Climate Change

Nilgiris threatened by climate change

The Nilgiris district, part of the 5,520 sq. km Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a biodiversity hotspot. The district has an average elevation of 1,800 metres above sea level and is defined by its evergreen shola forests and montane grasslands. The region was mostly untouched till two centuries ago, but has witnessed large-scale destruction ever since.

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Decoding Nature

For Australia’s fire-starting falcons, pyromania serves up the prey

Some birds in Australia use smoldering sticks to spread wildfires and flush out smaller birds, insects, frogs and other prey, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Ethnobiology. This fire-spreading behavior isn’t a new discovery, the authors of the study say. Australia’s indigenous peoples have long spoken of “firehawks” — a generic term for the black kite (Milvus migrans), whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) and brown falcon (Falco berigora) — intentionally spreading fires in the country’s tropical savannas. But much of the examples remain fragmented.

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Conservation

Green energy, red tape & last stand of the Great Indian Bustard

The Great Indian Bustard is classified as “critically endangered”–just short of extinction–in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. Like the tiger, the bustard is supposed to be protected as a “schedule I species”–endangered, threatened or of special concern–under India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. But the bustard isn’t as well known as the tiger, and it lives in areas where its life is in growing conflict with human development. The main threat to the bustard comes from an ironic source: Renewable energy.

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Conservation

How we uncovered the feeding habits of sharks, thanks to plankton ‘post codes’

In recent years, great advances have been made tracking animals (including sharks) with electronic tags, but it remains very expensive and relatively few animals have been tracked. Not only that, but knowing where a shark is doesn’t necessarily tell you why it is there. A team of 73 scientists from 21 countries came together to use chemistry to try a different approach to these burning questions.

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Climate Change

Climate change amplifies superbugs’ resistance to antibiotics

Bacteria that have become resistant to one or all known antibiotics called superbugs, could multiply more rapidly in India because of climate change, low access to sanitation and toilets, lack of wastewater treatment, no regulations for antibiotic release in pharmaceutical wastewaters and indiscriminate use of antibiotics among the public. India is among the countries with the highest bacterial disease burden in the world, and thus the consequences of ABR could be devastating.

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Women and the Environment

Cooking imposes heavy burden on rural women

She wakes up at 5am when it is still dark and the rest of the family is asleep. She walks 4 km to reach a hillock and starts gathering firewood. By daybreak, she is back and starts cooking for the family. What about water for cooking? That involves another trek.

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Climate Change

Global warming, pollution supersize the oceans’ oxygen-depleted dead zones

Vast swaths of the world’s oceans are turning into “dead zones” as global warming and pollution strips them of oxygen, threatening marine life on a massive scale, a new study shows. The analysis, which reviews the major research on ocean oxygen loss, is the first to investigate the causes, consequences and solutions to low oxygen concentrations in the open oceans and coastal waters.

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Livelihoods Under Threat

Is it worth the salt?

The fields are silvery white with raw salt crusts in the vicinity of Nawa, a small town on the northwestern banks of Sambhar lake, India’s largest inland lake. Nawa lies about 90 kilometres east of Jaipur. Also an extensive saline wetland and a Ramsar site, the blinding white salt flats stretch as far as one can see. The place is a key wintering area for thousands of pink flamingos and other migratory birds from northern Asia and Siberia.

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Biodiversity

So long, UNESCO! What does U.S. withdrawal mean for the environment?

The U.S. is quitting UNESCO, the United Nations organization that coordinates international efforts to foster peace and sustainable development, and to eradicate poverty. The Trump administration made the announcement on 12 October. The withdrawal takes effect December 31, 2018, and the U.S. will remain a full member until then.

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Cutting Edge

Driverless cars could see humankind sprawl ever further into the countryside

Self-driving cars will change how we live, in all sorts of ways. But they won’t just affect us humans – the coming revolution in autonomous transport has significant implications for wildlife as well. Nature conservationists and planners need to think hard about the impact of driverless vehicles, most notably in terms of renewed urban sprawl.

