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Environment

Nearly 17,000 Migratory Birds died in Rajasthan needs high level inuiry

On November 10, thousands of birds, including Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Shelduck, Plovers, Avocets, were found dead in the 5-7 km area around Sambhar Lake.

PTI

Nearly 17,000 Migratory Birds Dead In Rajasthan's Sambhar Lake

Nearly 8,500 birds have died so far in Jaipur itself, Jagroop Singh Yadav said.

SAMBHAR: Thousands of migratory birds of about ten species were found dead around Sambhar Lake, the country’s largest inland saltwater lake near Jaipur, sending shock waves among locals and authorities.

Officials said they suspect water contamination as one of the reasons for the deaths but were awaiting viscera test reports. Though the official toll was 1,500, locals claimed the number of dead birds could be as high as 5,000.

“We have never seen anything like that. Over 5,000 birds died mysteriously all over the place,” 25-year-old Abhinav Vaishnav, a local bird-watcher, told PTI.

When Vaishanav went on a stroll along the edge of the lake on Sunday, he took the hundreds of dark lumps strewn across the marshy land for cow dung. But it didn’t take him and his fellow bird watchers Kishan Meena and Pavan Modi to realise the lumps were bodies of hundreds of lifeless migratory birds.

Carcasses of hundreds of dead birds including plovers, common coot, black winged stilt, northern shovelers, ruddy shelduck, and pied avocet were scattered on the edge of 12-13 km of the catchment area of the lake, leading to a possible number of over 5,000, they said.

Forest ranger Rajendra Jakhar said a possible reason could be the hailstorm that hit the area a few days back.

“We estimate about 1,500 birds of about 10 species have died. We are also looking at other possibilities like toxicity of the water, bacterial or viral infection,” he said.

A medical team from Jaipur has collected a few carcasses and water samples are being sent to Bhopal for further examination.

Ashok Rao, a veterinary doctor and part of the team, said that while the exact reason for the deaths was uncertain, he ruled out the possibility of bird flu.

“At initial examination we did not find any sort of secretion from the birds, which is a giveaway in the cases of bird flu,” he said.

R G Ujjwal, nodal officer, animal husbandry department, joined Rao and listed possible reasons behind the mysterious calamity.

“Their could be some sort of contamination in the water. The increased salinity of the water could also be another reason, as it increases salt concentration in the blood, which can further lead to slow blood flow and the internal organs like the brain may stop working,” Ujjwal said.

The lake is also a favourite of flamingos, stilts, stints, garganey, gulls and a number of other species of birds.

Jakhar informed that the lake every year hosts approximately 2-3 lakh birds, which include about 50,000 flamingos and 1,00,000 waders.

The strange episode has left villagers and people of the forest department baffled for the lack of a sensible explanation.

“I have never seen such a thing in 40 years of my service in the forest department. First I thought it could be because of the hail, but that occurs every year. There is no chemical waste in this water either,” said Ramesh Chandra Daroga, a local working with the forest department.

Ashok Sharma, joint director, State Disease Diagnostic Centre, said that once the reason was ascertained further steps will be taken.

“We don’t think it is a case of infection, but if it turns out to be the case we will take further steps to make sure it doesn’t spread,” he assured.

Meanwhile, the carcasses were collected in a tractor-trolley and buried in a ditch. A total of 669 dead birds were buried while hundreds lay strewn around as the forest staff hesitated to venture into the slippery muddy areas.

This is the second such incident in the state within a week. Last Thursday, 37 demoiselle cranes were found dead in Jodhpur‘s Khinchan area. Their viscera too have been sent for investigation and reports are awaited.

sambhar birds

Birds found dead at Sambhar lake (PTI)

Environment

What happens when the roof of the world melts?

Top 10 Gorgeous Lakes in the Himalayas

The ice that has long defined South Asia’s mountain ranges is dissolving into massive new lakes, raising the specter of catastrophic flooding.

Gokyo village, nestled beside a lake fed in part by Nepal’s Ngozumba Glacier, doesn’t face immediate danger from flooding, but other Himalayan communities are threatened by rising glacial lakes.

It’s a landscape like no other on the planet—the colossal glaciers of the Himalaya, which for millennia have been replenished by monsoons that smother the mountains in new snow each summer.

But take that same jet trip 80 years from now, and those gleaming ice giants could be gone.

Earlier this year, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development published the most comprehensive analysis to date of how climate change will affect the glaciers of the Himalaya, Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Pamir mountains, which together form an arc across Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar. The study warned that, depending on the rate of global warming, one-third to two-thirds of the region’s approximately 56,000 glaciers will disappear by 2100.

DANGEROUS LAKES

Scientists say the accelerated melting of Asia’s estimated 56,000 glaciers is creating hundreds of new lakes across the Himalaya and other high mountain ranges. If the natural dam holding a glacial lake in place fails, the resulting flood could wipe out communities situated in the valleys below. Engineers in Nepal are looking at ways to lower the most dangerous lakes to reduce the threat.

This is a dire prediction for some 1.9 billion South Asians, who rely on the glaciers for water—used not only for drinking and sanitation but also for agriculture, hydroelectric power, and tourism. But the survey also looked at a more immediate question: As the glaciers rapidly melt, where will all the water—more than a quadrillion gallons of it, roughly the amount contained in Lake Huron—go?

The answer is that the Himalaya, long defined by its glaciers, is rapidly becoming a mountain range defined by lakes. In fact, another study found that from 1990 to 2010, more than 900 new glacier-fed lakes were formed across Asia’s high mountain ranges. Because of the remote locations, scientists must rely on satellites to count them, and new lakes appear to be growing so quickly that it’s difficult for scientific teams to agree on the precise number.

“It’s all happening much faster than we expected it to even five or 10 years ago,” says Alton Byers, a National Geographic explorer and mountain geographer at the University of Colorado Boulder.

To understand how these lakes form, think of a glacier as an ice bulldozer slowly plowing down the side of a mountain, scraping through the earth, and leaving a ridge of debris on either side as it pushes forward. These ridges are called moraines, and as glaciers melt and retreat, water fills the gouge that remains, and the moraines serve as natural dams.

“They start as a series of meltwater ponds,” Byers explains, and “they coalesce to form a single pond, then a larger lake. And year by year they get larger and larger, until you have a lake with millions of cubic meters of water.”

And as the lake fills up, it can overspill the moraines holding it in place or, in the worst-case scenario, the moraines can give way. Scientists call such an event a glacial lake outburst flood, or GLOF, but there’s also a Sherpa word for it: chhu-gyumha, a catastrophic flood.

One of the most spectacular Himalayan GLOFs occurred in the Khumbu region of Nepal on August 4, 1985, when an ice avalanche rumbled down the Langmoche Glacier and crashed into the mile-long, pear-shaped Dig Lake.

The lake was likely less than 25 years old—a photo taken in 1961 by Swiss cartographer Edwin Schneider shows only ice and debris at the foot of Langmoche. When the avalanche hit the lake, it created a wave 13 to 20 feet high that breached the moraine and released more than 1.3 billion gallons—about the equivalent of 2,000 Olympic-size swimming pools—of water downstream.

The Sherpa who saw it described a black mass of water slowly moving down the valley, accompanied by a loud noise like many helicopters and the smell of freshly tilled earth. The flood destroyed 14 bridges, about 30 houses, and a new hydroelectric plant. According to some reports, several people were killed. By a benevolent twist of fate, the flood happened during a festival celebrating the coming harvest, so there were few local residents near the river that day, which undoubtedly saved lives.

“There have always been GLOF events,” Byers says. “But we’ve never experienced so many dangerous lakes in such a short amount of time. We know so little about them.” The Dig Lake flood focused attention on the risks posed by other lakes across the Himalaya. Chief among them were Rolpa Lake, in the Rolwaling Valley of Nepal, and Imja Lake, near the foot of Everest, directly upstream from several villages along the popular trekking route to Everest Base Camp.

