Bengal Tiger [photo credit: Ali Arsh, https://www.flickr.com/photos/76877186@N06/8258715760]

Bengal Tiger [photo credit: Ali Arsh, https://www.flickr.com/photos/76877186@N06/8258715760%5D

Here’s a disturbing fact about the state of the world’s Bengal tigers:

One of the world’s largest populations of tigers exists not in the wild—but in captivity in the United States. With an estimated 5,000 tigers, the U.S. captive tiger population exceeds the approximately 3,200 tigers in the wild.

Is this the future of our beloved wild animals? If animals aren’t being poached or crowded out of natural habitat, too many are being hunted for trophies or to keep as “pets,” with often disastrous consequences.

Many people may love animals, but as a species, humans are doing a terrible job protecting them. The New York Times recently ran an op-ed that noted that an elephant is killed every 14 minutes.

As for tigers, with July 29 noted as International Tiger Day, their outlook is becoming bleaker and bleaker. At the turn of the 20th century, there were 100,000 tigers roaming the wilds. Today, there are at best 3,200, most of them in India, which will soon be the most populous nation in the world. And it is intent, understandably so, on developing its economy, which means less habitat for tigers and other animals.

The United Nations just reported that the current global population of 7.3 billion is forecast to reach 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, slightly above the last set of U.N. projections. Most growth will happen in developing regions, particularly Africa, where many species are at great risk.


Shrinking tiger habitat [WWF]

Shrinking tiger habitat [WWF]

Global society should be doing everything possible to protect tigers. If this majestic animal cannot withstand the human onslaught, what species can?   Certainly elephants, rhinos, giraffes, chimpanzees, and gorillas are losing the battle in Africa, as are orangutans in Indonesia, pandas in China and lemurs in Madagascar.

It makes one shudder to think of Earth without these creatures in the wild, yet we continue with business as usual, plundering the planet for the last remaining bits of coal and drops of oil, searching for rare earth metals to power our lives, oblivious to the true cost of the way we live.

There are efforts that can be taken to change course. At the top is stabilizing human population growth – which can be done voluntarily with investments in maternal and newborn health, providing health care for families – especially contraception, supporting girl’s education, ending child marriage, and promoting women’s empowerment.   This is the “low-hanging fruit” – things that should be done and can be, at a relatively low cost.

Protecting tigers and other species also calls for changing a global economic system dependent upon constant and unsustainable growth.   This is definitely a more difficult task, but there are numerous organizations, academics, and other experts working on alternatives. And now we have Pope Francis calling for an economic system that supports the poor and protects the environment.

Of course there is much to be done. It really boils down to a paradigm shift – recognizing that nature has rights and that it isn’t here for humans to use and abuse and to provide us entertainment. There are consequences to our actions, and if we as a global society allow species that are an important part of the web of life to disappear in the wild, we might be changing it to our detriment.

We need to rethink/re-envision our relationship with Nature.

Next month, in New York City, the People’s Climate March will take place.  Organizers are hoping that a huge number of people will gather to raise awareness on the impacts of climate change.  There will also be a number of local rallies and marches.


It does seem that more people are beginning to wake up and understand the impacts of climate change (I’m talking mainly here in the U.S., the epicenter of denial).  And there are many people and organizations around the world looking at solutions that will make a difference.  We as a global society are facing enormous problems, and in the face of droughts, floods, ocean acidification, heat waves and much more, the big picture is overwhelming, to say the least. But perhaps we can take solace in some initiatives underway that represent a chance to improve lives and the environment.

I’ve come across a couple of interesting projects in India that offer hope for the future.

One is a group in Jaipur, Rajasthan that is promoting organic,  roof-top gardens.  The Living Greens is an urban farming company that believes in roof-top gardening as a way to provide food and access to nature in urban areas and decrease food grown in polluted conditions.  Growing your own food is not only one way to provide sustenance, but also to reduce food insecurity.

Jaipur is a city of 3 million people (6 million in the surrounding area), in a very dry state.  Rapid urbanization in cities such as Jaipur is dramatically reducing groundwater levels and possibly even changing the climate and monsoon patterns. In Punjab – home of the Green Revolution – the drop in aquifers is alarming.  The success of projects such as this one by The Living Greens is critical if India and the rest of the world are to satisfactorily cope with a changing climate.

