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Friday, February 22

North American weed spotted in India, could be major threat to agriculture and forests in future

If the initial hints are anything to believe, the farmlands and forests in India have a brand new invasive threat from a rarely reported foreign plant species native to North America. A recent research correspondence published in the Current Science journal claims to report the plant for the first time from India and argues that the plant can have tremendous invasive potential.

Western ragweed, Ambrosia psilostachya, invasive plant, north american weed, invasive plants in india, alien plants
Western ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya)
Image courtesy: Krzysztof Ziarnek Kenraiz (Wikimedia commons)
 According to the researchers, the plant is presently reported from farm lands in the M. Bevinahalli village in Turuvekere taluk of Karnataka. On close examination and surveying the literature, the researchers were able to identify the new plant as Ambrosia psilostachya. Though the plant resembles its close relative Ambrosia artemisiifolia which is found in India, it is actually different, says the correspondence. 

Its Indian variety, Ambrosia artemisiifolia, was the only member of the genus hitherto reported from India. According to the correspondence, the new weed is native to North America and is known as perennial rag weed or western ragweed in North America.

New invasive plant threat in India
The research note warns that the weed has tremendous capacity to spread very rapidly and is known to cause allergic reactions in Humans. “If the weed is not controlled now, it may create a difficult to control situation once it proliferates from the location of present report”’ says the correspondence. 

According to the correspondence, the weed has not only invaded finger millet, mulberry, coconut and areca nut cultivation  but has also conquered the cattle pastures which have affected animal husbandry of these villages. The correspondence also notes that the plant has seriously affected local flora, by replacing local grass varieties, thus decreasing fodder availability. 

The plant is capable of spreading to large areas through extensive vegetative reproduction through underground rhizome like roots and stolon (part of the plant which makes new plant).  Though the plant has been present in some villages in Karnataka for the last 15 to 20 years, it is not yet clear what restricts it from spreading to other places.

 According to the researchers, since the plant does not have parts which supports seed dispersal through wind, the plant has not yet started spreading to other places. It is also not clearly known at this point if all the seeds produced by the plant are viable or if they exhibit any type of dormancy.

Though, there are not many issues reported about this plant expect its rapid invasion of farm lands in Karnataka Villages, reports from other countries indicate that the plant can cause allergic diseases in humans. “The species is said to be responsible for causing severe allergenic diseases in human beings in the United States”, says the correspondence.

The North American Connection
The plant is actually native to North America and the way in which it has reached Indian farmlands is still unknown. Though some speculates that the seeds could have been brought to India by migratory birds that use the seeds and other parts the plant for making nests, the connection is yet to be scientifically proved.
Though contaminated food grains are a usual way in which invasive plants reach farther places -as in the case of Lantana, a notorious weed in Indian forest- that may not be the reason for the spread of the present weed. “The introduction of the species through contaminated food grain may not be possible, as the weed is localized only in these villages in Karnataka”, says the paper.

The plant has already spread to parts of South America, Europe, New Caledonia, Japan, Taiwan and Australia. The researchers do not rule out the chances that the seeds reaching India from either of these places.

Weed control measures
 The presence of root buds, horizontally running rhizomes and dense root ramification makes the plant difficult to manage and eradicate. Periodical manual removal, shallow plowing before passing cultivator in farms has been recommended as a control measure. According to the note, if repeated control measures are taken, the weed can be controlled in 4 to 5 years from the country with its present restricted proliferation.

 M. T. Sanjay  and T. V. Ramachandra Prasad from the Directorate of Weed Science Research Centre, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, R. A. Sharma from Directorate of Weed Science Research, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Jabalpur and R. R. RAO, from Bangalore co-authored the correspondence.

Read more on IBT's coverage on invasive species in India.

Saturday, February 9

New herb growing on moist rocks identified from Southern Western Ghats of Kerala

Adding one more species to the rich flora of Western Ghats- a world heritage site and one of the eight hottest biodiversity hot-spots in the world- researchers have identified and described a new herb from its southern parts.

