Book Reviews

Wild in the Backyard -Review

Wild in the BackYard-By Arefa Tehsin

-Susan Sharma

Arefa Tehsin's latest book, published by Penguin Books, is one of a kind.  Wild in the back yard conjures up images of birds, chirpy squirrels and all the beauty they represent.   But Arefa has other things in mind.  She starts with a bird-I mean mammal- bat.   As the evening sets in, the flapping of wings from tall trees around start and owls start coming out of their holes.  How much do we know of these nocturnal animals and birds?  "A baggy bagful of Bat facts" and "oodles of Owly myth" later, one is forced to look at these creatures with gratitude and wonder.  

Many tiger watchers who visit sanctuaries will scream if they see a spider in their bedroom.  After a few "super Spider stories", you will start looking at spiders with the respect they deserve.  
the pages fill up with creepy crawlies which one did not know existed in our own backyard.   As we read through the rhymed prose and well chosen quizzes, we soon realize how much we owe these creatures for keeping the balance in nature.

The wall -G (gecko) and untamed shrew share pride of space with the hopper gangs and the slimy and sluggish.   Brief and spicy, one can finish reading the book in a breeze.  For children, a lot of knowledge; for adults who are familiar with many of the creatures, again,  a lot of knowledge-since most of us rarely found these creatures worthy of attention.   

A great offering from Arefa which is a must read for all ages.

Corporates and Environment

Cars go green but emissions grow

Cars go green but emissions grow
Electric cars can be only as green as the electricity they use, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

India is pursuing a scheme named Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME), launched earlier this yer with an outlay of Rs 800 crore. The objective is said to be conservation of energy and help in reducing environmental pollution. And in the week just before the Global summit at Paris to combat climate change, a promotional motor rally, the ‘3-Cities Fame India Eco Drive’ was flagged off at the Red Fort in New Delhi and also in other cities.

Electric cars have become feasible with the development of improved storage batteries and are being promoted in many parts of the world as a green option. While there are benefits of lower fuel costs and reduced emissions, compared to petrol or diesel driven vehicles, the heavy price tag, which used to be a major dis-incentive, has been getting progressively lighter. A question however, is whether the benefits in respect of damage to the environment, are actually there even when the electric cars are used in India.

A first benefit of electric cars is the fuel economy. An electric car consumes less than twenty units (kilo watt hours) do a hundred kms. At even Rs 10/- per unit, this is Rs 2/- per km, which is good going. A normal car may take six litres of petrol, which can cost Rs 500/- leading to a fuel cost of Rs 5/- per km. The economy comes from the fact that an electric motor can convert electric energy to drive the car at with about 60% efficiency, against not more than 20% of chemical energy of fuel by a petrol engine. Electric cars also make use of regenerative braking, which recovers some of the energy used to speed up. And then, there is the pricing of electricity and petrol. One negative that that is mentioned is that electric cars need to plug in for a few hours to be recharged, but this may not matter as the cars can go well over a hundred km on a full charge.

Electric cars were first priced very high, because of the cost of the Lithium-ion, rechargeable battery, but costs have come down, and with incentives that the government offers to promote electric cars, their use has become attractive, even economical. And the government cites the reduction of the imports of petroleum as another ground to support increased use of electric cars.

Environment cost

A more important reason to use electric cars, however, seems to be the impression that electric cars, unlike petrol or diesel driven cars, are non-polluting. Whether this is true, of course, depends on the environmental cost of the electricity that is used. This is where countries like India, a large part of whose electricity generation is based on coal, would lose out. An independent research group which calls itself ‘Shrink That Footprint’, which provides information and seeks to help people who are interested in reducing their climate impact, has published authoritative data of carbon impact of each km of electric car use, depending on the country where the electricity is drawn.

We can see from table 1 that the carbon impact of an electric car running for 1 km, in countries where electricity is predominantly coal based, as in India, South Africa, Australia, Indonesia and

China, is more than twice that in a great many developed countries. The high emission figures against India may be because of the poor quality of Indian coal and also our very high transmission losses. While the figures are of 2009 and there has been growth in renewable energy sources in the US and Europe and many parts of the world, in India, the growth in coal based power has kept pace with the growth in renewables (Table 3).