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Agriculture

Konkan farms reap the bounty of bamboo

Nestled among fields of mango, cashew, coconut and areca palms, and dotted with houses roofed with Mangalore tiles in between, bamboo vies for attention in Pinguli village in Kudal taluk. Grown in homesteads till now, it has started making its presence felt in farm plots as well. The scene is similar in Kolgaon, Hirlok, Ranbumbuli and Konal villages, all in different administrative divisions of Sindhudurg district.

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Climate Change

Of dusty snow and rotten apples

On April 16, Roshan Lal Negi woke up to find snow carpeting the courtyard of his home in Jangi village. Boys with smartphones quickly made videos to share on WhatsApp but more than a month later, the dusty snow still sits on the lower parts of most peaks in Kinnaur district, Himachal Pradesh. Particles from a dust storm in the northern plains might have travelled to Kinnaur and mixed with the unseasonal snowfall, suggests Dr Manmohan Singh, director of the meteorological centre in Shimla, giving the dusty appearance. The jury is still out, but most agree that this rain shadow region is experiencing a drastic shift in its weather patterns. Rains are increasing, snowfall is declining, and temperatures are rising, which all have great impacts on an area prone to landslides and fed by glacial melt.

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Cutting Edge

Jet fuel from sugarcane? It’s not a flight of fancy

Airlines are under pressure to reduce their carbon emissions, and are highly vulnerable to global oil price fluctuations. These challenges have spurred strong interest in biomass-derived jet fuels. Bio-jet fuel can be produced from various plant materials, including oil crops, sugar crops, starchy plants and lignocellulosic biomass, through various chemical and biological routes. However, the technologies to convert oil to jet fuel are at a more advanced stage of development and yield higher energy efficiency than other sources.

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Climate Change

Benchmark glaciers in the Himalayas keep receding

Located just three km from the Hindu shrine of Badrinath, Mana is the last village near the India-China border. At a height of over 3,000 metres, Mana is a special attraction for pilgrims and tourists alike. Known for its condiments, handicraft and herbal tea, the village also has something special to offer. It is the gateway to an arduous walk to two important Himalayan glaciers — Satopanth and Bhagirath-Kharak. With enthusiastic trekkers trickling in, Mana remains abuzz for at least six months from May to October. However, these two glaciers are retreating, slowly and continuously.

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Collateral Damage?

The world is facing a global sand crisis

Skyrocketing demand, combined with unfettered mining to meet it, is creating the perfect recipe for shortages. Plentiful evidence strongly suggests that sand is becoming increasingly scarce in many regions. For example, in Vietnam domestic demand for sand exceeds the country’s total reserves. If this mismatch continues, the country may run out of construction sand by 2020, according to recent statements from the country’s Ministry of Construction.

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Conservation

Citizens could save India’s environment, if a 15-year-old law is used well

As time progressed, Baiga Chak–the officially recognised traditional habitat of the Baiga tribe known for its myriad species and their inclusion in the local diet, lifestyle and healthcare–started losing its biodiversity. A nonprofit, the National Institute of Women, Child, and Youth Development (NIWCYD), established “forest study groups” in various villages in 2005. The approach was unique: Instead of getting experts to research on the changing ecosystem, villagers were trained not only to analyse the situation but also to suggest conservation plans.

In short, they were to become citizen scientists.

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Collateral Damage?

Light pollution lures night-time pollinators away from plants

Populations of bees, bats, butterflies and other pollinators have been declining for decades due to habitat loss, disease, pesticides and climate change. Now, scientists have documented yet another threat to pollinators: night-time light pollution.

In a recent study in Nature, ecologists showed that plants growing near streetlights were pollinated far less often at night and produced fewer fruits than their unilluminated counterparts. In turn, this may compromise the efficiency of daytime pollinators in the same fields, the authors conclude.

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Livelihoods Under Threat

Why fishermen fear Netravati river diversion

Rathnakar Salian is a traditional catamaran fisherman from Sasihitlu village in Mangaluru district of Karnataka. He learned how to throw the net, how to pull it out, and how to look for fish in the sea from his father and uncles. Using small catamarans that can carry four persons and their limited gear, he fishes by the coastline, not going deeper than one nautical mile. The waters he fishes in is the point at which the west-flowing Netravati river joins the Arabian Sea.