In the late 1980s teams of scientists began to study those two lakes. Satellite imagery revealed that Imja Lake had formed after Dig Lake, sometime in the 1960s, and was expanding at an alarming rate. One study estimated that from 2000 to 2007, its surface area grew by nearly 24 acres.TODAY’SPOPULAR STORIES

“The challenge with glacial lakes is that the risks are constantly changing,” says Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine and leader of the 2019 National Geographic Society and Rolex expedition to study Nepal’s glaciers. For example, many moraines holding back glacial lakes are naturally reinforced with chunks of ice, which help stabilize the overall structure. If the ice melts, a once solid moraine may fail.

Other threats lurk beneath the ice. As melting occurs, large caves can be hollowed out inside a retreating glacier and can fill with water. These hidden reservoirs sometimes link via conduits in the ice to surface ponds. When an escape path for this reservoir suddenly melts out, dozens of linked ponds may drain at once, converging to create a major deluge. Though smaller and less destructive than GLOFs, this type of event—known to scientists as an englacial conduit flood—happens more frequently. Little is known about these floods. “Figuring out how water flows through glaciers is not so trivial,” Mayewski says.

But for the moment, GLOFs remain the primary worry. Byers points to the moraine at the foot of the Khumbu Glacier, where a cluster of small ponds currently sit. “That’s the next big lake,” he says, noting that the moraine towers above the trekking village of Tugla. “It’s only a matter of time before it turns into a potential risk.”

It’s difficult for scientists to assess the danger without conducting fieldwork, which often requires days of hiking to reach the remote lakes, but a 2011 study identified 42 lakes in Nepal as being at either very high risk or high risk of flooding. Across the entire Greater Himalaya region, the number could be more than a hundred.

Another nation with a long history of dealing with rising glacial lakes is Peru, a mountainous country that has lost up to 50 percent of its glacial ice in the past 30 to 40 years and has seen thousands of people killed in GLOF events. After a devastating flood from Lake Palcacocha wiped out a third of the city of Huaraz, killing some 5,000 people, Peruvians began to pioneer innovative ways to partially drain dangerous glacial lakes. Today dozens of lakes in Peru have been dammed and lowered—creating hydroelectric plants and irrigation channels in the process.

But there are major obstacles to implementing some of those solutions in Nepal. Namtso2

The big difference between Peru and the Himalaya is the logistics, explains John Reynolds, a British geo-hazards specialist who helped direct an effort that lowered Rolpa, considered by many to be the most dangerous lake in Nepal. “In Peru you could virtually drive to within a day’s walk of the lake,” he says. In Nepal, “it could take five, six days to walk to the site from the nearest roadhead.”

Rolpa Lake is so remote that heavy machinery had to be helicoptered to the lake in pieces and then reassembled. After constructing a small dam with sluice gates, engineers slowly began releasing water and drawing down the lake. “If you draw the water down too quickly, it can actually destabilize the valley flanks, particularly the lateral moraines that impounded it,” Reynolds says. Ultimately, the water level of Rolpa Lake was lowered by more than 11 feet—the first mitigation project in the Himalaya.

In 2016 the Nepalese Army participated in an emergency project that drained Imja Lake by a similar amount. Neither measure has completely relieved the respective flood risks, but both represent, along with the installation of warning systems, a positive step.

Not all glacial lakes pose an equal threat, and as scientists continue to develop new ways to study the lakes, they are learning how to assess the true level of risk each lake poses. In some instances, they’ve found that the perceived risk was overstated, including in the case of Imja Lake. “There is no actual relationship between causality of a GLOF and lake size,” Reynolds says. “What’s critical is how the lake body interacts with the dam itself.”

And it’s not just the large lakes that pose threats, says Nepali scientist Dhananjay Regmi. “We are concerned more about big lakes, but most of the disasters in recent years have been done by relatively small lakes, which we never suspected.”

Whether the lakes are small or large, there’s little doubt that conditions for setting off floods are increasing. Reynolds points out that as the permafrost begins to thaw, massive rockfalls and landslides will become more common, and if they hit vulnerable lakes, they could trigger floods similar to the 1985 Khumbu Valley flood.

“We need to be conducting integrated geo-hazard studies of these valleys,” Reynolds says. “GLOFs are just a piece of it.”

Regmi considers the growth of lakes an opportunity for development. “Every lake has its own characteristics, and each needs to be treated differently,” he explains, noting that some might be good sources of mineral water and some might be good for generating hydropower or tourism, while others might be reserved for religious purposes.

Alton Byers is optimistic about the progress already made. “It’s not just the big infrastructure projects, like lowering Imja. People who live in remote high-mountain regions are quietly going about developing their own technology to adapt.”

This story appears in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.  

Tsomgo-Photo by fashionplate

Environment

Man Feeding Water to Burnt Koala

 

The koala received severe burns and was dehydrated so staff at Koala Hospital Port Macquarie tried their best to revive the animal.

Heartbreaking Video of Man Feeding Water to Burnt Koala is Symbol of Australia's Bushfire Crisis

Animal welfare activists,, rescuers and doctors have been working round the clock to help and koalas and other animals that have been affected by the raging bushfires in Australia this week. As the historic fired raged through over 2.5 million hectares of forest land, several areas with heavy koala populations were torched, causing hundreds of koala deaths.

While an estimated 350 koalas are being presumed dead in the fires, heartbreaking stories of rescued koalas has made the plight internationally viral. One such video surfaced recently where a badly burnt koala named Kate was being fed water by a man in Bellangry State Forrest.

The animal had received severe burns in the bushfires and arrived at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital completely dehydrated.

Taking to Facebook, the hospital share a vide of the marsupial drinking water from the hands of the man who rescued her, named Darrel.

According to Koala Hospital’s post, the koala who had “burns to hands, feet, face and full singeing of her body,” had been rescued by Darrel who fed her water when her came across her.

They further added, “She arrived very dehydrated and is now in the 5 star service burns ward at the Koala Hospital.”

In the video, the man can be heard saying, “There you go, you’re so badly singed aren’t you?” as he helps the poor marsupial drink some water.

The man wrapped up the koala and brought her in for treatment.

As soon as the video was posted, a number of people took to Facebook to comment on the act of kindness and forwarder inquiries if they could help.

One user wrote, “Aww the poor thing! Is there anywhere we can donate to help our wild life?”

While another posted, “Great job rescuing her Darrel. Glad she is being treated and looked after. Love your work Koala hospital!”

A third user went on to write, “It is very upsetting to see this but so glad this beautiful girl is in the amazing hospital getting the care she needs.”

Meanwhile, fires continue to rage in Australia with crews still battling over 120 blazes in several areas including Queensland and New South Wales. Four fire related deaths ave already occurred

Environment

ACID RAIN IN GUWAHATI

A view of Guwahati along the Brahmaputra. Pic: Anushila Bharali/Wikimedia Commons

by Sahana Ghose: As rapidly-expanding Guwahati, northeast India’s largest metropolis, gears up to clean its air under the National Clean Air Policy (NCAP), a study suggests a cocktail of natural and man-made pollutants wafting through the air is tinkering with the city’s rainwater quality.

Guwahati in Assam is among the 122 ‘non-attainment’ cities identified for implementing mitigation actions under the national policy, which means it does not meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Researchers said pinpointing critical sources of air pollution and their contributions to the problem are essential to crafting effective city and region-specific air pollution control plans.

Connecting the dots between the origin of raindrops, the chemical makeup of the rainwater and air pollutants, an IIT Guwahati-led study, from June 2016 to June 2017, shows that 64 percent of the rainfall during monsoon was acidic, which means the rainfall in this form is damaging the environment. Acid deposition, or acid rain, is the term used when the pH of precipitation drops below 5.6.

“We examined rainwater samples during June 2016-June 2017 and found that 75 percent of rainwater samples collected were acidic,” Rajyalakshmi Garaga, a research scholar at IIT Guwahati and study author, told Mongabay-India.

Garaga said such acidic rain events occurred throughout the year, with a frequency of 64 percent and 87 percent during monsoon and non-monsoon seasons, respectively.

