Monday, January 12, 2009

India's mixed green bag

The wrath of Kosi, Kolkata's pollution, death of Baba Amte... Sunil Kumar M reviews the year gone by, and hopes 2009 will be cleaner and greener.


The fate of smaller organisms were no better. The Eastern Himalayas and Western Ghats have become prime hunting grounds for smugglers of rare Indian butterflies and beetles. The insects are in great demand internationally for private collections, butterfly parks, traditional medicine, and also to be encased into jewellery. This came to light when Czech duo Emil Kucera and Petr Svacha were caught possessing rare and endangered insects by forest officials in north Bengal's protected Singhalila National Park in June.


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Butterflies - The Flying Jewels of the Western Ghats

by Dr Anand T & Geeta N Pereira

Dec 17, 2008

On the meadow green,
A flight of butterflies was snoozing,
With bated breath & studied gaze…..I stood watching.
When Lo... All at once they flew up
A curtain of iridescent glow
Stunning my senses with utter delight.

-Julia Pereira

Butterflies and moths are some of the most fascinating and eye-catching flying insects. A vast majority are brightly coloured and are found all over the world, except in the Antarctica region. They are indeed one of the planet’s most beautiful creatures. People from all walks of life, irrespective of race, colour or religion enjoy these beautiful winged flying jewels for their delicate beauty. In India, most butterfly species are found associated with tropical rainforests.

The Western Ghats is home to hundreds of species of rare, endemic and exotic species of colourful butterflies, some of them extremely rare. Some species are so rare that they are found nowhere else in the world. The region boasts of approximately 350 species of butterflies. They come in a variety of sizes with two pairs of large wings. The color pattern varies from species to species and has a definite role to play in the protection of the species. If one were to closely observe the wings, they are covered with overlapping rows of tiny scales.

The word butterfly has curious origins. Butterflies get their name from the yellow brimstone butterfly of Europe that is first seen in the early spring or "butter" season? The Anglo- Saxons used the word Butterfloege because their most common butterfly was the yellow brimstone butterfly. The spread of the English colonies and their subsequent influence on the natives carried forward in the butterfly tradition. In many languages butterfly means “licker of milk”. The Russians call them Babochka, meaning little soul. Ancient civilizations have depicted butterflies as little angels or souls, such that when people die, their souls go to heaven as butterflies. The importance of butterflies in many early civilizations is recorded in prehistoric caves and their depiction in pottery and fresco paintings. The best known example is the representation of the goddess Xochiquetzal in the form of a two-tailed, swallow-tailed butterfly. In all irrespective of age, people from all walks of life associate butterflies as friendly and soothing to the eyes, mind body and soul.

Biologists estimate that worldwide there are about 150,000 different species of butterflies and moths, in which approximately 30,000 belong to the butterfly species. The size of a few species of butterflies ranges from less than an inch in size to a wing span of about 10 inches. The smallest species are no bigger than a fingernail and the largest swallowtails are larger than the smallest birds. The world’s tiniest known species, the blue pygmy (Brephidium exilis), is found in Southern California and has a wing span of just over half an inch. Both the world’s smallest butterflies occur in peninsular India. The largest species, the New Guineas Queen Alexandria’s bird wing (Ornithoptera Alexandrae) can measure up to twelve inches from wingtip to wingtip. The Goliath Bird wing butterfly is the second-largest butterfly in the world.

The largest moth, The Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas) has a wingspan of 1 foot (30 cm). The smallest moth, the Nepticulid moth is 0.1 inch long. Destruction of its habitat is threatening this beautiful creature with extinction.

Butterflies provide aesthetic appeal and are connected with all plants and crops at all stages of their life cycle. Few are aware of the crucial role the butterfly plays in pollination of a large portion of economically important crops and flowering plants, which is second only to the honeybee. They pollinate about 75 per cent of staple crops in the world and 80 per cent of all flowering plants. The economic value of pollination is about $ 200 billion.

Scientific studies have proved beyond doubt that pollinators account for 12% of the value of world ide agricultural production.

Beneficial Aspects of Butterflies:

Butterflies are categorized as keystone species, which enable many smaller species of insects to thrive and reproduce in an ecosystem. In simple terms, it denotes that conservation of butterflies, also conserves, other species of insects. In fact, the basic health of our ecosystem is directly dependent on the number of butterfly species.