According to a recent research paper published in the International journal Rheedea from Indian Association for Angiosperm Taxonomy, the plant was named Henckelia pradeepiana, to honour Dr. A K Pradeep, curator at the Calicut University Herbarium who first collected the specimen in 1997.

Gesneriaceae,Henckelia pradeepiana, new plant species, south Indian plant, Western Ghats, kerala, western ghat flora
Henckelia pradeepiana, a new plant species identified from southern Western Ghats
Image Courtesy: Rheedea
Spotted from parts of Vellari Mala, a hill tract in Southern Western Ghats, situated in the Calicut district of Kerala, the single leaved plant belongs to Gesneriaceae family of perennial flowering plants.

13 year long mystery solved
The new plant was actually located on damp rocks near the Olichuchattam waterfall in Vellari mala in Southern Western Ghats in 1997 by Dr A K Pradeep Kuamr during a botanical survey. However, he was not able to describe the plant since it remained elusive for a long time since then. According to the researchers, recurring landslides and resulting change in the water course could have kept this plant elusive, despite repeated attempts to locate it again.

Gesneriaceae,Henckelia pradeepiana, new plant species, south Indian plant, Western Ghats, kerala, western ghat flora, cyme, inflorescence
Flowers and fruits of  Henckelia pradeepiana
Image Courtesy: Rheedea
However, K M Manudev, at the Plant systematics and Floristics Lab, Department of Botany, St Joseph’s college, Devagiri in Calicut, who is the part of the present study team, has located the plant again in 2010, after 13 years from the first report. While the first spot from which Dr. Pradeep reported the was at an altitude of 1160 meters from the sea level , the new record came from a few kilometers down at an altitude of 460 meters, from Muthappanpuzha.

The plant is found firmly attached to moist rocks along stream sides, or on tree barks in shady, humid areas, usually growing associated with mosses and ferns at elevations between 460 meters to 1160 meters from the sea level in Western Ghats.  According to reports, the plant usually has a single broadly ovate or oblong leave and in rare cases, up to 4 leaves.

The flowers on the plant are arranged in cyme or in flat topped cluster in which the central or terminal one opens first. The flower clusters are found to have to 1 to 20 flowers on the plant.  The bright yellow stigma of the flowers with strongly expanded lower lip is a remarkable characteristic of the plant. The usual flowering and fruiting season of the plants occur during July to October.  

Differences and similarities with other Henckelia members in peninsular India

According to the research paper, close relatives of the plant found in South India and Sri Lanka have unique tuber like features. However, Henckelia pradeepiana differs from them with its uniquely shaped, flat discoidal tuber and ovoid, globose thick fruit. Similarly, the faint blue flowers of the plant are also typical to its relatives in the peninsular India.

H. pradeepiana, stigma, flower parts, western ghats flowers, white flowers, kerala flowers, calicut flowers
H. pradeepiana Flower with bright yellow stigma
Image Courtesy: Rheedea
flower Side view,  Henckelia pradeepiana, calicut flower, kerala flower, western ghats flora,
Side view of  H. pradeepiana flower
Image Courtesy: Rheedea

Though the plant which was hitherto unknown to science has been described and christened as per taxonomic norms, not much is known about the details of the ecology of the plant and the ecological services rendered by it. The present reports restricts its distribution to southern Western Ghats of Kerala, however, it is highly likely that the plant can be found in other parts of Western Ghats at similar elevations. The closest relative of the plant, H. missionis, however is reported from Western Ghats from Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu which is 400 odd kilometers away from the present record of the new species.  

A. Weber of Department of Structural and Functional Botany, Faculty of Biodiversity, University of Vienna and Santhosh Nampy with the Plant systematics and Floristics Lab, Department of Botany, St Joseph’s college, Devagiri in Calicut has also co-authored the paper.  The new addition also points out that floral richness of this biodiversity hotspot still needs more exploration. 

