Good news for elephants in India

February 25, 2010

All elephants living in Indian zoos and circuses will be moved to wildlife parks and game sanctuaries where the animals can graze more freely, officials said Friday.

The decision affects around 140 elephants in 26 zoos and 16 circuses in the country, said B.K. Gupta, an officer at India’s Central Zoo Authority.

The order followed complaints from animal rights activists about elephants that are kept in captivity and often chained for long hours, Mr. Gupta said.

The elephants currently living in zoos or circuses are to be moved to “elephant camps” run by the government’s forest department and located near protected areas and national parks. There they would be able to roam and graze freely, but “mahouts,” or traditional elephant trainers, would still keep an eye on them.

Some elephant experts, however, were skeptical about moving the elephants to wildlife preserves, many of which are under pressure from encroaching human habitation.

“Special facilities have to be created, perhaps outside the wildlife sanctuaries. It may add to the pressures faced by natural habitats,” said Raman Sukumar, a professor of ecology at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Increasingly, research shows that elephants in the wild have longer life spans and better health and reproductive records than those in captivity, Mr. Sukumar said.

Zoo elephants often die prematurely and contract diseases or suffer from obesity and arthritis more frequently than in their natural habitats, he said.

India has an estimated 28,000 wild elephants living in forest reserves and national parks, mainly in the southern and northeastern parts of the country. Another 3,500 elephants live in captivity, many of them in temples, or work in logging camps where they are used to lift timber. No decision has been made about them.



Plastic bag kites in Beijing

February 25, 2010

Plastic bags, the scourge of the environment, are flying high in Beijing, thanks to a retired engineer who is turning the waste into colorful kites.

Kites are believed to have been invented in China more than 2,000 years ago, where they were traditionally made from readily available materials such as rice paper, silk and plant fibres.

The modern version also uses a ubiquitous material which 71-year-old Han Fushan said was the easiest, and cheapest, thing he could find to make kites.

“Kites are my one and only treasure,” Han, who spent most of his life creating architectural drawings before retiring some nine years ago, told Reuters.

“It’s through kites that I have got to know so many people and make so many friends.”

Han’s plastic kites have made him into something of a local celebrity, and he is very proud of his cheap and environmentally friendly creations, which cost less than 15 U.S. cents to make.

After years of showing up at the same park at the same time each day to fly kites, Han has developed a solid fan base among other enthusiasts.

On average, one kite takes about two days of cutting, pasting and stringing to create, and many feature wildlife, sports stars and even Beijing Opera figures.

“Plastic bags have bright colours and a good texture. Thicker bags are good for making kites for strong winds, while thinner ones are better for light winds,” Han said.

Han owns more than 600 kites and said he wants to have something new every week to entertain his fans.

“I think this is a really good idea not only for our country but also for the world. To use trash for something else is good for the environment,” said Yan Juning, who often helps Han launch kites after her morning jog.

According to the state-owned Xinhua news agency, China throws away 300 tonnes of plastic bags a day, and the government has banned the use of the super-thin plastic bags which cause the most damage when buried in the soil.


Berlin Wall restored

February 25, 2010

Brown Pelican off endangered list

February 25, 2010

Nearly 40 years after it was pushed to the edge of extinction by pesticide use, habitat loss and hunting, the brown pelican was Wednesday taken off the endangered species list, US officials said.

“We can celebrate an extraordinary accomplishment: the brown pelican is endangered no more,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said.

“It has taken 36 years, the banning of DDT and a lot of work by the US government, the states, conservation organizations, dedicated citizens and partners, but today we can say that the brown pelican is back,” Salazar told a telephone news conference.

The brown pelican was listed as endangered in 1970 after its numbers had been slashed by the use of the pesticide DDT, by hunters who sought it for its feathers, and by widespread loss of its coastal habitat.

The birds’ recovery and removal from the list of endangered species was due largely to a US ban on the use of DDT in 1972, Salazar said.