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Decoding Nature

Sykes’s lark: The male with more voices gets the mate

In the hot, arid grasslands of central and western India, a volley of birdsong is not always what it seems. It may not be a flock of different birds, but just a diminutive, brown one, soaring into the air, hovering and delivering a fusillade of calls. It could be the call of a male Sykes’s lark (Galerida deva), which has the ability to mimic many other birds while serenading its partner.

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Lessons Learnt

Nepal earthquake reconstruction won’t succeed until the vulnerability of survivors is addressed

Despite good intentions to rebuild Nepal to be more resilient, 30 months on little progress has been made. Of more than 400,000 homes that were earmarked for reconstruction, only 12% have been rebuilt. Little of the US$4.4 billion in aid pledged for reconstruction has been disbursed. The Nepali government instituted a reconstruction program in October 2015 that identifies beneficiaries and entitles them to three instalments of compensation. The payments are dependent on progress and building code compliance. Those who do not own land are locked out of reconstruction support.

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Collateral Damage?

India is losing its night to light, at 3 times world average

Light pollution is an outcome of the excessive use of artificial light at night. This “loss of night”, as Christopher Kyba, 39, a Canadian-born physicist and the lead researcher of the study calls it, poses a significant health risk to humanity and is impinging on the habitat of nocturnal animals. India is losing its night more than three times faster than the global average. Between 2012 and 2016, the study period, India’s area exposed to light pollution grew by a third, Kyba told IndiaSpend in the course of a Skype interview.

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Agriculture

Farmers are making Kashmir a land of honey

Kashmir Valley, with huge resources available, especially vast tracts of horticultural land, has a great potential for beekeeping and exporting honey to different Indian states. This has prompted the agriculture department of Kashmir to promote beekeeping in the region. Horticultural farmers who took to beekeeping are reaping rewards for their efforts. Apiary business has also given rise to successful processing units.

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Energy

Geothermal energy could light up rural Ladakh

Geothermal energy is not new to India. As early as 1973, the Indian government submitted a report on geothermal hotspots of the country. This happened after the Geological Survey of India (GSI) performed shallow drilling exploration, which showed the potential hot springs and geothermal locations. It is estimated that India has the potential to generate 10 GW of geothermal power.

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Agriculture

Can CRISPR feed the world?

By 2040, there will be 9 billion people in the world. ‘That’s like adding another China onto today’s global population,’ said Professor Sophien Kamoun of the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK. Prof. Kamoun is one of a growing number of food scientists trying to figure out how to feed the world. As an expert in plant pathogens such as Phytophthora infestans – the fungus-like microbe responsible for potato blight – he wants to make crops more resistant to disease. Potato blight sparked the Irish famine in the 19th century, causing a million people to starve to death and another million migrants to flee. European farmers now keep the fungus in check by using pesticides. However, in regions without access to chemical sprays, it continues to wipe out enough potatoes to feed hundreds of millions of people every year.‘Potato blight is still a problem,’ said Prof. Kamoun. ‘In Europe, we use 12 chemical sprays per season to manage the pathogen that causes blight, but other parts of the world cannot afford this.’

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Energy

India becoming biggest emitter of sulphur dioxide

While the world has been preoccupied with reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is generated by burning fossil fuels, sulphur dioxide (SO₂) emissions have not received the same attention. Produced by burning coal, wood, petrol, diesel or farm stubble, SO₂ forms a large part of the pollution haze enveloping cities in northern India every winter. Most of the SO₂ in Indian skies is emitted when power plants burn coal to produce electricity. Typically, coal contains 3% of sulphur, but coal from Assam in India is known to have higher content.

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Interviews

If we ate less rice, Delhi’s air could be cleaner

It is commonly believed that mechanised harvesting of the rice crop creates stubble. Combines, the machines used to harvest, thresh and clean grains, cannot cut the crop close to the ground the way manual harvesting can. If you put the average height of a paddy plant at 100 cm, this generates 50 cm of loose straw and 50 cm of standing stubble. Is this true?

