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Saturday, September 29

How to avoid snake bites? Quick tips to avoid snake bites in India and else where

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Snake bite is a major cause of death in parts of South East Asian countries including India. The incidence
of snake bite deaths are more in rural areas. It has been the most calamitous form of human-animal
conflict on earth in present times. Realizing the graveness of the issue, World Health Organization has
included snake bite as one of the neglected tropical disease.
Common Bronzeback Tree Snake, Dendrelaphis tristis
Common Bronzeback Tree Snake (Dendrelaphis tristis)

Undergoing medical treatment after getting bitten by a snake can be a risky business since it involves complex steps like correctly identifying the snake, assessing the type of poison of a snake found in a particular geography and administering enough doses of the accurate antivenom. So it is always preferable to avoid snake bites.

Here is a set of tips that may help you to avoid snake bites.

Know your snakes
  • First and foremost, do have adequate knowledge about snakes in the locality –type of snakes, 
    where they are found usually, at what time and whether they are poisonous or not. For example, in forest fringes in the Western Ghats, people know that King Cobras are usually found in areas near the streams or cool places with thick under growth. They are often found in rubber plantations covered by thick legume plants grown to keep the plantation cool. Similarly, knowing that Kraits are active usually in the night unlike Cobras which are day hunters, helps avoid an unhappy confrontation with them.
  • Once you know where they are found, you may avoid those places.
  • Similarly, don’t step over a snake, don’t try to handle a snake or even don’t try to irritate a snake. A huge majority of snake bites incidents have taken place due to these reasons.
  • Never try to corner a snake in an enclosed space. It will be left with no other option.

Lycodon aulicus, Indian Wolf Snake, snake inside the house
Lycodon aulicus snake inside the house
Make sure there are no snakes inside the house

  • Keep your chicken or livestock away from home. Snakes often try to hunt chicken. Keeping them within the house may be inviting snakes for a feast inside.
  • Do not encourage rats inside houses – they bring snakes behind. Use rat-proof containers; keep your granary away from the house.
  • Check and remove tree branches touching the house.
  • Check the places where snakes may hide inside the house, like large unsealed spaces under floor boards. Kraits simply love such places.
  • Keep an eye on your pets. Cats often bring half dead snakes inside home to play and eat later.
  • Avoid sleeping on the ground. Kraits have reportedly bitten people who were sleeping on the ground by mistaking them for a moving prey and at times when the sleeping man has rolled over the snake, hurting it.
  • If sleeping on the ground, use insecticide – impregnated mosquito net, tucked under the mattress. It does not repel the snake, bur reduces risk.

In the courtyard

  • Avoid rubble, logs, rubbish to be heaped up near house. It gives better hiding places for snakes.
    Lycodon aulicus,  Indian Wolf Snake, snake on door
    Lycodon aulicus snake on the door
  • Keep the grass around the house short or cleared since it gives no attractive space for snakesclose to the house. Keep the bushes around the house cleared.
  • Be cautious when you are around a pond or water body. High chances of meeting a snake here since the water body attract many favorite items in snake’s menu including toads and frogs.
  • Keep an ear and eye for what the birds or the cat do. They usually detect the presence of snakes better than us.

In the country side
  • Be cautious while walking in night, especially after heavy rains - high chances of snake confrontation. Be ’enlightened’ with a torch or any portable light source.
  • Heavy rains usually wash away snakes into drainage  or gutters in the road edges. They often flush out snakes from their burrows. So be more vigilant when you walk, after heavy rains, especially in dim light.
  • Use of shoes or boots and long trousers are always recommended than being bare footed or using sandals, especially while walking through rods with thick undergrowth on both sides.
  • Be careful with logs or stones. Snakes often hide beneath them or even sun bath on their sides. So don’t try to cross them over straight – you may step on a snake. Stop on them, make sure nobody is running away from beneath, and then proceed.

For people behind the wheels
  • Please don’t intentionally run over a snake crossing the road. They are also living creatures with a right to live like you. Moreover, a half dead snake on the road may be a dangerous coincidence for the next passerby.
    Russell's viper, Daboia russelii, indian snake, venomous snake, snake head, snake close up, snake eye, old world snake
    Russell's viper (Daboia russelii)
    Image: Indian Biodiversity Talks
  • All ran over snakes are not left dying on the road. They sometime get trapped under vehicle, reaching to your parking lot or garage posing threats to your dear ones.
  • In hilly areas, snakes often find vehicles a warm place to rest comfortably. Check the vehicle well in advance.

Sea snake bite
  • Avoid touching any snakes trapped in fishing nets or lines. Often it is difficult to identify the head and tail of a sea snake which makes any business with them extremely dangerous. 
  • Avoid taking bathes or going for a swim at places like estuaries or ponds where there are repeated instances of finding venomous snakes.

