Conservation: Blood, Sweat and Tears

On the plains of Africa stands a tall man – well camouflaged in the dry grasslands – looking over a solemn landscape charred by the afternoon sun. He is backed by two of his colleagues who are looking as intently as he is. They are carrying loaded guns held cautiously over their shoulders, scanning the horizon. Sweat trickles down their brow as they stand motionless in the simmering fields.

In the distance lays a wounded white rhinoceros, its leg crushed in a trap set up by poachers. Bleeding profusely, the rhinoceros has given up the struggle to set itself free. Only escape is death, which is unfortunate. The watchful guards have already called a veterinarian and a team of rescuers, as they scan the surrounding area for poachers, who as well are keeping an eye on the dying rhino. The poachers have no remorse. No pity. Their fears died long time ago, and there is no room for tears.

It is a common event in the life of a forest guard in Africa, in India or elsewhere. A battle that is constantly fought, sometimes won, most of the times lost. Major reasons concerning this failure, as reported by Mike Cadman in “Consuming Wild Life: The Illegal Exploitation of Wild Animals in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia”, are: the inability by state agencies to adequately monitor the illegal killing of wild animals, lack of centralized statistics and data, uncoordinated response from authorities, insufficient enforcement and a general way of thinking that promotes killing instead of protection and respect. If I were to relate these basic reasons to the current wildlife conservation situation in India, I can simply overlay problems of conservation in India to that mentioned in the report.

The global wildlife trafficking trade is worth some US$12 billion a year (Cadman, 2007). It is one of the many trades like blood diamonds and blood oil, involving corrupt minds and their evil deeds. Conservation is a war against this corruption where blood, sweat and tears are shed – I remember of a famous quote adapted from Sir Winston Churchill’s speech, “…I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.” Only difference in history and in present is, however, in what we must take vow for, destruction or conservation. The ordeal of-the-most-grievous-kind we face today is: Extinction, as African Conservancy enlists in “Wildlife & Conservation Statistics”, every 20 minutes, about 35,000 human lives are added, but one or more entire species of animal or plant life is lost; and, Habitat Destruction – 80% of the decline in biological diversity is caused by habitat destruction.

When it comes to wildlife conservation, there is government, educational institutes and tourists involved. What we often exclude are the local people who may live in the reserves, parks and sanctuaries. This exclusion, or ignorance, can affect the present and future of any reserved forest. The book, “Social Change & Conservation” by Krishna B Ghimire and Michel P Pimbert, consider Protected Areas as a social place. According to the authors, most parts of the world have been modified, managed and improved by people for centuries. The biodiversity which conservationists seek to protect may be of anthropogenic origin. The concept of wilderness as an “untouched or untamed land” is mostly an urban perception, the view of people who are far removed from the natural environment they depend upon (Ghimire & Pimbert, 1997). I completely agree with such an understanding. The Carolinian Life Zone in the eastern North America, that seemed pure and virgin to me at first, is in fact a result of successful reforestry operation carried out in and around Norfolk County, Ontario, not more than 80 years ago. The Sacred Groves of India, which have been protected by local communities for centuries, are in fact some of the most diverse and untouched forests to exist in India today. The point to note is that local, indigenous people play a pivotal role in shaping as well as saving an ecosystem.

One of the political concerns in the scenario of Indian conservation is whether protected areas should be inviolate and managed by the state or local communities, including management as well as access to resources within these areas (Saberwal, 2000). In the report, “Conservation as Politics: Wildlife Conservation and Resource Management in India”, Saberwal raises a question if the state can enforce unpopular policies that exclude local communities from conservation areas. This was done in the Yellowstone National Park in United States in 1872, when Crow and Shoshone native Americans supposedly left the park after intense persuasion or were driven out by the army, which then managed the park until 1916 (Ghimire & Pimbert, 1997). It is still currently carried out in India and elsewhere, where local tribes are removed from nature reserves for various reasons. One reason being that they invaded the reserved parks after the area was considered protected under law, as is happening in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and at Tadoba Tiger Reserve (read it here), other being building of a dam over a river within the protected area. Saberwal (2000) has put forth an interesting reason why disallowing local (tribal) people can be of ill to conservation. He writes, “While posting of guards may ensure the absence of villagers from the more high profile sections of National Parks, there is little the state can do against anonymous crimes, such as setting of forest fires or use of poison to kill lions, tigers and other carnivores. Such actions are, in part, an expression of alienating villager’s feel from conservation programs that deny them access to basic necessities. This animosity may translate into heightened support for poaching.”