  • Butterflies act as indicators in monitoring environmental health
  • Play an important role in food chains and food webs.
  • Excellent pollinators
  • Bio control of weeds
  • Butterflies are very ensitive to pollution and have been used as bio-indicators to detect the pollution levels


  • The fact of the matter is that most butterfly species have an average lifespan ranging from 20 to 40 days. A few species may live up to nine months
  • Butterflies are found worldwide except on the continent of Antarctica
  • Butterflies can only see the colours red, green and yellow
  • Most butterfly species are dark coloured because they need to absorb heat from the surrounding environment
  • Caterpillars spend most of their time eating leaves using strong mandibles (jaws). A caterpillar's first meal, however, is its own eggshell. A few caterpillars are meat-eaters; the larva of the carnivorous Harvester butterfly eats woolly aphids
  • Butterflies do not have any chewing mouth parts. They are gifted with a tubular straw like appendage known as proboscis which enables them to sip nectar. Butterflies "smell" with their antennae and taste with their feet
  • Butterflies are one of the few creatures on earth that can orient themselves both in latitude and longitude
  • Male butterflies attract females by releasing pheromone chemicals (scent) from their abdomen
  • Butterflies and moths are picky in choosing leaves for egg laying
  • Butterflies and moths are picky in choosing leaves for their diet
  • When folded, a butterfly's wings are usually much less colourful, providing instant camouflage from would-be predators
  • The earliest butterfly fossils are from the early Cretaceous period, about 130 million years ago. Their development is closely linked to the evolution of flowering plants (angiosperms)
  • Butterflies are the only insects that have scales .Butterfly scales contain pigment, which in combination with light refraction gives butterflies their colors
  • Moth species outnumber butterfly species by 16-to-1

Butterfly Migration:

Butterfly migration is indeed a amazing and unique phenomenon. Resident species travel short distances to avoid adverse conditions. Many species of butterflies migrate thousands of miles, especially the Monarch species. The annual migration of the monarch butterflies between Mexico and the U S A and Canada covering a trip of 4000 miles is indeed a great wonder of the natural world. To date biologists are yet to solve the mystery pertaining to migration. Birds orient themselves with the help of stars, landmarks and the influence of the earth's magnetic field. However, butterflies with their rudimentary evolution traverse thousands of miles, is something difficult to comprehend.

Butterfly Smuggling:

A global network of poachers and smugglers are wiping out threatened species of butterflies. Smugglers entice the locals and school children by paying them rupees fifty for every butterfly they catch. They are then killed, dried and used in greeting cards, wall plate hangings and for other ornamental and decorative purposes. In the international market some species of butterflies like the bird wing butterfly found on the Tiger hill of Jammu and Kashmir is sold at $2500. The yellow colour in the wings of some species is permanent and is used in gold ornaments. The most endangered species are the giant swallowtail Papilio homerus, whose velvety black and gold wings are highly prized as decorative agents. In spite of butterflies being protected by international and national laws, butterfly smuggling is rampant in India, especially from the Western Ghats. Lack of expertise in the identification of butterflies (Endeared, rare, threatened species) helps smugglers get away. Such lacuna in the system needs to be corrected with immediate effect. Believe it or not, trade in endangered species (including wildlife) is worth an estimated 15 billion dollars a year.

Payal and Nihal with the help of posters and miniatures are creating a awareness programmee in and around the coffee zones; educating the local farmers to resist the temptation of butterfly smuggling. Parents can play an important role in inspiring their children to be guardians of nature.

Why the Butterflies Love Sunglight and are Coloured?

Butterflies are cold blooded insects. In simple terms they do not generate enough heat from their own metabolic activities to provide them with the heat and energy needed to fly. They rely on the heat absorbed from the sun. It is for this very reason that they often bask in the sun with wings outstretched. Butterflies can only fly if their body temperature is above 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

Relationship between Butterflies and Ants:

It is a fact that ants love to eat caterpillars. However the caterpillars of the Blue butterflies have evolved a symbiotic relationship that is mutually beneficial. Most blue butterfly catterpillrs have glands on the 11th and 12th segments which secrete a sugary solution, like honey dew. The ants harvest the honey dew from the caterpillar and in return protect them from other predators. This co-evolution has resulted in butterflies laying eggs, in places where ants are in abundance.


The Western Ghats, one of the hotspots of biodiversity is unique and should be better protected and managed. There is mounting concern regarding the devastating losses to butterfly colonies because of unprecedented habitat destruction. This is the single greatest threat to butterflies. The rate of deforestation is accelerating and is already higher than the average compared to other parts of India. From egg to adult, butterflies undergo a metamorphosis that is complex and often beset with problems like weather, predators, lack of food and human encroachment on habitat.

