Tag Archives: Conservation

Looking beyond the Fortress: Expanding the Conservation Workspace in India

The year 1991 marked a major milestone for the Indian economy – a period when India opened its arms to the private sector, a giant leap forward for the country in its attempts to enhance the well being of its citizens. It is a popular discourse that increased growth (a given after liberalisation) would definitely put a strain on the environment and affect our natural resources. The battle between environment and development is an everlasting one. Adopting a Utopic Model of no growth will rupture the economy. On the other hand, renowned economists have always felt that India is too poor to be green. Economic liberalisation was seen as a holy grail to spur the country’s economy and bring millions out of chronic poverty.

The important question is, has India undergone complete liberalisation? While it is safe to say that the Indian economy is booming, have all sectors of the Indian market been opened up in its truest sense? Some sectors in India are still government controlled, bureaucratic and top-down with minimum contribution from outside actors. ‘Conservation’ is one such sector.

India is infamous for its ‘gun and guard’ approach towards conservation. Indira Gandhi the ‘Iron Lady’ of India, is remembered for the legacy that she left behind in the conservation movement in India. It was under her visionary guidance that fortress based conservation policies and legal frameworks were laid down. Her unbinding love for wildlife resulted in the formation of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. It was under the umbrella of this legislation that protected areas were formed which constitutes wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. These areas act as fortresses’ which protect the country’s rich natural heritage with minimal human intrusion and net zero development.

The ‘Iron Lady’ of India

The conservation scenario in India, despite Ms Gandhi’s and environmentalists’ efforts, is at risk of being plundered by a Government with a single minded focus on improving the economy. Forests are diminishing with increasing amounts of land being allotted for development, resources are being plundered and functional ecosystems are destroyed.

The Fortress model in such a scenario can best be described as a utopic baseline that has limited relevance and context. Conservation in the 21st century has assumed a complex hue; there are several stakeholders who play a key role in this milieu and it is important to envisage a potential scenario that is dynamic and inclusive.

We need to explore solutions that go beyond the ‘fortress’ to achieve conservation that is relevant in today’s context. 24% of the country’s landscape is forested, while protected areas encompass only 4.89% of India’s area. A significant proportion of the forest cover outside the PA is degraded. In the past 30 years, India has lost large areas of forests to 23,716 industrial projects. It is not just loss of species that is an alarming issue, but the loss of functional ecosystems. These act as green infrastructure that is the backbone to the country’s economy. It is absolutely essential that India’s lost functional ecosystems be restored. For every habitat that has been lost, compensation must be carried out. Payments must ultimately result in the creation of lost natural capital.

Mining in Bihar, India. Shows severe habitat degradation in the area. Coal still is the source of 60% of India’s power.

Compensation schemes through natural capital restoration form the basic premise of biodiversity offsetting. India is still at the rudimentary stage of implementing such schemes. One such policy intervention in the Compensatory Afforestation Bill in 2015. According to this bill, the developer has to pay the net present value of the forest land cleared for a project in addition to the costs of afforestation of an equal area of non forest (or double the area for a patch of degraded forest). This money goes into a Government managed fund that is used for afforestation purposes. This fund in India is worth more than Rs. 40,000 crores (5.9 billion USD).

Such Biodiversity offsetting programmes has polarised the conservation community globally. The Compensatory Afforestation Bill has faced major criticism in India for improper implementation. Some conservationists construe it to be a ‘sham’ that is a one- way ticket to promote monoculture timber plantations by the government. With rapid development as the norm, which is here to stay, it is necessary to start ‘internalising our environmental externalities’. The ‘handsome kitty’ sitting in the Government fund can be used to compensate every habitat that has been lost to development projects and to restore ecosystems in sites that are degraded, mined; abandoned agricultural land that is no longer cultivatable; restore corridors connecting protected areas. Most importantly, forest communities can be mobilised for ecological restoration augmenting incomes. This fund can strengthen our green infrastructure, create jobs, and be a source of ecological, social and economic security ultimately boosting our country’s economy.

