Friday, February 29, 2008

India Hotspot for Emerging Diseases

From National Public Radio another eye opener on emerging diseases. A team of researchers from the Consortium for Conservation Medicine, the Institute of Zoology (London) , Columbia University and Univ. of Georgia have shown that infectious diseases such as SARS, Ebola, AIDS are on the rise and their emergence likelihood is spatially non-random. Some places are more likely to act as sources of these diseases than others. Being something of a spatial analysis buff and a map freak I found this most revealing:

Source: Nature

a) zoonotic pathogens from wildlife
b) zoonotic pathogens from non-wildlife
c) drug-resistant pathogens
d) vector-borne pathogens

Spin the combinations any way you like and India especially north India emerges as a hotspot for emerging diseases in every which way. Not very surprising considering the very high population density and proximity with domesticated animals. The recent outbreak of Avian Bird flu in West Bengal is a reminder that such threats are real and the assessed risks are not an outcome of some computer simulation done in a far away lab. In this case Indian authorities acted promptly to control the threat and even received a commendation from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Yet there are still worrying trends that we have be aware off. Take case d in above figure, the one that indicates risk distribution of vector-borne pathogens. Nearly all of India is a high risk area. It's not just population density that is the problem but the abysmal state of public sanitation and cleanliness in our cities and villages. The Surat plague epidemic some years ago shows that this is a clear and present danger we face. Case a which is risk from pathogens from wildlife also takes a more urgent meaning especially in the light of recent reports of deforestation and dwindling tiger populations. I have written about these issues in earlier posts from a perspective of biodiversity and wildlife protection, but human wildlife interaction is increasing in India due to encroachment into forest by people living at the margins of these forests and by continued logging of dense forests. This is what Kate Jones one of the paper authors had to say:

Emerging disease hotspots are more common in areas rich in wildlife, so protecting these regions from development may have added value in preventing future disease emergence

There is a positive spin to everything. The fact that this research identified India as a hotspot for pathogens from wildlife indicates we still have some wildlife areas left intact! Protecting them will be good for both animals and people.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why Palaeontologists Love Mudslides

The Burgess shale was deposited as a series of mudslides. This was the conclusion reached after a detailed sedimentological analysis by researchers from Univ. of Leicester and the Royal Ontario Museum. The Burgess shale is one of the most famous and important fossil localities in the world. Science Daily and Live Science carried reports of this paper. Most estimates based on molecular phylogeny and fossils place the origin of multicellular animals (metazoans) in the late Proterozoic Vendian period ( at or just before 600 million years ago). The subsequent Vendian-Early Cambrian fossil record is sparse (more on that later). The Burgess shale which is Middle Cambrian, dated to about 515 million years is however unusually rich in fossils giving us lots of information about various aspects of Middle Cambrian metazoans.

What makes the Burgess shale so special? Normally during fossilization organisms with hard durable skeletons have a higher chance of being preserved. The soft tissues of these organisms decay upon death or are consumed by scavengers. And organisms which are entirely soft bodied may not be represented at all. So we are left with a biased record in favor of the morphological characters of ancient organisms that are more easily preserved. I mentioned that fossilization normally preserves only the most robust materials of the organism. But occasionally it can preserve very delicate structures as well. One way this has happened in the early Cambrian is through phosphatization of body tissue. The process is delicate enough to preserve animal embryos. However large body fossils have not been found preserved in this manner. The Burgess shale fauna represent another type of preservation mode. The mud slides that formed the deposit buried the Middle Cambrian community rapidly and deeply. The deep burial protected soft tissue from oxidative decay and also from scavengers. This has enabled soft tissue forms to be preserved as impressions upon the mud along with skeletal fragments. Fossil assemblages preserved under such unusual circumstances where even the soft parts of organisms are preserved are called lagerstatte.

Since the Vendian-Early Cambrian body fossil record is sparse, scientists have relied heavily on lagersttate like the Burgess shale and the slightly older Chengjiang fauna from China to understand Cambrian animal evolution. Such lagerstatte have so far not been discovered in Vendian and Early Cambrian strata. This has led to many misunderstandings regarding early animal evolution. Creationists who insist that biological complexity cannot evolve through intermediate stages have used the Burgess shale as evidence that animals arose "suddenly", ignoring the older fossil record. The media often uses terms as "sudden appearance", "in the blink of an eye" without properly explaining what these terms mean in a geological context. The term Cambrian explosion hardly helps. Explosion does not mean that at one time nothing existed and then Poof suddenly complex animals appeared on the Cambrian sea-floor. Explosion refers to the evolutionary radiation of metazoans that took place in the Early-Middle Cambrian over a time span of about 15-20 million years. The image below summarizes the Vendian-Middle Cambrian fossil record.