Even a dead snake can bite you!
We are not kidding. Even a dead snake with a severely damaged head can give you a fatal dose of
venom if you are handling it carelessly. According to WHO guidelines on how to avoid snakebites, it
Indian Cobra, Naja naja, venomous snakes India, Indian snake
Indian Cobra (Naja naja)
Image: Indian Biodiversity Talks
is reported that there were instances in which mere scratches caused by the fangs of dead snake’s causing sever health conditions, including fatalities. So, be careful even when carrying or handling (only if necessary) snakes which looks to be dead or actually dead.

Above all, don’t try to irritate snakes, just leave them to live their life.

The tips were collected from the WHO guidelines, expert opinion and observations.

Reference: David A Warrell (2010), Guidelines for the management of snake-bites, word Health
Organization, South East Asia Regional Office.

Friday, September 28

Molecular factors, unique ecological environment keep Bhut Jolokia world’s hottest chilli, find Indian defense researchers

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A molecular study carried out by Indian defense researchers indicates that molecular characters and the unique ecological environment of North East India make Bhut Jolokia distinct from other closely related chilli species and keep it world’s hottest. Locally known as “Bhut Jolokia”, this pepper variety found in the North Eastern parts of India and is considered as the hottest chilli in the world.

Bhut Jolokia, hottest chilli, Indian spices
Bhut Jolokia, worlds hottest chilli
Image Courtesy: 
Xaime Méndez (Wikimedia Commons)
According to the study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Biosciences  a phylogenetic analysis of the ribosomal RNA sequence of the chilli indicates that specific sequences from all Bhut Jolokia fruits collected from different parts of the country exhibited a distinct clade or common ancestors than the related species.

Moreover, a 13 base deletion was also found in the representative sequencing of Bhut Jolokia. This peculiarity makes it different from all other members of the Capsicum genus, according to the study. “A unique 13-base deletion was observed in all the representative accessions of Bhut Jolokia, making it distinct from all other members within the genus and beyond”, says the study.

Debate on species status

Despite its unique pungency, taxonomists have always debated on considering it as a separate species. Many scholars consider it as just a variety of Capsicum frutescens. Guinness Book of World Records, which in 2006, has acknowledged it as the hottest pepper, however, has recorded it as a variety of Capsicum chinese. Later a group of researchers have found that the plant actually stands between the two varieties, being a hybrid of the two.

The new finding made by the researchers at the Defense Research laboratory, Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Defense Research & Development Establishment (DRDE) supports the arguments to consider Bhut Jolokia as a separate species of hot chilli.

Ecological environment influence on Capsaicin presence

Bhut Jolokia on the plant
Image Courtesy : Wikimedia Commons
The study has also pointed out that the extreme pungency of the chilli variety may have been influenced by the peculiar environmental factors present in the North Eastern parts of the country. According to it, high average temperature in the atmosphere and draught like situations may increase the pungency of the pepper, apart from genetic factors.

When the researchers have analyzed the presence of Capsaicin, the element which gives pungency to the pepper and is the base for the Scoville ratings, it was found that Bhut Jolokia grown in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh had 50 percent less Capsaicin, which makes it 50 percent less hotter than the fruit from the same species plant grown up in Tezpur in Assam. According to the researchers, this explains how the hot and humid climate in the North East India is making Bhut Jolokia hottest among the chillies.

Hottest Chilli in the world

Bhut Jolokia has grabbed the title ‘world’s hottest chilli’ from the Red Savina Habanero found in Canada, when it was found that Jolokia is at least two times hotter than it in terms of Scoville Heat units which is the measurement of hotness in chillies.

Interestingly, the name Bhut Jolokia hints a ghostly bite, which actually leaves the victim burning for at least 30 minutes without subsiding. It is being used by local people for a variety of purposes like making spicy food, to prepare medicines and even in smoke bombs to keep wild elephants away.

Wednesday, September 26

Poachers chop off the horn from a live Rhino in Kaziranga, amidst flood chaos

In a gruesome incident on Wednesday, poachers have sawed away the horn of an Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) at the Kaziranga National Park in the Indian state of Assam, even while the animal was alive. 

The female rhino has strayed into the east division of the Karbi Anglong hills in neighboring district to evade the raising flood waters in the park and was shot down by the poachers on Wednesday morning, said forest officials. 
Indian rhinoceros, indian one horned rhinoceros, Rhinoceros unicornis , kaziranga national park
An Indian one-horned rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis 

According to them, by the time they found it, the horn and a part of the right ear of the animals was brutally chopped off, while it was alive. Now, veterinary doctors are trying hard to save the Rhino, they said. Officials have also found another dead rhino with chopped away horns on Wednesday, according to a PTI report.

