Spotted in Spain

By David Lindo, ILCW Member (UK)

Lindo’s article ran in BBC Wildlife magazine, June 2016. Click here to see entire article and photos

Handsome yet overlooked, the genet is one of Europe’s most mysterious carnivores. But a photographer in Extremadura has gained new insights into its secret life. David Lindo reports.

As I crouched in front of a tree trunk on the edge of a Spanish woodland, miles from the nearest urban street light, questions whirled around my head. The sun was close to setting, though I wouldn’t have known it from looking at the sky due to the thick, enveloping cloud that stretched to the horizon. It was a surprisingly chilly February evening, given that I was in Extremadura in south-west Spain, and I was beginning to wonder if I was a tad underdressed.

My mental musings concerned my quarry at this secret site. Would it appear, and what would it look like? How would it behave? It was an animal that I barely knew anything about, had never really even thought about and had certainly never seen before: a common genet. In fact until recently I didn’t even know anyone who had seen one in the wild.

However, here I was with the award winning wildlife photographer José-Elías Rodriguez Vázquez awaiting the appearance of not one but three apparently very approachable common genets he had discovered and staked out. An assiduous naturalist, José-Elías knows every inch of the countryside that surrounds his home near Alange, in the south of the province. The local habitat includes olive plantations, holm oak woodlands and reservoirs, all bordered in the near distance by a range of mountains. It is a very picturesque landscape; it’s no wonder he says that the common genets love it here.

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Nose to Nose with Fear, Heart to Heart with Each Other

By Page Lambert, ILCW member (USA)

Previously published on her blog All Things Literary. All Things Natural

 

This week, my 19th annual all-women river odyssey embarks, the rafts launching into the Colorado River at the Westwater put-in.  Each trip brings something new, but the river always gets the creative juices flowing.  We play.  We hike.  We swim.  We journal.  We run rapids.  We talk about process.  We share.  We get wonderfully silly.  Profoundly serious. We get silly all over again, in and out of the water, up and down the canyon walls, in and out of each others stories.

From sun to shade, dark to light—in every metaphorical way imaginable. Wilderness landscapes stir our souls in life-changing ways.  We become lost in their grandeur and in the getting lost rediscover a vital part of ourselves.

 

Nowhere else besides the river is this transformation so enabled.  Each time, the joy of living simply is rediscovered as we journey down the river together—a cool drink of water, a playful mud bath, quiet conversation, the taste of a fresh tomato, sliced avocado, sweet summer corn.  But it’s the evening memories that endure, when our tents are pitched and the women guides are gathered with us around a fire as night comes to the canyon.

 

Several years ago, an underwater photographer for National Geographic whose job took her to the depths of the ocean, joined the trip.  I’ll call her Susan. “I figured the other women were bound to be interesting,’ she told me.  Yet she felt far more at home with a camera than a pen.  One evening, she volunteered to share her journaling from earlier that day.  She waited for a woman from Wyoming to finish reading a humorous piece about the time her brave, old grandmother killed a cranky rattlesnake with a short pair of horse hobbles.  Shaking, she began. “This takes so much courage,” she said.  “I was diving off the coast of Florida, and came nose to nose with a shark.”

 

Photo by Peter Verhoog / Dutch Shark Society, used with permission.    

 

 

As if by accident, the story of her brother’s untimely death several months earlier had woven its way into her journal.  She read aloud to us, comparing the darkness of her grief as she stared into the shark’s cold eyes, to the grip of fear she felt as a deadly sea serpent coiled itself around her flippers.  Her story ended as a canyon wren’s last song of the evening spiraled through the dusk.

 

Memories like these, coupled with the memories of laughter while floating down the river, or quiet conversation as we rest in the shade after a hike, exploring our own interior landscapes, remind me why I have been returning to the river for nineteen years.  Susan had walked through a desert of sorrow to bring us the gift of her story.  We listened by the fire, each holding stories close to the heart, emboldened to begin telling our stories.  The river returned us to our roots, our wildness, our spirituality, our sense of self.  The river gave us courage.