Tuesday, February 5

No more ‘official’ hunting of straying tigers, NTCA comes out with standard protocol

The martyrdom of the Wayanad tiger and a similar incident of officials shooting a strayed tiger in Maharashtra, has urged the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to come out with a Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to handle conflict situations in which a strayed carnivore like tiger of leopard are involved.

Image Courtesy: WWF
While clearly forbidding the shooting of strayed carnivores, the SOP addresses many critical issues like mob control, the need to distinguish a man eater from a straying carnivore and standard procedures for capturing and transferring the animal in detail.

To make sure the situation is handled properly, the SOP suggests constituting a committee with nominees of the Chief Wildlife Warden, NTCA along with a veterinarian, local NGO representative, local panchayat representative and field director to carry out the decision making process. The SOP also suggests that a wildlife expert should be involved in the ongoing monitoring operations in such conflict situations.

Distinguish man eaters from a mere cattle lifter, before shooting it
A straying carnivore should not be shot, if it is not a man-eater, directs the SOP.  “Under no circumstances, a tiger should be eliminated by invoking the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, if it is not habituated for causing human death.” it says. It also urges to stick to traps and chemical immobilization to capture the animal.

“Elimination of a tiger / leopard as a ‘man-eater’ should be the last option, after exhausting the option of capturing the animal live. The Chief Wildlife Warden of the State after the due diligence should record in writing the reasons for declaring the tiger / leopard as a ‘man-eater’” says the guideline.

Often, carnivores straying into human inhabited area are mistaken for a man eater, even without enough evidence. To avoid such cases, the SOP annexure directs officials to distinguish attacks from a habitual man-eater from incidents of accidental lethal encounters with a straying carnivore.
“As most of our forests outside protected areas are right burdened, the probability of chance encounters is very high.  Further, tigers often use agriculture / sugar cane field, ….. ...which may also cause lethal encounters with human beings.  Such animals should not be declared as ‘man-eaters’.  However, confirmed habituated tiger / leopard which ‘stalk’ human beings and feed on the dead body are likely to be ‘man-eaters’”, says the SOP annexure.

In the Wayanad incident, a cattle lifting tiger was shot down by officials, by invoking section 11 of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 which allows killing habitual man eating tigers. To curb such instances, the SOP annexure clearly directs that in no circumstances, a mere cattle lifting carnivore be declared a man eater, just because it has ventured into human inhabited places.  

The new guidelines also stress on confirming the identity of the animal as early as possible. The guidelines direct the authorities to compare camera trap pictures, pug mark information to identify the animal. Camera traps can be set up near the kills and pressure impression pads (PIPs) can be put up in the area to confirm the identity of the animal and to track down its pattern of movement, says the guidelines.

Use Section 144 for mob control
Uncontrollable mobs are often the biggest challenge in rescuing a straying animal in India. In the Wayanad incident, officials were forced to shoot the tiger due to the presence of an agitated mob. The same factor has killed many straying leopards in parts of India.

To avoid such instances, the new guidelines suggest wildlife officials to proactively seek the help of district law and order authorities right from the beginning of the conflict situation and to clamp down Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code which bans the grouping of more than five people in public places. “In all instances of wild carnivores like tiger  / leopard straying into a human dominated landscape, the district authorities need to ensure law and order by imposing section 144 of the Cr.Pc.”, says the guideline.

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Front Page of NTCA SOP
Usually, tigers keep their kill in hide outs to eat later, which often helps to track down the animal and even to capture them. But often this is interrupted in conflict areas. In Wayanad incident, outraged public snatched the carcass of the killed live stock to put up road block protests. This has caused the hungry animal to lift more cattle in the run. Interestingly, the NTCA guidelines also suggest guarding the kill in cattle lifting incidents, in such a way that it won’t distract or disturb the carnivore. The suggestion also aims to avoid revenge poisoning, which is a usual incident in human-animal conflict areas. In a recent incident, a tiger died when villagers poisoned the kill in Nagarhole Tiger Reserve.