The study identified particles from the sea (sea salt or marine source), dust, industrial and vehicular emissions, and coal combustion as the major sources that turn the rainfall acidic.

“Our study shows that both natural (marine source) and man-made air pollutants (emissions) are turning the rainfall acidic in the northeast Indian state of Assam. And while we can’t tweak the natural causes we can mitigate emissions stemming from human activities,” Garaga said.

One of the fastest-growing cities in India, Guwahati lies on the south bank of the Brahmaputra river. Map from study.

Gases such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx), which are also PM2.5 precursors, generated from the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas are the primary emissions responsible for acid deposition. These combustion compounds react with water, oxygen and other substances in the atmosphere to form sulfuric and nitric acid, which are transported downwind before they settle on earth.

Acid rain can occur as wet or dry deposition. When the airborne pollutants settle on earth from the atmosphere in the form of rain or snow the phenomenon is known as wet deposition. Dry deposition is when gases and dust particles become acidic.

When too much acid accumulates, it impacts soil chemistry, plant activities and the acidity of aquatic bodies such as lakes, water, streams. Breathing in acid particles can cause lung and respiratory problems. It can damage buildings and historic monuments. One example is the yellowing of the Taj Mahal from industrialisation and subsequent acid rain.

Greenpeace report shows India as the top emitter of sulfur dioxide in the world, contributing more than 15 percent of the global anthropogenic sulfur dioxide emissions from the point sources tracked by NASA.

Garaga explained the Assam-based project began with the collection of rainwater to analyse its chemical characteristics and to tease apart the emission sources using an air quality model for this region. To pinpoint the source origin of rain droplets, a technique called isotopic fingerprinting was used to understand whether the rain was due to evaporation of water inland or on the ocean.

Assam sits between the great Himalayas and vast flood plains of the Brahmaputra, one of India’s major transboundary rivers. Guwahati, the largest urban corridor of northeast India, lies on the south bank of the river. The city is set to get a makeover to transform into a Smart City with an aim to have healthy air quality, among other targets.

“The current levels of particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) in Guwahati and other cities of Assam are alarming and show increasing trends. Zeroing in on the critical sources of air pollution and their contributions to the problem is essential to building an effective air pollution control plan for the cities and regions,” explained Sharad Gokhale, study co-author, and IIT-Guwahati scientist.

Coarse dust particles (PM10) are particulate matter ranging from 2.5 to 10 micrometers in diameter. Sources include sea salt, pollen, combustion activities such as motor vehicles, industrial processes, crushing or grinding operations and dust stirred up by vehicles on roads.

PM2.5 are fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometres and smaller. This means the average human hair is 30 times larger than the largest fine particle. Sources of PM2.5 pollutants include human activity-derived particles (such as black carbon, organic carbon, sulfates, nitrates, and ammonia) and fine dust.

Besides Guwahati, four other cities in Assam (Nagaon, Nalbari, Sibsagar, Silchar) are labeled as ‘non-attainment’ cities in the NCAP for violating prescribed ambient air quality standards. These are cities where particle levels (PM10) exceed the annual average (60 micrograms per cubic meter) ambient air quality standards. Assam has 24 air quality monitoring stations, including six in Guwahati, under the National Air Quality Monitoring Programme.

Under the national policy, the state is all set to prepare city-specific interventions and action plans, targeting about 20 to 30 percent reduction of PM 2.5 and PM10 concentrations by 2024, according to an agreement between the Pollution Control Board Assam and IIT-Guwahati.

“Once we know what are the sources we can target the sectors specifically for emission reduction. This is necessary if we want cities to attain prescribed air quality standards,” said Gokhale, adding that this is where studies such as the current one come in handy.

Multiple actors at play in ruining rainwater quality

For the study, rainwater and PM 2.5 sampling was carried out in urban and non-urban areas in the city of Guwahati. Non-urban areas have relatively fewer vehicles but several small factories said Gokhale. The presence of a liquid petroleum gas (LPG) bottling plant in the city premises has further aggravated the worsening of air quality.

Running through the year (2016-2017) the study identified particles from the sea, dust, industrial and vehicular emissions, and coal combustion as the major sources that are turning the rainfall acidic.

“Marine sources appear to have a significant impact on rainwater quality. These sources refer to the salt particles such as chloride, nitrate that are blown inland from the ocean and contribute to the acidity of the atmosphere. When the rain washes or scrubs these particles out, these particles interact with the raindrops and increase the acidity of the rainwater,” Gokhale said.

Because of the interplay of meteorological factors such as humidity, temperature, and rainfall, the part played by each of these sources (natural to man-made) in making the rainfall acidic see-saws over the year.

For example, the authors note that in rainwater samples collected during monsoon, marine source (40 percent) and vehicular emissions (36 percent) were the major contributors in lowering the pH (increasing acidity) while in the pre-monsoon phase the contributions from the marine source decreased by 16 percent and industrial emissions increased by 20 percent.

“For one thing, the decreasing difference between day and night-time temperatures may be responsible for the quick conversion of precursor gases into sulfates and nitrates,” noted Gokhale. This quick conversion could possibly explain why the gaseous pollutants (such as SO2 and NOx) have remained in the low pollution level category in the state, as documented by the Pollution Control Board Assam.

Further, the acid neutralising capacity in this region was negligible, the researchers said. “This is because the levels of sulfates and nitrates are much higher than the neutralising elements such as calcium, magnesium and potassium ions. And there is a huge imbalance of anions and cations in the atmosphere,” said Gokhale.

The other important finding is the moisture source during monsoons and non-monsoon periods.

While the southwest monsoon arriving from the Bay of Bengal branch brings in the largest share of moisture during the summer monsoon phase, in-land water bodies in the state and transpiration from surrounding green cover result in maximum rain during the rest of the year, the researchers said.

Jaideep Baruah of Assam Science Technology and Environment Council batted for long-term monitoring and research to flesh out acid rain issues in the state.

“One of the problematic areas in Assam is the heavy load of dust stirred up vehicular movement and also from denudation of hills,” Baruah told Mongabay-India, referring to the contribution of dust particles revealed in the study.

Assam is rich in its minerals deposit and is well-known for its fertile land, contributing $46 billion to the nation’s total gross domestic product (GDP), and engaging 69 percent of the state’s population in agriculture, the study said. However, the soil of the state is acidic which restricts the productivity potential necessitating investigation to understand the cause of acidic nature, said Garaga.

Binoy K. Saikia, a scientist in CSIR-North East Institute of Science and Technology, who studies coal chemistry, and who was not associated with the current study, highlighted that the research also reveals the significance of coal combustion activities in the surrounding regions which are responsible for emission of SOx and NOx, the precursor of acid rain.

“The coke oven near Guwahati may be one of the cause for the SOx if they use the feed coals from the northeast region since coal from this part of the country are high in sulfur, particularly organic sulfur,” Saikia told Mongabay-India, stressing on regulatory control and monitoring of emissions.

Sprucing up monitoring and building onto research data

Under the agreement between IIT-Guwahati and the state’s pollution control board, one of the areas researchers are looking at is evaluating the air quality monitoring stations in the state.

“They are not scientifically stationed. For instance, you may not find the monitors in areas where there is heavy traffic congestion but where there is a relatively low volume of traffic. They are arbitrarily stationed so they do not reveal the true nature of the air quality,” said Gokhale.

“We may also restructure the network of these monitors and also convert them to automated systems,” he said.

As for the research component, Garaga said the scientists are also working on a dry deposition study, which means collecting particulate matter on a filter paper and subjecting them to a similar analysis as the wet deposition (acid rain) work.

“Thereafter, the results will be compared and sources contributing to such high concentrations will be identified in order to inform policymakers in designing better mitigation strategies,” she signed-off.

 

Environment

Elephant trade may resume in Sonepur Fair

by ANIRBAN ROY

As the Asia’s oldest and biggest cattle fair, the Sonepur fair began in Bihar’s Saran district on Monday, conservationists are worried that the fair may resume trade of elephants.

