Join award-winning environmental journalist, Fulbright scholar and West Barnstable resident Meera Subramanian for an evening in Punjab, the breadbasket of India, exploring pressing questions about the future of food in South Asia and the world. Can India and other countries move away from the agribusiness model of farming that has been shown to deplete and contaminate water supplies, cause human health problems, and decimate wildlife habitat, yet still feed the growing number of people on the planet? Meet Gora Singh and other organic farmers in this northwestern corner of India, who insist the answer is yes. Punjab is where the Green Revolution began in India, and where a hint of what might come next is emerging. Also: bonus photographs from all over India! This talk is free, but registration is requested. [Read more…]
I hear from a great distance that he calls himself Harold Camping. I hear that he has studied a very old book very closely and decided that today is the day the world will end. Others believe him! I know my opinion might not count for much, but I don’t think the world will end today for the humans. There are seven billion Homo sapiens on earth, give or take, usually taking. They’re a species that like to mate, from what I’ve observed, and females are fertile every 28 days are so. It’s rumored that some pairings that have trouble with conception have various other means at their disposal to help the process, often resulting in multiple births. Each day I see more of them! That their world might end seems quite impossible!
They like to give names and the one they’ve given me is the Taita thrush. I like their way of naming, but not the way they’ve come into my forest and carried it away, stealing my home to make theirs. I awoke in a cloak of sadness this Saturday, unable to sing my morning song. I have been looking for a while now for another of my kind and I think they might all be gone. I’m having the urge to nest, but without a mate, I know it will be a futile endeavor. My friends, you see, have been disappearing for a while now, apparently risen up to some other realm. Each time we’d gather, there were fewer of us. Even when I couldn’t find them, I’d hear their call, singing through the forest. And then it was just me. No one answered my song. Maybe there is another there, across the divide, too far to hear. The Taita Hills of my Kenyan land were all one once, and I suppose the ground still connects us, but the places where we live – where I live – are only four in number now, and the distance between them is too dangerous for me to travel. And I woke up not feeling so well this morning.
Today, the Allahabad High Court in Lucknow, India announced its decisions in the Babri Masjid case, the controversial site that both Muslims and Hindus lay claim to in Ayodhya. Among other questions, the three-judge panel was determining whether the controversial site was indeed the birthplace of the Hindu Lord Ram. Sopan Joshi, of the Indian newsweekly Tehelka wrote, before the verdict, “There is always agitation when a matter of faith is tested on scales of science and history.”
Eighteen years after the mosque was destroyed by Hindu extremists who had already made their decision on the matter, 89 court witnesses, and a thousand-page report later, the verdict is in. Sort of. Of the three judges, two have stated that the site is indeed the birthplace of Ram. This was just one of more than a hundred major and minor issues at hand in the four suits that together made up the Ayodhya case. It could still be contested and brought up before the Supreme Court, but for now the site, bare but for its weighty history, has been declared two-thirds Hindu and one-third Muslim. Seems a perfect time for some fusion architecture, no?
Robert Mackey writes in The New York Times today:
Since they do make factual assertions about beliefs and faith traditions, the rulings of the three judges make for remarkable reading. One judge, Dharam Veer Sharma, for instance, ruled, “The disputed site is the birth place of Lord Ram,” and then added this, about the presence of the deity’s spirit at the site:
“Spirit of divine ever remains present everywhere at all times for anyone to invoke at any shape or form in accordance with his own aspirations, and it can be shapeless and formless also.”
Spirit of divine. It is land on a hill in Uttar Pradesh. Sweet water emerges from a well. Maybe Ram was born there. Archaeology shows there were Hindu temples there before the mosque was built in 1527. Jains say they had a temple there as well. A report from 1918 mentions Buddhist shrines. How easy it is to forget that the land now known as India, which is predominantly Hindu today, was ruled by Muslims from 1000 AD until the Brits arrived in the 1700s. The Muslims and Hindus, at least for a time, shared the sacred space on Ramkot Hill, brought together to drink from the magic well whose waters were believed to be healing. The Brits, in a literal divide-and-conquer move, erected a barrier in the mid-1800s separating the space. Muslims here. Hindus there. Violence would burst periodically — mine! mine! — but it was the destruction of the mosque in 1992 that resulted in 2000 dead, mostly Muslims, who make up 13% of India’s population today.
