Urban Birding in Málaga

Málaga, situated on the sun-kissed Costa del Sol in Andalucia, southern Spain would hardly seem like a venue for urban birding. But surprisingly, it has a lot to offer. Join ILCW member (UK) David Lindo as he leads you through one of Spain’s major tourist spots to find birds.



Two Young People Raise $10,000 for Mali Elephants

Sixteen elephants were slaughtered by poachers in the northern regions of Mali in January. The Mali elephants have recently changed their migration route and are now staying close to communities who support their wellbeing. Evidence supports the fact that the elephants do know where they are safe. Two children, Abby and Theo have raised nearly $10,000 to assist the elephants and offer this good advice: 1. Complaining is not productive. 2. Relationships are at the root of the problem and the solution. And, 3. You’ve got friends: use them. The Mali Elephant Program is a project of the WILD Foundation. Read the full story.

Green Spaces Improve Health Study Finds

The research is one of the first studies to consider the effects of green space over time and has used data from the British Household Panel Survey, a repository of information gathered from questionnaires filled in by households across Great Britain.
Using data from over 1,000 participants, the research team at the University of Exeter Medical School focused on two groups of people: those who moved to greener urban areas, and those who relocated to less green urban areas.
They found that, on average, movers to greener areas experienced an immediate improvement in mental health that was sustained for at least 3 years after they moved. The study also showed that people relocating to a more built up area suffered a drop in mental health. Interestingly this fall occurred before they moved; returning to normal once the move was complete.

Read more

Kenya and the US Team Up to Thwart Poaching

At the end of January U.S Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Professor Judi Wakhungu, the Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Environment & Natural Resources, at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Northern Rangelands Trust headquarters in Kenya. The MOU represents a pledge by both Kenya and the United States to collaborate on combating the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts, particularly elephant ivory and rhino horn.

A prayer for the crocodile

In estuarine villages in Goa, a unique ritual is helping save a highly threatened species
(previously published in the E-Paper Live Mint)

By ILCW member Ananda Banerjee (India)

Checkered Keelback lay unperturbed as we crossed a small culvert. The non-venomous snake remained still, perhaps waiting for a meal—a frog or fish to run up in the narrow passage of water. The afternoon sun flickered over the coconut grove as we wriggled through a thick undergrowth to take a narrow muddy path down to a house under construction.

We were in Durbhat, a village on the banks of the Zuari River in Goa, to meet local fisherman Namdeo Rao. Rao and his kin take part in a unique eco-theological ritual of crocodile worship known as mannge thapnee in Konkani.

Only practised today by a few farming and fishing families in the village, the ritual is meant to protect humans from crocodiles. It also highlights how little is known about the crocodile population of Goa—although a photograph of a large crocodile strolling through a popular Goan tourist beach, Morjim, taken by an early morning walker in July last year went viral.

Goa is home to the freshwater crocodile known as the mugger. It is one of the three species of crocodiles found in India, the other two being the saltwater crocodile and ghariyal.

Anthropologists and wildlife experts say the religious significance accorded to the estuarine crocodile—through rituals such as mangnge thapne—helps conserve not only these endangered species but also their habitat, the equally threatened mangroves.

The ritual of mannge thapnee is celebrated in Durbhat every year on Paush Amavasya in the Hindu calendar, which corresponds to the first new moon day in January. This year, it falls on 10 January.

The unique crocodile worship ritual has also been documented from some other parts of India, including Gujarat (Kutch and south Gujarat), Maharashtra and South 24 Parganas in West Bengal.

In Goa, mannge thapnee has a remained sacrosanct, surviving as a ritual and drawing the attention of scholars and wildlife conservationists amid growing human-wildlife conflict.

This ritual takes place only on the Khazans, local coastal floodplains, mainly used for aquaculture and farming.

Rao narrates the details of the ritual in animated tones. First, he has to make a life-size model of a crocodile from mud scooped from the riverbank. Rao, who learnt the ritual from his father, claims it takes him 20 minutes to create the dummy croc, clamshells forming the scales and eyes. The mud crocodile is then decorated with vermilion, flowers and incense sticks.

During the prayer ceremony—this is attended only by men—a chicken hatchling and an egg are buried inside the mud crocodile along with offerings of puffed rice, coconut and jaggery.

“The legend states that when the paddy fields were flooded with adjacent seawater, the villagers attempted to pacify the sea by worshipping the crocodiles, which were numerous at that time,” says Nirmal Kulkarni, chairman of the Mhadei Research Centre and member, Goa State Wildlife Advisory Board. “Every year, on the day of the new moon in January, which coincides with the commencement of threshing of harvest paddy, the ceremony is performed. The villagers believe that it is because of their worship that the crocodiles never cause any harm to them or attack their families.”

According to Nanditha Krishna, director CPR Environmental Education Centre, the mannge thapnee ritual is performed for a good harvest by the Hindu Gowdas—a Goan tribe—and is rooted in the belief that appeasing the rain god Varuna by worshipping its mount protects the paddy fields.

