Tag Archive | "asia"

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The Legendary Vultures of South India

Posted on 04 June 2012 by RE Team

This is a small story of how diminishing vulture population in India is affecting beliefs and faiths of local people.

A small town of Southern India, Thirukazhukundram, is known for centuries among the Hindu pilgrims for a large temple called Vedagiriswarar situated in a mountain top in the town. This temple is popularly known as Kazhugu koil(Eagle temple). Even the whole town is popularly named as Pakshi Theertham, meaning Birds’ Holy Place.  Interestingly all these names are given after not a special bird species, but for only after a pair of birds.

 

Photo of the Sacred Vultures taken on 1906 - Edgar Thurston

 

Not known the exactly time line, but there is a century long tradition in the Vedagiriswarar temple to feed a pair of eagle like bird every day. Exactly at noon, the birds would fly down from the sky to partake of a prasadam of wheat, rice, ghee and sugar from the temple’s priest.  The pair of birds have been fed many generations of priests counting years to many centuries.

According to the legend the two birds fly every day from Varanasi on the Ganges(Northern India) to this temple flying about two thousand miles, arriving at noon. They have lunch here and then fly southern most point of India, to Rameswaram. They then fly north up the coast to Chidambaram, go to sleep, and in the morning they fly north to Varanasi for a bath in the Ganges and then off back to Thirukazhukundram again.  They are not considered as normal birds but as mythical “eight sages” or Asthavasus. In Indian Mythology, Asthvasus were guard to the eight points of the compass. But they did penance on which Hindu Lord Shiva was angry and cursed them to turn into vultures. When they asked for forgiveness, Lord Siva directed them to the temple of Vedagiri Ishwara where they would be fed and worshiped. They remained there in the temple. In the last three yugams(epoch), three pairs died leaving the last couple surviving in this epoch. Legend also says that the birds will not come if there are sinners in the crowd which assembles at the temple.

Till 1998 , the mystical bird pair used to appear every day at noon at Thirukazhukundram. But one day they stopped coming and they simply vanished. For the local people its a bad omen and attributed to the presence of “sinners” among the onlookers. For a decade now, no mythical birds has visited the temple but the ritual is of practiced by the temple priest in the hope that they eventually will turn up some day.

 

The Vultures were fed by the Temple Priest till late 90s

 

Unfortunately the faith of the temple priest may remain stay just in hope in future.  Because from the research by Zoologists, it reveals that those birds were no eagles but a vulture species, the Egyptian Vulture! It is still a real puzzle for the Scientists about this unusual fare for the vultures, at Thirukazh. Specially the fact that and only two birds used to show up, although vultures are fond of gathering in goodish numbers to feast on corpses is a mystery to the scientists. As the tradition continued for centuries, many generations of vultures must have been involved int the fair, passing on the tradition, perhaps from mother to son, or husband to wife. Zoologists define this culture as an imitation of patterns of behaviors of one animal by another. Viewed from this perspective, the vultures of Thirukazhkundram certainly qualified as rather unusual animals of high culture.

But it is really sad the centuries long tradition is lost and probably never be recreated. For researchers its obvious that the unusual vulture also must have fallen prey to the human civilization and took the path of millions of other vultures in the country.

We have lost two very mysterious and unusual bird specimen whose study could have revealed many mysteries of the wild! More unfortunately we are losing the complete race of vultures from India!

Its time to save the Vultures! Whether they are in the tradition or not, they are a real useful species in the eco-chain cleaning up the whole environment.

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The True Orphanage of Asiatic Elephants

Posted on 19 May 2012 by RE Team

Yesterday, February 18th, 2011 has brought ome more cheer to the Pinnawela Elpephant Orphanage with fifty-fifth birth of baby elpehant in its existence of 40 years.

The Pinnawela Orphanage which is located in the town of Kegalle, Sri Lanka, is one of the most special orphanage in the world. Because it not only earth gives home to retired, abused, orphaned abd sick Elephants but also provides the breeding ground for the largest animal in Earth.

The Elephant Orphanage was originally started in 1972 in the Wilpattu National Park to support, protect and foster those baby elephants whose mothers were either poached or died in the jungle of Sri Lanka. In 1975 the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka relocated the orphanage to Pinnawela on a 25-acre (10 ha) coconut plantation on the Maha Oya river. At that time the orphanage had just five baby elephants. In 1982, the authorirites launch a breeding program in the Orphanage, which increased the number of elephants in Pinnawela gradually. Currently, the orphanage has 86 elephants including the cub borned yesterday. There are number of pregnant Elephants that are on wait to add more elephant population to the orphanage in coming months.