The population was now back up to more than 650,000 of the birds across Florida, in the coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean, and in the Caribbean and Latin America, Salazar said.

At its lowest point, the number of brown pelicans had fallen to around 10,000, said Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The pelican population in the United States first began to decline in the late 19th century when hunters seeking the birds’ plumage for women’s hats “slaughtered them indiscriminately,” said Strickland.

But the species recovered after then president Theodore Roosevelt ordered the creation of a wildlife refuge — the first in the United States — on the appropriately named Pelican Island off the Florida coast.

But after World War II, pelican populations again plummeted because of the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides in coastal areas to control mosquitoes.

Adult pelicans with high concentrations of DDT were unable to properly form calcium and laid eggs with thin shells, which broke before the chicks were ready to hatch.

A new threat to the bird is posed by global warming, which could see sea levels rise and wipe out huge swathes of the pelican’s coastal habitat, the officials said.

“We could lose up to a million acres (405,000 hectares) of brown pelican habitat due to sea-level rise caused by global warming if modeling predictions are right,” said Sam Hamilton, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We will continue to monitor the pelican and its environment to ensure that we will never again see this beautiful bird pushed to the edge of extinction,” he said.

The United States will work with government agencies and non-governmental groups in Mexico, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to keep an eye on the health and numbers of brown pelicans, said Hamilton, adding that the bird could be relisted if numbers are seen to be falling again.


Newcastle becomes ‘green’

February 25, 2010

People of Newcastle have proved it that economic prosperity and heavy industry should be of no hindrance to make one’s city green and sustainable. Newcastle-upon-Tyne came as a surprise winner this year as it claimed top spot as greenest city in sustainability audit of Britain. The very fact that in the past it had choked with smoke and had cleared its air by putting environment high on agenda makes it’s an inspiring instance for all polluted cities of the world. The city and its residents simple strategy was to plant more trees, increase bio diversity in parks and its river, recycle waste properly and opt for green transport. That’s all it takes to improve air quality and quality of life of a city.

The city has restricted use of private cars and has built amazing underground metro for public transport. It has also installed highest number of electric vehicle recharge points. Emission cut down is the best strategy for reducing carbon foot print. It is important that each city becomes eco conscious and does its bit to tackle climate change whose effects are extremely visible now due to erratic weather pattern. Maybe each nation should have sustainability audit like Britain has to inspire cities to compete with each other on green grounds.



More environmentally friendly TV productions

February 25, 2010

When you see TV characters carrying out the recycling on shows like The Simpsons or Home Improvement it’s no accident. It’s likely that the message is brought to you by the Environmental Media Association (EMA) a Los Angeles non-profit organization. EMA’s goal is to educate the entertainment industry on environmental issues. EMA encourages the industry to incorporate green messages in feature films and television shows. Given the power of media in contemporary life, EMA believes its efforts will lead to more environmental awareness and action in real life.

In 1989 the wives of three Hollywood leaders, including Norman Lear’s, founded EMA to mobilize the entertainment industry around environmental causes. Working both behind and in front of the camera, EMA provides information to executives, producers, writers and actors on issue like climate change, population, transportation and energy use. EMA holds briefings for TV writers and producers to teach them how to incorporate environmental information into their story plots, from featuring electric cars to including shots of a polluted skyline. EMA staff did the research for a speech on global warming that Michael Douglas’ character gave in the movie The American President.

In 1991, EMA launched the Environmental Media Awards honor Hollywood’s efforts to include green messages and still tell a good story. In 1998, the winner was an episode of The Practice about a lawsuit filed against a utility charging that high-power lines were responsible for cancer clusters. In the TV comedy category, Home Improvement won for its description of emissions trading.

EMA doesn’t just want Hollywood to include environmental messages in its product- the goal is also to get the entertainment industry to be a good environmental citizen. To achieve this EMA created the Environmental Production Guide, a Web site explaining how to produce movies and TV shows in an environmentally sound way. For example, the site has information on where to buy recycled office and set supplies or locate green hotels across the country. Review, Rewind and Recycle is another EMA program that helps the industry recycle used tape.


