Why is Manas National Park famous for?

Creating a transnational conservation area, the Royal Manas National Park in southwestern Bhutan abuts the Manas National Park of the neighbouring Indian State of Assam. It was accorded wildlife sanctuary status way back in 1966, making it the oldest protected area in the country. As many as 27 years later, it was declared a National Park. Covering an area of more than 1,000 sq.km., the Park had been out of bounds to public for a long while. The region is fed by the Manas river, and is indicative of Bhutan's tropical and subtropical ecosystems. The Park hosts a stunning variety of plant and animal species, and this includes several that are threatened or endangered. In addition to a few hundred bird species, it is said to support more than 900 types of plants, including many with medicinal value.

Wildlife

The animals that one can spot in the region include Royal Bengal tiger. Asian elephant, greater one-horned rhinoceros, clouded leopard, Himalayan black bear, Gangetic dolphin, pangolin, and the endangered and rare golden langur. Among the birds that roam the area are ducks, geese, shelducks, pochards, teals, partridges, tragopans, pheasants, quails, grebes, pigeons, cranes, bitterns, doves, nighjars, swifts, doves, eagles, hornbills, babblers, thrushes, cuckoos, herons, egret cormorants, thickknees, stilts, plovers, lapwings, sandpipers, gulls, terns, vultures, owls, woodpeckers, beeeaters, kingfishers, parakeets, orioles, drongos, shrikes, flowerpeckers, weavers, munias, sparrows, finches, tits, buntings, prinias, warblers, bulbuls, flycatchers, and robins.

Threats

In 2017, Bhutan became the first (and the only) carbon-negative country in the world. The carbon dioxide produced by the country is less than what the tree / forest cover there can absorb. The country has been determined to ensure that the forest cover does not drop below 60 % at any given time. While this is great news for the wildlife in the region, the country and the park in are not without concerns. For instance, human activity such as selective logging, deforestation, hunting, and tourism have been increasing challenges for the place. Being a small country, it has managed to keep several threats at bay so far. However, as a country develops, human activity could only increase, leading to alteration of places that wildlife call home. There are also concerns that species such as the threatened clouded leopard could be affected in the long run due to such activity.

Good news

News reports published in 2018 said that the number of tigers at the Park grew from just 10 in 2010 to more than double- an impressive 22-within a decade. This is attributed to the conscious effort not just at Royal Manas but also at Manas National Park in neighbouring India. In fact, both the Parks registered increase in tiger numbers, and this is attributed to transboundary conservation.

While the tiger usually gets all the attention for being a top predator, it is also important to record other species in a region. Less than a decade ago, efforts were taken up to record the different types of cats present in Royal Manas National Park. The study "recorded six species of wild felids of which five are listed on the IUCN Red List". They are tiger, golden cat, marbled cat, leopard cat, clouded leopard, and common leopard. It was conducted over an area of 74 sq.km., and the sightings of felid species confirmed the region "as a biodiversity hot spot for this group".

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What type of wetland is the Pantanal?

The world's largest tropical wetland, the Pantanal is a natural region in South America. Lying mostly in Brazil and spilling into neighbouring Bolivia and Paraguay, this wetland covers a whopping area of more than 1,81,000 sq.km. Within this large area, several subregional ecosystems thrive, each with its own distinctive characteristics. Though the Amazon rainforest is easily synonymous with the natural landscape and wildlife of South America, surprisingly it is the Pantanal region that has the highest concentration of wildlife in this continent. Annually, the Pantanal's vast basin gets flooded after torrential rains. After these rains, the water slowly drains into the Paraguay river, creating lakes and pools. Filled as they are with fishes and snails, these waterbodies attract a large variety of birds, including storks. The hyacinth macaw, the largest species of parrot, can be seen in the area. The vegetation in the region too is just as varied with giant water lilies rubbing shoulders with cactus!

Comprising a group of four contiguous protected areas, the Pantanal Conservation Area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. As always, human activity is a grave concern in the area. These include sport fishing, the disturbance of nesting areas, and development projects such as the plan to construct navigable water courses.