The incident has sparked wide protest in the state. Locals including members of Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad and All Assam Students Union have blockaded the National Highway 37 to protest the attack. According to forest officials in the park, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers since January this year. The park is home to around 2500 of the only remaining 3000 one horned rhinoceros on the globe, which are categorized as Vulnerable by IUCN.

Three fourth of the park submerged

Meanwhile, the third wave of flood has so far killed 22 animals in the park, which includes 4 rhinos, apart from those killed by the poachers. 75 percent of the national park in submerged under the flood waters from incessant rains. Apart from the deaths from drowning, road kills also increase during the flood season in Kazirnaga as animals try to cross the NH 37 to evade flood waters. At least four animals were killed so far by speeding vehicles after the current wave of floods hit the park, informed DFO.

Earlier waves of flood at Kaziranga have killed 631 animals including 19 rhinos in August, while 36 animals were victims to road kill during the period.

Monday, September 24

Antivenom production and snake bite treatment in India ineffective, finds recent study

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What happens if a King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) bites you during a trek through an Indian forest? You are left to die even if you reach a hospital within minutes, since there is virtually no  antivenom produced in India for wide distribution to treat King cobra bites, shows a new study. Leave alone King cobra, which is a rare sight reserved for lucky ones, a usual Indian cobra bite from a North Indian city can also finish you off for similar reasons.

Antivenom production and snake bite treatment in a country which is home to several species of fatally poisonous snakes and an upper estimated annual snake bite deaths of 50000, are in a pathetic state, indicates a research article published in the latest issue of current Science journal.

Indian Cobra, Naja naja, venomous snakes India, Indian snake
Indian Cobra (Naja naja)
Image: Indian Biodiversity Talks
The study conducted by famous herpetologist Romulus Whittaker and his son and conservation biologist Samir Whittaker points out that the  antivenom production in India is based on the venom of the snakes present in the southern part of the country which makes it less effective in the treatment of snakebites in other parts of the country.

Venom supply, rate and quality of antivenom production, antivenom potency are way too low than the requirements. According to the article, a major part of the snake venom is sourced from Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society in Chennai which is the largest legally acknowledged entity providing venom for the seven antivenom producing pharmaceutical companies in the country. It causes two issues – scarcity in venom supply and ineffective venom samples for antivenom production for snake bite treatment in other regions.

Geographical difference in snake venom composition
In India, there are four major snakes which– Indian Cobra (Naja naja), Common Krait (Bungarus caeruleus), Russell's viper (Daboia russelii) and Indian saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus) – known as the big four -which can deliver fatal bites.

However, the strength of venom differs even within the same species in different parts of the country. According to the study, Russel’s Viper found in northern and western parts of the country are twice as venomous as their southern counter parts. The case is same with Indian Cobra. Cobras from eastern parts of India are more venomous than those from other parts. It makes the antivenom made by venom samples from South India less effective in other parts, often causing death of the victim.

Indian Cobra, Naja naja, Indian snakes, poisonous snakes in India
Indian Cobra (Naja naja) found in South India
Image: Indian Biodiversity Talks
The difference in the venom composition among the sub species among the four most venomous snakes is also causing the issue. The study shows that there are at least four cobras, eight different species of Kraits, two sub species of Saw-scaled vipers and a single species of Russell ’s viper in the country, as per most latest taxonomical data.  Further studies should be carried out to understand the difference in the venom composition between these species and the effectiveness of presently producing antivenom against these different species, it says.

Other venomous snakes in India
The study also indicates that there could be a need to produce antivenom for at least some other snake species found in India since they also found to be capable of injecting lethal amounts of venom. Since there are rare reported instances of death from bites of sea snakes and King Cobra, presently there is no antivenom produced in India to treat any such situation.  “The average venom yields indicate that, although antivenom is not made specifically for these species or variants, all of them can inject potentially lethal quantities of venom”, says the study.

Need of the hour
The changing potency of antivenom produced in India is also an aspect which needs urgent attention. According to the study, the potency of cobra antivenom was 0.60 mg/ml before 1950s which has now turned into just 0.60 mg/ml while that of Russell’s Vipers was 2 mg/ml earlier and 0.45 mg/ml now. The standards of antivenom potency and quality of antivenom production in the country should be refined based on further studies, points out the researchers.

The study calls for urgent need to make sufficient units to produce venom for producing enough quantities of antivenom in India, by making snake catchers’ societies in line with the Irula society. This will help meet the treatment needs of bites from regionally present species more effectively and will curb clandestine venom producing operations that take place in the country now, says the study.  