The Burgess Shale and the Chengjiang fauna have assumed such iconic status that reading media reports I sometimes get the impression that without these fossil locales we would know nothing about early animal evolution. But that is just not true. The early fossil record although sparse does show a gradual increase in grades of complexity in animals. This is seen through an increase in size and complexity of trace fossils as well as body fossils. Representatives of most skeletonized phyla can be recognized in the fossil record by Mid-Late Cambrian times. Taxa representing lineages ancestral to phyla (stem-groups) however have not been recognized in many cases. This means that the fossil record of the early Cambrian does not by and large preserve the detailed stages of body plan evolution. This may partly be because the initial evolutionary radiation took place in soft bodied forms before skeletonization evolved. Early skeletons may also have been quite fragile, disintegrating in small pieces upon death of the organism, making reconstruction of form difficult. And finally, evolution of novel morphologies may have taken place geologically rapidly in ecologically restricted less diverse lineages reducing their chances of being preserved in the fossil record. This situation will change as more fossils are discovered and improved systematics place problematic Early Cambrian taxa to their correct position within various animal clades. The Burgess Shale and the Chengjiang faunas represent a time when complex body plans of animals had already been assembled. So although they tell us a lot about the disparity (range of morphological forms) and diversity during the Middle Cambrian, they are less useful in terms of understanding body plan evolution and the early diversification of animals which most probably took place in the latest Vendian and Early Cambrian. A notable exception to this so far has been the work of Graham Budd on Arthropods. Using an analysis of ancestral and derived character states of Arthropod stem taxa from early Cambrian and Burgess type deposits, Budd has reconstructed the various stages through which Arthropods acquired morphological features characteristic of their clade. Arthropods have an exceptionally rich fossil record in the Middle-Late Cambrian. Such types of analysis are constrained by the paucity of stem group fossils for many other phyla. A few more preserved fossil rich mudslides from the early Cambrian will go a long way in filling that gap.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Can a Country be Entirely Carbon Neutral?

I heard an interesting talk on National Public Radio in their climate connections section. Costa Rica wants to be carbon neutral in the next decade or so. The country is already known for its pro environment stance having put stringent measures to protect its rain forests. Now it wants to go a step further and make further emission reductions to an extent that it has almost no net emissions. This is going to be quite a challenge. Costa Rican rain forests absorb about 2.5 million tons of CO2 per year, and Costa Rica emits from various activities about 12 million tons of CO2 per year. One way the report said that Costa Rica will decrease this gap is to pay landowners to plant more trees, funded largely by an increase on gasoline taxes. But experts think that the gap is too large and transportation emissions are increasing too rapidly for these schemes to work. According to the report Norway and New Zealand have similar plans.

Oddly the report missed out mentioning Iceland, which I feel has the best chance of coming close to carbon neutrality in the next couple of decades or so. Iceland is a small, culturally homogeneous country used to taking policy decisions by consensus building and referendums. This makes it easier for politicians to set long term goals. For example Iceland is the only country where the entire population has volunteered to put individual genetic information in the public domain for medical research. In this spirit Iceland has declared that it plans to make the transition to a hydrogen economy by 2030-2040. In terms of natural resources, they might just make it. Geologically Iceland is a mid oceanic ridge, one of the few places on earth where this ridge rises above sea level. Because of this, the entire country is underlain by a vast hydrothermal system, driven by magmatic heat. Iceland derives most of its electricity from this geothermal energy with a little contribution from hydro power, making power generation essentially greenhouse gases emission free. The trick now is to reduce emissions from transportation and here Iceland is aiming to run its entire transportation network, from public transport to its fishing fleets to personal vehicles on hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen cells are not something unique to Iceland but the manufacture of hydrogen mostly from electrolysis of water consumes a lot of electricity and if this is derived, as it mostly is in other countries from burning coal, then you are simply pushing your emissions to the power plant. Since power generation in Iceland is mostly from clean energy, the entire cycle of fuel production for transport promises to be clean.

