Citizen Science

People power to save biodiversity

People power to save biodiversity
A leading marine biologist and museologist canvasses for getting common people involved in science, reports S.Ananthanarayanan.
Professor Giles BOEUF, President of the National Museum of Natural History at Paris since 2009 and Professor at the Pierre and Marie Curie University and at the Collège de France, in a presentation at the Alliance Française auditorium at Bengaluru, pressed passionately for the public to become aware of the interconnectedness of living things and their environment, as the only way to check relentless exploitation of the natural world. In the course of an outline of the evolution of biodiversity, Prof Beouf said, “Science cannot be the property of scientists, it belongs to all people and they must participate.”
From the early chemistry nurtured in the geological variety of the planet, came the first scraps of replicating genetic code and the first living things. The oldest sedimentary rocks that contain carbon from biological origin are dated at 3,850 million years ago. Fossil remains dated at 3,500 million years ago have show evidence of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, an organism that gets its energy through photosynthesis, or using the sunlight to form organic molecules from water, as a source of negative ions to split carbon dioxide, releasing oxygen. Till cyanobacteria appeared, life processes were based on the reactions of hydrogen sulphide gas, rather than water, and there was no atmospheric oxygen.  The entry of cyanobacteria tapped the resource of the oceans and cyanobacteria multiplied and thrived.  But the great change was that now oxygen was generated.  
During the first millennia, the oxygen released by photosynthesis was consumed in oxidizing dissolved iron. But when all free iron was used up, oxygen started building up in the atmosphere. As the existing life forms were also oxygen intolerant, the oxygen build-up set off one of the greatest extinction events in the earth’s history. And at the same time, rising levels of oxygen cleared the atmosphere of methane, a greenhouse gas, and the earth cooled, to create the great glaciation event of 2,400 million years ago.
But with rising oxygen levels, aerobic, or oxygen using organisms evolved and multiplied apace, and these began using up oxygen, till there was a balance of the production and consumption, with a steady 21% oxygen content in the atmosphere.  This condition was reached about 100 million years ago, after a very long time for aerobic life forms to evolve and there grew a vast multitude of species, plant and animal, land based as well as aquatic. This may hence be considered the first instance of a global web of interconnected bio-systems assuring an aspect of stability of the environment.
Prof Boeuf explained that evolution took four crucial steps, for the emergence of biodiversity, before life moved out of the oceans. The first of these was the development of the nucleus of the cell, by the growth of a membrane, to enclose the nucleus, within the cell. The second was the capture of cyanobacteria by cells, which became components of the cell, like little cells, with their own DNA, within the cells. And the third was the emergence of multi-cellular organisms, which happened by about 2,100 million years ago. And then came the greatest step – sexual reproduction, where there is a division and recombination of genes, or genetic mixing, rather than just replication. “All individuals are different. A population equipped with sexuality evolves much faster and encourages an ‘arms race’ (of changes and responses) among parasites and their hosts”, says Prof Boeuf. Sexuality thus paved the way for new traits to arise and flourish separately, to create new species and vastly more nodes in the matrix of connections and alternate connections of inter-dependence, to make for a biosphere of unprecedented robustness and resilience.
Between the land and the sea, it is the sea that is more uniform by far. The open sea has shown extraordinary stability for the last 100 million years at least. ‘pH’, which is the level of acidity, osmotic pressure and, salinity, temperature, hydrostatic pressures of the depths, dissolved gas content, remain constant over thousands of kilometers.  This uniformity, which is maintained by biodiversity, in fact, is not favourable to growth of new species. In contrast, conditions on the land are fragmented and have led to greater variety of species. The sea is known to have only some 13% of the known species. This may be an underestimate, as there is still much to be discovered about the sea. But there are still over 250,000 known species in the sea, and the important thing is that their mass is huge. Drifting weeds in the sea, called phytoplankton, for instance, account for 50% of the productivity of the planet. The biodiversity of the sea, although less than that of the land, has a great bearing on making sure that conditions on the earth remain suitable for life, as we know it, to continue.
Human activity
Human populations have been exploiting the riches of the sea for thousands of years. Although the resource is mostly renewable the present levels are so high that questions of sustainability have been raised. The FAO estimate is that 176 million tones of aquatic produce are harvested every year and large numbers of species are reported rapidly going extinct. Apart from living species, the sea is also a source of chemical molecules of pharmaceutical and Industrial value. This apart, the mechanisms in the sea provide us with templates for research or new, bio-inspired industrial processes.
The current levels of exploitation and pollution of nature are seen as rapidly dismantling this framework, assembled over millions of years. The destruction of the great library of Alexandria may be dwarfed by the loss of information developed over thousands of years, which is being lost every day due to destruction of species.  The greatest absorber of CO2 emissions, from all sources living and non-living, is again the sea. But the rising levels of CO2, caused by human activity would lead to acidification of sea water, and elimination of great numbers of species that have adapted to rock steady pH levels since centuries.
Prof Boeuf gave a number of examples of noted species, of plants, insects and animals, of scientific, medical or industrial value, that had gone extinct or were on the point of doing so. His mission, he said, was to tour the world making presentations before people, so that people may become aware of what their lifestyle was doing and the value of what was being destroyed.  The drive to make living sustainable was not likely to succeed through Government action or business initiatives, he said.  Prof Boeuf is on several international committees, of the UN and otherwise, and is adviser to the Government of France for the forthcoming world conference on Climate Change. But he sees little that may come from the talks, which, he says, may be a repeat of earlier Climate Change conferences.
The real initiator of change, a ‘leap over boundaries’ or sursaut, as he put it, would have to be civil society, the common people.  And scientists need to empower the common people by making science accessible to them. The National Museum of Natural History, in Paris, had great engagement with the public it served. The museum has a collection of 70 million species, with a herbarium that houses 8 million varieties of plants. Every day, there are as many as 30,000 communications, by telephone or by email, that are received from all kind of people, to provide new information that enriches the museum. “If we have 10,000 people who watch butterflies or birds, this translates into one and a half million hours of watching on behalf of the museum”, says Prof Boeuf,  to explain what it means to get the public to participate in science activity.