Read More: How to avoid snakebites

Thursday, September 20

Indian plant Ricinus communis among invasive threats to world’s second largest lake

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According to a new report published by the Invasive Species Initiative under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) , the Caster oil plant which is native to India is one of the invasive plants that raise a major threat to the second largest and second deepest lake in the world – Lake Tanganyika - shared by  Burundi,Zambia,Tanzania and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) .

Ricinus communis, invasive plant at Lake Tanganyika, biological invasion
Dense Growth of Ricinus communis
The report says that Ricinus communis, commonly known as Castor oil plant in English and Kadalavanakku in Malayalam, is a usual plant found in India. The plant, according to IUCN report, has shown invasive nature in other habitats and is a major invasive threat to Lake Tanganyika.

Lake Tanganyika has at least 250 species of endemic cichlid fish and many endemic water plants. But the presence of invasive plants around the lake is threatening the natural habitat of the lake as well as the existence of native fauna and flora.

The invasive zeal of Ricinus communis

Biological invasion is a wide phenomenon seen across the globe. It happens when a non-native species is introduced to a new environment, and it spreads virulently to cause damage to native organisms. Ricinus communis, due to its invasive nature, now has spread across all the tropical regions, says the report.
According to the study, the invasive nature of the plant makes it capable of displacing native plant species from a habitat. The impact will be more visible in the case of riparian areas and drainages. The seeds of the castor oil plant also give the plant some upper hand among native plants, shows the report.

The Castor oil seeds have a worthy appendage known as caruncle which attracts ants as the major seed dispersal agents for the plant.  Moreover, the seeds are among the first to germinate after a fire season, allowing the plant to have a competitive advantage over other native plants over the fight for resources.

Lake Tanganyika, Lake Tanganyika map
Lake Tanganyika
Image courtesy : Google Maps
The plant is a fast growing suckering perennial shrub and often attains the size of a small tree. Due to this nature, when they colonize in already disturbed habitats, they grow faster, often shade over the native plants and seedlings, gradually weakening the strength of the native plant species.

Major reasons for the spread of the plant

According to the study, the ornamental plant trade is a major source through which the plant has got its grip around Lake Tanganyika . The practice of cultivation for extracting Castor oil is also a reason, points out the study. Apart from these, road building machinery, earth moving equipment and dumped garden waste also spreads the seeds of the plant.

The study which is preliminary in nature is the first of its kind to take place at Lake Tanganyika. It has listed 31 invasive plants which are raising serious threat to the water body.

Sharks are color blind, confirms a new molecular study

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Sharks are one of the most dreaded organisms under water. The killer label has made them a nightmare for divers all along the globe. However, a recent study reveals crucial information about the vision of sharks which can help avert fatal encounters with sharks under water.

Ornate Wobbegong, Orectolobus ornatus, colour blind shark
Ornate Wobbegong ( Orectolobus ornatus)
Image Courtesy: 
Peter Halasz
In the study which was published in the Biology Letters, a team of researchers explains the peculiar vision system in sharks. Existing knowledge about sharks’ way of looking at things reveals that they are most likely to be color bind. However, the new study confirms this understanding and exposes the reason behind.

The single con cell aka looking at a grey world
The study has analyzed the cone monochromy in two species of carpet sharks (the spotted wobbegong Orectolobus maculatus and the ornate wobbegong O. ornatus) at molecular level. Cones are special type of light sensitive cells inside the retina of the eye of the organism. The cone cells are used for distinguishing fine details and different colors. They often work well under brighter light conditions. However, the cone cells in the eye of sharks can detect light rays from a single spectrum which makes them color blind.

The researchers have isolated the visual opsin genes of the two genuses of carpet sharks to search for an answer for the monochromy at molecular level. During the analysis, the researchers have found that only two opsin genes were present in the carpet sharks – RH1 and LWS. Among these, RH1 is related to rod cells while LWS is related to cone cells. This analysis confirms the fact that sharks has only a single cone cell type on their retina, which in turn explains why sharks may be looking at a grey world.  

Rudimentary color vision
Since their color vision is not functional, researchers consider a possibility of sharks comparing the signals from the rods and con cells in their retina at intermediate light levels. Whales actually have similar vision mechanism. If the sharks also do so, they will have a rudimental color vision. But researchers were unable to detect any behavioral evidence to support this theory.

The study is a crucial one about the evolution of color vision among vertebrates. There are very less studies on color vision in organisms like sharks, skates and rays. It also points to the trend of convergent evolution - a phenomenon in which unrelated groups of organisms develop similar traits (here color blindness among sharks and whales). 