All this remains a pipe dream for most other countries. Power generation for example in China and India is mostly coal driven and this situation is unlikely to change in the near to medium future of about 20-30 years, the critical time bracket in which most climate change experts says we must reduce emissions to avoid "irreversible changes" to the climate. Methods of sequestering CO2 by pumping it in underground storage are available but are only locally employable due to geological constraints and are very expensive. Other forms of alternative technologies like wind and solar suffer from a combination of local and temporally sporadic availability and high costs compared to fossil fuels. Nuclear energy seems to be constrained by costs and public suspicions on its safety. Transportation fares no better. The much inflated balloon of biofuels was punctured some time back by research which indicated that again in the short to medium term increasing demand for biofuels will adversely impact land use patterns causing deforestation and destruction of wetlands. The gains in emission reductions at the wheel will be more than offset by the increased emissions during the production of biofuels.

Where does all this leave us? Research budgets for alternative energy seem to be falling and there is no indication that countries like China and India are moving towards cleaner energy, both having plans for massive increases in coal fired power plants. The recent mad rush to claim sovereignty over portions of the Arctic sea-bed for future oil prospects indicates that no developed country is in a position to wean its economies from fossil fuels for some time. The transition from fossil fuels to cleaner renewable energy is likely to be a very gradual process. In the meantime I think it will be time well spent if we shift some of our focus from preventing global warming to adapting to it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Arctic Oil: U.S. Gets With the Programme

New maps of the Alaska arctic continental slope show that the slope extends about 185 km further from the coast than previously thought. This makes a huge difference to how much territory the U.S can now claim for oil rights. In a previous post I had written about the geo-political situation around the Arctic ocean. Russia, EU, Denmark, Canada and the U.S are all slugging it out to carve the biggest barrels out of the arctic sea-bed oil. The law of the sea give countries exclusive mineral rights up to a distance of 200 nautical miles from their coasts. The U.S is yet to ratify this treaty and the recent discovery may provide Congress with the push needed to do so. A lot of oil is though to lie beyond this exclusive zone, and with the Arctic ocean becoming ice-free in the summers, countries are now scrambling to show that geologically their continents extend beyond this zone. This would according to an exception in the law of the sea treaty give them additional rights. Russia says geology proves that the Lomonosov ridge is part of their slope, but I think Denmark can make an equally convincing claim. The geological situation is seen in the image below.

Credit: NOAA

The current U.S claim is almost certainly going to be challenged by the Canadians. Below is an image of the U.S claim, polygonal area marks out the extension of the Alaskan continental slope.

Credit: UNH/NOAA

Estimates vary about the total arctic reserves but the more optimistic one's place about 25% of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas in the these frigid depths. The director of NOAA's Office of Coast Survey had this to say about the new maps:

"These are entirely new insights into what the ocean bottom looks like. The data will be used to gain a better understanding of many things, including ecosystems and climate circulation models."

Hmmm.... somehow I think oil and not ecosystems will be given priority!

So, here's how this is going to work. Global warming is clearing up Arctic ice, giving access for more exploration and development of oil and natural gas deposits, which in turn will add to further global warming.

What a great scenario!

Friday, February 15, 2008

India's Tigers and Forests

I have been blogging quite a bit about the state of India's wildlife and forests. There has been a lot of news about this topics lately. Not all of it bad. Recently the Indus dolphin was sighted in Punjab river Beas after the gap of about 70 years. But overall the news has been depressing. Bharatpur bird sanctuary has virtually dried up. According to the latest census the tiger numbers in the country are now thought to around 1400 only, much below the earlier figure of about 3000 given by the government. And there is more bad news of the state of the forests. The latest census of the Forest Survey of India reveals that between 2003 and 2005 India lost about 700 sq km of prime forest land and suffered lots of degradation of dense to moderately dense forests. By a coincidence I had posted on this topic a few days before this report (2003-2005) came out. That post used data from an earlier census (2001-2003). That census showed that forest cover has actually increased by around 2700 sq km. But the devil is in the details. All that "growth" is either an artifact of better mapping due to improved satellite resolution or counts monocultures planted on degraded land away from any critical wildlife habitats. The core forests in and around tiger reserves for example continue to vanish and become degraded. Afforestation is not being directed to where it is most needed. I had used the Nameri tiger reserve in Assam to illustrate this point using images more recent that those used in the 2003 survey. Now this latest report confirms that prime forest areas are shrinking.