Watch the six minute video here to listen to what the local people have to say on how roof-top gardening is improving their lives:




And then there is this story about bringing decentralized/off-grid electricity to some 400 million Indians who lack access to this necessity. It is especially important to help school children study at night with solar power rather than kerosene, which provides little light and is detrimental to people’s health. Solar, of course, is also a viable alternative to dirty fossil fuels.

The Sierra Club and other groups are doing a lot of work to raise awareness about the crisis of energy poverty in countries such as India and many in Sub-Saharan Africa and finding ways to support a transition to clean energy.

Watch “Harnessing the Sun to Keep the Lights on in India”:




Lastly, I recently came across a story about the first “all-solar village” in Bihar, which is the poorest state in India. Greenpeace India, along with two other NGOs, completed  a solar-powered micro-grid that is bringing desperately needed light and power.

One farmer told Reuters that “Today, children are studying well and women are able to cook late in the evening. Villagers are getting many benefits from this venture, including commercial establishments.”  Another villager, Ranti Devi, a resident in her 70s, said, “We had a lot of problems in the past, but since the lights have been installed in our homes it has been easier for us to cook and for our children to study. We can walk around in the streets at night without any fear,” said.

We have a tough road ahead of us.  It’s encouraging to know that progress is being made that perhaps can change the tide in favor of taking action on climate change and also improve lives and protect the planet.



The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report this week on the increasing impacts of climate change around the world.  While there is really nothing new in the report, it does underscore the urgency of addressing the issue.

India is one country that will be especially hard hit.  An article by Nita Bhalla of Reuters lists ten ways that global warming will affect the sub-continent.  In the face of great poverty, weak gender rights, habitat loss, endangered species and more, climate change will only make things that much more difficult.

As you read over the list below, bear in mind that supporting local communities, recognizing traditional knowledge and empowering women are some of the best ways to adapt, not just in India but everywhere (see my post on women and climate change).  The good news (yes, there is some!) is that many people and organizations are already finding ways to cope.  Check out the work of groups such as the International Development Exchange and Navdanya to get an idea of what’s being done, and be thankful they are out there.

How climate change will hit India:

1. More severe cyclones hitting densely packed cities

[photo credit: cdkn.org]

[photo credit: cdkn.org]

The five most populous nations occupying low-lying coastal areas are developing and newly industrialised countries: Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, India and Indonesia

Tropical cyclones will cause powerful winds, torrential rains, high waves and storm surge, all of which can have major impacts on society and ecosystems. Bangladesh and India account for 86 percent of deaths from tropical cyclones.

2. Lower crop yields

A rise in the amount of ozone in the troposphere, the lower atmosphere, since pre-industrial times has probably reduced global yields of major crops, by about 10 percent for wheat and soybean and three to five percent for maize and rice, compared with what they would have been without such a rise.

Impacts are most severe in India and China, but are also evident for soybean and maize in the United States.

3. Changes in breeding of river species

It is fairly clear that in India, changes in a number of climate variables including a rise in air temperature, regional monsoon variation and a regional increase in the frequency of severe storms, have led to changes in the behaviour of fish species in the River Ganga.

As a result, less fish spawn is available for aquaculture in the river Ganga, but the breeding period of carp has been brought forward and extended.

4. Less water, more energy consumption

Due to water shortages, water may require significant amounts of energy for lifting, transport and distribution and for the treatment needed to use it or rid it of pollution.

Groundwater accounts for 35 percent of total global water withdrawal and its use is generally more energy intensive than that of surface water, irrigated food production being the largest user. In India, 19 percent of total electricity use in 2012 was for farming, much of this for groundwater pumping.

5. Higher temperatures in cities

Some Indian cities that are particularly large and crowded will become Urban Heat Islands, markedly warmer than the surrounding countryside, as a result of climate change.

The current trend of increasingly frequent extreme events is expected to increase with climate change.

Some urban centres serving prosperous farming regions are particularly sensitive to climate change if water supply or particular crops are at risk.

Urban centres that are major tourism destinations may suffer when the weather becomes stormy or excessively hot, leading to a loss of revenue.

