Friday, July 24, 2015

Lost Instincts, Domestication, the new Evolution of Migratory Geese

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Changed Migratory Behavior of Candaian Geese


In the past few years there's been a growing number of increasingly strident petitions in our local community about the "infestation" of Canadian Geese. The complaint - they're everywhere, they make a mess of our nice clean paved sidewalks with their droppings, they pose a danger to kids, pets etc. etc.Some have even called Animal Control to come take the birds away. To no avail. The birds are here more frequently, stay longer and are growing in numbers.

What got me curious, was the recency of this phenomenon. The area around here has been inhabited by species homo sapiens for many decades, and I myself dont remember this being an issue a few years ago, so why this sudden outcry?

So of course I started researching it. And figured out that it's happening because of marked changes in the geese's behavior. And what caused that you may ask? Wait ...take a wild guess... surprise, surprise, WE DID!

Canadian Geese as the name implies were native to Canada and the extreme north eastern territories of the US. Wild geese would spend their summers in their native habitat, where they bred and lived until their goslings were able to fly. They spent those months close to natural water bodies that they could escape to, if threatened by predators like foxes, bears, wolves etc. It was also when these herbivores found abundant food supplies. Come the fall, following their instinct they would fly south to avoid winter food shortages.

Now all of that has changed -
1. Global warming has changed the patterns of freezing winters in the north. Since many areas have become warmer, in some cases by as much as 5 degrees, Geese don't need to fly as far south as they used to.

2. As more of the wilderness was lost to development, most of their natural predators have been killed or restricted to very isolated pockets. Since there is less fear from them, and there are more artificial water bodies everywhere (should they need to escape), they can land and live anywhere their heart desires.

3. The growth of suburban areas with parks, golf courses and cultivated vegetation has created a year round source of food, again making migration unnecessary.

Most importantly, many of the geese we see today, may not be wild Canadian geese at all. In the mid part of the 20th century, this species was almost extinct. Overhunted by humans for meat and their soft down, only a small group of the original breed struggled to survive. So the government swooped in, moved them into protected areas and started breeding them in captivity to bring their numbers back up.

Even though the goal was to reintroduce them to the wild, over the course of a few generations, all their natural instincts  - to migrate north or south, where their original breeding grounds were, etc. - started fading slowly. The very hospitable conditions created by human settlements, no predators (even human ones, since hunting is restricted), plentiful food and water set the seal on their memory loss.

What we are left with now is a "human aware", non indigenous bird that continues to breed at an accelerated pace and is changing the environment wherever it goes. And this is just one bird species. There are hundreds of other species of living organisms - plant, animal, even single cell,  that are also metamorphosing as they adapt to the changing conditions caused by human development.

The question is, what will the future of this planet be when all these changes accelerate and come together? A new state of balance that is yet to be established or an imbalance that will lead to destruction?


Friday, July 10, 2015

Tiger Conservation in India, The Case for Government Involvement in Species Protection.

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Tiger Conservation, Habitat loss, Poaching, Government, Project Tiger
Photo courtesy National Tiger Conservation Authority / Project Tiger, India
In my opinion one of the key success factors in conservation efforts is the role of government, as illustrated by the Tiger conservation effort in India.  "Whoa, whoa, hang on there," you say... "what are you about, complimenting the government for anything, especially something that is not self-serving? are you crazy? or worse yet a government stooge?" But I assure you I'm neither, I just believe in giving credit where credit is due.

Let me backtrack a little so I can tell you how I formed this opinion, and hopefully you'll see things my way.

When I was in India a few months ago, I saw several stories in the media about the successful resurgence of the wild tiger population, a species that was close to and is still on the brink of extinction across the world.

Here are some stats to understand how dire the situation is -
  • Over the last 100 years, the global tiger population in the wild has dropped by 97%, from close to 100,000 to a mere 3200 today. *
  • In fact of the 9 originally identified subspecies of tigers, three - Bali, Caspian and Javan - became extinct in the 20th century. **
  • India has traditionally been home to about 40% of all wild tigers, What was 40,000 a century ago dropped to an estimated 1,827 in 1973. (these numbers are disputed, some claim the number was as low as 268, suffice to say it was very low)
The primary threats to tigers are the same as those faced by other species and are all man made.
  • Habitat loss - Tigers have lost over 93% of their habitat to human development, leading to fragmentation of the species in small pockets, surrounded by human habitation. This in turn leads to way too many incidents of human-animal conflict and often their death.**
  • Poaching continues to be one of the deadliest and most challenging threats to tigers. Almost every part of the tiger - skin, bones, even blood is in high demand especially in Asian countries where they are believed to have medicinal properties.
Conserving the species is all about mitigating these threats and this is where I think having government oversight or even just active involvement is key. In 1973, the Indian Government launched "Project Tiger", which was governed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which is part of the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate change. Since its creation, Project Tiger has had some ups and downs in its achievements, but more recently, the tiger numbers have been growing steadily, with a reported count of about 2,226 in 2014

