Monday, August 29, 2011

Animal-human conflict zone

I wrote in Ecoratorio about the fine boundary between wildlife and humans- one which often transforms into a conflict zone. In fact, a recent example is that of the polar bear attack, three weeks ago, on a camp of British Schools Exploring Society (BSES) in the Norwegian island of Svalbard, resulting in the death of a 16 year old boy and serious wounding of three others. Another tragic incident came to light a week ago:

Alaska (as many would know) is a site of extensive oil and gas exploration and the oil field of Endicott found itself in the limelight.

A guard, working for BP’s security contractor Purcell, saw (circa Aug 3) a female polar bear prowling along a causeway near the employees’ housing sector. BP claims that the man tried to scare off the bear by sounding the horn of his car and flashing the headlights, but the bear remained undeterred. Thus, he used his weapon. Now, this is where it all becomes rather fishy.

The US Endangered Species Act lists polar bears as threatened with extinction and the Marine Mammal Protection Act generally forbids hunting of the animals. Thus, knowing that polar bears tend to visit human sectors in search of food (usually due to exposed garbage), oil operators in Alaska are permitted to scare away the bears by using 'nonlethal harassment' or 'hazing' method of using a gun loaded with a 'beanbag'. The guard shot at the bear only to find that the gun had been loaded with cracker shells (pyrotechnic) (it does seem amiss that the guard did not know which ammunition had been loaded!)

After being shot, the bear moved away and was apparently monitored by BP until she died of her wounds, 11 days later, in a nearby island. I do really hope that she didn’t have cubs somewhere whose fate would hang in balance by this death. Dying after undergoing a prolonged suffering for 11 days certainly indicates that she could have been treated by veterinarians. And the questions posed are why those who monitored her watched her die slowly without intervening? And why they did not immediately report the incident to the wildlife authorities who could have tranquilised and treated her?




Image Source: © Dan Guravich/CORBIS

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Poll result: Frequent flyer miles: are these harmful to the planet?

33% each voted:
- 'Yes. But I try to cut down on unnecessary flights';
- 'Yes. But I can’t do anything about my flights. It’s a necessary evil';
- 'No. My aim is to reach the Silver/Gold tier'.

Only a ripple.. perhaps it will travel far

The photo in the daily shows an aged bronzed man, clad in a white tunic and pale dhoti, with a white turban on his head and Hawaiian sandals on his feet. He looks like a stereotypical north Indian farmer, but he is dragging along a tricycle upon which is a cart full of plant saplings. Indeed, Piraj Singh is a 63-year old farmer from Akkoda, Madhya Pradesh. But this farmer is on a solitary nation-wide mission to do his bit for the planet by spreading environmental awareness. His main aim is to encourage the listeners to plant trees, especially the indigenous and medicinal neem and banyan. This afforestation would, in turn, improve the air quality, invest a cooling effect, and provide habitat for fauna. His mission has had mixed success: some pay heed to his words; others don’t. Singh is currently in Kerala, travelling 20-60 kms per day, mostly cycling but sometimes pulling the cycle along. He will return to his village after completing the final leg through the states of Karnataka, Goa, and Maharashtra.

Photo: clix

Monday, December 20, 2010

Political activism

For those who may be interested, I've blogged about the recent talk by singer and political activist Bob Geldof (Founder of the Live Aid) at the Hay Festival, Trivandrum last month.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Poll result: What MOST bothers you about the effect of lead ammunitions on fauna and humans?

100% is bothered most by Lead poisoning in birds and mammals which feed on carcasses of hunted game animals.

No responses to the options of 'Lead poisoning in humans who ingest hunted game animals', 'Lead ammunitions do not cause any such effects. Ergo, this is all hogwash', and 'This issue is irrelevant and of no concern to me'.

Kissing the mistletoe goodbye?

Kissing under the boughs of mistletoe is an oft-observed Christmas tradition, especially in the UK and the US. But, according to the UK’s National Trust, the years are fast approaching by when we may be kissing the UK mistletoe goodbye.

The parasitic European Mistletoe, Viscum album, thrives on fruit trees such as the domestic apple tree and also other hosts such as lime, poplar, and hawthorn. Its heartland is the counties of Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire. However, since the mistletoe’s main habitat, the traditional orchards, have declined dramatically in the past 60 years, there is a looming threat that, in twenty years, yuletide revellers would have to import mistletoe from mainland Europe (a trend which has been, nonetheless, slightly increasing over the past few years). The solution offered by the National Trust is to purchase mistletoe from ‘sustainable home or local’ sources. The charity, in association with Natural England, had also launched a project last year which aims at restoring traditional orchards supporting small cottage industries. It must be mentioned that a common end effect of mistletoe infestation (apart from reduced growth) is death for the host and it remains to be seen how many traditional orchard owners would be keen on not excising the mistletoe bunches in their trees.

Mistletoe has a degree of ecological importance for it is an ecological keystone species (Watson, 2001). Since the plant provides food (especially during winter) and habitat for wildlife, it could be considered as having a positive effect on biodiversity.

The plant is also believed to have medicinal properties: lowering blood pressure and heart rate, easing anxiety, relieving headaches, improving concentration ability, and in the treatment of cancer (Ernst et al, 2003). In Germany, more than US $30 million is spent on mistletoe extracts, with a yearly sales increase of 20%.