Stop rumour mills
Rumour mills have played a major role in worsening the situation in Wayanad as in similar cases by causing unnecessary panic among the people. To check such instances, the guideline directs the authorities to deploy an official spokesperson to regularly update the media regarding the progress of the rescue operation. 

“An authorized spokesperson of the Forest Department, should periodically update the media (if required) to prevent dissemination of distorted information relating to the operation / incidents,” says the guideline.  On a similar line, the guideline also discourages giving unnecessary publicity to blown up tiger population figures. “The minimum tiger numbers based on Individual tiger captures (in areas where camera trap monitoring is going on), should not be given undue publicity without due cross checking with the NTCA”, says the guideline.

Use traps and chemical immobilization
Once repeated instances of cattle lifting or attack on humans are confirmed, automatic closure traps should be set up in strategic areas after collecting enough information on the movement of the animal, suggests NTCA. If repeated attempts of trapping the animal fail, the guidelines suggest immobilizing it chemically using sedation darts with the help of experts and vets.

Bengal Tiger, Panthera tigris tigris, Tiger under captivity, NTCA, shooting tigers
A Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) under captivity
According to the guideline, recommended drugs can be injected to the animal by projecting 3 to 5 ml capacity lightweight plastic darts of 38 to 40 mm length and a needle with 1.5 mm to 2 mm diameter, using compressed gas or CO2 propelling device. The animal can be approached in vehicles or on trained elephants or can be darted from raised platforms. It is always preferable to target the hindquarters of the animal for darting. The guideline also suggests that the animal should bee kept in close observation with minimal disturbance during the induction phase (the period between injecting the drug and the animal turning immobile.)

Transferring the captured carnivore
If the captured tiger is healthy or young, with no serious incapacitation, it should be released to a suitable habitat with enough prey base after radio collaring it, suggest thee guideline. A captured tiger should not be released to the territory of another tiger. If the tiger is incapacitated, it should be sent to a recognized zoo, says the guidelines. It also says that a confirmed man-eating carnivore, once captured, should not be released back to the forest.

The Chief Wildlife Warder of the state will be responsible for making the decision of releasing the animal back to the wild or of transferring it to a zoo.

Friday, February 1

Unethical wildlife photographers new threat to Slender Loris in South India

Slender Loris, Loris iydekkerianus,
Slender Loris (Loris lydekkerianus)
Image Courtesy: Kalyan Varma
Unethical shutterbugs have joined the league of black magicians and pet rackets as a growing threat to the existence Slender Loris, a small primate found in parts of South India, says a new research note published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa.

By surveying Kani tribes in Peppara wildlife sanctuary in Kerala and by analysing photos in a major Indian wildlife photography website, the study points out that unethical handling of Lorises for wildlife photography is rampant in South India. The practice could be one among the poorly documented threats to this smallest primate endemic to South India and Sri Lanka, says the study.

Slender Loris is a nocturnal primate, found in two subspecies- (Loris lydekkerianus and Loris malabaricus) in South India which are active only in the night and spend their whole day sleeping round as a ball. The nocturnal nature of these slow loris keeps it elusive and less accessible to wildlife tourists and wildlife photographers alike.

Arrange Loris photo-shoots, get paid!
According to the study, wildlife photographers in Thiruvananthapuram - the capital city of Kerala- pay Rs. 500 to 1500 to the indigenous Kani tribes in the areas to capture Slender Lorises and arrange photo shoots. The practice occurs despite the fact that the animal is protected under Schedule I of The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Apart from capturing and keeping it, the Lorises are often tightly held on short branches and prodded so that it won’t move during a photo shoot; to help the ‘professional wildlife photographer’ get enough good pictures. Moreover, the poor animal will be illuminated with torches aimed at it, says the study. It is a known fact that aiming strong light sources like torches and camera flashes at Slender Lorises for longer, will be irritating to the animal since it has very sensitive, large eyes to help their nocturnal life.