There are 40,000 extra police on the streets of Mumbai, but that city, and the rest of India (less Kashmir, but that’s another story. Or is it?), is calm. It seems a good sign. Politicians and community groups cite a “maturity” in India’s manner of dealing with such matters. Perhaps. Perhaps.
Things are rarely as they appear. For birds in which there is little differentiation in outward appearances, it is easy to assume that two birds sitting on a nest are a male-female pair. But when biologists start testing blood for sex identification, it reveals an altogether different story for the Laysan albatross. Some of these findings have made their way into the news lately.
This morning at the World Seabird Conference, biologist Dr. Lindsay Young presented her research from eight years of studying female-female pairings of the Laysan albatross in Hawaii. Her driving interest was to figure out if these birds are genetically wired to prefer their own sex or were they simply expressing what scientists call a “behavioral flexibility” because of a skewed male-female ratio. There are way more female birds than male ones. It is the old question – nature or nurture? The answer, in part, depended on finding out how the females fared in their parenting and survival, and if the females were willing to switch their mates to male should the opportunity present itself. She did her best to steer clear of the “dicey territory” that this type of investigation inherently drifts into, given human inclination to anthropomorphize, at least when it comes in handy for their own preconceived notions of “normality.”
First she turned to the genetic fathers of the offspring, for the females were sitting on viable eggs. These males often had other established mates of their own (albatross often stay in supposedly monogamous pairs) and took the extra females in both consensual and forced – often when the female’s other protective female partner was absent – copulations. Both females would take turns incubating the egg, an adjustment for the birds, who usually have the male incubate for the first three weeks before the female takes over. The juggling throws the females off a bit. Some get a bit antsy and leave their brooding duties, to the detriment of the egg. Something about this switch also causes energy stress to the females that results in failed nests early on (and the need for females to take a breeding sabbatical the next year).
But if the egg survived past that initial stage, the chick had just as much likelihood of making it to its first flight as the offspring of male-female pairs. Two moms, ultimately, did just fine.
As for making a switch back to hetero pairing, it did happen, but interestingly, seemed more likely to happen if the female-female pairing had successfully produced an offspring.
Yes, Young concluded, it is behavioral, a plasticity of pairing that allows for reproduction even when there are not enough males to go around in the conventional arrangement. Yet if the albatrosses weren’t adopting this strategy, the population would not be growing but staying steady or even declining. It’s physically hard on the females, but it’s good for colony health, and what’s good for the colony is good for the Laysan albatross. Overall, these all-female pairs are responsible for raising a fifth of the colony’s chicks.
The small city of Victoria, on the south end of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, passed from summer to fall since I came here a week ago. A misty rain shrouded the city yesterday, on the opening day of the World Seabird Conference. It is the first international gathering of people who are working on the conservation of seabird populations. Over 800 participants from forty countries are here at the Victoria Conference Centre to discuss the state of conservation of seabirds around the globe. No other creature crosses political boundaries and ecological zones, linking land and water and sky, as much as seabirds do. Yet very little is known. Birds such as albatrosses and puffins are born on land, but when they fledge, they fly out to sea and don’t return to land until they are ready to mate, years later. Experts are discussing the major conservation issues facing pelagic birds: how climate change is affecting populations, the consequences of marine debris on seabird mortality, the creation of protected areas, the impact of fisheries, and more. I’ll post some highlights while I’m here.
I confess. I’ve been seeing another blog. Since I’ve only gotten a smattering of words and pictures from Kenya up here, you’ll just have to visit it — ConservationMedia in Kenya — to see what I was up to in June, running around the horn of East Africa with a biologist, a photographer, and a group of undergraduate students from St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.
The safari is over. For eleven days, we were allowed to be voyeurs into a world still wild with life and death in East Africa. Up before dawn, my brain was in a continual state of reprogramming, each new creature spotted depositing a search image in my mind’s databank, undoubtedly pushing out some other piece of useful information: the number of my bus line in Brooklyn, the name of a person I still consider a friend. But now I know, for the moment, the fingered contours of a vulture’s wing, the black-backed ears of a lion hidden in tall grass, the way the white on the leopard’s long striped tail flick back and forth as she shoos away flies. But listen. There is an auditory search image as well. The two-tone call of the rufous-naped lark, the gentle upward whoop of a hyena that defies its savageness, the maddening ceaselessness of the red-breasted cuckoo.