Machli, the Tigress Who Reigned Over Ranthambhore

By Neha Sinha, ILCW member (India)
Previously published by The WIRE

Consider this: a lifetime achievement award for rendering services to conservation and tourism was bestowed on her. A stamp was dedicated to her. When she breathed her last, policemen hoisted her garlanded body onto their shoulders, and several departments joined hands in giving her a ceremonial funeral. Her children are well established. And – we are talking of a tigress.
Machli, a matriarch of four tiger litters in Ranthambhore tiger reserve, passed away this week (the week of August 14, 2016). In her death, as in her life, Machli was larger than life even as the world in the wild is inscrutable. ‘Striking’ may be one way of describing the image of seeing a whiskered, striped, giant non-human head on the collective shoulders of policemen – and thus the shoulders of the state. And Machli was striking as much in what she did – she was a strutting, fearless and bold tigress – as for what she seemed to stand for. Known by epithets such as the ‘oldest tiger in the world’ (she lived up to nearly 20 years) and the ‘most photographed tiger in the world’, Machli seemed to fulfil a human need to rely on witnessing a wild, fierce animal, and believe in that animal’s legend.
It is perhaps with Machli that deeply personal associations with individual wild animals started in India. For instance, following the disappearance of the burly tiger Jai from Umred this year, departmental teams have gone out searching for him, Facebook dedications have followed and several columns of newsprint filled. Last year, another Ranthambhore tiger, Ustad, created a furor he was utterly unaware of: a decision to move him to a zoo after he allegedly killed a forest guard was replete with emotional and political controversy. Ustad lovers took out candle light marches in various Indian cities under the banner of ‘Je Suis Ustad‘, demanding his release from “incarceration and imprisonment”. A case was filed in the Rajasthan high court asking that Ustad remain in Ranthambhore, though he was eventually moved to a zoo. It was alleged that Ustad became a scapegoat for some sections of the park establishment who thought he was dangerouz
If this intense, personal ownership of an animal is to augur something for conservation, Machli was certainly a pioneer for the personality-driven, anthropomorphised conservation. She has been the subject of entire calendars, documentaries, photographs, and a Wikipedia page, and has been the centre of lore.
The first fleck of legend comes from the truth: in her boldness, Machli showed generations of photographers and tourists rare insights into tiger sociology and behaviour. She weaved in and out of tourist vehicles in Ranthambhore with her nose in the air, without batting an eyelid and without annoyance. “She was a remarkably confident tigress. She has mated out in the open, she walked with her cubs out in the open, and she never seemed to mind the presence of people,” says Belinda Wright, who runs the Wildlife Protection Society of India. Wright recalls how Machli took on a crocodile, defending her cubs and their meal. In a battle that lasted almost 90 minutes, she lost two canines. But while qualities of maternal love, protectiveness, courage and valour are universally feted and recognised by humans, Machli’s role in Ranthambhore and Sariska’s tiger biology is the most important.
“Machli dominated the Ranthambhore lake area for nearly a decade. And her confidence in front of tourists and cameras made her the subject of many photos. But the most important part is that she has repopulated Ranthambhore with her cubs and stabilised the park’s population,” Wright says.
It wasn’t just Ranthambhore.
By 2005, Sariska had lost all its tigers to poaching. In the times of modern tiger conservation, where the movement has both had negligence as well as the political resolve to restore tiger reserves, it was two of Machli’s progeny that were captured and airlifted to Sariska to repopulate the reserve.
‘Ma Machli’, ‘Queen Mother’ and ‘Lady of the Lake’ were nicknames given to the tigress. But her maternal’ identity also gave a solid peek into tiger behaviour: tigers maintain their own territories, ousting cubs, especially males. They guard this territory for life. “Machli was a long-lived tigress who lived longer than the average age of a tiger. She was a classic example of philopatry. She stayed around her natal area, and she also allowed her female litters to live in an adjoining territory,” says Rajesh Gopal, former member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. “Her iconic status needs to be used to further strengthen tiger conservation. A lot of credit goes to field personnel for monitoring her.”
This closeness felt to an individual animal, the naming, and the almost-human status, has not been without its critics. For instance, many believe that wild animals should not be anthropomorphised, named, or otherwise artificially attended to. After Machli lost her canine teeth, she was often provided with bait, and some other tigers in Ranthambhore too have been provided medical attention. Some conservationists believe that we should not interfere with the natural world, and only the fittest should survive. It is also alleged that making celebrity animals can interfere with the attention other species or lesser-seen individuals may need.
Others believe that living in the Anthropocene epoch, occasional interventions are now a fair part of ecology. This central debate is epitomised by Machli’s very long life and her survival.
“Ranthambhore is a very small park and it is surrounded by human pressures. It is not a regular practice for us to feed tigers or give them medical attention. We only do it occasionally,” G.V. Reddy, the chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan told The Wire. Machli was born in 1997, when Reddy was a divisional forest officer in Ranthambhore. Like many others, Reddy believes Machli was a special tigress, surviving many battles and long years.
It is true that if not for her own pluck, as well as an anthropogenic helping hand, Machli would not have had a state-sponsored, ceremonial cremation and an obituary written in a human language. But while debates for or against humanising tigers, and questions that examine the interplay of emotions and science continue, one thing is for sure. Machli shows us what happens if we give solid protection to tigers. “She has shown us what robust genes and family lines can emerge if we protect a wild tiger,” Reddy says. “She shows us the possibilities of tiger conservation.”
Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist.