Indian rice farmer [photo credit: ccafs.cgiar.org]

Indian rice farmer [photo credit: ccafs.cgiar.org]

6. Livelihood pressures in rural areas

Climate variability and change interacts with, and sometimes adds to, existing pressures on living and working in rural areas, affecting economic policy, globalization, environmental degradation and HIV/AIDS, as has been shown in Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, Malawi, Kenya and India.

Economic diversity of farming households within communities, in terms of farm and household size, crop choices and input use, will be important in determining the impact of climate change, as will social relations within households that affect production.

7. Tourism and recreation

One study combines a meteorological indicator of exposure with indicators of sensitivity and adaptive capacity, and uses this to rank the vulnerability of beach tourism in 51 countries. India stands out as the most vulnerable and Cyprus as the least vulnerable.

8. Human health

Extra costs will be incurred for treating additional cases of diarrhoea and malaria in India in 2030, depending on how greatly CO2 emissions rise.

9. Labour productivity

Higher temperatures are likely to impact work productivity, particularly in tropical and mid-latitude regions including India, Northern Australia, Southeastern USA.

10. Droughts and floods

More droughts and floods will intensify the pressure to send children out to work, impacting their education.

Indian women born during a drought or flood in the 1970s were 19 percent less likely ever to attend primary school than women of the same age who were not affected by natural disasters.

Studies in India have identified temporary migration as “the most important” coping strategy in times of drought in rural villages.


350.org event in New Delhi [photo credit: www. npr.org]

350.org event in New Delhi [photo credit: www. npr.org]

Tracking Down Tigers

This week India began its country-wide tiger census, which is held once every four years.  Over seven days, experts will be tracking tigers to see if numbers have increased from the official figure of 1,706 as reported by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

Though hopes are high that tiger numbers have increased, the reality is that poaching is on the increase.  The Wildlife Protection Society of India reported that the poaching of tigers in 2013 is at a seven-year high.  As the year comes to a close, 39 deaths due to poaching have been recorded in India (and while the total number of tiger deaths is less than the 76 for 2013, versus 89 last year, the increase in poaching is alarming).

[photo credit: simple.wikipedia.org ]

[photo credit: simple.wikipedia.org ]

India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests has said that proximity of human settlement with tiger habitats is a major reason for poaching. There are about 762 villages with 48,549 families in the core/critical tiger habitats across the country (and, I would add, in my non-expert opinion, that high demand from China and other Asian nations is probably the major reason).

A research study published last month in the journal PLOS ONE found that human settlements and intervention are negatively impacting tiger movements.   Many tigers are found in small, protected parks in India, and their survival depends on improving and increasing the connectivity between these areas via tiger corridors.  Tigers can go 650 kilometers between protected areas, so creating wildlife corridors are just as important as having tiger reserves.

These isolated protected areas are too small to even hold demographically viable populations of tigers.  The report’s authors stated that adult tigers live in areas that are less than 7 percent of their historical range.

Having just been in Kanha National Park, in central India, and seeing the number of villages and people surrounding it, I was unsurprised to hear of the impact of humans on tigers.  The reality in India and many other places is that there are simply a lot of people and dwindling wild lands.

chitvan village

Local village outside Kanha National Park, MP, India [photo credit: Suzanne York]

But that’s the situation in which we have to work.  And it’s important that local people are vested in protecting nature.

Valmik Thapar, a tiger conservationist, said in a recent interview that India should look to Africa for the best innovative wildlife tourism model to conserve wildlife.  “We should learn from Africa. Their wildlife policies allow locals to manage a large part of the land for wildlife.  We don’t even match up to the ‘A’ of Africa when it comes to preserving and conserving our wildlife.”

The pressure from the illegal trade in animals is enormous, and add to that human encroachment, habitat loss, development, and economic globalization and it will take all hands on deck to save tigers.  Even the best conservation models in Africa are struggling in the face of rampant poaching of elephants and rhinos.

It is in the world’s interest to help protect the remaining tigers in what little habitat remains for them.   Cracking down on poaching (especially international syndicates) and an all-out education program (see this example in China) in countries that consume trafficked animal parts must be top priorities.

[Last month I spent a couple of weeks in India, there mainly for a Global Exchange rights of nature study tour.  I managed to squeeze in a safari trip to Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh just prior to the study tour.]

