without batting an eyelid. All this is being done in the name of ‘development’ and in order to make Delhi a ‘world class city’. Lately however, the city has already been facing an identity crisis of its own. People from all over the country have been migrating here in search of better opportunities and with the latter being their primary objective they pay little, if any, attention to the city. As the green cover is displaced and trees removed from where they once stood in their full glory, the city is fast losing its ambience such that it may soon become alien to the few who can still relate to it.


At the same time, the ‘world class cities’ to which Delhi is being compared neither even remotely share the history and culture of Delhi nor have they had any considerable green heritage. In fact, Delhi is a one of its kind city that can neither be compared to nor should be compared with!


Over 35,000 trees have already been felled in the city to make way for flyovers, the Delhi Metro and various road widening projects[1].  Though the environment clearance process ensures that some form of compensatory afforestation is carried out by the said project proponents, this is usually done kilometers away from where the trees have been cut. Thus, well spaced and strategically located trees are removed and replaced with a cluster of tree saplings - planted in a very small and usually isolated area far away from the people who were benefiting from the felled trees. This also leads to the formation of urban heat islands within the city where the temperature on a hot summer afternoon will always be a few degrees above that of its surroundings.



Besides, another drawback of the compensatory afforestation programme is that we can only plant saplings that “may” go on to become trees over a period of eight to ten years. This may not make much difference to us but is actually a matter of life and death for the large number of biodiversity – birds, insects, etc. that survive on the trees being felled. We certainly can’t freeze them in time waiting for the “planted” trees to mature and sustain them. For instance, the proposed rugby stadium to be constructed at the Delhi University Sports Complex would require over 1000 trees to be cut (‘For a rugby field, 1,000 Delhi University trees face the axe, The Hindustan Times; Front Page - April 25, 2007). This will irreversibly change the campus’ environment and also result in a permanent loss of a lot of biodiversity that will disappear from the University.


Moreover, the fact that Delhi Metro’s recent Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report states the average cost of one tree to be Rs. 700/- speaks for the unconcern of the project proponents towards the large number of ecosystem services provided by the trees[2]. Amidst all of this, what is always forgotten is that Delhi is known as a ‘city of greens’ world over. On a recent visit to the city, to address the eighth Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Lecture, Nobel laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai declared that she had never been to a more green city before[3].  Such is the experience she took back to her country and such is the perception everybody has about Delhi. Any attempt to change this will only lead to a city that neither the tourists nor its citizens can relate to.

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