Let us begin with the smallest steps by planting flowering plants in our backyards and help native butterflies survive. In schools we need to encourage gardening and so also in public places with green all round. Schools and colleges should conduct training programmes and guided fiels trips, so that students learn firsthand the wild behavior of these beautiful winged jewels. School children from the primary level should be taught about butterflies and the vital role they play in different aspects of human life. Awareness at all levels will definitely help these winged jewels survive and coexist in a world dominated by humans.

Butterflies - The Winged Jewels of the Western Ghats - Photo Album
by Dr Anand T & Geeta N Pereira


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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Butterfly man

Fifty years ago, Deonar was not synonymous with slaughter or slum. It was a sleepy village with a creek, mangroves and a fishing beach that spread all the way to Mankhurd. You could see a lot of lush nature in and around the homes of the Koli and Agri fisherfolk who inhabited the village.

It was the sort of place a young boy could spend hours gazing at the creepy crawlies in his backyard, chasing butterflies or going out to sea on an expedition with indulgent fisherfolk. Isaac Kehimkar's passion for nature in fact goes back to those idyllic years in Deonar.

Almost every nature lover in Mumbai would have interacted with 51-year-old Isaac at some point or the other. This general manager (programme)of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) knows every corner of the urban jungle, the brave birds, flowers, insects and reptiles that have made even this cement city their home.

Walk into the Goregaon education centre of the BNHS on most holidays and you are likely to see a gaggle of excited children engaged in nature gazing. Finding creepy crawlies under the rocks after rains, brunching with the birds, learning to make paper from herbs...most of these interactive nature camps are part of the society's effort to bring Mumbaikars closer to nature.

"Once they fall in love with nature, they will have the urge to protect it," says Isaac. He follows the 'butterfly philosophy' of sharing knowledge. When you touch a butterfly, it leaves its shine on your hand. Awareness, too, he believes should spread from one mind to another.

Isaac's favourite animals are no one's idea of cutesy nature. He is fascinated with reptiles and insects. It was a fascination that goes back to his childhood. His father, a bank officer, encouraged him to raise pets and read up on nature. "Those books showcased flora and fauna from the US or UK and I would try to search for one of those birds or insects in my village and not find them," he says.

Love for nature in those days never really got you a job. But he hung on to his passion through some difficult years in college and later, his first job as a management trainee at Lakme. He picked up the threads of his association with nature when BNHS hosted a snake show at Thane. He volunteered to care for the reptiles and talk to the visitors. It was at this show that a life changing incident occurred -- Isaac saw the legendary 'Birdman of India' Dr. Salim Ali at a distance but never got around to meeting him.

"I was desperate to interact with him. I was in a fix, I had to choose between a career and a hobby. The only job available with BNHS then was a library assistant's post. But my father backed me all the way. I quit Lakme and joined BNHS, even taking up a year's course in library sciences," he recalls.

The 15 years Isaac worked at the library made for a rich experience. He got to meet veteran scholars and naturalists like Dr Ali and Venkatesh Madgulkar and observe them at work. Something he deeply admired about Dr Ali was his fluid writing skill. There was only secret to brilliance the ornithologist would say: 'Give your best to whatever you do and perfection follows.'

Isaac's skills as a shutterbug grew when he graduated from the box camera he used to frame backyard nature to an SLR. With this he ventured into wildlife photography, shooting extensively around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. "But there were no takers for photos of reptiles and insects. So I moved to shooting butterflies and flowers," he quips. Isaac has so far written six visually rich books on nature and done a film on the life cycle of a butterfly and another on the Project Tiger.

He has found that help comes in from unexpected quarters for conservation ventures. BNHS was severely short of funds to publish books and Isaac offered to go an ask Tatas to donate Rs3 lakh. He found to his amazement a cheque of Rs30 lakh in his hand. Why? He asked the generous donors. "To promote new talent and also to educate people about nature," he was told.

Isaac has been at the task of educating Mumbai about nature for a while now. Apart from the headquarters at Hornbill House in Fort, BNHS now runs an active outreach centre at Goregaon and Isaac is actively involved in its camps and campaigns.
"I have always believed in spreading awareness and educating people," says Kehimkar. He has delivered lectures in schools, colleges and also to corporates. He is often invited to give talks at the Goregaon education and conservation centre of BNHS. "I believe that teaching and educating adults about nature is very difficult," he says.