Environmental conservation and job opportunities in Cambodia

February 25, 2010

Poaching was a serious business for Chran Thabb – until his tracking skills were put to better use protecting his former prey. He is one of 45 rangers in the remote eastern province of Mondulkiri recruited for a grassroots tourism project that uses employment incentives to encourage environmental conservation.

“Before, whenever I saw an animal in the forest, my first thought was to shoot it,” said Chran, now a guide for treks around Dei Ey village, in a protected forest area in Mondulkiri.

“I don’t do that any more. The animals would become extinct and I want the next generation to see them,” he said.

Because of its forests, mountains and rare wildlife, rugged Mondulkiri has been targeted by the Cambodian government as an area for eco-tourism development, after lobbying by WWF. The wildlife group launched conservation projects more than four years ago in this remote region, which has been likened to Africa’s Serengeti for its abundant wildlife.

WWF has recruited former hunters to put their knowledge of the forest and expert tracking skills to good use. The overall aim is to establish an environment where wildlife can recover after years of hunting, poaching and neglect. Richer wildlife, conservationists hope, will attract tourists – and, in turn, create jobs for local communities.

Most of Mondulkiri’s impoverished population comprises indigenous communities who practise shifting cultivation but also grow cash crops, although this is under threat from deforestation and changing climate patterns, according to a September 2009 report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Lack of access to education and primary healthcare are key development concerns in Mondulkiri, IOM says, with 59 percent of its population living below the poverty line, according to a 2004 study by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

“In a poor province such as Mondulkiri, eco-tourism offers a long-term alternative livelihood to combat the short-term illegal activities they do now to earn a living,” said Olga van den Pol, head of WWF’s eco-tourism operations in Mondulkiri province.

Wildlife in the area, which is near the border with Vietnam, was severely depleted in the 1970s and 1980s when battling Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese soldiers relied heavily on hunting for survival.

But since the launch of conservation projects, rangers are seeing an increase in wildlife for the first time in years.

Community values

Most people in the area belong to the Phnong ethnic group. Bill Herod, a development worker who works with Phnong youth, said cultural forces should operate in favour of conservation efforts.

“Phnong are more likely to see common ownership of the land, and less likely to want to hunt for wildlife on an individual basis,” he said.

Given Cambodia’s violent past, it is especially important to avoid using violence to deter poaching and instead focus on encouraging livelihoods, conservationists say.

In countries such as Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, governments have resorted to heavily armed patrols in an attempt to combat poaching. But this method is increasingly being shunned.

“For a poor rural person who wishes to feed their family, no deterrent will be sufficient, but the chances of being killed are far higher,” said James MacGregor, a researcher for the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development. “Guns raise the stakes but don’t combat the poaching necessarily,” he told IRIN.


While those employed by the projects hope their fortunes will improve, the initiatives are no panacea for the area’s poverty.

Krak Sokny, a teacher and farmer in Dei Ey village, doubted the eco-tourism initiatives would reach a sufficient scale to extend benefits to locals not directly involved, but said they would instil an active interest in conservation in villagers.

And while Dei Ey and other areas appear to be on the path to recovery, other lands in the province still face serious threats from speculators and slash-and-burn practices.

Local development workers also say police and well-connected officials continue to traffic wildlife and timber with impunity.

Against these forces, villagers in Mondulkiri’s eco-tourism enclaves are trying to carve out a space for themselves and adventurous tourists.

“I’m hoping there will be more tourists so we can earn money that way and not have to go hunting in the forest,” said Am Pang Deap, who previously made ends meet selling fried bananas in Dei Ey, but now works at a new eco-tourism resort. “People are trying to hunt less and maintain what’s left for tourists.”


From opium to olives

February 25, 2010

A major opium producer just a few years ago, Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar is now believed to be opium free, amid signs the once flourishing olive business is undergoing a revival.