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Destructive Dams

Hydroelectric dams threaten Brazil’s mysterious Pantanal – one of the world’s great wetlands

The Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland and covers an area slightly larger than England. It lies mostly on a huge floodplain at the foot of Brazil’s southwestern highlands, but a fraction also spills over into Bolivia and Paraguay. In the wet season, from October to April, water washes down from those highlands bringing with it nutrients and fish and leaving most of the region underwater. When the rains finish, and the ground dries up, the landscape changes once again. Seasonal variation on such a massive scale means the Pantanal contains a diverse range of plants and animals that have adapted to thrive in standing water or waterlogged soil. The region is home to more than 1,000 bird species and 300 mammals including the jaguar, capybara, giant otter and tapir.

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Conservation

IUCN report shows conservation sites improving across Asia

Oddly enough the largest decline in status seems to have happened in Europe, with seven sites showing a decline. In Asia no site showed a decline, and for India there was a special bonus as both the Kaziranga National Park and the Sundarbans National Park were upgraded from the “significant concern” category to the “good with some concerns” group (It is worth noting that the Bangladeshi part of the Sundarbans remains in the “significant concern” category). Africa, too, saw a general uptick in the overall situation of its sites. It is striking that it is not the richest areas that have improved their ranking, although North America remains the region with the highest number of sites (90%) in the good or good with some concerns category.

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Biodiversity

‘Decimated’: Germany’s birds disappear as insect abundance plummets 76%

Germany’s flying insect biomass has dropped 76 percent in the past 27 years, according to a study published last week in PLOS ONE. The findings have stunned biologists around the world and are prompting concern about potentially disastrous ecological consequences as another study finds the country lost 15 percent of its birds in just over a decade. The study was conducted by researchers at institutions in Germany and the Netherlands. Over the course of nearly 30 years, they collected flying insects within protected areas in lowland western Germany by trapping them with mesh tents that funnelled into bottles of alcohol. They then measured the biomass – basically, the combined weight – of the insects to see how it changed from year to year.

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Water Resources

Children do not smile in Dhanbad villages

Sixty-eight-year-old Himanshu Chakrabarty of Brahman Tola village in Ghadbad panchayat of Dhanbad has only one desire — death. For more than 15 years, he is suffering from weak and deformed bones with almost no flesh on his body, limping around like a living skeleton. Patient of a crippling disease called fluorosis, which caused due to an excess intake of fluoride, Chakrabarty wants an end to his suffering. “I only want death,” he cries out in pain. “How much more do I have to suffer?”

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Agriculture

From Bread Basket To Basket Case

After degrading rich farmland through reckless use of chemical fertilisers and depleting aquifers by overusing groundwater – an outcome, ironically enough, of India’s successful Green Revolution – agricultural practices in India’s bread-basket are now largely responsible for foul haze hanging over Delhi and swathes of northern India and Pakistan.

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Biodiversity

The Moringa Tree Enters The Arsenal Of Treatments Against Chronic Diseases

If plants could be superheroes, the Moringa (Moringa oleifera) tree would be one of them. Although native to the foothills of the Himalayas in India, moringa can thrive in most tropical and subtropical regions. It is drought tolerant, grows rapidly, has leaves that can be used as a biofertiliser, and has seeds that can help purify water. Today, moringa is most commonly found in India and the Philippines but its cultivation is increasing throughout Asia, Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean.

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Destructive Dams

Alaknanda Leaves Uttarakhand Villages High and Dry

The river Alaknanda holds a special, sacred place for Indians. One of the two headstreams of the holiest river Ganga, Alaknanda originates from glaciers at the head of the Alaknanda valley in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. It runs a 190-km-course in the state’s hilly districts of Pauri Garhwal, Rudraprayag and Tehri before merging with Bhagirathi that originates from the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayan state’s Uttarkashi district. The Bhagirathi flows for 205 kilometres before meeting Alaknanda at Uttarakhand’s Devprayag town to become the Ganga. The Alaknanda, however, has been reduced to a shallow stream in many places now. Many villages located along the course of the Ganga in Uttarakhand are suffering from severe water shortage as the construction of dams for hydropower projects have sucked the river dry.

