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Archive for July, 2016

JAI

On World Tiger Day, one of India’s popular tiger Jai continues to be missing from his territory in Umred Karhandla sanctuary in Maharashtra. The six year old tiger was known for his large build and is a favourite of the locals. No wonder, pujas for his well-being and large patrols have been undertaken by locals along with the NGOS and forest officials.

Named after Amitabh of Sholay following his sibling being called Veeru (owing to a V mark on his forehead), Jai has displayed wanderlust when he was three and moved 150 kms out of neighbouring Nagzira to Umred Karhandla through human settlements. That has prompted his well-wishers to assume Jai is out looking for a mate. He was claimed to have been seen in Pauni in Vidharba, covering almost 100 kms!

Why such focus on a single tiger? Are we missing the wood for the trees?

The fear is that Jai could be a victim of poaching which has seen a rise again this year. Around 59 deaths in all recorded this year are mostly mysterious with causes ascertained only for 12. Many more deaths are a possibility with the fact that often forest guards could fail to report the same to avoid hassles, as reported in Down to Earth.

So, if Jai has been poached, still should we care, especially when there have been reports of tiger numbers being on the rise? A global tiger meet had earlier this year proclaimed that global numbers have gone up, in line with the target of doubling tiger population in ten years.

The latest tiger census has it that we have around 2226 tigers in India, a 30 percent rise over the last three years. But experts say this could be anywhere between 1500 and 3000 given the methodology used. From pugmark identification to camera traps to DNA identification from scat, things have progressed scientifically but the fact remains that there is room enough for human error. A latest paper claimed that leopard scat remains have been mistaken for tiger in forensics!

All in all, the picture looks bleak for the national animal. Even considering the numbers are true, compare it with human population of 1.2billion. It means one tiger for every 540,000 humans!! Something to boast about?

Humans have eaten into most of the predator’s habitat with large chunks of forest fragmented and corridors encroached. The hapless animal ventures out and panic is set off. Cattle is the first victim. Leopards have been easier game for irate villagers seeking to revenge on cattle lost. A recent image showed villagers gloating over their game kill. It was blood sport on display, not a poor farmer who has lost his livelihood.

India’s Wildlife Protection Act is pretty strong but implementation is dicey. As in the case of Salman Khan who was booked under it for upto six years of imprisonment walked away on bail, and was recently cleared on one count.

Down to Earth cites latest data available from National Crime Records Bureau of 2014 showing that out of 5,835 cases reported under environment-related offences, 770 cases were reported under the Wildlife Protection Act, for which, 134 people were arrested and fewer were convicted. Forensic analysis in the four labs in India have a huge backlog as a result of which 3000 cases are pending in court.

The poacher knows clearly that he can get away, most times. Jai has been missing for over 100 days now. This, despite being radio collared. As some suggest, the first thing poachers would do is to remove the collar.

On Tiger Day, India better brace itself to the death of another healthy, young tiger. Only one, did you say again? Even one counts when all you have is a 2226.

In 1973 when Project Tiger was launched, the country had 3,00,000 sq. km of forests home to tigers but now that is less than a half at 1,50,000 Sq. km.

Unless the convictions are more and punishment sterner, unless the vigilance stronger, unless humans move out of forests and leave the animals alone, Tiger Day could soon be a day to remember the beautiful majestic animal that roamed the forests of the night. A thing of beauty which could become an unheard, but, bitter melody.

 

 

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SI1

The last sunrise from aboard the Solar Impulse 2 which will complete its round-the-world clean flight today. Aboard is pilot Bertrand Piccard, who also holds the record for the first global flight in a balloon. (Solar Impulse)

The solar-powered airplane Solar Impulse 2, has landed in Abu Dhabi completing 40,000 kms in around 500 hours, with short and long breaks due to weather and technical problems. No fuel was consumed, no emissions whatsoever.

The last leg from Cairo to Abu Dhabi had its challenges beginning with take-off which was delayed due to trying desert weather and pilot health. After waiting a few days the flight took off on July 23rd and landed in Abu Dhabi after 48 hours, signaling a big victory to the pilots’ ability and importantly, to the clean technology they want to promote.

Flying the craft on its last leg was Bertrand Piccard. On landing, the pilot and founder of the Solar Impulse was in tears and addressed the crowd at the gathering, saying: “Salam Alaikkum..good morning Abu Dhabi. Thank you for your welcome. I have been waiting for this moment for past 15 years. We have flown 40,000 kilometres without a drop of fuel. Now it is your turn to take it forward.

“When you see the state of the world today it is a crime to not try and make the world a better place?” he asked.”Why don’t we dream more? Why don’t we try more? When you see the results today, it’s because our team dreamed. A lot is starting today. A lot is possible because we have dared to fail, when you dare to fail you can succeed.”

Earlier in the flight journey from Spain to Egypt, pilot Andre Borschberg, who is the co-founder of SI said, “This was an emotional and meaningful leg for me, being able to enjoy once more the incredible sensation of flying day and night thanks only to the energy of the sun and enjoying fully the present moment. He also piloted the world’s longest solo flight of five days and five nights when he flew the craft from Japan to Hawaii.

