Thursday, January 29, 2015

On to Nepal!

So we have now left India and are heading to the western parts of Nepal near the Karnali river (one of the last places where the Ganges river dolphin can still be found in Nepal).  We are moving to this location because this is where one of our characters grew up. Gopal. And it is where his family still lives. On the farm where he was once born.

Western Nepal, rural western Nepal, is an amazing place. It is simply stunning. Fields of green and yellow with enormous mountains in the distance.

Fields with yellow flowers of mustard seed plants make even wintertime beautiful in rural Nepal (Photo: JLewis, TDRF) 
One of the reasons we felt it was important to go back to Asia, was because we needed to tell the story from a more personal level. That included getting to know the families of our characters if we could. We were very lucky because we got to spend time on this journey with Gopal’s younger brother and his parents.

Having this perspective provided a much deeper understanding about where students in this region of the world come from. Almost everyone, no matter what, has parents that were farmers. Existing off their own land. What did this mean for these students? Well for one, it meant that many of them had to figure out a way on their own to pay for school (scholarships). It also meant that while trying to develop a new skill set from their education, studies had to be put aside also regularly to help the family survive. Gopal still returns to his natal home twice a year to help harvest the crops.

Gopal greets the new calf on his families farm in western Nepal (Photo: JLewis, TDRF)

It also means there is pressure to locate a job…any job…immediately upon graduation, so care can be given for the elder members of the family as they become unable to tend to fields. And the first job available, may not be one in conservation. So there lies the next in a long line of struggles for these students. The need to care for their family, weighing against their own desires to locate lower paying hard to find positions in conservation. This could be the biggest struggle of all.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Hope in Bhaglapur

This will go a bit off topic of dolphins…or may seem to…but it is absolutely related to their conservation. Because it was obvious from the beginning that the issue of overfishing was looming large in this area, and that the problem was not going to be solved without also managing the people and their ability to continue to survive, during my first trip to Bhaglapur last year, I began brainstorming about how the hell we could ever fix this. I fully understood, that if we could not, then we would loose the battle to save this species.

I was also struck by the horrible situation that the villagers were dealing with. They live on the very bottom of the society there (or very close to). Houses with walls but no roof, dirt floors. You can imagine the picture. And absolutely no money to put their children into school (which costs money in India). I realized we had to get these kids out of this cycle of poverty which was at least partially contributing to the inability to break away from fishing or whatever others might be able to do in this small village. To get an education could open other doors with more economic security. So……We had to find a way to put them in school. But how?

While thinking about this, riding on the back of a motorcycle through the city something came to me. Not a perfect solution, but maybe something. I have yet to see a home in the area that appeared to exude the presence of wealth. Trash is everywhere, there is no indoor plumbing so the bathroom is the small trenches that line the edges of the streets. Animals like pigs, goats, stray dogs and cattle walk the streets, adding to the fresh excrement everywhere. It can be shocking to see and walk through on first run. Oh who am I kidding, it is shocking every time I have done it. And I have walked those streets a lot. I still have to force the “ I am not taking notice of this horror you people are asked to live in” look from my face, so the people of this place are never made to feel uncomfortable.

Even in all this, there is something I found absolutely beautiful and unique (besides the
Photo: Jlewis, TDRF
people). Each and every house, no matter how small or large, has a unique door with amazing character. Some are wooden, some are metal, some have stones making up part of them. Most are painted, but each one is a different shape, design, color etc. They are all unique, and they are all amazing to look at. And because they are all worn (wood grains showing through the paint, the bottom on some is splintered away, each has hardware, some which may be partially broken). All of this to me imparted considerable character, charm and interest to each home. So even in these deplorable conditions, there was something that was beautiful.

Photo: JLewis, TDRF
I realized then that people in the states would also appreciate these, in the artistic rustic style they represented. AND…that these “pieces of art” I was considering, might allow us at least a starting point to raising money for the education of the local children. Doors representing opening a possibility of hope for them. So that was the inception of the idea for our project called the “Doors of Bhaglapur”. During this trip I spent a day photographing these doors with the idea to then use them in a fund raiser art show back in the states. We at the Tropical Dolphin Research Foundation are now working with the University research team under Dr. Sunil Choudhary to develop a plan for our first pilot of this project. Our intentions are to start with one village, working to raise money for the children currently in 10 of these families through high school and maybe even beyond (depending on the money we can raise). We invite you to follow us as we work to develop this, and please let us know if you live in the DC or NYC area and would like to help us develop this fund raiser and can suggest people what may be interested in purchasing this type of art for such a cause. Put a kid through school. Save a river dolphin! I know…not quite so simple…but not a really far from the truth!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

What’s a normal day like as a Conservation Student in Dhaka Bangladesh?