Nangarhar is set to harvest about 400 tons of olives this year. “This year’s olive production is unprecedented in over a decade,” Engineer Hakim, head of Nangarhar’s government-run olive sector, told IRIN.

Before the onset of war in 1979, Nangarhar had about 3,000 hectares of olive trees and produced about 5,000 tons of pickled and raw olives and olive oil a year. At least 1,000 workers were employed in the industry in the 1980s, officials said.

However, over the past three decades most groves were destroyed. Currently olive trees cover less than 1,800 hectares and about 75 workers are employed in the industry, according to local agriculture officials.

Recently, the industry had received help from the government of Italy and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), officials said.

In 2003-2004 Nangarhar was ranked the second top opium-producing province in Afghanistan by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). However, poppy cultivation has dropped significantly over the past four years and in 2008 the province was declared poppy-free in a UNODC assessment report.

Replacement therapy

Provincial officials said the rehabilitation of olive groves would not only help develop the local economy but could also replace some of the income lost from poppy cultivation.

“If the government and donors promote olive production in Nangarhar through investment and support projects, farmers will have few incentives to cultivate poppy,” Baryalai Wyarh, a provincial counter-narcotics official, told IRIN.

Existing olive farms are government-owned, and employ local people, but things could change: “Farmers are interested in having their own olive farms,” said Hakim.

Nangarhar has an old Russian-equipped factory for making olive oil and pickled olives which, officials say, could be upgraded and employ hundreds of people.

The olive industry needed help with marketing its products both at home and abroad, Hakim said.

Agriculture experts say Nangarhar’s sub-tropical climate is ideal for olive production.



Orphanage for Tibetan and Chinese children

February 25, 2010

Fifty years ago, the parents of Tendol Gyalzur were two of about 85,000 Tibetans killed during the suppression of the uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet that pushed the Dalai Lama into exile.

Only 7 years old at the time, Mrs. Gyalzur grew up feeling hatred toward the occupiers who’d orphaned her. Yet today, she works closely with the Chinese government as the founder and director of Tibet’s first private orphanage.

“When I was young, I thought the Chinese were without heart, without love,” says Gyalzur during an interview at her second orphanage, in Shangri-La (also known as Zhongdiàn), a town in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. “Now, after starting this orphanage, I think that there are many Chinese who love. The government cooperates with our project and this, I think, is a kind of love.”

Gyalzur says she has learned acceptance and how to forgive from the children at her orphanages. They call one another brother and sister, yet they come from seven ethnic groups, including Tibetan and China’s majority ethnicity, Han, groups who fought in 1959 and continue to harbor animosity to this day.

“Many people – the Chinese, the Tibetans – can learn from our children how to live in peace,” Gyalzur says.

Following the 1959 uprising, Gyalzur and thousands of other Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, fled to India. There, she lived in a refugee camp until she was transferred to an orphanage in Germany, where she met her future husband, a fellow Tibetan refugee. In the 1970s, the two moved near Zurich, Switzerland, and started a family.

In 1990, Gyalzur returned to Tibet for the first time. She met two children rummaging through the trash in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. She brought them to a restaurant for a meal, but the manager refused to seat them. Gyalzur insisted and he relented. “It was the first time in my life that I realized that the only thing I wanted to do was to fight for the rights of these abandoned children,” she says.

She returned home to her husband and two sons in Switzerland. But, as an orphan herself, the memories of the orphan children in Tibet haunted her.

She vowed to return.

With help from the Tibet Development Fund, along with about $28,000 from her savings, her husband’s pension, and donations and loans from family and friends, she opened Tibet’s first private orphanage in 1993 in Lhasa.

The orphanage began with six children. Sixteen years later, 57 children live there and 27 have left to begin careers and families of their own. In 1997, she opened a second orphanage in her husband’s hometown of Shangri-La, where 54 children now live.