 

Elephants taking bath in river at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

 

Asiatic Elephants are known for their intelligence , calmness and domesticating capabilities. They show emotions  like humans. They cry, play, have incredible memories, and laugh. In the Indian sub-continent Elephants has been playing important role in the social culture since ages. Sri Lanka is no different in that and the Panniwela Orphanage is a by-product of this culture. Though the Orphanage also has an tourism and monetary angle, it has survived for decades due to the local human bonding  with elephants.

Unfortuantely the lack resources felt by both parties, human and wild Elephants, the conflicts between the two has increased over the years. Sri Lanka , home to around 3,000 wild elephants, see around 150-200 deaaths of wild elephants every years due to this conflict, against around 60-80 human casualities. Apart from the conflicts the political volatility and civil war  in region injured and killed. The responsibilities of the orphanage is increasing with the increasing bad breaths between the two species. More number of  baby elephants are coming into the orphanage every year due to these killings.

There Elephant Orphanage witnessed many emotional stories of Elephants over the decades. ‘Sama’ a female Elephant and a victim of war, came to the orphanage in 1995.  She had her right front foot blown away by a landmine when she was a two year old baby. She was well cared for, and grew up using her three legs and has reached the age of thirteen. Though in fututre she may undergo severe complication for her unbalanced body, she is given all the possible care by the orphanage. ‘Raja’ who was born blind in wild is also taken special care in the orphanage. He is not taken to bath with other elephants for his inability and also given special love and treatment. The youngest orphan in the orphanage is just a year old baby taken into Pinnawela in December, 2010.

 

Sama who lost her one leg in a landmine blast in 1995

 

The Elephants at Pinnawela are provided as much natural condition as possible. They mostly roam freely in parkland, are ‘herded’ by their mahouts (keepers) just before being taken to feeding sheds. The elephants are taken to the near by Maha Oya river twice a day for bath. All the babies under three years of age are still bottle fed by the mahouts and volunteers. Each animal is also given around 76 kilograms (170 lb) of green food a day and around 2 kg (4.4 lb) from a food bag containing rice bran and maize and enough water from the river.  Jackfruit, coconut, kitul, tamarind, banana and grass form the bulk of the green food given to the elephants at Pinnawela.

The breeding program in the Orphanage was started in 1982. Initially the breeding animals consisted of males Vijaya and Neela and females Kumari, Anusha, Mathalie and Komali. Vijaya was the first father in the orphanage. He with Kumari, a female elephant, have produced three calves at intervals of five and four years. With the fifty-fifth birth yesterday, it has produced more than twenty second generation Elephants.

Pachyderm, another innovation from the orphanage, is producing industrially successful Elephant Dung Papers. More than just a novelty stationery item, pachyderm paper could prove an important source of income to the villagers – & thus a significant help in conservation measures.

There are criticisms on the topics like chained Elephants, or forcing baby elephants to pose in tourists’ photo shots. But these can be neglected compared to the good work done by the orphanage. There is also need of chaining some of the Elephants coming fresh into the orphanage for the security of other elephants and mahuts, until they are tamed. Whatever may be the arguments, one thing to be agreed is that this small place in Sri Lanka is more home than a wild to many elephants. They are born, grown up in this world and may not be able to survive in wild. They now carry special bond with the mahuts and other workers in the orphanage. Its really wonderful to see innocent and cute baby elephants playing and enjoying life after losing their motherly love. They find love and security in the hands of the people.

We hope the orphahnge will keep doing the holisitc job and help more innocent and wild animals in future.

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Will Someone Save The Vultures?

Posted on 17 May 2012 by RE Team

Once very easily sighted, many animals and birds vanished from everywhere without notice of most of the common people in India. One such bird is the Vultures. Few years back vultures were one of the common bird in the urban india, cleaning the carcasses around cities. No one ever bothered to think about them. They were seen in the tall trees and in the wastelands in the heart of the cities. But without much of notice, these urban friendly birds disappeared so quickly that people never got a chance to even realize. It is a shocking story for anyone living in India that these large and ugly looking(that’s how it is considered in culture) birds are on the brink of extinction and very soon it may become impossible to save the very few left.