As an “outsider,” nothing really prepares you for the India experience.  I’ve now been to the sub-continent four times, and each time I have to relearn the pandemonium that is India.



The sights – cows in the road, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, trucks, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, begging mothers, horse and cart, dogs, goats, pedestrians; I’m sure I’m leaving one or two things out.  The sounds – car horns, truck horns, rickshaw horns, firecrackers, dogs barking…did I mention the horns?

I spent my initial days (escaping the chaos that is Delhi) at a lodge outside Kanha National Park in central India, in hopes of seeing a wild tiger.  Getting there was one of my more brutal car ride experiences, and believe me, I’ve had my fair share.  I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep or lack of food that made this four hour trip from the Raipur airport to my lodge especially taxing, but the roads certainly left a lot to be desired.

Funny how you can look at a map and assume what looks like a major road would be paved and not full of potholes the size of boulders.  Silly me.  My driver was 25 years old and his age belied his driving experience.  He was top-notched.  How he missed hitting the hundreds of cows, and potholes, in the road is beyond me.  And not just cows, but goats, dogs, children, motorcyclists, trucks, buses, and other cars.  I will never complain about drivers in California again (okay, that’s probably not true, but I will do so with an asterisk for India).

When we finally got to the Chitvan Jungle Lodge, it was a little piece of heaven.  A small posse came out to greet me and gather my belongings which had scattered in the backseat of the car.  After I settled in to my gorgeous room, I had a lunch fit for a king – an Indian sampler platter of locally-farmed organic ingredients.  The pumpkin was particularly tasty.   Almost everything I ate while at the lodge was delicious.

tiger best shot

a lone male bengal tiger

The highlight of my trip, and certainly my year, was sighting a tiger while on jeep safari.   I only saw the one, out of a total of three safari excursions, but what an experience!  It was a very emotional moment.  I was of course thrilled to see a tiger, but mixed into that feeling was an overwhelming sadness that this species may be wiped off the Earth forever, possibly in my lifetime.  How someone can poach such a beautiful and majestic animal is beyond my comprehension.

Of course there were plenty of other animals to see, including monkeys, spotted deer (there are so many you become blasé about seeing them), barasingha (swamp deer), peacocks, hawk eagles, jungle fowl, and even a python.  It’s also a beautiful park, especially at sunrise and sunset.



It was rejuvenating to be at Kanha, after the polluted grey skies of Delhi.  (Ironically, there are billboards and signs all over about planting trees to keep Delhi green.  Right now it’s an uphill battle.)  My time there was all too short, but it was worth the journey.

My short visit also reinforced my deep belief that humans should do everything possible to protect wild tigers and increase their numbers. People and tigers must find a way to co-exist.  Humans are part of the web of life; we do not own it.  More to come on this.

Kanha National Park

Kanha National Park

When it comes to tigers, you have to look hard to find good news.  Usually what you hear about is how many tigers have been poached in (insert name of any Indian tiger reserve).

But I came across this article below and wanted to share it, as it focuses on educating youth.  We adults have done a  great job at allowing the degradation of the global ecosystem, which is threatening the web of life. And of course it is today’s youth that could inherit a world without tigers.  Any effort that gets them involved is a positive step.

In this case, the mobile phone company Aircel teamed up with Kids for Tigers, an environmentally-inclined education program, to bring a small group of young adults to Ranthambore National Park, home to 50 tigers.

If we are going to save tigers, and the rest of the natural world, it is imperative that youth get out into nature and learn first-hand whenever possible.  You can learn a lot about tigers on an iPad; you can be motivated and passionate about saving them if you happen to come close to one.

Read on for a little hope.

Future tiger saviours shaped in India

June 16, 2013

Gulf News

Sawai Madhopur: Miles away from their classrooms, playstations and social networking sites, a group of teenaged students from eight cities got a hands-on experience of how to save India’s national animal, the tiger, from the manifold evils that threaten its existence today. Awakened and determined, the group vowed to spread the message.

“I always thought that humans are afraid of tigers but now I have realised it’s the other way round… it’s we who are a threat to them,” Bhoomika S, a student of Sindhi Public School, Bangalore, said, adding that it was the love of spiders and tigers that brought her to the wildlife camp.