But here is one day. We’re in the Mara in southern Kenya, looking south to the mountains of Tanzania with the Serengeti beyond. We’ve already seen leopards on the bank of the Ewaso Ng’iro, a martial eagle eating breakfast, and been surrounded by a herd of elephants in Samburu further north. We’ve touched the rough-hewn hide of Baraka, a blind black rhino at Ol Pejeta Conservancy and then watched as two wild black rhinos moved across the plain, stopping to eat creepers growing upon the grave of another rhino that was once a park favorite. We watched a lioness sleep on a log that arced up out of the undergrowth near Lake Nakuru, which was rimmed with the pink of flamingos. And then, as we sat in the still afternoon light, we noticed that there was another lioness…and then that there was a cub, two cubs, three cubs, just two months old.
But the call of the Mara in July is about the wildebeests. They come with their spring calves in one of the largest migrations on earth. When I was here with the students a few weeks ago, we witnessed the first wave, arriving early and perplexing the locals. Now, they remain mysterious. No more have arrived and no one seems sure where the thousands we saw before have gone. There are crossings strung along points of the Mara River and this is where the jeeps cruise in search of witnessing something spectacular. We come across a small herd of fifty beesties, but they stare at the water, unconvinced. Approach. Withdraw. They could do this for hours. Or days.
Teeku, our guide, was raised on this land and has a sense of it that few people have of their surroundings no matter where they grew up. He loves this landscape, returning to it over and over, but he can also gauge the loss even while we see abundance. He knows there are fewer lions on the move, more Maasai cows illegally grazing, very few Egyptian vultures overhead. Now, watching the “bewilderbeests” pause, he scans the horizon, sees movement elsewhere and leads us on.
Farther upstream, at a place called Cul-de-Sac Crossing, zebras are amassing, thousands of them, each unique with its own set of stripes that trail up off a hefty body into a cropped mane alternating black and white. Some are sidled with foals, fuzzy brown with cream. A winding funnel of a passage leads to the river, surrounded by scrubby forest on both sides. We approach and sit quietly. Like wind vanes, their noses all point toward the river and their braying has begun, a cacophony of trumped up gumption, urgent and scared. Unlike last year, when the drought left the riverbeds close to dry, there have been six months of rains this year. The grass is thick, and every living creature is copulating, procreating, bearing their young and savagely trying to see that young one up to adulthood. And the river is a torrent of rough brown liquid seventy-five feet across. Hit the wrong spot on the far side, and an animal will face a sheer wall of earth twice its height, its hooves useless.
We don’t sit long. One brave zebra steps in and a key is unlocked. They all crash in behind it, swimming against the current to reach the bank that’s low enough to clamor out. A few wildebeests are in their midst, and the oddly proportioned animals seem to all find their way to the sheer spot, collecting one upon the other as they panic to find footing. On the incoming bank where we sit, we are surrounded by a dust storm kicked up by the zebras, and on the far side, they soak the soil with the muddy water of their exit.
The stampede sends reverberations through the earth and water and the crocodiles respond. They have been in a semi-dormant state for much of the year and it’s early in the migration. They are hungry, and they are huge. Several wait downstream but one that looks to measure twelve feet long and a yard across comes in from the right, moving fast. We watch, our bodies reaching out of the open roof of the jeep, baking in the sun, cameras clicking, as the crocodiles cruise in and begin their attack, taking – we lost count – maybe ten zebras down, most quickly and mercilessly with a quick nab of the throat and then dragged down below the waters, except for that one.
God, that one zebra that the first croc went after its rump, then there were two, then three prehistoric reptilian beasts coming at it from all sides except its head which rose above the water hoping for air and escape. The zebra paddled hard, fighting for a life it couldn’t have anymore as they ate it alive, one swallowing the intestines it had pulled from the baying drowning dying creature while a good five feet away from it, and meanwhile, a lioness has moved in and sits for a short spell watching the blur of black and white until she leaps and takes down one in a microsecond, dragging it into the brush.