 

Indian Vultures were considered the most common large bird of prey in the world in 80s and early 90s and they were found in millions

 

To start this tragic story of the vultures, we don’t have to look back much far. The vulture story is one of the latest event in human history like those in medieval world where some species faced extinction within a span of few years due to human activities. In 1980s, the vultures were found in millions in India, usually in group of hundreds. It was probbaly the most common large bird of prey in the world at that time.  Even in early 90s they were found almost everywhere and adapted well to the urban environment of India. No one could imagine at that moment that there is any danger to this species.

 

The vultures seemed to have adapted the urban world pretty well

 

The vulture crisis started only in mid 90s, when news of mass vulture deaths were reported in the local news frequently. The news reported deaths of hundreds of vultures in single instances, where they were found just found dead in a span of few square meters.  They were lying on grounds, hanging from trees, nests and in all possible posture. Initially it was thought to be as some poisonous drug in the carcasses they eat and taken lightly. Those incidents happening across all the zones in India were believed to be independent of each other. As news were reported almost daily from one place or the another, scientists took some initiatives but they were just mystified. For years these news took important place in the news media but slowly declined. The common people realized probably the death are reducing, but in reality, the groups of vultures started declining catastrophically from everywhere, so the death numbers of the vultures, to be able to find a place in the news media.

 

In the last decade dead Vultures were carried away like this in tens-hundreds in India. They were found dead everywhere, hanging from trees, in the nests or lying on the ground!

 

For more than a decade, these large birds faced deaths without a known reason to the scientists. It was as late as 2004, when scientists in the United States identified the cause: the drug Diclofenac. Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory agent, has been deployed successfully in human medicine for decades. In most EU countries medication containing Diclofenac is only approved for treatment of humans. In India, Pakistan and Nepal it has been deployed in veterinary medicine as well since the 90s, in particular for livestock. When vultures feed on cattle carcasses, they too ingest the drug. The drug acts as a fatal poison to the vultures and they die from kidney failure.

 

The poor vultures died in thousands without a known reason at that time

 

Though the cause was discovered in 2004, it took the government in India and also Pakistan, Nepal two years to banned the medicine. In May 2006, the medicine was banned, but by that time almost 97% of the total vulture population was wiped out.

The medicine was banned, but due to other obvious reasons like habitat loss, etc. the vulture populations kept on declining in the Indian subcontinent. Now it is estimated that almost 99% of the vulture population vanished from nature in just 15 years.

Indian subcontinent is home to three vulture species, Slender-billed Vulture, Indian Vulture and Indian White-rumped Vulture. Currently only less than thousand individuals are believed to be alived from each species! They are now restricted to very small pockets in the country. The white-rumped Vulture weighs 3.5-7.5 kg (7.7-16.5 lbs), measures 89-93 cm (30-37 in) in length, and has a wingspan of about 260 cm (8.6 ft). Slender-billed and Indian Vultures weigh between 5.5 and 6.3 kg (12-13.9 lbs) and measuring 80-100 cm (32-40 in) long and 205 to 229 cm (81-91 in) across the wings.

 

Vultures are now found in small pockets in Indian subcontitent, with a total population of around a thousand - courtesy misiku1@flickr

 

The RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) and Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS, BirdLife in India) are pioneers in creating awareness on this crtically endangered bird. They have set up vulture breeding centres in northern India, West Bengal, Assam and also have been working on a campaign “Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE)” across all three countries, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Some government initiatives have been also started and many centers across the country are opened in recent years. SAVE which is in place for more than five years now is the last hope for the vultures.

SAVE’s breeding program has contributed a lot in last few years. In 2008 the program was successful to breed artificially in captivity. But the artificial program is not that efficient, so the scientists looked into artificial hatching in incubators. 2010 brought success in this sector too.

But its unfortunate that there are still some reported news of mass vulture deaths as late as a week from today. On the first week of March, death of 20 vultures were reported at a paddy field in Goalpara district of Assam, North-East India.

Culturally vultures are always considered as symbol of death and something bad in India. They are neglected for thousands of years and just disappearing unnoticed. Species like tiger has got so much important in the country over the few years. But these large birds are simple neglected. Its already very late to bring to give attention to these birds, but if we don’t give them now, it will be too late. Like tiger, being on the top of the eco pyramid, vulture has got very important role in the ecosystem. In fact they are much more imporant than any birds in the human society. They have been keeping our environment clean and hygienic.