The fear is obvious because the Bihar government has constituted a nine-member committee to invite elephant owners from all over Bihar, Uttar Prdaesh and Jharkhand to the Sonepur Fair.

Arrival of elephants at Sonepur fair had stopped after a ban on sale in 2000. In 2018, only one elephant arrived at the fair.

Munmun Singh, a member of the committee said they are expecting at least 50 elephants at the Sonepur fair this year.

Sonepur Fair is held on the eve of Kartik Poornima in the month of November- December on the confluence of river Ganges and Gandak. This year, the fair will be from November 11 to December 11.

The Sonepur Fair existed when Chandragupta Maurya (340 – 297 BCE) used to buy elephants and horses across the river Ganges. The biggest attraction of the fair was the Haathi Bazaar where elephants used to be lined up for sale.

Elephants used to be openly sold at the fair. As per records, 92 elephants were sold in Sonepur Fair in 2001. The highest of 354 elephants were sold in 2004.

Most of the elephants sold in the Sonepur Fair were originally from Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and had buyers from other states, mostly Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Conservationists in Assam are now worried with the Bihar governments decision to invite elephants to the Sonepur fair. “This is illegal,” one of them, said.

“It would open a floodgate, and poachers would go all out to catch juvenile elephants from in the jungles in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh,” he added.

It was reported that 167 elephants were transported to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh from Assam between 2005 and 2008, and almost all of them were reportedly sold at the infamous Sonepur fair.

As per the record, 77 elephants were transported in 2006 from Assam, the highest in the conservation history of the state.

While captive elephants from Assam were the victims of the smuggling network, a significant number of them were caught from the wild.

The elephants caught from the wild were transported from Assam with forged documents and that too, in connivance with a section of corrupt forest officials.

But, as per the law, any such sale of elephants is illegal. The transportation could have been justified and supported with adequate documentation, but the sale was totally illegal.

As per She Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, sale, purchase or transfers of captive elephants from one person to another for monetary consideration or any other profitable gain, is totally illegal.

Unfortunately, the Assam Forest Department never tried to locate the elephants which were transported outside the state and did not try to bring them back. (This story first published in NE Now)

Environment

24 killed as Cyclone Bulbul lashes India, Bangladesh

At least 24 people were killed and more than 2 million others spent a night huddled in storm shelters as Cyclone Bulbul smashed into the coasts of India and Bangladesh with fierce gales and torrential rains, officials said Sunday.

The cyclone made landfall at 9 p.m. local time (1530GMT) on Saturday in Indian West Bengal, near Sagar Island. The cyclone packed winds of up to 120 kilometers (75 miles) per hour, forcing the closure of ports and airports in both countries.

Ten people were killed in India’s West Bengal state, the Press Trust of India reported, including two after uprooted trees fell on their homes and another after being struck by falling branches in Kolkata.

Two others died in nearby Odisha state, PTI reported.

Ayesha Akter, an emergency official in Bangladesh, confirmed 12 people had died in the storm, adding that she feared the death toll will rise until Monday morning.

According to Bangladesh’s Health Directorate report issued on Sunday night casualties have been reported from eight districts in the country’s southern coastline.

Five others are missing after a fishing trawler sank in squally weather on Meghna river near the southern island of Bhola, district administrator Masud Alam Siddiqui told AFP.

AFP Photo

AFP Photo

The cyclone also damaged some 4,000 mostly mud and tin-built houses, disaster management secretary Shah Kamal told AFP.

In coastal Khulna, the worst-hit district in Bangladesh, trees swayed violently and were ripped from the ground in the fierce storm, blocking roads and hampering access to the area.

Some low-lying parts of the district were flooded, Disaster Management Minister Enamur Rahman told AFP.

Authorities said the cyclone was weakening as it moved inland.

“It has turned into a deep depression, causing heavy rainfall,” Bangladesh weather bureau deputy chief Ayesha Khatun told AFP.

Bulbul hit the coast at the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest which straddles Bangladesh and India, and is home to endangered species including Bengal tigers and Irrawaddy dolphins.

The mangroves shielded the coast from the storm’s full impact, Khatun said.

Some 2.1 million people across Bangladesh were relocated to cyclone shelters.

AFP Photo

AFP Photo

Troops were sent to coastal districts while tens of thousands of volunteers went door-to-door and used loudspeakers to urge people to evacuate their villages.

“We spent the night with another 400 people,” said Ambia Begum, who arrived at a shelter in the port town of Mongla late Saturday along with her family.

“I am worried about my cattle and the straw roof of my house. I could not bring them here. Allah knows what is happening there,” the 30-year-old mother of three told AFP.

Around 1,500 tourists were stranded on St. Martin’s island off southeastern Bangladesh after boat services were cancelled.

In India, nearly 120,000 people who were evacuated started to return home as the cyclone weakened, authorities said.

“The storm has left a trail of destruction as it’s crossed the coastline of West Bengal,” the state’s Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim said.

In Odisha, crops in coastal regions were extensively damaged by the cyclone, officials told AFP.

Bangladesh’s low-lying coast, home to 30 million people, and India’s east are regularly battered by cyclones.

Hundreds of thousands of people living around the Bay of Bengal have been killed in cyclones in recent decades.

While the frequency and intensity of the storms have increased, partly due to climate change, the death tolls have come down because of faster evacuations and the building of thousands of coastal shelters.

Cyclone Fani was the most powerful storm to hit the area in years when it struck in May, killing 12 people.

Environment

Mandalay steps up food safety drive with focus on chemicals

U Khin Maung Myint, a member of the pulses wholesale centre, underscored the need to stabilise their prices and expand the market.

He said a tonne of mung beans is worth about K1 million (US$660), and a 96-kilogram bag sells for K95,000 at Mandalay Market.

U Khin Maung Myint added that planting hybrid varieties could further increase the yield.

“The prices of white, red and yellow chickpeas have declined in the market because of the entry of green peas from China,” he said. “This resulted in local chick peas being pushed out of the market.”

U Hla Than Win, a leader of a local sugar association, said a flood of foreign sugar on the local market had pushed down the price of sugar. Also, there are sugar storage problems because of foreign sugar, with the start of the local cane harvest only two months away.

The legislators hope to continue the dialogue with local farmers to increase cooperation on improving farmers’ production and livelihoods.

The Mandalay government is implementing a food safety plan to ensure that farm produce is free of dangerous chemicals and meets international standards.

A trader said that to fetch a good price, local produce must be grown organically and supported by the government with good seeds and soft loans. – Translated

Environment

‘I formed the 45 Metre Underground Club’: Eurostar stories of sex, celebrity and speed

On the morning of 14 November 1994, a train glided into the Gare du Nord in Paris. It had left London Waterloo three hours earlier with around 700 passengers, then meandered – frustratingly slowly in those days – through Kent. Near Folkestone it dived underground, into a tunnel bored through the chalk under the seabed, before emerging 20 minutes later near Calais, where it could at last accelerate to 186mph and finally arrive at the French capital three minutes ahead of schedule. Or rather late, perhaps, depending on how you look at it.

After all, it was nearly two centuries earlier, in 1802, that a French mining engineer named Albert Mathieu-Favier first proposed the idea of a tunnel under the Channel. It involved horse-drawn carriages and oil lamps and was quickly abandoned. Numerous other ideas and schemes followed; surveys were carried out and tunnels were even started. Digging began in 1881, but the project was ditched when British politicians and the press stirred up fears of an invasion.

Just over a century later, in 1986, an agreement between France and Britain to build the tunnel was signed in the presence of François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher. Digging began from both sides in 1988; on 1 December 1990, two miners, Englishman Graham Fagg and Frenchman Philippe Cozette, broke through the service tunnel and shook hands. A further four years later, high-speed trains were running through the tunnel.

Since then over 200 million passengers have travelled on the Eurostar – including the Queen, presidents, prime ministers, Beatles and Rolling Stones, ambassadors, Wags, fans, and a lot of ordinary people. I spoke to some of those passengers, and the people who helped them travel.

