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From the Himalayas to the Czech Republic

By: Martina Anandam (India)

Martina with owlets © Martina Anandam

Last year I hosted my friend and fellow CLP alumnus, Felipe Ennes Silva, for a CLP Learning Exchange Programme in India. The experience provided many stories to tell over dinner and on rainy nights. This year, I won a CLP Travel Grant to present at two conferences in the Czech Republic. I resolved to make this trip a lasting adventure and an experience equally fit enough to be etched in my memory.

Petr Colas, my friend and Director of Ostrava Zoo in the Czech Republic invited me to attend the Old World Monkeys Meeting at Ostrava Zoo and the Prosimian Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) Meeting. I readily accepted his invitation. After a 20 hour flight, I was very happy to shed off the accumulated claustrophobia and march into Prague.  Lined with historical sites on one side and graffiti ridden walls on the other, the city is a perfect conglomeration of the present and days gone by. Jana, the primate curator of Ostrava Zoo picked me up and kindly drove me to Prague Zoo. We were to spend the day there and be amused! I enjoyed looking at the polar bears, orang-utans and the nocturnal primate exhibits. I am not much of a zoo enthusiast but this was an extraordinary experience. After a tired day at the zoo, Jana drove me to my destination, Ostrava Zoo.

Ostrava is a city about 280 km from Prague and a good four hour drive away. I was only too happy to settle down to sleep when my interest was piqued by the sound of a constant chatter. I soon discovered that I was right next to the flamingo exhibit. The beautiful Ostrava Zoo, established back in 1948 was then 6 hectare property. It is now a booming zoological park of 350 animal species spread over 100 hectares. The speciality of Ostrava Zoo is its Himalayan exhibit, Chitwan, which houses Himalayan black bears and Himalayan langurs. All langurs were faithfully christened with Indian names such as Shiela, Delhi and Balachandra with the fair exception of Baruska, Balachandra’s mom. This is a good example of globalization, a Czech mom with an Indian son!

The Old World Monkey conference was a wonderful opportunity to meet and interact with zoo keepers and zoo biologists from all over the country. It was insightful to learn the nuances of captive breeding and management and opened up a whole new vista for me. The opportunity to present my work on the Himalayan langur and reiterate the importance of on-the-ground conservation was encouraging. The Prosimian TAG Meeting was equally interesting and I got to meet up with some of my old professors at the lovely Plzen Zoo. The conference offered an opportunity to meet with potential donors from zoos from all over Europe, providing me with a platform to make my case for conservation in the Himalaya. I am extremely thankful for the fundraising opportunity.

Basilica in Olomouc © Martina Anandam

While the conferences demanded my attention, I managed little escapades to Zlin and Olomouc zoos. Zlin is a beautiful city and the heart of the world famous Bata factory.  My time in Zlin was further spiced up when the zoo keepers kindly allowed me to feed the Bactrian camels and the gentle tapirs as well as tape the ‘behind-the-scenes’ action as they vaccinated meerkats and bathed elephants. A visit to Olomouc Zoo was the cherry on my travel cake. Olomouc Zoo, located right next to a world famous Basilica, is set right in the middle of a postcard town. I took a break from the zoo and had a little sojourn to the Basilica. The old age church, built to fulfil a promise to a patron saint, was full of history and art and more than I could have asked for to complete my eventful afternoon.

I was happy to get back to my mountains in India as we have a lot to do there from keeping black bears from farms to studying new species of langurs across the Himalaya! (Read more of our work here).

The places I’ve been to visit, the people I met and the lovely memories will forever linger in my mind.  A CLP Travel Grant made this possible and I am forever grateful. I hope all CLP alumni get to realize such adventures and experiences through these useful grants! Thank you, CLP!

Voices of rare ‘talking’ turtles may prevent their extinction

Turtles breeding & Camila © Camila Ferrara

Camila Ferrara is an aquatic turtle specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Brazil Programme. Here she tells us about her ground-breaking work to conserve Brazil’s most threatened river turtles.

Years ago in the Brazilian Amazon, I was exposed to an unexpected but prevalent philosophy for how humans viewed animals. To the indigenous riverine people I encountered, an animal’s primary purpose was for food. Many of these people had never considered that such animals could become extinct. This perspective both scared and motivated me.

I made the decision to move to Manaus in the Amazon and have since devoted myself to working with science colleagues and local communities to conserve wildlife, especially turtles. Since the time of the Portuguese Empire, Amazonian turtles have been an important source of protein in the Amazon, but due to the uncontrolled consumption of their eggs and meat, turtles are now among the most threatened animals in the region.

Turtles that “talk”

Studying the reproductive behaviour and sexual selection of red-headed Amazon River turtles (Podocnemis erythrocephala), one of the five most endangered species in the Amazon, fuelled my interest in these species and I began research on the acoustic communication of giant South American River turtles (Podocnemis expansa).