At 51, Isaac is fit and sprightly enough to impress any youngster. He chose to make Navi Mumbai his home because it is the one pocket in this city closest to nature. He lives here with his wife Nandini and two sons, Sameer and Amit. Sameer has inherited his father's passion for reptiles and calls himself a 'reptile resuer'. "He is crazier and more daring than me," Isaac says with great pride.

Isaac incidentally belongs to a small and dwindling community of Jews who made India their home hundreds of years ago. Some drifted towards Maharahstra and integrated beautifully with the local populace and made Marathi their mother tongue.

As Isaac is being photographed, a colleague at BNHS pipes up to ask what the occasion was. 'Maybe because I am the last of the surviving Jews,' he jokes. The horrific events of 26/11 he says hurt him deeply not because his community was targeted but because it shook the entire nation up.


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Monday, November 10, 2008

Monarchs return to Mexico

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Red, Red Wings

Brilliantly-coloured butterflies have miraculous births

Manager, Piramal Healthcare,

ONE OF the most miraculous sights in nature is the lifecycle of the butterfly — it goes through a complete metamorphosis as it passes through four distinct stages: egg, caterpillar, pupa and adult butterfly. Let me share my own experience with rearing butterflies on my window sill.

The Change
Illustration: ANAND NAOREM

About four years ago, someone gifted me a pupa of the Red Pierrot butterfly. A pupa is that stage in the lifecycle of a butterfly after which the adult emerges. As I watched the pupa, one day at a time, the wait was agonising. Eventually, on day nine, its colour changed from white to black and I knew the birth was near. I checked on it several times that night, with no luck!

By morning, the pupa was transparent and the colours of its wings were visible. At noon, the pupal case burst open and out crawled the beauty, struggling to find its feet. It had two black forewings and two red hind wings on the upper side, while the underside was white with black dots; a black and red margin to the wings was interspersed with white dots. I filmed the event until the newborn fluttered off, confidently, first onto a plant on my window and then out into its world.

I then bought a Kalanchoe plant for my window. This is the plant on which these butterflies lay their eggs: most butterflies have specific plants from which they take their nectar and specific plants on which eggs are laid for the caterpillars to feed on. It took a patient three-month wait before my Kalanchoe flowered.

Then, within no time, I saw tiny eggs on the leaves, soon followed by tiny caterpillars. Caterpillars feed voraciously; they are virtually eating machines. Soon, not much of my plant remained!

The caterpillar sheds its skin three to four times during its development, during which process it temporarily stops eating. This stage is called the instar. Ten to 15 days later, the first pupa formed and I stored it carefully in an openmouthed container, lest the birds should take it away.

After thus removing a few more pupae to safety, I stopped, reasoning with myself that I was interfering with the ways of nature. Nature has its own way of balancing things and the food chain would be imbalanced if all organisms had a 100 percent survival rate. However, I did watch and count them several times a day, to reassure myself that they were all safe. I had 25 of them now!

Soon, one after the other, the pupae began to hatch — sometimes one a day, at other times two or even three. Over a period of 10 days, I saw 25 Red Pierrots come to life and take their first flight into the world from my window.

A few days after all the births were through, I saw a Common Mormon butterfly laying eggs on my curry leaf plant. These caterpillars grew much larger than the Red Pierrots. Naturally, therefore, there was a higher risk of attack. I allowed nature to follow its course and four of the eight pupae were eaten by birds.

These simple joys of nature bring with them immense pleasure; they sooth our frayed nerves, all the while teaching us the ways of life. For those interested in attracting butterflies to their windows or gardens, you can grow plants like Pentas, Ixora, Marigold, Petunia, Sadaphuli, Jatropha, Aster, Lemon grass, Plumbago and Heliotropium — and watch as various varieties of butterflies arrive to suck their nectar.

Or, if you want to watch the lifecycle of a butterfly at first hand, try planting Kalanchoe, Curry Leaf, Passiflora, Bryophyllum or Calotropis, and wait for the butterflies to come and lay their eggs, and watch their metamorphosis. Remember, butterflies usually lay eggs towards the end of the monsoon, and continue right up to February. The creature may not emerge from the pupa for months together, depending on the species and on whether the conditions are favourable for its survival, though this occurs only in extreme climatic areas.