“This workshop was an eye-opener for all of us… I’ll make sure to pass on the information and educate my friends and families back home,” the Class 11 student said.

The three-day knowledge workshop-cum-national camp, titled Kids for Tigers, was organised by mobile telephony provider Aircel. An annual event, it is a part of the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative – Save Our Tigers – at the Ranthambore National Park.

A tiger crosses the road in Ranthambore National Park where children learn of the importance of the fierce predator. Image credit: AFP

It operates in conjunction with Kids for Tigers, an environmentally-inclined education programme run by Sanctuary Asia magazine in schools across India to sensitise children on the plight of the tiger and the environment as a whole. The annual camps began four years ago after Aircel came on board and the eight participants are selected by Sanctuary Asia on the basis of competitions and other events in the eight cities.

For 16-year-old Shimanshu Agrawal, the experience was “unforgettable” as he realised how the whole ecosystem depends on the tiger’s survival.

“The tiger is on top of the food chain, if we don’t save him, the whole ecosystem will be destroyed,” said the only participant from Rajasthan, a student of Bharti Public School in Sawai Madhopur district, which houses the Ranthambore National Park.

“Poaching, deforestation and human settlements are just some of the issues threatening the tiger. I live near the national park and I believe I can educate the people who really matter,” he added.

The participating children came from cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore, and the camp saw activities like park safaris, film screenings and interactive sessions with well-known conservationists and public figures on the conservation of tigers.

Bittu Sehgal, environmentalist and chief of Sanctuary Asia, said that it was of paramount importance that the youngsters are educated about the issue as it is the generation of tomorrow that will lead the nation.

India is home to the world’s largest tiger population, with 1,706 living in the wild across 42 tiger reserves. But the figure is almost a 10th of what it was half a century ago.

Tiger conservation in India began in 1973 with the launch of Project Tiger. Over the years, there has been excellent recovery of the habitat and consequent increase in the tiger population in the reserve areas – from a mere 268 in nine reserves in 1972 to 1,706 in 42 tiger reserves in 2012.

“We need to sensitise the children about the cause,” Sehgal said.

He said his organisation has reached out to hundreds of schools across the country since it first began educating children way back in 2000.

“We are now focussing on children living around national parks because they are the closest to the tigers… we just tell them not to cut trees and save the forest and the tiger will be saved automatically,” Sehgal added.

The consistent hard work has paid off, Sehgal said.

“I am seeing a change now: children these days are aware of the problems that the tiger is facing… they know the basics and just need help with the solution,” he said.

Agreed Brinda Malhotra, Head of CSR at Aircel, who has been associated with Save Our Tigers since its inception in 2008.

“People are realising that they need to give the tigers space and the villagers are willing to move away from national parks,” Malhotra said.

“On our part, we have set up rapid response teams in tiger reserves that provide immediate help to a sick or an injured tiger… we train and counsel communities living near tiger reserves and have also started compensating villagers whose cattle are killed by tigers,” she added.

The Ranthambore National Park is spread over 650sq km and has approximately 50 tigers, including 22 cubs.

I’ve come across two very interesting pieces on India recently that I want to share.

The first is a short set of photos taken by a British man originally born in Kolkata (Calcutta).  His name is Gerry Judah, and he is an artist now working with the international NGO Christian Aid to show how people are dealing with climate change.

In particular Judah attempts to show the every day struggles of poor people.  And especially the plight of subsistence farmers, who make up about 40% of the population, and will suffer the most from climate change.

Click on the link the UK Guardian article here for the pictures.

My favorite is photo number 7, of youth studying by solar lanterns powered by biomass, which in this case is cow dung.  Off-grid electricity is the future for the 400 million Indians living without electrical power (worldwide, a billion and a half people don’t have electricity).

Women of the Self-Employed Women's Association, discussing impacts of climate change

Women of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, discussing impacts of climate change in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Switching gears, the other article I found both interesting and inspiring was in the New York Times, “From Arunachal Pradesh, a Tribe Offers Lessons in Ecology“.  Brian Orland writes about the climate and development challenges facing this rice growing region.  Will the local people  “salvage the system of cooperative leadership and reciprocal labor-sharing that has delivered them such bountiful paddy harvests for the past 500 years? Or should they seize the opportunities of higher education, political party patronage and diversification into cash crops?”  This is a question facing many communities in India and around the world.