The face of the ‘Corporate Sector’ in India is undergoing a change. As per the Companies Act, 2013, corporates have to spend 2% of their profits in the preceding three years towards social causes. Corporate Social Responsibility can be used to catalyse corporate funding in ‘voluntary biodiversity offsetting’ programmes. This multi-billion dollar industry can make a huge impact with regard to building green infrastructure and brand equity.

With 1.2 billion people, the war between environment and development is still in its preliminary stages in India. Whether we like it or not, we no longer live in an era where conservation is only about maintaining pristine wilderness, which is barely 5% of India’s landmass.  We need larger functioning healthy eco systems.  We cannot consider ‘man’ and ‘nature’ to be separate entities. The Conservation workspace should no longer be limited to just the ‘Government’ or wildlife enthusiasts but to all stakeholders who believe in its value and significance.  Will 21st century India see the onset of a diverse and dynamic array of conservation actors – Corporates, Activists, Communities, Ecologists and Government representatives working in unison to forward the Conservation cause in India?




Small islands or big oceans?

How big do you think the Pacific islands are?

To paraphrase,  Epeli Hau’ofa when we think about the Pacific are we talking about small islands in a distant sea or are we really talking about a sea of islands? Are we talking small islands or big oceans?

The answer is very much a matter of perception but it has a big impact on the way we think about the role of small island states in conservation and our own responsibilities towards the world’s oceans.  Especially, given the rapid increase in large marine parks in the Pacific. Continue reading Small islands or big oceans?

Hoping for some splattering success

Last term, the decision to take up the ASEAN Environments elective was a no brainer to me. Being someone from the Southeast Asian region and most probably returning to Malaysia for a colourful career (fingers crossed) in conservation, it was the most natural choice. Choosing the Hilary term elective however was more of a challenge. I was torn between going for a technical course in the form Analytical Geographic Information System (GIS) techniques or more electives that would be similar to the other modules – involving the reading of a few journals followed by weekly classes.


In the end, along with a few other brave BCMers I chose the former. On the first day of class, our elective leader Rob made it very clear to us that this was a self-taught course of which he will pop in on a weekly basis to help out. We are to decide on an individual topic and focus our energy in the coming weeks to cough up a respectable 4,000 word elective essay complete with ‘pretty maps’. Yes, he said pretty maps. That left us all with a problem – how could we with barely any knowledge of what GIS could do, settle on come up with a pertinent research question let alone a mini research topic?


The answer was to learn on the job. And today, 6 weeks into the course and 2 binned ideas (I’ll be more than willing to share about my failures) later I would like to think I have pinned down a potential topic!


Since we are only doing a short term project, it is almost impossible to do manual data collecting so most of us are relying on bits and pieces of data we can muster from the miracle known as the internet. We literally spend hours scouring the far reaches of the world wide web (just to add a little drama) for usable data. Among the few popular sites include WorldClim (climate data), GBIF.org (biodiversity data) and Magic (most environmental data in the UK). Trust me when I say this – data is your best friend when it comes to GIS.


Coming back to my topic, I initially wanted to map out changes of seahorse distribution in the Johor Straits and relate it to seagrass coverage obtained from satellite imagery. The hopes of doing so were crushed by the low resolution and data limitation of satellites since:

  1. Data is in 30m resolutions when my area of interest was only about 150m long and
  2. The seagrass bed I was looking at is fully submerged at low tide.


It was a long shot to begin with.