Go ahead and observe the miracle of nature — it will humble you for sure; albeit delightfully. •



Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Insect appeal

Sandeep Unnithan
October 10, 2008

Call it a beauty pageant with a difference. A small gathering of tribal youths queue up outside a nondescript hotel in a small town in Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh holding plastic bags and ventilated clear plastic jars.

What they're selling are huge, velvet-coated palm-sized tarantula spiders, stunningly beautiful, but with a bite that can kill a human.

The youths tell a shaky hand-held camera exactly what they are doing there: trying to sell the spiders to a German tourist camping in the hotel. Each spider will fetch them between Rs 500 and Rs 5,000. A tidy sum for an eight-legged creature that remains relegated to the obscure in India.

Wildlife officials aren't surprised by this footage, shot by a local television reporter last December. For years, foreign nationals have been descending on Indian forests and spiriting away insects.

Two months ago, two Czech nationals were arrested for stealing insects near Darjeeling's Singalila National Park. The duo-Prague-based entomologist Petr Svecha and insect trader Emil Kucera-was recently convicted by a local court.

India is one of the world's 12 megadiverse countries as it harbours a significant chunk of the earth's species. This includes 45,000 plant species, 89,000 animal species, and a staggering four lakh insect species, with several still waiting to be discovered. "Insects are the unknown frontier," shrugs Traffic India Chief Samir Sinha.

Raiding this frontier, like the latter day Indiana Joneses, are dozens of eco-pirates from countries as diverse as Japan, Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic. They come armed with intricate knowledge of local species and know exactly how and where to find them. Many of them feed a thriving global illegal trade in wildlife, third after narcotics and arms.

India is a biodiversity hotspot with 45,000 plant and 89,000 animal species
India is a biodiversity hotspot with 45,000 plant and 89,000 animal species
"The total trade in wildlife products is worth about $10 billion (approximately Rs 47,000 crore) and if insects make up even a fraction of this, you have a substantial sum," says Tito Joseph of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).

The hunting grounds are the Himalayan foothills, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats-three regions with the most biodiversity in India.

A single palm-sized specimen of the poisonous Indian tarantula, found only in the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, can fetch more than $1,000 (Rs 47,000) in the international market. Locals say the German 'tourist' was willing to pay upwards of Rs 1 lakh for a still rarer variety of the blue tarantula.

A single specimen of the exquisite Kaiser-e-Hind butterfly costs over $1,500. Other Indian ornamental spiders retail for $35 and $150, depending on their size. Kucera ran a website which offered the arachnids for sale but it was shut down after his arrest.

"I am not coming to India to collect spiders, I merely want to study them," says the tourist, waving a German book on the ornamental spiders of the Eastern Ghats. But the statements of the tribals reveal a different tale.

Research has been the common pretext used by most such people including Svecha, who is associated with the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, and Kucera. They now have an international lobby of scientists and researchers seeking their release.

French students came to India well prepared. They would light ultraviolet lamps in the jungle and pick up the moths
French students came to India well prepared. They would light ultraviolet lamps in the jungle and pick up the moths
A furious round of Internet petitions from foreign researchers, sent straight to the Prime Minister's Office, built pressure on the Indian Government urging it to stop "victimising" the duo.

The fact is that the National Biodiversity Act which came into force in 2002 explicitly prevents the collection of flora and fauna from India and lays down the procedures for collecting specimens. Yet, most scientist poachers continue to skirt the law, often bringing along the tools of the trade.

A group of French students arrested in July last year were caught with ultraviolet lamps and bedsheets. They would light their lamps in the jungle, wait for the moths to come and simply pick them off the bedsheet before inserting them in plastic sample sheets and packing them in suitcases. These poachers feed the appetite of hobbyists, collectors and butterfly museums across the world.

The trade could contribute to the extinction of certain insect species that are already reeling under the loss of habitat. Indian tarantulas, some of which have tiger and leopard-like coat hair and are called 'tiger spiders', live inside dead trees which are frequently chopped down for firewood. They now face a fate similar to that of their doomed namesake of the cat family.

"Indian 'tiger spiders' are being increasingly sought out by celebrities in the West as 'dangerous pets'. Various species of Indian tarantulas are being smuggled out in large numbers to feed the fad abroad," sighs K. Thulsi Rao of the Biodiversity Research Centre, Srisailam, Andhra Pradesh.

South Africa was once the hub of illegal spider trade but its tarantula was added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1996. ''Since then, the smugglers have shifted their focus to India,'' says Rao.