Orland mentions the creation of an organization called Ngunu Ziro, or “Our Ziro.” To help adapt to climate changes, Ngunu Ziro supports women’s self-help groups for income generation and organizes eco-camps to teach Apa Tani children about their natural environment. Its current campaign, dubbed “Zero Waste,” encourages ecologically friendly waste management practices like segregating trash into its recyclable components.

The coming environmental and cultural changes will be challenging, to say the least. There is a lot we can learn from tribal, indigenous and native peoples, not to mention artists, if we listen.


Earth Day has come and gone, and most people, if they even participated in any activities, have probably moved on with other things.  It’s great to celebrate Earth Day, but the time has come for something beyond just a single day.  Something that will make a lasting difference.

(image: visibleearth.nasa.gov)

(image: visibleearth.nasa.gov)

What would make a difference is recognizing rights of nature. There is a growing movement in support of this right, especially as environmental degradation worsens, the impacts of climate change become more severe, and more people are calling for healthy and empowered communities.

The city of Santa Monica, California just passed by unanimous vote a Bill of Rights for Sustainability, which authorizes the city to “recognize the rights of people, natural communities and ecosystems to exist, regenerate and flourish.”  What this really does is empower citizens to sue on behalf of their local environment.  According to Mark Gold, chair of Santa Monica’s Task Force on the Environment, “It was time to shake things up, recognize the existing environmental laws just weren’t doing the job and that sustainability wasn’t actually possible as long as we treat nature as a thing to be exploited.”

This is a step in the right direction that more communities and countries should consider.  As noted in previous posts, Ecuador, Bolivia, and over three dozen U.S. municipalities have passed rights of nature laws.

In India, the rights of nature movement is coalescing around cleaning up and protecting sacred rivers such as the Ganga (Ganges) and Yamuna.  The National Ganga Rights Movement has formed over concern that over 3 billion liters of pollution – namely toxic chemicals and sewage – are dumped into the Ganga River.

One-third of India’s 1.2 billion people live near the river, and most depend on it for drinking, cooking, and washing.  It is also home to the Ganges river dolphin.  According to World Wildlife Fund, the river dolphin “is threatened by removal of river water and siltation arising from deforestation, pollution and entanglement in fisheries nets.”

Despite being one of the world’s most polluted rivers, in Hindu mythology the Ganga is the embodiment of all sacred waters, and therefore to bathe in it is a holy act.

The Ganges River (photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

The Ganges River (photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

The National Ganga Rights Movement is calling for a National Ganga Rights Act which would, among other things, establish, secure, and defend the inalienable and inherent rights of the Ganga River, its tributaries, and watershed, and the rights of the people of India to a healthy, thriving river basin.  And, it “establishes the rights of the people of India and their governments to defend and enforce the rights of the Ganga.”

You can read more about it at Avaaz, and sign a petition in support of the Ganga and rights of nature.

Lest you think there is no precedence, last year New Zealand granted the rights of personhood for the Whanganui River.

In the U.S. we accept corporations as people, so why not extend rights to nature?  If we are to truly protect ecosystems in India and around the world, we need to start thinking outside the proverbial box, as well as for the long-term.

[While the post below, originally written for my work blog 6 Degrees of Population, isn’t specifically on India, it does highlight the increase in poaching of endangered species around the world that must be stopped.]


During that 15 minute coffee break you took this morning, somewhere across the ocean an elephant was killed.  It is estimated that every 15 minutes an elephant is slaughtered, about 40,000 annually.

It makes you wonder how much longer wild elephants will roam the earth.  Because at this rate, with high global demand for ivory and high levels of poverty for people that live near these creatures, they won’t be around for much longer.


The New York Times recently ran an op-ed by Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute called “Blood Ivory” that highlighted the forces at play.  Certainly consumption and poverty are drivers, but Safina pointed out how international policy has failed elephants.  A loop-hole of sorts in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES – an international agreement that regulates the trade of endangered plants and wildlife), allows for one-time sales of ivory stockpiles, resulting in skyrocketing demand for ivory.  Ironically, a CITES ban on ivory in 1990 was successful in increasing elephant populations, yet this same multilateral environmental agreement is now feeding demand for ivory.