Mistletoe’s anti-cancer properties remain a bone of contention (Ernst et al, 2003; Horneber et al, 2008). For instance, there are positive results (such as Hajto et al demonstrating that mistletoe’s ß-Galactoside-specific Lectin activated monocytes in the peripheral human blood, resulting in the secretion of Tumor Necrosis Factor a, Interleukin 1, and Interleukin 6, all of which can inhibit tumour growth; or, Büssing et al’s results which suggests that it could be used in the treatment of lymphoma and lymphocytic leukemia due to its property of inducing apoptosis in human lymphocytes), as well as negative (Steuer-Vogt et al, 2001; Gabius et al 2001). An exhaustive review of all randomised clinical trials (Ernst et al, 2003) illustrated that the published work had failed to demonstrate the efficacy of this therapy in cancer patients –in fact, it even had the potential to cause harm (as seen in Gabius et al’s study in which clinically relevant low doses of mistletoe lectin where shown to stimulate tumour proliferation in cell lines and histotypic cultures). Furthermore, there are grave concerns since lectins tend to sediment the erythrocytes.

Reverting to the gist of this post, our mango trees (here in Trivandrum, Kerala) have mistletoes (Loranthus sp) as well. And despite the unwelcome visitor’s virtues, we tend to care more about the potential mangoes, and hence excise the sprigs- and never fail to admire its tenacity when it springs back to life. In any case, due to the lack of a market for mistletoes in the country, there isn't any utility in retaining/cultivating these except during the Advent tradition of hanging up the mistletoe (and are probably a minority in following this tradition in the region). Ergo, I would to like to know the stance of the ‘traditional orchard’ owners. And, admittedly, during my years in Oxbridge (+London), I've noticed far more mistletoe in other trees than in apple.
Nonetheless, one does hope that the National Trust’s information on the mistletoe’s impending doom in the UK isn’t a case of crying wolf. Or is it indeed a legitimate concern?

Photo credit: sumeja


Horneber MA, Bueschel G, Huber R, Linde K, & Rostock M (2008). Mistletoe therapy in oncology. Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) (2) PMID: 18425885

Ernst E, Schmidt K, & Steuer-Vogt MK (2003). Mistletoe for cancer? A systematic review of randomised clinical trials. International journal of cancer. Journal international du cancer, 107 (2), 262-7 PMID: 12949804

Gabius HJ, Darro F, Remmelink M, André S, Kopitz J, Danguy A, Gabius S, Salmon I, & Kiss R (2001). Evidence for stimulation of tumor proliferation in cell lines and histotypic cultures by clinically relevant low doses of the galactoside-binding mistletoe lectin, a component of proprietary extracts. Cancer investigation, 19 (2), 114-26 PMID: 11296616

Steuer-Vogt MK, Bonkowsky V, Ambrosch P, Scholz M, Neiss A, Strutz J, Hennig M, Lenarz T, & Arnold W (2001). The effect of an adjuvant mistletoe treatment programme in resected head and neck cancer patients: a randomised controlled clinical trial. European journal of cancer (Oxford, England : 1990), 37 (1), 23-31 PMID: 11165126

Watson, DM (2001), Mistletoe-A Keystone Resource in Forests and Woodlands Worldwide, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 32, pp.219-249.

Büssing A, Suzart K, Bergmann J, Pfüller U, Schietzel M, & Schweizer K (1996). Induction of apoptosis in human lymphocytes treated with Viscum album L. is mediated by the mistletoe lectins. Cancer letters, 99 (1), 59-72 PMID: 8564930

Hajto, T., Hostanska, K., Frei, K., Rordorf, C., and H-J Gabius (1990). Increased Secretion of Tumor Necrosis Factor a, Interleukin 1, and Interleukin 6 by Human Mononuclear Cells Exposed to ß-Galactoside-specific Lectin from Clinically Applied Mistletoe Extract1. Cancer Res 50, pp. 3322

Monday, September 20, 2010

One flood. Three days -> One canyon. We often get glimpses into the overwhelming power of nature. One such was in June-July 2002 in Texas: Fearing the worst during torrential rains, the waters of Canyon Lake (a reservoir on the Guadalupe River) were diverted into an emergency spillway. The consequential flood event, with a flow rate of over 1450 cubic metres per second and duration of six weeks, destroyed a bridge and trees, and carved a 2.2 km long, 7 m (average) deep canyon into the limestone bedrock. This new Canyon Lake Gorge is highlighted by Michael Lamb (Caltech) and Mark Fonstad (Texas State University) in their paper published in Nature Geosciences on the ‘Rapid formation of a modern bedrock canyon by a single flood event’.

Deep river canyons are considered to have formed gradually over the millions of years as a result of moderate and recurring flow of water. Megaflood events too results in similar canyons and channels, except that these are formed more rapidly, as in the case of the Canyon Lake Gorge. In this event, it is undeniably known that the erosion happened during the flood and the more destructive episode happened over a time span of just three days.

Using pre and post data and techniques (aerial photographs/images, models, flood measurements) Lamb and Fonstad analysed the formation of the canyon, identified the characteristics, and reconstructed the hydraulics of the flood. The important findings are:

- The rate of gorge erosion/formation was rapid, limited only by the amount of sediments carried by the floods. About 460,000 cubic metres of materials were dislodged, almost half of which were rocks. Even boulders with a size of 1m were plucked and moved downstream.

- The very creation of the canyon was dependent on the nature/characteristics of the bedrock. For instance, the aforementioned plucking of the 1m limestone boulders was facilitated by the fractures (horizontal bedding planes and vertical cracks probably due to tectonic movements) which were already present in the layered limestone bedrock.

- The rock type determined the resultant morphology of the canyon. The first part features 10-12m high waterfalls, channels, and terraces due to the plucking of the boulders. The latter part features sediment islands which are considered to be characteristic of large flood events.

Caveat: Is this a really megaflood (floods with a flow of1 million cubic metres per second) per se?

Lamb, M., & Fonstad, M. (2010). Rapid formation of a modern bedrock canyon by a single flood event Nature Geoscience, 3 (7), 477-481 DOI: 10.1038/ngeo894