If drastic steps are not taken, the vultures may take space from high skies into just books in front of our eyes. In fact the Parsis, whose religion prohibits burying or burning their dead, had to resort to technology such as solar reflectors to hasten decomposition of corpses already. The vultures used to dispose of human remains set out for them on sacrificial “towers of silence” by adherents of the ancient Parsi religion till few years back.

Will you step up to save these poor large birds?

 

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Chinese Alligator

Posted on 16 May 2012 by RE Team

The Chinese Alligator is one of the rarest crocodilian and the smallest of the only two alligator species surviving today. It is also known as Yangtze Alligator as it it found only the Yangtze river system of China.

The Scientific Name : Alligator sinensis

Where is it found?

Once the Chinese alligator was found in the extensive lakes and marshlands of the middle-lower Yangtse River region and along the river from Shanghai to Jianling City. Due to its rarity and also secretive behavior, in recent historical times the alligator have never been abundant. Due to rapid habitat loss and uncontrolled killing of the species with the human population growth in China, the Chinese alligator was found only in scattered groups in southeastern Anhui Province and parts of adjacent Zhejiang and Jiangau provinces as early as 1920s. Today the alligator species is mostly restricted to a 433 square kilometer reserve in the Anhui province of the lower Yangtze. Chinese alligators prefers slow-moving freshwater sources including marshlands, ponds, lakes, reservoirs and river backwater canals. With the loss of natural habitats, they are also found in rice paddies, irrigation networks, etc in recent times.

The range of the Chinese Alligators wild population

 

How does it live?

The Chinese alligator is an opportunistic feeder. Its diet mostly includes snails, crustaceans, insects and fish, but young waterfowl and rodents are also taken if available. They are not known to have eaten any large mammals. In recent days are known to have attacked ducks of the villagers, for which it has faced the wrath of human society quite often. The alligators spend most of their lifetime in burrows avoiding extreme winters and also human intervention during daylights. They hunt only during the summer from April to October during nights. They reach adulthood at an age of 4-5 years. The mating is polygamous and usually very aggressive when the opposite sexes meet. The breeding period is the summer and the female lays 10-15 eggs. The incubation period is usually around 70 days. Social life of the Chinese alligator starts during the incubation period only, when nest mates communicate egg to egg and with parents who open the egg chamber. This results in synchronized hatching. The babies spend weeks to years under the protection of the mother. Juvenile makes a vocal sound to bring the group together , and mother also respond to then with a distress call. Chinese Alligator known to have a lifespan of around 50 years in wild and 70 years in captivity.

How does it look?

Chinese Alligator is considered to be one of the smallest crocodilian species. It normally reaches 5 feet in length. The largest alligator measured in recent times was 7 feet 1 inch. It can barely weigh upto 45 kg. Whole body of the Chinese alligator is covered with dar green abd black scales. The scales are harder on back and softer on the sides and belly. Even the upper lids are covered with boney scales for this alligator which is a major difference with it’s other counterpart, the American Alligator. The Chinese alligator has 72-76 teeth, adapted more for crushing shells of molluscs. The juveniles are black with bright yellow cross-banding.

What are the threats?

Habitat loss is cited as the most important threat for the Chinese Alligators. Most of the natural wetlands, marshlands were destroyed in the past decades for agriculture and other developments. Building dams in the river system have eliminated core habitats of the alligator. The remaining natural habitats are also frequently destroyed by flooding of the Yangtse river.

Apart from habitat loss, human-alligator conflict has killed many of the precious species in the past. Though the alligator is not capable of attacking or killing large mammals or humans, the very concept of considering any crocodilian species as dangerous predator in culture has killed many innocent animals. Also the large burrow created by the alligators hamper the irrigation system of the farmers at times, which make the farmers angry towards the species.

Many of the Chinese alligators have been killed due to their meat value in the Chinese market. There is a mythical believe that the alligator’s meat can cure many diseases including cancer. Any human-alligator conflict which always results in the killing of the alligator, usually ends in the market of China selling meat and various other organs of the alligator by the farmers.