All over the world, not just India the basic problem has been that population pressures have altered the landscape in often irreversible ways. Contiguous forested areas have become fragmented. They are now islands surrounded by human presence and activities. In India nowhere is this illustrated with more clarity and devastating realization than where the Himalayan foothills grade into the north Indian plains. Below image shows this situation where the ranges suddenly give way (green dotted line) to irregular jagged pieces of forest, isolated from other such pieces, islands surrounded by intense agriculture land use.

The brown dotted polygons mark the approximate boundaries of the Dudwa tiger reserve in Uttar Pradesh. Three patches of forest which are becoming increasingly fragmented and frayed at the edges literally. How do you manage healthy tiger populations is these isolated islands? They are few 100's of sq km large, able to sustain a few ten's of tigers at most in each of the forest patches. How do you ensure a healthy gene pool with such small numbers? Some years ago when I was living in Florida, wildlife authorities were faced with a similar problem with the Florida panther. A small population showing signs of debilitating health effects from inbreeding. So, the Texas cougar a close relative of the panther was introduced in the Florida habitats of the panther. The results are encouraging. Florida panther populations today are healthier. Increasingly it is not going to be enough to just manage the physical aspects of the ecosystem. Our wildlife management plans currently claim to focus on afforestation, resolving human animal conflicts at forest margins, controlling logging and poaching. These are worthy goals. Poaching especially is suspected to have disproportionately contributed to the recent decline in tiger numbers. But even if our reserves become well protected against poaching we have to live with the reality that most of our tiger habitats are never going to connected to each other again and animals trapped in isolated habitats will need more help. We will have to manage their biology for them as well. Conservationists often talk about setting up migration corridors but take a look at the above image of Dudwa which for administrative purposes is one tiger reserve. The three forest patches are separated by 10's of km of intense agriculture land use. It is inconceivable that we can change land use and relocate humans on this scale. Most reserves in India are now separated by 100's of km of no forest areas and migration corridors cannot be thought of as a general solution to habitat isolation. In this context saying India has a total of 1400 tigers or 3000 tigers or some other number becomes less meaningful than assessing what viable population can be maintained in each of the forest islands across which natural migration and gene flow is now impossible. By such separate assessments may come the unpleasant knowledge that 1500 to 2000 is the total healthy population that can be sustained given the limited amounts of forests left. Off course this number will be hopefully much more, but to come to a stage where we are in a position to develop a tiger management plan backed by some hard science we will need increasingly focussed biological information on individual tiger populations. This means developing genetic databases of tigers to understand the genetic structure of populations. Regular screening for signs of inbreeding and setting up a well funded programme for induced gene flows across our tiger reserves. Are we geared up for a biological management plan for tigers?

What has been the reaction of the government to the recent report that 700 sq km of prime forest has been lost?

"Overall, the decrease is insignificant. It is not worrying as India's forest cover has more or less stabilised and ranks number 10 globally on a per capita basis," said Devendra Pandey, director-general of Forest Survey of India.

It is a statement only an Indian bureaucrat can make. Factually correct in a very narrow sense but showing a contemptuous arrogant indifference to the ground ramifications of the finding. Pretending everything is fine because we rank number 10 globally on a per capita basis. How on earth is that hollow boast supposed to help the tiger? Dismissing the real loss of prime habitat by pointing out that our forest cover has more or less stabilized. In an earlier post I pointed out how meaningless this stabilizing is in the context of the health of critical wildlife habitats. Afforestation is simply an exercise carried out to balance the books of the ministry of environment and forest. Let's take another look at how this "stabilization of forest cover" is working out. Below is a forest cover map of Buxa tiger reserve in West Bengal. This data was complied from 2001 satellite images.

Source: Forest Survey of India

Green is dense to moderately dense forest and yellow is open forest which has about 10-40% forest cover. Look at the area around the red arrow. And compare it with a close up below of the same area taken in 2006.

If our afforestation programme really was meaningfully designed, this open forest shown in 2002 should have been targeted for improvement. The reality? By 2006 the entire area has been converted to farmland. "Ground Truthing" in remote sensing parlance refers to the validation of automated classification algorithms used in land cover mapping. Over here the term ground truth has taken on a much more urgent meaning. The truth is that our prime ecologically rich forest areas are disappearing but the government doesn't seem to care. Through its reports it is misleading it's citizens by creating statistical illusions of forest cover "balance" and "stabilization". As long as somewhere far away an equivalent amount of area is greened with monoculture plantations the forest department goals of "stabilizing" forest cover will be met and a false victory proclaimed.

