~ by Amrita Neelakantan (NCCI Coordinator)
A timely study by NCCI founder Prof. Ruth DeFries and collaborators lays out possible scenarios for minimizing risk of exposure to COVID-19 in rural India as the lockdown is relaxed and migrants return to their villages.
What we know
Seasonal migration is a widespread livelihood option for households in forest-fringe areas of Central India, moving people from villages to the country’s cities for up to 6 months in a year. Typically, these migrants are young males and they return to the village in time to plant monsoon crops. Seasonal migrants are generally poorer and less educated than those that migrate permanently (for work or education) . In the current pandemic of COVID-19, the risks of exposing rural India with returning migrants from cities is of major concern for both rural communities and government authorities, as well as for migrants who are desperate to return with no source of income during India’s lockdown.
Moreover, communities on the periphery of forest areas in the country are some of the most vulnerable and poorest. Central India, one of the main forested areas in the country, is important for tiger conservation and has a high proportion of Scheduled Tribe populations. In these villages of Central India, the poorest households use seasonal migration to supplement their incomes , increasing the risks of exposure to COVID-19 as migrants return. These villages are even more at risk as they have poor or non-existent health facilities and low quality diets in typically crowded households . Additionally, most households continue to use fuelwood with high indoor air pollution already causing respiratory problems . While the populations are not as dense as in cities, the spread from village to village and lack of medical facilities is a grave concern.
As of this writing, the country has been in lockdown since March 24th. Seasonal migrants are unable to access work or means to return home. News channels have documented migrants returning home on foot. Quarantine facilities have been set-up in villages but the quality and efficacy of these are unknown. The government restricted inter-state travel for migrants after April 20th. As restrictions ease, chances persist of exposure and spread to adjacent villages from migrants who have already returned.
Given the economic hardships of lockdown, the authors of this study provide some alternatives to severe physical distancing. The objective is to reduce chances of exposure while allowing people to obtain essential supplies, plant crops, and carry out other necessities of daily life. A post-COVID-19 path could be informed by their results.
The study uses data from a 2018 study that surveyed approximately 5000 households in 500 forest-fringe villages in Central India. The original study was to assess patterns of migration over the previous five years (2013 – 2018) and was unrelated to tracking disease spread.
What they found
The researchers found that seasonal migration is widely dispersed across forest-fringe villages of Central India. Eighteen percent of surveyed households sent migrant workers to cities in the last five years. Seventy-five percent of villages had a least one household with migrants, and all districts had a least one village with migrants. Similarly, migrants traveled to 124 locations over the last five years. Over eight percent of migrants went to cities were COVID-19 cases were reported at the beginning of the lockdown, based on the publicly-available COVID-19 tracker site (www.covid19india.org).
The researchers used a simple, epidemiological model of disease spread to examine different scenarios of movement between and within villages (Figure 2). Using varying R0 values (the basic reproduction number that represents the expected number of cases generated by an infected individual), the researchers allowed for scenarios with lenient (no restriction R0=3), moderate (some restriction to interactions R0=2) and maximal (highest restriction R0=1) movement within and between villages. The findings highlight how different strategies for easing lockdown restrictions might vary in terms of the number of people exposed in the unlikely but possible event of the virus reaching a village.
The most effective way to limit exposure is obviously to keep everyone within and across villages in lockdown. But as most Indians are now familiar with, keeping an indefinite lockdown is not feasible with many states already easing some restrictions to save India from economic hardship. The more important question then becomes, how one would begin opening up the lockdown or easing restrictions to balance the economic needs with necessary caution to avoid exposure to the virus.
This study reports, for a hypothetical case of exposure in one village, that maximal limitations to movement between villages with lenient movement within villages (middle scenario in Figure 2) exposes fewer people than moderate restrictions that apply to both within and across villages (bottom scenario).
Incidentally, the scenario that led to the least number of exposed people in the model is similar to New Zealand’s successful “social bubble” and communities’ efforts in India to restrict entry to villages.
~ by Prameek Kannan (WWF-India)
The rusty-spotted cat is endemic to the Indian subcontinent; found in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Little is known about the ecology of this smallest of the world’s felids, and this combined with it’s rarity have warranted it being listed under ‘Schedule I,’ of the Wildlife Protection Act of India (1972). This is the same category of protection as the tiger and Asian elephant, which means that hunting or trading in it’s body parts can result in up to 7 years of incarceration for the guilty.
Until recently, it was considered as ‘Vulnerable,’ by the IUCN, but an increase in it’s occurrence records in different habitats in India and Nepal has seen it down-listed to ‘Near Threatened.’ However, even the most basic aspects of its biology, such as its habitat requirements, home range characteristics and diet remain unknown; these are crucial for conservation planning. A recent study provides a broad understanding of this species’ habitat preferences.