In today’s vulnerable times, a little risk of poaching can send an entire ecosystem in an imbalance. Thus the issue of conflict between government and local communities is sensitive, and if ignored, can lead to dire consequences. Another, rather different but human-related impact on protected parks, is regarding tourism. After the recent “no tourism in core area” news in India made nature enthusiasts angry and sad, it sparked some interesting debate. Some people were against the idea, since according to them, more tourism directly related to more income to the park, thus more conservation measures, it also means less poaching, since the tourism activity is supposed to keep poachers at bay. Less tourism means less income and more poaching possibilities. But how much is “more” and how much is “less”? This is the question that needs to be asked, since more vehicles entering a park and surrounding a family of tigers is risky. It also means that the Forest Department is not keeping up with the regulations in the park, which may lead to animal deaths due to rash driving (read about the unfortunate accident of a tigress in India). It might seem perplexing, as Saberwal (2000) has rightly put, “what on surface appears to be a simple issue of protecting wild animals and plants from forces beyond their control, on closer inspection quickly dissolves into a complex tangle of conflicting issues: human rights versus the protection of animals and forests, exclusion of all humans from protected areas versus increased local participation in protected area management.”

What we as outsiders can do is volunteer for Protected Areas, encourage local community participation, offer help by delivering informative lectures to the locals, and give them a chance to save the land where they live and belong to. If we can spend a week every year in such volunteer-work, I am sure the world will see a significant change. If we can change the thinking of the poor poacher, we can turn them into conservationists – this has successfully happened in many parts of the world such as Africa and Asia. An interesting and inspiring talk by a poacher-turned-conservationist, who stood strong in favor of wildlife conservation when Congo was shrouded in dark days:

Although we live in the Age of Ecology, there are places in the world where blood is shed, where sweat drips to the level of exhaustion, as conservationists – local and otherwise – put their lives on the line to protect the forests. Yet tears will roll until we stop poaching and deforestation, or fight for our own existence once we end the lifeline of this planet – the forests, the water and all the living creatures.

Works cited:

Cadman, M. (2007). Consuming wild life: The illegal exploitation of wild animals in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Preliminary.
African Conservancy (n.a.). Wildlife and Conservation Statistics.
Ghimire, K. B.; Pimbert, M. P. (1997). Social change & conservation. London: Earthscans Publication ltd.
Saberwal, V. K. (2000). Journal of international wildlife law & policy 3(2). 
Cadman, M. (2007). Consuming wild life: The illegal exploitation of wild animals in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Preliminary.
African Conservancy (n.a.). Wildlife and Conservation Statistics.
Ghimire, K. B.; Pimbert, M. P. (1997). Social change & conservation. London: Earthscans Publication ltd.
Saberwal, V. K. (2000). Journal of international wildlife law & policy 3(2).

Last Walk at Medway Creek

Medway Creek, photo taken on 20th April, 2010
The last two trails at Medway Creek have been pretty short. I was glad I managed to go there before I left London, probably forever. It has only been eight months since I discovered this little paradise known only to a handful of people who jog through the woods or walk their dogs. I started regular nature walks at Medway Creek late in the winter, when the temperatures stayed well above freezing.

As on any nature walk, I had some expectations on wildlife sightings from this land, of which I did see a few, such as a White-tailed Deer buck showing-off his elegant antlers. Unfortunately, he was distracted and dashed for cover deeper in the woods before I could photograph. I also saw many birds I always wanted to see, such as Northern Flickers, Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Cedar Waxwings and so on. I also fulfilled my dream of photographing Garter Snakes. What I did not see is something I’m looking forward to now, but I must not forget the vast diversity of invertebrates, from beetles to spiders. It was wonderful to see how it rose from a few sightings in winter to several new ones a day in spring. This burst of life is something I became engaged in, that I will surely miss at Medway Creek.

I went on a trail on 20th April, and a last one on 23rd April. That’s how I celebrated Earth Day, amidst nature and its creatures, although I admit merely admiring nature won’t benefit it, but I will discuss more on conservation some other time. I did not see anything special this time, but I did experiment photographing in different conditions. A point-and-shoot does not provide a big scope to experiment, so whatever I could manage to photograph was done with different compositions, most challenging, of course, was photographing in fading light. Couple it with gusty winds and you are left cursing why you didn’t see that particular creature when the light was bright, and wind was still. Anyway, that is a challenge every enthusiast must face to experience the essence of nature photography that is – there is no room to control the subject and the conditions. There is no studio, no fancy lights nor people holding diffusers around the subject. It’s raw and for real.