Write to your state forest department and demand action. The link to the Maharashtra forest department is : Maharashtra Forest Officials

See also:

India Gains Forest Cover, But....
Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary Dries Up
Indus Dolphin Sighted in Punjab

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Third Party Genes and Ethics

Recently a team of British scientists from Newcastle University created a human embryo with genetic contributions from three donors. They used defective embryos left over from fertility treatments. Removing the nuclear genes from such defective embryos they transferred these nuclear genes into another donor egg which had been previously emptied of it nucleus. The recipient egg though had its mitochondria intact. Mitochondria contain their own DNA, separate from the nuclear DNA. So, the resulting fertilized egg now contained genes from three parents. All this as part of research to figure out if a class of diseases brought on by defective mitochondria can be eliminated by such a mitochondria transfer from a third party.

The Times of India carried a debate of this with a for and against forum. Uma Sethi who wrote against carrying out any such modifications to the reproductive process makes a strange case:

"One of the reasons for their jubilation is their claim that by genetically modifying life at the embryonic stage, we can effectively protect the to-be-born from risk of contracting some 50-odd diseases. However, the truth is that many diseases could be inherent in your genes, but you could live your entire life without any of those diseases affecting you; you might just carry those tendencies to your grave."

Carrying a faulty gene may enhance your chances of contracting a disease, the relation is probabilistic. Since there is no certainty that carrying a particular faulty gene will cause the disease we should take a chance and let nature take its course. Playing Russian roulette with a person's life does not strike me as a particularly ethical position to take. And what about the next generation? The person may well be unharmed during her lifetime but mitochondria are inherited along the female line. The child inheriting faulty mitochondria from a parent is still in danger of contracting a disease. Should we keep taking chances across generations? If the technology is available the solution would be to make a permanent change to the germ line.

This is what causes a revulsion in many people. Organ transplants from strangers are fine since we are not modifying genes and organs are not inherited by the next generation. But interfering with the process of sexual reproduction with a two parent system is anathema. If nature has dictated a two donor system for our genes then tampering with it means "tampering with the blueprint of life that is sacred" according to Uma Sethi. But how sacred has been this blueprint of life throughout eukaryote evolution?

Turns out that the eukaryote cell, the cell type that all multicellular complex life is composed off was itself created from a merger of different prokaryote cell types. Ironically the most important merger involved the would be mitochondria. Prokaryote cells specializing in extracting energy in the presence of oxygen (aerobic bacteria) were engulfed by larger prokaryotes which didn't have that specialization (anaerobic bacteria). The result was a symbiosis. Over time the smaller prokaryote evolved into the mitochondria and in the process transferred most of its genes into the nucleus of the host cell, retaining just those required for the functioning of the mitochondria. Mitochondria is just one example but it seems that the evolving eukaryote genome has been built through such donations from many parties since its earliest days.

Third party genes may also have played an important role in the evolution of placental mammals. Why doesn't the immune system of the mother reject a fetus as a foreign body. Turns out that :

A significant chunk of our DNA had its origins as retroviral DNA. Most of these are now inactive, but a tiny portion actually appear to still code proteins. It's been found in mice, sheep and humans (and presumably generalizes to all placental mammals) that a particular kind of endogenous retrovirus is highly expressed in the outermost layer of the blastocyst (see e.g. Venables et al. 1995 for the human example). Furthermore, when you inhibit the expression of these genes the result is uniform spontaneous abortion immediately following implantation (Dunlap et al. 2006).

Most retroviruses are immunosuppressive, the most infamous example being HIV. Connecting the dots, it's quite plausible that these particular ancient retroviruses have been recruited into the mammalian genome and serve as local immunosuppressors in the uterus during development. In fact, we already know that syncytin, a protein crucial in placenta formation, is the product of a retroviral gene (Knerr et al. 2004), so there's nothing at all far-fetched about this.