The zebras panic back and forth, surges into and out of the water, making their loud winneying and crying out to their separated offspring, to their parents or young across the waters, in a rhythmic, pulsing braying beat, and this goes one for an hour, more. I am breathless. Several escape the crocs, only to be caught by the lion. There is a second lion kill, by perhaps a second lion. Who can keep track? The crocs gorge.
One zebra, injured on ass and head, steals away and we come across her a kilometer from the river bank, standing on the savanna – how did she even make it this far? We pull up to her and watch as she teeters, unsteady legs buckling, and falls to the ground, and we watch her die, there, before us, watch as her legs burst into one last full gallop as she lies on her side in the tall tan grass, watch as her struggling mouth and eyes let go and relax in her blood-drenched face. We watch.
I was asking where the owls were. Even as the hippos snuffled outside my cabin, leopards roamed around the parking lot, and the moon waned then waxed, I never heard the hooting call of wild darkness. I listened and watched as the light drained from the sky in the Mara, as the polluted water lapped on the shores of Lake Naivasha, as the fire was lit at the GRL ranch an hour from Nairobi. Nothing. But back here in the heart of Nairobi, home comes Munir from a tennis game with his son – seven year old, just today! – with four baby barn owls. Their feet were tethered with twine, but at least they were alive, swept from a building site, parents long gone, delivered in a flimsy cardboard box on the back of a motorcycle to Nairobi’s raptor guy, Dr. Munir Virani of The Peregrine Fund.
I know barn owls from my escapades in another city that seems far away, New York. Around this time for the past few years, I have climbed upon a boat captained by Don Riepe,official guardian of Jamaica Bay, with NYC DEP biologist Chris Nadareski and a handful of dedicated volunteers, to find the barn owls in their boxes in that precious window of time in which they are big enough to ring with a leg band but small enough to not have fledged from their box. Sometimes, as we sneak up to the sites, through poison ivy and fields littered with gull nests, we catch an unsuspecting adult. Chris holds her delicately, even as she dips a fierce talon into his palm, gauzy delicate wings the color of dappled honey and snow extending out into the sunlight.
The four African cousins in the cardboard box are smaller. We can see the gradations like days of a calendar marked in down. The oldest is nearly fully feathered with its adult plumage, perhaps three weeks old, I’m estimating. Its dark eyes are alert and it sways its head back and forth in a hypnotic movement, on guard as we humans surround it. In New York, I have witnessed the siblings doing this motion in synch, hissing a strange reptilian sound in defense. But Number One.moves alone. Its three siblings aren’t nearly as strong or active. They fall one upon the other, each one more downy than the last.
We pick them up and unwind the string from their talons, opening their beaks to drop in water. I clutch the smallest and can feel the sharpness of its breastbone against my forefingers, a tiny thing nearly weightless. Closer inspection reveals a wound; something has punctured it in its throat in this already catastrophic day, left motherless and homeless, a refuge at the whim of a human world both brutal and caring. Munir applies antibiotic powder to the wound in hopes of keeping infection away. They refuse the raw meat we offer, and we don’t press them for now. Let them settle into the towel-lined wash basin and rest under a warm light.
Six hours later, we return from our dinner, our nyama choma cooked and seasoned and swept down with Tusker, and it is time for the owls’ midnight feeding. These are raptors, and they need their protein if they are to survive. They are still alive, and we lift them one by one to push the flesh down their gullets. Number One stands, extending its wings, but the other three take the food and then collapse again. They are young, only hints of the powerful night hunters they could become. Anything is possible. Tomorrow we will drop them at woman’s house who cares for orphans like these. There are no rehab centers in Kenya. Everything is unofficial.
I have washed my hands but their smell lingers with me. It is a smell of feathers and blood and raw meat and duffy down. Of desire and connection to something addictive and unnameable. Of fear, maybe, or perhaps hope. Could they smell the same? It is late again, the only time I seem to find to write, and I hope that come morning there will still be four feathered creatures blinking at us when it comes time for the next feeding. If winged visitors visited in my dreams in the time between then and now, I wouldn’t mind at all.