Conservation Efforts

Some experts considered the Chinese Alligator as extinct evern during 1920s. But later some fragmented populations were discovered in wild. There was no significant research or conservation effort held on the species till the Communist revolution in China in 1949. The need of protection of alligator became important only post revolution stage. In 1972 for the first time Chinese government listed Chinese Alligator as the first class endangered animal of the country. In 1979, captive breeding centers were established in Anhui and Zhejiang provinces. The government conservation efforts has been more focused on the captive population rather than the wild survivors. Almost till date, the wild eggs are collected artificially incubated to increase the captive population. The first ever scientific study on the alligator was done in 1980 with the collaboration of both Chinese and US scientists. The studies were performed in the captive breeding centers and all the knowledge on the Chinese alligator in till recent times are based on these studies. In 1990s the species got international recognition as critically endangered species. In recent days public awareness has also been created to reduce any killing of the species in the wild. The captive breeding centers releases live alligators for the meat business to counter the market demands and also recover their costs. In last couple of years there have been reports of the species recovering in the wild, with the population stregth growing from 100 to 300. The captive breeding programs have been largely successful with a population strength of whooping 10000 now. The conservationists are now concentrating on reintroducing the alligators into wild from the captive centers. Some of the organizations that work for the conservation of the species now are Wildlife Conservation Society, Department of Wildlife Conservation and Management of the State Forestry Administration of China,

The Chinese Alligator – Species on the Brink

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Pygmy Hog

Posted on 07 May 2012 by RE Team

Pygmy Hog is the most endangered wild pig species in the world, currently found only in India.

The Scientific Name : Porcula salvania

Where is it found?

Once found in the grass lands of whole southern Himalayan foot hill, Pygmy Hog has faced the wrath of human civilization and has been wiped out from most of it’s habitat. Currently the species is confined to the tall grass upland of Manas National Park in Assam with an estimated population of below 250. This species is very sensitive to any change in habitat and they are not made to adapt any changes in their Eco system. The density of their population if around 19 per square kilometer.

The Last Habitat of Pygmy Hog

 

How does it live?

The Pygmy Hog is omnivores, diet consisting of wide assortment of tubers, plants, insects, and small mammals. It is generally active during the day light, spending six to eight hours per day foraging by rooting among soil and leaf litter. The family groups often travel in single file, with an adult at both the front and the rear. Throughout the year, it builds sleeping nest by piling dry grasses over dish-like depressions digging a trench into the ground. This is why its habitat is always grasslands. The Pygmy Hog can reach the age of 8 years in the wild, attending maturity at the age of 1-2 years. The reproduction cycle is strictly seasonal giving births before the monsoon during April-May with a gestation period of around 100 days. It is an extremely good swimmer and can run unbelievably fast in the dense grassland.

How does it look?

The Pygmy Hog is the smallest of the pig family, attaining hardly 1 foot(30 cm) in height and two feet in length (60-70 cm). It can weigh upto 8.5 kg. Male is bigger in size than the female. An adult pygmy hog has dark brown to black skin, overlaid by a coat of dark fur. The head has a crest of hair on the top of the head and the back of the neck. Younger hog is marked with vague reddish stripes which fades away with age.

What are the threats?

The political unrest in the Manas national park region has been a threat to the Pygmy Hogs.
Human encroachment, destruction of the grassland for agriculture has been constantly reducing its habitat.
This little poor species has been struggling to fight with the domesticated animals encroached human population.

Conservation Efforts

The conservation of the Pygmy Hog is very critical because it is the last surviving species of its genus. Unfortunately there is very less public awareness and support for this smallest pig in the world. The only conservation program for the Pygmy Hog was started in 1995. Named as the Pygmy Hog Conservation Program (PHCP), it was initiated by scientist Goutam Narayan with the help of the government, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT) and IUCN Wild Pig Specialist Group chair William Oliver. The PHCP started a captive breeding programme in Basistha, Guwahati, with the goal of reintroducing captive bred hogs back in the wild in 1996. The captive breeding was successful and after 12 years, the project released 16 hogs into the another sanctuary of the same region, Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary. The program has been able to release around 15 Pygmy Hog into the wild every year, creating a population base of around 50 Pygmy Hogs in the sanctuary. Due to the lack of any public interest and awareness, the program faces challenges for the resources, but the survival of PHCP is very critical for the survival of the little Pygmy Hogs.

A BBC Documentary Clip on Pygmy Hogs

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MOST CONCERNED ENDANGERED SPECIES

Photos of Nature