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Conservation

Scientists Plan to Map a ‘safety net’ for Planet Earth

Scientists and conservationists have argued for years that setting aside at least half of the world’s land mass as off-limits to human enterprise is necessary if we are to conserve our planet’s biodiversity. The ‘safety net’ mapping effort aims to identify a network of wildlife corridors that connect every protected area on Earth and link them up with other high-priority landscapes, as well, even those that are unprotected.

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Hunger Pangs

Micro Solutions For A Macro Problem: How Marine Algae Could Help Feed The World

Our planet faces a growing food crisis. According to the United Nations, more than 800 million people are regularly undernourished. By 2050, an additional 2 to 3 billion new guests will join the planetary dinner table. Meeting this challenge involves not only providing sufficient calories for every person, but also assuring a balanced diet that includes the protein and nutrients that are essential to good health. In a newly published study, we explain how marine microalgae could be a sustainable solution for solving global macro-hunger.

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Destructive Dams

Dammed or Damned: Why Are Dams Undesirable In The 21st Century?

Rivers in different parts of the world have been dammed to fulfill human needs like water for irrigation, industries and domestic supplies, to control floods, and to produce electricity. These have often been celebrated as human victory over nature, glorified as engineering marvels and claimed variously as highest, longest, etc as a matter of national pride. But rarely has there been a holistic assessment, or appreciation of what a dam does to the natural entity called a river and its adverse impacts on all the associated life forms, including humans.

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Unsustainable Cities

When Cities Were Nature’s Haven: A Tale From Bangalore

Inscriptions on stone and copper plates show that the starting point for a new village was often the creation of a tank, or lake, to collect rain water – essential and life-giving in this unfavourable low-rainfall environment. These inscriptions provide fascinating insights into the close relationship that these early residents had with nature. They describe the landscape as consisting of the lakes, the surrounding irrigated and dry land, the “wells above”, and the “trees below”. This three-dimensional view of the landscape, consisting of two major resources, water (lake) and food (agriculture), nourished by nature below (in the form of wells) and above (in the form of trees) is a remarkably holistic conception of nature.

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Water Resources

Fetching Water Adds To The Drudgery Of J&K Women

Lacking piped water supply, young girls and women in rural areas of Jammu & Kashmir spend hours walking long distances to get water far from their homes and waiting for their turn at the source. “Safe water, sanitation and hygiene at home should not be a privilege of only those who are rich or live in urban centers,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of WHO, said in a news release in July this year. Villagers in many parts of Jammu and Kashmir feel exactly the same way. Residents of several villages across the state have to bear physical, economic and psychological hardship for getting access to water needed for their survival. 

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Whose Development?

Displacement And Deforestation On Kedarnath Route

Last Friday, before the closing of the gates of the Kedarnath temple, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave an elaborate speech about the ‘grand reconstruction’ of Kedarnath town. While inaugurating the project he also said the number of people visiting Kedarnath will increase manifold in coming years. “You can take this in writing, next year no less than ten lakh (one million) people will come to visit the shrine,” he said. However this ‘development’ is not good news for everyone. Downstream at Agastyamuni, Uma Prasad Bhatt, a local resident is worried. His house is marked for demolition to build an all-weather highway to Kedarnath. This proposed highway is part of Char-Dham project inaugurated by the prime minister last year. Bhatt says authorities want to acquire his property for widening of the road but the compensation they are offering is meagre.

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Forests

The World Lost An Area Of Tree Cover The Size Of New Zealand Last Year

Last year the world lost an area of tree cover the size of New Zealand, according to satellite data. That’s around 29.7 million hectares (29,700 square kilometers) – and was a 51 percent jump over 2015. The tree cover loss data came from the University of Maryland (UMD) and were analyzed by World Resources Institute (WRI). While the data don’t just represent deforestation (they also lump in tree plantation harvesting), the analysts attribute most of the tree cover loss to human impacts affecting forests such agriculture, logging and mining.