Better understanding, less conflicts
The study may help develop invisible fishing nets in the future which will reduce the rate of shark death due to accidental by-catch. This is presently is the major threat to the shark population in the world. It will also help make less attractive wetsuits for divers which will reduce fatal encounters with sharks.

Monday, September 17

One third of the coral reefs in the world will suffer degradation by 2030 due to climate change

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According to a new study on climate change and its effects,  a group of scientists have found that the chances of saving world’s coral reef population from the ill effects of climate change is thinning day by day as the greenhouse emissions are increasing.
Great Barrier Reef
Image courtesy:  Richard Ling

The danger to coral reefs is almost impossible to be averted, indicates the study which is published in the journal Nature Climate Change. One third of the coral reefs in the world will suffer long term degradation due to climate change by 2030, finds the study even though the estimation is based on the most optimistic IPCC estimations on emissions.

“One-third (9–60%, 68% uncertainty range) of the world’s coral reefs are projected to be subject to long-term degradation under the most optimistic new IPCC emissions scenario, RCP3-PD.”, says the study
"The window of opportunity to preserve the majority of coral reefs, part of the world's natural heritage, is small," said Malte Meinshausen, a co-author of the paper to Reuters news agency. This will happen even if the emission cuts are made stricter, shows the study.

Bleaching and decalcification of corals
The scientists have assessed the impact of emissions on 2160 coral reefs in different parts of the globe, with the help of climate models. The study points out that the emission of Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, has increased by more than 3 percent last year. As a result, the average temperature of the globe has also increased by 0.8 degree Celsius approximately, during the last century.

The increasing global temperature and warmer oceans will bleach the corals to death. Thus, the reefs turn pale when the warm sea surface triggers mass bleaching events across the globe, says the study.
Even if the corals survive the ill effects of bleaching, it is difficult for them to survive a prolonged period of heating up of the ocean. According to the study, when the oceans stayed hot for a prolonged period during 1998, 16 percent of corals vanished from the face of earth.

Acidification is more fatal to the survival of corals than the bleaching events. Acidification of ocean is directly proportional to the presence of Carbon dioxide in the ocean surface. With the acidification increasing, the rate of calcification - a process which is crucial to the existence of corals - gets disrupted, leaving them to corrode to death.

Location of Corals in the world

2 degree Celsius limit is no safer zone for corals
The study also points out that the present notions of safe emission levels and safe temperature rise levels may not save coral reefs. 2 degree Celsius is widely considered as a safe emission limit to avoid the devastating effects like droughts, sea level rise or failure of cultivation. However, it will not help corals to avoid the serious threats of global warming, shows the study.

According to the scientists, the chances of survival for at least half of the coral reefs in the world will remain live only if the average mean temperature rise stay below 1.2 degrees compared to that of pre-industrial period.  

Though the reefs’ ability to adapt and evolve with changing quality of the habitat may make a difference in their survival to the acidification and bleaching events. However, their ability to adapt significantly within a matter of decades (which is a very small period for evolutionary processes), in an atmosphere of continuously changing ocean temperatures is still uncertain.

Moreover, the rate and magnitude of warming, which the globe is going to face, has no equals in the past, points out the scientists. They are doubtless that the prominence of coral reefs in coastal ecosystems will plummet, if the global mean temperatures exceed 2 degree Celsius above that of the pre-industrial era. 

Mobile phone towers ringing the death knell for squirrels and sparrows in India?

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Sparrows were once abundant in the city spaces and rural markets in India. But rising concrete jungles, increasing pollution and now, mobile phone towers are causing them to disappear from the Indian landscape, says a group of conservationists in the country. Meanwhile, reports from other parts of the country shows that squirrels also could be victims of increasing mobile phone tower presence and resulting impact of high Electro-Magnetic Radiation.

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
According to PTI, ornithologist Amarjit Gupta has pointed out that the number of sparrows across the country has been falling down drastically over a period of time, raising serious concern. According to him, a recent study has shown that sparrows were present only in localities which are located at a particular distance from the towers. 

MoEF advisory on mobile phone towers
The issue has attracted the attention of Indian authorities in India earlier itself, which forced Ministry of Environment and Forests to constitute an Expert Group to study the possible impacts of communication towers on wildlife, including birds and bees in 2011.

With a wide and deep review of the existing research literature on the issue, the committee found that exposure to Electro Magnetic Radiation at high levels adversely affects living organisms. However, the review was not able to establish a cause – effect relation between mobile phone tower presence and any population decline among sparrows due to lack of reliable data. Later,MoEF has issued an advisory saying that new cell phone towers should not be installed within one kilo meter radius of existing ones.

