#10 Two Ecologists
Dr. M. B. Krishna is an ornithologist and ecologist based in Bangalore. He has advised many corporates and individuals on modifying landscape garden plans to make them more urban-wildlife friendly.
For Krishna, daily life has not been affected much by the lockdown. But since green spaces and parks are locked down and transport is not available, Krishna can’t go do his bird watching. He is not worried about contracting the virus. “If you look at the data, the recovery rate is extremely high. Yes, there are fatalities, but a lot of those cases are with comorbidities. Yes, people die. If you are old, you are more likely to die. That happens any which way. And as it stands the percentage of infected people is not even the quarter of the population!
“If the government had kept track of 15-lakh people coming from abroad, it would have been much better than putting 1.3 billion people under lockdown. The government, with all its agencies, should do a lot more listening to its own staff. Technical staff need to be given a hearing. Technical people need to be listened to, need to be heard. If the political system believes it is everything, this is what you are going to get.” His might be an archaic view, but Krishna believes that experience and learning should be respected. He doesn’t know if experts within the government knew the virus was coming and also knew what needed to be done to contain it at a nascent stage itself, “but the point is, how often have you heard of technical people being heard. Yes, committees are formed, but how often does the government hear them? You might have heard the RBI Governor speaking, but how many other subject experts have you heard? Why are our technical people not coming out and speaking in this crisis?
“For human beings the lockdown is difficult. Birds on the other hand are being sighted more and more in cities. There are reports that peacocks are turning up everywhere in Bangalore. The last reported sighting of a peacock was hardly 1 km from Lalbagh. Birds have probably also come to many lakes which have a walking path around them. People running and walking close would disturb them earlier. There are some reports, but no observations can be made because of the lockdown and control of access to all these places.”
Krishna would have loved to see a small data collection to gauge the impact of the lockdown on birds. “This research could show how much of a change can be brought about in just two or three weeks. Whereas we are thinking of achieving environmental goals over tens of years. If it had been a planned lockdown the government would have had economic, social, cultural, and scientific monitoring systems in place. In effect, this crisis shows that we don’t have a disaster plan.”
“Satellite imagery apparently shows a substantial drop in pollution levels in many places. High consumption countries, high consumption lifestyles, have apparently come down.
“In the old USSR, apparently, they had a policy that if a company or factory had to be started, plans had to be made for accommodation nearby. India, despite being such a socialist country, never thought of providing housing for developmental projects. We should have been walking to work. Instead, we travel across cities. In some places we travel some two hours each way. And higher the speed of transport, longer the distance you are traveling from. This is a gross error in planning. Given these things, from the environment point of view, it’s likely that things would have improved during the lockdown.”
But this is not a fundamental or lasting change. Krishna hears of mining and natural resource harvesting being viewed as essential activities which are continuing during the lockdown. Huge projects are being given the go-ahead. He asks, is taking something out of the Earth an essential activity?
“Once human societies bounce back people are going to be more consumptive. So whatever changes are happening now will be reversed completely. More importantly, if you visualize a country as a company, you want your economy and money to grow.” So, Krishna fears a more development oriented, Earth harvesting kind of approach. The people in power want their money to come back, they want their taxes and donations. Besides, the government cannot control the truly wealthy. For instance, it cannot control what a mining baron is going to do. One large project from a mining concern will instantly undo any effort made by individual citizens.
“It is perhaps correct in saying that pandemic has happened because we have gone and taken over habitats of species we would not otherwise come in contact with. We have also started catching, transporting and eating such species. Which brings us in contact with newer pathogens. Any parasite, any pathogen which evolves has a greater chance of spreading itself and increasing its own numbers by infecting a successful species. Human beings are becoming progressively more and more common, more and more abundant. So, we are becoming better and better hosts for such pathogens.
“There are many lessons to be taken from this pandemic, if anyone is willing to take them. These lessons might seem impractical or impossible now, but only if we are proactive is change possible. The way we use resources for instance. It is being said now that we need to leave at least half the land for other forms of life. We can’t invade into every part of the Earth. If human populations are too large, pack people into cities. Depopulate the countryside. In nature, animals don’t accumulate material wealth. Some animals store, but that too within limits. If they store too much, other animals will pilfer it. In contrast, economic disparity is increasing in India. We need to control avarice, which is what the ancient scholars say, and Buddha did say I think, that greed is the cause of sorrow. Wanting and desire, have no limits, and need to be kept in check.
[This part of the present post deviates slightly from the overall pattern of the blog, quotation marks added on request of Dr. Krishna]
Vikram Aditya is a postdoctoral researcher based in Bangalore. His PhD was on mammal diversity and distribution pattern in Papikonda National Park and its buffer in the northern Eastern Ghats. At the moment he is working on pangolins in Papikonda, quantifying their population in the area and ascertaining whether they are hunted by locals.