It is undeniably a bleak situation, yet there are some solutions – beyond ending the CITES loop-hole – that can begin to address and hopefully change the situation for the better, for both people and elephants.  Two solutions are empowering women and recognizing rights of nature.

Solution: Empowering Women

Addressing the needs of women can benefit communities and the environment.  Women are on the frontlines of coping with the effects of environmental degradation. In most countries around the world they are the main providers of food, water, and other resources for their families. When women are empowered, they can better support their families and adapt to environmental impacts, including climate change.

A woman’s decision on when and whether to have a child and her access to reproductive care, as well as education, are key components of a healthy and sustainable society.

In Tanzania, for example, family planning use has increased among married women since the early 1990s, yet it is still relatively low in the country, rising from 10 percent in the early 1990s to 34 percent in 2010, according to Population Reference Bureau.

Part of empowering women is addressing inequity.  Tanzania currently has 46 million people, estimated to increase to 82 million people by 2050. Most poachers are driven by grinding poverty, in a country where nearly 70 percent of the Tanzanians live on less than $1.25 per day. When people’s basic needs are met, they choose to invest in their families and communities.

Tanzanian Woman

Empowering Tanzanian women and families with reproductive rights, healthcare, education and sustainable and secure livelihoods can and will improve the situation and enable them to overcome challenges.

Of course, poachers tend to be men, and males with little education or few job prospects need to find ways to survive and feed their families.  Men need to be invested in and empowered too, to overcome poverty and a lack of quality jobs, and to have the right to an education.  Ultimately it comes down to empowering all people.

Solution: Rights of Nature

Earth does not exist for our species alone. Elephants and species all over the world are at grave risk due to human development and demand. The planet is undergoing its sixth mass extinction. Despite global conservation efforts, more species are lost every day. Worse, some like elephants and rhinos, are poached only for their tusks and left to die.

Given this situation, there is a growing movement around recognizing rights of nature that acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. This is another solution for protecting elephants. Under this thinking, nature is not viewed as property and something to be exploited by humans.

There is precedent. Ecuador has included rights of nature in its state constitution, recognizing the legal right of ecosystems to exist. Bolivia has passed a law of Mother Earth, mandating nature legal rights, specifically the rights to life, regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration. Rights of nature has been upheld in Ecuadorian court.

Considering Tanzania again, which still has a somewhat viable elephant population, recognizing rights of nature could be one way to protect remaining numbers.  The country recently rescinded a proposal to sell a stock-pile of ivory under the CITES loophole.  If rights of nature laws were in place, then selling ivory could be found illegal.

Natural laws should be constructed to be in balance with the needs of local people; as stated above, even poachers need education and sustainable economic alternatives.  Currently though, neither elephants/nature, nor people, are winners in this terrible situation.

Ensuring a Brighter Future

Not to be overlooked is the role of consumption.  Educating and empowering women and girls, promoting economic and sustainable livelihoods for local populations, and pulling people out of poverty must be top priorities.  But if there are no consumers for a product, or if there is a ban, then the market theoretically disappears, as happened with the earlier CITES ban.  A ban on ivory trading must be reinstated across the board, no exceptions.  And consumer education must also be made a priority.  Buyers of ivory need to fully comprehend – and care – about the true costs of ivory.

It is estimated that Africa has lost close to 90 percent of its elephants in the last fifty years.  There is still a small window of opportunity to change this picture and protect elephants and the people who share the land with them.  This is not negotiable; this is how a civilized society should function.  The global community knows what to do – fully implement a ban on ivory, invest in people’s rights and livelihoods, and protect and respect nature.

(Elephant photo credit: Derek Keats, http://www.flickr.com/photos/dkeats/6026172562/sizes/m/in/photostream/)

(Tanzanian woman photo credit: NewsHour, http://www.flickr.com/photos/newshour/3724432128/sizes/m/in/photostream/)

A recent story on BBC News epitomizes some of the challenges for balancing conservation efforts and the needs of people.

The news article of note addressed wildlife, endangered species, development, and population growth in Nepal. Titled Attacks Prompt Nepal to Cap Wildlife Growth, the BBC reports that “Officials in Nepal have said they will now have to put a cap on the growth of wildlife including endangered species like tigers and rhinos.”