Moving on, at that time, the report of a wild tigress being run over by a Multi Purpose Vehicle (MPV) made the headlines in Malaysia. It gained a huge social media following as well. This was since the tigress was found to pregnant with two cubs at the time of death. The incident was a huge loss to the already dwindling tiger population in Malaysia. It was then that I mulled the possibility of doing a project on roadkill.

tigerImage taken from online news portal FreeMalaysia Today (http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2016/02/07/tigress-killed-in-road-accident-was-a-mother-to-be/)

After some soul searching followed by some actual internet searching, I was surprised that there was an existing citizen science database for roadkills known as Project Splatter run by Dr Sarah Perkins of Cardiff University. The project allows people from all around UK to record basic details of observed roadkill including. According to the Project Splatter wordpress blog, the data collected will be used to estimate the impact of roads on UK wildlife. A few emails later, Dr Sarah agreed to provide me with the actual database to work on. Bingo! A first breakthrough in weeks.


Getting the data is one thing, knowing what to do with it is another. As of now, I’m trying to map out roadkill prone roads in the UK and try to ground truth it with Project Splatter data. This is in hopes to identify areas in the UK where no observations were recorded there from the lack of citizen scientists. Easier said than done of course.



Mapped out distribution of roadkill by Project Splatter

From my readings, different taxa are affected by different conditions. For example, Rosa and Bager (2012) identified that bird roadkills in summer can be attributed to increase traffic from transport of grain and vacationers in Brazil. Aside from this, Farmer and Brooks (2012) identified 8 risk factors for vertebrate roadkills in Southern Ontario of which the main 4 were distance from wetlands, habitat diversity, maximum daily temperature and posted road limit.


Admittedly, the data collected data might have some potential biases. Ratton et al., 2014 cautioned about the carcass permanency and removal rates. The idea is that roadkill only persists for a short amount of time and this could affect data quality. Another obvious factor to consider is reporting bias. Some areas might have more enthusiastic or diligent citizen scientists than others resulting in a huge data skew. In the Project Splatter map above, you can observe that England has significantly more data points than Scotland.


Once my project is completed, potential mitigation measures could be put in place to reduce the occurrence of roadkills in the UK. Magnus et al. (2014) suggested mitigation via animal behaviour change from the use of ultrasonic whistles as deterrents. The effectiveness of this technique was proven to be low. A more realistic measure that could be put in place was the placement of road signs to stimulate human behavioural change (Coulson, 1982, Dique et al., 2003). Another measure suggested by Seiler (2005) was to increase roadside mowing leading to an increased visibility of which would potentially reduce roadkills.


In the weeks leading to submission, it is highly likely that I would be spending inordinate amounts of time in the computer lab at the department struggling with the beast that is GIS. Wish me luck!


Do also contribute to the amazing citizen science database that is Project Splatter by reporting roadkill or follow them on twitter @ProjectSplatter for more information.

Roadkill_Aaron_Flickr's creative commonsRoadkill – A matter or survival

(Flickr creative commons, Username: Aaron)


Coulson, GM (1982) . Road-Kills of Macropds on a Section of Highway in Central Victoria. Australian Wildlife Research 9 , 21–26.

Dique, D. S., Thompson, J., Preece, H. J., Penfold, G. C., De Villiers, D. L., & Leslie, R. S. (2003). Koala mortality on roads in south-east Queensland: The koala speed-zone trial. Wildlife Research, 30(4), 419–426. doi:10.1071/WR02029

Farmer, R. G., & Brooks, R. J. (2012). Integrated risk factors for vertebrate roadkill in southern Ontario. Journal of Wildlife Management, 76(6), 1215–1224. doi:10.1002/jwmg.358

Magnus, Z., Kriwoken, L. K., Mooney, N. J., & Jones, M. E. (2004). Reducing The Incidence Of Wildlife Roadkill : Improving the visitor experience in Tasmania, 42. Retrieved from http://www.crctourism.com.au/wms/upload/resources/bookshop/Wildlife_RoadKillFINAL.pdf

Ratton, P., Secco, H., & da Rosa, C. A. (2014). Carcass permanency time and its implications to the roadkill data. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 60(3), 543–546. doi:10.1007/s10344-014-0798-z

Rosa, C. A. da, & Bager, A. (2012). Seasonality and habitat types affect roadkill of neotropical birds. Journal of Environmental Management, 97(1), 1–5. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2011.11.004