The general public does not know about pangolins, or that they are found in India. In fact, even to experts, very little is known about pangolins in India. Both species of pangolins found in the country, the Indian pangolin and the Chinese pangolin, are endangered. As a group, across Asia and Africa, pangolins are very highly endangered because of hunting and trade. There have been very few studies, and no census has been taken, so it is impossible to say how many pangolins there are in India. In an online study that Vikram and his team conducted, 51 sightings were reported from 16 states in the country. So, pangolins are found pretty much everywhere in the country, and, everywhere in the country they are extremely rare.
Vikram is tensed about the Covid-19 outbreak in India, but he is not personally afraid of getting the virus. At least no more than any average person. This is like any other virus; it will come and go. For people who have co-morbidities, it might lead to complications. The lockdown was a good decision. It could have been enforced even earlier. But instead of asking us to clap and bang utensils and light diyas, the authorities should have told us what they are doing to help migrant laborers and for the safety of healthcare workers. Vikram hasn’t had any recent interactions with healthcare workers and doesn’t know if they are using PPEs. His field assistant, however, has been unwell. He has kidney issues and a stent was put in his kidney. He was supposed to have it removed but cannot do so due to the lockdown. Vikram’s field assistant lives in a village and the hospital is about 150 kms away.
During the lockdown Vikram stays indoors in his apartment and tries to do as much work as possible online. His daily life has not been affected too much. But his work has. When the lockdown was announced Vikram was about to leave for the field. His field area is in the northern Eastern Ghats, in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. It’s a moist deciduous forest in a mountainous region. The village where he stays is called Chinturu. The nearest town is Bhadrachalam. It’s mostly a sparsely populated area, dominated by tribal communities. Barking deer, wild boar, sambhar, cheetal, and gaur are easily spotted there. Vikram has also seen tigers and leopards. His field assistant keeps telling him there are slightly more sightings now, during the lockdown. It’s frustrating to not be able to go to the field in this situation. But he understands. Humans could also be a danger to the animals. There was news about the tiger at Bronx zoo who got infected with Coronavirus by a human being. It is premature to say what effects the lockdown will have on wildlife research, because we don’t know anything about this disease and how it can spread.
Vikram believes claims about the Earth reclaiming territory are sensationalist. The Earth is not trying to reclaim anything deliberately. It’s just a temporary pause on human activity. He’s not sure the fall in pollution levels really impacts wildlife. In most wildlife areas you don’t see pollution. You see plastic and all that, but pollution is more of an issue in urban areas, where factories are concentrated. So, it wouldn’t have been a major issue to start with for wildlife.
Vikram is not even sure if wildlife will encounter less human activity during the lockdown. In the northern Eastern Ghats people hunt a lot. It is a cultural activity for them more than a source of food, they have been doing it for generations. He is only guessing, but they are probably hunting just as much as before. It is unclear if poaching could increase due to the lockdown. Poaching and hunting by local communities are linked. At least in the Eastern Ghats it is not outsiders who come and hunt. It is the local people. If at all, outsiders come and buy stuff from local people. Some outsiders come and ask for rare plants or tiger claws, and that contributes to hunting, but poaching by outsiders is not a major concern in Eastern Ghats. But it’s hard to say if poaching would increase now, because even poachers might find it difficult to move around. Poaching of pangolins in particular is not widespread in India. Their numbers are so low that it doesn’t make sense for a trafficker to go looking for them. A vast majority of illegally trafficked pangolins are transported from Africa, where their populations are higher.
Reports say the SARS-CoV-2 virus has probably emerged from pangolins or bats. Most say pangolins. Despite being protected for a long time, pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world. This has been going on for decades. Pangolins are easy to transport illegally. They don’t make any sounds even if caught. They don’t respond at all; they just roll themselves into a ball and stay that way. Other animals are not so easy to transport. Right now, because zoonosis has emerged and is spreading amongst people, they are taking notice. But otherwise there have been so many cases where we have wiped out entire populations of species and nobody knows about it. For instance, gorilla populations have reduced by 90%. Ebola and HIV/AIDS are both linked to gorillas. The reason these diseases emerged from gorillas and contaminated humans is because we cleared their habitat and killed them.
There is a big lesson for people, corporations, and governments in this pandemic. It shows you that the simple act of killing a wild animal and eating it can have so many repercussions, which can spread across the world so quickly. It’s not like this is the first time this has happened either. There have been so many zoonosis in the past; Ebola, SARS, HIV/AIDS. Vikram really hopes people will change how they interact with nature after the pandemic. But he doesn’t think it’s going to happen. People will probably go back to their old behavior. Just today Prakash Javdekar cleared several projects in wildlife areas. Roads and so on. People have not realized that biodiversity loss is closely linked to zoonosis and pandemics.