The study team has also noted that the animal captured for such photo shoots are not returned to the place from it was collected. In one incident, to which the team was witness, the animal was released next day to an isolated bamboo clump near the house, after the photographer getting enough pictures. The bamboo clump had no vegetation continuity to reach back to the place from which the Loris was collected, says the study. 
   Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary As seen from the dam
Shadow auror at English Wikipedia 
[GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons 

As per accounts of the tribes, it is usual to get Loris with infants which are again treated the same way. Another respondent, says the study, has cut down at least four trees to restrict a Loris to a single tree so that it will not escape.

The research team has also noted that the tribes are so much familiarized with the practice that they hold the animal in different ways to help the photographer get very good angles.

It was while studying about the status of forest dwelling chelonians in Agasthyamalai region, that the research team came to notice the unethical wildlife photography practices.Arun Kanagavel, Rajkumar Sekar and Rajeev Raghavan  of  Conservation Research Group (CRG), St. Albert’s College, Cochin, and Cynthia Sinclair of Wildlife Information Liaison Development Society (WILD), Zoo Outreach Organization were part of the study team.

Money matters. well, more than tradition
However, from the study, it can be found that the tribes are not completely unaware of the conservation angle traditionally. Informal interviews with the kani tribes reveals that the tribes otherwise don’t prefer catching this insect eating, slowly moving primate, since it is believed to resemble their hill god (mala daivam). Connecting such organisms with the divine was an old, time-tested traditional trick of nature conservation in the Asian countries. The tribes also don’t keep Loris as pets since its looks are unpopular. They often consider it a bad luck to sight a Loris in the forests. Despite these beliefs, the money offered by photographers are luring the tribes to indulge in this unethical practices against their traditional beliefs.

Actually, the tribes take extra pain to do the business. According to the accounts, painful bites are a usual while capturing the primate. When kept in home, the animal has to be covered under clothes to avoid women in the house seeing it, since unmarried woman having a look at the Loris will stay a spinster throughout the life, as per traditional belief.

The cyberspace connection
To study the trend deeply, the research team has also surveyed the Loris photos available on a major Indian wildlife photography portal. They have found that majority of the pictures were taken during day time, with the animal in awakened position, often hinting blatant ill-treatment.

Out of the 28 cases they have studied, 16 involved mistreating the animal. 13 photographs of this nocturnal animal were taken during day. According to the study, the incidents of the unethical practice were more sighted in photographs taken from Karnataka.

Ethical aspects of Wildlife photography
The ethical guidelines in wildlife photography discourage forcing an animal from its natural conditions to get favorable pictures. Altering the habitat of an animal to get beautiful pictures is anything beyond the ethical grounds of wildlife photography. However, it is unfortunate to notice that majority of the wildlife photographers – both professional and matures- are less concerned about such ethical aspects of the trade.

“It is not this species alone that is facing threat. Instances of unethical photography inside the wildlife sanctuaries and core areas are growing,” said Balan Madhavan, wildlife photographer and a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers.According to him, Wildlife photography is part of nature conservation but these unethical practices by certain people are marring the very essence of it.

"(Most of ) those people engaged in this unethical practice are doing it for popularity. They are less concerned about wildlife or its conservation and are uploading those photos on social networking sites", said he. It is time to bring some kind of regulation to such unethical practices, he added.

Other Threats to Loris
However, the wildlife photographers are just an addition to the threats to the existence of this endemic primate.  Earlier studies have revealed that astrologers in South India use it for picking tarot cards. Like the Slow Loris, pet trade target Slender Loris also.  Practitioners of Traditional medicine also prefer loris since it is believed to have medicinal properties to treat a variety of ailments including leprosy . Some traditional medical practitioners also use the tears from Slender Loris to treat eye ailments and to prepare love potions. Illegal capturing and trading of lorises for all these purposes is a major threat to the life of this animal.