Well if you include two attempts to burn down buses on campus and the explosion of a Molotov cocktail….well…then its just another day.

I was going to continue to add to the posts about our work in India (and I will), but I could not ignore what I have left behind in Bangladesh. I have made friends with many students and faculty there and get to hear exactly what they are encountering each day as they undergo another prolonged strike in their country.

This week many social media apps were shut down (like Whatsapp and Viber), making it harder for them to communicate. So things as simple as working out times to meet with your professors has been made harder.

I want to bring this information to the front, because I think many of us who subscribe to the foundation Blog/Facebook/Twitter, have no idea what it would be like to try to function as students or faculty under such conditions. What if you no longer could easily communicate with anyone (at home or away from home)? And then what if you were meeting with your professor when a bomb made of gasoline was ignited outside your building? And this was not something that you had never seen or heard before? Can you even imagine what kind of additional stress would be added to your work in conservation dealing with this kind of fear daily (or whatever field you are in)? The fear of being burned alive? I cannot. Honestly. And I pray I never have to.

Bus torched at Jagannath University, Dhaka, Bangladesh (Photo: Bangladesh Chronicle)

But because these people DO have to know what this is like. We HAVE TO listen and respond.

We at TDRF will be continuing to fight for these people as part of our work to save the species in that area. But we could really use your help too. What can you do?

1. SHARE THIS POST! And ask others to also share. Making others aware is step one.

2. Tell your congress people to get on the ball and get the US to help. Write them the following letter or one of your own. It takes no time at all, but could be significant. In US here is how to find your congress person ( See below for what to use as a letter if you don’t want to write your own.

Why do I think this will help? Because we already helped once! We…meaning you …helped us get the story about the oil spill covered! YOU! You spread the word and it got to the right folks and the US did get involved.

Example Letter (Feel free to just paste and copy):

Many species in S Central Asia are at the brink of extinction.

Overlooked but critical to this are the safety and retention of young conservation students.
o   But their safety is right now at great risk in Bangladesh, thanks to strikes and continued violence.
o   This violence extends to within the walls of the Universities. There is no safe harbor for them.
o   Daily they must worry about being BURNED ALIVE.

Without these students there is no future for conservation in this region of the globe

 Without the next generation of students PERIOD in this region, there will not be a work force knowledgeable enough to bring this country from the brink of destruction.

The United States needs to work to help negotiate an end to the strikes in Bangladesh.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Criminals control the survival chances of the Ganges river dolphin in India

We wrote previously about the use of the mosquito nets. Many of the fishermen have opted not to continue to use these because they understand the effects (no more fish). While many of these people have opted out, some still continue.

Blue mosquito nets used for fishing the rivers in the Sundarbans, Bangladesh (Photo: JLewis, TDRF)

These for the most part are doing the work under the strong arms of mafia that control the water use in the region. Nets are given to these fishermen, on “loan” or other types of
Tiny mesh size of the mosquito netting used to make fishing traps and 
nets (Photo: JLewis, TDRF)
support, creating a situation where they then owe the mafia bosses in ways that cannot be paid back easily. In return, the fishermen are required to give a cut of either money made from the fish captured or even part of the catch. We have interviewed these fishermen and learned that all are regularly threated and beaten to control this activity. It is a serious human rights problem. And sadly, the local authorities are turning their eyes away from it (they are on “the pay roll”). This part of India could be best described as still sort of like the wild west (United States reference). In this situation, having law and order as we know it today is very hard to establish and to maintain.

Friday, January 16, 2015

On the river

Subhasis and team member search the river for dolphins. 
(Photo: JLewis, TDRF)
Today we joined Subhasis and the research team for a survey on the river to count dolphins along the first 30km of the Vikramshila Sanctuary (established for the Ganges river dolphin). To get to this location we took a train where the boat man will meet us. He has taken the boat upstream the night before.

This area of the Ganges has seen the loss of many species already (e.g. the endangered gharial crocodile and the river otter). We are lucky today because we spot a large group of turtles that are now rare, sunning themselves on the banks. And…DOLPHINS! Quite a few along this stretch in fact. This was one of the reasons the sanctuary (which extends 50km) was created. It was thought at the time that this stretch might be important for the Ganges river dolphin because there appeared to be more of them here compared to other stretches of the Ganges in India.

Ganges river, western point of the Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary (Photo: JLewis, TDRF)

Subhasis talks to student about his work with the river dolphin 
(Photo: JLewis, TDRF)
Also of interest on this survey, a new member of the team was present. While walking through a park the day before, a young college student approached us (Subhasis and I) to see what we were doing. At the time I was filming Subhasis speaking about his history in the area. The student was really interested in the work Subhasis was doing, so Subhasis decided to invite him along on the survey. An amazing opportunity for this student! And maybe a new conservationist will be born as a result!