You too, Squirrels?
However, the skepticism about mobile phone towers and its impact on living beings still lingers. Villagers and farmers in the Northern parts of the Indian state of Kerala also report on the sudden disappearance of squirrels from the farms and nearby places.

 Indian palm squirrel, Funambulus palmarum,  three-striped palm squirrel,squirrels and mobile phone towers
 Indian palm squirrel (Funambulus palmarum)
Image: Indian Biodiversity Talks
According to George K., a Cocoa farmer in Kannur district, Cocoa cultivators used to face serious annoyance from squirrels during the fruit ripening season. “Cocoa cultivators used to apply pesticides like Furadan, as poison to ward off the issue. But now, they are nowhere to see”.

According to him, squirrels are almost absent in these areas now that the ripened Cocoa fruits remain intact, without the need to poisoning.  “Though poisoning could have killed many squirrels in the past, we doubt that the increasing presence of mobile phone towers is a reason which has caused the sudden disappearance of the creatures”, says he.

Though many conservationists suspect the chances of any particular pesticide used in the farms as a possible cause for the disappearance, they are not ready to rule out the role played by increasing mobile phone tower density in these areas.

In these far flung villages with difficult hilly terrain, towers are installed comparatively closer to fill the coverage-less areas caused by steep valleys and occasional peaks.

Though more scientific proof is needed to confirm the doubts, the alarm is clear. Something in the environment is wiping sparrows and squirrels away.

Friday, September 14

Garo Hills may be home to 600 to 650 butterfly species, indicates new study

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A first of its kind survey of the butterfly fauna at the Garo Hills in the North Eastern Indian state of Meghalaya which is part of the globally recognized Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot has reported 298 species of butterflies among which 8 are very rare and are legally protected due to the steeply falling population status. The research team which has conducted the study assumes that the original butterfly species richness of Garo Hills can be 600 to 650.
The Common Map, Cyrestis thyodamas, Butterflies of Garo Hills
The Common Map (Cyrestis thyodamas) was also reported by the study
Image: Indian Biodiversity Talks

The study which was conducted during 2008 to 2010 to study the butterfly species richness in pre-monsoon and post-monsoon periods, has also reported range extensions for two important butterfly species - Elymnias peali or Brahmaputra Palmfly and Prothoe franck regalis or Regal Blue Begum.

Brahmaputra Palmfly has so far been reported from Upper Assam and from Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh only. Regal Blue Begum similarly was reported from Upper Assam and Manipur in India and also from Northern Myanmar. Both of these butterflies are very rare and are protected under the Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. So the new records increase the conservation significance of Garo Hills.

Threats to the butterfly fauna at Garo Hills

The study also points out that jhum cultivation, plantations, illegal coal mining, and the proposed uranium mining is threatening Garo Hills, despite it being the last strong hold of biodiversity in the area. It calls for immediate action to conserve riparian forest patches and the large tracts of evergreen forests to conserve the butterfly faun here.

According to Krushnamegh Kunte, who led the survey, the area is very much notable for endemism at subspecies level which again makes it very important in the conservation perspective.

The study which is published in a special additional issue of the Journal of Threatened Taxa also includes the first annotated checklist if butterflies of the Garo Hills.

Download a free Ebook - Field guide on Butterflies of North East India ( Actually, a journal issue which can work as a field guide also.)

Wednesday, September 12

Great Indian Bustard, Four Toed Terrapin, White Bellied Heron and Gooty Tarantula among the 100 most threatened organisms in the world

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According to the list of 100 most threatened organisms in the world prepared by more than 8,000 scientists from the IUCN Species Survival Commission and released at the ongoing World Conservation Congress at Jeju in South Korea, four organisms found in India belong to the category.

White bellied heron, Ardea insignis, most threatened bird in India
White bellied heron (Ardea insignis)
Image Courtesy: Mahesh Iyer (Wikimedia Commons)
Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), White bellied heron (Ardea insignis), Common batagur or Four-toed terrapin (Batagur baska) and Gooty tarantula(Poecilotheria metallica) which are found in different parts of India are among the most threatened organisms in the world, says the report which is named “Priceless or Worthless?”. All of them are already listed as Critically Endangered in IUCN Red List

White Bellied Heron has only 70 to 400 individuals remaining in Bhutan, Myanmar and North East India, says the report. Accoridng to it, habitat destruction from hydroelectric projects has brought down the number of individuals. Captive breeding and release and avoiding adverse use of riverine habitat are suggested as urgent action required for saving the species.
Great Indian Bustard, Ardeotis nigriceps
Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps)
Image Courtesy:  LRBurdak (Wikimedia Commons)

Great Indian Bustard has only 50 to 249 mature individuals remaining. The bird which is found only India is threatened by “Habitat loss and modification due to agricultural development”, says the report. While establishment of protected areas and community reserves is suggested as the action required, the report interestingly suggest realignment of Indira Ghandi Nahar Canal project for saving the bird.

