Invasive Species: When green journalism turns yellow

By crying wolf over green issues, ill-informed journalists are indulging in yellow journalism. The recent scare-mongering by the national media over the “death” of the wetland bird sanctuary of Sultanpur is a case in point. 

Keoladeo Ghana park director Anoop KR holding an invasive Mangur catfish and the partially consumed leg of a bird retrieved from its digestive tract

Over the last two weeks the national media — particularly Delhi-based newspapers and television channels — have been beating their breasts and wailing about the imminent death of wetland ecosystems such as Bharatpur and Sultanpur (the former in Rajasthan, the latter in Haryana). Both these bird sanctuaries are canal-fed wetland ecosystems whose health and survival depend on riverine water inflow: Bharatpur is fed by a canal from the Bhima river, while Sultanpur depends on water channeled from the Gurgaon canal that diverts water from the Yamuna.

On June 16, The Hindustan Times reported that Sultanpur lake had dried up and that the future of the wetland sanctuary was imperiled. Excerpt:

As a grim reminder of the future, the bodies of two African Black fish, with their rotten yellow scales and broken bones, lie beside each other on the parched, cracked earth. Barely six feet away, the grey carrion of a Blue Bull (Neelgai), with its torso missing but tiny horn and moldy skin intact, engages the attention of a solitary crow.

At first read, this comes across as serious reportage of an environmental disaster. In truth, it is just theatre of the verbose. HT quoted Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, well known for his love of expressing opinion that he has not had time to adequately consider, as writing in an open letter to Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda: “You are well aware of the history of the park and the role that Indira Gandhi played in having it declared as a sanctuary way back in 1972. It is doubly unfortunate that a sanctuary with Gandhi’s name is so closely associated should find itself in such a pathetic state.” 

Spoken like a true Congress loyalist. Except that since the sanctuary was notified, nobody in the great party has spared a thought for it. Except perhaps another Gandhi that the Congress doesn’t quite favour. Maneka Gandhi, the outlawed daughter-in-law of the first family, was briefly associated in the media with Sultanpur but not in a way that any birder or environmentalist would appreciate. With her blinkered animal rights philosophy she resisted, for long, every measure by concerned environmentalists to evict feral dogs, which posed great threat to nesting birds and nestlings (see my video about dogs in Sultanpur). Eventually, the dogs were evicted but only after a lot of damage was already done.

The me-too media kowtowed, with journalists barely stopping to hold their breaths to investigate the facts. The television channel CNN-IBN, well-known for its shrieky alarmist stand on issues (modeled on the personality of its chief), pronounced that all was not well with Sultanpur. The ticker screamed: “Dead fish raise a stink”.

The Times of India, not always saluted for its objectivity, surprised us pleasantly by showing reason in the face of blind speculation. Its story, carried on the same day as the HT story, pointed us to the source of the problem. The paper quoted Keshni Anand Arora, commissioner and principal secretary of forests in Haryana, as blaming the introduced African catfish or Mangur for predating on indigenous fish species and birds. 

Therein lay the tale. The African Mangur or Sharptooth Catfish (Clarias gariepinus), sometimes known as the Walking Catfish, occurs naturally from South Africa to northern Africa all the way up to southern Europe. It is a hardy and adaptive fish with extremely well-developed lungs that allow it to survive outside an aqueous environment for prolonged periods, including extended spells of drought (as witnessed this past summer in northern India). In fact, when pressed, the mangur actually walks on land using its fins to move from one water body to another. 

The Mangur was illegally introduced into India from Bangladesh and its cultivation is banned in some parts of the country. In May 2009, The Hindu reported: The breeding of African catfish is banned in India in the wake of an order by the Kerala High Court back in 2000. The case, on the basis of a petition from Kerala’s fish breeders, was referred by the Court to the National Committee on Exotic Species, which in turn recommended its ban. The African mangur, which grows into huge sizes, is not preferred even by traditional fish-eating communities who consider it “not very tasty”.

It was Mint, however, that brought out the best-reported and comprehensive coverage of the issue on Monday, highlighting the need for controlling the propagation of invasive species citing the case of the Magur as a flashpoint. The Mint story, by Padmaparna Ghosh, included a slideshow about invasive species and a video interview with my friend Gopi Sundar, research associate of the International Crane Foundation and an expert on wetland ecology. The story also quoted Anoop KR, director of the Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur, who has been working at exterminating the invasive fish in his park. The bloated bellies of the mangur, which can grow up to 30 ft long, aroused suspicions which his dissections subsequently confirmed. The mangur in Bharatpur had been eating birds in additional to indigenous fish species.

It’s pretty much the same story in Sultanpur, albeit under-reported. This summer, water has not been plentiful and the swamps have dried. The sanctuary has been sealed off and that explains why the nilgai — considered a crop pest in these parts — are dying off. The authorities are concertedly ridding the wetland of mangur and hoping that the extirpation of the species from the sanctuary will allow more native species of fish to breed and encourage birds to come back to the lake.

The shock of drought, Gopi explains, is actually beneficial to certain kinds of wetlands. The real issue — that of invasive species — must be addressed across the country. Lantana, a weed introduced accidentally from South America as an ornamental, now chokes the undergrowth in forests across the country. Its impact can be seen in the mixed deciduous forests of the Western Ghats. Parthenium, introduced along with wheat imports from America, is also widespread in Indian forests. Some native species have adapted well to the introduced varieties. Lantana, for instance, is favoured by some species of butterflies as well as bulbuls, sunbirds and flowerpeckers. Various NGOs including Atree and NCF are at work on projects to control the spread of invasive species. For concerned mediapersons, that should provide the context for the story.

A cabbage white butterfly on a lantana blossom. Lantana camara, native to South America, was introduced by gardeners. Pollination by local butterflies and berries spread by bulbuls, flowerpeckers and other local species make its control very difficult. 

I was disappointed by the reaction of some “concerned birders” and “activists” (who otherwise run profitable birding tours for Indians and expats) to the situation at hand. By fomenting the interest of ill-informed journalists in non-crises such as the annual cycle of flooding and drought in the wetlands of the subcontinent, these “friends of the environment” are stabbing it in the back. These are trying times, when every media vehicle worth its TRP (or self-funded readership survey) wants to appropriate the issue of “green journalism”. It pays to be patient, talk to the real experts, and refrain from alarmist coverage altogether. 

Message to journos: hankering for scoops belongs in the realm of journalism of a different colour — yellow, not green.


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