Unforgettable Memories from the Forest in the Monsoons

By Neha Sinha, ILCW Member (India)
Previously published by daily O
In the cities, we wait eagerly for monsoon rains
It’s a break away from the sultry, claustrophobic humidity that precedes the rain. We want the skies to change colour, we want a breeze to blow, umbrellas and waterproof footwear to be whipped out, we have a need to experience a different, more exciting season
Yet as soon as the skies open up and the rains come crashing down, cities throw up litanies of dramas. Red lights stop working, and serpentine, honking queues of cars fish the romance out of any rainy commute
Somewhere, there is awful water-logging, while in another part of the city, water turns mysteriously grey in taps, making one wonder if the stuff coming out of one’s backside got mixed with the stuff we splash our faces with
Unless you are very young or very bohemian, the charm of monsoons is often belied by the peculiarities of cities
But hold that thought. Before you think cities are whimsical in the rain, wait till you hear of some unforgettable (good or bad) monsoon tales from the Indian wilds
The year was 2011. We were in Ranthambhore tiger reserve, as a group of researchers. We were hoping to spot some tigers, but all we had got was rainwashed forests, and no sightings of animals, who were either hiding under foliage or getting drenched, away from the gypsy trails.
There were flies buzzing everywhere, and after an exhausting ride through the forest and a 4.30am start, we were fatigued to our souls. The sky had just cleared, bringing with it the typically blinding, eye-watering sunshine that follows rainfall.
Slowly but surely, the temperature had spiked up, taking us from squelchy to hot uncomfortably quickly. We were turning our gypsy around to go back, and the words of senior forest staff, who had said “you won’t see anything during rainfall” were ringing in our ears. Our gypsy got stuck.
A particular patch in the forest trail had collapsed inwards, softened by the rain. This is a rite of passage in the forest — your car will get stuck just as you make up your mind to go somewhere. We were stuck at an awkward angle, diagonal to the trail, impossible to turn this way or that, without embarrassingly loud attempts to get out.
And then, the forest seemed to hold its breath. Appearing almost out of thin air, there appeared a full-grown tigress.
She catwalked towards us, with the ease and insouciance of a dancer loping on rose petals.
We were right in her path, awkward, clumsy, the very opposite of all that she stood for. She seemed used to this sort of human folly, and there was no annoyance on her face.
With the same elegant calm that brought her to us, she softly got off the trail, bypassed our vehicle, and climbed back on the trail again.
Then, she turned. Her face drew itself into a distinctly feline snarl, whiskers bunching together. The look said, “Don’t follow me”.
If our car hadn’t gotten stuck, we would have missed a sighting of one of Ranthambhore’s most well-known tigresses, T-17, also called Sundari, who met an untimely end a few years later.
More importantly, if our car hadn’t gotten stuck thanks to the rains, we would have missed the chance of closely seeing a tigresses’ attitude-sure, fierce, and tinged with the haughtiness of self- preservation.
If tigresses are haughty (and rightly so), leeches are always hungry (especially in the rainy season).
In the month of September, I was in the forests of Biligiriranga Tiger Reserve, known as much for its fabulous beasts as for its amazing Soliga people, who live in the forest, with a felt understanding of its plants, leaf litter, its rhythm, its darknesses, and its lifecycles.
I was being led through the forest by a Soliga friend, and he was taking me to his temple. His temple was a large tree, with milky, fragrant flowers.
This tree is called the Dodda Sampige Mara, also known as the Big Champaka tree. Said to be more than 1,000-years-old, this tree is a silent, flowering testimonial to the forest, having survived generations of storms, monsoon rains and human death and decay.
The author at the Dodda Sampige Mara tree.
Standing in a particularly lush and damp portion of the forest with the Big Champaka tree, small creatures looked out from the undergrowth.