Wildlife

Among the birds spotted in the region are tinamous, grebes, ducks, teals, guans, swans, pigeons, doves, cuckoos, nighthawks, nightjars, hermits, swifts, hummingbirds, crakes, rails, gallinules, stilts, lapwings, plovers. jacanas, sandpipers, godwits, snipes, terns, bitterns, storks, cormorants, herons, ibises, spoonbills, vultures, caracaras, ospreys, kites, owls, trogons, kingfishers, puffbirds, jacamars, toucans, piculets, woodpeckers, falcons, kestrels, parakeets, macaws, woodcreepers, spinetails, thornbirds, jays, martins, swallows, flycatchers, wrens, thrushes, mockingbirds, warblers, seedeaters, finches, and sparrows. The animals from the region include jaguars, green anacondas, giant armadillos, giant anteaters, otters, wild pigs, marsh deer, howler and capuchin monkeys, capybaras (world's largest rodents), in addition to caimans, alligators, and a range of amphibians, reptiles, and insects.

Threats

The Pantanal waterways are crucial for life in the region, but face several threats such as deforestation, soil erosion from expanding industrial agriculture, and infrastructure projects. It is said that because the land around the eco-rich Pantanal region is relatively inexpensive, over the years, many farmers from other parts of Brazil have begun agriculture here. This means the agrichemical runoff is high. According to WWF Brazil's report a few years ago, as many as "30% of springs that feed the Pantanal are at ecological risk and require urgent action". Much to the disappointment of activists and conservationists, a few years ago "the buffer zone necessary between farmland and river springs" was reduced, which could prove disastrous for the Pantanal in the long run. An unusual form of threat arising from agriculture is the killing of jaguars by farmers since the big cats kill their cattle. In the long run, if the jaguar disappears from the region it could throw the ecosystem into a disarray since it's at the top of the food chain. Another cause of concern is the lack of humanpower to police the region to see if there's encroachment, soil erosion, etc. In addition, the increasing use of hydroelectric dams to create energy in the region is also a major threat". In 2020, the Pantanal was exceptionally dry and burning at a record rate.

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What is the Green Status of Species?

Though it does a wide variety of work globally, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is almost synonymous with its Red List, which shows "how close endangered species are to extinction". Now the IUCN has come up with a global standard called the Green Status of Species. What is this about?

While seeing certain species categorised under "Least Concern" could be comforting, witnessing several species being listed under the threatened categories on the Red List could cause concern. Scientists felt that while the Red List was a wonderful assessment tool, it did not always "tell the full story". And this resulted in the Green Status of Species. The Green Status measures "how close a species is to being fully ecologically functional across its range and how much it has recovered thanks to conservation action. It will classify species into nine recovery categories to show if a species has been largely depleted from its range or if it is nearing recovery".

According to a paper published recently in the journal Conservation Biology, more than 200 scientists from 171 institutions globally worked for a decade to come up with the standard. They have assessed the Green Status for 181 species. Among them is the California candor, whose story indicates what exactly the Green Status aspires for. The bird species was classified as critically endangered in 1994. Nearly three decades and several conservation efforts later, it's still classified thus. But there's more to this story. It's because of captive breeding and reintroduction efforts that the bird remains alive today without these, it could have gone extinct. Not just that their numbers have been growing, indicating that they're responding well to conservation.

The Green Status measures the impact of past conservation efforts, species reliance on conservation action, and how much a species could gain in the next 10 years due to conservation action. It also offers a long-term view of species recovery potential over the next 100 years. As a Red List researcher put it the list indicates that despite the fairly high extinction risk "we still have this hope”.

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How do teaching and learning take place in the jungle?

There are no uniforms, no blackboards, and no zoom classes either in these schools. There is one teacher and one or more students. And what is taught Survival skills. Animal parents teach their offspring how to forage, hunt, and defend themselves. The young ones learn through observation and rigorous training. Some of these teachers are strict, some are innovative and some instinctive. But they all seem to have one thing in their mind- to see their young ones master life skills needed for an independent living.

Scientists have not observed classroom-type teaching in the animal world, say, one individual teaching a group of others in their herd, rather they have found strong evidence of teaching by parents. Schooling for the offspring starts when they are days or weeks old. Meerkats, rock ants, killer whales, elephants, some apes and cheetahs are some of the animals that have been observed to teach their cubs and calves.

Meerkat

The meerkat is a small carnivore, related to the mongoose family, found in parts of Africa. An adult meerkat teaches its young through demonstration. It offers enough time for its pup to pick up hunting skills in three stages. In the first stage, the adult meerkat brings the young one a dead prey (such as a scorpion). In the second stage, it captures a live scorpion and removes its stinger before giving it to its pup for killing. When the pup gets older, the adult meerkat brings a live prey without removing the stinger and demonstrates how to kill it. After days of practice, the ward is eventually expected to take a test, where it will have to demonstrate how to capture a scorpion, remove its stinger and kill it.