[the writer can be contacted at]


Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala

Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala
-Text and Photographs
Dr.Susan Sharma, Founder,

My first trips to the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR), known as Thekkady to many, were as a young adult way back in the 70's and 80's.  A lasting memory from those visits is watching herds of elephants crossing the Periyar River, the matriarchs helping along baby elephants.  Beyond the memory of a holiday well spent watching wildlife, the visits were not really transformative. The transformation happened much later when I started visiting the Corbett National Park.  What was it in Corbett that made me fall in love with the forests? 

During the earlier visits to Periyar Tiger Reserve, I had always taken a boat trip.   Travel in a boat in the Periyar Lake and observe wildlife in the forest -mainly elephants, bison, and birds.  The visits to Corbett on the other hand have mostly been on elephant backs, the captive elephant making its own path in the forest while four or five tourists sit on its back on the howdah.  In the sixties and seventies there were hardly  any wildlife resorts outside the Park, so one invariably got to stay in the forest rest houses or Dhikala.  Regulations about trekking were limited, which meant we could go on treks in some areas.  In short, in Corbett, one experienced the forest on foot or on elephant back (one can look up at the canopy and touch the leaves) which made you develop a bond with the forest and its animals and you got hooked to it for life.  

I had heard that Periyar Tiger Reserve had also started allowing tourists to go on treks.  T.K Sajeev, who I had known when he was in Conservation Education Centre of Bombay Natural History Society, was now the Nature Education Officer at PTR.  Added incentive to visit PTR!  So this time, in addition to the customary boat trip we planned a trek into the Forest.  This is the story of that trek- how even a three hour walk can make you feel one with nature. 
While planning the trip from Kochi, which is about 190 km by road, we also made plans to visit Gavi (14km from PTR ) so that our experience of the Southern Western Ghats is complete. Gavi is part of PTR and can be covered in a day and night trip.  The experience of trekking in Gavi is a good introduction to what awaits you at PTR. 


The trek takes you over vantage points to see the hills of Sabarimala which is a pilgrimage centre located at PTR.  
A monsoon trek in Gavi is recommended for anyone who is not afraid of leeches.  Despite precautions, leeches are bound to suck some of your blood, especially if you are a first time trekker.   You learn to avoid them using protective gear, sprinkling salt to deter them, failing which learn to deal with them.  
At any rate, leeches were not going to stop us from experiencing PTR first hand under the expert guidance of Sajeev! So, there we were in PTR in September 2014, four of us co-travellers, in many a nature trip around the country. 