Leeches. Near the temple, flushed by monsoon rain, were dozens… and dozens… and dozens of leeches.
All of them were making hungering movements, heads pushing forward. Leeches are not my favourite thing
Blood makes me queasy. I dug my toes into my floaters, not wanting any part of my skin to touch the forest floor.
We reached the tree temple, and I stood at a distance, awed by its splendour and presence. Come closer, the tree will bless you, my friend said
And you have to take your shoes off, he added, straight-faced.
There was no question about it. I couldn’t be in that tree’s awesome presence with things like sandals sticking to my feet.
Steeling my mind, I took off my footwear. The leeches moved in, like they’d been waiting for me their whole life.
The monsoons remind me of The Planet of the Apes, that didactic morality tale of what would happen if animals (in the movie’s case, apes) ran our planet
In the monsoons, my thoughts turn to cousins of leeches – all manner of insects.
Winged, not-winged, with pincers or without, awkward and clumsy or long and many-legged, the monsoons are a time that truly belongs to insects
They come out of every crack and crevasse, outnumbering us by millions, seeing a short spurt in their lives before getting crushed, sprayed out or eaten
At one time, insects similar to dragonflies lived alongside dinosaurs. They were huge, the size of chairs. The time of the monsoon is a time when one wonders: what if the world was run by insects?
A many-legged centipede, by Neha Sinha.
I was thinking similar thoughts in a forest rest house in Haryana a few monsoons ago. The thing about government buildings like forest rest houses is that they are often well-made, and have gorgeous locations. The problem comes with the maintenance
No one seems to be interested in maintaining these buildings – not the crusty guards who seem to have better things to do, and not the officers, who have immaculate offices but bypass run-down corridors and guest rooms in the same complex
I was to spend a night in a nameless government building, with the only thing between me and the thundering sky being a leaking roof. The little citizens of the world were busy. Insects were everywhere. There were little bugs on my bed, and moths on the one light I had on in the room
Insects with pincers behind them walked on the lime-washed walls
Winged termites flew here and there. I should have turned off the light to stop attracting more insects, but ironically, I wanted to be able to see what was walking on the bed
Before turning in after some time spent on the bed trying to avoid the insects, I went to the washroom to brush my teeth. Like innumerable forest rest houses I have stayed in, the bathroom door didn’t shut properly
Somehow, no one seems to care about bathroom doors not shutting, and bathrooms not having curtains in these places, leading me to believe not a lot of women are on these trails; but it didn’t matter that evening as there was barely anyone around.
I was brushing my teeth when I felt a sensation on my foot. The back of my mind already knew what it was.
I looked down. A long, many-legged centipede, known to bite when threatened, had crawled out of a crack in the floor, and was now proceeding to crawl up my leg. That was it.
I unceremoniously spat out my toothpaste and strode out of the door.
I found the building guard, who was asleep under a thick blanket. I can’t stay here, there are 200 insects in my room, I told him.
He looked at me like I was a raving lunatic. Just wait, I’ll come, he said.
Wait on the lawn, he said. He came out, blanket around his shoulders.
We stepped into my room. With our re-emergence and movements, many of the insects had vanished.
“Kahan hain kahan hain, (where are the insects?)” the man asked me.
“Har jagah hain,” I said, “neem ke patte nahi hain aapke paas? (they are everywhere, don’t you have neem leaves, known to repell insects, I asked)”.
I have this, he said. And he brandished an All-out mosquito repellent. My heart sank. Of all the insects in the animal kingdom, the only one missing from my room were mosquitoes.
Ah, well.
Being close to nature is a certain brand of tough, biting love.
I woke up having survived various insect bites the next day, but the stories I had were even better.