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Mining Mania

For A Dying Silicosis Patient, A Mining Fund Offers Hope

In the early 1990s, at the end of a drought that stretched over three years, an 18-year-old Deva Singh took up work at a nearby sandstone mine. He was grateful for the Rs 15 a day it paid because there was no other work in his primarily agricultural village. Now 42, Singh has been diagnosed with silicosis, a disease caused by fine silica dust released from mineral mining operations, for which there is no cure.

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Collateral Damage?

Agent Orange, Exposed: How U.S. Chemical Warfare In Vietnam Unleashed a Slow-Moving Disaster

In the end, the military campaign was called Operation Ranch Hand, but it originally went by a more appropriately hellish appellation: Operation Hades. As part of this Vietnam War effort, from 1961 to 1971, the United States sprayed over 73 million liters of chemical agents on the country to strip away the vegetation that provided cover for Vietcong troops in “enemy territory.”

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Water Resources

Why Deadly, Worsening Flash Floods In Bihar’s Border Villages Don’t Get India’s Attention

Charoin aur nadi, beech main Marjadi [rivers on all four sides and Marjadi in the middle]–that is how a local saying describes Marjadi village. Situated in Gaunaha block in north Bihar’s Pashchim Champaran district, the village is quite used to the rise and fall in the waters of these pahadi rivers that come from Nepal. However, the ferocity of the floods that nearly drowned the village in the intervening night of August 12 and August 13 this year left even disaster-prone Marjadi stunned.

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Climate Change

The Stilling: Global Wind Speeds Slowing Since 1960

Few people have probably noticed, but the world’s winds are getting slower. It is something that cannot be picked up by watching the billowing of dust or listening to the rustle of leaves on nearby trees. Instead, it is a phenomenon occurring on a different scale, as the average global wind speed close to the surface of the land decreases. And while it is not affecting the whole earth evenly, the average terrestrial wind speed has decreased by 0.5 kilometres per hour (0.3 miles per hour) every decade, according to data starting in the 1960s. Known as ‘stilling’, it has only been discovered in the last decade. And while it may sound deceptively calm, it could be a vital, missing piece of the climate change puzzle and a serious threat to our societies.

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Forests

Does Forest Certification Really Work?

Based on a review of 40 studies of variable quality, we found that certified tropical forests can overall be better for the environment than forests managed conventionally. But there wasn’t enough evidence to say if certified tropical forests are better than, the same as, or worse than conventionally managed tropical forests when it comes to people. We also found that profits and other economic benefits can be hard to come by for certified logging companies working in tropical forests. This is part of a special Mongabay series on “Conservation Effectiveness”.

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Conservation

Manas National Park Illustrates The Human Dimension Of Rhino Conservation

Manas National Park, one of India’s rhino conservation areas, is at the heart of a proposed homeland for the Bodos, an indigenous ethnic group. From the 1980s until 2003, the park was engulfed by armed conflict, and its rhino population was wiped out. During this period, the Bodos were frequently portrayed as hostile to conservation efforts. A 2003 peace accord paved the way for the establishment of autonomous local governance, and the restoration of rhinos to the park. Former guerrillas now serve as anti-poaching patrols. With the Bodos in power, a new group has been cast as ecological villains: Bengali Muslims living in the fringes of the park.

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Featured

Kirtinasha To Vidrupa: The Lesser River Goddesses Of South Asia

“Ahalya, you will be an eternal dry river. Your path will be rocky and parched. You will receive water only when you meet the pious Godavari. That will be your only redemption”. Thus spoke Sage Gautam, pushing his wife Ahalya into a quagmire of dark desperation for ages. Ironically, it was Indra who, driven by lust, impersonated Sage Gautam and met Ahalya. In some versions of the story Gautam curses Ahalya into a stone slab, in some she becomes uncultivable, barren land. Till date, there exists a marriage custom in certain communities where the newly wed girl touches a dry stone by her feet, it should remind her of her fate if she “strays” like Ahalya.

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Otters in Goa
Conservation

How Much Longer Will Goa Remain Otter Worthy?

My deep engagement with Goan rivers began almost half a decade ago, when I started researching otters in the state. In this short span of time, an otter’s life has seen its ups and downs, and I don’t mean the daily rise and fall of tides that are critical to wildlife adapted to the mangroves!

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