Distributed in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, Common batagur or four toed terrapin is threatened by illegal export from Indonesia to China. India may be the best place to conserve the animal, if the illegal trade is cubed in the region, as suggested by the report. “Enforcement of CITES Appendix I restrictions and control of illegal trade” is listed as the urgent action required to save the species.

Common batagur, Four-toed terrapin, Batagur baska
Common batagur or Four-toed terrapin (Batagur baska) 
Gootyy Tarantula, reported so far only from Andhra Pradesh in India, is also threatened by habitat loss and illegal trade, as per the report.  The report suggests awareness programs and a curb on illegal trade as protection measures apart from habitat protection, community awareness.

Current Conservation status in India

Despite the heightened conservation significance as an endemic spider,  Gootty Tarantula is yet to be included in the schedule I of  Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972, which is the major law to conserve rare organisms in India.   

Gooty Tarantula, Poecilotheria metallica, most threatened spider
Gooty Tarantula ( Poecilotheria metallica)
Image Courtesy: ZSI
The report has suggested the same among the urgent action required to protect Gootty Tarantula.

Four Toed Terrapin, Great Indian Bustard and White bellied Heron are already included in Schedule I of the act. Authorities have been mulling over announcing Critical Bustard Areas in India to the save the bird recently, as suggested by the report.

Apart from the four, Amsterdam albatross (Diomedea amsterdamensis) which is often found in the Indian Ocean is also listed among the 100 most threatened organisms in the world.

However, the report does not actually detail on the way or the criterion with which the 100 most threatened species were selected. There is wide spread criticism that many of the important species were left out in the list. 

Saturday, September 8

The remaining Gaur population in Shiwalik in India fights many odds to survive

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Indian Bison (Bos Gaurus), one of the eight species of wild bovid in Asia, is finding its grip on existence loosening in the Shiwalik hill ranges in India due to a wide range of issues, reports a scientific correspondence published in the latest issue of Current Science journal.

Indian Bison, Bos Gaurus
Indian Bison (Bos Gaurus)
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
The large ungulate which is also known as ‘Gaur’, is threatened by food scarcity, competition from domestic cattle and poaching across the border in the Valmiki Tiger Reserve (VTR) which is the last home to these animals in the Shiwalik hills, says the correspondence. Though, the local people report that the reserve had a large gaur population in the past, now it has been reduced to a mere 50 individuals, it says.

As per the research correspondence, Gaur population in the North East Indian region is mainly located in interconnected forest areas between Nepal and India. While some 296 gaurs are estimated to live in Chitwan NationalPark and Parsa Wild Life Reserve in Nepal, an estimated 50 member strong gaur population resides in Valmiki Tiger Reserve (VTR) in the Indian region.

Major threats to Gaur population in VTR
Destruction of grasslands due to planting of non-native commercially important trees species like Tectona Grandis and the presence of strong invasive species like dwarf Phoenix in understory vegetation and Mikania sp. In the stream side flora has reduced the food availability of the remaining population of bison in the Shiwallik, shows the correspondence.

Though VTR harbors different variety of grass species including Lagerstroemia parviflora, Saccharum spontaneum, Mallotus phillippinensis, Adina cordifolia, Shorea robust, Imperata cylindrical and Sclerostachya fusca, which are favorites in the Gaur menu, indiscriminate grazing by domestic cattle from the villages nearby the reserve is also raising multiple threats to the Gaurs here, says the study.

While the domestic cattle compete with for food resources, they also make the chances of contracting foot and mouth diseases, pests and anthrax to their wild cousins. Though no such reports are made so far, the chances still lingers.

Though official records are not available, poaching still seems to be a major reason which has brought down the gaur population in the area considerably. Gaur meat has high demand in the illegal markets on both sides of the Indo-Nepal border which makes it a favorite target for poachers.

The Grim picture
The conservation status of Guars has been grim in India recently, says the correspondence. The animal has been reportedly exterminated from at least three protected areas in different parts of the country in recent years. Presently, VTR is the only protected area in the Shiwalik hills to shelter it, which makes the bison population here crucial in conservation perspective. Since it is a major animal in the prey base of the carnivores in the area, including the endangered tiger, any threat to the existence of the gaur population will indirectly affect the tiger population in VTR and adjacent Chitwan National Park also.

Gaur is already categorized as Vulnerable by IUCN Red Data list and has been included in the Schedule I of the Wild life (Protection) Act, 1972 of India due to its diminishing population trend in the country.

