Gharials and Gaia

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Photograph by Clifford

Amongst the recent top biodiversity stories are the release of the national estimate of tigers, and revelations of the possible causes of the mass deaths of gharials in central India. Both stories point not only to the failure of our wildlife conservation strategies, but to the dangers of a path to ‘development’ that fragments and poisons nature. Both are indicators of the increasing collapse of ecological systems that will ultimately backfire on humans themselves - unless we do something drastically different, and dramatically fast.

I won’t deal here with the tale of the tiger, as it is well known and many commentators of various hues have already brought out its various dimensions. I’ll concentrate instead on the crocodile, which normally takes up much less media space than the striped cat.

In December-January 2008 came the shocking news that over 100 gharials had been found dead in the Chambal River. This river is one of the few remaining strongholds of the species, distinguished from the more common muggercrocodile by their long snouts often ending in large knobs called gharas. India, as a whole, has perhaps only 1,000 adult gharials left, and in the Chambal maybe around 300, so the death of over 100 gharials was bound to send shock waves through conservation circles. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of Madhya Pradesh, P.B. Gangopadhyaya, is reported to have asked the central government to declare this a ‘national conservation emergency’.

Scientists from India and abroad immediately got into the act, and at the time of writing this, their tentative conclusion is that some toxins are responsible for the mass deaths.

But what toxins? And from where? And why have the deaths been restricted to gharials? Or are they? Are smaller aquatic fauna also dying, without being noticed? Answers to these questions may be some time coming, as investigations proceed. But there is at least one inescapable conclusion that can already bederived, and it points to dangers not only for species like the gharial but to all life forms, including humans. And it is this:  chemicals and other toxins introduced into one part of the planet might travel to a completely different part and affect
species and ecosystems there.

Actually, this is not a new concept. Four decades ago, when traces of the pesticide DDT were found in penguins in the Antarctic, it became clear that longlasting chemicals used by us anywhere on earth could land up halfway across the world and affect life forms there. That was a dramatic illustration of the Gaia theory – that the earth is one living entity, and what is done to one part of it affects other parts.

The gharial incident may not be as dramatic as that of the DDT - poisoned penguins, but it nevertheless points to the same connectivity. Dr Fritz Huchzemeyer, Vice-Chairman of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Crocodile Specialist Group’s veterinary advisory group, said that the most likely cause of the gharial deaths was toxins carried by the tilapia fish found in the Yamuna river (tilapia itself is of serious conservation concern, as it is an African fish  introduced here, leading to displacement of indigenous fish). Most of the deaths occurred in a small stretch near the confluence of the Chambal and the Yamuna. Whether this is the cause, or some other poisons from elsewhere, what this means is that wildlife conservation will simply not survive if we concentrate only on a few islands called ‘protected areas’. The stretch of the Chambal where the gharials were found dead is a wildlife sanctuary, duly protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act. Not only that, the gharial is protected across the country from hunting or capture or any other form of harm. Yet, over 100 individuals of a completely protected species died within a completely protected area, within a few days of each other.

This points to the need to look at conservation well beyond the borders of protected areas, into the entire landscape that surrounds such areas. In the case of rivers like the Chambal, this is actually plain commonsense. If someone is introducing toxic elements upstream of a sanctuary, a legal boundary downstream is not going to protect the species within in any way.

For over a decade now, international conservationists have been talking about ‘landscape-level conservation’. They point to the need to understand the ecological connections within river basins, through mountain ranges, amongst the seas, and so on. Coral reefs in many parts of the world are being smothered by the outflow of soil from inland areas where forests are being cut down. India’s biggest coastal lake, Chilika in Orissa, was shrinking at an alarming rate due to siltation from deforested catchments further inland; so much soil was deposited that its mouth to the sea was virtually closed off. At grave threat were half-a-million fisherfolk and hundreds of species of wildlife.