During this study, my colleagues and I found that these aquatic turtles use several different kinds of vocal communication. After two years collecting 2,122 vocalizations we realized the turtles were using sounds to coordinate social behaviours, including female turtles calling to newly hatched offspring. Such communication begins as early as the turtles’ embryonic stage, about 36 hours before the babies leave their eggs. This discovery led to a second, as this is the first time scientists have identified post-hatchling parental care in turtles.

We also discovered that hatchlings call to synchronize their births as well to their mothers, and adults call to synchronize reproductive behaviour when migrating to common nesting and feeding areas. We are now developing a growing body of evidence that suggests that sound is essential for this species to exchange information.

Hatchlings © Camila Ferrara

Can river turtles be saved?

These new findings are supporting and strengthening conservation models for the river turtles, now considered Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Since 2013, I have worked for WCS Brazil as an aquatic wildlife ecologist with an emphasis on saving the Podocnemididae family of turtles. This family is not only native to northern South America but also Madagascar. It includes the giant South American River turtle, the red-headed Amazon River turtle, the yellow-spotted Amazon River turtle, the six-tubercled Amazon turtle and the big-headed side neck turtle, the most commercialized species in the Amazon.

Amazon turtles are a major source of protein for riverine communities, but turtle dishes are also very popular in northern Brazil. There are now laws prohibiting people from eating turtles but demand has not ceased, particularly in big cities.

Preserving populations

Early in my work in the Amazon, I had the opportunity to develop a turtle conservation project in the Unini River, a tributary of the Rio Negro in Brazil. The purpose of the project was to implement a conservation programme for freshwater turtles at breeding sites. The project was funded by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) and I received their support to help develop my project and undergo training in Beijing, China.

In addition to studying the Rio Negro turtles, I worked with youngsters in the region to teach them about the importance of conservation. Five years after completing the project, people still remember and understand the unique role of turtles in their environment. Recently CLP also supported me again with a scientific writing course in São Paulo, Brazil.

Through turtle population monitoring, beach management and environmental education work in the Abufari Biological Reserve (located in the Purus River, another tributary of the Amazon) my colleagues and I at WCS are now helping protect the largest turtle reproduction area in the Amazonas. Incorporating an important waterway connecting the western Amazon to Manaus, the reserve hosts nearly 2,000 nesting females annually, a number that has remained steady in the last few years.

In several protected areas along the nearby Negro River, monitoring involves local residents as their involvement is essential to conservation. Working with all ages we educate people in these areas about the importance of biodiversity, building upon local traditions with the aim of shrinking the turtle trade.

I am just beginning my career as a conservationist and while it may take years, one day I hope to see the status of turtle populations in the Amazon move from declining to stable and hopefully, expand. To get there requires more than my work; the next generation of conservationists in the Amazon region will need inspiration to become more aware of the environment and to have respect for the myriad of species here. Without this, conservation cannot continue.

Turtles sunning © Camila Ferrara

 

Dreaming of prosperity and sustainability in the Himalayas

Malari tribal village in NDBR

After finishing his Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation, Conservation Leadership Programme Alumnus Pramod Kumar Yadav embarked on an enthusiastic career studying the biodiversity, topography and spirituality of the Himalayas. Here, he shares his experiences and reveals his delight at being granted a 2015 CLP Award…

The first time I visited the Himalayan Mountains was with my school friends for an educational expedition when I was 14 years old. Before then I had only read about the mountains, having been born and educated in the plains of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

This trip was the first time I got to experience the high mountains, deep gorges, beautiful valleys of the Himalayas and meet the people who lived there.

During this expedition, I pondered a lot about the education of the region’s children and about the livelihoods and prosperity of the mountain dwellers because I did not see any signs of agricultural fields, industry setup or educational infrastructure in those areas.

To me this seems strange, because I was born and spent my childhood in a village surrounded by vast agricultural lands without mountains and forests.

During my Master’s dissertation, I got an opportunity to work with the indigenous Garo community in the eastern part of the Indian Himalayan region. The people here live in poverty, relying on shifting cultivation (which gives little return) and a collection of forest products as the main livelihoods in an area that lacks basic facilities for education, health care, or most importantly any alternative avenues for income generation.

I believe it was these early experiences that brought me closer to the profession of conservation biology and inspired me to work for the prosperity and sustainability of the people and towards an eco-friendly Himalaya.

Caterpillar fungus

I started my professional career by exploring biodiversity, environmental issues and scarcity of local communities in the Indian central Himalayas in 2012. In July last year, I visited the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve with my colleagues Mr. Subhajit Saha and Dr Ashish K. Mishra (both are team members of the CLP project) to assess different environmental issues arising from several development projects in the area.