In this case, viral genes were first transferred into our ancestral genomes. Evolution modified them to serve as immunosuppressors. Those genes can no longer be looked upon as foreign third party pieces of virus. They are now functioning bits of our own genome. The eukaryote genome has always seen lateral gene transfer from third parties especially from retroviruses. For any one generation our present natural system allows genes to be transferred through only two donors. But over generations sexual reproduction means that genes are being shuffled and mixed with genes from various donors. That means say my parent's genomes are made up of genes which may have been contributed by people from all over the globe at various times during my paternal and maternal family ancestries. This mixing of genes is what make us one species. If that is the case why argue about transferring mitochondria within our species?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

India Gains Forest Cover, But....

From my Geology News Feed: Is the Amazon Forest a Carbon Emitter or Sink?

The article discusses a research project to understand the carbon balance in the Amazon. Results do not yet clearly say whether the Amazon sucks in as much carbon as it emits through organic decay and deforestation but scientists feel that the rate at which it is being logged (about 8000 sq miles per year!) a tipping point i.e. when carbon emissions from the Amazon will exceed carbon sequestration may be approaching if the current rate of deforestation is not slowed down. Worldwide deforestation contributes to about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, so preservation of forests is an important component of fighting climate change. The figure below shows the change in forest cover over the last few years countrywise.

India has added about 700,000 acres according to this figure. I confirmed this from the Forest Survey of India site. India has added about 2797 sq km of forest going by the latest census in 2003. This compared with the earlier census of 2001. From a climate change mitigation point of view this must be seen as a positive trend. All this growth of new forest owes much to the National Afforestation Programme which aimed to increase total forest cover by about 7-8 lakh hectares or about 7000 sq km by the end of around 2006. The latest census figures are not available to me so I cannot report on whether this target has been reached.

How does all this increase in forest cover impact wildlife and biodiversity. On this front the news is not good. I looked at some of our core forests, the ones which have been given tiger reserve status. These are generally forest areas which are quite rich in biodiversity and preserve contiguous areas of dense tree cover. Again I used a report prepared to assess the forest cover changes (warning: 54 mb download) in and around tiger reserves by the Forest Survey of India. The census was up to 2002. It shows not much forest is being added to these critical animal habitats. Only about 25 sq km of new forest growth in and around tiger reserves has been recorded and that to in just 4 of the 28 tiger reserves. There has been a net decrease of about 94 sq km of forest from within the tiger reserves since 1997 and about 124 sq km in the immediate surrounds of the reserves during the same time span. Moreover there are signs that the forests are degrading. For example about 270 sq km of dense to moderate dense forest became open forest i.e. forest with canopy density of 10-40%. Overall forest cover in and around tiger reserves amount to about 55, 000 sq km. Total forest cover in India is about 670,000 sq km (6.7 lakh sq km) by the 2003 census. It helps to look at a specific case in detail. The figures below shows a map of the Nameri tiger reserve in Assam. Compare the 1997 map to the left with the 2002 map to the right. The green represents dense to moderate dense forest while the yellow is open forest.

Source: Forest Survey of India

You can see a significant decrease in the green and yellow patches in the 2002 map. Nameri lost about 22 sq km of forest from 1997 to 2002. One might argue these are slight dated figures and the forest cover may have increased in the last several years. I hope that is the case but I am not too optimistic. There are conflicting views on whether the recent increase in forest cover reported in the 2003 census is a real increase due to afforestation or an artifact created simply by improved resolution of satellite images used in the audit i.e. previously uncounted parcels of forest are now being mapped due to improved resolution. Afforestation has probably not improved the situation near most of the tiger reserves in recent years. Below satellite image contains data from 2003-2006, more recent than the Forest Survey of India data I presented and it shows no signs of any new forest growth.

Compare this image with the 1997 map. In this close up, around the arrows, increase of agriculture near the fringes and thinning and deforestation south of the river has completely stripped the land of forest. Here pressure for land and conversion of forest to agriculture use seems to be increasing. In my last post I showed a similar situation in the Gir forest. Most reports one reads today document increasing degradation of critical wildlife habitats, so its a fair guess that afforestation programs are not being successfully directed towards these core forest areas.