To improve the gaur population in the area, the correspondence suggests manual clearing of invasive plants species from the reserve and growing native plants which are favored food species of Gaurs. It also calls for a regulation in indiscriminate cattle grazing in the reserve.

Thursday, September 6

MoEF puts down Coast Guard Radar project to save endangered Narcondam Hornbills

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In the face of severe protest from the environmentalists and a thumbs down from the standing committee of the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL), Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has decided to put down the proposal from the Indian Coastguard to divert 0.637 hectare of forest land at the Narcondam Islands in the Andaman sea to install a coastal surveillance RADAR, since the project will adversely affect the life of the endangered Narcondam Hornbill (Aceros narcondami ) which is endemic to the island.

Narcondam Hornbill (Aceros narcondami)
Image Courtesy: Kalyan Varma
According to an official memorandum (F. No. 6-73!2011.\X/L) from the wildlife division of the MoEF, the nests of the birds are located at 200 meters height and the females hornbills usually sheds their flight feathers during egg laying and chick rearing season. This will wipe out the birds in the island even if the proposed area for the project is just 0.7 hectares. Despite its endangered nature, the bird was included in the Schedule I of Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.

“Even If the area to be used for the project is less than 0.7 hectares, disturbances and damage caused to the habitat due to cutting of road through the area, and because of the regular functioning of RADAR system, is likely to cause irreversible adverse impact on this unique bird, and can even wipe out the whole population”, says the memorandum issued by MoEF.

Strong opposition from NBWL and the greens
According to MoEF, the report submitted by Dr. A. Rahmani, member of NBWL who was entrusted to make an inspection of the site, proposed that the project should not be recommended since it may affect the unique status of the habitat. The other members of the NBWL have also opposed the project when the proposal came for its consideration.

Narcondam Island, Location of Narcondam Island, Narcondam Island map
Location of Narcondam Island
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Moreover, several green organizations including BNHS, Conservation India, Kerala Birder have raised alarm calls that the project may affect the remaining population of less than 350 birds in the island. 

"Since this was not a battle fought in Court, it was public sentiment that swayed the decision.", said a BNHS member. Though many of the activists who have fought against the project have not seen the bird directly, they have stood for its life. "Ecologically, this is totally defensible. This is also a win for the idea of keeping an animal alive, even though we don't see it or experience it, in the way we experience other species", said she.

The project was part of installing a chain of static RADAR sensors in the Indian coast to monitor activities in coastal sea. The project was earlier approved by Andaman and Nicobar Island Administration.

 The memorandum has suggested that the coastguard can explore other technologies or areal, satellite, off shore, ship -based or land based surveillance alternatives for the purpose by constituting a committee of experts from various fields. 

Wednesday, September 5

Cryptothela Sundaica, a rare spider spotted after 122 years from India

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After a gap of some 122 years, a rare spider has been reportedly spotted from India since it was first recorded by a British Spider Researcher in 1890. 

Cryptothela Sundaica
Cryptothela Sundaica
Image Copy Right Sudhikumar
According to A V Sudhikumar, an Arachnologist with the Zoology Department of Christ College Irinjalakkuda in the South Indian state of Kerala, his team has found the rare spider Cryptothela Sundaica, from the forest patches of Thommankuthu waterfall near Thodupuzha in Idukki district.

The spider was earlier reported by British Archnologist R F Pocock in 1890s from Udagamandalam in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, the earlier report was about a male member of the species while the new record is about a female one. 

A Cryptic spider
According to Sudhikumar, the genus is called ‘Cryptothela’, for their cryptic nature which always hides them from the eyes of the researchers. The spider, with the size of a small beetle, according to the researcher, is mud coloured and is difficult to distinguish from the surroundings since it is often found amidst dead and decaying leaves. 

However, the researchers were lucky this time since the spider they have spotted at Thommankuthu was a female carrying a triangular, white egg sac over her. 

Living on a diet of worms and insects, Cryptothela Sundaica has many tricks to avoid attackers. “If disturbed, it exhibits catalepsy (acting like dead when disturbed)”, says Sudhikumar. 

According to the researcher, the finding may be shortly published at the journal of Journal of Arachnology published by American Arachnological Society. 

The new spotting is very important as organisms not recorded for a period of 100 years are usually considered extinct. However, there are hardly any scientific studies conducted on the species in the recent past. 

According to Wikipedia, Cryptothele is a genus of spiders which comes under Zodariidae family of spiders. Cryptothele has ten described species of spiders including Cryptothela Sundaica. It also shows that the species was also reported by Tamerlan Thorell from Singapore in 1890s and has two sub species.