Since some flowers are in full bloom, it was a pleasure to photograph them after a cold gray winter. Most trees are in full of color, such as the above unidentified one. It could either be a Pear blossom, Apple, Apricot or Cherry blossom. Walter Muma suggested waiting until the trees come into fruiting season. There are several trees with white flowers radiating sunlight in the woods, while the forest floor was dotted by blues, whites and yellows of many flowering herbs. Mayapples are starting to sprout, soon the forest floor will be teeming with wide fresh leaves and creepy crawlies that habitat the undergrowth.
Moss Sporophytes
It is in this undergrowth that little plants create a niche for different organisms. One of these plants is moss that takes refuge in damp places. The mosses came back to life as soon as winter’s grip weakens, and the snowmelt provides excellent source of water. Some of the mosses are already producing spores, as seen in the picture. These capsules, rather sporophytes produce spores. It is now apparent how life has moved on already, to reproduce and prepare for the next winter.

A Red Velvet Mite clings to a sporophyte
The moss is an excellent water trapper, thus providing the little fauna with moisture, leading to formation of a microhabitat with many arthropods such as wood louse, centipedes and millipedes as well as mites who chose to hunt around this niche. That’s where I came across this Red Velvet Mite that was scampering over the sporophytes that I displayed in the previous post.

A devloping pod of Bloodroot
Most of the Bloodroots have shed their snow white flowers. All that remains are stalks carrying the future in a pod, and broad wavy leaves. It was the first flower I saw early in spring and first one to complete half of the lifecycle too.

As quoted on Wikipedia, it is one of the plants whose seeds are dispersed by ants, a process called myrmecochory. The seeds have a fleshy organ called an elaiosome that attracts ants. The ants take the seed to their nest, where they eat the elaiosomes and put the seed in their nest debris, where they are protected until they germinate. I was not surprised to see the one I photographed resting above the colony of unidentified ants that I spoke about in the previous post.

Common Blue Violet - Viola sororia
Another catchy flower on the forest floor was a Viola. This one is Viola sororia, Common Blue Violet spread across the paths and deep in the woods. It is a perennial plant native to eastern North America. It is the most widespread of all violets. The flowers and leaves are edible – a good alternative if you ever get lost in the woods!

Horsetails - Equisetum sp.
The most curious looking was a Horsetail, Equisetum sp. I first assumed it to be a parasitic plant, but only with help from Walter Muma did I realize it’s rather special. It is a vascular plant that reproduces by spores. Equisetum sp. grows in wet places such as moist woods, ditches and wetlands (Source).

The diversity of Sphenophyta is very low, with only one genus Equisetum and 15 species distributed worldwide. According to David Webb, Equisetum was present in the Carboniferous and has changed little over time. The leaves probably represent a protective covering for the apex during early growth through the soil, as is seen in the picture. Equisetum is the only genus of plants that use Silicon for cell wall strengthening.

Strobilus showing sporangia
The sporangia are assembled into a Strobilus (cone), as seen in the picture. These terminate the main axis of the stem. The spores are produced from the lower surface of the terminal flattened disk. For an in-depth reading on the lifecycle of this interesting plant, I strongly recommend visiting Dr David Webb’s online presentation.

Bittercress - Barbarea vulgaris
With some satisfying photographs, I moved on to another, rather common plant that is considered a weed – Barbarea vulgaris, commonly called Bittercress or Herb Barbara amongst others. It is native to Europe. Known to grow in waste ground and disturbed sites, it wasn’t surprising to see a few in the wooded areas that ran into green lawns closer to the roads.

Miner Bee resting on flower
The first few insects that come to mind when I am photographing flowers is bees, ants and flies. I found this unidentified bee on the unidentified white flowers. It probably is a Miner Bee, seen resting on the flower. She did collect some pollen, and decided to sit on top of one of the flower for the evening. A great pose for some photographing experiment! I managed to click some with different backgrounds. Since it was densely wooded, getting a subtle background without any distractions was not possible; hence I decided to take a clear opening in the sky as a backdrop, and just enough depth-of-field to have the bee in complete focus, yet putting all the background trees out of the plain of focus. I then digitally converted the image into monochrome, and I like the result. I have been trying a few black-and-white photos lately; some of them seem to work while some of them just fail.

Bee providing ecological service to the tree
The Miner Bee, as I talked about in the earlier post, nest in burrows in ground. They are solitary, with only one female digging her own tunnel, but a group of bees may nest together if the soil conditions are ideal (Source). It is known that they are amongst first bees to come out during spring, hence it is a relief to see many of these, along with some Bumblebees that are now visiting flowers as well, to be around in the woods, pollinating the native plants.