We met with the local communities and tried to assess the impact of the developments on both the people and the biodiversity of the Biosphere Reserve. It was during this assignment that we came to hear about another issue in the area: the harvesting and trade of the caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) locally known as Kira Jari, which is used as an aphrodisiac and to treat a range of health problems.

Collecting the fungus from its natural habitat is not an easy task. According to those we spoke to, some people climb to altitudes as high as 3,500 to 4,000 meters to obtain the rare fungus.

Much like gold, it is worth a lot, but the work required to obtain the Kira Jari is not for the meek.

But as one of our respondents asked us: “Why would I migrate to Delhi or Dehradun to work in hotels when I can earn in one season what I can make over there in two years?”

But there is a dark side to the fungus collection. In addition to having to brave harsh climates to find it, its rarity means that there are no guarantees that a collector will find anything substantial at all.

Some villagers return with nothing to show for their weeks of hardship in high altitude snow fields and many even fall ill as a result of the exertion.

Searching for the fungus involves lying on your front, elbows dug into the scree and snow, scouring the ground in front of you for nothing larger than the stalk of an apple. It is freezing cold and there is a howling wind, making your lungs ache. People often return to the village with snow-blindness, painful joints and breathing problems.

The business is also generating rivalries between collectors and the competition is often violent. Entire villages battle one another for the right to collect Kira Jari in certain areas. There are other risks too as although it is legal to collect the fungus, it is not legal to sell it.

Last year, after tireless efforts from all of our team in preparing an application, we were thrilled to receive an e-mail from the Conservation Leadership Programme to tell us that we had been awarded the funding we needed to start exploring the impacts of fungus harvesting activities on both the mountain communities and ecosystems.

My reaction to the news was, “Oh! Finally we made it!”

Our dream is for a sustainable and prosperous Himalaya and at last I felt like we were making progress towards this dream.

I have a very special place in my heart for the CLP award because it will provide us the first international platform to interact with other leading conservation professionals around the world, not to mention a huge boost in morale. We all are young natural resource professionals and this award will be immensely constructive towards our greater research goals.

They say that the greatness of India is a gift from the Himalayas. This is quite logical given the immense influence that the world’s greatest mountains have on everything from climate to culture that is Indian.

It is also a well-known fact that if we adversely change the ecology and the topography of these mountains, it might just trigger several disasters that could have the potential to change the demography of the region towards a catastrophic collapse. Phenomena like floods, droughts, changing river courses, the retreat of glaciers etc. have already been observed in the region.

Sustainability therefore, is paramount when we plan to exploit the natural resources of the Himalayas – to make sure that these remarkable mountains can continue to give its wonderful gift.

This post was originally posted on Fauna & Flora International‘s website.

Anglers in Argentina conserve sharks in Marine Protected Areas

Angler trained by the CLP team releasing a tagged bronze whaler shark in Mar del Plata

Martín Cuevas (“Involving Anglers As Key Stakeholders in a Shark Conservation Programme,” 2013)

Sharks are important top predators that preserve equilibrium in the seas. Due to overfishing, Argentina’s shark populations have dramatically decreased resulting in several species being categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Sport fishing is one important cause of shark mortality in Argentina. Our 2013 CLP funded team has been working to address this threat with great success thus far.

The aim of this project was to involve angler communities as key stakeholders in a shark conservation programme. By informing anglers of the importance of shark conservation and training them to tag sharks, the goal was to promote catch and release and decrease shark killing for sport.

Through our team’s efforts, 62 anglers were trained during six tagging workshops and seven individual meetings between October and December 2013. Work was concentrated in four Marine Protected Areas (MPA, 5,615 km2), integrating 13 coastal fishing sites along the coastline of Buenos Aires and Río Negro provinces (> 1,000 km), as well as two sites in southern Patagonia, Santa Cruz.

Workshops were divided into two parts: theoretical and practical. The theoretical side focused on the biology and ecology of sharks and the current conservation status of local populations. The practical component was related to tag-recapture methodology. Participants were given a tagging kit: dart tags, an applicator, and a procedure manual.

Following these workshops, 50 fishing groups now have a trained angler, 20% of which are actually tagging sharks. Thus far, a total of 1,151 tags were delivered to anglers and 196 sharks (seven species) were tagged and released.

Today, anglers no longer kill sharks during tournaments in three MPAs; in two MPAs, participation in a tournament requires tagging of all competitive sized sharks using our tags. The most recent victory was in March 2014 when shark tournaments in Ría Deseado Natural Reserve (Santa Cruz) stopped a 46 year old practice of killing sharks and now catch and release. This project demonstrates that anglers can be involved in shark conservation programmes as key stakeholders, with conservation messages tailored to match their motivation. The team works to keep involvement active, involve new anglers, and tag more sharks. We are thinking about the next steps of the project and are eager to continue.

For more information please visit the group’s Facebook page: Conservar Tiburones en Argentina or contact Martín at: juanmartin_cuevas@yahoo.com.br