Seiler, A. (2005). Predicting locations of moose-vehicle collisions in Sweden. Journal of Applied Ecology, 42(2), 371–382. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2664.2005.01013.x

The weekend when The Jury’s Inn filled up with Herpetofauna workers

48 hours of fascinating talks, workshops and exciting chats with interesting people. This is what went on in Oxford last weekend, 7th-8th of February: Herpetofauna Workers Meeting 2016 (HWM). I was lucky enough to be able to attend this amazing yearly event, where I was surrounded by really inspiring people.

Thanks to the cake and coffee reception first thing in the morning on Saturday, everyone forgot about the horrible weather encountered on the way and started chatting and pouring copious amounts of coffee in their cups. At reception, I received a name tag and the programme, which featured several talks and one workshop per day. After a few croissants and handshakes, the other delegates and I made our way to the main hall for the morning session of talks.

The welcome pack

Kicking off was Mr Ben Tapley, from the ZSL, presenting his and his team’s current work in China with the Critically Endangered Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianus). Chinese Giant Salamanders have been experiencing extreme declines mainly due to overexploitation: they are often consumed as a delicacy, and this has caused both their disappearance in the wild and the expansion of their farming industry. Therefore, survey work is carried out to discover more about the remaining population abundance, distribution and threats, and to set a long-term monitoring programme. But social work is also sorely needed, as farms are often in bad conditions, and the local perception of this animal usually is negative: they are commonly thought of as scary and ugly. By partnering with local organisations, this project is hopefully going to change the perception of Chinese Giant Salamanders to amazing animals which deserve protection.

Following Ben, Mr John Baker made our wandering imaginations return to the UK, where he has been monitoring adders in Norfolk for more than 10 years. Local habitat restoration impacted the adders, as they were not taken into account during the plans: however thanks to John’s data hopefully in the future management will consider protecting adder hibernation sites and areas around these during major habitat restorations.

Finally, right before the first workshop, Mr Paul Edgar and Mr Rob Cameron updated us on the recent changes in Natural England’s (NE) views, structure and projects, underlining NE’s major interest for new achievements on the ground. It is a time of great change due to an increase of licences granted, the feedback that the UK received on the British EPS, and other major changes within the Government. NE intends to have a greater focus on habitat provision (such as securing habitat for great crested newts), grant advice at earlier stages of developments, as well as targeting the efforts to where the risks are greatest. I was able to participate to their workshop which followed right after, where we discussed four main proposed licensing policy changes. These, if approved, could majourly influence surveying efforts needed, exclusion-trapping-relocating requirements as well as habitat compensation requirements.

Mr Paul Edgar talking about mitigation guidelines

After a tasty and well-needed lunch, another set of presentations got us back in the mood for more herpetofauna talk. From grass snakes monitoring, to toad night patrols in Kent, and a very thorough presentation on the aquatic invertebrates a pond surveyor is most likely to find, everyone’s eyes and ears remained fixed on the presenters all afternoon. Rob Gandola, from the Herpetological Society of Ireland, closed this last session with a witty talk about the recent, amazing work carried out by the Society and some students on North Bull Island, the heart of the newly designated Dublin Bay UNESCO Biosphere reserve. Their citizen-science led monitoring project was able to identify the presence of both frogs and lizards on the island, and discover that their populations are healthy and breeding.  Some funny anecdotes, such as confused frogs hopping into the surf at night, made everyone leave the hall with a smile.

However, the first day of the HWM did certainly not end here. In the evening everyone gathered again for informal drinks, before suiting up (or not) and heading back to the main hall – which was in the meanwhile turned into a fancy dining hall. A three course meal (featuring my first sticky toffee pudding ever!), accompanied with great chats and banter really livened up the night. After an exhilarating herpetofauna-based (obviously) quiz, which included a hilarious masquerade round, a few more drinks and jokes, everything turned into a great party.