A Hoverfly retires for the day
Another flower visitor, a Hoverfly was seen resting on a dry plant on a windy evening of April 23rd. Photographing it was difficult, since the light was quick fading, the hoverfly sat strategically on the inside of the dry stick, and any sudden movement would have set it off in search of another perch to rest for the night. After some shots with an utterly black background, I maneuvered myself in a position to attain a decent, green background, thanks to the surrounding grass. After all the attempts, I had overlooked the burnt perch and some twigs in the background, hence the overexposed, over-burnt twigs. Hoverflies belong to family Syrphidae. The males are territorial, and keep hovering over their accomplished territory for females, often taking a break to sip nectar from flowers. These are other valuable ecosystem service providers to forests. Along with these, there are many Beeflies that are more-so common in grassy areas compared to wooded thickets. These are territorial as well. I am yet to photograph one in Canada.

Seven-spotted Ladybug - Coccinella septempunctata
On April 20th, during a hunt for Garter Snakes, I stumbled across a Ladybird Beetle that was not Asian Ladybird beetle (Harmonia axyridis). The Seven-spotted ladybug, Coccinella septempunctata is a voracious aphid hunter, with both larvae as well as adults commonly occurring where there are plenty of aphids. It was introduced to North America from Europe, and was established in early 1970s in New Jersey (apparently from an accidental introduction) (Source). This is an interesting case considering the introduction of the Asian Ladybird beetle, since both are exotic and compete with other native ladybird beetles for food. It is unfortunately being replaced by the Asian Ladybird beetle in its native land in United Kingdom. It is larger compared to Asian Ladybeetle, easily distinguished by the apparent seven black dots on the elytra. I’d like to study how C. septempunctata compete with H. axyridis for food, and their interaction with the native ladybeetles of Ontario, since both have been introduced from foreign land. Also, it is apparent from literature that H. axyridis is outcompeting C. septempunctata in UK, but how does it fare here? It is also apparent that there are more numbers of H. axyridis in south-western Ontario than C. septempunctata, but how is the larger picture?

A study was conducted by Lucas, Gagne and Coderre (2002) to evaluate the potential impact of H. axyridis adults on the predation efficacy of C. septempunctata and C. maculata.

Source: Lucas, et al 2002
Mean number of prey consumed by adult coccinellids in 24h apple saplings. C.7 = Coccinella septempunctata, H. ax. = Harmonia axyridis.
As apparent from the above graph, C. septempunctata consumed significantly fewer mites than H. axyridis. The study also recorded the mean height at which each of the three beetles is seen. The height positions were different, with C. septempunctata at approx. 1 m; C. maculata was recorded at height of approx. 0.5 m and H. axyridis at approx. 1.5m. The height positions were not affected by the presence of other species. The conclusions were apparent, with H. axyridis taking away the trophy of being more efficient at consuming more mites and replacing C. maculata with H. axyridis improved impact of coccinellids on aphid populations in apple trees. There is no doubt that the good qualities of H. axyridis outweigh the bad in the agricultural sector, but its bad qualities outweigh the good in the wild.

A probable Formica sp. ant nest
I wrote on the Formica sp. of ants I came across, in the previous post. This time I discovered a nest. It was probably abandoned but a few formica ants were seen scrambling over the surface after some disturbance. There was another, smaller species of ant present as well that I could not photograph.

A Tetragnathid spider
After a long winter, the spiders are finally growing up. I came across several Long-jawed orb-weavers of the family Tetragnatha that were large enough for some close-ups. It I had photographed another Tetragnathid during winter; it was a startling discovery for me to see them live in below freezing temperatures along a creek.

Photograph showing eye-pattern of a Tetragnathid spider
The size of this spider was well over an inch; hence I could manage a decent photograph of its eye-pattern. All spider families have different eye-patterns – one of the easiest ways to distinguish a family from other. So if you are ever photographing a spider, do try to get a photograph of the spider’s eyes that will assist in identification. But that is especially difficult if a spider rests on a one dimensional web such as that of an Orb-weaver like this Tetragnathid.

A Red Velvet Mite explores the leaf litter for prey
Red Velvet Mites are rather common nowadays, which is not surprising, but I came across this, a little less than a centimeter long mite on the forest path. This was the biggest I have ever seen, hence an apt subject to photograph. Those who use a point-and-shoot, and shoot macros in shadows know how difficult it can be, since the subject is small, light is scarce and high ISO yields awfully higher noise. Hence I decided to use flash for this fellow, but using a flash strips the mite of its shape, since its velvety body strongly reflects the light.