Periyar Tiger Reserve

PTR with an area of 925Km is the oldest and largest protected area (PA) in Kerala.  Originally constituted as a Game Sanctuary, viz., Nellikampetty Game Sanctuary in 1934, PTR evolved as Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in 1950 and Periyar Tiger Reserve in 1978.  Through the implementation of India Eco development project from 1996 to 2004, PTR has emerged as a national role model for participatory conservation.  PTR was awarded UNDP award for best managed protected area in 2012.  In 2015, PTR bagged the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) biennial award for encouraging local public participation in managing the Reserve.

Rivers originating from the forested tracts of PTR, namely, Periyar, Pamba and Azhuta form the lifeline for millions of people of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The unique man made Periyar lake (26km) is an important water source for Tamil Nadu for irrigation, drinking and power generation.

Periyar lake

Sighting of wild animals at close quarters from boat is a memorable experience for tourists.  The customary boat trip for any visitor to PTR was on our agenda on day 1.  We found groups of Asian elephants grazing in the lush forest completely oblivious to the boats criss-crossing the lake;  Barking deer groups and gaurs could also be spotted.  The expanses of the Periyar lake separating the humans from animals made the water birds and other animals who came to the lake completely at peace.  There was no rushing out and running around witnessed, as seen when jeeps and cantors in many Reserves approach animals.
Elephants-View from the boat

Day 2 saw us getting ready for the much anticipated trek. PTR has a cool and humid climate with comparatively high rainfall.   April-May are the hottest and December-January the coolest.  Rainy season had just got over and the climate was pleasant.     
Sajeev advised that we spray a good amount of Dettol on our sox and pants to dissuade leeches.  And that came out to be an excellent tip. Rajkumar, our guide started explaining the forest types in PTR.  Seven types of vegetation have been identified from Periyar Tiger Reserve, of which evergreen and semi evergreen forests form the major portion.  Besides these marshy grasslands and montane grassland sholas form extremely valuable micro ecosystems. 
A bamboo raft carried us to the dense forest.  

All set for the trek

(To be continued)

Green Defenders

The neighbour next door

The neighbour next door 
An article on the keen observations of a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) 
Report by: Mr. Ajay Gadikar
I have been watching a Barn owl and studying his behaviour since some time,  glad to share my observations about it.
This Barn owl used to reside  in my neighbourhood,  it had chosen my neighbour’s window pane where he perches and sleeps the whole day.    
As we know,  being nocturnal birds,  the routine of owls is  totally different from those of other birds. The owl used to arrive at his favourite perching place just before dawn, he silently sneaks in and sits on the glass pane. At this time all the other bird species residing in the area are just about to wake and start their chirping.
The place chosen for perching by the Barn owl was so typical that he can be sighted just from the room of my son and from no other angle or any other place you can see him. He used  to sit on a half open window pane.  Two feet above the window pane was a plastic fabricated arch made to protect the window pane during rainy season,  which provided shield to it from above, so the place was very ideal for him to sleep and rest during the day time. The distance from where he sits is hardly 8 feet from my son’s room window.

 After arriving in the morning,  he used to scan the area and later for about half an hour or so he used to preen his feathers and clean his claws with his beak, then slowly starts to yawn and then fell asleep;  but he never falls in deep sleep and any noticeable sound around his vicinity awakens him and then he again takes note of the situation by opening his eyes;  after making sure that no danger is there,  he again starts to fall asleep.
The whole day he used to sleep changing his positions twice or thrice and just at the time of sunset he wakes up and again starts preening his feathers, cleaning his claws.  It was nice to see him doing all these activities. As the light fades he moves out from the place.  While taking flight he usually makes a typical harsh call of his and then first perches on a nearby tree and then moves out in search of food.
Although not much activity is witnessed during the whole day but one very typical observation on the ground just below his perching place did keep us very curious. This extreme curiosity was to witness the pellets (round balls) that he used  to drop below. These pellets are mostly of dark brown to black shades and consist of undigested food materials that he regurgitates from his mouth every day. Our curiosity led us to dissect and examine those pallets. I used  to dissect them to see the kind of food he had eaten the earlier day.
Most of the time it’s tough to recognise the food item from the pellets, as we only got to see feathers, bones, nails and tooth of birds and animals,  but after some days of analysis I was able to distinguish between them.    There were squirrels tooth, sometime rodents teeth and pigeon feathers. So, I surmised that mostly his diet used to consist of squirrels, rodents and birds.
Daily a clear white droppings (vista) was seen at the same place, the white colour being due to the high calcium contains in his droppings.

