WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

After brief resurrection, Jeypore ground gecko faces second death sentence

Life isn’t easy for Geckoella jeyporensis that was once thought extinct and is dwindling again.

The Jeypore ground gecko (Geckoella jeyporensis) was first noted and described by a British colonel in 1877, but was not seen again for more than 130 years, and presumed extinct. Enter a team of committed scientists, who scoured the northern hills of India’s Eastern Ghats mountain range in the hope of discovering a specimen.

The search by the team, armed with only the brief notes of amateur naturalist Colonel Richard Henry Beddome, paid off in 2010 and again in 2011, when they discovered the strikingly beautiful ground gecko in two locations.

Ishan Agarwal led the project. He was conducting his PhD research on Indian bent-toed geckos (Cyrtodactylus) at the time, which include Geckoella, a genus of Gekkonidae found only in India and Sri Lanka.

“It turns out that most of these are undescribed species with very small ranges, and many require conservation attention,” Agarwal told Mongabay.com. “All the [Geckoella] are relatively common, while G jeyporensis had not been recorded since its original sighting and description.

G Jeyporensis is unique in its dorsal scalation as well as phylogenetic position, Agarwal said. “Its unique morphology and the fact that it wasn’t known apart from a single specimen motivated my search,” he added. “All other Indian species are complexes, while G jeyporensis is a relict lineage found only in high elevations of the Eastern Ghats.” Morphology is the study of an organism’s structure, while phylogeny refers to an organism’s evolution or development.

The Jeypore ground gecko’s new lease on life was brief, however. It was quickly listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN due to severe threats to its habitat.

The natural beauty and the wildlife of India’s Eastern Ghats face an uncertain future. Courtesy of the Photography Club of Hyderabad
The natural beauty and the wildlife of India’s Eastern Ghats face an uncertain future. Courtesy of the Photography Club of Hyderabad

Tiny range, multiple threats

The gecko’s range is small – estimated at just 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles), between elevations of 1200 and 1300 meters (roughly 3,900 to 4,265 feet). The exact locale has been kept secret to prevent poachers hunting the gecko back into extinction. But the general locations are to be found in two neighboring states: Andhra Pradesh (near Galikonda), and Odisha (near the species’ namesake Jeypore).

Agarwal and his team, in their 2013 article announcing the rediscovery, wrote:

“The high elevation forests at Galikonda are highly degraded, and have been extensively converted to coffee plantations, only some of which have native shade trees,”  “The plantations do not seem well maintained, and there are small patches of native vegetation toward the fringes and near streams. At Deomali [near Jeypore], high elevation forests are restricted to pockets in depressions and sheltered areas, and have stunted trees, rich leaf litter and epiphytic growth.

“The forest habitats in which Geckoella jeyporensis was found are under extreme anthropogenic pressures. Neither area in which the new material was collected is formally protected and both have been severely deforested. Galikonda and the surrounding hills have also been extensively converted to coffee plantations, while Deomali faces grazing and fuel wood collection pressures. More broadly, the hills in Koraput District face pressures from mining as well as social forestry activities.”

Note how well the Jeypore ground gecko blends into its surroundings. That camouflage helps explain its disappearance from science for so many years. Photo courtesy of Ishan Agarwal
Note how well the Jeypore ground gecko blends into its surroundings. That camouflage helps explain its disappearance from science for so many years. Photo courtesy of Ishan Agarwal

Agarwal included a strong warning in his paper regarding the Jeypore gecko’s future: “Even if it is widely distributed in the region, the potential habitat available to G jeyporensis may be restricted by its presumed habitat preference,” he wrote. “Deomali and Galikonda, the only localities from where Geckoella jeyporensis is definitely known, require immediate protection and surveys in the region are needed to determine where else [it] occurs.”

Farida Tampla, World Wide Fund for Nature India state director for Telangana, cites further risks to the Jeypore gecko and its habitat co-inhabitants: “The main threats facing the Eastern Ghats include deforestation, hydropower projects, bauxite mining and road widening,” she told Mongabay. In addition, “massive impoundments that dams and their reservoirs have formed between the Andhra Pradesh and Odisha borders have submerged thousands of hectares of forests and [are] turning hilltops into island[s] and thereby isolating wild species.”

Reptiles at risk

The Jeypore gecko isn’t alone in its plight; 19% of the world’s reptiles face extinction due to habitat loss and over-harvesting according to a recent study by the Zoological Society of London and the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. Additionally, global reptilian biodiversity has fallen by 58% since 1970, according to WWF’s International’s bi-annual Living Planet Index 2016.