Solar Impulse 2 developed after 12 years of research is designed to fly day and night without using any fossil fuel. The single-seater plane is powered entirely by 17,000 solar cells and onboard batteries, which charge during the day to enable the plane to fly continuously through the night and during cloudy weather.

Weighing just a 2300 kgs the SI is roughly like car aloft, with a wingspan of 72 metres, wider than a Boeing. Being light allows for lesser energy consumption but also makes the craft susceptible to turbulence and winds.

Solar Impulse 2 embarked on its journey from Abu Dhabi on March 2015. It stopped twice in India, then Myanmar, China and Japan and Hawaii, before taking a long break of almost 10 months for major repairs on the overheated batteries. It then flew to Hawaii in April this year, thence to US and across the Atlantic in three days during June.

The two Swiss pilots are Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg. Piccard is a medical doctor specialized in psychiatry, besides being an explorer who made the first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight in 199. André Borschberg is an engineer and graduate in management science, a fighter pilot and a professional airplane and helicopter pilot.

While the flight has its technical challenges, making it a truly historic flight around the world, the two would like to call more attention to the clean technology rather than their flight prowess. The duo call themselves ambassadors for a clean future.

Aviation is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions today. A to and fro flight from London to New York generates the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for a whole year. Direct emissions from aviation account for about 3% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions, says the European Commission.

By 2020, global international aviation emissions are projected to be around 70% higher than in 2005 and by 2050 they could grow by a further 300-700%. In the light of this and the urgency building around climate change, the Solar Impulse demonstrates that solar energy could help alleviate the emissions. It will need to be developed further to take on large numbers on board. The SI could accommodate just one person.

Clearly, for the team the round-the-world flight is a victory. A fruition of a dream. A time to rejoice.

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DNA

Even as the cry against genetically engineered food crops remains loud and clear, the next step in molecular biology research is on way to use gene drives and gene editing on humans. The immediate result could be beneficial as the study led by University of Pennsylvania aims to develop superior immune cells that can destroy tumours. But in the long run, this could be the first step towards designer babies and crafting of a superior race, warn critics.

The study approved by a US federal panel will use the CRISPR-Cas 9 gene editing tool to cut, copy and paste selected DNA fragments on patients’ T cells (white blood cells that fight invaders). The engineered cells are expected to be better at the game than their natural versions.

In UK, Crispr editing of human embryos was approved early this year, with the objective of addressing and removing diseases/risks at the embryo stage.

Chinese researchers have already progressed in using the technique to create fungus resistant wheat, muscular dogs and lean pigs, according to media UK reports. They have been experimenting on discarded human embryos for some time now.

While the potential of gene drives to combat and eradicate insect-borne diseases like malaria is welcome, what needs to be remembered is that these engineered “super” organisms can spread rapidly, and lead to unpredictable environmental disasters. Once edited, the change is permanent and irreversible. The modified (or mutated) gene will jump from one chromosome to another within the same individual so that eventually all of the sperm or eggs of the animal carries the GM trait, not just half. The whole generation of species will be changed much faster, in fact exponentially faster than by natural evolution.

It is also known that a gene is responsible for more than one trait. Doing away with one, or altering it for one trait, could have dangerous impact on other aspects.

Eradicating pests by using the tool could also have unintended results, given the close links in nature. Mutated organisms could be also used as a terrorist bio-weapon to spread lethal toxins within a population. Accidental releases of engineered organisms from labs can unleash disasters.

It is in this context that eminent scientists from Harvard and Yale have been calling for caution in using the gene editing tool. Recently, yet another panel convened by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine noted that ‘gene drives’ pose complex ecological risks that are not yet fully understood.  They advocate multiple phases of testing besides strict regulations on use of the technology and best practices which must be shared globally.

Finally, it all again comes down to: have technology, will use it! Without thinking of the long-term ramifications of such powerful techniques, if we jump into it gleefully and allow for easy accessibility of the same to all, it will not take much time before clinics will sprout advertising ‘Be mom to Superman. Drop in and get your eggs tailored.”

The Superman, or Supermen, may be born. But more likely the world they inherit will be a sterile one, with not many species, except an altered human one. Each trying to outwit the other, thanks to their superior genes. Can you see any joy in such a world? Where everything is perfect, humans run like machines, and no trials whatsoever? Makes one realize why sorrows and imperfections are needed to appreciate happiness.

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TREES

Water never tasted so fresh. Air so nakedly pure. Feeling the soil beneath the feet, reeling under the green onslaught of the tree cover. What a heady feeling to be in nature’s lap, away from the artificial, machine-infested lives in the city.

We were at Madikeri in Karnataka’s Coorg district, a few kilometers interior. Roads are mostly muddy and call for hardy jeeps to traverse if one is averse to walking. Huge giant trees tower above one. Not many left though. Sadly, the average rural man too sees no value in them if he cannot harvest the wood. Designated sacred groves alone stay untouched. No wonder, as Amitav Ghosh said recently that religious godmen may have to be pulled into the challenge of spreading awareness on climate change, god alone can save our forests.