I drove the first train to Paris

Bob Priston and Eurostar engine
 ‘I thought, blimey, that’s a lot of pressure’ … Bob Priston. Photograph: Eurostar

My co-driver Lionel Stevenson and I were told the Friday before that we were rostered on the first train to Paris. I thought: “Blimey, that’s a lot of pressure,” but we were well trained and ready to go. The day went very fast. We left Waterloo within a minute of the right time, had a pretty clear run and in northern France we accelerated to 300kmh. We were aware that it was a historic moment – that if anything went wrong, that’s what would be reported.

Before that I was an InterCity driver on British Rail. The Eurostar train is a lot faster; we loved that, but it was something we had to get used to. Then there were the different signalling systems; French and Belgian rules and regulations. We were given 600 hours of French language training, including two residential stays in France.

It always gives you a buzz, going into the tunnel, especially if you get slowed down on the approach and then accelerate into the tunnel. We don’t get much overtaking us. The nearest I’ve come to it was many years ago when there was a 170kph speed restriction in France. There was a BMW on the left-hand side, just in front of the train. As we came off the speed restriction I looked over and he was accelerating at the same rate, up to about 250-260kph, before I gently eased past him.

We had a couple of stowaways once. They were on the outside of the train and were spotted as we left Lille for London. There are a number of places – without giving too much away – where you can wedge yourself in. As we approached Calais I was told we would stop and the French police took them away.

And I have had a couple of fatalities. It’s not a pleasant side of the job. It takes a while to get your head around. The company provides counsellors. There’s nothing we can do about it – that’s the starting place for dealing with it, but it’s not pleasant, especially when you find out a bit about the people involved.

Bob Priston, train driver.

I met my husband on the Eurostar

Jenny and Chris Wheeler at their wedding
 ‘I thought, I’m going to take a chance’ … Jenny and Chris Wheeler at their wedding

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In 2002 I was studying English and went to live in London, but eventually ran out of money and had to go home to Paris. I had come to the UK with one suitcase, but when it was time to go back I had three, so I left some behind. I was on my final trip from Paris to London to pick up the last suitcase when I met my husband. He was on a business trip and wasn’t even supposed to be on that train – he had just missed the previous one. I did notice him in the queue, but he wasn’t my type, if I’m honest – although there was something nice about him. Then, when I came to sit next to him on the train, I thought: “Oh, it’s that guy.”

We both had Discmans and that was probably the start of the conversation: “Ooh, what are you listening to?” I was probably listening to PJ Harvey and Radiohead – he was more dance. He’s a DJ at heart, even if he has to work in the City.

He offered me a beer. I think I spilled a bit on him. I offered him a Bonne Maman chocolate tartlet – it’s really cliched! We were talking in English for the first hour and a half, then suddenly he spoke French. He had kept that one quiet. I was quite impressed. It was a fun three hours. I didn’t think “I’m falling in love”, but we exchanged numbers.

I told my friends how I had met this guy, he was nice, carried my suitcase – the embodiment of the proper Englishman. They said, you’ve got to call him. I went back to Paris and we arranged to meet, because he was coming to Paris again. We went to one of those bars opposite Gare du Nord. I went to the UK maybe a couple of weeks later, to see him. We got on so well I decided to move in. I had quite a good job in Paris, but I thought: “I’m still young, I’m going to take a chance.”

Jenny Wheeler lives with Chris and their two children on the Essex/Suffolk border.

I helped build the tunnel

I’m actually sitting on the Eurostar right now, leaving in seven minutes. I was public affairs manager for Eurotunnel, involved in the tunnel and the start of services. I’ve been following it ever since. In 1980 or 81 Margaret Thatcher indicated that if a fixed link across the Channel could be built and financed without public money, then we could do it. We had people from Dover Harbour Board saying the tunnel was going to be the longest crematorium in the world – we had to struggle against that.

The decision to make it a rail tunnel was very significant. Some of the alpine road tunnels have had lots of problems, as well as the issues of exhaust emissions. But Mrs Thatcher didn’t like trains, she liked cars. When she asked our chairman how you get the cars across, he said: “Oh, you put them on shuttles,” and she never asked what a shuttle was. Of course, it was a train.Advertisement

I always thought it was an important way of linking us to the continent – not just business, but pleasure and culture. The train has helped integrate communities in a way that didn’t happen before. That’s what’s so sad about Brexit: they are doing their best to wreck it.

Anthony Fitzhardinge Gueterbock, Lord Berkeley.

The Eurostar is at the centre of my marriage

Backwards and forwards at weekends ... Bryony Hoskins on the Eurostar.
 Backwards and forwards at weekends … Bryony Hoskins on the Eurostar. Photograph: Provided by Bryony Hoskins

Antoine was a software engineer who came to the UK when they were building the tunnel under London in about 1998. We met by chance in a London bar – I was a sociology student at Brunel University on a girls’ night out. We married in 2010. I live in London and he lives in Paris. We travel by Eurostar backwards and forwards to see each other at weekends. He comes twice a month, I go one weekend over there, or I stay longer because I have more flexibility. I do an art course and even did a big model of the Eurostar, with pictures of myself and Antoine inside.

Bryony Hoskins is a professor of comparative social science at the University of Roehampton.

I was a passenger on the first train to Paris

The most disappointing thing was that you never actually saw the sea: it’s because of the way the tunnel had to start in front of a hill on the British side and takes you quite a way beyond Calais. It’s a brilliant piece of railway engineering: I’ve travelled in the cab, an amazing experience. But the other great disappointment is that Brexit has happened. Despite the fact you can hop on the Eurostar and end up in France, it hasn’t made us feel more European. As a railway person I’m loath to say it, but maybe itwould have been better if you could have driven across. It might have made for more casual connections.

It’s undoubtedly the best way to travel between London, Paris and Brussels. But if you want to go to Amsterdam it only works one way round. Eurostar doesn’t sell tickets to many destinations either, so it’snot really connecting us to lots of places in Europe. Kent is one of the most pro-Brexit areas. If they had connected France with England on that kind of level it would have done enormous amounts for European relations. Instead it’s almost like taking a plane – you have to go to St Pancras or Ashford International, through security. If you go from France to Belgium or France to Italy you just hop on a train or in the car and you’re there.

You can’t blame Brexit on Eurostar, but it could have done more to prevent it. It has missed an opportunity – politically, symbolically and culturally.Advertisement

Christian Wolmar, writer and railway historian.

I commute on the Eurostar

Boulogne-based ... Harry Dobbs and his wife Bernice Pan. Photograph provided by Bernice Pan
 Boulogne-based … Harry Dobbs and his wife Bernice Pan. Photograph provided by Bernice Pan

I’m an architect and my wife and I were looking at a site to build a property by the sea near Rye. Just the site alone was something like £600,000. It was a clear day and we could see France – that sort of piqued our interest. I do a lot of urban design, using maps to analyse how close things are in time, rather than distance. If you put a pin in King’s Cross – where my wife Bernice and I both work – in one of these interactive maps, most of northern France is closer in time than most of south-east England: Eurostar stretches northern France into what would, timewise, be considered a suburb of London. It’s 55 minutes to Calais-Fréthun. So we came over for the weekend, looked at eight properties and chose the fourth – in the old town of Boulogne, between the cathedral and the castle.

We both run our own businesses and commute every day or weekly, as we see fit. Obviously it’s expensive; if I did it every day it would be double or triple what I would pay for a Brighton season ticket – but you would need several lifetimes of that before you got near the cost of property differential. I used to come up from Brighton and sit in someone’s armpit – if the train worked at all. In general I would say the prices in northern France are 10% of south-east England’s: not 10% off, 10% of. The house next door to ours, once occupied by the writer Alain-René Lesage, who wrote Gil Blas, just sold for 40,000 euros.Advertisement

We spend our weekends walking on the beautiful beaches, cliffs and dunes of the Côte d’Opale national park and eating some of the best seafood in Europe.

Harry Dobbs, Boulogne.