The WPSI says 25 cases of insect poaching have been registered in India since 1995. But for each poacher caught, there are nine who slip away.

This is because smuggling insects from Indian forests is a seemingly innocuous and risk-free occupation that operates under the smokescreen of ignorance and allurement.

"We are seen as easy targets," says Sinha. One police official asked a wildlife warden why were they fussing with foreigners walking away with minor keeda-makoda (insects)?

The pirates know that customs and airline authorities, who scan baggage at ports of exit, simply wave through bags stuffed with insects and butterflies.

What needs to be done? Wildlife activists say the legislation is in place. The Wildlife Act and the National Biodiversity Act of 2002 covers wildlife protection. Yet, cases of individuals being convicted are extremely rare. Since 1972, the government has managed to get only eight convictions under the Wildlife Act.

Seven of these convictions ranged between four and five years and one for six years, but no violator has been given the maximum prescribed seven-year sentence.

Wildlife activists hail the conviction in June of two Czech nationals found guilty of violating the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 in smuggling out rare insects from West Bengal as historic. Svecha was fined Rs 20,000 while Kucera was sentenced to three years' imprisonment by the court.

The main task, say biodiversity board members, is to sensitise the judiciary and the law enforcement authorities. The board had last month proposed forming a multi-disciplinary team comprising members from the executive, forest, wildlife and fisheries departments for increased and coordinated policing but these proposals are yet to be implemented by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Czech entomologist Petr Svecha and insect trader Emil Kucera were convicted for stealing insects from the Singalila National Park
Czech entomologist Petr Svecha and insect trader Emil Kucera were convicted for stealing insects from the Singalila National Park
The members are also pushing to motivate gram panchayats in three environmental regions and provide knowledge to workers at the grassroots level.

Could legitimising the trade where tribals get an equal source of income, be the answer? "Unless we have a benefit sharing mechanism in place we will lose our bio-resources either through legalised looting or through bio-piracy," says V.B. Ramana Murthy, member secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Biodiversity Board.

The jury is still out on this one. "Right now, insect farming should not even be thought of as it could lead to a lot of unforeseen complications regarding our biodiversity," says S.S. Negi, director of the Forest Research Institute of India. Clearly, in the absence of government measures the poachers have the upper hand.


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Illegal Trade Decimating Wildlife

By Malini Shankar*

The endangered Blue Tiger butterfly is the target of poachers in India.

Credit:Malini Shankar/IPS

BANGALORE, Oct 13 (IPS) - A great variety of endangered wildlife species end up feeding the illegal market for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) thanks to poor enforcement in stopping the trade, say experts and activists.

"The Chinese market is like a 'black hole' sucking in wildlife products from neighbouring countries," said Peter Pueschel, head of global Wildlife Trade Programme at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), in an e-mail interview with IPS.

India, China's neighbour to the south, is most at risk with its vast biodiversity and poorly enforced laws.

According to the wildlife crime database maintained by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), 846 tigers, 3,140 leopards and 585 freshwater otter (skins) were poached between 1994 and Aug. 31, 2008 and another 320 elephants were poached between 2000 and 2008 in India.

"Although many species used in TCM are now protected by national and international laws, illegal trade and poaching have increased to crisis levels as TCM's popularity has expanded over the last two decades," says Samir Sinha of the Indian chapter of the TRAFFIC, the Britain-based wildlife trade monitoring network.

"The problem is widespread, and mostly boils down to lack of political support," says Belinda Wright of the WPSI.

Elephants, tigers, leopards, mongoose, black bears, rhinos, snakes, butterflies, gorillas, otters, musk deer, antelopes, reptiles and products such as caterpillar fungus and porcupine quills form the bulk of the raw material for the TCM industry that, according to Interpol, is worth 20 billion dollars per year.

"We believe there is organised wildlife trade but it is difficult to identify," said Xu Hongfa, director of TRAFFIC – China in e-mail responses to queries from IPS.

According to most wildlife experts the illegal trade is helped along by the fact that Chinese authorities do little to curb the TCM industry because it is regarded as a part of East Asian culture. But Beijing can and does vigorously protect certain species such as the Giant Panda which has iconic status.

"Poaching the Giant Panda will result in severe punishment. According to Chinese law, anyone found poaching one Giant Panda will get at least a ten-year term of imprisonment,'' Xu said. ‘'Chinese government has taken action to improve the TCM market management but it is not very successful,'' he admitted.