Yes, it actually says that a cap on wildlife is needed. In a world where endless growth is held up as the standard to attain, it turns out that this doesn’t apply so much to nature.

nepaleserhinoAccording to Krishna Acharya, spokesperson for Nepal’s Forest Ministry, “The number of rhinos and tigers are increasing in the national park and they are moving out in search of food and space. Meanwhile, the increasing human population needs more of the natural resources available, and that competition creates conflict.”

Unsurprisingly, wild animals don’t respect human boundaries and may feel compelled by instinct to migrate. Conservationists underscore the importance of creating wildlife corridors in addition to protected areas, for species that need to roam.

In the late 1960s, an estimated 65 Indian rhinos survived in Nepal, but due to increased conservation efforts, the total population was up to 534 in 2011, according to data from World Wildlife Fund.

However, despite that success, many scientists believe the Earth is undergoing its sixth mass extinction. For example, the Bengal tiger is close to being poached and encroached out of existence. In 2000, Nepal was home to over 350 tigers, but by 2008 numbers plunged to 121.

Every effort should be made to protect all wildlife. Human encroachment all over the planet has wiped out an unknown number of species since the dawn of man. That doesn’t mean that it’s okay to have leopards running around attacking children or elephants rampaging villages. Yet somehow, a balance must be found between people and nature.

There are a few ways to attain that that balance – by investing in rights-based approaches and conservation efforts that involve local people.

Women’s Empowerment

Empowering women and girls is a big factor in protecting the environment. A woman’s right to decide when and whether to have a child, and her access to reproductive care, are key components of a healthy and sustainable society.

Women are on the front lines of coping with environmental degradation. In most countries around they world they are the main providers of food, water, and other resources for their families. When women are empowered, they can better support their families and adapt to environmental impacts.

In Nepal, the total fertility rate (average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime), currently at 2.6, has been declining. In terms of contraceptive use among married women ages 15-49, forty-three percent use some modern method of birth control (compared to the world average of fifty-six percent).

A United Nations Population Fund report found “issues of equity in access to resources (e.g.,land, water, forest, etc.) and women’s meaningful participation in resource conservation and management, land development and infrastructure projects have not been addressed effectively so far.”

The country is also not doing eradicating poverty. Seventy-eight percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Bringing women out of grinding poverty and reducing gender inequality should be a priority.

Rights of Nature

There is a growing movement around recognizing rights of nature. Rather than treating nature as property under the law (as women and slaves once were), rights of nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. Rights of nature laws eliminate the authority of a property owner to interfere with the functioning of ecosystems and natural communities that exist and depend upon that property for their existence and flourishing.


It is seeing the natural world as something other than a resource for human exploitation, and that humans are part of nature, not separate. It may be a difficult concept for some to acknowledge, but humans depend too much upon the ecosystem to not consider how we disrupt it to the detriment of others, and ourselves.

Acharya, of the Forestry Ministry, “hinted” that his country will now not commit to protect more wildlife than the amount its protected areas could sustain. Comments such as this reflect the urgency to find ways to value and respect the web of life.

Continued Conservation Efforts

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), like most conservation organizations (and governments), wants to involve locals in conservation efforts, which can provide livelihoods and income. In turn, people become invested in preserving their local environment and culture. It is also important to implement education and awareness programs for both tourists and the local community.

The IUCN also states how critical it is to reduce human-wildlife conflicts, and suggest this might involve fencing. Yet there have been few studies on its effectiveness. One study on elephants and electric fences found that “electrified fences can alleviate human-elephant conflict when well maintained and vigorously enforced.” However, it also found the cost of constructing, maintaining and enforcing is high and that “this approach may only be applicable in well-resourced conservation areas.” Given Nepal’s conservation successes, it seems fencing might be worth undertaking.

Future Outlook

Nepal has made great strides in protecting its wildlife. Yet instead of celebrating this fact, wild species appear to be more of a burden than benefit. In a country slightly larger than Arkansas, with a population of 30 million, there will continue to be challenges between humans and nature.

Nepal is not alone in striving to meet the needs of its people and wildlife. Only by educating and empowering people, and respecting rights for all – wherever we live – can we hope to live sustainably and in harmony with the natural world with which we share the planet.