My train broke down for a night

I commute weekly between Brussels and London, and in November 2014 I was on a train that broke down in northern France, en route to Brussels. After a while the power went out; it was around 9pm and we were sitting in darkness. It quickly became apparent we would be stuck for a long time. Everyone made a dash for the bar, which sold out in about 20 minutes. It was cold outside, but when the aircon broke the carriage warmed up. The problem was that the train was on a bend and tilted, which meant we were all leaning to the right (or the left if facing backwards). In the end we spent the whole night on the train, trying to sleep, while leaning to the right.

Finally we were towed away by another train and arrived in Brussels at 6am – nine hours late. The woman next to me listened to nothing but Coldplay (loudly) during the delay. Everyone’s phone batteries started to run out except hers, which went on for ever. It was a very long night.

Paul, who did not want to give his surname.

I had sex on the Eurostar and founded the 45 Metre Underground Club

I was with my girlfriend – it was 2011, we hadn’t been going out long. It was a morning train. I think we did have a drink on the train, but we were very much in control of our senses. I had the idea as we were heading out of St Pancras. She didn’t take much persuasion: it was a sort of pioneering thing. I imagine we weren’t the first to do it, but we were the first to do it in the spirit of this new club we wanted to set up.

The Mile High Club is aspirational: what could be sexier and naughtier than sex on a plane? But now flight shame puts the Mile High Club in a different light. The 45 Metre Underground Club is the low-carbon option. But you have to be doing it when you are under the Channel.

Honestly, I think we were in there for about five or 10 minutes, before emerging gingerly but extremely pleased with ourselves. I would absolutely recommend it. There is a huge body of water above you, you are hurtling along at high speed through a dark tunnel under the Channel, knowing you are on a low-carbon adventure.

Matt Mellen, founder of the Ecohustler online magazine, lives in Frome, Somerset.

My train hit a wild boar

One cold November evening I boarded a 7pm train at St Pancras. The journey proceeded through the tunnel, across the flat French countryside and I was looking forward to checking into my hotel. Suddenly there was a loud bang, followed by an all-consuming scraping noise that seemed to go on for ever. Eventually we ground to a halt.

We saw train staff wandering around outside with torches. After an hour, we finally started up again. There was a very loud grinding noise, then we stopped. After two to three hours of further waiting, we finally had an announcement: “Your Eurostar has hit a wild boar and is badly damaged.” They didn’t tell us what happened to the boar, but I guess that at 180mph it had probably been quite badly damaged too.

Time passed: another two hours; three hours. But the bar was open and the wifi was working. We were stuck, but it was comfortable. Eventually, at about 4am, they commandeered another train and towed our broken Eurostar into a nearby station at about 10mph. We finally made it into Paris shortly after 8am, where they left us with a free breakfast, huge apologies, a full refund and tickets for another free trip.

Chris Allen lives in Suffolk.

I sat next to the England Wags

Wives And girlfriends of the England football team, World Cup 1998. Photograph: Clive Limpkin/Daily Mail/Rex/Shutterstock
 ‘They were very jolly’ … wives and girlfriends of the England football team, World Cup 1998. Photograph: Clive Limpkin/Daily Mail/Rex/Shutterstock

I was returning home to Brussels in 1998. The train got almost to the tunnel, had a problem and had to turn back to London. Eventually we were all bussed to a hotel near Wembley stadium. The following morning I insisted on a place on an early train. I had a first-class ticket and argued I should be able to get back to work asap. Eventually I was given a ticket rather grudgingly and collected a free copy of the Daily Telegraph at Waterloo. Before boarding I read an illustrated article about the England football team’s wives. This was before the term “Wags” was in use, but it was the World Cup and that evening England were playing Argentina. When I found my carriage a man tried to stop me boarding, saying the carriage was fully booked, but I insisted on getting on. The carriage had few people in it, all women under 35, very well dressed.

My seat was at a table of four. The three women all knew each other, and another seated across the aisle. I offered to swap places so they could sit together. Gradually it dawned on me this was a carriage reserved for the

wives and girlfriends of the England team. I remember recognising Paul Scholes’s wife from the picture. I think Victoria Beckham was the only one not present. They were very jolly. I thought the last thing they wanted was a male trying to engage in conversation. I would just sit back and tell my mates about it. At Lille they all departed, exiting the carriage in a wave of expensive fragrance.

Tom, who did not wish to give his surname. England lost to Argentina on penalties.

I am the French ambassador

Catherine Colonna on her visit to Dover and Folkestone
 ‘I always take the Eurostar’ … Catherine Colonna on her visit to Dover and Folkestone. Photograph: the French embassy

A few days after my arrival in September I went to Dover to see the traffic and the harbour – preparedness, shall we say, on the English side, for various scenarios. I went to Folkestone as well. In the operations centre there is a photograph of Mme Thatcher and President Mitterrand when they signed that agreement in 1986. Seeing it made me think that great vision is needed in politics. There had been talk about it for so long, but they actually decided to do it. And it works. It is the easiest, safest, most ecological way from the UK to France and the continent. I always take the Eurostar. It symbolises that we are so close to each other. When I visited Dover, you could see France from the cliffs. It’s not my job to make predictions, but I can’t say I think much will change. My guess is just as many people will travel from one country to the other, as before. The Channel will not become wider overnight.

Catherine Colonna is France’s ambassador to the UK.

I wore a banana-yellow jacket to serve drunk rugby fans, the wrong Rolling Stone and the right Beatle

Eurostar staff at Waterloo.
 ‘The idea was to sell as much produce as possible’ … Eurostar staff at Waterloo. Photograph: Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

I served on the Eurostar for two summers, 1998 and 99, to pay off my student debts. I went to the interview thinking I could speak fluent French, but completely froze. They still gave me the job.

We had to be on the platform an hour and 15 minutes before departure to get the train ready. We had these banana-yellow blazers, designed by Pierre Balmain, with a yellow and blue clip-on bowtie. It was horrendous. The idea, if you were working in standard class, was to sell as much produce as possible and 1999 was the Rugby World Cup – I’ve never seen so many people drink so much alcohol in my life: when Wales were playing France in Paris, the whole train ran out.

Once, when we were preparing the train to depart at Gare du Nord, the French crew were very excited because Mick Jagger was on the platform. I thought, that is actually an A-list celebrity, worth a look, so I went out. It was actually Charlie Watts, but I didn’t want to disappoint my colleagues by correcting them. In those days, one of the carriages was dedicated to what was called premium class. The only person who regularly travelled premium was Paul McCartney. His daughter was just starting work for Chloé in Paris. He would always refuse the food and fill out a comments card saying the vegetarian options would be better if it used Linda McCartney food.

The job was good fun and very well-paid, for what it was: bilingual coffee serving. I liked chatting in French and it cleared my overdraft. Twice. I kept my banana-yellow blazer for a few years afterwards.

Tom Wolfe is now an English literature teacher in Yangon, Myanmar.

I got my A-level results on the Eurostar

I was going to the south of France on holiday with my boyfriend. For some reason we booked for the day my A-level results were coming out. It was an early train, and as soon as I could ring the school I did. I didn’t want to call in front of everyone, so I went to the little space between the carriages. The teacher was a methodical man who often took quite a long time to say what he wanted. He eventually found my name, then had to check the results. I was getting kind of stressed, because we were going to go into the tunnel soon and I would have to wait another 20 minutes.

I got 4 As: French, Spanish, English and Drama. I was really pleased. I went back to my seat where my boyfriend was waiting with a little bottle of champagne. I remember the rest of the holiday, but not as vividly as that moment.

Jennie Burke lives in Paris with her French husband Julien and four-year-old daughter Octavie.

Environment

Anthrax outbreak in Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary

Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary authority could not open the sanctuary on Tuesday for jeep safari and elephant safari due to anthrax outbreak which resulted in the death of two wild buffaloes in the sanctuary on October 16.

Few other buffaloes have also been affected by anthrax and this has posed a serious threat to the one-horned rhino and the local people as well. Humans can become infected with anthrax disease through contact with an infected animal.

Anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. Although it is rare, people can get sick with anthrax if they come in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products, as stated in a report by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). 