There are alternative narratives: the book Sacred Groves In India says a popular belief among Goan fishermen is that the crocodiles prey on predatory fish, which leaves fishermen with high yields of edible fish and prawns from the mangroves.

Ironically—given the worship—crocodiles are not native to Goa, its faunal ecology or its rivers and creeks. They were introduced 500 years ago when the ruler of Bijapur, Adil Shah, as an innovative strategy to try and scare Portuguese invaders off the waters of Goa.

The story goes that Shah introduced freshwater crocodiles in the Cumbarjua canal, connecting the Mandovi and Zuari estuaries to try and thwart the Portuguese general and empire builder Afonso de Albuquerque. At the time, Durbhat was a bustling port, and Albuquerque captured it shortly after his arrival.

And in 1510, Albuquerque managed to capture Tiswadi (comprising 30 settlements, including the island of Cumbarjua) from Adil Shah.

There is also a less dramatic version of how crocodiles came to be in Goa.

“While historical records indicate that the reptiles were introduced by Sultan Adil Shah as a biological deterrent against enemy soldiers in the Cumbarjua canal, some researchers have often argued that the local population is an offshoot of the main population that once existed around the islands of Chorao and in the surrounding mangroves,” says Kulkarni.

Over time, the freshwater crocodiles have adapted to the high levels of salinity in Goa and prospered in the mangrove ecosystem. Today, the Cumbarjua canal is a hotspot for crocodile spotting in the wild, with river cruises promoted by the state’s tourism department.

Muggers are considered a threatened species and have the highest degree of protection (Schedule I) under the country’s Wildlife (Protection) Act. However, there have been no recent surveys on the species or population estimates in Goa. Kulkarni and his team are awaiting permission from the government to conduct a census in the state.

Today, mannge thapnee is not restricted to Durbhat. According to Charan Desai of Sawe (Study and Awareness of Wildlife and Environment), a non-profit organization, the ritual is performed by the young and old in neighbouring villages too.

Desai has been working on human-crocodile interactions in Ponda in Goa, and is monitoring 21 villages that are known to have crocodile populations.

Like Rao in Durbhat, Tukaram Mulik has been conducting mannge thapnee in Talavli, a neighbouring village, for 30 years. Mulik does it mainly for protection and to keep crocodiles from entering his paddy fields. “We roam freely without any fear of the crocodile in the bunds and fields,” says Mulik.

According to him, more and more young members of the community are taking part in this ritual even though they are not directly involved in either fishing or farming.

Neither is Mulik, for that matter—he works for Konkan Railway and rents out his landholdings. But he performs the ritual every year as part of a tradition.

“We pray to mannge (crocodile) to protect us on land and in water and take care of our well-being. Along with protection from crocodiles, we also pay our respect to nature, on which our livelihood is dependent,” says septuagenarian Vithu, also from Talavli.

Today, the mangroves and its star inhabitant, the mugger, are threatened by human activity. Goa’s unprecedented pace of development has destroyed large sections of mangrove forests and polluted its rivers. Whether religious and cultural rituals can save Goa’s crocodiles and its mangroves remains to be seen.

Philip Hyde (1921-2006)

Philip Hyde’s photographs have helped protect such national treasures as the Grand Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument, Denali, Tongass National Forest, Canyonlands, the Coast Redwoods, Point Reyes, King’s Canyon, the North Cascades, Oregon Cascades, High Sierra Wilderness, and many others.


Alison M. Jones receives NANPA Philip Hyde Environmental Grant

Alison M. Jones, founder and director of No Water No Life, and ILCW member, is the latest recipient of the Philip Hyde Environmental Grant from the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA). Jones received this award for her project of transcribing and posting nine interviews of scientists, stakeholders and stewards in six North American case-study watersheds: the Columbia River Basin, the Raritan River Basin, and the Mississippi River Basins. For more information about No Water No Life and to take the Watershed Survey, go here.

Leopards of India’s Silicon City

Photos and story by ILCW member Sanjay Gubbi (India)
Previously published in National Geographic Big Cats Initiative on January 4, 2016

01_Leopard_Sanjay Gubbi

Bangalore, a southern Indian city, has become synonymous with information technology and is one of a few metropolis in the world that hosts large wild mammals such as elephants, leopards, sloth bears and even tigers within a distance of a few kilometers from the center of the city. Among them, two species make headlines, quite often – the elephant and the leopard.
Part of the city outskirts, where rural life continues to linger despite the contrasting glitzy city reports, livestock lifting by leopards are common. Occasionally, the residents of apartment complexes in the southern side of the city report leopard sightings. When such incidents are reported, the response is a demand to relocate (translocation) the leopards. In the past five years the forest department, due to various pressures, has captured six leopards from the city outskirts, relocating four of them to various other locations.
Concerned about the leopard conflict and captures, I started monitoring the presence of leopards and conflict incidences around the country’s IT capital. From time to time we camera-trapped the areas where there were requests from local residents who were afraid of leopards lurking in their area and the government.
Camera-trapping gives us wonderful insights into the lives of these spotted cats. Many times when we install these automatically triggered photo-documenting devices, leopards were captured walking past our camera traps. At times, the sequence of images was more interesting. At one location we had citizens walking past our camera traps on their evening walks.  A few hours later, young spotted cats walked past the same camera traps taking their own images with bright-lit garden lights as their backdrop. In some locations, young school children walked by displaying their playful performances for the cameras, and a few hours later the stealthy predator would imperceptibly appear as the human activities drew to a close.