This activity continued for around two months.  We used to eagerly wait as he comes in the morning as we are also early risers and in the evening daily my son keeps a watch and observe him leaving from his place.
Suddenly one day in late evening I got a call from Indore zoo, the person informed me that an owl has been brought there  by someone,  which is in an injured condition and they wanted  me to come to zoo in morning to identify the owl species. As the owl is kept in schedule 4 of the wildlife act, so the forest department and the zoo people  take extra care in owl related incidents and accidents. I had taken some sessions on Bird Identification for the forest department and Indore Zoo’s caretakers so they are used to calling  me in cases where they are not sure of a bird’s identity.
When I went there in the morning I was stunned after seeing the condition of the owl, it was really in bad shape.  He was not at all able to fly and was lying down on his wings on the ground. I immediately recognised that it was a barn owl.  I told the zoo authorities that it’s a Barn owl,  a commonly found species in greener areas of the city. After coming to my office, I started thinking that Oh God, was is it the same owl which used to perch on the backside of our house?  That day morning I had not checked whether  the owl had come on the window pan or not.  Around 3:00 pm when my son returned from school, I came to know that the owl residing in our neighbourhood was not there.  Since all barn owls look alike, I cannot say surely that it was the same owl but after confirming the place where he was found in this depleted condition I had to believe that this may be the same owl.
Later, the zoo authorities with the help of the doctor,  tried for the whole day to save its life but unfortunately they could not and it succumbed  to its wounds.  Unfortunately from the same day we could not see the owl coming to perch at the  backside of our house. This incident is now 9 months old, till today no owl has come to occupy the vacant place, some times at night we hear  some barn owl’s  harsh call in the vicinity.    Still the perch is empty and we all hope that one day that place will be occupied and we will be lucky enough to find our old neighbour.

( Ajay Gadikar is a naturalist from Indore)

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Story Of The Month

Lessons from the USA

Lessons from the USA
-Susan Sharma

In the 1970's there was an elevated concern about environmental pollution in major US cities.  Anyone living in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Boston just after the American revolution could not escape the ill-effects of expanding urbanization: the stench of sewage in near-by rivers; the unwholesome presence of animal and human wastes underfoot; the odors of rotting food; the jangling shouts of vendors in narrow lanes; and the constant grinding of hooves and iron wagon wheels on unpaved streets.  

The EPA (Environment Protection Agency) was born in December 1970 to consolidate in one agency a variety of federal research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities to ensure environmental protection.   From regulating auto emissions to banning the use of DDT; from cleaning up toxic waste to protecting the ozone layer; from increasing recycling to revitalizing inner-city brownfields, EPA's achievements have resulted in cleaner air, purer water, and better protected land.

Centre for Science and Environment in India has brought out well researched books on our pollution problems

Between 1970 and 2004, total emissions of the six major air pollutants dropped by 54 percent.   This is particularly impressive when noted that the gross domestic product increased 187 percent, energy consumption increased 47 percent, and U.S. population grew by 40 percent during the same time, proof that economic growth and environmental protection do go hand in hand.   

Through land restoration efforts, 600,000 acres of contaminated land now provide ecological, economic, and recreational benefits. Just last year alone, EPA and its partners took action to restore, enhance, and protect nearly 830,000 acres of wetlands.
Oikos India has been working on degraded soil for years

In the enforcement area, EPA since 1995 has received commitments from industry to spend more than $35 billion on environmental improvements, reducing more than 10 billion pounds of pollutants. While Earth Day, 1970,  launched the idea of environmentalism in its present sense, the realization of the value of wilderness and an appreciation of the consequences of its destruction dates back several centuries in America.

 The Soil Conservation Service, founded in 1935, applied scientific practices to reduce the erosion of agricultural land. The depletion of animal life received recognition in establishing a fund for state fish and wildlife programs from the proceeds of federal taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. 

The definition of wilderness as an immense natural storehouse, subject to human management, changed after the Second World War. 
The concept of ecology--which valued aesthetics and biology over efficiency and commerce--began to penetrate the public mind.  
In the process of transforming ecology from dispassionate science to activist creed, Carson (Rachel Carson's 1962 classic Silent Spring) unwittingly launched the modern idea of environmentalism: a political movement which demanded the state not only preserve the Earth, but act to regulate and punish those who polluted it. 

Community-based Conflict Management (CBCM) by Wildlife Research and Conservation Society, Pune

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