It is hence not likely that the comparative position of India has changed to any great extent. The figures indicated are the total carbon impact, and include the carbon impact, per km, of the manufacture of electric cars. This cost comes to 70 grams C02 per km, and in the case of Paraguay, where the electricity is entirely from hydroelectric sources, there is no other impact of using electric cars.

Another exercise carried out by the research group is to work out the fuel efficiency of the petrol car which is equivalent to an electric car working in different countries. We can see from table 2 that thanks to the high emission impact of electricity in India, the electric car in India has the footprint of a petrol car that works at 8.5 km per litre of petrol. As petrol cars in India regularly do a lot better than this, switching to electric cars India would lead to a net increase in emission of GHG and pollutants. On the other hand, attaining the low coal-use level of even Turkey, which has mixed power generation, although heavily fossil based, would place electric cars along with petrol cars that run for 17 km/litre.

Although India is making progress in creating capacity for solar and wind power, coal based capacity will still be important, for decades. A leading major economic consultancy firm says that India’s energy emission growth was the world’s highest, at 8.2% in 2014. So long as coal based power is dominant, introducing electric cars would amount, essentially, to replacing a part of the oil-based energy for transport with coal based energy of greater carbon impact. The outlay for promoting electric cars through FAME in the coming years is said to be Rs 14,000 crore. Investment instead in public transport would actually help the environment and be equally effective in curbing import of petroleum


Forest and trees

The Amazing Mangroves of India

The Amazing Mangroves of India
-Usha Nair

‘If there are no mangroves, then the sea will have no meaning’ (Andaman fisherman)

        How many of us have ever visited a mangrove? Maybe a few nature lovers, but for the common public, it is not the top-of- the-mind/ preferred/ must-see destination. Mangroves are coastal rainforests, comprising of trees up to medium height and shrubs that grow in saline coastal sediment habitats in the tropics and subtropics.  Mangroves are covered with salt tolerant trees, also called halophytes, and are adapted to live in harsh coastal conditions. They contain a complex salt filtration and root system to cope with salt water immersion and wave action and are adapted to the low oxygen conditions of waterlogged mud. Globally, large stretches of the sub-tropical and tropical coastlines of Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Americas and the Caribbean are fringed by mangroves, once estimated to cover an area of over 32 million hectares – now, less than 15 million hectares– less than half the original area. Some 60 species of trees and shrubs are exclusive to the mangrove habitat.

 Mangroves have been around for centuries, but perhaps, never before have their value and worth been more appreciated than in the present century, against the backdrop of increasing concerns over climate change. Mangroves are today recognised as protectors of the shoreline, providing a buffer zone between land and sea, representing nature’s shield against cyclones, storm surges, and ecological disasters and protecting the land from erosion. It is the breeding and nursery grounds for a variety of marine life, like invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and even mammals like tigers. Like all forests, they purify the air by absorbing pollutants, and the waters of impurities, and are Nature’s answer to global warming. Mangrove ecosystems are also one of the best Carbon Sinks.
The coasts of India and Andaman and Nicobar islands are forested with extensive and diverse mangrove wetlands, which protect India‘s long coastline from the periodic tropical storms and hurricanes. The mangrove wetlands of the east coast of India are different from those of the west coast. The west coast , being narrow and steep in slope, due to the presence of the Western Ghats and with no major west-flowing river, has nurtured mangroves which are small in size, less in diversity and less complicated in terms of tidal creek network. On the other hand, the presence of larger brackish water-bodies and a complex network of tidal creeks and canals characterize the mangrove wetlands of the east coast. This is mainly due to the larger deltas created by east-flowing rivers and the gentle slope of the coast. According to the Forest Survey of India (1999), out of 487,100 ha of Indian mangroves, nearly 56.7%  is present along the east coast, 23.5% along the west coast, and the remaining 19.8%  is found in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. In his article, ‘Mangroves of India’, Kathiresan terms the Indian mangroves as ‘unique’ as they cover both the wet and arid coasts of the country with a record of 4011 biological species, including globally threatened species.

specialized root system

The most amazing of the Indian mangroves are the Sundarbans, which is the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world, covering approximately 10,000 square kilometres, most of which is in Bangladesh, with the remainder in India. The Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a National Park, Tiger Reserve which is the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, and a Biosphere Reserve, and has been enlisted among the finalists in the New Seven Wonders of Nature.  They have the distinction of being the first mangrove forest in the world to be brought under scientific management. Orissa,another Indian state, is often referred to as a biological paradise, as its Bhitarkanika mangrove wetlands is the breeding ground for the Olive Ridley Turtles, one of the few of its kind in the world. Today, there are 38 areas of mangrove forests in India, under implementation of management action plan, with total financial assistance from the Government of India. 