Chernobyl to become UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

The European Wilderness Society posted that thirty years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, has signed a declaration to designate 226,964 ha of the state-owned area as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Since the nuclear meltdown the area has been devoid of humans as it is classified as an exclusion zone, but the flora and fauna have flourished. Many of which are unique. Read more here.

Jane Goodall Institute conference

August 18 – August 20 in Chicago, the “Chimps In Context” is the fourth symposium in a series called “Understanding Chimpanzees.” The conference hopes to bring together experts and researchers from various disciplines to “ inform our understanding of chimpanzee behavior and cognition, as well as the conservation and welfare issues that impact the lives of chimpanzees.”

Unforgettable Memories from the Forest in the Monsoons By Neha Sinha, ILCW Member (India)

 

Previously published by daily O

(http://www.dailyo.in/lifestyle/monsoon-rains-forest-stories-wildlife-ranthambore-tigers-travel/story/1/11891.html)

 

In the cities, we wait eagerly for monsoon rains.

It’s a break away from the sultry, claustrophobic humidity that precedes the rain. We want the skies to change colour, we want a breeze to blow, umbrellas and waterproof footwear to be whipped out, we have a need to experience a different, more exciting season.

Yet as soon as the skies open up and the rains come crashing down, cities throw up litanies of dramas. Red lights stop working, and serpentine, honking queues of cars fish the romance out of any rainy commute.

Somewhere, there is awful water-logging, while in another part of the city, water turns mysteriously grey in taps, making one wonder if the stuff coming out of one’s backside got mixed with the stuff we splash our faces with.

Unless you are very young or very bohemian, the charm of monsoons is often belied by the peculiarities of cities.

But hold that thought. Before you think cities are whimsical in the rain, wait till you hear of some unforgettable (good or bad) monsoon tales from the Indian wilds.

The year was 2011. We were in Ranthambhore tiger reserve, as a group of researchers. We were hoping to spot some tigers, but all we had got was rainwashed forests, and no sightings of animals, who were either hiding under foliage or getting drenched, away from the gypsy trails.

There were flies buzzing everywhere, and after an exhausting ride through the forest and a 4.30am start, we were fatigued to our souls. The sky had just cleared, bringing with it the typically blinding, eye-watering sunshine that follows rainfall.

Slowly but surely, the temperature had spiked up, taking us from squelchy to hot uncomfortably quickly. We were turning our gypsy around to go back, and the words of senior forest staff, who had said “you won’t see anything during rainfall” were ringing in our ears. Our gypsy got stuck.

A particular patch in the forest trail had collapsed inwards, softened by the rain. This is a rite of passage in the forest — your car will get stuck just as you make up your mind to go somewhere. We were stuck at an awkward angle, diagonal to the trail, impossible to turn this way or that, without embarrassingly loud attempts to get out.

And then, the forest seemed to hold its breath. Appearing almost out of thin air, there appeared a full-grown tigress.

She catwalked towards us, with the ease and insouciance of a dancer loping on rose petals.

We were right in her path, awkward, clumsy, the very opposite of all that she stood for. She seemed used to this sort of human folly, and there was no annoyance on her face.

With the same elegant calm that brought her to us, she softly got off the trail, bypassed our vehicle, and climbed back on the trail again.

Then, she turned. Her face drew itself into a distinctly feline snarl, whiskers bunching together. The look said, “Don’t follow me”.

If our car hadn’t gotten stuck, we would have missed a sighting of one of Ranthambhore’s most well-known tigresses, T-17, also called Sundari, who met an untimely end a few years later.