Golden lion tamarin

The golden lion tamarin is a New World Monkey found in Brazil. A primatologist observed a mother calling out to its baby, pointing to the inside of a broken tree branch, probably after spotting food. The offspring, as the mother stepped aside, pulled out a frog. The baby not only learnt where to look for food, but also to catch the prey under the watchful eyes of its teacher parent.

Cheetah

Cheetah employs a strategy similar to that of meerkats. A dead prey is brought in for the younger ones, while a live prey is offered to the older ones. A cheetah mother also shows her cubs what their prey is, how to chase, catch and kill. Once weaned, the cubs are gradually introduced to hunting, when the mother lets the cubs observe while she hunts. And then she catches a young and vulnerable prey and releases it in front of her cubs. The cubs are expected to knock it down. Since the prey (say a fawn) is young, it would not be able to run. If in the process, the family loses the prey , the cubs still may have learnt a thing or two about hunting by then. Mistakes are learning opportunities, aren't they?

Bird

For birds, flying comes through a bit of instinct and a lot of practice. Until they develop the required muscle structure, food is brought to the safety of the nest. When the parent thinks a fledgling is ready to fly, it follows a set pattern of techniques. Parent birds start to remain a short distance away from the nest when they bring food. A young bird has no choice but to step out of the nest to receive the food, even if it means a few hard falls and a long trip back to the nest. Falls reduce as the young bird stretches out its wings. It may take days or weeks before a fledgling is ready to make long-distance flying. Other forms of teaching are also common among birds. The southern pied babblers, found in South Africa, school their young to associate certain calls with availability of food, while superb fairywrens teach a 'code word to their eggs. When the chicks hatch, they use the code to ask for food.

Whale

Whales and dolphins follow similar methods of teaching - in different stages and by slowly increasing the difficulty level. Whales first have rehearsals in a safe environment without the prey. The mother trains the young to get to the beach and back to the water. Then she demonstrates how to hunt. The calf finally attempts to catch seal pups. An adult female also assists by either stunning the prey or creating waves to help catch it. Atlantic spotted dolphin mothers sometimes release a prey fish in front of the calves and watch them chase and hunt it.

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Why Los Katios National Park is unique?

Spread across more than 720 sq km on the northwestern part of Colombia, the Los Katios National Park is contiguous to the Darien National Park in the neighbouring country of Panama. Though located in South America, the region is considered a major convergence zone of North, Central, and South America. It is because of this very reason that the Park offers a startling variety of flora and fauna. Spanning hills, tropical and humid forests, alluvial plains, swamps, and marshes, it has an unusual ecological setting that nurtures more than 600 species of vegetation, including palms and several others endemic to the region. It shows exceptional biodiversity in terms of fauna too, with many threatened species calling the place - their home.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, the Park was placed on the Danger List in 2009 due to the severe damage it suffered because of illegal poaching, fishing, and logging. However, continued patrolling and engagement with local communities in preserving the habitat paid off, and the Park was removed from the list in 2015.

Wildlife

The Park is part of one of the most species-rich lowland forest areas in the world. Small wonder it nurtures a wide range of fauna. The area is said to have more than 550 species of vertebrates, excluding fish and including more than 400 species of birds. It is believed to be the only region on the continent where many Central American species are found. This includes the threatened American crocodile, giant anteater, and Central American tapir also known as Baird's tapir. Among other species that can be spotted here are the jaguar, west Indian manatee, bush dog, deer, rodents such as coypu and wild mouse, fox, bear, monkey, and marmoset. Among the birds that can be seen here are tinamous, New World passerine birds, shrikes, quails, humming birds, warblers, doves, macaws, pittas, and puffbirds, in addition to the harpy eagle, northern screamer, and the great currasow.

Threats

The region requires close monitoring even today since concerns in the form of illegal and development activities remain. In fact, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's latest assessment (2020), the conservation outlook for this site is of "significant concern". Placing the park on danger list all those years ago did help improve the situation in the region, and some of the efforts continue to be in place. But of utmost concern is the illegal and excess use of legal natural resources. The continuous unsustainable depletion of resources could affect both flora and fauna of the place in the long run. This includes fishing and shellfish harvesting on a scale that may not be sustainable in the future. Security of the property was a concern earlier, and steps were initiated to improve that. However, despite that, illegal activities around the property and the presence of armed groups within it have been reported. Though they do not appear to pose any threat right now, it could later on, if left unchecked. Proposed developmental projects such as roads and power transmission corridors do not suggest "acute threat" yet, but "adequate environmental and social assessment are required to ensure that the natural environment of the property are not damaged in any way if and when these projects are executed.

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