Despite their ecological and economic significance, mangrove wetlands are endangered ecosystems. Historical records indicate that the original extent of mangrove forests has declined considerably under pressure from human activity. Globally, mangrove areas are disappearing at the rate of approximately 1% per year.  A recent global assessment concludes that eleven of the 70 mangrove species (16%) are at elevated threats of extinction. Particular areas of geographical concern include the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Central America, where as many as 40% of mangroves species present are threatened with extinction. In India and Southeast Asia, 80% of the total mangrove area has been lost over the past 60 years.

breathing roots

The conservation of mangroves and associated ecosystems has been identified as a key natural adaptation strategy and mitigation measure to climate change. Protecting these vital ecosystems also safeguards and enhances the livelihoods of coastal communities. The criticality of mangroves has been recognised today by  Governments globally, after stakeholders like fishermen, farmers, local opinion groups,  persistently clamoured against unsustainable development and commercial projects like, shrimp aquaculture, charcoal production/logging, oil exploration/extraction, tourism, urbanisation, infrastructure expansions of ports /roads etc., resulting in, deforestation, decline in fisheries, threat to migratory bird species, degradation of clean water supplies,  increased salinization of coastal soils, erosion, pollution. 

Stellar roles have been played by individuals against corporates and governments seeking commercial exploitation of these vital coastal ecosystems. In India, in the early 1990’s , one Banka  Behary Das ,renowned freedom fighter and activist, took up the cause of thousands of fishermen and farmers, to oppose shrimp farm development by the powerful industry giant, Tata House in joint venture with the Government of Orissa, on Chilika Lagoon.The Chilika Bachao Andolan  was a movement by the people, and Das, played an important role in highlighting the environment hazards of the project, insisting that the Government of India honour the Ramsar Convention in which Chilika lake was declared as one of the endangered wetlands which needed to be protected. Later Sri Das battled to save the lush mangrove sanctuary of Bhitara Kanika along the Orissa coast, which was the site of the largest Olive Ridley sea turtle nesting in the world.

In recent times, Kallen Pokkudan,in Kannur, Kerala has earned the title of the ‘Mangrove Man of India’. Much ahead of the times, and against stiff resistance, he planted 300 odd- seedlings over marshy lands and river banks more than 20 years ago in Kannur  which have now grown into a forest, and over the years, he has planted over one lakh mangroves in the country. Kallen Pokkudan is the recipient of several accolades, including TOIs Amazing Indians.

Stilt roots

The preservation of coastal environs, the regulation of unsustainable development projects and illegal encroachments continue to be a challenge for all governments which are committed to sustainable management of their coastal ecosystems. Countries, like India, have devised strong policies, legal framework and governance to preserve their amazing mangroves for future generations. 
(  Usha Nair is a nature lover and can be reached at
Photographs-courtesy   )


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Green Defenders

The Rescue of an Indian Eagle owl (Bubo bengalensis)

The Rescue of an Indian Eagle owl (Bubo bengalensis)

By: Ajay Gadikar

Most of the owl species are facing population decline across India. The widespread use of these birds in black magic driven by superstition and taboos is one of the prime reason for the decline of these birds,  Although all of the owl species are protected birds under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. 

Most  people actually don’t know that owls play a very beneficial and vital role by  way of pest control through their predation on mice and other rodents.

I am pleased to share an incident  that took place at my son’s school premises,  I have been taking him daily for his swimming workouts in morning around 5:30 AM since the last 4 years.  As he gets busy with his swimming workouts,   I used  to roam in nearby areas for bird watching.   One fine day just at  twilight,  I saw a big owl sitting on  a  top corner of the school building.  I recognized it to be an Indian eagle owl,  but it took some time for me to digest that I have seen an eagle owl, as these owls are generally found in rocky and lightly forested areas and seldom near human habitation.


Indian Eagle Owl

Further to my surprise I saw one more owl sitting at another corner of the school.   Now it became a daily routine for me to watch their activities at dawn when they  used to return from their night time feeding grounds (agriculture fields) to take shelter in the school building and remain there for the  whole day. 