More importantly, if our car hadn’t gotten stuck thanks to the rains, we would have missed the chance of closely seeing a tigresses’ attitude-sure, fierce, and tinged with the haughtiness of self- preservation.

If tigresses are haughty (and rightly so), leeches are always hungry (especially in the rainy season).

In the month of September, I was in the forests of Biligiriranga Tiger Reserve, known as much for its fabulous beasts as for its amazing Soliga people, who live in the forest, with a felt understanding of its plants, leaf litter, its rhythm, its darknesses, and its lifecycles.

I was being led through the forest by a Soliga friend, and he was taking me to his temple. His temple was a large tree, with milky, fragrant flowers.

This tree is called the Dodda Sampige Mara, also known as the Big Champaka tree. Said to be more than 1,000-years-old, this tree is a silent, flowering testimonial to the forest, having survived generations of storms, monsoon rains and human death and decay.

(photo of giant tree)

(Caption) The author at the Dodda Sampige Mara tree.

Standing in a particularly lush and damp portion of the forest with the Big Champaka tree, small creatures looked out from the undergrowth.

Leeches. Near the temple, flushed by monsoon rain, were dozens… and dozens… and dozens of leeches.

All of them were making hungering movements, heads pushing forward. Leeches are not my favourite thing.

Blood makes me queasy. I dug my toes into my floaters, not wanting any part of my skin to touch the forest floor.

We reached the tree temple, and I stood at a distance, awed by its splendour and presence. Come closer, the tree will bless you, my friend said.

And you have to take your shoes off, he added, straight-faced.

There was no question about it. I couldn’t be in that tree’s awesome presence with things like sandals sticking to my feet.

Steeling my mind, I took off my footwear. The leeches moved in, like they’d been waiting for me their whole life.

The monsoons remind me of The Planet of the Apes, that didactic morality tale of what would happen if animals (in the movie’s case, apes) ran our planet.

In the monsoons, my thoughts turn to cousins of leeches – all manner of insects.

Winged, not-winged, with pincers or without, awkward and clumsy or long and many-legged, the monsoons are a time that truly belongs to insects.

They come out of every crack and crevasse, outnumbering us by millions, seeing a short spurt in their lives before getting crushed, sprayed out or eaten.

At one time, insects similar to dragonflies lived alongside dinosaurs. They were huge, the size of chairs. The time of the monsoon is a time when one wonders: what if the world was run by insects?

(photo)

(caption) A many-legged centipede, by Neha Sinha.

I was thinking similar thoughts in a forest rest house in Haryana a few monsoons ago. The thing about government buildings like forest rest houses is that they are often well-made, and have gorgeous locations. The problem comes with the maintenance.

No one seems to be interested in maintaining these buildings – not the crusty guards who seem to have better things to do, and not the officers, who have immaculate offices but bypass run-down corridors and guest rooms in the same complex.

I was to spend a night in a nameless government building, with the only thing between me and the thundering sky being a leaking roof. The little citizens of the world were busy. Insects were everywhere. There were little bugs on my bed, and moths on the one light I had on in the room.

Insects with pincers behind them walked on the lime-washed walls.

Winged termites flew here and there. I should have turned off the light to stop attracting more insects, but ironically, I wanted to be able to see what was walking on the bed.

Before turning in after some time spent on the bed trying to avoid the insects, I went to the washroom to brush my teeth. Like innumerable forest rest houses I have stayed in, the bathroom door didn’t shut properly.

Somehow, no one seems to care about bathroom doors not shutting, and bathrooms not having curtains in these places, leading me to believe not a lot of women are on these trails; but it didn’t matter that evening as there was barely anyone around.

I was brushing my teeth when I felt a sensation on my foot. The back of my mind already knew what it was.

I looked down. A long, many-legged centipede, known to bite when threatened, had crawled out of a crack in the floor, and was now proceeding to crawl up my leg. That was it.

I unceremoniously spat out my toothpaste and strode out of the door.

I found the building guard, who was asleep under a thick blanket. I can’t stay here, there are 200 insects in my room, I told him.