The masquerade round

The great party meant that Sunday morning was a bit of a rough start, but equally extremely interesting. The day started with the second workshop – which for me was on Reptile Surveying Guidelines. There were many consultants and experts in the workshop, which made it really valuable for me since I have very little experience in the field. We discussed pros and cons of different existing guidelines, as well as proposing our own ideas on what guidelines should include. After a second round of coffee and chocolate biscuits, we had two sessions of talks. In my opinion, the most interesting talk was Dr Jeremy Biggs‘ from the Freshwater Habitats Trust, which was on the use of eDNA analysis for detecting great crested newts. Last year the first successful national survey of these newts was completed succesfully. This methodology revealed itself to be very inexpensive and easy to use for volunteers as part of the PondNet project, through which almost 350 ponds were analysed – 25% of whuch were found hosting great crested newts. eDNA stands for “environmental DNA”, which is DNA that is released into the water by organisms from their skin, eggs and other means, and can be analysed to find out what organisms live in the body of water sampled. Volunteers are given a simple eDNA kit to collect water samples, which can then be sent to a lab for analysis. To date, eDNA cannot be used to evaluate abundance of organisms yet, but research in the topic is advancing quickly. The PondNet project is picking up again this year, and hopefully 2017, which will provide national trends as a basis for long term monitoring.

Other great talks and discussions continued for the rest of the day, until about 4PM, when we sadly had to start to pack up. It was such a wonderful and inspiring weekend! I particularly appreciated the diversity of people present, with the most varied backgrounds but unified by a common passion. Many thanks to ARG UK and ARC Trust and all the organisers of this amazing meeting, I definitely hope to be able to participate next year!


Vice to Virtue: A journey of Conservation

On Sunday, 24 January,  the Oxford MSc-BCM class took a break from readings and took a walk in the 18th century.  The Stowe gardens, we were told, are the birthplace of conservation science and practice. After the study day, I sat astounded on the way back in the bus. After witnessing the manner in which conservation began as a practice, it is no surprise that it is on the precipice of radicalisation today; I, for one, am of the opinion, that we should have found ourselves critically questioning our story much sooner than a 150 years after conservation came to be.

In brief, this is what the birthplace of conservation practice looks like – a garden whose visitors were only elites; a temple built for ‘men only, to get away from the ladies’ to sit together and decide what is best for all of society over a drink; a valley that is the result of hundreds of labourers digging out a mountain so as to make a lake – all for one person’s political ambitions; and lastly, a stream into which black sand was poured so as to symbolise evil . This manipulation of land, exclusion of common people and decision making in the shadows is how our story began. So is it really surprising that conservation is infused with political agendas and monetary connotations – all directed at the profit of a few at the cost of many?

The gardens scream of the ambition of human dominion over nature,  man’s mission to gain complete control over his surroundings even though he can’t achieve an ounce of it over himself. However, all hope is not lost. Despite being everything I have stated above, the place is beautiful. It serves as an education ground for students from schools and universities all across Britain and is a landmark of cultural importance in British Conservation history. This puts the responsibility back into our hands. Though history has undoubtedly shaped a lot of the attitudes and tendencies of conservation science that have today become its fallacies, the future lies in our hands. And Stowe – the garden of virtue and vice, does a good job of bringing forth the urgency with which we need to act.


The light at the end of the tunnel, a better, more inclusive conservation practice?


Pleistocence Park – Coming to Nature Near You Soon

You’ve Waited 11,700 Years. Now it’s Here. Pleistocene Park.

Had enough of the Holocene? Sick of talk of the Anthropocene? Have no fear – scientists have come up with the latest, newest, shiniest attraction park for you: Pleistocene Park. Once the experimental version has delivered some interest, some dollars, maybe even some mild signs of success, they will be more than happy to expand it into Pleistocene Park. Ladies and gentleman, the park is open. Continue reading Pleistocence Park – Coming to Nature Near You Soon