A Red Velvet Mite nymph (red dot!) attaches itself to a newly moulted Harvestman (Opilionidae), taken at Yeoor Hills, India on 17th July 2009
It is also constantly on a move, and if disturbed, rolls up into a ball, making it rather more difficult to photograph. Nonetheless, seeing this tiny predator on a hunt in the leaf litter was delightful. The nymphs live a parasitic life, commonly seen attached to insects, spiders and even reptiles.

The red velvet mites have a brilliant red color due to high levels of carotene. The adults are active predators, and beneficial to the environment since they feed on insects that eat fungi and bacteria, thus stimulating the decomposition process (Source).

“Hammond and Heneghan say they’ve studied the red velvet mite mating dance, and it’s not to be missed. The males release their sperm on small twigs or stalk… that ritual is followed by the male laying down an intricate silken trail to the sperm. Females spot these “artistic” trails, then seek out the individual artist. If he’s to her liking, she sits in the sperm… if another male spots one of these love gardens, he’ll promptly trounce it and lay his own.” As quoted on Chicago Wilderness magzine

Cicindella sexguttata showing the fearsome mandibles
A Six spotted Tiger-beetle, Cicindella sexguttata was seen feeding on passing ants. It patiently sat on a sandy mound besides the path, and watched ants scampering over the mound. It only went for those that wandered near it, and as quickly as the ants were captured, they were bitten into pieces and consumed. The picture was taken while it was happily chewing on an ant. The mandibles are sickle-like, and assist in capturing as well as holding onto the prey. These beetles, although common in forests, are considered as biological indicators of a healthy habitat.

Turkey Vultures - Cathartes aura, scanning the surface
Apart from the sheer abundance of the invertebrate fauna, the birds that are common and high in the sky are Turkey Vultures. I never saw them before fall at Medway Creek, but they seem to have returned in good numbers. Vultures as well, although scavengers, are indicators of a healthy habitat, however these vultures seem to hover more commonly over highways than over forests. One sad but true reason could be road-kills. I saw at least ten road kills on the way to Toronto one day, most of them raccoons and squirrels. Seeing a dead Skunk was not uncommon near the road that goes around Medway Creek either. There is no doubt that these vultures see the carcass much before I do, hence their ubiquitous, silent flights in the sky is very common.

American Robin
There are some birds that are more common in urban areas, and there are birds like American Robins that are common deep in woods as well as near developments – although they are not seen so abundant in urban areas. This cosmopolitan bird is what I’d call to be an ideal example of adaptation that is not very urbanized, neither restricted to woodlands. Besides crows, sparrows and chickadees that are also seen in various habitats, the American Robins tend to be more common near woody areas at Medway Creek. I wonder how commonly they are seen in suburban, urban and rural areas of North America, since I came across no data available on this aspect.

A banded Mallard Duck
Interestingly, I finally managed to photograph a Mallard Duck preening on a rock in the evening sun. I, for the first time ever, tried a teleconverter with a flash on. It didn’t work that well, but I yielded some near average results. This male was also banded; unfortunately I have no information regarding how old the duck is.

Hunters consider a banded duck to be a prized catch. The band is a trophy; in the words of a waterfowl hunter, “it’s like earning a buckeye sticker and putting it on your football helmet. It’s a badge of honor”, as quoted on Nodak Outdoors, Bird Band – Duck Band – Goose Band. It is very exciting to live amongst hunters, who are also researchers, working meticulously in the field of conservation, but I’ll leave that to talk about in detail some other time.

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted), female seen feeding on the ground
On the previous post, I shared a picture of a Northern (Yellow Shafted) Flicker male that posed in the distant trees. I came across a female this time, at the same location but she seemed pretty wary of me. She took off whenever she heard me approaching, but finally I saw her on the ground, feeding on insects. I managed to take some pictures from far since she flew off again on slightest approach. I did not wish to disturb her, but once I left the thickets that hid me, she flew away immediately. The males tend to have a “mustache”, as seen in the picture in the previous post, whereas females lack the mustache. I am unsure of the black triangular patch on the breast, since I came across pictures on the internet where the black patch was present on male birds as well.

It’s interesting how the sightings rise and fall with every season. Although I got to experience it only once, I am looking forward to visit Medway Creek again sometime in the future, since this is the first natural forest that I ever visited in Canada. I am yet to work on the tiny documentary on the Garter Snake, I hope to find some time and post it soon. Since I will not be at Medway Creek anymore, I am planning to do an article that summarizes my first-ever experience here.