Kanha Tiger Reserve (KTR) in the central Indian highlands is the site for this study. The reserve harbors a mosaic of vegetation types, including; meadows and woodlands in the valleys (dominated by Sal Shorea robusta), hilly tracts of dense mixed deciduous forests and hilly plateaus with extensive grasslands. It also contains numerous perennial streams and ponds that support swamp vegetation. Kanha is a heaven for a whole suite of globally threatened species such as the endangered tiger and dhole, and vulnerable leopard, gaur, sambar, four-horned antelope and endemic hard ground barasingha deer.
~ by Prachi Thatte (WWF-India)
Home to several species of mammals and birds, the Deccan plateau has a mix of dry and moist deciduous forests. These forests are adapted to moderate rainfall during monsoon and a long dry season characteristic of central India. But this has not always been the case. The geological and climatic history of earth is marked by many periods of changes and even flips. A recent study adds to the evidence that the Deccan plateau once supported dense rainforests and a seaway that passed through the heart of central India.
During the age of dinosaurs, around 200 million years ago, South America, Africa, India, Australia and Antarctica together formed a supercontinent, the Gondwana. Due to plate tectonic movements, the Indian subcontinent gradually separated from rest of the land masses, started moving north and eventually collided with Eurasia, forming the mighty Himalayas. Before the collision, the subcontinent went through a long isolated journey along different latitudes and experienced different climates. This story of movement and dynamic climate is stored in the fossils found deep under the surface of the soil.
The breakup of Gondwana, 200 million years ago, and motion of continents to their present-day positions. Source: http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/historical.html
Bones, scales, leaves and even pollen and cysts get preserved between sedimentary deposits creating a rich historical library over years. Fossils stored at different depths and the associated soil/rock can give a glimpse of the geological and biological history of a region. A recent study, carried out by scientists from Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences (Lucknow) and Indian Institute of Technology (Roorkee), looked at such a piece of history from Ashti village in Yeotmal district of Maharashtra. The researchers bored an 80 meters deep narrow shaft and excavated the soil and rock sample. Around 60 m below the ground surface they found fossils- pollen, spores and cysts around 60-70 million years old.
These fossils were found below the layer of lava that came from the Deccan volcanic flow. So the fossils belong to a time before the volcanic event that happened around 66 million years ago. The fossils were identified as spores from different species of aquatic ferns and pollen from a couple of species of palm. The authors also discovered two new species of pollen- Dipterocarpuspollenites cretacea and Retiacolpites pigafettaensis. Although these species with jawbreaker names are now extinct, the existing relatives of these are found in low-lying rain forests and thrive in highly humid conditions. This suggests that their extinct relatives might also have preferred similar conditions. The authors also found high abundance of Nypa palm pollen. Nypa is a coastal palm that requires highly humid conditions and is currently only found in Sundarbans in India. Based on all this fossil evidence, the authors conclude that, before the Deccan volcanism, while the Indian subcontinent was still floating, the area around Yavatmal was a low-lying coastal area with high humidity due to persistent rainfall.
~ by Amrita Neelakantan (coordinator NCCI)
Mahi Puri and colleagues have conducted extensive surveys to find out what leopards eat and how might leopard diets change in the future. The study focuses on the important corridor between Kanha and Pench national parks. Leopards live within and outside of forests, with some taking up residence in the agricultural matrix. Wildlife outside the bounds of protected areas interact much more often with humans over a range of human activities – grazing cattle, growing crops and collecting non-timber forest produce to name a few. Understanding how our human lives affect and in turn change the behavior of wild species is important for a future where humans and big cats might continue to live side by side in one of the world’s more populated places that remains vital for global wildlife conservation goals. In addition, the knowledge of benefits provided by carnivore presence can help offset the negative perceptions around these species. Mahi Puri and her team extensively surveyed forest and households across the corridor to make sense of drivers of leopard distribution, conflict, and current patterns of their diet to showcase what might change in the future.
The big takeaway from this paper is that within the surveyed sites leopards predominantly ate wild prey (langur and ungulates) – an important consideration for human-wildlife conflict in the region. Occupancy statistics also highlight that leopards are more likely to be in spots with ample wild-prey confirming that leopards still prefer wild-prey and are not preferentially moving into human dominated areas for non-wild prey (signified by cattle and dog icons in the figures).
"In central India, the value of tigers is undeniable – culturally, ecologically, and economically. Kanha National Park (KNP) typifies the central Indian tiger landscape with high densities of tribal local populations, a globally recognized node for tiger conservation and ecotourism within a rapidly urbanizing countryside. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) set out a policy that has resulted in largely tribal human communities moving out of core tiger habitat (1). Around 850 households moved out of KNP (from 2011- to 2014) with monetary compensation, providing an opportunity to explore what happens after."
Amrita Neelakantan summarizes a recent paper for Science Trends. Read more here!
Project Spotlight highlights our members' work in Central India.
|Network for Conserving Central India||