02_Men walking by camera trip
A government institute that experimented on fodder seeds in northwestern part of the city invited us to document the presence of leopards on their campus as some security personnel reported sighting a large cat. The institute cultivated maize and other similar tall standing crops, and leopards revealed their presence in these fields but disappeared as soon as the crops were harvested. Tall standing crops, such as maize, perhaps acted as a good cover for the field.
The spatial distribution of the spotted cat showed us a trend. Leopards are found from the northwest to the southern side of the city in a semi-circular form following the presence of rocky outcrops or forest patches. The message seems to be clear in Bangalore. Leopards survive in areas where there is a mosaic of natural forests, rocky outcrops and sub-optimal habitats such as maize fields that provide temporary cover for the animal to move between natural habitats. They are certainly not living like bandicoots that hide in the midst of high-rise buildings inside drains and culverts during the day and venture out eking food at night. They are not living amidst a sea of humans or amidst residential and commercial buildings. I wouldn’t call these urban leopards. Natural habitats seem to be the key for the leopards’ survival.
Daylight shot of the same area where men were walking

03_Day photo of camera trip area
However, I wonder how long these animals would survive on the borders of this ever-growing city. Human population in Bangalore grew by 47% during 2001 and 2011, increasing it from 6.5 to 9.6 million currently matching the population of New York metropolitan area. The size of the city has increased over 300% in the last 20 years. Many villages and forest patches around the city have now been merged into the city limits. Forest areas have primarily made way for industries, housing complexes, and other developmental activities.
As urban areas expand, the natural habitats of leopards shrink. The animal could possibly go extinct locally or survive if there would be continuity to other natural habitats. For instance, leopards will continue to exist in Bannerghatta National Park (100 square miles) that adjoins the southern side of Bangalore city, despite the land around Bannerghatta becoming highly urbanized. The northern and western edges of the national park are already ensconced in a sea of development. So, the leopards that live inside Bannerghatta could venture into urbanized areas due to easy access of domestic food sources, including dogs. Not an ideal situation for the leopard or people. However, deforestation in Bannerghatta could result in a loss of leopards in this area.
Apart from developing scientific information and database of the leopards around the city, we reached out to the local population. We regularly carry out outreach activities to bring awareness about leopards and ways to respond to leopards sightings in the vicinity. The multitude of people we had to speak to made an interesting case study by itself. Retired professionals, security personnel, space research scientists, central security force personnel, students, construction workers, villagers, farmers the list goes on. Hence, our outreach activities had to be in the local language Kannada, the national language Hindi, and English, tailored to suit the diversity within the communities of the city.
The responses of the communities towards leopards are very varied. On the outskirts of Bangalore, leopards are found among two distinct kinds of communities. Educated professionals, who are not economically dependent on land or animal husbandry, who prefer to reside in areas that have a mix of natural leopard habitats and agricultural landscape. Secondly, the communities who reside in similar ecological landscapes but whose lifestyles are largely rural in nature, and continue to depend upon farming and livestock for livelihoods.
There seems to be better acceptability among people whose livelihoods does not depend on farming or livestock. However, anxiety about leopards was still present. For instance, a school campus is partially used by leopards that has natural forests in it and abuts a multiple use forest patch. The alternative school administration were happy to co-exist with their spotted cats but still wanted to take necessary steps that did not make them legally liable if something went wrong. In addition, they took all necessary precautions to minimize any untoward incidences. However, communities that were dependent on agriculture and livestock farming did not want leopards in their vicinity. If the wild cat didn’t pose a threat to livelihoods there seem to be better acceptability.
Bangalore is an excellent example for the changing ecological, social and economic landscapes of the country, demonstrating the altering fate of some of the wildlife species. Leopards are being compressed into ever-shrinking areas of wilderness. Around Bangalore, they have disappeared from areas where these large cats were reported as recently as in the past five years. We will perhaps see more of such scenarios in the country where leopards lose out to the expanding urbanization. At the outset, other cities near Bangalore such as Mysore, Tumkur, Chitradurga are all candidates where this scenario could repeat due to expanding urbanization and loss of leopard habitats.
Loss and conversion of leopards’ natural habitat seem to be an important driver for this spotted cat to move to sub-optimal habitats.

04_another Leopard by Gubbi
A comprehensive plan where leopard habitats that occur adjoining to cities and towns needs to be drawn for long-term leopard preservation in the country, which is one of the strongholds of these spotted feline in the world.