Based on reports, the deaths occurred last week and the carcasses have been disposed of as per the guidelines. 

Following the outbreak, forest department officials have been taking precautionary measures to control the spread of the disease. 

A team of veterinary doctors have also been allocated for the mass inoculation of livestock in the region and the Forest Department has issued an advisory for preventive measures to ensure that the disease does not spread any further. 

Further, the veterinary department has vaccinated domestic elephants and the entry of domestic animals in the reserve has been restricted for the time being. 

Thus, the reopening of Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary has been postponed till further notice. 

Environment, Science

Indian bull frog: the Andamans’ new colonisers

A narrow road bifurcates the hyper-green paddy fields of Webi village in Middle Andaman, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A clear stream flows around the Webi, home to the Karen community, brought to these shores from Myanmar 93 years ago.

At dusk, as fading sunlight paints the surrounding hills in silhouette, the calls of cicadas, crickets and frogs rise in crescendo. In the cacophonic stillness, a centipede winds its way across the empty weathered road. And then, in the blink of an eye, it’s gone, swallowed whole by a recent migrant to the island — the Indian bullfrog (Hoplobatrachus tigerinus).

Barely 10 cm long, this particular specimen is small. But the larger ones weigh at least half a kilo. The golden stripe on their backs and the glitter around their throats shine in the diffused light of a mobile phone. Less than two feet from the centipede-eater sits another frog. Next to that, one more, and another, and another… scores of frogs in varied sizes, basking in the warmth of the asphalt. Every now and then, one of them leaps toward the murky waters of the paddy fields. There is nothing frog-like about the deep, guttural croaks of these prolific breeders. Rather, they sound more like a bull with a sore throat.

“It wasn’t here even five years ago. Now they’ve taken over the village,” says Nau Thaw Raytoo, a mother of four, who lives in a concrete-bamboo house with her children, their wives, and her six grandchildren. Her broken Hindi shifts to fluent, high-pitched Karen when instructing raucous kids.

The bullfrog is only the latest entrant in the Andamans’ 150-year-old history of invasives. Picture shows Gannatabla village at Diglipur in North Andaman.

The bullfrog is only the latest entrant in the Andamans’ 150-year-old history of invasives. Picture shows Gannatabla village at Diglipur in North Andaman.   | Photo Credit: K. Murali KumarMORE-INGround Zero

The Indian bull frog, a recent arrival from the mainland, is steadily occupying the islands’ ecosystem and threatening the local economy. Mohit M. Rao reports on the bizarre man-frog conflict brewing in the islands

Barely 10 cm long, this particular specimen is small. But the larger ones weigh at least half a kilo. The golden stripe on their backs and the glitter around their throats shine in the diffused light of a mobile phone. Less than two feet from the centipede-eater sits another frog. Next to that, one more, and another, and another… scores of frogs in varied sizes, basking in the warmth of the asphalt. Every now and then, one of them leaps toward the murky waters of the paddy fields. There is nothing frog-like about the deep, guttural croaks of these prolific breeders. Rather, they sound more like a bull with a sore throat.

“It wasn’t here even five years ago. Now they’ve taken over the village,” says Nau Thaw Raytoo, a mother of four, who lives in a concrete-bamboo house with her children, their wives, and her six grandchildren. Her broken Hindi shifts to fluent, high-pitched Karen when instructing raucous kids.

Webi is just among the scores of villages in the islands where the amphibian has arrived in hordes. An unusual man-frog conflict is brewing. The voracious animal gulps down anything that would fit in its jaws: centipedes, leeches, native frogs, lizards, small snakes, and even chicks and ducklings, which are an important source of food for the islanders.

“I’ve seen them eat chicks, swallowing the head whole,” says Raytoo, adding that of the 15 chicks hatched in the family’s chicken coop this year, only three have survived. Balakishore, whose father is Ranchi (an overarching term for Jharkhand tribals who were settled here to clear the forests decades ago) and mother is Karen, has lost 50 ducklings to the frogs. When grown, each duck would have fetched at least ₹300 in the local market.

In the villages carved out of the virgin Andaman forests, the amphibian invader has evoked both surprise (“where did they come from?”) — and anxiety (“when will they go away?”). The bullfrog, found widely in mainland India and protected under Schedule IV of the Indian Wildlife Act 1972, is making the most of a free run that it’s enjoying in the erstwhile penal colony.

In the Andaman Islands, it can rain eight months of the year. The first rains in May are the signal for the bullfrogs to come out of the streams and agricultural ponds that have become their shelters. They breed by the hundreds, with each female able to lay between 3,500 and 20,000 eggs. Not all survive, but enough live to breed again, ensuring that the horde extends their range. With an average life span of seven years, and time to sexual maturity of 10-12 months, their population can dramatically shoot up in a very short time, which is precisely what happened once they landed in the islands.

“This is an invasion,” says Nitya Mohanty, a doctoral student at the Centre for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University (South Africa). His research, done with the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team, has been on invasive species — first on the chitals (spotted deer) that have established their herds in the Andamans, and now on the bullfrog invasion.

So far, the bullfrog has been found in six out of the eight major inhabited islands. In 2017, it was even found in Little Andaman, which is separated from the Greater Andaman Islands by more than 55 km of sea. “This kind of incursion into remote islands is not naturally possible in such a short time,” says Mohanty.

The frog has acquired many names in the course of its journey through multi-cultural settlements of the island: shona beng (‘Golden frog’, for the prominent golden stripe) among the Bengali settlers; haramendak (‘Green frog’, for its olive-green skin) in Ranchi villages, where you could hear Oraon, Sadri or Munda being spoken; and dey-phala (‘Green frog”) in villages where the 2,500-odd Karen community stays. Whatever the name or language, the narrative of economic loss and ecological threat is a constant.

How they spread

Mohanty’s team sought to define the contours of this “invasion” through interviews with locals. As early as 2001, the bullfrog had already established breeding populations in one village. By 2009, it had spread to seven villages. Since then, at least 53 villages have reported the bullfrog in worrying densities.

Like most contemporary tales in the archipelago, the bullfrog story may also have to do with the earthquake and the tsunami that devastated large parts of Andaman and Nicobar islands in 2004. Following the decline of natural fish stock, the local administration encouraged integrated farming, with aquaculture in agricultural ponds. There are now over 2,500 such ponds in the islands, most of them filled with stocks of exotic, fast-growing fish imported from the mainland.

The fishling stocks (mostly from Kolkata) released into some of these ponds were contaminated with bullfrog eggs and tadpoles. All fingers point at the local fisheries department, which has, however, dismissed these claims and accused private traders of having brought the invader to the islands.

Most villagers believe that the bullfrog’s first hop into the islands was in Diglipur, in the northern tip of the Andamans, where its prolific spread first became a talking point. By 2011, it was spotted at Mayabunder in Middle Andaman, and by 2013, it was found in Wandoor, near the southern tip of the Andamans, around 300 km from Diglipur. While many were accidental releases, in some areas, it had been released by villagers as a fast-breeding cheap food.

Researchers Harikrishnan Surendran and Karthikeyan Vasudevan had been working in Wandoor since 2008, and were the first to report the presence of the bullfrog as an invasive in a scientific journal. “[The spread] is not surprising at all, given the high reproductive output of Indian bullfrogs and their association with agricultural areas… it was only a matter of time before they got introduced to other islands,” says Surendran.

Nearly two years ago, while engaged in construction and repairs at a resort near Wandoor in South Andaman, M. Alazhagan, 35, saw a multitude of frogs thronging the swimming pool. Some, he says, had turned yellow, with blue globules on their throat — males decked up for the breeding season. He approached one, and it froze. He decided to take a selfie: him grinning in the foreground, with the frog posing meditatively in the background. “It looked so strange! So much bigger than the frogs we were used to seeing and so colourful,” he recalls.

But fascination soon gave way to frustration. In North Wandoor village, located at the edge of the Lohabarrack Salt Water Crocodile Sanctuary, it isn’t the crocs that villagers keep an eye on.