He looked at me like I was a raving lunatic. Just wait, I’ll come, he said.

Wait on the lawn, he said. He came out, blanket around his shoulders.

We stepped into my room. With our re-emergence and movements, many of the insects had vanished.

Kahan hain kahan hain, (where are the insects?)” the man asked me.

Har jagah hain,” I said, “neem ke patte nahi hain aapke paas? (they are everywhere, don’t you have neem leaves, known to repell insects, I asked)”.

I have this, he said. And he brandished an All-out mosquito repellent. My heart sank. Of all the insects in the animal kingdom, the only one missing from my room were mosquitoes.

Ah, well.

Being close to nature is a certain brand of tough, biting love.

I woke up having survived various insect bites the next day, but the stories I had were even better.

Tiger Conservation

The Woods Are Dark and Deep, We Have Promises to Keep
By Neha Sina, ILCW Member (India)  Previously published by The WIRE
The barometer of India’s leadership in tiger conservation will be both in securing Indian wild tigers in our forests as well as diplomatic heft for Chinese captive tigers.

Tiger by Neha Sinha
Sundari, a female tiger from Ranthambore, Rajasthan. Photo by Neha Sinha.
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
Thus wrote the British poet William Blake on the Royal Bengal tiger. The powerful verse was mythical in its own way; Blake had famously never seen a tiger, but like many others, was grasped with the enigma of the animal. In the years since, poachers have successfully deconstructed this enigma, ‘seizing the fire’ of the tiger repeatedly – just this year, more than 30 tigers have been poached, greater than the poaching numbers in all of 2015. Other than on-site conservation needs, this opens up new catalysts for tiger diplomacy.
Poaching takes place each year, with spikes and troughs. But this year, two further notable developments have taken place. Firstly, India has seized the opportunity of being the ‘natural leader’ of tiger range countries. India has about 2500 tigers, and others countries have lesser tiger numbers: Russia (leads after India with about 400 tigers), Indonesia (about 300 tigers), Malaysia (about 250), Nepal (about 200) Bangladesh and Bhutan (100 each approximately). China (7), Vietnam (5), Laos and Cambodia are also tiger range countries but tigers are considered functionally extinct here. The number of tigers in Myanmar, which ironically has the world’s largest tiger reserve, is unknown. With the most tigers, India has also institutionalised tiger protection (Project Tiger started way back in the 1970s) and is thus keen to project itself as a geopolitical leader in tiger conservation. So it was that no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi who opened an inter-ministerial meeting on tiger conservation earlier this year.
But since the meeting and its several statements, the nexus and difficulties of poaching pressures have reasserted themselves. Thailand’s famous tiger temple near Bangkok, which caters to millions of tourists who take selfies with seemingly placid tigers, has been shut down under allegations of poaching. Following a raid by Thai authorities, 40 tiger cubs were recently found in a deep freezer at the temple, and a monk was charged with trying to get away with tiger parts. For many of those campaigning against the temple – on grounds of cruelty toward tigers as well as poaching – this was a vindication of many years of struggle against a powerful and popular tourist attraction. But do captive centres like this temple impact or impede wild tigers in India?
Yes, it does, assert many Indian conservationists. Sanctuary Asia, a wildlife magazine based in India, led a campaign with the hashtag #tigertempletakedown, lobbying to shut down the temple. While countries like China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam run tiger farms or zoos under domestic legislation, this is a front for poaching, it has been alleged. The nuts and bolts are complicated: some countries (China and Laos) allow a legal domestic trade of captive tigers under a permit system, though international trade in wild or domestic tigers is not allowed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). While Thailand and Vietnam allow tiger farms or zoos, trade in tigers, whether captive or domestic, is illegal – as evidenced in the tiger temple case.
Sanctuary Asia asked for Thailand’s tiger temple to be shut because it is believed that these places boost trade in tiger parts, thus also spiking poaching of wild tigers. “There is a coterie of Buddhist monks who have been infiltrated by the illegal narcotics and international, illegal wildlife networks. They are a disgrace to Buddhism,” Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia, told The Wire. The other issue, Sahgal points out, is that it is much cheaper to kill a wild tiger than to actually raise or breed one.
An international movement to shut down tiger farms has been gaining momentum for years. “There are about 7,000-8,000 captive tigers, mainly in China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The fact is, tiger farms have massively expanded in the last few decades, even as the wild tiger population has declined by 96 percent in the last 100 years,” says Debbie Banks from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Ahead of a CITES meeting, 45 NGOs, including Indian ones, have signed on a statement drafted by EIA asking for the shutting down of all tiger farms. This would imply changing the domestic legislations of China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. At the same time, China is understood to be the biggest market.
“All eyes are now on the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting in Johannesburg from 24th September to 5th October,” Banks told The Wire. “It’s the perfect opportunity for the governments of China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to announce real action to end demand for tiger parts and products. We want all four countries amending legislation so that tiger ‘farms’ are phased out. That’s not just the massive battery-farm style operations [like in China], but also the facilities that masquerade as ‘zoos’ and centres for conservation across the region; the ‘tiger temple’ being a classic example.”
The question is this: can Indian negotiation rise to the seemingly impossible challenge of influencing domestic policies of countries that favour tiger farms and trade in their goods?
Modi’s speech on tigers at the inter-ministerial meeting included specifics on poaching: “The forest and its wild denizens are an open treasury which cannot be locked up. It is painful to learn about trafficking of body parts and derivatives of tigers and other big cats. We need to collaborate at the highest levels of government to address this serious issue,” he had said.
At the summit, then Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar also said India would give tigers to Cambodia to help start a new tiger population; a move meant to cement India’s leadership on tiger conservation. As gestures go in wildlife conservation, few things can be more culturally and diplomatically robust than India’s national animal, feted by poet and politics alike, being gifted to another country.
The real issue though, is still poaching of tigers, which is a pernicious, international and persistent problem. The barometer of India’s leadership in tiger conservation will be both in securing Indian wild tigers in our forests as well as diplomatic heft for Chinese captive tigers.