Only a major engineering operation to open another mouth, combined with afforestation in the catchment areas, offers hope that the lake may yet survive. In fact, a Chilika Development Authority was set up precisely to solve a problem that could not be solved by dealing with the lake alone but by looking at the entire landscape and seascape it was connected to. It brought on board all the relevant government agencies dealing with development, welfare, and  conservation, and had the mandate to also involve fishing communities and independent experts. Not all is well with its functioning, or so we hear, but at least someone got the idea right.

The gharial incident also displays an alarming twist to the old saying: what goes up comes down. Throw something in one place and it will end up affecting someone somewhere up the food-chain, down the river, or thousands of kilometresaway where the sea waves have carried it. I remember my utter horror when I saw huge piles of plastic and metal waste washed ashore on the otherwise pristine beaches of southern Great Nicobar Island; thrown there not by the local tribal population but by ships passing dozens of kilometres out into the sea, or maybe even by  inhabitants of more ‘developed’ societies somewhere around the Indian Ocean. Ever seen pictures of seal pups choked by the plastic holders of soda cans thrown away by careless drinkers maybe hundreds of miles away? Search the web, you’ll see one, and then the full force of the Gaia effect will dawn on you.

And if even that does not move you, here’s something that might. It was recently found that children in the Caribbean were suffering much higher rates of asthma than before. The cause? Dust blown all the way over from Africa, where land mismanagement and an increasing incidence of drought, possibly brought about by climate change, was drying up lake beds at an alarming rate. For millennia, the interconnectedness of the earth has been a boon for life; increasingly, we are turning it into a curse.

Clearly, action is needed on a much larger scale to understand the intricate web of nature and what we are doing to it, and to take conservation action across entire landscapes and seascapes. In the case of the gharial, it will be crucial to look at the Chambal and the Yamuna as a whole, and at their catchments. If there are industries throwing their effluents into these rivers (or their tributaries), or farmers spraying pesticides that are leaking into the groundwater and from there into the rivers, or if there is deforestation and unsustainable land use leading to siltation, these need to be dealt with. Saving the gharial, and other inhabitants of the Chambal, could actually become the rallying point for an entirely different way of looking at river basins, and to think of their development in a truly sustainable manner. An unlikely rallying point, I admit. But then we need out-of-the-box ideas in such desperate times.

A Yamuna-Chambal River Basin Authority, if set up, could take the health of key species like the gharial as a crucial indicator of the health of the basin as a whole. It would direct resources to essential research on ecological parameters such as water quality, toxins being released into the rivers, the state of catchments, and so on. It would do this with the full participation of those living along the rivers, and in particular, fisherfolk and others most directly dependent on the basin’s natural resources. It would hopefully be able to prevent the mass deaths of aquatic species, or at least respond with alacrity if any such events did occur. And it would ideally even be able to resist disastrous plans like those of linking up all rivers, by
being able to demonstrate how this would play ecological and social havoc.

One seemingly outlandish idea has emerged in many countries – that of aligning political constituencies with ecological boundaries and connectivity. It’s called ‘bioregionalism’ or ‘ecoregionalism’. Current decision-making is based on political and administrative boundaries (districts, states, countries) that cut across river basins, mountains, and other natural entities. It is not surprising that these decisions are insensitive to the ecological needs of the landscape, or to the needs of those communities most dependent on natural ecosystems. For instance, if people living dozens of kilometres downstream of Delhi were to be involved in deciding how Delhi should deal with its wastewater, decisions to invest in comprehensive water treatment plants would have been taken long ago.

Or to stretch the imagination a bit further, if the gharials of Chambal were to be asked how cities, industries and farmers upstream of them should behave, they may have used their gharas to knock some sense into our planners. The use of toxins may have been strictly prohibited, and safer alternative products found.

Of course, gharials can’t speak Or maybe they can? The 100 dead gharials of the Chambal have spoken eloquently, if tragically, to us. It is for us to heed their voices.

Ashish Kothari is a well-known biodiversity expert and the founder-member of Kalpavriksh, a 30-year-old environmental research and action group. He has been a member of people’s movements against destructive development projects including the Narmada dams. He co-ordinated the Technical and Policy Core Group to formulate India’s National Bio-diversity Strategy and Action Plan.
This article was first published in InfoChange News & Features, February 2008.