Another 63 children of nomadic herders live in a third center in western Sichuan Province, which Gyalzur started in 2002. The three centers operate on $280,000 annually from private donors in the United States and Europe.

Entering the orphanage in Shangri-La on a weekend, one finds children playing basketball in the front courtyard, while teenagers cook in the kitchen or wash clothes. They welcome visitors with group songs and dances in a new performing arts space.

On a weekday at the orphanage in Lhasa, children under 6 are studying English and Chinese. Older children are at school.

Foreign universities send students to volunteer at Gyalzur’s orphanage in Shangri-La. The Lonely Planet guidebook recommends it as one of 10 organizations fostering awareness of Tibet and aiding the Tibetan people. “I have been helping Tendol since 2001, and she is one of the most amazing, selfless women I have ever met,” says Rick Montgomery, executive director of Seattle-based Global Roots.

He first met Gyalzur while traveling in China. Her work inspired him to start Global Roots, which supports charities across the world. Since 2001, Global Roots has provided food, blankets, kitchen supplies, and bicycles to Gyalzur’s charity. In 2008, Mr. Montgomery visited the center in Shangri-La and delivered winter clothes to each of Gyalzur’s children, including new shoes and winter parkas.

Though inspiring, Gyalzur’s work also strained her family life. Her elder son, now an adult, says he resented his mother when she disappeared for months to work in China.

“We were quite angry with her,” says Songtsen Gyalzur. While his mother was away, he helped his father cook and sell shabales – Tibetan beef patties –­ outside a mall in Zurich to raise money for the orphanage.

“All my friends went skiing or ice-skating on weekends, and I was making shabales for the orphans,” he now chuckles.

Mrs. Gyalzur’s family eventually came around. Her husband quit his factory job in Switzerland and moved to China. Last year, her son sold his Swiss real estate company to assist as well. Songtsen started a car repair shop in Shangri-La and has invested about $50,000 in two restaurants that provide jobs for eight adult orphans from his mother’s centers.

“They look at my parents like they’re their parents, so in a way they’re like my brothers and sisters,” Songtsen says during an interview at So Ya La, one of his Tibetan cafes.

Most children at Gyalzur’s centers arrived via government agencies who contact her when a parentless child is reported to authorities.

Yishi Dolma was 10 when she was found 17 years ago living alone in the street about 50 miles outside Lhasa. Moving into the orphanage “was like having a family and a home,” says Ms. Yishi Dolma, who is the full-time “house parent” at the Shangri-La orphanage. The Lhasa orphanage also has two house parents who live on-site.

“Don’t feel sad that we don’t have parents, because we don’t think of it like that,” says Duoma Lamu, a 16-year-old at Gyalzur’s center in Shangri-La who hopes to attend university in a few years. “Tendol is our mother.”


Youngest headmaster in the world

February 25, 2010

At 16 years old, Babar Ali must be the youngest headmaster in the world. He’s a teenager who is in charge of teaching hundreds of students in his family’s backyard, where he runs classes for poor children from his village.

The story of this young man from Murshidabad in West Bengal is a remarkable tale of the desire to learn amid the direst poverty.

Babar Ali’s day starts early. He wakes, pitches in with the household chores, then jumps on an auto-rickshaw which takes him part of the 10km (six mile) ride to the Raj Govinda school. The last couple of kilometres he has to walk.

The school is the best in this part of West Bengal. There are hundreds of students, boys and girls. The classrooms are neat, if bare. But there are desks, chairs, a blackboard, and the teachers are all dedicated and well-qualified.

As the class 12 roll-call is taken, Babar Ali is seated in the middle in the front row. He’s a tall, slim, gangly teenager, studious and smart in his blue and white uniform. He takes his notes carefully. He is the model student.

Babar Ali is the first member of his family ever to get a proper education.

“It’s not easy for me to come to school because I live so far away,” he says, “but the teachers are good and I love learning. And my parents believe I must get the best education possible that’s why I am here.”