The tsunami had created salty channels in the area and rendered large tracts infertile. So, many had turned to creating agricultural ponds — to rear fish and also because they would serve as sources of freshwater when the rains filled it up. Shushil Mondal found that his pond had been taken over by frogs. “Earlier I could get 20 kg of fish whenever I spread the net. Now, I get only shona beng. There is no fish left now. It has eaten everything,” he says.

The frogs pose a threat particularly to the livelihoods of landless labourers, such as Parimal Das and his family of eight. They had migrated to the Andamans from Kolkata nearly 20 years ago, and are now nomads, leasing land wherever it is available to grow vegetables. Agriculture in a rain-heavy, saline-rich soil is difficult, and free-range chickens are an important and steady source of income, with each fetching up to ₹600. “I’ve lost six chicks this year already. We had to build a murghi ghar [wooden makeshift cage on stilts] to lock the chickens at night, but even then the frogs manage to squeeze through,” he says.

On the other side of the Greater Andaman islands, the Andaman Trunk Road snakes its way through dense forests. Trees form a seemingly impenetrable canopy, creepers drape branches in a gown of broad leaves, and undergrowth form layers upon layers above the damp soil. Amidst the shades of green, the Andaman Crape Myrtle, a deciduous tree, bursts in bouquets of small lilac flowers.

Five kilometres of these forests separate Gannatabla village — a settlement of Jharkhand tribals — from the nearest village in North Andaman. The village is a clump of 50 houses and a series of rectangular paddy fields. There is no pond here where fish is cultured. The bullfrog, however, lurks in these fields and drinking water wells.

Gannatabla village at Diglipur in North Andaman.

“We don’t know how it has come here. Three years ago, we spotted it in the streams that come through the forests when we went fishing for kala macchi (black fish). Now the fish is hardly seen but the frog is everywhere,” says 29-year-old Johnson Kirketa, suggesting that the bullfrog had crossed the forests through channels and streams.

Colonisers among the natives

Bullfrogs are found all over mainland India, but it is in the unique ecosystem of the islands that it becomes a major threat. Unlike the mainland, resources on the islands are scarce for big animals, while natural calamities are more frequent. The wildlife here has evolved in a miniature setting: there are no large herbivores (the largest is the Andaman wild pig) or large carnivores.

“Islands have fewer species, but their nature make them irreplaceable. They are found no where else in the world… This makes the entire food web in the islands very different from that of the mainland,” says Vasudevan, senior principal scientist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.

The Zoological Survey of India has found that out of the 9,130 marine and terrestrial species discovered so far in the islands, 1,032 species (or 11.30%) are endemic (found only in the Andamans). In the constraints of land, this endemicity increases to nearly 25%, or 816 out of the 3,271 land species. These creatures had evolved to cope with natural disaster, but have little capacity to withstand rapid, human-induced impacts. “There is not much room for redundancy and refuges in these islands,” says Vasudevan.

But the bullfrog is only the latest entrant in the Andamans’ 150-year-old history of invasives, with alien species introduced in waves by the British, Japanese, and ‘mainland’ Indians having gradually colonised many parts of the island territory. These include the elephant(introduced for logging and later abandoned), chital, hog deer, and barking deer (all three for game meat).

In 2013, using satellite imagery, Rauf Ali from the Puducherry-based Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning found that forests with elephants and chitals had suffered significant degradation (Interview Island) compared to places where they were absent (Little Andaman). It’s a one-two punch: elephants knock down trees and strip barks, while chitals prevent regeneration of forests by grazing on seedlings.

The Indian bullfrog

Invasives have come in all forms to the Andamans. The Japanese introduced the Giant African Snail, one of the 100 worst invasive species as described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in the 1940s during their three-year occupation. It has now established itself as a major agricultural pest. Meanwhile, about 90% of the fish being bred in ponds are carps and other exotic fish which have even established natural breeding sites outside human-created ponds. Similarly, the islands are home to at least 592 introduced alien plant species, some indirectly pushing endemic plants to the fringe.

Away from the obvious economic impact, it is in the sounds of the night that one can perhaps gauge the ecological impact of the invasive bullfrog. Across infested villages, residents say sightings of native species of frogs have reduced. Full grown natives pale in size to even a young bullfrog. Water snakes, a common accompaniment for the paddy farmer, and centipedes are in decline.

But even more worrying signs were found in the gut of the frog. For months, Mohanty and his associates captured and “stomach flushed” contents out of 798 individuals belonging to two native species and the invasive bullfrog. From the gut of the bullfrog came out native frogs, the endemic Andaman blind snake, the endemic emerald gecko, skinks and others. “Adult bullfrogs pose a threat to small endemic vertebrates [from frogs to birds]. Within frog species, it can have a two-pronged impact on the Limnonectes genus of frogs. Bullfrogs not only eat the native frogs, even their diets overlap, indicating a possibility of competition,” he says.

It isn’t just their size that works to their advantage. It’s their appetite for meat, even at the tadpole stage. Bullfrog tadpoles are highly carnivorous, preying on other tadpoles (even native tadpoles) heavily.

Controlling invasives

In a few villages, the explosion in population from May onward sees a feast of bullfrogs: skin fried to a crisp, their legs boiled or fried. Here, a kilo (roughly three medium-sized frogs) is sold for ₹60 — the cheapest source of protein in the market. In other places, it is anger that has humans killing the frog. “Whenever I find it on the road, I beat it with a stick. If it jumps, I’ll jump into the paddy field and chase it. One dead frog means one lesser mother laying thousands of eggs,” says a villager in North Andaman, whose name has been withheld as killing bullfrogs is a criminal act under wildlife laws. In Wandoor, a family claims to have killed nearly 50 frogs in July.

However, these are mere dents in a burgeoning population. “It is difficult…I don’t see a way to stop it. The government should think of something. Else, in five years, poora basti bhar jayega  [the village will be filled with frogs],” says Krishna Singh at Mohanpur village in North Andaman. He claims to have lost 30 chicks to the frog.

Murmurs of the conflict have started, with the issue being raised by local political representatives. “It really is a big menace. But we have to see how the population stabilises,” says S. Dam Roy, Principal Scientist at the Central Island Agricultural Research Institute, Port Blair, which operates the local agriculture helpline.

Stung by the inflow of invasives, and with the fear that more could come, it was in the serene, undulating plantations that form the CIARI headquarters that a plan was hatched five years ago to start a ₹40-crore bio-security laboratory for quarantine and research. The plan did not materialise.

Globally, invasive species, particularly in islands, are becoming the focus of numerous organisations. The Convention on Biological Diversity has said that invasives have contributed to 40% of all animal extinctions since the 17th century. The IUCN has formulated guidelines for managing invasives specifically in islands, largely involving data collection, community engagement, policy measures and management plans.

Far away from the concerns of scientific papers and environmentalists, in the government offices at Port Blair, there is little panic about invasives. “They are just animals, and nature will find a way to live in harmony,” says Tarun Coomar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, who also holds the post of Environment Secretary in the relatively small administration governing the islands.

This confidence is not reflected among the villagers. While many are resigned to the invasion, some suggest commercial harvest for export to South-East Asia, for history has shown that animal populations crash when they have an economic value attached to them.

But for now, it is an unchecked invasion. “Bullfrogs have reached little Andaman, the next frontier is Nicobar. There are other islands they are yet to invade, and we must do everything to stop that. Signs at jetties about the adverse economic impact of bullfrogs and the need to check contamination of fish stocks could be useful,” says Mohanty.

For millenia, the islands, now a Union Territory, were largely disconnected, literally and figuratively, from the mainland. In more ways than one, the landscape here resembles those in Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia than mainland India.

In ethos too, the disconnect remains. In government offices, officials caution outsiders (whose annual numbers touch 6.5 lakh, as compared to 3.9 lakh residents) to take it slow in the islands: “Ye mainland nahiyeh Andaman hai  [This is not the mainland, this is Andaman].” But it may not stay that way for long. As the croaks of the bullfrog reverberate through the islands, their clamour assumes the urgency of a clarion call — to act before it is too late.

Mohit M Rao