A Sensory Experience

By Bhavna Menon (ILCW Member, India)

Previously published by Nature in Focus

Birdsong, alarm calls and a life-altering experience with 23 visually-impaired children in the forests of Kanha National Park

It is exhilarating to be able to connect children to a forestscape, to watch them form a purely appreciative, non-transactional bond with nature. I have been blessed to be part of an initiative that gives me an opportunity to do just that.

Last Wilderness Foundation (LWF) has been involved in the Village Kids’ Awareness Programme since the summer of 2012. The programme involves working with students living in the buffer zones of tiger reserves like Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Panna to help them understand the correlation between denizens of the forest and the need to protect them. It helps also, to understand the behaviour of a tiger as that of a wild animal rather than only a source of economic loss for the villagers in form of livestock lifting (which happens more often than not).

However, despite working in this landscape for the past five years, our most surreal experience came this year, in the form of 23 visually-impaired students from the Ananya Manav Sai Samiti, Jabalpur. The enthusiasm shown by these students — complemented by the initiative taken by the Kanha Forest Department and LWF — made it possible for us to take them on a forest safari through Kanha National Park in January for the very first time.

Over the next day and a half, the children drank it all in: the early morning air heavy with birdsong, the calls and grunts of the grazing herbivores and the touch of an ageing sal tree.

They listened to the descriptions of the golden grasslands and the narrated ‘sight’ of a camp elephant throwing mud playfully on its back as it examined the meadows. The highlight for them, however, came in the form of a noisy Gaur as they heard it breaking off branches and chewing the leaves of a bamboo bush.

What was remarkable was the heightening of our own senses. We stopped at every rustle, at the energetic crashing of langurs through the canopies and waited to examine the strong ‘mahul’ creeper, tracing the patterns on the leaves with our fingers, its softness delighting the students, making them shudder with excitement.

Driving in the forest, the students noticed how some parts were relatively cooler. On being told that it was a mix of meadows and dense forest, the students put out their hands to examine the drop in the temperature and exclaimed excitedly that they could hear the streams in the parts of the forest that were coolest.

“Does Kanha have a lot of hills? Has the vegetation changed? Do tigers live in such hilly regions?” asked the students as we drove on an incline. We struggled to keep pace with their intelligence and superior vision.

At the Kanha Interpretation Centre, everyone’s excitement was almost palpable as we introduced them to the different skeleton structures of animals. They carefully examined the diverse shapes with their hands, Blackbuck antlers emerging as the clear favourite. “Kitna sundar hai! (It’s so beautiful!)” they exclaimed; gingerly wrapping their fingers around the ridges in the antlers. Loud gasps of admiration echoed through the museum as they came in contact with the teeth of the wild boar. “Baap re! bahut pene hain! (How sharp these are!)” As they tried to squeeze their hands into the embossed structure of a tiger’s pugmark, to understand the difference between male and female, all they could murmur in excitement was how beautiful the animal must be.

The students’ happiness knew no bounds when they had an opportunity to meet the camp elephant, thanks to the Forest Department. They enjoyed the slight breeze caused by the flapping of its large ears and clung to us, shivering every time it moved. They touched the pachyderm’s wrinkled skin reverently, saying it was the best thing they had ever encountered.

The equaliser came, in my opinion, when we took the children to the dark room at the museum, for the sound and light show. This exhibits the nightlife of a forest with a recreation of a dimly-lit landscape inside a glass case with the sounds of different animals, climaxing with a tiger hunting a spotted deer.

As I struggled to adjust to the pitch dark, the students spoke admiringly of the atmosphere of the room, the number of steps they had climbed to get here and patiently waited for the show to begin. As the night life of the forest came to life with different calls, no one spoke, they were breathing it all in, shuffling slightly to the sound of rustling depicting animal movement and when it ended, they stood listing down all the things they had heard, clutching my hand in a fever of excitement, their reactions uncomplicated. I thought of the majority of tourists who visit the reserve every day, expecting the forest to deliver their money’s worth and yet are never truly satisfied with the experience. These students took the experience holistically, step-by-step, marvelling with equal enthusiasm whether it was the call of a Golden Oriole or to the rough touch of a sal tree. I was overwhelmed in that room — albeit with my limited understanding of the lives of the children — and realised that sometimes happiness can be sought from the most uncomplicated of things, only if we allow it to be.

Watch the children enjoy their day out in the jungle here.

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Saving the Shenandoah Salamander

by Mark Hendricks (ILCW member) USA
Previously published by Earth Island Journal

Government agencies are coming together to protect the small amphibian, which is only found in Shenandoah National Park
Deep within the ancient Appalachian mountains of Shenandoah National Park lies a creature that can only be found on three of its highest peaks, the fittingly named Shenandoah salamander (Plethodon shenandoah). This rare black and orange salamander, which is a remnant of the Pleistocene, has managed to survive in a unique ecological niche even as amphibians across globe are in decline. But with new threats emerging, scientists are coming together to help save this remarkable creature.