Having encroached forest land undaunted, man now tries to fob off ‘tresspassing’ wildlife. Solar fences and guns keep away the elephants while leopards are still a problem as they steal away with cattle or dogs.

Native species of trees are replaced with ‘useful’ exotic kinds like pepper, banana and vanilla that can fetch money.  Thankfully, labour today is hard to find. Else our forests would have been fast destroyed.

NISARGA
Nisarghadhama, the Cauvery flows

A few kilometers away, at Nisargadham in Kushalnagar, there is a constant flow of tourists. Most seem content climbing a tree house, or feeding the few deer in the enclosure. The film shows at the information centre are pathetic and could be vastly improved upon. No wonder people step in and out fast. There is an elephant ride during tourist season, as also a zipline experience.

The cottages which sit with their stilts in the river Cauvery are an attraction but again lack of maintenance rules. A little upkeep is all that it needs to be on par with Jungle Lodges properties. The sound of the river at night, merging with the orchestra of insects and frogs, the moon peeping through the tree canopy, a break from city life cannot ask for more.

But this is a government property, and shows every bit of the apathy. One is warned about rats before occupying the rooms. The eye falls on the nuts and bolts hammered into the massive trees on which the cottages rest. Thick wires sink into its body. Sigh.

A rafting experience on the river has been short-lived. Reasons unknown to this writer.

But, above all this is an opportunity not taken to sell nature to the visitors. The 64 acre property has mud tracks around with some amount of wildlife like wild boars, monkeys, fox and many birds. By using naturalists, the park authorities can easily make a walk around an interesting experience. The fungi growth on trees, the varieties of spiders, ants, etc are a naturalist’s dream. Just the silent commune with nature can bring a peace unparalleled by any ashram or convent.TREE

Instead, the tourists make merry at the swinging bridge, see a few caged rabbits and birds, use the swing and slides in children’s park, do a quick round and leave. Nisarghadhama, done.

With so little forest cover in India, as less as 20 percent as claimed by government data, but revealed to be lesser at a mere 12 percent of good forest (and just 2.6 percent of dense forest) by an analysis of Down to Earth, it is time we gave serious thought. Not only for the carbon intake, but also for the water it provides and the soil enriched by these silent, stoic ‘poems of nature’.

Unless every citizen realizes who looks at a tree and feels indebted for a life nurtured with no demands whatsoever, unless every voice is raised to hug and save the few trees we have left, unless we see innate value in them beyond the wood or money its fruits get us, we will be left with a world soon – with no gurgling streams of transparent water, no air crackling with oxygen, no green mounds of velvet to greet the tired eye, no joy in living.

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Sri_Ramana_Maharshi_-_Lying_-_G._G_Welling_-_1948

Two days of imagining I was feeling things in my head, wondering if I should go again to the doc, though not keen, it happened that a workshop on Ramana Maharishi’s self-enquiry was happening near home. After a long break owing to work and bad health I had not been able to visit the centre for almost two years.

I decided to attend the weekend session, ignoring my health. And lo! for the next two days and beyond, the health concerns seem to have vanished. I am not exactly inferring a miracle (or ruling out) but the power of the workshop was such that the mind was totally switched on to another track. There was no time to pay attention to the gripes of the body and mind.

So, what happened there? Nothing new that I hadn’t already read or listened to, but the speakers, all devout followers and amazing orators, simply reaffirmed all the messages of Ramana with powerful stories and experiences.

An incredible feeling takes over when I am in the presence of the guru (when i make myself present). Tears simply flow from bliss. A feeling of ‘now nothing else matters, Ramana will take care’. At the Mekhri circle shrine too, in Bangalore, this happens often. I am so grateful to Ramana for his grace, which initially I did think came a trifle late. Despite having graced the shrine decades ago, things did not happen till a few couple of years ago when the pull of Ramana’s compassion became irresistible.

Much as I want to drag all my friends and family there, I desist. I know that not all will be ready. Not all will understand what Ramana means when he says ‘just be’. Debates in today’s action-oriented, achievement focussed world will inevitably try to make this look like a lazy man’s path. That is not what is meant. Or when he says, that you are not your thought and only when you stop thoughts can you see your true self. So many of us believe (like Rene Descartes, was it) that ‘i think and so i am’. Being thoughtless would seem to most of us like being a mad person.

So I tell myself Ramana knows when.

Accepting that I am not the doer, and that free will does not mean we are masters of our destiny and can do whatever we wish, but instead that it gives us the choice of turning inwards or not, the workshop induced a much-needed calm in me, and an almost good control over my fears.

When I meditate now, with self-enquiry being the leading light, I can feel a thrill and joy in me borne out of a confidence, that i will find my ‘lost’ self, soon, in this or another lifetime. There is a mission mode now in my pursuit. Thanks to Ramana.

(Pic by G G Welling)

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