"During a five-day period in June 2008, EIA (Environment Investigation Agency) investigators observed five traders who have been documented selling Asian big cat skins in previous years,'' said Debbie Banks of the London-based EIA, adding that Chinese authorities failed to act on information passed on to them.

"We pass sufficient information to enforcement authorities so that they take appropriate action. It is apparent that the authorities have failed in effective enforcement against persistent offenders,'' Banks said. ''It would not be appropriate for us to publish their details,'' she added.

Pueschel referred to a stock of 110 tonnes of ivory that disappeared from Chinese government custody in July 2008. "The main point here is that these incidents have not been taken seriously. It remains totally unclear where this ivory has gone. Nevertheless China has been designated an ivory importing country ("trading partner") supported by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) secretariat."

In May 2006 a consignment of 3,900 kg of ivory tusks was found concealed in a container of timber logs seized by customs officials in Hong Kong, revealing the ingenious methods used by wildlife racketeers. "The 'standard sizes' of cut ivory pieces make it easier to hide them inside any kind of packaging material," says Pablo Tachil a wildlife investigator based in Bangalore.

According to Tachil, Burma has emerged as a major staging point for the wildlife trade because of its location close to India and Burma and the major markets of South-east Asia. ''Burma is also an ideal hideout for poachers and traders, because of weak policing," he said.

What troubles activists is the continued demand for wildlife products around the world.

The popularity of ivory objects, for example, has grown in spite of the clear danger it poses to elephant populations and this, says Pueschel, is partly due to commercial sites on the Internet like eBay facilitating rampant trade. ''We continue to campaign for their banning all wildlife trade.''

An IFAW report in 2007 revealed that at least 90 percent of all investigated ivory listings on eBay were legally suspect. While eBay claims that its site allows 'shoppers to see the positive social and environmental impact' of each purchase, including whether it 'supports animal species preservation', activists say nothing is done by way of monitoring.

The animal most at risk of ending up as raw material for TCM is the tiger because it has long been revered in China as a symbol of power and strength and the belief that its products have potent medicinal properties. Only a century ago there were eight kinds of tigers, with over 100,000 wild tigers in the world. Today only five tiger subspecies exist, with fewer than 5,000 wild tigers in the world.

For India, the good news is that such events as the complete decimation of the tiger population in the Sariska reserve of Rajasthan state between 2002 and 2005 has caught the imagination of the public and helped authorities to ensure that traffickers are caught and brought to book.

Also in India several high-profile individuals have been caught in recent years and booked for poaching resulting in pro-wildlife wide publicity. These include the well-known film actors, Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan and India's former cricket captain, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.

In June 2008, two Czech nationals were convicted for trying to smuggle out 'Delias sanaca', an endangered butterfly species listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act in the Singalila National Park near Darjeeling. And by September one of them was handed down a fine of Rs 60,000 (1,300 US dollars) and three years of simple imprisonment.

Such exemplary cases go a long way in helping authorities to prevent wildlife crime,'' Utpal Kumar Nag, forest officer in Darjeeling, told IPS.

(*Malini Shankar is a well-known wildlife photojournalist and documentary film maker).

Project Tiger (



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Friday, September 26, 2008

Why Some Invasive Plants Thrive

Invasive plant species sometimes flourish better in their new homes than in their place of origin, according to researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ). Their research on Buddleia or the Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) showed that genetic changes and the lack of insects that would normally munch on their leaves gives invasive plants like the Buddleia a striking advantage.

Buddleia was introduced to Europe about 100 years ago from China and has been cultivated since then. Although the blossoms of the Buddleia are aesthetically pleasing and provide a food source for butterflies, their beauty masks a dark side. The butterfly bush can easily go to seed and form dense populations - potentially displacing native species and becoming a safety risk along railway embankments due to its rampant growth.

In order to improve knowledge about the mechanisms responsible for the spread of invasive species, UFZ researchers compared ten populations of Buddleia in Germany with ten populations in its original homeland, the southwest Chinese province Yunnan. Although the climatic conditions are more favorable in China, the bushes were larger in Germany and produced more and heavier seeds.

"From the plants in the Chinese homeland, 15 percent of the leaves had been eaten by insects. By comparison, in Germany only 0.5 percent" said Susan Ebeling from the UFZ. "The intruder is not yet on the menu for our insects. Because there are no relatives of Buddleia in Central Europe, the insects need longer to adapt."