New VAT to Hamper Safari Tourism in Tanzania

As of July 1st Tanzania instated a new value-added-tax of 18% that went into effect on travel services that had been previously exempt from the tax. As a result, tourists who had booked and paid for their trips are now being asked for more money to cover the new tax on things like entry into the national parks and accommodations. This change could damage an important source of revenue for Tanzania.
The surprise was in the short notice given by the Tanzania government to the safari industry and tourists. One safari operator said they were notified of the new VAT on June 23. Some park authorities haven’t had enough time to implement the charges and provide adequate receipts. While others are concerned that the additional tax will price Tanzanian safaris out of the marketplace and that tourists will go elsewhere for better deals.
Serengeti Watch reports that “Members of the Tanzanian Tour Operators Association have reported that 8,000 tourists have so far cancelled their planned trips due to the tax. They point out it will cost tourists 25% more than similar destinations and result in a drop in tourism revenue. A group of travel agents in the EU warn that it could cut numbers of European tourists to Tanzania by 50 per cent. This would mean two trillion shillings in lost revenue, about $89 million.”
Most likely the smaller lodges, safari groups and tour operators will be the ones to suffer as they cannot absorb large numbers of cancellations.

Tigers in the Backyard

A film from the Last Wilderness Foundation, India

Tigers and man have existed together in India for many years, but the need for space and sharing of resources has led to a slight imbalance, thereby frequenting the conflict scenario between the two. Communication and interaction with the villagers has helped form an invisible bridge and a relatively visible communication channel between the Forest department and villagers. This initiative started by Last Wilderness Foundation (LWF) 4 years ago, has led to a smoother management of conflict situations in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. This communication channel has also helped in sensitising the villagers and children towards the biodiversity that exists around them and helps them regain the ownership, which otherwise they feel is lost in the struggle for conservation. Apart from conservation outreach, LWF also engages in training programmes for the Forest Department to help equip them with the necessary management skills. To further the cause of awareness; LWF has also developed conservation education materials which helps maintain touch points with the villagers. For more information about the Last Wilderness Foundation, click thelastwilderness and bhavnamenon.blogspot