On reading an article relating  to these owls’  breeding time I came to know that winter months are their breeding time.   Seeing a pair of owls increased my chances to observe their breeding behaviour and breeding ecology.  The time was perfect - it was November and the pair was seen to be indulging  in courtship behaviour. Later I came to know from other school staff that this pair of Indian Eagle Owl comes to breed in one of the makeshift hollows  situated in the school building premises,  Learning this,  I became very excited that this year also the pair has come for breeding. The place where they make the nest is so typical that it’s tough for anybody to reach  their nesting place easily.

Eagle Owl nest

Now I came  to see their courtship display daily,  in which they make some calls and many a times the male bird bringing food for the female in order to  gain her attention,   Later for some days I used to see only a single bird, I thought that the female must have laid the eggs in the makeshift nest cavity and hence must be busy in incubating the eggs.   It was absolutely not possible to see the eggs in the hollow and so I had no information about the number of eggs she had laid.   Only after a period of one month,  when the chicks started to peep outside, did I come  know that the pair was raising two chicks.

It’s now a daily routine to see the bird bringing kills of rodents, lizards, pigeons etc. to feed the young ones.  II have seen that every morning just before the day break they feed the chicks.  A month passes like this.  After that they started to  perch at their favourite places and call  the chick to come out and feed.   Now both the chicks had started to fly in the vicinity under the watchful eyes of their parents.  If the parents find any threat, they alert the chicks and  the chicks immediately respond  to their call and go back to their hiding places.

One day I saw only one of the baby owls sitting alone outside the nest and its parents and other chick nowhere near him.  When it happened the second day as well,  I thought that the parents would have moved with the earlier fledged chick to some other safer place and this chick being weak and not able to venture out with them would have remained here and they might take him later.

On the 3rd day, I found the baby owl sitting in a corner of the building,  may be the hunger would have forced him to venture in the open.  But venturing out without the safety of parents was going to be difficult, soon I found a pair of crows chasing the baby owl.  Crows are known to chase and harm birds of all sorts and they are very intolerant to owls specially.  They were continuously chasing the owl baby from one place to other and I also started following them.  After 30 minutes of continuous harassment the baby owl sat at one corner of the building and was looking very weak and vulnerable and seems to have  almost given up.   At that moment I thought of  intervening  to save the bird before  the crows kill him.

I immediately drove away the crows from there and kept standing  there.  The baby owl was sitting on one corner, I thought the crows might return back and harm him so I decided to pick him up from there and keep it at some safe place till his parents arrive.   I found that the appearance of the baby eagle owl was very frightening and to rescue by picking it was not an easy task for me.  So I called my son’s swimming coach and then we both picked  up the owl from the corner of the building and took it to a safer place near the swimming pool changing room.

The baby owl  after rescue.

The baby bird cooperated and remained at ease.  Then we tried to feed him by putting egg in front of him, but he did not eat, maybe he was still frightened of the things that happened in last hour or so, He did not even try to fly, so  we thought to let it be here for a day.  We decided that we should try to see if his parents come back in night and search for him.   As the swimming coach used to stay at the room beside the swimming pool he said that he will keep a watch on it.  But we didn’t require to wait very long.  As the day light faded one of the parents  came on top of the building and started making calls;   the chick responded immediately and tried  to get out of the makeshift room.  Soon in 2-3 attempts he came out of the room and hopped on to the  top of the room. 

The parent encouraged him to fly and then took him at some safer positon in one of the corner of the building.

We were very happy that now the baby owl is with his parent and safe, so a little human intervention had saved the life of the baby eagle owl.

The baby eagle owl in the wild after rescue.

Ajay Gadikar

(Avid Bird Watcher)

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World Wetlands Day

2 February was World Wetlands Day.

World Wetland Day marks the date of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands, called the Ramsar Convention, on 2 February 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea. WWD was celebrated for the first time in 1997 and made an encouraging beginning.

"Wetlands for our Future: Sustainable Livelihoods" is the theme for World Wetlands Day in 2016. This theme is selected to demonstrate the vital role of wetlands for the future of humanity and specifically their relevance towards achieving the new Sustainable Development Goals.

Unfortunately, wetlands are often viewed as wasteland, and more than 64% of our wetlands have disappeared since 1900.

Attempt the following quiz to test your knowledge about India's wetlands.

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