They have combated habitat loss by expanding the number of tiger reserves from 9 at inception to 47 today. Additionally they created corridors that connect the reserves and allow unrestricted movement of the animals across, a key behavior of tigers that in the past led them into great danger. This type of commitment of land is only possible with the power of the government. They have relocated human populations and seized private land where needed for the effort, something private organizations have little control over and have to fight almost unwinnable battles to get implemented in other countries or for other species in India.

While poaching continues to be a big concern, the government has also paid for and equipped a trained forest patrol staff to monitor the reserves and dissuade poachers. Again a fairly daunting task for private non profits to fund and manage, is made easy by political will.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't think that Government involvement is the cure all, nor do I think that the current level of effort put in, is either comprehensive, or optimized. But I do believe that the small wins in India shine a light on the importance of political involvement to facilitate the process. Governments of other countries, like China, Russia, and Laos are seeing the results of this initiative and reaching out to Indian authorities for advise on managing their own conservation efforts.

If governments across the world would all sign up to make wildlife and environment conservation a priority, maybe all those little shining lights of success will eventually light up the whole planet.

Sources
http://www.savetigersnow.org/problem
** http://www.panthera.org/species/tiger

Friday, July 3, 2015

Human settlements come at the cost of habitat loss for ALL creatures.

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insects and small creatures displaced by human development


A sudden screech..."Eeeek!", followed by a vigorous flailing of arms or stomping of feet... now that would be the normal reaction. Instead this morning I gently picked up in my hands and saved two "ugly" brown bugs while swimming laps in our pool. I see them often, struggling to get out of the water before they drown. I know many who see me doing it probably think I'm crazy. My response to anyone who would ask; not that anyone does, they just stare at me weirdly and look away, probably wondering when the men in the white coats are coming to take me away to a padded cell; is because they matter, and because we owe it to them.

Here's another similar story I saw on the news today, yesterday, almost everyday. A local reporter interviewing a panicked family as they recount the fear of what they experienced. A bear/coyote/deer broke into their backyard/house/garbage, scaring the kids and causing general panic until help arrived in the form of uniforms with tranquilizer guns/traps etc.The news segment commentary usually includes a reference to the growing number of animal incursions into human habitats.

Now you may ask, what could possibly be similar about these two stories, one about brown creepy crawlies drowning, and another about large "scary" forest mammals intruding into someones backyard.I say everything...! These stories and many others I hear and see every day astound me in their illogicality and factual inaccuracy.

Because the real story as I see it, is as follows -" humans raze local forest, grassland, or undergrowth; displacing or destroying millions of living creatures in the process and then complain when those same creatures try to return to their original homes/hunting grounds/food stores".


Animals, insects, all creatures follow a natural and habitual path everyday. When they wake up, they usually go to the same places seeking food, water, mates or just a cool place to nap. When we destroy that place that is so familiar to them, they can't just say 'oh well, lets make a detour' and find another spot. They are driven by instinct to go back there, only to face unknown dangers like cars, weapons and physical violence sometimes even leading to death.So those brown bugs I save every day, that black bear rifling through your garbage, the geese nesting in the local park, they are all following their instinct to return to what was once a familiar part of their natural habitat, only to fall into man made swimming pools, stumble confusedly into unfamiliar human structures, get yelled at, attacked, and more.

Imagine what your reaction would be if suddenly one road on your regular route to work was shut down... denial, anger, maybe even a desperate hope that if you keep going it won't be true. Not so fun hunh? Now think about that being a frequent and permanent change to many roads on your way and you having to figure out a new path every time.


The fact is, that these creatures that we find so disruptive are the original inhabitants of this planet, many of them have been around millions of years. We as humans are the newbie squatters, usurpers ... whatever you may call it. While clearly we need the space to support the growing population, maybe we can treat that space with respect, understanding, and concern for the creatures who have always ,and still do live there. And next time one of them wanders into our path, maybe we acknowledge their right to be there, help them find a new path and thank them for giving up their home for us.