The Eastern Ghats and other hill and elevated regions of India. Note that the Western Ghats are a continuous mountain range, while the Eastern Ghats are broken by lowlands which has contributed to the region’s more extensive development. Map courtesy of Wikipedia
The Eastern Ghats and other hill and elevated regions of India. Note that the Western Ghats are a continuous mountain range, while the Eastern Ghats are broken by lowlands which has contributed to the region’s more extensive development. Map courtesy of Wikipedia

Lead author Monika Böhm notes a specific reason for these precipitous population drops: terrestrial reptiles are often restricted to limited localities due to their specialised biological and environmental requirements; they also aren’t very mobile, making them particularly vulnerable to habitat degradation.

“Reptiles are often associated with extreme habitats and tough environmental conditions, so it is easy to assume that they will be fine in our changing world,” Bohom said. But that isn’t always the case.

WWF director general Marco Lambertini sees this rapid decline in reptile biodiversity as a strong warning sign of a planet in peril. “The ecological footprint – which measures our use of goods and services generated by nature – indicates that we’re consuming as if we had 1.6 Earths at our disposal,” he said. “Lose biodiversity and the natural world, including the life support systems as we know them, will collapse.”

A precarious tomorrow

The recently rediscovered Jeypore ground gecko’s future is bound up with that of modern India; a nation of 1.3 billion people driven hard by the development-friendly policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India remains a land of divisive contrasts, where progressive government plans to protect large swathes of habitat can as quickly be overturned by new government economic development plans, and/or undermined by lax law enforcement and corruption.

Sharing many floral and faunal elements with sister ghats to the west, the Eastern Ghats’ uniqueness and biological vitality are often overlooked. The Eastern Ghats are fragmented, divided by four major rivers, while the celebrated Western Ghats – regarded as one of the jewels in India’s natural crown – consist of an almost unbroken mountain landscape.

The Eastern Ghats, including the Mobile Belt geological region, are threatened by human development. Here National Highway 16 runs through Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Photo by Adityamadhav83 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license
The Eastern Ghats, including the Mobile Belt geological region, are threatened by human development. Here National Highway 16 runs through Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Photo by Adityamadhav83 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

WWF’s Tampal said that the 1986 rediscovery of the Indian golden gecko (Calodactylodes aureus), followed by the Jeypore ground gecko’s more recent scientific resurrection, caused some resurgence of public interest in protecting the Eastern Ghats.

But a geopolitical realignment has generated a major conservation setback, Tampal explained. Andhra Pradesh’s division into two states in 2014 – Telangana is a break-away – means that the Andhra Pradesh government is now trying to economically “catch up speed”, and will be eyeing protected areas in the Eastern Ghats to meet its land, irrigation and mining needs, Tampal says. That spells more development pressures for the already besieged Eastern Ghats.

“Several researchers have begun to study the faunal diversity of this incredible region, but the [anthropogenic] threats… seem to loom larger,” Tampal said.

Researcher and conservationist Varad Giri says that G jeyporensis’ orangey-brown dorsum and chocolate-brown dorsal patches, make it one of the most beautiful Indian geckos. Photo courtesy of Ishan Agarwal
Researcher and conservationist Varad Giri says that G jeyporensis’ orangey-brown dorsum and chocolate-brown dorsal patches, make it one of the most beautiful Indian geckos. Photo courtesy of Ishan Agarwal

The geckos go

The Eastern Ghats and their dependent species are at equal risk if escalating development continues unchecked – representing a looming loss for scientists. “The ghats are [yet] to be completely understood in terms of [their] biodiversity, and losing this [habitat] to rapid development will be a huge loss to the country’s natural heritage, and with it some of the endemic species found nowhere else in the world,” Tampal said.

In a 2000 paper, Madireddi V Subba Rao warned of the dire future facing the Eastern Ghats should there be no intervention by conservationists. The former Andhra University Department of Environmental Sciences chair was especially alarmed at the rate of fragmentation in recognised reptile habitats.

To counter this degradation, Subba Rao wrote, “habitat restoration needs to be a vital component of forest management programs to improve reptile habitat, help ensure a balanced ecosystem, conserve natural flora and fauna and serve as a model for other regions”.