The two Asian insect species that were used in an attempt to control the bushes in New Zealand are not yet present in Europe.

The situation is different with another species that researchers investigated more closely. Originating in the western United States, the Oregon grape is an evergreen bush with yellow blooms; it is even the official flower of the state of Oregon. In Europe the Oregon grape has a similar relative: the European Barberry (Berberis vulgaris). Native insects had millions of years time to adapt to the European Barberry and could now comparatively easily "switch" to the Oregon grape.

The Oregon grape on the other hand could not develop any defense mechanisms against its herbivores.

Nevertheless, it prospers so well in Central Europe that the Swiss Commission for the preservation of wild plants requests owners of gardens to do without the cultivation of Oregon grape as a preventative measure: "Should one already have this species in one’s garden, one must absolutely prevent any further propagation, on the one hand by removing the infructescence, and on the other hand by constantly removing any young shoots."

In spite of herbivores, the Oregon grape is able to flourish, cover forest floors completely and consequently become a problem. "Its success obviously lies in cultivation. Through selection and hybridization it came to a genetic change, enabling the Oregon grape to grow larger in Europe than in its American homeland", said Harald Auge of the UFZ. The biologist and his colleagues from Halle had collected seeds from Oregon grape plants in the USA, Canada, Germany and the Czech Republic and had grown the plants under controlled conditions in a greenhouse.

-- LiveScience Staff


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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Moths Remember Lessons Learned While Caterpillars

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 5, 2008
Adult moths can remember their "childhoods" as caterpillars, a new study has found. 

Recently scientists trained tobacco hornworm caterpillars in the lab to avoid a nail polish-like odor delivered in association with a mild shock. 

These bugs then entered the pupal stage and metamorphosed into moths. As adults, they also avoided the nail-polish odor—showing that they had retained their larval memory. 

"We concluded that indeed the association does persist and is accessible to the adults in this artificial scenario," said study senior author Martha Weiss, a biologist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. 

The finding also supports the idea that a piece of the caterpillar brain persists through metamorphosis, she added. 

(Related: "Scientists Rethinking Nature of Animal Memory" [August 22, 2003].) 

Weiss and colleagues report their research today in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE

Memory and Metamorphosis 

Scientists have long wondered whether memory could survive the dramatic reorganization of the moth brain during metamorphosis, Weiss noted. 

"The transition from a caterpillar to a moth or butterfly is really very dramatic," she said. 

(See a picture of caterpillar larvae that look like bird poop.) 

For example, caterpillars and moths move, eat, and sense the world differently—not to mention appear nothing alike. 

The study also showed that memory retention depends on the maturity of the developing caterpillars' brains. 

Caterpillars younger than three weeks old learned to avoid the nail-polish odor but could not recall the information as adults. 

However caterpillars conditioned to avoid the odor in the final larval stage before pupation, called the fifth instar, retained the lessons. 

Larvae trained during the third-instar stage also demonstrated an aversion to odor as fifth instars, but they did not avoid the odor as adults, the authors said. 

The findings jibe with the idea that memories are retained in one lobe of a mushroom-shaped part of a caterpillar's brain that forms during the late stages of larval development and survives metamorphosis. 

"Basically, the brain is not completely taken apart and rebuilt from scratch," Weiss said. 

Reinhard Stocker, a biologist at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, studies the nervous system of fruit flies. 

In an email, he noted that Weiss team's data appear strong, but he said that the moths' memory retention only after the fifth instar was perplexing.

"Metamorphic rewiring of the brain is generally thought to be completed only in later stages of metamorphosis, which for the moth would be well after the fifth instar," said Stocker, who was not involved in the new research.

"Thus it should essentially not make any difference if one trains third- or fourth-instar larvae. I don't have any simple clue to interpret such an observation."

Shock and Odor 

The research may help explain how adult female moths that can eat a variety of food choose to lay their eggs on the same type of plant they fed on as larvae. 

Study author Weiss describes it as an "if it was good enough for me, it's good enough for my kids" type of selection. 

If the moths retain some memories from their larval stage, as this research shows, then they could remember what they ate as "kids." 

Other researchers have theorized that moths have what's called a chemical legacy from their larval stage that could cue them what to eat. 

"That could look like the larva is actually remembering something," Weiss noted. 

Her research team was careful to show that larval memory was based on the formation of an association between a shock and an odor—not a chemical legacy, she said. 

"For me, it is exciting to think that a learned association really can be transferred from one phase to another through this very radical transition." 


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