 

“It is a really old species,” says Dr. Evan Grant, principal investigator of the Unites States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative. So old that in fact its divergence from a common ancestor with its closest relative, the eastern red backed salamander, is thought to have occurred over five million years ago. “It’s amazing that it has persisted for so long,” adds Grant.

The Shenandoah salamander is a member of the family Plethodontidae, colloquially known as the lungless salamanders, which breathe entirely through their skin and typically require damp environments to facilitate respiration. However, the high elevation talus habitat where the Shenandoah salamander lives is dry. So how did it end up there? It is believed that the Shenandoah salamander is a relict adapted to the cooler climate afforded by the highest elevations in the park. This need for a cool climate — combined with competition from the eastern red-backed salamander, a much more common, closely related species that has expanded its’ range into higher elevation habitats since the end of the Pleistocene — has restricted the Shenandoah salamander to only a handful of the highest elevation parts in the park. As a result, the salamander has one of the smallest ranges of any tetrapod, perhaps the smallest.

Because of its limited habitat, presumed competition with eastern red-backed salamanders, and concerns about habitat loss, the Shenandoah salamander was listed as endangered in 1987 by the Commonwealth of Virginia and was federally listed in 1989. In 1994 the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published the recovery plan for the species. At that time, competition with the eastern red-backed salamander was believed to be the most plausible threat of extinction, though later research reported conflicting outcomes in relation to this hypothesis. Today, it is climate change that poses the biggest threat to the salamander, an extinction threat not included in the original recovery plan.

“Obviously, this old [1994 Recovery Plan] has not included the wealth of scientific information developed since then,” says Jim Schaberl, chief of the natural and cultural resources division for Shenandoah National Park. But, he adds, “There are components that remain that are probably still valid,”

It’s true, much more is now known about the salamander than in the 90s. It wasn’t until 2008 and again in 2010 , for example, that USGS Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) researchers discovered the first nests made by the salamanders. Since then, the park and ARMI continue to learn more about the species’ population dynamics and behavior.

And scientists continue to learn more. A recent study published by Dallalio, Brand, and Grant this year in the Journal of Herpetology examined the influence of temperature and humidity on competition between the Shenandoah and eastern red backed salamanders. Salamanders were housed in mesocosms designed to replicate the current cool and dry high elevation habitat of the Shenandoah salamander, as well as future climate scenarios, using temperature (cool and warm) and relative humidity (dry and wet) as variables. The salamanders were paired either with a member of the same species or with the other. The team discovered that under future, warmer climate scenarios, competition between the two species might not be exaggerated at all; in fact, climate change may alleviate some competitive pressure.

One of the most interesting findings was that Shenandoah salamanders fared worse under simulated future climate conditions when housed with other Shenandoah salamanders, while performance by eastern red back pairs housed together was similar in both present and future simulated climate conditions. Why this occurred, whether due to behavioral or physiological differences, is still unknown. The scientists hypothesized, however, that the eastern red back, with its large range, may be more adaptable to a wider range of climates while the Shenandoah is adapted to a narrow range of conditions where it occurs.

These types of insights are invaluable as amphibians experience dramatic declines worldwide. Recent research indicates that in the US, amphibians are on average experiencing a 3 to 4 percent population decline per year, which over the years quickly adds up. The causes of the decline vary by region. Currently, in some areas of the western United States, chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) may be a major contributor; worldwide it has been linked to the decline of almost 300 amphibian species. In the Northeast and Midwest, habitat destruction appears to be a major contributor, while in the South, climate change appears to be most strongly related to declines. In other areas, environmental factors such as pesticides may be a major culprit.

Given the Shenandoah salamander’s small range and heightened threats, government actors are coming together to help protect the species. Currently, the National Park Service is in discussion with the US Fish and Wildlife Service about updating the recovery plan for the amphibian. However, the USFWS, which leads all efforts to update endangered species recovery plans, is slated for budget cuts, which may or may not hinder recovery plan efforts.

In addition to the recovery plan update, Shenandoah National Park and the US Geological Survey are creating a long-term management plan for the species. And the National Park Service recently awarded Shenandoah National Park additional natural resources funding to compile data and create an adaptive management plan for the salamander beginning in fiscal year 2019. (Again, cuts proposed in the federal budget for fiscal year 2018 make uncertain what will happen by then.)
“The recent work on the Shenandoah salamander is a good example of how multiple government agencies can collaborate to solve challenges facing species on our public lands,” says Grant.

“National parks have a positive obligation to support biodiversity and endangered species protection,” Schaberl adds. “This is even more critical for the Shenandoah salamander which is wholly contained in one park.”

The Shenandoah salamander is only found within the highest elevation parts of Shenandoah National Park.

Shenandoah salamanders live in dry talus slopes in three high-elevation parts of Shenandoah National Park. The habitat is primarily characterized by rocks and moist soil pockets.