All this gains importance in the context of the recent announcement of allocating Rs 600 crore for the tiger protection programme. Much of the money in this programme is said to be for rehabilitation of communities living around tiger reserves and improving security infrastructure to combat poaching. That is welcome news since as seen in the images, human activities around core forest areas eventually lead to deforestation and forest fragmentation. The situation depicted in the above image of Nameri reserve offers a test case for the ongoing afforestation programmes. South of the river what used to be contiguous tracts of forest have disappeared, fragmenting the forest in to isolated blocks. It is here that afforestation by providing migration corridors for animals, in the above case by recreating contiguous forest cover south of the river, can make a real difference in improving wildlife habitat. The best chance we have of saving wildlife and biodiversity is by concentrating on the core forest areas that have been preserved so far and have been least affected by farming and logging concessions. But the data on afforestation done so far suggests otherwise. For now it does appear that afforestation is more a method to simply increase "forest" cover to meet government targets. Plantations are usually carried out on degraded forest land i.e land under forest department jurisdiction which has currently no or little tree cover with no due importance given to either biodiversity or whether such plantations are contiguous with critical wildlife habitats. I am always amazed by this utter disconnect between various government organizations. Our wildlife biologists are as well trained as any in the world. They must be recommending conservation plans for wildlife habitats. Yet most afforestation seems to be taking place away from such habitats and judging by reports and my own personal observations at least in Maharashtra, afforestation means planting mono-culture. These isolated patches of green do get picked up by digital image sensors aboard our remote sensing satellites and get converted into estimates of "forest cover" increase. But they by and large are not helping in preserving our biodiversity.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary Dries Up

From the Times of India, an editorial on the world famous Bharatpur bird sanctuary or what used to be a sanctuary. It has dried up. The sanctuary known as the Keoladeo National Park is an artificial wetland created in the mid 1700's as a hunting ground for Rajasthan royals and relies on annual release of water from various nearby rivers. Lately water that was meant for the wetland is being increasingly diverted to farmland, progressively drying up the park. The birds have already left for wetter pastures. If wetlands are not resorted soon, it will lose recognition as a world heritage site. What a shame! Below is an image of the Bharatpur wetlands.

In this image at low resolution there appears to be plenty of green within the park but take a look a a close up below.

The entire area is dry. Only in the vicinity of the green dot could I find some water. Few green patches indicate the presence of moist soil, but no water, no wetland and no birds. Looking at the close up one can understand how precarious the health of the wetlands always has been. Being an artificial creation, the boundaries of the wetlands are sharp and are surrounded by intense agriculture land use. The light colored rectangular quilt like pattern you see surrounding the central dark former wetland are farm plots. The conflict for allocation of water for people versus animals is a perpetual problem in India and the needs of the people win out.

Such degradation of our national parks is happening to various extents all over the country. Bharatpur is an extreme example of a small sanctuary whose support system has completely collapsed. Take another famous sanctuary, the Gir Forest National Park. This is world famous for being the last natural habitat of the Asiatic lion. Image below shows the Gir forest area.

At this scale all appears well, large green patches with no apparent disturbance. But image interpretation is about pattern recognition. Take a look the areas at the southern margins of the forest around the green arrows. The green patches around these arrows have a more speckled appearance compared to the green patches in the center. Close up below reveals all.

Again those rectangular patches you saw around Bharatpur, farmland making its ways into the forest following the water courses, small streams, water holes, the same water sources that wild animals use. A conflict in the making.

What is the future for India's wildlife and biodiversity? There are conflicting signals from the politicians. Yesterday the centre announced a package of Rs 600 crore for project Tiger, to be used for the tiger conservation programme. This for now should be seen as good news. On the other hand, political interference and interest in the exploitation of forests is alive and well. India Today recently reported on poaching rings in UP, and yesterday several Kashmir politicos have been accused of illegal exploitation of timber. The culture needs to change from viewing forests and wildlife as a resource to be exploited, as some obstacle to development, to one where our biodiversity is seen as an integral and important component of our development. Until then, tiger rescue packages notwithstanding, conservation plans will always be at the mercy of local political winds. I mean as a scientist I can well imagine the frustration of a senior forest officer who having carefully drawn conservation plans for a particular area is told by the local politico, oh-sorry no water for you this year!

Another big danger besides the increasing human wildlife conflict is climate change. Today's conservation plans are drawn on the assumption that the current ecological boundaries will remain so for the foreseeable future. But what if in response to shifting climatic belts, ecological boundaries also shift? This is an imminent danger facing India. Our current conservation plans are barely able to cope with problems of human encroachment into forest areas by rehabilitation and relocation plans for humans. What will happen if forests further fragment in response to climate change and ecological belts move? Where will the animals go?