Agarwal worries that if no proactive conservation plan is put in place soon for the Jeypore ground gecko, it will face a tough climb back from the brink of extinction: “[T]here is no understanding of its ecology and distribution, and it is likely that the species will not persist indefinitely in these marginal habitats.”

The future is uncertain for the Golden gecko as well. Long considered extinct, it was rediscovered in 1986. Though now categorized as a species of Least Concern, the IUCN notes that its habitat faces several site-specific threats. Zoologists argue that the Golden gecko’s conservation status needs to be revisited, as its existence is under threat from new development projects.

Dr Varad Giri was awarded a Wildlife Service Award for his commitment to effective conservation strategies for India’s less famous creatures. Photo courtesy of Varad Giri
Dr Varad Giri was awarded a Wildlife Service Award for his commitment to effective conservation strategies for India’s less famous creatures. Photo courtesy of Varad Giri

Urgent need to create ‘gecko reserves’

Agarwal argues that official habitat protection is needed now to ensure the survival of the region’s unique geckos. And there are precedents for such protections: the Indian Forest Act allows central and state governments to designate natureland as “reserve forests” (as a tiger reserve, for example), or as “protected forests,” which either restrict or limit activities permitted within their boundaries. These protection orders can easily be overturned, however, as seen in the case of the Ken-Betwa River Link project and the proposed destruction of the Panna Tiger Reserve.

Tampal urges a public private conservation partnership: central and state governments, industries and local communities have an equal stake in, and are equally responsible for, ensuring the protection of the Eastern Ghats, with its unique mountain chain and endemic animal inhabitants.

She noted that the Andhra Pradesh government has moved swiftly in the past to designate protection areas for more charismatic fauna. “Protection of environment, forest and wildlife is enshrined in the Constitution of India and the government will have to continue to be the main player in species protection,” Tampal said. “However, the focus will need to not only be on the larger and well-known animals. Even the lesser-known animals are under greater threat, and the government will have to put together species recovery plans for many of these species.

“People, especially those living close to wildlife, have always been an important constituency in the protection of wildlife,” she added. “They will need to be incentivised to ensure that they continue to be equal partners in protection, and at the same time ensuring that these forest people are also able to live a life of dignity and self-respect.”

Avoiding gecko Armageddon

Despite the many challenges, Agarwal has some optimism for the future of the Jeypore ground gecko and for the Eastern Ghats, suggesting that if the reserve forests where G jeyporensis now resides remain forest, then there is hope.

“The good thing is the species is also found in degraded habitats and coffee plantations,” he explained. “If key reserve forest areas are protected, and some simple measures followed in coffee plantations, it is likely we can save this species.”

Neither of the two Eastern Ghats locales where the Jeypore ground gecko was rediscovered are formally protected, and both have been severely deforested. Photo courtesy of Ishan Agarwal
Neither of the two Eastern Ghats locales where the Jeypore ground gecko was rediscovered are formally protected, and both have been severely deforested. Photo courtesy of Ishan Agarwal

WWF India CEO Ravi Singh emphasised that the gecko’s local problem has a global and national source: that unless the world’s and India’s consumption patterns are examined and sustainable agricultural practices adopted to decrease the anthropogenic impact on the planet’s biodiversity, then many species, including the gecko, will be lost.

Tampal is more blunt: “It is the more privileged, and those living in the city, who will need to be shaken out of their inertia, to become less consumerist and bring about a change in their lifestyle, be less wasteful of resources and to contribute to species protection.” But how to remind coffee drinkers each time they sip a cup of the caffeinated Indian brew that geckos are threatened by the habit?

Local advocacy is critical too, which is where scientists like Varad Giri come into the picture. An unsung hero of conservation, according to Sanctuary Asia, which bestowed a Wildlife Service Award on him last year, Giri was a member of the team that rediscovered the Jeypore ground gecko in 2010.

“Giri is pushing the boundaries of science, and filling the cavernous gaps in our knowledge of India’s ‘less charismatic’ species,” Sanctuary Asia wrote. “This enables us to formulate effective conservation strategies. He was especially praised for his ability to spread enthusiasm for conservation and a willingness to share knowledge with a new generation of researchers.

“Highly skilled and regarded, he prefers to work in the background and is little known to the public, though people involved with the study and conservation of amphibians and reptiles are in awe of his achievements, and for them he is already something of a celebrity.”

Without committed local conservationists like Giri, along with global champions, the Jeypore ground gecko and its reptilian cousins – found only in the Eastern Ghats – will surely face a quiet extinction.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.