Raj Govinda school is government-run so it is free, all Babar Ali has to pay for is his uniform, his books and the rickshaw ride to get there. But still that means his family has to find around 1,800 rupees a year ($40, £25) to send him to school. In this part of West Bengal that is a lot of money. Many poor families simply can’t afford to send their children to school, even when it is free.

Chumki Hajra is one who has never been to school. She is 14 years old and lives in a tiny shack with her grandmother. Their home is simple A-frame supporting a thatched roof next to the rice paddies and coconut palms at the edge of the village. Inside the hut there is just room for a bed and a few possessions.

Chumki Hajra, a pupil at Babar Ali’s school, describes her day

Every morning, instead of going to school, she scrubs the dishes and cleans the homes of her neighbours. She’s done this ever since she was five. For her work she earns just 200 rupees a month ($5, £3). It’s not much, but it’s money her family desperately needs. And it means that she has to work as a servant everyday in the village.

“My father is handicapped and can’t work,” Chumki tells me as she scrubs a pot. “We need the money. If I don’t work, we can’t survive as a family. So I have no choice but to do this job.”

But Chumki is now getting an education, thanks to Babar Ali. The 16-year-old has made it his mission to help Chumki and hundreds of other poor children in his village. The minute his lessons are over at Raj Govinda school, Babar Ali doesn’t stop to play, he heads off to share what he’s learnt with other children from his village.

At four o’clock every afternoon after Babar Ali gets back to his family home a bell summons children to his house. They flood through the gate into the yard behind his house, where Babar Ali now acts as headmaster of his own, unofficial school.

Lined up in his back yard the children sing the national anthem. Standing on a podium, Babar Ali lectures them about discipline, then study begins.

Babar Ali gives lessons just the way he has heard them from his teachers. Some children are seated in the mud, others on rickety benches under a rough, homemade shelter. The family chickens scratch around nearby. In every corner of the yard are groups of children studying hard.

Babar Ali was just nine when he began teaching a few friends as a game. They were all eager to know what he learnt in school every morning and he liked playing at being their teacher.

Now his afternoon school has 800 students, all from poor families, all taught for free. Most of the girls come here after working, like Chumki, as domestic helps in the village, and the boys after they have finished their day’s work labouring in the fields.

“In the beginning I was just play-acting, teaching my friends,” Babar Ali says, “but then I realised these children will never learn to read and write if they don’t have proper lessons. It’s my duty to educate them, to help our country build a better future.”

Including Babar Ali there are now 10 teachers at the school, all, like him are students at school or college, who give their time voluntarily. Babar Ali doesn’t charge for anything, even books and food are given free, funded by donations. It means even the poorest can come here.

“Our area is economically deprived,” he says. “Without this school many kids wouldn’t get an education, they’d never even be literate.”

Seated on a rough bench squeezed in with about a dozen other girls, Chumki Hajra is busy scribbling notes.

Her dedication to learning is incredible to see. Every day she works in homes in the village from six in the morning until half past two in the afternoon, then she heads to Babar Ali’s school. At seven every evening she heads back to do more cleaning work.

Chumki’s dream is to one day become a nurse, and Babar Ali’s classes might just make it possible.

The school has been recognised by the local authorities, it has helped increase literacy rates in the area, and Babar Ali has won awards for his work.

The youngest children are just four or five, and they are all squeezed in to a tiny veranda. There are just a couple of bare electric bulbs to give light as lessons stretch into the evening, and only if there is electricity.

And then the monsoon rain begins. Huge drops fall as the children scurry for cover, slipping in the mud. They crowd under a piece of plastic sheeting. Babar Ali shouts an order. Lessons are cancelled for the afternoon otherwise everyone will be soaked. Having no classrooms means lessons are at the mercy of the elements.

The children climb onto the porch of a nearby shop as the rain pours down. Then they hurry home through the downpour. Tomorrow they’ll be back though. Eight hundred poor children, unable to afford an education, but hungry for anything they can learn at Babar Ali’s school.

Babar Ali's students